Thursday, October 19, 2017


There is an old censure about D&D campaigns that goes like this: the DM gives the party a choice of three doors, while silently deciding that no matter which door the party chooses, they will find a dozen orcs waiting for them.  The offer of a "choice" is, therefore, an illusion, and the DM is being disingenuous about the party's freedom of choice.

Fundamentally, I agree.  If the party is faced with three doors, the DM should have enough content prepared to ensure that each different choice will yield a different result.

For the sake of perspective, however, I will point out that virtually every video game in existence ignores this moral philosophy.  Without hesitation, players pay considerable game costs in order to be herded through a game's agenda, knowing all the time that it doesn't matter which door is opened, the orcs will have to be confronted eventually.  That is how the game is designed.  And I know of no one among video gamers who has a problem with that.

So where does this philosophy come from with respect to role-playing?  I admit, I have the philosophy myself, I'm just as guilty as anyone in thinking that the three doors = one result equation is just plain wrong. Except that I suspect that's just a feeling and not a logical conclusion.  Why does it make a difference that the DM is in the room and not some remote faceless entity having created the video game you casually allow to herd you from scene to scene?  And if you're in the DM's dungeon, won't you have to fight the orcs? Eventually?

Don't tell me that you resent a DM lying; that doesn't wash.  I lie to players all the time; it is part of the process, since it is assumed in game that the players don't ~ can't ~ know everything about the world, and that they will constantly be faced with things that are deliberately kept secret, obfuscated or otherwise made to be misleading.  No one accuses me of being deceptive when I say, "There are no secret doors in the room," even if there is one and the party has failed to make the necessary roll.  DMing is lying.  It has to be.

No, it is this particular lie that is reserved for special treatment.  Why?

Consider the adventure described in the previous post.  Right at the beginning, I am throwing giant ticks one at a time at the party in an effort to waste the party's hit points and to waste the party's food.  D&D is a game of multiple stockpiles: food and hit points happen to be two that the party needs to survive.  As they diminish, the party begins to feel the burn ... and that's something we want the party to feel, because we want them to hurt before they can meaningfully advance the value and strength of their characters.

Hurt?  Well, of course.  I can't actually make the players feel the exhaustion of tramping through the woods below mountain heights, as they have to heft their heavy packs high on their backs to jump small streams, as they cut their hands and shins climbing over deadfall, as they feel the heat of the day pressing down on them or the bitter cold and damp as they wake up in the morning covered with dew.  I can describe those things, sure, but I can't make the players feel them.  On the other hand, I can make them acutely aware of their danger by chopping out some supplies and hit points.  To the player, those things are much more real than the description of the forest trek.

Here, however, I have to introduce the genre-savvy player.  Let's give him a name: we'll call him Gene. Gene has been role-playing for 14 years and he knows exactly what I'm doing.  I am not fooling Gene. Every time a tick attacks, Gene is thinking, "Right, that's pretty convenient, those ticks slowly sapping our strength so we're not as tough when we meet the real encounters.  Pretty fucking convenient."

Then, when the food begins to run out, and the party stumbles across the deer, Gene is thinking, "Oh, that's pretty convenient.  Now we're expected to hunt the deer.  Oh, I feel like I'm running my character!  I'm being the DM's puppet, that's what I'm being."  Whereupon Gene begins to explain to the other members of the party that I'm ganking them six ways from Sunday and that if they had any sense, they wouldn't let me manipulate them through this campaign another step.  "Fuck these deer," says Gene.  "I want to fight real monsters."

For comparison's sake, let's introduce another player, an experienced player.  We'll call him Jake.  Jake has also been role-playing for 14 years and he knows everything that Gene knows ~ he just doesn't care.  When Jake sees that the party is encountering a bunch of giant ticks, Jake is thinking how to better reserve the stockpiles they have and how to better prepare for the ticks; he knows the party isn't going to hold together well over these deadfall, but he suggests that people start throwing stones or rocks at any part of the forest that might hide a tick, to try to get them to emerge without a chance of surprise.

When the food begins to run out and the party stumbles across some deer, Jake knows the DM put them there, but Jake is thinking, "Hm, what's the best way we could preserve the meat, so that it will carry us further up into these mountains?"  Jake realizes the "game" isn't that the party is going to kill deer, its how to use the deer in the best possible way, to produce the best possible results.  He doesn't worry that the deer aren't "real" monsters.  The deer are the problem at the moment ~ and how he handles the deer will matter when the harder monsters appear.

Gene has played a lot of games and as a result, he wants to skip over anything that he sees as inconvenient.  He doesn't see the landscape as a means to better or strengthen his character's chances; he sees the landscape as a lot of nothing that separates him from his goal.  To Gene, the goal is as static as possible.  Make a character, kill monsters, get treasure.  And any "motivation" that slows that equation cuts into Gene's agenda.

Jake has played a lot of games and just doesn't care about the agenda.  It's a forest.  Something is going to attack the party.  The way will be arduous.  The food will run out anyway.  He doesn't see anything to be gained in rushing this; he wants to feel the experience of adventuring into a forest, missing none of the experience along the way.

Gene comes to three doors in the dungeon and thinks, "One of these is the shortcut!"

Jake comes to three doors in the dungeon and thinks, "Who cares?  We take the middle one."

For a choice to matter it has to involve more thinking than choosing one blank slate over another. Truth is, the three doors were never an option, not really.  Fundamentally, it doesn't matter what's behind any of the doors.  What matters in our agenda is realizing why we are here.

Why does a party decide to climb into the mountains?  Obviously, to find conflict and to be rewarded for overcoming it.  The scale of that experience for the player is a line graph with "great adventure" on one end of the line and "the DM hands out free stuff for expressing the intention" on the other.  If the whole point of the adventure is so the players can say they went into the mountains, stick out their hand and demand, "Where is my monster and where is my treasure?" ... of course any deviation from that formula will piss off genre-savvy players like Gene.

Hopefully, the players want a good experience, something rich and purposeful enough to let events unfold.  Okay, something is going to attack: it's a forest, there's nothing unusual about there being giant ticks in a fantasy forest, that's good for a start.  Oh, good, there's some deer, we were short of food.  Those stags sure are threatening, would rather not get speared by one and have to go back to town just as we're getting started.  Holy shit, that's a hell hound!

That isn't what I want as a DM, that's what the players want.  Well, my players.  I get pretty tired of genre-savvy Genes bitching and moaning that they're not writing the adventure according to their formulas ... or their need to go back to town just to "prove" they're not my puppet, because hunting deer and warding off stags isn't their idea of an adventure.

Nor do I truly understand the argument that the player feels some right to storm off into a different forest, to fight different things, without in fact knowing whether or not the things being fought are different.  Suppose the players do start off up another valley and suppose I do create a completely different adventure than the one I outlined about the night hags and hell hounds ~ how would the players know it was a "different" adventure?

Because I said so?

I think the moral high ground begins to collapse when the players have so little information that they can't actually tell the difference between me practicing Illusionism and me playing absolutely straight with the player's agenda.  I think part of that problem might also be the begging of the question, "How can you be sure that either adventure, that you chose by having the right to march into two completely different valleys, is the good one?"  If you don't ultimately enter both valleys and experience both adventures, how would you know?

And given that, it follows that if you're going to fight both adventures in the long run, what difference does it make if I gank you into this one first, and that one second?

Maybe, just maybe ... we're getting ourselves knotted up about things that don't really matter.


G. B. Veras said...

Have you ever heard the Hack&Slash master blog? Campbell calls this kind of illusion the Quantum Ogre.

BTW... This was the topic that made me break my shackles of the poor mainstream DMing.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Let's set aside that the writer of said article was all over the map. Most of what he's saying I agree with ~ and I stress that most of that is not what I'm talking about here.

Let's suppose that the players do quit the adventure I've described: they meet the ticks, the deer and the hell hound and they choose to go back to town. Will this mean that the next forest they enter, that second valley I talked about, include ticks, a herd of deer and a hell hound?

Absolutely not. Once the party has begun to experience a part of an adventure, that beginning can't be applied anywhere else, period. That would be wrong: and it would be different from what I've been describing. I'm not presenting the example that -C has, that there are bandits to the east TOO. It might be possible that two forests might have giant ticks ... but then, name a forest anywhere in Canada AND Russia that doesn't have bears!

So I'm not palette shifting.

Nor am I "forcing" anyone into an encounter. I'm saying if you go into this valley, this is what you'll find. In THIS valley. But if you've never gone into valley A, and have no idea what's in valley A, then even if what's in valley B is different, how can you possibly know? How can it possibly make a difference.

Oh, I know the post makes bold statements, such as: "Your precious ogre encounter will not cause your players to do that." Exactly how is that -C knows this? That sounds like a rather blanket statement of all ogre encounters created by all DMs.

How about, "If you always pre-ordain your precious encounter, then the players never have the experience of choosing correctly and skipping right to the end."

What does "correctly" mean? In the scenario I described, if the players skip right to the end, they are going to die. The three night hags supported by at least two hell hounds are going to kill them. When they see the dead zone (the opportunity to "skip to the end" was built into my design), they are free to go in. Wouldn't be a good idea, but probably some parties will do that.

But what exactly does "the experience of choosing" mean? That's a rather non-descriptive statement. Every moment in the campaign is a choice and every one offers experience. Why would any particular experience de facto be better than any other? Why is "skipping to the end" the correct decision?

Is jumping the video of a movie from the first five minutes to the last five minutes what we'd call "the experience of choosing correctly"?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh, and yes, I am familiar with -C, just as he is familiar with me:

Tim said...

Man, do I love your blog. You've cut right through all the bullshit of whether or not a DM should design an adventure this way or that way and just gone back to the practical purposes behind the choice, deconstructing how the adventure is actually developed from the separate points of view of the players and the DM.

Different players may react differently from either Gene or Jake, but fundamentally all D&D will involve a setup with a potential offer to proceed. If the players aren't tempted then you give them something else. Developing those offers to be richer, more rewarding and more exhilarating is way more effective than dressing up, putting on spooky music or even designing the most complex simulated world. I appreciate posts like this reminding me that, in the end, it all comes back to story.

Discord said...

Another fantastic post! I'm finding this latest series on adventure paths and encounter building truly illuminating. 'Charting An Adventure Path' is a Hall of Fame post, in my opinion.

One thing that particularly stuck out to me was this section: " D&D is a game of multiple stockpiles: food and hit points happen to be two that the party needs to survive. As they diminish, the party begins to feel the burn ... and that's something we want the party to feel, because we want them to hurt before they can meaningfully advance the value and strength of their characters."

In 99% of the campaigns that I've played (or run) over the years, food is pretty much ignored. Adventurers will get a week's worth of rations at the beginning of the campaign, and those stay in their packs, unused. The DM may say "Mark off a ration", but the party is never in any danger of being low on food. In that same vein, encumbrance is basically ignored as well. It may come up if the party wants to take something large and heavy, like a statue, but otherwise players can cart around whatever they would like.

It seems like games that ignore those rules are missing important dynamics that your games have in spades. If DM and the party don't care about food, that's one less area that the party can "feel the burn" in, and feel like they're being challenged. For my next campaign, I'm planning ways to take scarcity of food and other resources (including weapons and armor) into account so that the party can feel challenged exactly like you mention.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It's a good idea, Discord ... but be aware that some of the people in your party might have Gene's characteristics ~ in which case they will resent "their game" being spoiled.