Over the course of my TTRPG 'career', I have seen this pattern in different campaigns and with different GMs (probably 10-25% of those I played under). It looks approximately like this:
- A system describes a range of difficulties for rolls (and/or competence ratings for NPC enemies) as a range from L to M, with N being described as average.
- The campaign pitches PCs as, at a minimum, above-average people, but often even as more competent than that. Examples include élite operatives in various clandestine heist games, the exceptional people who have become mages and vampires in World of Darkness, or the outright godlike Exalted.
- And yet when the dice hit the table, the minimum difficulty that the PCs encounter tends to be N+1 (this includes substitutes for difficulty such as enemy competence levels in systems that handle those differently), even when facing the most basic tasks or the most modest of enemies. Meanwhile the 'average' ends up being significantly above what is Average in the system and setting.
In my experience, the inflation seems to more often happen with the lower end of the difficulty range. E.g. in world-of-darkness, such GMs tend to set minimum difficulties at 7-8, but rarely do they ask difficulty 10 rolls; in fate, they state outright Creating an Advantage has a difficulty of Fair (+2) unless stated otherwise, but rarely do they ask for a Great (+4); in gurps, they never allow the routine mundane task TDM (typically considered a +4 modifier), but aren't prone to require rolls at -10 without good reason.
When/Why It's a Problem
- As a result of the phenomenon, the PCs that are hyped as highly exceptional in theory turn out to look to be somewhere between slightly above-average, or even constantly struggling with 90% of the issues that they face, and never demonstrating their alleged awesomeness in practice. Essentially this results in telling one thing and showing a totally different thing.
- When even the simplest of actions have a high risk of failure, players and thus their PCs tend to spend more time and effort on preparations. This tends to decrease the pacing of the game, often to both the GM's and the players' disappointment.
- This tends to encourage players to get into an 'arms race' of optimisation, often to the disappointment of the less system-oriented co-players and/or of the GM. In worst cases, this can lead to the GM further cranking up the difficulties, resulting in a vicious circle in which neither side wants to escalate but feels an urge to due to the other side's action (and also leads to players having fewer opportunities to buy the traits they really want to buy for their PCs).
I should emphasise that I understand that in some campaigns the above points may not be undesirable, but I'm talking from a perspective in which those outcomes aren't welcome.
At various times I tried bringing up the phenomenon in discussions with such GMs, whether in abstract discussions of RPGs, or during the 'after action reports' between sessions, and they seem to have tendency to either underestimate the causal link between the phenomenon and the consequences, or recognise it but are reluctant to change due to worries about going too far in the other direction (i.e. about setting difficulties low and thus providing no challenge, or making rolling pointless, or the like). I'm inclined to believe that I'm far from the most persuasive of speakers on the matter.
Thus I would like to know, what's a good way to dissuade GMs from cranking up difficulties (particularly on the lower end of the range) in campaigns where it's not warranted? I am of course looking for diplomatic, non-antagonistic ways to do so. Also, I'm looking for solutions that work well regardless of system (i.e. answers in the vein of 'play System X which explicitly forbids GMs to stray from such-and-such a statistical distribution' are not helpful).
Alternatively, I'm open to answerers questioning my premise, but in that case I request to keep in mind the context of my question (i.e. campaigns where a significant reduction of pacing and/or a deep dive into system tricks are detrimental).