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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