Saturday, May 03, 2008

Just Say No!

The Chatty DM offers a lukewarm review of the latest Pathfinder issue, Seven Days to the Grave. I think I agree with him. It sounds like there are some inexcusable sins here. Like this, for example:

To my eayes, the plot feels rather railroady as it assumes that the players will help the uncle (a NPC they met in the 1st part of the adventure) of a young girl that fell sick from the plague. It’s expected that the PCs will cough up the cash needed to heal her.

Then the adventure assumes that the players will side with the church that charges to heal people to investigate the plague further.

He then elucidates in the comments:

I read it more into details and the NPC requesting help actually resorts to insults and guilt-tripping if the players refuse to cooperate. Not a good sign…

No, not a good sign at all.

There was a series of excellent GMing articles a few years back in the pages of Knights of the Dinner Table. I forget the name of the author, but one of his pieces spoke specifically to this issue, and he referred to it as the Garden of Eden problem. Basically, it boils down to this: if the adventure requires the PCs to take a specific action (i.e. eat the forbidden fruit) before the rest of the adventure can proceed, you’re just asking for a train wreck. What happens when the players refuse to bite? Usually, the DM gets pushy, which usually leads to the players digging in their heels, and the adventure ends up getting tossed as a bad idea and everyone decides to play cards or something instead while tempers cool down.

These sorts of decision choke-points are killers for even an otherwise good adventure. Even worse are those that don’t require any interaction with the players, but instead rely on the dice rolling up a success at a critical juncture. I see this a lot in home-made adventures. Sure, it makes sense for the vampire lord to hide his coffins behind a secret door, but if the PCs must find his hidden crypt to complete the adventure or move to the next stage, what are you going to do when even the elf rolls poorly on the search or notice check? What are you going to do when the players say they search the body of dead messenger, but their checks fail and they don’t notice the red mud on his boots that will lead them to Beggar’s Canyon? If the game requires the PCs to succeed on a check, then there’s really no point in rolling, is there? Just give them the success and move on.

Now, I’m not saying that moral choices and spot checks need to be banished from your game. Instead, they need to lead to bonus goodies that help the PCs, but are not required for victory. Make the final climactic battle with the vampire lord be in his throne room. If the players don’t find his hidden crypt, then of course he doesn’t really die. He’s defeated, and must flee, but he’ll return looking for payback later. Maybe that spot check also reveals basilisk scales caught in the mud on the messenger’s boots, so the party now knows they need to be prepared to face that sort of beast. And healing the little girl should reward the players later in the adventure in some way that makes a later climactic battle easier, but it shouldn’t be required for the adventure to even begin.

UPDATE: WotC gets it:

Success or failure in a skill challenge also influences the course of the adventure—the characters locate the temple and begin infiltrating it, or they get lost and must seek help. In either case, however, the adventure continues. With success, this is no problem, but don’t fall into the trap of making progress dependent on success in a skill challenge. Failure introduces complications rather than ending the adventure. If the characters get lost in the jungle, that leads to further challenges, not the end of the adventure.


ChattyDM said...

Hear hear!

Thanks for all the links Brian.

It's good to feel loved!


Robert said...

I do want to drop spot checks.

When they find out about the threat, I'll ensure they're told there was a vampire that was defeating in the past. That this could be related.

I'll ensure that there's an area of the vampire's fortress that they can't seem to get to after thorough exploration. Looking at their map, there will probably even be a logical place for the secret entrance.

Searching the exact location for a secret door, then it will be found without rolling dice.

I used to think spot checks were a wonderful innovation. Now I just find them much, much too overused. To the point that I just want them gone. Only very rare cases when I'll consider such a thing.