After teaching all sorts of writing at levels ranging from kindergarten to Masters-level, one thing I try to get across to my students is the importance of audience—or more specifically, recognizing your audience and working to write toward their expectations while exceeding their expectations. Audience dictates content, tone, diction, length, and countless other considerations for the writer to grapple with.
For many types of writing, the audience is a well-known quantity. In school you write for the teachers. In technical writing your audience is the end user. Novelists of fantasy or horror or police procedurals or mystery have a fairly detailed outline of what the audience wants, and they can keep one foot in the boat while dipping their toes into the lake of experimentation. While a range of preferences exists even with the genres, tropes are there for guidance.
Writing adventures for RPGs is in some ways similar. It is not terribly hard to write a typical dungeon-delve adventure with 3 encounters, a skill challenge, and the PCs rushing in at the last moment to stop the ritual before the evil creature of great power is unleashed. Many DMs and players are happy with that. Thank goodness!
However, not every DM or player is happy with the standard fare. There are many reasons for this, of course. Some are not happy with that because for them the game is about telling a story, and they have already heard that story umpteen dozen times. They want to know more about the background, more about the characters of the story, and mostly importantly, they want to know how their own characters fit into the story. Others are not happy because to them the game is a game, and unless each iteration of the game in some way different or challenging, it turns into a game of tic-tac-toe where every action just demands a rote response, ultimately leading nowhere productive or entertaining. For others still, both aspects have to be unique and engaging.
Mike Mearls Killed Joy and Hope
Just a brief tangent now: The amusing thing about writing a column is that once you get a topic in mind, you start seeing people everywhere talking about what you are writing about, either directly or tangentially. I had planned for a couple of weeks this article to deal with the problem of players vs. PCs, and how the distance between the players and their characters can be a challenge for DMs and adventure writers. Then, almost on cue, Mike Mearls’ Legends & Lore column deals with one aspect of that.
Let me say this. I feel sorry for Mike Mearls—or as sorry as I can feel for a guy who gets to think about D&D for a living. Mike’s rise in the RPG world is amazing and inspiring. When he was doing his work for the Iron Heroes line, the RPG forums were heralding him as the second-coming. Now that he has arrived, he is being vilified like some not-as-pleasant nephew of Ming the Merciless. Yet in the face of the inevitable nerd-rage, he is publicizing his thought process about D&D in his column, matter-of-factly discussing various RPG design questions and concepts with the world at large. I applaud him for doing it, but in a way this is akin to saying, “I really think green is a good color. What do y’all think?”
In his last column, for example, he talked about one of those big design questions in the RPG world that I was going to touch upon: player vs. character. If you haven’t read it yet, go do so now. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Back already? Wow, you are fast readers! OK, so as anyone with a fully developed frontal lobe understands, in the end these turn into matters of preference. But inevitably, you saw that the comments ranged from the truly thoughtful and insightful to “4e sucks so I am going to play [insert whatever random game springs to mind].”
I never had a problem with either ends of the character vs. player spectrum, and with the right DM both can be fun. And with the wrong DM both can be as enjoyable as doing the lambada with a spined devil. I’m sure we have all had to deal with the DMs that neglected to mention the huge yawning chasm in the floor and then insisted your character fell in because “you didn’t ask if there was a chasm there.” Upon finding a trap, we’ve all had the kind of DMs who insist we tell them EXACTLY how we disable the trap, even though we have no idea what the trap looks like. On the other hand, we’ve all had DMs who just tell us to roll a Diplomacy check when we have been waiting for several session to give our long, dramatic speech to the king. Writing or DMing, know your audience!
A Puzzling Dilemma
Nothing, however, epitomizes the character vs. player divide—and polarizes players more quickly—than the conundrum presented by puzzles in RPGs. Back in the wild and wooly days of D&D 3.5, I was fortunate enough to get selected to administer a WotC organized-play campaign called Xen’drik Expeditions, set in the wild and uncharted continent of Xen’drik in the Eberron setting. As it was explained to me, there would be four factions in the campaign, and one administrator would be in charge of each. The first faction’s PCs would be the standard heroic faction of do-gooders doing heroic things. I could work with that, especially in the unique setting of Xen’drik. It would be hard to be goody-goody there!
The second faction would be full of morally and ethically challenged—if not outright evil—PCs. Awesome! Creating a storyline and an organization where evil PCs would have to work together would certainly be challenging, but what an opportunity! How much fun would it be to challenge and tempt players to do all these great evil things—but then sometimes punish them for giving in to those urges?!
The third faction would be a shadowy, paramilitary organization. This would have been great to run—you get to both highlight the machinations and cool NPCs within the organizations. And at the same time, the PCs get to be the Seal Team Six of the Eberron world. So many excellent adventures could be run with that black ops feel!
Now I would have been stoked to run any of those factions, and as they were described to me my mind was racing with possibilities. Then came the description of the last faction. I grimaced a bit. The last faction would be the one for the players that like puzzles and tricks. I heard the word “puzzles,” and my mind went blank. I really didn’t even listen past that point, as the little uncontrollable voice in my brain just kept saying over and over, “Please not the puzzle one. Please not the puzzle one. Please not the puzzle one.”
I got the puzzle one.
In hindsight, it was a great experience. The faction was called the Crimson Codex, and the backstory turned out to be one I could really dig. So once I got over my puzzle mental roadblock (and learned to ignore all of the “crimson kotex” jokes)—I threw myself fully into the job. Still, puzzles are puzzling. They stretch that thin line between what is happening in the game and the meta-game.
This is where we get back into the problem of player vs. character issues. Even as far back as 1979 and the much-loved White Plume Mountain adventure, I heard the argument of “my character has an 18 INT and I don’t, so why do I have to solve this puzzle when my character should be able to easily.” Personally, I was happy to have problems and puzzles that I had to solve instead of my character. It’s a game. I am a player in it. If puzzles are part of the game, and I want to play the game, I deal with the puzzles. Happily. Joyfully.
I was running a Living Greyhawk adventure back in the day, and there was a number-sequence puzzle that needed to be solved to get through a secret door. In this case, the number that continued the sequence was more based on a pattern within the sequence than any arithmetic progression between the numbers. So I read the sequence of numbers slowly, and the players began writing them down. As I read the last number, the player who was running the low-wisdom, low-intelligence half-orc barbarian just blurted out the answer without even thinking about it. The rest of the players and I just sat for a moment in stunned silence, looking at the player. He was a great player (we miss you, Charlie!), and he sort of picked it up in character with a Rainman-esque explanation of how he knew the answer because it was a pattern.
There is a Right Answer (and a Write Answer)
My point (wait, I do have a point, right?) is that this moment could have turned into a diatribe against how annoying it is that player knowledge trumped character knowledge and broke the “reality of the fantasy.” Instead, it became a funny and challenging roleplaying moment as the player got to figure out how his character knew what he knew. And surely the problem is more noticeable when it is the opposite: when genius PCs get stumped by puzzles they should know. Still, these situations can still lead fine roleplaying chances (“Sorry guys, I missed that day at the Wizard’s Academy because I was in the infirmary with the clap”).
Of course, as game designers and adventure writers, we can understand the differences in our audience’s preference and design our puzzles in two different directions. For the players who like to solve problems out of character, the puzzles can be presented straight up. For those who like to remain in character, let the dice do the work via a skill challenge.
I have found a hybrid approach can also work, when applicable. Let the players work on the puzzle, but allow various skill checks by the characters to provide hints. However, each hint leads to a slightly less beneficial outcome once the problem is solved. This can encourage people to attempt things themselves, but gives both the players and their characters an out if the puzzles seem too hard.
And I would really love to talk more about making good riddle/puzzle encounters. I’ve certainly had my experiences with them. But that is another article at another time. Maybe.