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Setting The PCs Up To Fail

June 23, 2010

Initially, I wasn’t going to get involved in this whole blog carnival folderol. Sure, it seemed like a fun idea at first. But I quickly realized that (a) it is not in my nature to engage in polite debate when a screaming rant is an option and (b) I really wasn’t sure that I had anything worth saying. And yet, here I am and I will try to be civil.

Basically, the whole thing began when ThadeousC (writer of “This Is My Game“, a very enjoyable D&D 4E blog and also just a generally fun guy to follow on Twitter) made the following observation on Twitter: “In OD&D running from monsters is often a valid option over fighting, does it ever happen in your 4e game?” In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that the real question was whether or not DMs felt it was appropriate to put encounters into their game so far above the PCs levels that the only valid tactical option was to flee lest your PC get a tour of the digestive tract of a very disgruntled aberration ten levels their senior. Lines were immediately drawn, people took up banners, and there was much bloodshed on Twitter that day.

Well, not really. Instead, a spirited debate ensued that ultimately ended with the realization that a debate at 140 characters a pop was not really going to cut it. Thus began the blog carnival. Since ThadeousC originally posted a defense of his position, several others have weighed in and the topic has broadened into a discussion of campaign styles and realism in the gaming world. Now, I am not going to rehash all of the points that have been made and I’m really not interested in a debate about sandbox style play vs. safety rails style play because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all subjective. No one style is superior and as long as your players keep coming back for more, you’re doing it right. Instead, I want to defend the opinion I voiced on Twitter and respond more directly to ThadeousC.

But first, the rules, as originally laid out by ThadeousC:

  1. Your post must be on topic.
  2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)
  3. You must ad a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.
  4. No name calling.

Second, check out the original post by ThadeousC: Never Fear: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails.

Just to be clear, I am only tackling a very narrow question: if the campaign allows the PCs enough freedom to choose where to go and what to do, should the DM allow the party to end up in a hopeless situation where victory is simply not possible or is he required to ensure that the party only faces things they can beat? And just to give some definition, we’ll use a more solid hypothetical example:

You, as the DM, have spent weeks working on your new campaign. The campaign begins in the Valley of Tir’Hero’ic. There is a nice big city in the middle to serve as a home base and there are encounter areas and plot hooks scattered all over the map. The Valley contains enough adventure to get the party up to 11th level, but you aren’t going to guide the party through the valley. Instead, you will make sure that they know about at least a few of the adventure sites and they have a map of the valley. Some of the sites will have clues to further adventure sites. For the most part, though, the party is self-guided.

So, first night of the campaign, you present the party with the setting and set up a few of the hooks. But, the party doesn’t take any of the hooks. Instead, they look at the Cave of the Beast With A Dozen Levels and decide they want to explore that. Unfortunately, The Beast With a Dozen Levels is a level 10 solo (he lies about his levels because he is insecure) at the center of a level 10 swamp cave filled with trogoldytes and death traps. The first level party is going to be toast if they go there.

At this point, you (the hypothetical DM) have three options. You can run the cave as written and hope your party is smart enough to run away before they die. You can call for a bathroom break and hastily rewrite the cave under the assumption that The Beast With a Dozen Levels is actually a kobold carpenter-cultist who believes that when the world’s shelves are balanced, the world will be balanced as well and he has all of the tools he needs to bring about his dream. Or you can tell the party: “no, you’re going to die.”

Now, I personally feel that the best choice is “none of the above” because I simply don’t design my campaigns this way. And I don’t design my campaigns precisely because of this problem. But if you forced me to choose, I would choose the rewrite. Let me explain why.

The third option is obviously just a bad choice. As soon as you do this, you are negating the whole point of all that freedom you tried to bring to the game. You might as well have not even labeled the lair on the map if you’re just going to tell the party “no, you’re going to die.”

So, let’s assume you go with the first choice. Of course, you ask the party if they are sure. You drop clues along the way that tell the party that this is a bad idea. People living in the vicinity of the cave warn them about the previous adventurers who have died there. Outside of the cave, they find an adventurer’s journal and the last entry reads “boy, were we stupid to venture into that cave instead of getting up to at least level eight first.”  And so on.

At this point, the party might take the hint. They might just turn around and pick some other adventure, something they can take on. But this is really no different than telling the party “no, you can’t.” Sure, you hid it in the narrative and the flavor of the world, but it amounts to the same thing. And then you are right back to the question of why you bothered to give the party the freedom to choose anyway.

But, more importantly, you’ve lost something: time. You’ve wasted an hour of the game session not having fun, not on an adventure, but wandering through increasingly insistent warnings that they are going the wrong way.

Now, let’s suppose your party is particularly dense and they don’t heed the warnings. They storm brazenly into the cave and into the first encounter: a level eight guard post of stinking trogolodytes. At this point, I could run through the same scenario: you try to warn the party about how fierce and terrible the trogolodytes are and how outmatched they know they are. You can be their inner voice of reason. But, its still the same song and the same result: you’re trying to tell the party no.

If the party insists on fighting, its going to be a disaster. That much is a given. Hopefully, it will only take a round or two before they realize they have to run. Even in that span of time, someone could end up very dead and their body may not be recoverable. At low levels, there aren’t too many options to undo dead anyway. And, if they try to stick it out too long, they could all end up dead.  TPK.

The end result is this: either you manage to finally tell the party “no” and they listen or they end up dead. In the meanwhile, the party has just spent an entire session learning that if they go the wrong way or wander into the wrong area, they are going to die. Either way, the truth is laid bare: all of the freedom you tried to give them was an illusion. They really can’t go anywhere or do anything. They can go only to the places you’ve designed for them to tackle. And you can console yourself by saying its their own damned fault for not realizing the world has monsters stronger than them and they should have paid attention, but it doesn’t matter much at that point. They’ve learned the hard way that your campaign doesn’t have any safety rails, but it does have rails. And they may resent you for what looks like a setup.

After that, your players will learn to stop ignoring your warnings. They will respect the world and they won’t wander too far afield. Assuming they’ve learned their lesson, they will only take the hooks you give them and they will carefully assess the power level of each adversary before they take on a mission. At that point, the game world is leveling with the party, just as it would in a so-called “safety rails” campaign. The only difference is that the party could still make a mistake at some point and end up running for their lives again.

I hope that no one takes this to be a perjorative. I have nothing against a campaign with rails. Most campaigns have them: its almost impossible not to short of improvising every second of the game. I’m just saying that the moment you choose not to adapt the game to the players’ whims, you’re just hiding the rails. Except that, if the party ever does wander off the rails, you are forced to remind them that they are there. I would argue that there is less of an illusion of choice in this sort of game precisely because the rails occasionally rise up out of the background and attack the players.

That being said, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this style of play. I’ve played the older editions, I remember exactly this sort of thing coming up, particularly whenever we tried to descend a set of stairs in a Basic D&D dungeon crawl. Assuming your players go along with it and that they understand the game you’re running, it is a perfectly valid play style. The only time it becomes wrong is when you are running your game this way in spite of your players.

Speaking as an occasional player, though, if the situation I described came up in a game, I’m not sure I’d enjoy it. Wasting a session of game play on discovering that I really don’t have as much freedom as I was promised and being forced to run away from a too-powerful monster? That’s not fun. My time is valuable, my gaming time especially so. I don’t like it being wasted on an object lesson about respecting the world and going where I’m told to go.

I don’t think I am in the minority here. I say that because of the behavior I’ve observed in players over twenty years of gaming: there is nothing harder than getting the party to run away, even when they are getting their asses handed to them. They just don’t do it. Even back in Basic and 2nd Edition, players in my groups always hung around well past the point when an ordered retreat was possible. Just two weeks ago, I watched the two survivors of a difficult (but level appropriate) battle get slaughtered because they refused to run. The fact that very few players seem to view retreat as a viable tactic suggests to me that, just like me, most people don’t want to run away. They’d rather go down swinging because that’s the action hero way. Fleeing isn’t fun. If you find that your players are very reluctant to run away, even when all signs say they should, you should ask yourself why you are so intent on making them do something they don’t want to do.

Now, speaking from a DMs perspective, the style of game I described is time consuming to write. At the very least, you need to create enough information about the local region to decide what the party runs into in any direction. It is far easier to string adventures together as you go along or write a vague plan and come up with adventures to stay just ahead of the players. If I am going to invest that design time, I need to know that I’m adding something to the game. Unfortunately, here, I don’t see the gain.

Some have said it is a more realistic approach; that it dispels the myth that the world levels with the characters. Well, I question even that. Because in my world, my PCs know that there are creatures more powerful than them. The world does not level with my PCs and I don’t have to prove it to them. And frankly, I’m still hazy on the notion of realism as a desirable goal. That’s a whole different post though.

Some have pointed out that this style of play more closely models literature and movies. It is true that in the typical movie, the heroes often lose battles many times and evade the bad guys at least a few times before they finally manage to win. But, again, I’m not sure whether that is a good model for a D&D game. The dirty little secret about books like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy is that nothing is uncertain. Everything will happen exactly as it is designed to. Nothing happens by chance. Everything leads to the ending and every character behaves exactly the way they are scripted. The heroes will win if they are supposed to. And, in most media, they do.

D&D just isn’t like that. There is no preordained story and failure is an option. So is death. The random chance and the rules of the game see to that. A first level party is perfectly capable of losing to a first level encounter through a combination of bad luck and poor decisions. In a movie, the protagonists need to fail a few times to create dramatic tension, so that we believe that victory really isn’t assured or, at least, we become more interested in the question of how they will win than whether they will win. In D&D, the tension comes from random chance and uncertainty.

Finally, some have said that this style of play gives the PCs something to shoot for. They become much more invested in defeating a foe if they have lost to a foe first. While I will admit that this is true, this style isn’t the only way to acheive that. For one thing, the party will occasionally lose to a foe on their own without any help from you. It might not be in combat, of course. The foe might simply complete some nefarious scheme that the party failed to stop.

And again, once the party has learned to respect the hidden rails in the game, they will do everything they can to ensure they don’t take on a more powerful foe until they are ready. Which means that, except for the first mistake when the party learns, they won’t engage superior foes so the possibility of creating that drive is lost in fear of the world.

At the end of the day, I hope no one takes this as an attack against someone else’s gaming style. And I further hope that my humor style doesn’t make it appear as if I am poking fun at any style of play. Like ThadeousC, who wanted to defend his stance on Twitter, I want to defend mine. And my stance is only that I don’t see the benefits of this style of play, but I fear the costs. Ultimately, though, I have to admit that it doesn’t matter. Once the party has learned the lesson, the question probably won’t come up again, unless the PCs are particularly dense. And the game will go on.

Other Blog Carnival Posts

Never Fear: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by ThadeousC
Taking the Safety Padding Away from D&D4E by WolfSamurai
Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Obsidian Crane
Safety Padding or Just an Illusion by dkarr
D&D: Sandbox vs. Safety Rails by Adam Dray
Know When to Fold’em by Tracy H.
Sandbox vs. Safety Rails: A Mini Blog Carnival by Deadorcs
Blog Carnival: Deliberately Overpowered Encounters by Brian Engard
As the World Scales by NewbieDM
Overpowered Sandboxes and Just-Right Rails by DM Samuel

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