Thursday, August 20, 2015

Success Guaranteed!

Are you familiar with the Garden of Eden trap?

It’s a way to short-circuit adventures before they really begin. Basically, it works like this: the PCs need to do a thing or the adventure stops. This can take all sorts of forms:
  • The PCs must surrender to the “obviously” overpowering forces of the enemy.
  • The PCs must solve the puzzle to get through to the next room.
  • The PCs must put these clues together in just the right way to figure out where to go next.
  • The PCs must put Tab A into Slot B (usually meaning bring a portable magic item to a fixed magic item, but it can be even worse when both items are portable).

But the absolute worst is: the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue with the adventure.

You see that last one ALL THE TIME and it annoys me every time I see it. To find the hidden enemy, the PCs must find a secret door. To secure the McGuffin you must solve the puzzle. Heck, to even start the adventure you must pass a lore or intimidation or whatever check just to even learn about the dungeon’s existence!

If the PCs must succeed at a die roll to continue, what are you going to do when they fail?

And having three options isn’t enough. What if they entirely miss that one exists and flub the remaining two somehow? What will you do?

This is called the Garden of Eden trap because if Adam and Eve don’t eat the forbidden fruit, nothing changes; they stay in paradise and there’s no rest of the Bible.

Note that this isn’t the same as combat. Even if you get a TPK in combat, the adventure can continue; it just might be with different characters. But nobody wants to build entirely new characters just because the dice are ornery and nobody can pass a Lore check or something equally inane.

Secret doors and secret passages are cool, but they should be built with the idea that they are bonus material. If the PCs find the secret door, they should get extra loot. Or they offer a way around a nasty monster they’d have to fight otherwise. Or maybe they provide a safe space to rest and recuperate.

Ditto for puzzles. Either they can be solved by brute-force or simply going through every available option (taking the time to do so, of course), or they again offer access to bonus material: extra treasure, a sub-level of your dungeon, stuff like that.

If there is something the players must know so the adventure can continue (like, say, the actual location of the dungeon), then give it to them for free. If you want them to roll a die, then let them, and then tell them what they need to know regardless of how the roll came out. If they roll really well, you might also give them something extra (like that the dungeon is inhabited by lycanthropes or something equally useful). If they roll really poorly, tell them two things, one of which is true and the other of which is a lie.

But for the love of Pete, don’t force the players to succeed at a roll to continue or finish the adventure. If you do, you’d damned well better have more material for play that evening, because it won’t be the players’ fault if gaming ends early.


Roger G-S said...

You're right about the adventure design of course, but I find it interesting that this runs mostly against how an actual adversary would defend themselves and their stuff.

JB said...

This kind of trap is the reason the GUMSHOE system was developed. See Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, etc.

Yes, it is terrible adventure design.

trollsmyth said...

Roger G-S: yep, that is an issue. I usually square that circle by having the designer of the dungeon wanting to protect a thing that is not the thing the PCs are after. That is, the designer of the dungeon wants to protect the Scrolls of Skellos and so hides them in a secret chamber you can only reach by passing through the door hidden inside a statue in the High Priest's quarters. But the PCs are only after the giant rubies that serve as eyes for the statue of the demon-god.

Option two: when the players learn about the Scrolls of Skellos, they simultaneously learn that they're hidden behind the statue in the High Priest's quarters. Notations on treasure maps are good for that sort of thing, as are angry ex-acolytes drummed out of the temple for dereliction of duty or being too frisky with the High Priest's sacred concubines.

Holly Oats said...

"I usually square that circle by having the designer of the dungeon wanting to protect a thing that is not the thing the PCs are after."

Ooh, I really like that idea!

I think there's another way to successfully handle chokepoints: they should be based on player skill, and players should be given enough information for success. The solution shouldn't be something that, if they were told, would make them wonder how the Hell they were supposed to figure it out. They should think "Oh, that makes sense! That's why X was there. I'm an idiot." Better yet, it will lead to them figuring it out

A huge part of this comes down to the referee's descriptions, which I believe should be treated more as sources of information free of flowery noise. You are their eyes and ears; always think about how they can avoid some danger or discover rewards and build your descriptions around that, starting with the more immediate elements that beg players to start asking questions

Anonymous said...

Agreed, never make anything plot critical hinge on a skill roll, let them get more information from a skill roll perhaps, but they always get the information they need to proceed. As JB says, that is the design lesson from Gumshoe. And it is certainly how I try to run my mysteries.

trollsmyth said...

JB: I haven't yet played Gumshoe but I had heard it's designed to defeat this problem. Glad to hear it works as advertised.

Similarly, the competency-porn RPG Leverage assumes success with every roll. However, a "poor" roll is one that's likely to invoke complications; you'll always KO the guard, but if you roll poorly, someone might see you. Or the guard might start having a heart attack instead of just being knocked unconscious.

ProfessorOats: you still need to exercise extreme caution, though. Players can be amazingly obtuse in the face of "obvious" hints, or distracted by the smallest, most inconsequential tidbit. I absolutely agree that provoking questions is a good start. I'll sometimes drop in potentially confusing descriptions that invoke opposites just to lead to that sort of thing. But it doesn't always work; I'm very good at out-clevering myself. ;p

Holly Oats said...

True, but I'm OK with them failing, so long as it was because they screwed up and not because I did. Outside of a sandbox-style game, that might be a problem (especially for story games, but I don't play those)

trollsmyth said...

ProfessorOats: Do your adventures usually have an in-game time limit? Is there some point where you tell the players to just give up, or are they pretty good about managing their own fun and willing to do that on their own?

Holly Oats said...

I don't have a group right now, unfortunately

I'd certainly never tell players to give up. I figure they can decide for themselves if they want to move onto something else or keep at it. Also, I'd be able to see for myself if they're struggling (big advantage over game/adventure designers), in which case I could throw some more help their way if I felt they deserved it (that is, if I felt they were struggling because I didn't do a good enough job)

I don't know if you've ever watched a friend play a puzzle game before. I was big into Limbo for awhile, and my brother couldn't figure out this part involving gravity and boxes. I didn't want to spoil it, so instead I reminded him of what he knew and tried to put the problem in the right perspective to help him reach that "aha!" moment. That might be applicable to D&D as well, so long as you don't go overboard with the help. Players should still be challenged, and able to fail (as my brother did, though I think he got it after a break), so that they can feel satisfied when they do get it

As far as an in-game time limit goes, I suppose that'd depend on the adventure. The werewolf won't wait for the players to figure out his identity before he strikes again, but Phandaal's long-abandoned tower isn't going anywhere