Players choose their difficulty level in D&D

This idea sprang out of an observation that I can’t find anymore to link to it. In any game where you can make character choices, if some choices are better than others, you can choose how difficult the game will be for you by making weak choices or powerful ones.

For example, in Thief you can choose to go around stabbing people or knocking them out, and harder difficulty levels in the game give more required objectives and you lose if you kill anyone. But there’s an unofficial difficulty type called “ghosting” by the player community. This means sneaking and not alerting any guards or creatures (some people figure spiders don’t count as people since nobody’s going to understand some giant spider saying a guy snuck in) while still getting all the treasure. People just come to work the next day and find everyone gone. The game isn’t built to recognize this as an achievement, so it’s just a fun thing for players who can already win on the Hard setting.

Take D&D. The DM sets the difficulty of any adventure by the monsters, traps, tricks, etc. that he puts in. Players approaching the dungeon can reduce that difficulty by researching the dungeon and questioning folks, but generally two groups of PCs will face the same dungeon. That’s just how dungeons are written these days. But that doesn’t have to be how it is: DMs can include plenty of opportunities for making the dungeon easier or harder based on player actions.

Besides player actions, though, you have all kinds of choices that happen before the game even starts. Some classes are more or less powerful, some races have cool abilities while others are dopey, you can choose worthwhile or stupid proficiencies / feats / skills, and equipment choices matter a lot too. Take these two Fighter PCs who each have 100 GP to spend on stuff after misc equipment and food:

Fighter A: (AC 4, Damage d8 1/rd) Chainmail, Shield, Longsword.
Fighter B: (AC 7, Damage d6 1/rd) Leather, Shield, Spear, 4 War Dogs (2+2 HD, AC 7, Damage 2d4 1/rd).

Fighter B made some great equipment choices. While he’s not as tough individually, he has four dogs which each are about equal to two 1st level Fighters. They’re also pretty expendable.

Fighter A is choosing to play normal D&D. Fighter B is playing on Easy Mode.

You could argue that choosing optimal strategies is part of player skill and as such we should strive to achieve that. But in reality, after playing the most powerful character types, you start to get bored and you want to play something else. You also start to realize that the game is fun when there’s a good challenge (a Goldilocks spot) and if you are a really good player you need to handicap yourself to get that good level of challenge.

This assumes the DM sets the challenge based on level not on player performance. In a game with an adaptive DM, you should play as well as you can because the DM will give you a good challenge regardless of your choices. The reward for winning against challenges beyond your level is additional XP and treasure from the tougher opposition.

If I wanted to play a tough 2E D&D PC I’d do something like a Wood Elf Fighter + double weapon specialization in longsword + Myrmidon kit with free specialization in longbow + bowyer/fletcher so I can make a Strength bow. Or a Deep Gnome Thief who will level up really fast and pick up excellent AC and MR unarmored and put all his proficiencies into martial arts from the Ninja Handbook or Punching specialization from the Fighter’s Handbook. That’s not getting into all the crazy stuff you can do in a hybrid 1E/2E game with racial restrictions dropped.

But while that PC would be a good damage dealer or resist damage well, it’s not interesting at all. Sometimes you just want to play a Bard or a regular old Human Illusionist.

There’s also the matter of alignment. In my experience, unless the DM adds in cool stuff for people playing Good characters, being Good means you lose out on profitable opportunities that a Chaotic Neutral would jump at. If that’s the case, playing a Good character adds an ethical burden which is more difficult (and fun) to play. People talk about Paladins falling from Lawful Good because they did something wrong. An alignment restriction really is a restriction.

If the whole party ramps down their power levels the next game, it also forces the players to be more attentive regarding challenges they decide to attack or flee from. This crops up most commonly when a party member is absent and people say things like “we don’t have our big fighter” or “we won’t have Fireball” or “no Cleric, gotta be careful”.


10 Responses to “Players choose their difficulty level in D&D”

  1. Brendan Says:

    I wonder if you are confusing system mastery (skill at building characters) with player skill here.

  2. jeffro Says:

    Under what system is starting with War Dogs rules-as-written? It isn’t in my B/X books, is it…?

    • Brendan Says:


      I believe war dogs are on the AD&D price list, but you have to go to the Monster Manual for the stats (which have always seemed crazy inflated to me).

  3. 1d30 Says:

    @Brendan: Constructing the character and using rules in the game would be system mastery. I consider system mastery to be a subset of player skill.
    For example, if I choose to use a two-handed sword because I know its damage output is a lot better than the extra +1 AC from a shield gives me as a benefit, that represents my player skill at the rules. But if I use that two-handed sword to reach into a dangerous pool and shove a piece of treasure out, that’s my player skill at environmental interaction.

    @jeffro: Starting with war dogs is like starting with leather armor or donkeys or giraffes: if it’s on the equipment list and your DM doesn’t have anything against it, it’s up for sale with your chargen money.

    And war dog stats do seem inflated to me too. AC should be 8 or 9 since horses are 7. HD should be between 1+1 and 2 since a big old pitbull is going to be a little better in a fight than an unarmed human (and wild dogs are 1+1). Damage should probably be d6 or so. For that, the 20 GP cost seems reasonable.

  4. jeffro Says:

    Why would anyone bother with hirelings when they could get war dogs…? You don’t even have to split XP with them!

    • Brendan Says:

      Because they are dogs… usually they can only do a few things (stay, attack, etc). Retainers are smarter. I also give dogs significant morale penalties when confronted with the supernatural.

      • Danny Peck Says:

        I like the morale penalty solution and might just have to steal it! Also, dogs don’t advance in level/HD and they can’t utilize man-sized arms and armor so usually I just see low-level adventurers with ’em.

    • 1d30 Says:

      Pretty much what Brendan says. Any kind of animal is going to be easily distracted by fire, food, and overwhelming danger so I’d give them pretty bad morale. They also can’t wear armor above some light barding for maybe +1 or +2 AC and can’t carry anything. They also can’t do human stuff like opening doors, setting fires, holding ropes, or bandaging you. I like the special war dogs that have been floating around, from Noisms and the extra ones from Zak. I made up a few of my own too ;P

      Also, in AD&D hirelings are generally 0-level men-at-arms at best, 1-2 HP sedentary flunkies at worst. They can’t go up in level and so they don’t get XP. But the costs of hiring mercenaries is kinda high and gets pretty crazy when you get into actual henchmen (who have levels, expect shares of treasure and XP, and have better morale).

      • Brendan Says:

        They don’t get XP in AD&D? In basic (which has the rules I use with my OD&D game), the primary disincentive to using retainers is that you have to split your XP with them. Retainers also get a class level upon gaining 100 XP, following this from Moldvay:

        One of the benefits of sharing XP with retainers is that if your primary PC dies, you have a retainer ready to promote that already has some XP, so you don’t feel like you are starting over. I like this method of doing things so much that I couldn’t imagine using any other way now.

      • 1d30 Says:

        It does sound good. I think “retainer” in B/X is “henchman” in AD&D, effectively. All you’d need to do is add a rule to AD&D for what circumstances merit promoting a hireling (0-level dirt farmer) to henchman (1st level somebody). I recall from Philotomy’s Lost City play reports that when one of the three men-at-arms NPCs did really well in a combat he graduated to 1st level Fighting-Man. Whether this was a result of gaining experience or some hitherto-unknown potential that rose to the surface in that man, I like that method. Earning 100 XP would work to, although it’s possible for someone to get that just by surviving long enough without doing anything spectacular.

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