Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Fun Doesn't Mean Easy

Yesterday's column at Kobold Quarterly, "Dragons: A Soar Spot," touched on a point that's worth enlarging. That is, that players will still have fun if the GM makes the game hard.

Let me start by stating that I don't subscribe to the notion that the GM's job is guaranteeing that everyone at the table has fun. That's everyone's responsibility.

The GM's main job is to create challenges for players to overcome and to interpret the success of their efforts. Those challenges can be based around combat, puzzles, exploration, negotiation, or any of the other activities heroes engage in.

The job does not include providing ready solutions to those challenges. That is the players' part of the split. Not every gorge needs a handy log lying nearby. Not every trap needs a deactivation lever. Not every monster needs to be killable. Honestly, I don't believe the game master even needs to ensure that every problem has a solution.

Having presented a challenge, the DM's responsibility is listening to the players' proposals, answering questions, and offering feedback that players need in order to come up with a viable response. Ideally, the DM will act through NPCs and not just be a godly voice.

If players make a proposal or take an action that the DM judges as unworkable, then he must explain why it doesn't work so players can make adjustments. In every case, players should be encouraged to investigate, experiment, plan, and above all, to get creative.

When players come up with a reasonable approach or an attack plan that might work, then it deserves a reasonable chance for success--not a guarantee, but a reasonable chance.

Sometimes it's better if the DM doesn't have a particular solution in mind when presenting a problem to players. If he does, he'll be biased in favor of that solution. I've played games where perfectly good ideas were rejected because they weren't the solution the GM envisioned. The result was frustration and even a bit of anger. Players should be rewarded, not punished, for being more creative than the GM.

In my experience, the most enjoyable part of an RPG is not grinding down the monsters' hit points or dropping prepositioned round pegs into round holes. It's crisis management and problem solving. Players get the most satisfaction not from rolling dice or guessing what the GM has in mind, but from devising clever (or desperate) solutions to difficult problems and escaping from truly harrowing danger.


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  2. This is where the later editions of D&D seem to have diverged; I was trying to get at (maybe unsuccessfully) in the article I wrote recently.

    I also think that this is a part of what makes pen and paper roleplaying games different FUNDAMENTALLY from all other types of games: they are infinitely responsive and they don't necessarily have clear-cut solutions.

    You may be tired of preaching to the choir, but I hope you know that there is a vigorous, living world of people that still feel that way above and beyond the theoretical mulling of the OSR. There are people who play 2e weekly, and I'm one of them. Good to know that you still hew to the things that made it great.

    1. This has nothing to do with editions. I play 4th Edition and I've independently arrived at the concept Steve talks about above. I make what I think are cool and interesting scenes (including combat), and I don't worry about how to solve them, or whether they're solved. Yet the players seem to solve them anyway.

      Another aspect of this is that DMs shouldn't concern themselves with the PCs coming up with very easy solutions. I've heard from DMs who want to make sure a puzzle is challenging, and this is what drives them to try to clamp down either mechanically or narratively on the easy solutions. If DMs can just wash their hands of the outcome and be okay with the players being very challenged or not very challenged, then they are freer to create more interesting situations for their games.

      The key to washing one's hand of the PCs success or failure is to make sure that both success and failure are interesting. If failure is just a complete dead end and the game screeches to a halt then that's a problem. 4th Edition was the first game to teach me this, so if this issue has anything to do with editions it's in 4th Edition's favor. I've since extended the "interesting failure" concept to combat, not just skill challenges.

      So, I tend not to help my players, though I do try to say "Yes, And..." (another piece of 4th Edition advice) to their ideas. If I can tell that a situation is puzzling mainly because I've done a poor job of explaining it, I will throw the players a bone.

  3. Excellent post! I'm a big fan of putting problems (combat, puzzles, traps, trcks, whatever) into an adventure and not worrying too much how they might be solved - it's on the player's to devise a solution and the DM to adjudicate it. Of course, you can't put unsolvable problems between them an a critical goal...

  4. Excellent ideas, you've hit the nail on the head when it comes to what really makes RPG's so much fun. I think I'd give this to any DM who's thinking of starting up a campaign, including myself. After reading this I changed my entire plan for this weeks D&D game and will be throwing something strange at the party just to see what they can do with it. Thanks!

  5. I just started an online Old School game with some friends abroad and there was a firestorm of emails relating frustration at how "hard" it was to play. I Posted your Posting to my group to see what their response was. Here is what one of them had to say-curous about your feedback.

    My Player-
    Interesting article. I agree with aspects of this, but I think there are alternative ways of viewing these matters Here's my take...

    While it grew out of miniatures wargaming, I think D&D is ultimately about storytelling. At its best, the game re-creates the flavor and feel of being in one of the epic/heroic fantasy works embodied by Tolkien, Moorcock, Fritz Leiber and the like and makes the players part of the evolution of that story. I think there are a couple of things that flow from this.

    First is how many times in these books are the main characters wiped out? Not very often, as obviously that would dramatically interfere with the flow of the narrative. Second, how many difficulties in these stories do the characters encounter that are insurmountable? Answer: basically none. The whole point of the story is about how the characters encountered difficulties and overcame them.

    Now obviously D&D is a little different in certain respects, but if you apply the two principles above to the gaming environment, I'm not sure you reach the same conclusions that "not all monsters should be killable" or that "not all problems should be solvable." Certainly, not all monsters or problems should be able to be overcome at once or at a given moment, but unless the party does something that is patently foolish, why would situations like this even be presented to them before they are ready? There should be plenty of challenging stuff to do that can be reasonably accomplished at the party's level. It should be challenging, but only rarely so challenging that a wipe-out death would occur. In fact, I would argue that actual character death would be a pretty rare occurrence, thought the threat of death should be a constant fear (especially if the party acts recklessly or is engaged in some culmination-type encounter).

    I agree, solutions to obstacles should not be contrived, but if you need to get to the other side of the canyon to further the thrust of the story, and there is literally no way for the party to get across the canyon - why have a canyon? What is the purpose of putting that in the story at that time (unless the canyon is a tool the GM uses to keep the party away until they are ready for that particular part of the story, which in itself is a bit of a contrivance)?

    So while I agree with some points the author is making here, I actually do think it is up to the GM to provide reasonable challenges to the party - ones that can be overcome with some thought and use of the skills the party possesses (though obviously sometimes the dice don't work out, even in what should be relatively benign random encounters, and that is something everyone has to sort of live with). I don't think the GM can just consistently wipe-out the party and say, "that's life" and expect the players to have fun. The problem is, this isn't life. It's a game, which people play to get AWAY from life. The sense of accomplishment and integration of your character into an immersive world and story are, to me, the very essence of what the GM is responsible for providing, and taking a "that's life" approach seems to me to be counter-productive to providing that kind of integration and continuity.

    I guess different GMs and players want different things for the games, and ultimately there is no "right and wrong" about it. But I'm wary about the application of some of this writer's ideas, and philosophically I would take a different approach as a GM.

    1. I should note that this player is also an Excellent DM and I have played in very enjoyable campaigns with him in the past. I value his opinion, although I may not necessarily agree with everything he says.

    2. Wow, the comments by "My Player" were some of the more insightful I've read on this subject. He pointed out that Hereos of our favorite stories almost never die (in Tolkien, Moorcock) etc., and yet not only do we read those over and over but we invent whole gaming genres (such as D&D) just to recreate them. Clearly, there is something to be learned here: drama and excitement are not about the constant threat of death, they come from overcoming challenges (or running away from them on occassion). In my mind, that single statement ended the whole debate about how often to kill PCs (rarely!). The second insight was pointing out that we play this game to get away from real life and have a more fun experience. The purpose of the GM is to facilitate this process.

      Thanks for this thread, it really influenced how I think about GMing.

  6. Sounds like a sop who wants to play anything other than old school. Perhaps s/he should read a book.

    1. LOL WOW most of my players would never join your group , I mean they think Im a hard ass.... But, Im ready and willing to take on the task of the Barrowmaze when u are

  7. Excellent post. I agree with everything you say. As a matter of fact, this is the way I view things. Problems are presented to the players without any specific solution in mind. I, then, adjudicate not only the rules but the actions of the players and how they intend to overcome a certain obstacle. Certainly, there is an element of subjectivity. Each DM has different sensibilities and decides differently on the same plan, but each group has it own dynamic.

    Sometimes it's also fun to thrown in something that has no apparent solution or, at least, something the DM did not prepared. Sometimes players come up with their own solutions and they are so good the DM accepts them as the real solution to the problem presented. This ignites a sense of fulfillment on the players. It's all about the interaction between the DM and players and how it materializes in play.