Dark Souls 3 came out recently, spurring much writing on it and the Dark Souls series. In particular, this pair of articles, one from Adam Smith of Rock Paper Shotgun, one from Rob Fearon on his blog We Make The Cops Look Dumb, spoke to me. Adam Smith argues that Dark Souls, at its design core, shouldn’t have a mode designed to make the game easier: “The difficulty isn’t an elitist exclusionary choice, even if some like to see it that way. It’s part of the design, thematically, mechanically and artistically.” Rob Fearon argues that adding an easy mode wouldn’t detract from the core design sensibility, and would just bring more players in so they can enjoy the game: “Ultimately even if we add in tourist modes for people where they can cruise through with no real friction at all, there are people who will enjoy doing this.”
Why does this matter for our tabletop RPGs? Because this is, at heart, a debate about the inviolability of design. If you decide to play Apocalypse World, but remove Hx mechanics, did you play Apocalypse World? Is that okay? Maybe it was more accessible, but maybe it’s not “the real game.” If you decide to play D&D, but add in Strings from Monsterhearts, did you play D&D? Maybe not, but you might have had a much better time. And does it even matter? Does it matter whether you “played the real game,” just so long as you’re having fun?
It does matter. But it might matter more or less, depending upon why you’re playing the game, and how you’re treating it.
What is Dark Souls?
First up, some basics. Dark Souls is a video game series, sort of the spiritual successor to an earlier game called Demon’s Souls, but Dark Souls has been far more successful. It’s renowned for being pretty damn unforgiving and difficult. The game is, mechanically, all about fighting, taking down myriad monsters and enemies of vastly different shapes, learning strategies to defeat them, collecting new equipment and upgrading it so you can do better later, and so on. But you die, a lot, and wind up grinding certain sections, a lot, until you learn them. Even looking up the solutions online isn’t enough because you still have to execute them yourself. And if you die, you drop all your souls (read: XP) where you died. You can pick them back up if you can reach your bloodstain before you die again, but if you die before reaching your bloodstain, those souls are lost.
I have a love/hate relationship with Dark Souls. (The Cold Ruins of Lastlife, my second Chaos World, is in no small part a love letter to Dark Souls.) I love the weirdness and grandeur of the setting—absolutely titanic cathedrals with the setting sun drenching them in golds and reds, rickety wooden latticeworks built into an underground cavern, a cold and melancholy prison ensconced inside a painting. I love the enormous monsters—the terrifying dragon with a mouth running all along its throat, the giant centipede stomping around on two human legs, the wolf with the freaking sword in its mouth. I love the messages I find, like forlorn glimmers of hope from other players out there, lending me a hand. I love the way that I can craft my character, and adjust for different challenges. I love learning the map, and learning the enemies, and masterminding their defeat.
And I hate it. I hate losing my accumulated souls (read: XP) when I die too many times. I hate needing to do a section over and over and not understanding what I’m doing wrong. I hate getting tricked into some deathtrap that serves no other purpose than to mess with me (stupid goddamn mimics). I hate mechanics that exist for no other reason than to prevent me from continuing to use the strategies I’ve honed, essentially forcing me to grind out more XP until I can level up the right weapon (stupid goddamn skeletons in the Catacombs). I hate instant death, and merciless surprises, and that feeling that I’m just not getting anywhere.
Do I wish there were a way to play it on an easier difficulty? Kinda. Am I thrilled that I’ve come so far, even on the high base difficulty? Absolutely.
I complained about its difficulty, how they could change some of the dumber mechanics, smooth them out, in the early days of playing. Then, I defeated those mechanics. I complained about how long it was taking me to get through particularly difficult sections. Then, I defeated those sections. And the feeling of victory was absolutely stronger for having overcome such odds.
So that’s the issue. The game I played, the experience I had, was a direct product of the ridiculous difficulty therein. Changing that difficulty would mean experiencing a different game. I might still have enjoyed it, but it wouldn’t have taught me the same lessons—it wouldn’t have been the same experience.
Enjoyment vs Experience
Shut Up & Sit Down (another great site) put up a review of Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog. It’s a great piece, and it speaks to an incredibly complex experience of an excellent game. It ends on these words: “It's such a good game. I'm still thinking about and being unsettled by it a week later. In fact, I'd say it's probably the best game I never want to play again.”
The best game I never want to play again. That’s the issue of enjoyment vs experience in a nutshell. Philippa Warr (aka Pip) is saying that it was an amazing experience, but not necessarily deeply enjoyable.
There’s lots of definitions of enjoyment—we can easily say we enjoyed a tragedy, and that sentence makes sense—but what I’m focusing on is the idea of enjoyment as a sign of the desire to replay, to continue. As an easy, simple measure of fun.
A more enjoyable game, she might have wanted to play, over and over and over. But if the game was more enjoyable in that way, she wouldn’t have had the same experience, and there’s a fair bet that the game wouldn’t have been the best game she never wants to play again.
Putting an easy mode into Dark Souls would make the game more enjoyable, but it would change the game’s experience—or at least splinter it, so that some people would play and experience Dark Souls Alpha, that difficult and terrible game, while others would play and experience Dark Souls Beta, a less difficult, more palatable version.
Beta would be more accessible—more people would have the opportunity to experience a version of Dark Souls—and those versions would bear an enormous number of similarities to each other. But they still wouldn’t provide exactly the same experience, and perhaps would lose something core the idea of Dark Souls Alpha.
This idea that there are versions of a game—we all know this. Pretty much any tabletop roleplayer understands that even though there’s a core game, it’s going to be at least a slightly different version at any given table, with any given group of players. I know that in Apocalypse World, Marissa is going to punch me in the face with hard moves, and Mark is going to bring up political and social problems, and Sarah is going to create weird images that’ll stick with me, even though it’s all the same game. I know that there’s going to be some slight variation in the exact situations that trigger certain moves, based on the judgment of the GMs, and there’s going to be variation in which GM moves get made in response to the fiction.
But as long as we’re still playing with the rules in the book, we’re still playing a game that falls into the category of the core Apocalypse World experience.
Then, imagine that we adjust those rules to make the game more enjoyable for us. This could be a highly mechanical change—we just don’t grok seize by force and go aggro, so we’re going to put in a much more blunt do violence move—or it could be a change for our group’s tastes—we’re not actually all that comfortable with sex in the game, so we’re going to take out sex moves and seduction and the like.
Is there anything inherently wrong with what we’ve done? No, of course not. We’re playing a game, we’re the people at the table, and most likely, the majority of us if not all of us are playing to have fun—to enjoy the game. If these changes up our chance at enjoyment, then great!
But we’re definitely changing the experience of the game. If the game is a work of art, then we’re changing what we get from that art. And if someone is playing the game to experience it, then we are, actually, diminishing their ability to experience the “real” game.
Dog Eat Dog, at the start of the game, requires you to have a conversation about who is the wealthiest player at the table. This isn’t in-fiction or in-character—this is about you, the actual people at the table. The wealthiest person gets to be the colonizer player, essentially the GM, but with a great deal more attached.
Imagine if we said, “Nah, let’s not do that, that seems really uncomfortable, let’s just have Dan be the GM.” We’re making the game more enjoyable—less costly in mental energy, less aggravating, more easily replayable, more accessible—but absolutely changing the experience. We’re suddenly not playing the same game.
Are all components of a game equally important to its experience? If I play Dark Souls with the brightness turned up, does that mean I’m getting a fundamentally different experience? No, not fundamentally different—but different, still, especially for a game that has sections designed to be difficult because the areas are lightless. Changing even less important components still changes the experience, still pushes the game in different directions.
Reasons for Play
This all comes down to the reasons that you’re playing a game. If you’re playing to have a good time with your buddies, then maybe it makes sense to change the game to make it more enjoyable. If you’re playing to experience the game, to see what it actually does, then you owe it to yourself to play it as written, as closely as possible.
Most often, playing games for the first time means that you’re playing them to experience them—you don’t know what the game is going to do, so you should give it the best chance to show you. But that can come at a high cost, especially when a game is designed to be played over a long period of time. If an imagined Dark Souls tabletop RPG takes ten 4-hour sessions to complete its intended arc, and you find yourself frustrated at the end of session one, it’s natural to want to change the rules to make it more enjoyable. The game’s asking a lot of you to endure for so long when you find it so frustrating, just for the experience!
So it’s easy to imagine you’d adjust the game, ditch some rules, play it differently. Especially when you care the most about enjoyment. But if you make those changes without consideration, if you adjust towards enjoyment without even thinking about what it costs you in experience, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Here’s an example from one of our own games. In Urban Shadows, you advance when you’ve marked all four Faction stats. You mark a Faction stat when you make certain moves towards members of that Faction—essentially, when you interact with that Faction. Spending and honoring Debts with members of a Faction is one of the most common ways of marking that Faction, alongside moves like put a face to a name/name to a face (use for identifying important character) and hit the streets (used for going to people in the city to get what you need).
Sometimes, it can be frustrating that advancement works this way. You can feel like you’re making all kinds of moves, doing all kinds of interesting, dramatic stuff, and not advancing because it’s all about one Faction. So, for the sake of enjoyment, making the game’s load lighter, making advancement easier, you might want to swap out advancement. Borrow highlighted stats from Apocalypse World, for example.
Except when you do that, you’re changing the experience of the game significantly. That frustration is part of the game, because Urban Shadows wants you to consistently experience the full width and breadth of the city’s communities. Not just one or two groups, but all of them. It wants you to cross boundaries and see many different kinds of people (and monsters). Making the advancement system targeted to the Factions is made to force you to pay attention to more Factions than just your own. Switching to highlighted stats loses that impetus.
Before you make that change, you have to understand how it’s going to change the game...and that you aren’t really going to be playing Urban Shadows anymore. That’s not to say that there’s something wrong with it—just that the change comes at a cost, and that cost is a shift to a different, Urban Shadows-adjacent game.
To hack or not to hack
Making Dark Souls more accessible with an easy mode is not inherently better or worse than keeping it as a (sometimes obnoxiously) difficult game. It just comes with costs and benefits that might not suit the purpose of the game—and it seems to me that Dark Souls is all about the experience, first and foremost.
So, should Dark Souls have an easy mode? Should you hack Apocalypse World to take out sex moves, or hack Dungeon World to add them in? *shrug* It’s hard for me not to argue in favor of hacking games, when that’s basically where my design work often begins. So the answer isn’t simple and easy, that Apocalypse World should only ever be played as written. After all, the book has a chapter all about hacking, right in there!
I’m not arguing that you should or should not change the game at any given time. I’m arguing that you need to consider, carefully, what the costs and gains are before you make the change. Think about whether you’ve had the experience of the game, before you decide to change it for enjoyment. Think about whether the costs to the experience are worth the gains in enjoyment, or vice versa. Think about why the game is set up how it is, and what your changes will actually do. Think about why you’re playing, and whether experience or enjoyment is more important in your decisions.