Digital Tabletop: Kick That Difficulty Up A Notch
by Ashe Collins on January 24, 2013

difficulty500When I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons Online back in 2009, just after they went free to play, yes I’m one of ‘those’ players, or was, I couldn’t dream of playing on anything over normal or hard. Elite difficulty was just insanely hard and on top of that you had to be a subscriber to open it there, but why would you? Well years later my wife and I generally open the quests on nothing but Heroic Elite even when we’re two-manning it. We’ve got better player skills, know the tricks to traps and how to twink out a character to get the most out of your min-maxing, which is just about the only way you’ll survive high level raids on any kind of difficulty even now. When Epics were introduced we half-heartedly got into them, but the amount of punishment for stepping into these quests was insane. Last year Turbine went in and revamped the Epic system with the introduction of Menace of the Underdark, adding a tiered system for Epics with normal, hard and elite, and increasing the level cap to 25 with a new Epic Destinies system. This is all well and good and for the most part is an excellent challenge for long-time players with lots of gear, some times. Sometimes the best intentions to make things difficult leaves a quest or raid almost unplayable at a certain difficulty except with a key mix of character classes and player ability and even then it’s borderline ridiculous.

Now I’m all for making things hard on the elite or insanity difficulty, but to me it seems that instead of making things more challenging, the developers take the easy way out and simply hamstring the players or go the other route and buff the enemy into the stratosphere to make the player feel small. This does make things harder, but it also makes the areas repetitive, boring, and wishing that you’d done it on hard instead of elite because you could have completed that quest twice over by now.

MassEffect2 2012-03-10 14-22-20-11MMOs aren’t the only ones guilty of this. I’d picked up Mass Effect Trilogy for the PS3 and have set a goal to platinum each of the games, which means playing through Insanity difficulty on all 3 games. Mass Effect is a bit older with an old school mentality that you will be playing the game multiple times to unlock all your trophies and with at least 3 of the classes. The game allows you to import a previous character as a kind of new game plus with all your old gear though, making the challenge of hardcore and insanity a bit easier to bear with a fully-geared and leveled up character and squad. Mass Effect 2 went a slightly different route, and it follows the current Dungeons and Dragons Online trend. Make enemies stronger, make them hit harder, make them do things they normally can’t do, and pile on the protection nullifying most player abilities and effects. What this has basically made me do in the case of Mass Effect 2, is take one particular squad mate, Miranda, along with me on almost every mission along with a rotating variety of others since I’m running an Infiltrator that kind of sucks at removing protections except for armor. Miranda can deal with Shields and Armor/Barriers with two of her abilities. Depending on the enemies and terrain I bring Garrus for extra shield stripping and concussive shot and long range, or Jack for pull and shockwave to knock the enemies off ledges to their doom.

What this ends up feeling like is a really long grind fest. This is honestly the longest run through Mass Effect 2 I’ve ever done. After Horizon, about a third into the game, the challenge seems to drop quite a bit as you’ve unlocked so many enhancements for you and your squad and the only thing really holding you back is having to strip away the layers of extra protection to get through. I’m betting I’ll end up with an extra 15 or 16 hours over my longest run on Normal just because of having to strip all that crap away just so my other squadmate and I can take things out. So while Insanity was challenging in the first part of the game because I was much weaker even with the enemies scaled to my level, as it’s moved on I’ve realized it’s less of a challenge and more of a grind. After this run I will honestly never play on Insanity in Mass Effect 2 again and not because I don’t like a challenge, because this isn’t fun, it’s more like work and I hate it. And that’s really the hard part for a developer, finding that sweet spot that makes it a challenge, but also doesn’t make it so tedious for the player they want to huddle in a corner and die just so it’ll all be over.

2012-08-02_00008Dungeons and Dragons Online does have a few quests that don’t necessarily follow the regular model so I’d like to talk about a quest that works on Epic Elite and works well. It’s still a challenge, and an under-geared group will get trounced, but it changes things up, and gives the players options to get through it while still being difficult. Sure the mobs all have their protections from Epic scaling, but there’s a nice twist. Partycrashers, part of the Phiarlan Carnival set of quests, was one of the first Epic quest lines introduced into the game. The others in the chain are basically a series of runs through quests killing everything in your path with the occasional stumbling block of moving to retrieve an object or two and bring it back to an NPC. Partycrashers changes that dynamic in so many ways. When it first came out there were several work arounds which admittedly made the Epic version far too easy. They’ve since sealed those holes in the quest which means doing it the more traditional way, like an at level group, the quest existing in a heroic version for lower level characters, and being better prepared.

The idea is that the Carnival, made up of Tieflings and headed up by a Succubus and littered with Abashai, is looking to off one of the important people in the Phiarlan house and of course House Phiarlan’s network of spies isn’t going to let that stand. They send you in as part of a team to infiltrate a party being held at the Phiarlan Chapterhouse which houses a theater, an illusionarium, and a gathering hall with guest quarters and a library. You sneak in through the Illusionarium, fighting your way through illusions that are powered by powerful runes and magic with several traps you have to disable to get around and some that require a few tricks like True Seeing to spot the right glyph to take out that culminates in a fight against an illusionary giant. Then it’s into the Chapterhouse before you can get to the ballroom. The chapterhouse has a few optionals in it but you have to make it to the ball room to pick them up. Now you can fight your way through, which is not recommended at this point. Here’s where most parties, in both Epic and Heroic sneak through the Theatre and jump up to the balcony and take the passage over the top of a few of the trapped areas and skip the fights there and simply feather fall from above into the Ballroom entrance. Here’s where it gets fun.

While you can skip the optionals on Epic Elite, they’re not really worth it unless you need the experience and even then probably aren’t worth it, there are a few things that make that last fight easier and this holds true for running it at the quest’s original level as well. First you let your contact in by editing the guest registry allowing her passed the guards, then start perusing the guests. You have to have True Seeing or a Paladin and your characters will need a variety of high intimidate or diplomacy skill checks, and I do mean high even on the heroic version of the quest, to weed out the Tieflings that are at work on the Ballroom floor in disguise and break the control over the guards they have there. You lure the two Tieflings away and fight them in the library off to the side, which can be hectic, but manageable when prepped as long as your group knows what they’re doing. Then it’s up the stairs into the guest rooms, but not all the way in. You only need to take out the leader of the band of Tieflings upstairs to achieve your goal, and he can be a hard-hitting and capable bully. There’s a small army in those guest rooms and without their leader they have no idea when to attack. From there you talk to your contact and the ending is easy as cake since you took out all the major players, the assassin has no one to help him.

2012-07-29_00013What Turbine did here was make what could have been an insane grind fest to get through everything in the quest, is give smart and clever players, especially those who actually put points in their skills and work well in a group, a way of not only completing the quest without the insanity of trying to control 4 bosses and a slew of minor enemies with massive resistances to just about everything you can throw at them, but reward them for their clever playing by giving them a cute cutscene sequence to watch play out instead for all their work. That’s not to say the quest is a cakewalk, it’s not. What it is though is a good example of adding variety in the quest design instead of piling on hit points, resistances and giving the NPCs the ability to one shot a player who dump-statted his Constitution, something a player should never do by the way, like ever.

Partycrashers isn’t perfect, but it is a nice balance of actually using your skills within an electronic RPG to get around having to tackle a massive fight when being sly and ‘working the room’ so to speak, will work just as well. It’s also a good example of how to build something challenging for players without players having to turn themselves into nothing but DPS or protection stripping factories that leads players to want to jump ship. While I love games it seems like this is the new way of handling making a game harder, and in an RPG or even an MMO, that’s not always the best way to go. While you’ll get a few people to enjoy it, it causes burn out in a lot of your player base. I say this after jumping in to help a group out in Caught in the Web on Epic Elite, which turned into a 6 and a half hour affair for them and only about 3 and a half for me. The spawns were insanely over-powered, the respawns completely unnecessary and everything having protection for whatever the group could dish out was ridiculous. On top of that the quest bugged at the end so we didn’t even get our chest, but a kindly GM took pity on us and fixed it so those who could get experience did, and the rest of us got favor for our trouble. Granted we didn’t have the best group make-up character wise, but the players involved made it bearable, kind of. I will never step into that quest on Epic Elite again however. Not unless some changes are made and there’s no chance of it borking. I’ve run it on Normal and Hard before with a similar group mix and never faced the kind of crazy we hit on Elite.

MassEffect3 2012-04-11 15-27-32-88I guess this raises the question of what constitutes actually making something harder and of an Insane or Elite level while not alienating or coming across as trolling your player or fanbase. I don’t have a good answer, but I think Partycrashers is a good example of how to do that in an RPG or MMORPG, put some role-playing into it and allow your players to play smarter instead of just throwing wave after wave of over-powered enemies at us. I dreaded finishing Mass Effect 2 because that meant moving into Mass Effect 3 on Insanity. Luckily for me that whole protection stripping to make it harder is gone and the enemies are just tougher and hit harder but still retain the base properties from the normal settings. It’s a much better way of handling things I think and while it makes the game challenging, it doesn’t feel like a chore and I’m much more likely to try it on Insanity again later on. Some people have ripped on Insanity in the third installment to be too easy, and compared to the difficulty in the multiplayer, yes it is a bit, but it’s a bit different scaling a game for one person and two computer driven teammates that occasionally do something brilliant than it is for four fully fleshed out human players who know how to truly abuse their kits and the map and enemies. I’d much rather have a game that kicks up the difficulty and lets me keep my abilities working as intended than jump into it where I’ve invested all this time and energy making a character that can’t do much of anything because the designers couldn’t figure out how to make it hard without taking all that makes my character a bad ass away from me. That’s what I want in a game. Make it harder, but let me continue being a bad ass instead of feeling like I’m wasting the time I spend playing the game for a trophy or some extra favor. Your players will love you for it.




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