Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Video games really have it easy in a lot of ways when compared to pen and paper gaming.  One of the biggest things they have going for them is the ability to put absurd challenges in front of players.  I am playing Mass Effect 1 through on Insanity difficulty lately and it has made me laugh a few times when I think of doing the same scenarios in a tabletop RPG.  In particular I found it amusing when my character hopped into a two meter pit and was informed by a squadmate that this was a one way trip because there was no way back up to the surface.  Obviously the only solution was to go through the whole maze and disable the force field with random narratively powered properties; just climbing back out of the pit was out of the question.  How could a squad of cybernetically enhanced future soldiers wearing power armour get up a two meter wall after all?The same thing happens all over.  A rock blocks your path!  I guess the only solution is to clear out an entire dungeon full of monsters to get a ladder, or a magic glove, or some other McGuffin to deal with the rock.

In a TTRPG of course the players will say things like "I climb back up the wall I guess, that sounds like the easiest solution" and then you have to figure something better out.  Of course weak GMs tend to do things like randomly have magic everywhere so real world solutions aren't feasible.  Every dungeon is a ludicrous maze of traps and magical junk that makes no sense - teleportation pads, elevator rooms, statues that spew acid and dispense treasure for no reason and other such kludges are the bread and butter of teenage gaming.  If you try to do things in some vaguely reasonable way though making appropriate challenges becomes a ton harder.  In a computer game the two meter wall is literally unbeatable (Sorry, we didn't add a jump button, I guess you have to follow the rails) but challenges have to be robust when the characters have lots of choices and you don't feel like shouting "It's fucking magic, stop trying to think".

I think I make things pretty hard for myself when I design TTRPG adventures.  When I build a dungeon I carefully think out what every inhabitant is going to eat and drink, how they feel about each other, and why they haven't gone someplace else.  If a weird magical thing is going on there needs to be a good reason for it because "Wizards are crazy and fill the world with stupid magical crap for no reason" sounds incredibly weak the fortieth time you say it.  That sort of design does lend itself to the players accepting the dungeon as real but it makes it hard to put up straightforward challenges because they have so many options stemming from equipment, magic, and skills.  Sometimes I really want to just deny them any options and teleport them into the middle of a gigantic magical maze where nothing works.  It would sure take the stress level down a notch.


  1. I think making outrageous dungeons is super fun. Three campaigns I really remember fondly (and whether you remember one of them fondly is probably a better test of how good it was, but still) are ones where I decided to say goodbye to logic and put in one or two bizarre dungeons. I guess they made some sense in context, but whether or not they did wasn't really the point.

  2. I almost certainly remember them fondly but I am biased - most of the gaming I did with you was with amazing people who could make any campaign awesome no matter how awful the GMing was. Add to that the fact that your GMing was consistently excellent and it really doesn't matter how absurd a given dungeon was, we probably had a fantastic time exploring it.

  3. I'd like to game in your world. I too get frustrated by the illogical nature of most adventures.

  4. Well, maybe you can some time. If I get an opening I will keep you in mind! Right now the groups are full though. :)