Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Lurkers' Corner - The Well

The Juvenis Party has figured out that the well contains water that will enable them to walk through poisonous gas and continue onwards into the dungeon.

Did anyone guess?  How long did it take.  Were you following it and I just gave it away right now?  I admit, the idea is pretty old school, not really my usual thing.  I don't like puzzles, largely because people tend to overthink them and then we're going around in circles for ages.

I try to suspend overthinking by simply identifying it when it happens or jumping ahead to produce the experiment and demonstrate it has failed.

Whenever possible, I will try to emphasize the correct solution if a player mentions it in passing, as I did in this case.  I had an NPC repeat a specific question stated by the player, and that broke the deadlock.

Am I wrong to do this?  Say so if you feel I am.  I do so because it is often necessary to make the game move forward when the players begin to feel lost.

If you haven't seen it yet, there's a comic.


Joey Bennett said...

I think that this experience highlights the accuracy of your assessment that puzzles, in general, just don't work. The solution was painfully obvious to you, and yet nearly impossible for the players to identify without some very heavy-handed DMing.

I do like the way that you handle something that is being overthought when a player latches on to a point of description to which you have attached no relevance. I think that this is necessary given the descriptive nature of the medium. Players will always attach importance to different things than the DM upon hearing a description.

Unfortunately, inserting puzzles amplifies the necessity of this corrective DM tool to an almost game-breaking level, which both cheapens the puzzle and makes the players feel foolish. ("Thicky MacThickersons", "The solution, simple. Us...Maybe as well...").

Puzzles attempt to build tension, but that tension almost always ends up fizzling out when none of the players can solve it. Then the DM is forced to step in and remove that tension, bringing it back to a point where it would have been better if it had not been built, while also signaling that if something is too hard for the players, the nanny DM will help make their choices for them. Even when done gently through "emphasiz[ing] the correct solution if a player mentions it in passing," everyone knows that the DM just solved it for them.

All told, the use of puzzles is the problematic piece, not the correction of overthinking that it forces. Without a better mechanism for puzzle resolution, I would conclude that puzzles are, sadly, best avoided.

Alexis Smolensk said...

On the whole, I would tend to agree.

The principal difficulty is that sometimes, particularly with the opening of a dungeon, we are left with two options: that there are monsters blocking the entranceway or that somehow there is a non-sentient obstacle barring the way. Given that the age of the cave system I'm running is established at 1,000 years old, I am limited in the form of monsters I can choose ~ and more limited if the party happens to be of 1st level.

It can always be argued that the monsters should be of whatever level they ought to be, but that doesn't make a very good game. The players need a challenge they can conceivably overcome, or else it is more time wasted.

Monsters available for 1st level characters that can survive 1,000 years are thin on the ground; yet something has to be in the way, or else the players feel no tension whatsoever. Thus, we're stuck with a puzzle.

We try to make the puzzles as easy and direct as possible. We try to include the best possible clues in the description. But part of the problem, the unrealized part of the problem, is that players are TRAINED by bad puzzle creation in a hundred different modules that push them to randomly try everything, rather than just sit and think through the details.

"First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?"


Alexis Smolensk said...

Because parties are not trained in patient examination, they tend to fixate on the most threatening elements.

Questions that could have been examined.

What are the creatures? This I answered, explaining that they are golems.

Why have they been placed here, in this specific spot? The players looked for another way around the gas ~ but of course, why would someone construct the room, create the golems, place them here as guards, THEN PROVIDE ANOTHER PASSAGE? This is particularly troubling, and is a learned behaviour. DMs creating dungeons tend not to think in terms of hallways needing to be constructed with sweat and pain and danger of collapse. They scrawl extra halls on maps, with extra choices of passages and extra routes, encouraging parties to believe there is ALWAYS a way around. Thus, long before we even begin to solve the puzzle, we must go through a long period of trying to circumvent the puzzle.

Why is the well here? Why did it take so long to ask this question? The well needs to be constructed, it needs to be made; someone must have dug it, lined it and put it specifically HERE for a reason. But players are again trained to disregard the existence of things in dungeon rooms as "fluff." Statues, pedestals, fountains, wells, whatever, are all just window-dressing. The well is here because the room would be boring without it. That's where habit dictates the mind should go, and so it takes a long time to ask the question.

What is a well for? To provide drinking water. But the question itself is avoided, because this is a dungeon and in D&D, wells are always passages, not things in themselves.

It is bad module training that makes this overthinking common. Not the presence of puzzles, but the prevalence of horrible, casual, second-rate game design.

Drain said...

It was hamfisted and I'd rather prefer you had not done it, though I understand fully well why you did it.

Quite simply, I'm of the belief that we were on the verge of getting through. Letting the tension accumulate like it did only to, at peak point, make bread rain from the sky onto our heads was really underwhelming.

Not to say that we approached the problematique with any special degree of insight or thoroughness - quite the contrary!

But as our options were getting funneled, drinking the water was to be. It just was.

I mean, if we did not so much as express frustration and much less throw our collective hands up and shout "oh DM, deliver us from this predicament", then you could have let it ride for at least a bit longer. I can only speak for myself, but headscratchers entertain me and I had fun the whole time.

Now, onto actual criticism: you could have let Embla Strand notice any/all of the relevant elements on her first descent down the well. What we got instead was a meta-comment about how "the well really is a dead-end".

That's where we were thrown off the scent, due perhaps to you deeming it too early for clue sprinkling, but it was the comment that really twisted the riddle from "too simple" to "!??".

Joey Bennett said...

Wouldn't the solution therefore be to tell the players outside of the construct of the game that they need to more patiently examine the conundrum which they face? To reassure them that, yes, the answers they need exist and are available for them to find, rather than to rush to assist them to solve it when they tangentially mention a piece of the solution?
With combat, players' methodologies and behavior are corrected in game via damage and death. For puzzles, this mechanism (generally) cannot address the 'incorrect' thought patterns. The game will merely grind to a halt each time a puzzle is presented until the DM helps them solve it. But have they actually learned anything about the thought process required to solve puzzles and avoid thinking past them generally? They may have gained insight into why 'this' puzzle worked that way, but will they be able to apply it when faced with the next one?
I agree that poor game design, both in modules and in 'home-brew' campaigns exacerbates the overthinking problem, but unless a way is found to 're-train' their thinking the scenario will play itself out in exactly the same manner over and over again. Even if such a process is discovered and used, individuals' brains are very difficult to align and thinking past one another will probably still occur.
Another way to view the difficulty puzzles present to gameplay is by comparing them to other obstacles in the game. Generally, good game design dictates presenting a scenario only, without preconception of how the players 'should' address it. Puzzles, on the other hand, tend to have a single solution that constrains gameplay choices, forcing that section of the game to be more 'railroad-y'. This is not inherently bad if used sparingly and if the players know how to think through a puzzle, but it is very different from the rest of the game.

Drain said...

Actually, I'm opposed to most meta-comments that hold the players by the hand.

Though I understand that the temptation to vent frustration or emit encouragement is part and parcel to being a DM, us being social beings and all that. It is also a way for the DM to share in the joy of the game.

But we are strictly told on one hand _not_ to try and save time and then it so happens that it is decided for us that we've spent enough time. It's conflicting.

There are, I'll easily grant, cases where the players are already running in circles and chasing their own tails. All I'm arguing is: we hadn't quite gotten to that point at that moment in time.

Heck, if push came to shovelling, I'd rather Alexis let us dig a new entrypoint or secure the services of a mage. It might even come to ruin the economic return of the whole venture, granted, but it would have been wholly on our shoulders and that, to me, has all the value in the world.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Couple of points about Embla's examination of the well.

At no time did she investigate the water, nor even mention it, except not to fall into it. To see detail, she would have had to lower the lamp in just such a fashion, and pay attention to the water and not her first concern, which was another passageway. I could have tipped the hand there, yes, but . . .

At that point I had not completed her sage abilities, and was not aware that one of them should have been dowse for water, which I had already written a couple of years ago. One can say that was on me, but generally speaking assassins don't have that skill at all, so it was a bonus. But yes, this is the sort of thing that sage abilities are meant to solve.

I had hoped that the players would pull up a bucket of water and look at it. I had Fjall suggest using his pot and it was ignored. I did do my best to be subtle.

Regarding addressing players outside the construct. I have tried that in the past. I'm sure they all felt the answers were there. I think you're incorrect that players can't learn to correct their thought patterns in game. I am consistent as possible in building my "puzzles" ~ invariably, they are not really puzzles, they are based on the actual way that the actual construct would have worked without the players being there.

Take the well. The denizens would enter from the outside, YES, through the keyhole (which was loose and designed to be pulled open, one will notice), then seek to manage their thirst. Then they would continue down the passage to the descending room (which the party has now just found).

The gas and the fire-trapped door were added LATER, by the last person to leave the construct, as a means of sealing it off. But he wanted a way to get back in, so he made the lamp an initiator for revealing the door. If he wanted to come back, he lights the lamp, removes the spell, drinks the water and then he is free to continue into the dungeon, which has a PURPOSE and is not just a construct for the players.

This is how I say that a dungeon ought to be designed in my book, The Dungeon's Front Door. By reasoning what made the dungeon and why, I make the environment more logical, more reasonable. By not designing with the party in mind, they feel like they're in a real place, that has real structure.

After playing in my world for awhile, they begin to adapt to this ideal.

Alexis Smolensk said...


The game is not, let's let everyone stew for a week to no purpose, while everything is tried, while you personally get off on it. I have three other players to manage. Momentum is key. Momentum was dragging before the players vented frustration. I was already in the mode of getting them past the various overthinking failures, which caused the vent of frustration, which led to someone saying something I could tag onto with a perfectly reasonable NPC voice. Bergthora doesn't ADD any information at all by asking the question, and does act completely in the way that another person would if the characters were all real and all lost.

Did I put a hand in? Oh yes. But it would be idiocy to let you bang your heads trying to drill down into limestone when NONE of you have any mining experience, nor the resources, to drop a shaft in just the right place to vent the gas. Do you know how hard it would be to target a tunnel 35 feet below the surface of the ground even if you were a miner?

A point that None of you even considered. You're still thinking in old school D&D terms. If the party wants to mine, there's no reason in the world why you should be able to.

As far as securing the services of a mage, AGAIN, for what reason would a mage come out here? Try to imagine knocking on a high-end doctor's door, as a STRANGER, and asking that he come a day and a half into the forest to go underground to have a look at a patient. Um, no. He has no idea who you are, how powerful you are, what your real purpose might be, etcetera. Remember the post I wrote about x.p. in post 30 Years' War Europe? Anyone might be any level.

You're thinking the way that DMs for decades have let players think. That this isn't a medieval, dangerous world, that experts can be hired to do whatever you want like a 21st century exterminator with a bug on his truck, that lack of skill isn't a limitation, that the DM's made the environment specifically to pull your personal chain (that there is no counter-narrative in the world except your narrative) and that I'm perfectly ready to sit here all day and type answers to questions that lead nowhere, because obviously I haven't anything better to do or a game to kick into higher gear.

Nope. That is not the world I'm running.

Joey Bennett said...

I agree that it is less than ideal for the DM to have to assist the players like this, which is why I continue to view puzzles as problematic.

Given the choice between the DM encouraging the players to continue thinking through the problem with a certain methodology versus guiding their characters in-game, I will take the former. It feels like it better preserves my agency and responsibility as a player.

In reference to the well being a 'dead-end'. This is partially what I mean about individuals thinking past one another. I suspect that Alexis intended this in a physically literal sense (there is nowhere else to go down the well) whereas the party felt that this was meant in an overall sense (there is nothing worth investigating here). Re-reading the posts, I can see where each interpretation would come from, causing the disconnect.

One thing I have noticed with these play by post campaigns. Pacing is extremely difficult. Everyone is always concerned that they are holding up everyone else (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't). I believe this is what leads to the feeling that saving time is both to be avoided (because it leads to poor decisions and having to discount rolls) and that we must move on quickly (because everyone else must not be having fun if there is any kind of lull). I think learning to manage this well is at the crux of a successful play by post campaign

Sofia Viktorova Koleva said...

I went back and read the well room post after reading this one and the accompanying comments. I don't think the DM was heavy-handed at all and feel Alexis likely felt his hand forced to give a hint by Pandred's post on February 22, 2017 at 6:50 PM beginning, "I am personally at a loss..." which then listed a series of red herrings the party could have easily veered onto, derailing the game.

I've been in this predicament playing Andrej in the other campaign, so please accept this as the perspective of a fellow traveler. Alexis, through an NPC, has also nudges us toward an answer at times. In the moment you feel, "Oh, what idiots we must seem!" Then, often, "We could have figured it out eventually, I really wish you would have let us done so." Then, looking back more objectively, "Damn, that could have easily been a disaster (or already had become)."

What I've learned is that everything you need to solve the puzzle is set right before you. Perhaps Joey Bennet's advice above to stop and explain just that is a viable alternative to the NPC nudge, but in practice I think you end up going down just as many tangents anyway. That the NPC noted the presence of the well and the party quickly arrived at the answer isn't heavy-handed, though. The alacrity with which the party embraced the answer indicates it was likely already in or at the edge of their thoughts. The nudge helped them get to it faster.

Heavy handed would have been, "Hmmm. I recall my grandfather once telling a tale of a poison gas and magic well. You see, the water of the well..."

Still, I understand about pride being hurt when it all seems so obvious in hindsight.

Pandred said...

When I began the post with "I'm at a loss", I'll go ahead and pretty much say that at an actual table I'd probably have been sincerely agitated (not angry, but definitely high-energy) by that point.

When you described the water to Embla as being freezing cold, combined with the "the well is a dead-end" comment I had pretty much given up on finding a way through that didn't involve digging for a week or two.

The idea that she'd get down there, could apparently see into the water to know it had no passage or doorway, had touched it enough to know that it was freezing cold, but not notice the clarity of the water...

Well I mean, the post said it. I was at a loss at that point.

The end result made me feel a tiny bit cheated, as if we'd guessed it once already, but it didn't count then.

That really isn't fair of course, because I had made several massive errors in my own thinking. I'd been, at this point, scouring the PHB and internet for information both about mine-gasses and Druid spells, thinking of what the builder of this place would have put in place to defend it, and I'd been turning up a lot of blanks.

My error here was of course assuming that everything we encounter in a magical realm would come straight from the spell list. This is absurd. I mean, for fucks sake, we had a magic lamp reveal the door just the room prior. I could just as easily have gotten into an "elemental" mindset and figured it out immediately, feeling real damn clever.

Obviously I fucked up in my guess about the well being a passage, but I selfishly choose to defend that as at least being consistent within itself. It was a possibility that for me explained the well, the golems being placed where they were around the well, the shape of the room, and so on.

The gas was a natural phenomena to me, when of course if I'd been putting another angle to it the gas is a NATURAL phenomena, which is exactly the sort of thing a Druid would use.

It was the wrong answer by a wide margin, and I may very well have stuck those wrong ideas in my fellow party members' heads. I'm embarrassed, and sorry that I may have dragged the puzzle out longer than it would otherwise go.

Pretty sure the party has played with me enough at this point to know my shtick. I'll try and reign it in a bit on the next one.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I am sorry. I used the words "dead-end" as a denotative reference to avenues of travel, NOT as a connotative reference to having no importance whatsoever. I meant it in context.

Regarding the explanation of the well. When you see a well, think horses and not zebras.

Please, please, please, do not be embarrassed. You did get there. I nudged you, but it was your statement about the well that enabled me to make a nudge.

The "next one" is ongoing. How are you doing with it?

Engelhart Askjellson said...