Excitement is only a Piece

Monte Cook wrote a nice piece on smart play and boring fights in classic dungeon crawling. It’s a good piece, and its an accurate accounting of a kind of play (myself included) really enjoy.

However, it leaves out one critical piece, one which was probably not relevant to the story being told. See, I imagine Monte is at least a good GM as he is a game designer, and his players had every reason to believe that he was playing fair. What’s more, I’m confident that he set up the flow of information in a way to keep it engaging and on point.

And that’s awesome, but it’s hard.

I’m going to largely set aside the issue of trust for this by virtue of it being such an obvious deal-breaker. If you do not trust that the GM is playing fair, then “smart” play is “paranoid, unfun” play, because that’s the only way to prepare for what you know is going to happen. I can’t imagine that it requires more explanation than that.

Somewhat trickier is the GET BOWL component. As noted in the story, the characters had just the right scroll on hand for the problem they had to face. That’s a pretty common piece of classic D&D adventure design – the scrolls you find are often an indication of the trouble that you’re going to find further ahead. In theory, this unfolds very organically, but in practice, it’s all pretty meta.

I refer to this as the GET BOWL problem because this is the classic structure of old text adventures, where you navigated an entire dungeon with a combination of VERB NOUN. Resolving these games was largely about getting the right NOUN and performing the right VERB with it in the right place or with the right stuff. D&D was very influenced by these games (and vice versa) and they tend to be the template for the “smart” adventure.

The problem is that how well the model works depends a lot on context, and there’s a paradox to it. See, the more open minded and open ended your play is, the more likely it is that your players will find some solution other than PUT BOWL ON ALTAR. That’s awesome! But in that same game, the players are more likely to sell the bowl of in a complicated art con, which is also awesome! Unless there is a point where the bowl is really required.

This is a case where the old brown books probably helps things. I imagine the simplicity of things limits certain options. Specifically, it limits the desperate scramble for resources and spells which defines so much of my 1e experience. Perhaps this is uncommon, but I know that it has been a rare adventure where we get to use a magic user spell because the value of using it is far less than the value of eventually being able to put it in the magic user’s spellbook. [1]

But it illustrates the danger of including solutions within the adventure. it’s not bad in and of itself, but it can promote laziness on the creator’s part. If you’ve provided a solution somewhere else, then why worry about making the situation engageable in some other way?[2] To go back to Cook’s story, the second challenge – dealign with the trap – sounds FAR more engaging than the fight with the cockatrices, which should be fine, save that the cockatrices were far more rewarding in-game.

A recurring term in Cook’s piece kind of shines a light on the heart of what’s going on – a desire to not cheapen the experience for the players. Note that this is not an intellectual argument about the nature of fiction and illusionism[3] but simply a practical argument about player satisfaction. Cook chooses not to alter the game to be more exciting because it’s currently very satisfying.

That’s an important distinction. There are many emotional rewards in play (often with fancy latin names) and you can’t hit them all at the same time. In this case, Cook was providing satisfaction to his players, and while it’s possible that providing excitement would have improved things, it probably would have made things worse. Is this because Cook can’t deliver excitement? No, it’s because he’s cognizant of the context he’s playing in. Old D&D has fewer tools for excitement – it’s not going to support a flashy, cinematic fight scene thrown in for temp reasons. Try to do that, and you probably just end up killing everyone. What’s more, his player expectations are clearly more towards the rewards of thinking and planning than those of bold flash.

Given another system or another set of players, there would almost certainly have been a better approach. But here’s the important caveat – even with those factors, the fact that he didn’t need to tilt play in a given direction, doesn’t mean it would never be the right call. And, in fact, he probably did it without even considering it, because it was in line with the experience.

How do I mean? Consider the resolution to the trap – it sounds like they went totally MacGuyver/Rube Goldberg on that, which is awesome, but it requires a judgement call on the GM’s part – is this really going to work? Now, I don’t pretend to know the specifics of the situation, but let’s assume there was some uncertainty to it, and it depended on a GM call. In this case, you make the call that improves satisfaction – that is, that they can do it. This is no different than tilting a fight for more excitement, upping a challenge for greater Fiero[4], bringing in important elements for greater drama or one of many other things a GM can do.

So if the lesson you take away from the story is just that “more excitement” is not always the way to go, then you’re taking away a small part of a larger lesson. As a GM, you have lots of knobs you can turn, and part of being a good GM involves realizing what Knobs your players and your game need more of, and which you might want to leave alone.

Anyway, none of this is a criticism of problem-solving oriented play. It’s super fun, and it often has some of the most delightful setting exploration because you really sink your teeth into the world around you in order to play effectively. Rather, I just want to call out that – like any good play – there’s a lot more going on than maybe immediately apparent.

  1. That is, perhaps, a little specific, but I’ve seen it often enough that it sticks.  ↩

  2. And this is where the smart-play enthusiast points out that introducing challenges that can simply be overcome with dice rolls is also laziness. And they are right.  ↩

  3. That is, if the encounter says that there are 4 orcs in the room, but the players have been beat to crap, is it cheating to edit that to 3 orcs before the players get there? I do not suggest there is a right answer so much as call it out as a contentious question.  ↩

  4. What we feel when we triumph over adversity.  ↩

3 thoughts on “Excitement is only a Piece

  1. Lisa Padol

    Editing “4 orcs” to “3 orcs”: And, is it more cheating or less cheating if you’ve written the scenario? If you’ve written it for the particular group you’re currently running it for? If it’s a commercial scenario you’ve purchased and are adapting to the needs of your group?

    1. Alphastream

      It isn’t as if we are perfect when writing scenarios, even published ones. There is no “truth” to encounter design. DMing organized play makes this clear: run an adventure (even one you wrote) several times and you will see the same encounter provide an entirely different challenge level to different parties of PCs. In the end, challenge level rules just can’t be accurate. If they aren’t accurate, and even experienced authors can’t “get it right”, why would we feel we have to “run as written”? If anything, we should question what is written. It is a starting point and likely to work, but it is not some true thing. Changing it just can’t be cheating.

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