In the past, I’ve made fun of role-playing games for over-explaining basic, fundamental aspects of the game. Aspects no other game feels the need to explain. For example, every RPG rulebook has that section explaining how no one player wins an RPG. Rather, RPGs are cooperative, and they are about coming together to accomplish goals and, of course, to have fun. Pandemic doesn’t feel the need to explain the concept of cooperative gameplay. Nor does it have to explain why games are fun. It just says, “here’s how this game works; if that sounds fun, give it a go!” Done.
The problem is that RPGs think they are way more complicated and special than they really are. So, every RPG comes with a certain amount of smug self-aggrandizement. “This game is different and special and amazing! And no one could possibly understand it without having its different special amazingness spelled out!”
At least video games don’t come with that sort of smug, right…
I was watching my girlfriend play one of those visual-novel, choose-your-own-adventure style games that Telltale THINKS count as adventure games. You know, the ones that replace puzzles and exploration with dialogue boxes and quick-time button-presses? It was one of those. It was called Until Dawn. Until Dawn is a game about a group of horror-movie protagonists who go to a remote cabin in the middle of nowhere and gosh darn it if a horror movie doesn’t just break out around them. It’s a fine game if you’re into that sort of thing. But right at the beginning, the game breaks the fourth wall by telling you how amazing it is because you will have to make CHOICES! And those CHOICES will CHANGE THE GAME! HOLY MOTHER OF F$&%! That’s like no game ever!
F$&% you Until Dawn. You’re not that special. And that isn’t a novel f$&%ing idea. I smirked at this cute little indie game for thinking it’s oh so special. And then I played Prey. Specifically, the 2016 version. The one that has nothing to do with the OTHER Prey. The one that is a completely original game that caused some brand magic to have a f$&%ing panic attack because a company was about to release a game that wasn’t tied an existing franchise. That had to be fixed. So, The Adventures of the Eye-Poking Non-Gender-Specific Hero vs. Shapeshifting Black Goo Monsters in SPACE got renamed to Prey.
Prey has more in come with games like System Shock and Deus Ex. Games that some smarmy, smug game designer has dubbed the “immersive sim,” whatever that means. Basically, the game includes lots of different skills and tools and you – the player – can specialize in certain styles of gameplay. You can be a rough-and-tumble combat type, you can focus on stealth, you can be an infiltrator, or you can be a shapeshifting space-wizard mindbender. The one thing you can’t be is everything. So, if you decide to focus on stealth and infiltration, you won’t have much magical ability or combat prowess.
There are two upshots to this. First, the game includes a lot of optional content that can only be experienced by space wizards or stealth infiltrators or brawny powerhouses. Second, the game’s major obstacles – the one everyone must overcome to beat the game – they must be surmountable in lots of different ways. For example, if you focus on technical skills, you might be able to repair an elevator to get to an upper floor to complete an objective. Or, if you focus on shapeshifting, you can turn into a robot that can fly to do the same thing. Or, if you are strong, you can move some heavy furniture and access a ventilation shaft and climb up to the next floor. Or you can use your sticky-foam gun – if you found it – to build a makeshift climbing wall in the atrium and get up to the second-floor balcony that way.
Neat, right? I like Prey a lot because it handles the “multiple approaches” thing that is the hallmark of the “immersive sim” – *barf* – very well. Other games in the same genre – *hork* – occasionally have some problems with the multiple approach thing. The older Deus Exes and System Shocks had certain encounters and boss fights that were almost impossible unless you had exactly the right skill. But even if it handles it well, Prey isn’t unique as an “immersive sim” – *snerk* – but it sure as hell thinks it is. Very early in the game, when you are tasked with finding your way out of a room in which you are locked, a big message suddenly flashes up on the screen. It tells you that you can play Prey ANY WAY YOU WANT! For example, you COULD go find that keycard on the desk over there to open the door OR you COULD climb up into that ventilation shaft! Seriously! You can CHOOSE! ISN’T THAT F$&%ING AMAZING?!
But I’m not here to complain about why video games and RPGs need to calm the f$&% down, respect their audience, and recognize that they aren’t as f$&%ing special as they think they are. I AM here to talk about how to design obstacles the way the designers of “immersive sims” – *BLERGH* – do. That is, I’m here to talk about how to design obstacles with multiple, predetermined ways of circumventing them. And, like I always do when I’m talking about something so big and amazing and revolutionary and brilliant – because this is all of that and more – I am going to split this into two parts. The first part – this part – discusses the theory. The second part – coming in a few days – will actually put the theory into practice.
Predetermined? All Aboard the Railroad
Let me address something that I KNOW is going to come up in the comments. That way, when it does come up, I can berate the commenter. Many, many GMs say that the GM’s job is to design obstacles, but not solutions. Somehow, that ruins the fun of the game in ways that no one with a functioning brain has been able to logically explain to me. Basically, they want GMs to drop obstacles into the game and then see what the players do with them. Because the rules allow the GM to adjudicate any action, the GM doesn’t need to prepare any solutions in advance.
Now, I agree that it is important to create open-ended obstacles. I’ve berated GMs for creating wodges of combat encounters that exist solely to be combat encounters. “Here’s some spiders in a room; they will fight the players and the players will fight them.” It’s okay to have some encounters like that. But when every encounter and obstacle in the game has only one way around the problem – regardless of whether that way is fighting or talking or whatever – the game sucks. It’s like a gym-class obstacle course. No one likes that.
The proper approach, however, is not to just create obstacles that have no predetermined solution at all. I’ve seen many, MANY GMs who argue that coming up with any predetermined solution is railroading. It takes away the players’ freedom. You can’t say “the PCs might bribe the guy, in which case this happens,” and “the PCs might bully the guy, in which case that happens” because that turns the game into a multiple-choice test. And even if you never show the players the test – even if you never say, “you can do this or that” – the players will somehow suss out that there’s a multiple-choice test happening and realize they are just riding the s$&%y RPG railroad. And even if the players don’t suss it out, the multiple-choice test will also break the GM’s brain so badly that the GM won’t be able to run a role-playing game properly if the players select “other.”
Meanwhile, you also have GMs who see no point in planning any predetermined approaches because they have fallen prey to the “perfect solution fallacy.” The perfect solution fallacy is a brain fart that occurs when you reject something simply because it does not fix every goddamned problem in the entire world and also dispense chocolate hundred-dollar bills. You know what I mean. “If hiring more police officers will only reduce crime by 40% instead of ending all crime forever, it basically doesn’t fix anything.” DERP!
The GMing Perfect Solution Fallacy goes like this: “because the game is open-ended, I can’t plan for every possible thing the players might do. Therefore, planning for any possibility at all is utterly pointless.” DERP DERP DERP!
Let’s get this straight: when you put an obstacle in your game, you should have at least a few potential solutions already in mind. Moreover, you should have already worked out the mechanics for those solutions. Designing solutions – mechanically and conceptually – is part of designing the problem. That doesn’t mean you have to design every possible solution imaginable. Nor does it mean you should reject any solution you didn’t already predesign. And that doesn’t mean that you have to accept any solution any player comes up with either. When a player attempts a solution you didn’t design, you still use your GMing brain to figure out if it could work and then use the rules to work it out.
Why prepare in advance? Well, there are several reasons. But a few of them are bigger and more important than the others. Those are the ones the rest of this article is REALLY about. So, we’ll start with the smaller, other reasons first.
First, predesigning solutions puts the mechanics at your fingertips. If the players take one of your predesigned approaches, you already know how it works. And you already have the numbers and rules worked out. The game won’t stall out. And because, most of the time, the players will go with an obvious solution, that means you’ll be on top of their solutions most of the time.
There’s a perfect example of this already built into the game. It’s called the monster stat block. If all a monster is going to do is fight, all you need for that monster is its AC, attacks, hit points, saving throws, and speed. But monster stat blocks include ability scores, skills, senses, alignments, and all sorts of other crap. Why? So that when the players decide to do something other than just stab the monster with a pointy bit of metal, you – the GM – already have the mechanics you need to resolve that.
Second, predesigning solutions also helps you – the GM – adapt to different approaches. You may have only designed “this” approach or “that” approach, but if the players pick some “other” approach and it’s kind of like “this” approach, you’re already halfway to the mechanics you need.
The thing is, most game mechanics are very communicative. If the DC to break down a door is 10 rather than 15 or 20 or 30, that says something about the door. In an emphatic and quantified way. If the party wants to douse a door in oil and set it on fire, having that break DC can be useful. A door with a break DC 10 is probably just old, fragile wood. A door with a break DC of 30 is probably made of stone or metal. One of those is flammable, one isn’t.
Third, predesigning solutions also ensures that even if the players are stumped, the GM isn’t. The GM always knows at least a few ways around the obstacle. I’ve actually SEEN GMs design “open-ended” obstacles that they, themselves, had no solution for. When their players can’t find a good solution, the game is just DEAD. If the GM actually knows a few solutions, the GM can hint at those solutions when the players get stumped. For example, imagine the guy who can either be bribed or bullied for information. If the players are just talking in circles, the GM can play up the fact that the NPC fears the players. Or note that the NPC keeps examining their expensive equipment and purses and licking his lips.
Should a GM do s$&% like that? Well, that’s an argument for another day. But the answer is F$&% YES, THE GM SHOULD DO THAT! It’s called affordance. Well, actually, most people call it affordance, but people who have actually read Gibson realize those are signifiers, not affordance. But whatever.
But those reasons are just hors d’oeuvres. The main reason for predesigning multiple approaches – what I call the “this, that, or other” approach to obstacle design – the main reason is that it forces the GM to think in terms of differentiation and consequences. And those are valuable because they f$&% with the choice equation.
It’s Not What You Do, It’s How You Do it
Harsh truth time: winning isn’t interesting. Lots of GMs get hung up on whether the players win.
More harsh truth: losing isn’t interesting. Many elitist, story-gamey retards on social media scream about how failure is interesting and fun. Those are the idiots who write about how to get their players to embrace failures. Or the idiot players who purposely make bad, stupid choices to make the game more interesting.
Neither winning nor losing are interesting. What’s interesting is what comes after the win or loss.
Breaking down a door isn’t interesting. The monster on the other side of the door readying an ambush because it hears you coming? That’s interesting. Getting the information you need by bullying the NPC isn’t interesting. The NPC sending his goons to beat you up because he’s mad at you for humiliating him? That’s interesting. Sneaking past a monster isn’t interesting. Having to flee back the way you came and deal with the monster you left alive with something dangerous chasing you? That’s interesting.
That’s why smart people like me make a big point of differentiating the outcome of an action from the consequences. The outcome is what comes out of the die roll. Or series of die rolls. Whatever. It’s whether the party got what they wanted or not. The consequences are the ripples that spread from the action through the rest of the game. And those come not from what the party did, but how they did it.
If the party had picked the lock instead of smashing down the door, the monster might have been surprised. If the party had bribed the NPC, he might not have sent his goons after them. If the party had killed the monster, it wouldn’t be waiting in the path of their retreat right now. Of course, they might have spent a lot of resources killing the monster instead of sneaking past it. Resources they needed later.
The consequences that follow from the players choices are one of the most important parts of the game. Definitely, they are the most important parts of a GOOD game. They make the players feel like their decisions matter. They make the players feel like their choices are going to pay off. Or bite them in the a$&. And that’s the essence of role-playing. Which is why such consequences should never be left up to the whims of some complicated system of narrative dice.
It’s tricky enough to adjudicate actions on the fly. It is much more complicated to come up with good, logical consequences on the fly and make sure they are felt. And predesigning solutions to your obstacles gives you the chance to build good consequences into them. But it also affects the choice equation.
The Choice Equation
Every character has strengths and weaknesses. Call them attributes, proficiencies, skills, feats, traits, abilities, edges, weaknesses, flaws, handicaps, whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are the numbers all over the character sheet. And the players know what they are.
Like real-life people, characters always want to throw their strengths at a problem. When confronted with an obstacle, the burglar will want to burgle it and the thug will want to smash it. That’s smart. It’s logical. It’s human. And GMs who scream that players shouldn’t always try to throw their best skills at any situation are terrible role-players are f$&%ing morons. They need to drink paint and die. THAT’S HOW PEOPLE DEAL WITH OBSTACLES.
Of course, people can’t always throw their best skills at every situation. You can’t burgle your way past a door that’s stuck or barred. All the lockpicking talent in the world ain’t getting you past that.
But sometimes, you can find a way to use your strengths in different ways. You can’t pick a door that isn’t locked, but the same mechanical acumen might help you remove a stuck door from its hinges. That is also something humans do. They try to find novel ways to apply their strengths in situations that don’t appear to involve their strengths. And that’s called creative problem solving. It’s also good.
But sometimes, you can’t find a novel way to use one of your strengths. Instead, you have to fall back on something you’re only okay at. For example, the burglar might not be as good at climbing as he is at picking locks, but he can still probably climb to a second-floor window and get in that way.
And sometimes, you find you are stuck with a situation you just suck at handling. You – the skilled but physically weak burglar – might just have to kick the door in if you want to get in at all. But even then, you will still be looking for a way to minimize your weakness. A crowbar or battering ram, for example. That’s why humans invented tools.
All that crap – which I’ve seen countless GMs complain about – that’s exactly how players DO and SHOULD deal with obstacles? Can we use one of our best strengths? Which strength is strongest? Who should do it? Can we make one of our best strengths work through cleverness? Can we use a lesser skill? No? How do we minimize our weaknesses then? THAT IS ACTUALLY HOW OPEN-ENDED PUZZLE-SOLVING WORKS.
The reason GMs complain about that s$&% is because it reduces every obstacle to a numbers game. The players treat every obstacle like a math problem and they are trying to throw the biggest number at the problem. But that’s totally fair. And smart. The GM should not be complaining about the players using an equation. The GM’s job is to f$&% with the equation.
What if the DC to pick the lock is much higher than the DC to break down the door? The door is not particularly stout, but it has a complicated and rusty ancient lock. What if picking the lock is slow and the room is filling up with water? What if picking the lock is harder but there’s a monster on the other side of the door that will hear the party trying to come through the door? Breaking through suddenly and launching into an immediate attack is the only way to maintain the element of surprise? Or maybe picking the lock is the only way to keep the element of surprise? Suddenly, the choice equation is all f$&%ed up.
The reason that most obstacles do boil down into a numbers game is because the options aren’t different enough. Picking the lock or breaking the door down are exactly the same. Only the numbers are different. So, go with the highest number. It’s only when the mechanics are different or when the consequences are different that players really have to think. Or when they can’t bring their best skills to bear at all.
This, That, or Other?
The This, That, or Other approach is about designing a few – maybe two or three or four – different solutions for each obstacle you put into your game. Or at least, for most of the obstacles. The reason it’s called this, that, or OTHER is because you – as the GM – also must allow the players to approach obstacles in unique ways and assess those approaches fairly. OTHER is always a choice.
The point of the approach is not to give your players a list and say “okay, pick one.” Unless you decide – as part of the design – to strongly telegraph the possible solutions, the players may never see the list. But the list is still useful for you. It ensures that you are prepared to adjudicate the most likely approaches and helps you handle unexpected alternatives. But it also makes you think about how to make those approaches different from each other. It also gives you the ability to think about the consequences of the different approaches. And once the players learn that different approaches will have different consequences, they will stop viewing every obstacle purely as a numbers game and instead consider how their choices might come back to bite them in the a$&%.
There are other benefits of the This, That, or Other approach to obstacle design. It helps ensure you won’t bottleneck your players BY ACCIDENT. That one poor approach won’t lead to a failed adventure UNLESS YOU PLANNED IT THAT WAY. Yes, you can have bottlenecks and failed adventures. But they should be deliberate. Moreover, This, That, or Other also helps you adjust the difficulty of non-combat encounters in more meaningful ways than just increasing numbers.
But to see the power of the “This, That, or Other” approach, we’ll have to see it in action. So, come back in a few days and we’ll build a few encounters using the “This, That, or Other” approach.
And once you master that, you can brag to your players about how amazing your game is because they can PLAY THEIR WAY and their CHOICES MATTER. Make sure you stop the game in the middle of the first session to tell them so.