Recently, Carl of Three Hams Inn made a remark that I do not run an easy game. That is undoubtedly true. And I think he also spoke correctly when he suggested that players occupied in what he called “snipe hunts,” where they waste time following up useless details, are trying to think outside of the box, to get whatever advantage they can.
I think the failing of this is in the DM, in that it is possible to think out of the DMs box most of the time. Because let’s face it, DMs are generally pretty stupid.
I want to give an example from my own experience as a player, when I did a lot of that; but I have to confess that my best example does not come from D&D. It comes from traveller.
We had a referee for that game, a fellow named Irwin (yes, we were all nerds), who invented his own system of trade based upon his limited conceptions of it. If you play Traveller, you know that owning a ship is a major pain in the ass, as the things are prohibitively expensive and require constant effort to make the monthly payments. As such, if you intend to travel around and adventure, you have to take advantage of the various services Traveller suggests: carrying mail, carrying cargo and speculating.
We were pretty smart guys, and it didn’t take us too long to figure out the flaw in Irwin’s system, or how to exploit it. That was 27 years ago, so I don’t remember exactly what the flaw was, but if we took specific routes and used specific character traits jointly, we could pretty much guarantee 400 – 1200 per cent profits every time we jumped.
While Irwin couldn’t get his shit together, we had pretty much paid off our ship and made ourselves gazillionaires. When I say that Irwin had to get his shit together, I mean that he had to develop a backbone. Because every time he would say, “This can’t be right…this just can’t be right,” we would exclaim loudly and defensively, “It’s YOUR system!” Which did just the trick. Irwin took all of the responsibility on his shoulders and let us get away with murder. Eventually the campaign collapsed, when Irwin didn’t want to play anymore.
What’s interesting is that yes, it WAS Irwin’s system…which meant he could have called a halt to it and redesigned it promptly. But he didn’t. Somehow he got it into his head (with our help) that having brought out the system, it was “unfair” to change it in midstream…an attitude we exploited to the full.
I don’t know what it is that makes DMs dumb in this way, but they are. They can usually be gotten around in a variety of ways—none of them having to do with rules lawyering, a pretty sad way to manipulate the DM. It’s much more fun to play on the DM’s generosity, guilt, sympathies, naiveté or innocence. A party I led once seized a school (again in Traveller), methodically butchered all the children within and got away clean with the ransom simply because the DM was so easily shocked that he found himself uncomprehending that we could even imagine such a scheme.
There’s no way I’d have let a party get away with that…the press would have been there within five minutes and we would have been waxed soon after. But I’m not easily horrified.
If I run a tough world, it is because I run a tight ship. It is very hard to “think outside the box” because the box is big enough to anticipate most of what a party might do. Thinking outside the box means outthinking me, and I’m not that easy to nail down. My motives are unclear (mostly, I have no motives, as I run a world, not a moral play), and I avoid creating circumstances the party can’t just walk away from. I don’t put princesses into towers and draw maps to those towers in straight lines. I create mazes that parties can avoid easily by having no interest in anything, but which get sticky the more the party cares about a particular thing.
In other words, as I’ve often said, the party makes the story. I’ll throw in details that have nothing to do with the party, because “news” is interesting. But I won’t insist a party follow up on those details and get involved in that particular mess. If they high-tail it elsewhere, I’m fine with that, because as I say the world is big, and there are other pieces of disconnected detail that I’ll invent for wherever they wind up.
That sounds pretty arrogant. I guess it is. I like when a party thinks of something I haven’t. It gives me ideas. But in almost every case, that thinking of something will happen INSIDE the box…not out of it. After all, when it comes to Earth, thinking “outside” the box is really a misnomer…it just means getting enlightened about something that was always there.
I hold my world to the commitment of being as close to that as possible.