Calibrating Difficulty in Your TTRPG

Today’s #worldbuildingMonday post is about the thought process behind selecting the difficulty of your story’s tabletop role playing game campaign. We do a deeper dive into the best practices for delineating the level of challenge your story presents to its players while not compromising on its narrative.

Of course, the vast majority of TTRPGs use dice in one form or another to help measure probability and therefore have a mathematics-based backbone/foundation. If LeBron James were a character in a basketball TTRPG and he were to attempt to dunk a basketball, he would have a rather high chance to succeed.

But ultimately it would be the roll of the dice that determined the result i.e. in a 2d6 system, any roll above snake eyes would be a success for LeBron and in a D20 system, any roll above a 1 would also be a success. But like life, it’s possible that he fails, and it’s up to the level of difficulty + the rolls of the dice to determine how often that failure can occur.

More challenging tabletop role playing games weight that math so that instead of vast majority of results equating to success, 40% or less would be successful absent other influencing system-dependent factors. Today’s #worldbuildingMonday advice though isn’t about how to weight that math only because the answer to that question is, most oftentimes, system-dependent. Instead, today’s post centers how what information at your disposal you should use to calibrate that level of difficulty for your players.

  1. Player Experience

Take a close look at the relative experience level of the players you anticipate will be playing the story set in your world. As a rule, it’s best to not completely steamroll new players with outrageously difficult scenarios and trials & tribulations. The last thing we as a community want is to add disincentives for new players to flourish in the tabletop role playing game space.

So if you know you have a significant amount of new and/or relatively inexperienced players, ease up on the difficulty, at least initially. Let them get their feet wet in your world and frankly, have that conversation with them on where to thread that needle of difficulty.

  1. Player Mentality/Appetite for Struggle

The players’ collective appetite to struggle through your world & story’s various challenges is a critical component of evaluating difficulty. Do you players want to be tested? Do they want to be consistently at risk of a TPK (total party kill)? And if so, to what extent?

Think of the following scale: my wife playing video games through Dark Souls. When my wife plays video games, she sets the difficulty to easy and then absolutely obliterates everything in her path the entire game. And she absolutely loves it – she absorbs the entire world and gets 100% game completion but rarely loses a fight. On the other side is the famous Dark Souls video game franchise where you are guaranteed death many, many times throughout the course of the story.

But that struggle, that process of optimizing how you approach each encounter is, to many players, what makes that game fun. Have this conversation with your players beforehand if you can and get a feel for where they stand.

  1. Length of Campaign

The length of your campaign – i.e. how many sessions you and your players anticipate being able to invest in the world – is also an important point to consider when evaluating difficulty. If it’s a one-shot session – the TTRPG version of a “short story” – then you’re going to want at least the climax to be challenging. After all, there should be some hill to climb in the story even if the players want “easy mode.”

Longer campaigns are a bit easier to structure in that your “beginning, middle, and end” are stretched out over a much longer period of play time. Instead of the traditional beginning/easy, middle/medium, end/hard of a one-shot story, longer campaigns can have their own flow depending on the plot of each session.

And while each session will more than likely have its own beginning, middle, and end, the plot beats are necessarily more spread out and you have more flexibility to play with the difficulty from a session to session basis.

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