Challenges… Not Solutions
One night during a fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons game, my players got completely trounced by an evil tiefling necromancer and his undead minions. During the battle the party was separated. Half of them could only retreat through a portal to the Shadowfell, while the other half ran away to lick their wounds inside the villain’s stronghold. At the end of the session, though the characters were miserable, the players themselves had a blast. Still one of them couldn’t help be feel they had done something wrong.
That player would later ask me, “What were we supposed to do in that last battle?”
My reply was simple. “Win.”
“How?” he asked.
“That’s not up to me.”
Why Single Solutions Are Bad
In the days of my youth I often planned the solution to every challenge I lay before the players. I thought if I didn’t provide specific solutions to every single challenge I was a bad DM. I thought that I hadn’t planned ahead properly without those solutions.
There are problems with this philosophy. If you have a single solution for everything players will feel frustrated and railroaded.
For instance, the only way to get a world-destroying elemental orb from an ancient altar is to hit it with a crazy dwarf king’s magic hammer. The only way to get the secretly-hidden-away-in-a-special-plane-which-only-the-dwarf-king-can-access hammer is to speak a special phrase verbatim to the mad monarch. The only way to learn the phrase is by talking to his brother in a small village before heading out to see the king. The only way to know to see the brother is to ask the right questions at a dinner party with a group of nobles. At any point during this scenario, taken from the published Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle adventure, adventurers could easily skip over something and end up not getting the world-destroying orb. Instead a rakshasa gets it. He already has every other world destroying orb too, because the all-or-nothing quest won’t work out if he doesn’t. Awesome. So one enormous dungeon crawl later, your players are frustrated and unfulfilled.
There’s another problem with single solution challenges. The DM can become married to the solution and less likely to reward out of the box thinking. In the example above perhaps players think outside the box and decide to try to read the mad king’s thoughts to find his hammer or they go for a more gruesome option and kill the king and cast speak with dead on his body. Certainly these are outside the box ideas that get results, but I’ve played with and been one of the DMs who blocks every solution that comes up that isn’t one they thought of. Let the players make choices, roll dice, and you check out and adjudicate the result. The creative solution is not only fun, it moves the game along and provides a dynamic future for your story. Sure the PCs could have spoken the phrase from the brother, but now that they magically read the kings thoughts won’t he send his armies after them or their patron? If they kill the king what crazy consequences that would that have? Letting the players figure things out on their own will provide a much richer story.
In the example I give at the start of this post the fight was unlucky for the PCs. A few bad dice rolls and a few precious resources used generously in previous encounters meant that they’d be turning tail and running. It was a classic mistake. They thought they’d have one more chance to rest before coming upon the villain. Rather than me giving them an out or killing them for foolish resource management and bad luck, they came up with their own. Suddenly I had half the party in the Shadowfell and the other half licking their wounds and trapped inside the villain’s abode. If I had simply had them stumble upon a portal which allowed them to return to town or slaughtered them because “they weren’t supposed to escape,” that would be a far less interesting story.
Make Specific Single Solutions Clear
Now there’s nothing wrong with having a few single solutions. That’s the kind of thing that defines a big, mythic story. Here’s an example from Lord of the Rings. The One Ring can only be destroyed in the fires of Mt. Doom where it was forged. Now, note that the route Frodo and his fellowship take to Mt. Doom is up to them to choose. The story doesn’t say, “And to cross the Misty Mountains, you need special boots. You can only get those boots by speaking the name of Gandalf’s grandma in Elvish to her long-lost brother in Bree.” Sure their might be some single solution puzzles along the way (looking at you, “Speak, friend, and enter”), but for the most part the solutions of problems are left to the minds of the adventurers.
One other thing I’d note is that this single solution, which drives the story, is loud and clear. There isn’t a lot of guesswork involved and it’s known as soon as the quest is assigned. I’m not saying you can’t have mystery in your campaign, but at some point big story single solutions should be made clear to players so they know what they’re doing and where they’re going. It’s fine for the occasional door to be opened by the answer to a riddle, but don’t make your players guess which of the 50 ancient swords they’ve come across will slay the dark lord.
Let Players Solve the Small Stuff
When I’m setting up a challenge or problem for my players to solve, I find it always helps to think of at least two ways it might be tackled and solved. This will open your mind to any other ideas the players may think up and get you thinking beyond the single solution.
Let’s face it. As a DM you’re busy. You may not have time to think of two solutions for every challenge you throw at the PCs not to mention the challenges you may be coming up with on the fly. Let your players solve the small challenges for you. Write your traps, encounters, hazards, and anything else you create and let the players be the ones to come up with a way out. Odds are if you haven’t thought of a solution you’ll be more open to anything the players want to try. It makes less work for you and more fun for them.
Track Those Consequences!
As I mentioned above, sometimes players will think of solutions that have lasting consequences. Maybe the wizard chops off his hand to get out of a devious trap or maybe the PCs sink an evil artifact to the bottom of the ocean rather than destroy it. Whatever the action write it down in your notes or the digital tools you use to track your campaign. Trust me. This method makes life easier, your game more fun and relaxed, and your story richer.
I’d love to hear more stories of players coming up with creative solutions. If you have one from your gaming sessions please share in the comments below.
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December 30, 2014 @ 8:56 am
Thanks for the link to the “all or nothing” quest article! That kind of thing is pretty frustrating, and I had no idea that the published adventures were so railroaded. I always love reading about what’s going on behind that digital screen of yours.
December 30, 2014 @ 9:33 am
Yeah that article Mike Shea wrote is top-notch and addresses a lot of my own concerns with that sort of quest. It’s ok to throw out the step-by-step guide and do it your own way, but still use the general structure and encounters from the adventure (which are often the best parts of a published path).
December 30, 2014 @ 1:05 pm
Great points, although after a many ages of GMing they’re kind of for me in the “common sense” category. That said, it’s a great post and gives solid advice. One thing I will say though – in my opinion not every challenge has a solution. Some traps once sprung are in fact deadly, and Characters do die you know. This goes to the whole “PC Death” question, but I think it’s worth pointing out – not every problem has a solution… nor should they. Some problems are The End. Do you want your campaign chock full of em? Nooo. But should there be some? Yesss. Why? Because without them the game becomes a coddle-fest and the Players soon catch on that whatever they encounter will have “a solution” no matter what it is. Oh, did they just march themselves up to the Land of The Mountain Giants and challenge their Chieftain to a one-on-one battle, Mano-a-Giganto? Ok. Some GMs at that point are going to feel they need to have a viable Solution. Nope. Sometimes a bone-headed move results in a TPK. Always? No way. Sometimes? You betchya. Part of the fun of the game is being challenged to “Use Yer Brain” and avoid the bone-headed decisions. See a little golden chest with a hundred skeletons piled up beneath its little pedestal? Maybe the answer really is “Lets close the door and go to the next room”. Just a thought. 🙂
December 30, 2014 @ 1:14 pm
Like I say above, actions have consequences. I agree PC death is a consequence of some actions (ask any of my players – they’ve all been there), especially things that are ill-advised, like challenging the giant chief to single combat. I’m definitely not touting let the players always win here, just that they should be allowed the freedom to make their own decisions – boneheaded or not. It never hurts to have a good hint (like a pile of skeletons) so that players are informed enough to not make a choice they’ll regret. I’m not out to kill people with attractive nuisances, ya know?
Of course if they use mage hand to float coins one by one from that treasure pile safely to the doorway then hey that’s not a bad solution if they have the time for it. Just watch out for the monsters coming down the hall to interrupt or know that the time waste there is more time the necromancer has to complete her ritual.
January 1, 2015 @ 12:05 pm
I agree with the thought that one-solution adventures are a terrible way to run a campaign, and for two reasons. First, you are correct, they are a gigantic railroad that will frustrate your players to no end. Second, they simply don’t exist in real life. They break the suspension of disbelief, and desecrate player agency. It’s simply a hack story that no one wants to read after they graduate from 4th grade.
I think the best way to deal with challenges you offer your PCs and their resolution goes beyond having multiple (or no set) solutions. What I prefer is to offer my players a slew of challenges to choose from, all with variables that depend on the PC’s own action/inaction. The DM’s primary role is to provide a world for the characters to live in. Let the PCs live their own lives, make their choices, and deal with the consequences. Each of our own lives is filled with decisions we make every day, and those decisions have consequences. Some big, most little, occasionally world-changing. But as well, the world is full of other people making decisions that affect our lives to varying degrees.
As far as LOTR-style quests, I avoid that sort of thing with a vengeance. I don’t see my world as a grand plot to plug any-old-PC into and yank them down the story-trail with a rope (or shove them down the tracks). Evil dudes are plotting all the time. Some want to subjugate the neighboring kingdoms, some want a personal zoo full of humanoids for experimenting, some want to revive ancient Old Ones. But there are more folks in the world than just the PCs with levels. Evil plans are being made and thwarted all the time. If the players want to embroil themselves in such a venture (or plot to subjugate the neighboring kingdom themselves), that’s their decision. Sometimes the “single solution” is to off the head honcho and be done with it. That’s really what PCs want anyway. Kill the bad guy themselves (especially if he’s been involving himself personally into the affairs of the PCs). Let them do what they want.
RE: letting the players sweat the small stuff, my opinion is that selecting challenges is the small stuff. Let the players choose which ones they want to get involved in, how they get involved, and then determine the consequences of those actions. Then, let them figure out how to survive the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. Of course I don’t like TPKs as much as my players don’t like them. Never should you drop your PCs unannounced into some giant boiling pot that will get them killed. But if they insist on stealing the giant pot, filling it with water and setting a fire under the pot and then jumping in, there’s really only one way that’s going to pan out.
Build your world, let your player characters play as they will. If they want to bit your hook, great. If not, there should be twelve more different hook waiting for them, preferably a few cast by the players themselves.
January 2, 2015 @ 11:26 pm
Agreed! Having that many hooks also reduces the workload on yourself as GM. No way you can prepare for all of them, so you just have to learn to improv it.