Based on the movies, the idea for this post was inspired by the picture below I stumbled upon a few years ago. If you’ve not seen them, street level cop ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time fighting terrorists and is in over his head. The best metaphor for the character I’ve heard is a lone mouse in a field with an owl swooping in for the kill, and the mouse is giving the owl both middle fingers. The Die Hard Principle is that players want to be that mouse.
Anyone reading this is aware of the empowerment fantasy inherent in rpgs, but no one wants a win they didn’t work for. It feels hollow and unsatisfying. Players want to win, but they want to work for it. They need the fear of failure, or to pay a price. A win they didn’t earn breaks the suspension of disbelief, it is too empowering.
Going back to the Die Hard movies, the protagonist generally ends the movies having been beaten and bloodied, walking away limping. As a running gag, his marriage is in shambles because he’s too married to his job, his quest – he pays a price for what he does. Yet he and the wife are always trying to make it work. The final confrontations are always lop-sided with the deck stacked against him or the situation seems hopeless. Another running gag is that he walks into the final fight with fewer bullets then there are villains prompting him to curse his luck. Moreover, the villains are always more trained, geared and/or organized then he is, really selling the fact that he is in over his head.
Players want to be challenged, sometimes that involves insurmountable odds. Winning, succeeding in their quest at the end, isn’t just about victory, there’s a sense of relief and accomplishment. It is not just a win, it is an epic win.
The trick in implementing this idea is making it work within the rules of the game. Sure, it’s easy for a GM to just throw more stuff at you, but that gets kinda boring. It also has the issue that if they overdo it, they have a hard time holding back and not wiping the players out. I made this mistake starting out as a GM and would secretly flub enemy attack rolls when the players weren’t paying attention. I’d dumb down the enemy tactics. On the surface nobody noticed, but if they did, they didn’t say anything. Getting caught is immersion breaking and it’s still cheating even if it’s on the players behalf and no one wants to be cheated out of their play experience.
One of the best GM’s I’ve played under would not work from the rulebook directly. Monsters had stats that he kept in his head and he would make things up as he went along. This worked for awhile, but eventually I saw through it. He also went a bit too far and starting tweaking rules on the fly to get the desired effect, and I think players value getting screwed by stability over winning randomly.
In working together, we came to a compromise where we’d find obscure monsters that players weren’t familiar with. In D&D this is easy; everyone knows the Monster Manual, but who remembers anything from Monster Manual 4? Since the players didn’t know the stats, we could fudge things without them realizing. We both like the feel of a populated world and a story that stretches beyond the players, and sometimes that meant an npc was along for the fight. Since the players didn’t know the npc’s capabilities, we could have them hold back to let the players do their thing and up their game only when the players were in serious danger.
Another trick was to change up the game’s mechanics. As usual, I’ll give D&D as an example. Walk up to monster, swing sword/cast spell, do damage until it dies. This gets repetitive. Take a cue from video games and add in different ideas. Said GM once had us fight sand monsters wielding scimitars. They went down easy as our attacks broke their form, but when they reformed on the following round we realized this fight wasn’t about hit points. I took a guess and went to sunder one of their swords, which turned out to be what was reanimating the sand. I was inspired several years ago by Gabe of Penny Arcade’s adventures in GM’ing where he set up a laser pointer on the dungeon tiles and characters had to use miniature mirrors to angle the light. Some monsters in the dungeon were immune to damage unless the players could angle the light from the laser pointer on their mini’s. Moving mirrors in the dungeon was an action. Another involved fighting a dragon while in free fall. Each these scenarios required the players to think outside the normal rules, which scares them a bit, but it’s exciting as they probe the world and get feedback on what they experiment with doing. Feedback and cues are the most important thing here, or you just end up with a Gygax mod where there’s no clues and experimenting gets you killed. I can’t find more specifics on his ideas as the links are difficult to track down, but here is one of them.
Said GM also had one last devious trick up his sleeve that he taught me. When he wrote traps or dangerous situations, he often didn’t write a solution. Too often the scenarios in rpgs becomes a guessing game with the players trying to think the way the GM does to find the solution. Over time, players simply learn the right buttons to press as they gain familiarity with the GM. Not here, the solution was free form to whatever we could justify. The players got no hints as the GM had no answer to point us to and we felt the pressure of the situation very clearly as the whole adventure took on an aura of problem solving.
One last thing about this principle – don’t overuse it. Variety is the spice of life and if every situation is life or death for the players, they will burn out on it. I moved on from Living Greyhawk a long time ago because of a year’s worth of mods where each one had a crazy hard fight or scenario in it. They were exciting for sure and definitely got me to up my game, but eventually you need a change of pace.