Thursday 26 March 2020

Difficulty in Bastionland

Electric Bastionland doesn't have modifiers, difficulty classes, or many of the mechanics that other games use to differentiate between an easy task and a hard task.

There are other ways to make vaulting over a garden fence feel different to scaling a brick wall crowned with barbed wire. 

Difficult sleeping conditions

This ties in nicely to a little manifesto I've been working on. As discussed previously, I'm now working on Bastionland full-time, so I wanted to have a set of guidelines that I can use to focus my thinking. Something I can draw on if I'm ever stuck on a difficult decision.

That will be its own post further down the line, but one part feels relevant here:
Distillation Method
  • Replace multiple rolls with one roll
  • Replace rolls with interesting decisions
  • Replace modifiers with dice variation
  • Replace mechanical effects with diegetic effects

Like all methods, this isn't the answer to everything. You could boil everything down until there are no rolls, no mechanics, everything is diegetic, but that isn't the goal here. It's about carefully considering every new rule and roll that you include in the game and questioning whether it's justifying its own weight.

A Note on Diegesis
For the unfamiliar, diegetic content is something that exists within the fiction of the piece. Film music is the classic example. The radio playing in the background is diegetic, the orchestral film score that only the audience can hear is non-diegetic. Emmy talked about this over on her blog. Essentially I want the conversation at the table to be mostly about what's happening to our characters in their world, not the mechanics of the numbers on our sheets and rules in our books. As Emmy explained, it's not always a case that diegetic = good and non-diegetic = bad. I use non-diegetic elements in Bastionland (Ability Scores, HP, Damage) but I'd like to keep the focus elsewhere. 

Grappling a giant octopus is difficult because it has eight arms with vicious suckers, not because it has 5 HD, an innate +5 to grapple and the "multi-arm-combat" feat

It ties into another point in my manifesto. 
Rules are False Idols
Use dice mechanics and technical terminology as little as possible. Numbers are not the answer, and wherever possible plain speech is preferred. 
It's a bit overwrought but these are intended to keep me on track, so it pays to be a little heavy-handed when it comes to self-disciple. I find the temptation with game design is to add complexity to simple things and simplify complex things until you inevitably end up in the middle ground. I want to make a deliberate effort to make simple games with lots of flavour. That's my place on the spectrum, and I love it here. 

So onto the main point of this post.

Variable Difficulty in Electric Bastionland

Even without the traditional mechanical tricks, there are a number of ways to make certain tasks feel more difficult than others. 

What about adding in D&D 5e style Advantage/Disadvantage as a House Rule?

No! This is a good example of a rule that adds very little complexity, and might seem like an easy add-on, but really it goes against the spirit of the game. The exclusion of mechanical difficulty variation was a deliberate choice to move the game's focus away from chasing mechanical advantages, and more towards diegetic conversation as detailed above. I can't stop people adding this rule into their hacks of the game, but I'd strongly advise trying some other methods first.

Instead, if you think the players would be facing a significant advantage or disadvantage to their roll, consider the following. This advantage/disadvantage could come from the situation being especially favourable/unfavourable or from them making especially clever/foolish preparations.

No single one of these fits all situations, so think of them like options on your tool belt.


Free Entry
If the situation is safely in their favour, or the risk has been minimised, does this even need to be a roll? Reward them for their good planning and fortuitous circumstances and just let it happen. Using the brick wall example, if the players take time to pin footholds in place and support each other with rope then there's no need to call for a roll.

Enhanced Success
There's still a risk, so the roll remains, but if they can pull it off then the rewards will be much greater. Imagine the players are trying to get inside a family crime syndicate. They've spent a bunch of money on a charm offensive, trying to get in with the big boss at a fancy ball. On a fail he'll still see through your scheme, but if you pass then maybe you've gone beyond just making a contact. Maybe he's thinking of ushering you directly into the inner circle.

Lower Risk
As a flip-side to the above, some advantages act as a safety net. If the risk is completely removed then there's no need for a roll, but this assumes that there are still consequences for failure. If you've donned an appropriate disguise for your attempt to infiltrate a library then when you're caught by the night watchman you may be sent on your way as a wayward student, rather than than hauled into the cells for interrogation as a spy. 


Barrier to Entry
Sometimes the situation is so bad that you can tell the players "no, this won't work" and start to discuss alternatives. It may be that they need to find a new way to approach this obstacle or maybe abandon it entirely. If your rival has drenched the cliff-face you were hoping to scale with slippery oil then it may be completely inaccessible. Either find a way to disperse the oil or take another route entirely.

Mixed Success
On a good day a success may have meant you breeze past this obstacle, but here the situation is so bad that even at-best you're only going to get a mixed success. A farmhand from Deep Country on their first day in Bastion could be masquerading as a legal clerk, but they're never going to convince the judge that they're a fully qualified solicitor. They might just muddle by for long enough to get one piece of the information they need before being ushered away. 

Increased Risk
Again, the reverse of the above. Leaping over pits is a tired dungeon-crawling example, but I think it works here. Failing to leap over a ten-foot deep pit might cause d8 damage on a fall. Replace that with a thirty foot plummet into grinding machinery and I think it's a fair situation to bring out the fabled Save-or-Die. Note that I would only bring out instant death as a consequence when you've hammered the point home to the players that this is a Save or Die situation, and they're under no obligation to go through with the action. These are the sort of consequences I want players to choose to meddle with, not something I'd spring on them in the general course of play. 

But before you use any of these...

Don't underestimate how much can be covered by a regular old roll. If the situation warrants you calling for a Saving Throw then you don't need to over-complicate matters. Sometimes it's just a STR Save. Electric Bastionland is meant to play differently to a game where the GM sets target numbers and applies seven +2 and -2 modifiers to the roll. It's fast, it's simple, and remember that the tools above should only be used as a response to exceptionally good/bad planning from the players or beneficial/harmful factors coming from the world around them. They should only be used with the goal of creating interesting decisions or and encouraging clever play.

Let their decision to swim into the belly of the whale be the death of them, but have them blame themselves, not the whale.

Note on Transparency
I'd always advise being open with your players about the difficulty of the task. It can feel dissatisfying to think a situation is in your favour, ace the roll, and then face a mixed success as the result. One of the mantras in Bastionland is "If in doubt, give more information than you might think" and it's crucial to the methods discussed above.


  1. Love the thoughts here. I'm not sure I'm convinced by your use (or Emmy's) of the word diegetic, but that's some linguistic pedantry for another day. :) My favorite bit was about the tendency of designers to simplify complexity and "complexify" (yeah, I made up a word, sue me) simplicity until you effectively end up with a giant amorphous blob of design mashed potatoes.

  2. This is slightly tangential to the post, but lately my dumb designer brain has been mulling over an 'investigation roll' to buttress the information pillar of the ICI doctrine.

    Something like, when you poke or prod at a situation with your physique/finesse/words, you roll the save, pass means you learn something helpful, fail means you learn something ominous.

    Obviously it stems from my background with narrative games and takes away from the 'decisions not rolls' philosophy, but I find that I often need a framing device to help me come up with that precious information.

    Assuming the GM hasn't prepped all there is to know about the trap/situation, is there a better (odder) approach to investigation, you think?

    1. I don't see why you'd tie it to a character stat. Furthermore, tying it to whether a *character* succeeds feels like it breaks the sense that the world already exists outside of the players' actions, which this style of game often relies on.

      If you don't know the answer to a PC question, then either roll on a pre-written random table (I like 'I search the body/I loot the room' tables for this reason) or just make some shit up.

      This is, of course, my take on it and not necessarily representative of Chris's views.

    2. That makes a lot of sense! I think one of the behaviors I have to relearn is to interrogate the environment as an objective construct before interrogating the temperament/relationships of the PCs. The games I come from seem to do it the opposite way, and that seems like a mind boggling distinction within the hobby (to me, anyway).

      So the answer was staring me in the face under 'actions the PCs don't have control over'. Luck rolls are the perfect format for this kind of content framing. After that, we've got content generation tables of the kind you describe, search/loot. Then we're into the Choice part of things.

      Thanks for the advice!