Dice Tales: Open Doors and Brick Walls

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the thirty-eighth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


When I was running my Changeling tabletop game, one of the challenges the PCs faced was defeating Herne the Hunter in a hunt — to get his prey before he did. This challenge made thematic sense . . . but when I looked at the PCs’ character sheets, I found they had virtually no hunting-related skills, and barely enough Ride to stick on the back of a horse. How could they possibly beat Herne at his own game? The only way for them to do it, I realized, was for them to cheat: to use the skills and magical abilities they did have to win the contest their own way.

They almost failed this challenge.

Not because of bad rolls or anything like that, but simply because my players went straight at the challenge as if it were exactly what it looked like — even though it should have been blatantly obvious that they didn’t stand a chance. I was on the verge of declaring they’d fallen badly enough behind that they couldn’t possibly catch up when one of them looked at her sheet and said, “wait a sec . . . can I use this ability?” The light bulb went on, and things got back on track, just in the nick of time.

This happens sometimes. My last post talked about what happens when the game goes around an unanticipated curve, but there’s a related issue when instead the plot fails to go around an anticipated curve. In the Pathfinder game I’m a part of, we had a session where the current PCs were expected to rescue a new PC from her employer, who intended to flog her (probably to death) for causing a big disaster. We-the-players knew we were supposed to do this, but the scene stalled out because none of us could figure out how. To us, it looked like we didn’t have a legal leg to stand on in stopping him, and the situation wasn’t quite the sort of thing where it made IC sense to just haul out our weapons and rescue her by force. The society the game takes place in is considered lawful evil; I assumed that meant an employer had the right to flog his employees. It wasn’t clear to me until later that the way the GM saw it, he could only punish her if he dragged her before a magistrate first. Since he was trying to bypass that step, we could have used that as leverage against him.

Any GM worth their salt should be ready for the possibility that the players will come up with a different solution than the one the GM thought of. But it’s another matter entirely when the players don’t come up with a workable solution at all. Not because they’re lazy, or anything like that — but just because what the GM sees as an open door looks like a featureless brick wall to them.

Dealing with this problem requires you to figure out why the disjunct is happening. Preventing it requires you to align your mode of thought with the GM’s (if you’re a player) or the players’ (if you’re a GM) and checking the two for points of mismatch ahead of time, which is easier said than done. Sometimes you wind up with a disjunct because of lack of information: I don’t know the Pathfinder setting very well, so it was easy for me to plug in the wrong assumptions about what an NPC can or can’t get away with. Sometimes it’s because the thing you thought would be tempting bait doesn’t actually play to the other person’s interest nearly as much as you expected it to — that seems to be what happened with our Obviously Suspicious NPC that wound up attracting no suspicion at all. Sometimes it’s because the narrative chain has a link missing. David Gaider, formerly the lead writer for the Dragon Age video games, posted for educational purposes a hypothetical quest plot for Dragon Age II, inviting his blog readers to figure out its key flaw; the answer was that completing the plot required the player to go talk to a certain NPC, without providing any in-story reason for them to approach that NPC for help, or even to know that he could help. (Since it’s a video game, there would have been a marker on the map showing where the player needed to go for the next step — but any quest that depends on outside hints brute-forcing the plot in the correct direction is not well-designed.)

Rolls can be the answer to many of these problems. If you’re stuck as a player, ask if you can roll to get some kind of clue regarding the thing you’re stuck on: I could have asked for a Diplomacy or Sense Motive or Knowledge (Local) check to find some angle from which to approach the Evil Employer problem. If you’re a GM and your players are stuck, call for a roll yourself; I could have suggested my Changeling players roll Wits or something like that to figure out they were going at the hunt challenge all wrong. (This may feel awkward, because we assume players should overcome social and mental challenges on their own — but remember, that isn’t always fair or helpful.) Other times it requires education; the player actually reads up on the world or the mechanics or whatever/the GM seeds in appropriate reminders of relevant details. And sometimes it’s just the same kind of problem a novelist faces, making sure the sequence of narrative reasoning from A to Z doesn’t skip over L-Q. Novelists have critique readers to help with that kind of thing, pointing out where there are gaps; gamers usually wind up having to patch holes on the fly.

Mind you, sometimes what players will do is leap over your carefully-prepared L-Q of their own accord, because they’ve made some connection you didn’t expect. But that’s a feature, not a bug. 🙂


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: Open Doors and Brick Walls — 3 Comments

  1. Part of the issue was also that I didn’t know why you guys weren’t stepping in. I was all ‘so… are you guys seriously going to just let her be dragged of to the pillory?’

    I also had that issue with the ‘flash of color/peacock spider’ moment because my description went awry on the way to your mental image. I need a better solution than ‘so are you just going to ignore that thing you just saw?’

    Fail GM is fail 🙁

    • “I didn’t know why you weren’t X” is exactly the core of these mismatches, I think. If I’m GMing and I know why the players aren’t doing a thing, then either I correct the problem (if I forgot to provide a piece of information or they seem to have forgotten it or whatever), or I let them keep flailing around (if they’re meant to struggle with it some more). Those moments are fine. It’s the ones where I’m confused that are the hardest to deal with, because that’s when it’s a genuine mismatch of thinking.

      On the player side, I think part of the issue is that we’re reluctant to say “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here.” It amounts to asking the GM to tell you what to do, instead of solving the problem yourself, and isn’t the point that we’re supposed to solve the problems on our own? In the case of something like the peacock spider, that was just me assigning the wrong explanation to what you said (because it was right next to the hidden room, I thought I was seeing the door, with light seeping out around its edge) and then classing it as “okay, stay away from that” instead of realizing it was a thing to engage with. (Which in hindsight was stupid, because I-the-player could see that there was a bed on the other side of the wall, making it an unlikely place for a hidden door. Ren didn’t know that, but Ren would have also seen the color with her own eyes and known it was not the edge of a door.) But with saving Skai, we were all trying to figure it out for ourselves, and being too stubborn to say “okay, I’m stuck.” I think in the future I’m going to try to be more proactive about asking for a roll, which at least lets me view the hint as something my character is coming up with, rather than you just handing me the answer on a platter OOC.

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