Posted by : David Guyll November 16, 2011

I have really gotta stop reading these things, because all they do is confuse, frustrate, and make me wonder exactly what game Monte Cook was allegedly playing “back in the day”. 


Does the game present players with challenges that have pre-made solutions?

Kind of? There are useful guidelines and suggestions for the budding DM—such as how to unlock doors, scale walls, and disarm traps—but ultimately it is the DM’s decision to design, place, and either limit or encourage how the players overcome them. Just because a trap can be disarmed with a Thievery check or have its hit points smashed out of it does not mean that there could not be a clearly visible lever that shuts it off, or a password that disables a magical trap.

For example, can all monsters be defeated in straightforward ways, which is to say, attacked with swords and magic missiles until they die? Can all physical obstacles (walls to climb, narrow ledges to traverse, rivers to cross, and so forth) be overcome with die rolls? Are those die rolls achievable given the PCs’ level and abilities? Is the solution to every puzzle available to those with the right skills or spells? Is the counter or resolution to every problem hardwired into the game?

Generally yeah, monsters can be defeated in the ways that players expect, and this has been globally true over the course of every edition. I am wondering how Cook handled climbing walls in 2nd Edition. Did he require a die roll? Did he just decide on a whim whether they succeeded or failed? Did he give them a bonus/let them succeed if they described their technique well enough? I mean if there is a wall, and the players want to climb it, and there is a consequence for failure, then yeah I will make them roll.

I fail to see how requiring dice rolling to determine success for meaningful actions or challenges corresponds to every challenge (or any) having a hardwired solution. Just because I require players to make a Strength check to bash open an iron-bound door or a Thievery check to pick the lock, does not mean that those are the only solutions I will allow. If a player wants to try conning a guard out of a key, or get someone to open the door by making noise, pose as another NPC, or just bash it open, then I can make a judgment call (and again probably require a dice roll, like a Bluff check).

As a DM I have never just thrown random shit at my players and assume that they would just figure something out. Generally I had at least one solution to the problem even if that solution was in the next room (or even the next dungeon). Hell, they might find a door with a very high Thievery check that they will have to come back to later. It might even be guarded by constructs that are way too tough for them to defeat.

Looking back at the game’s roots, the answer to these questions was usually no. In the early days, the game’s mechanics rarely provided solutions to the problems the characters faced. Players stretched beyond the bounds of the rules and looked for solutions not covered in the books. Player ingenuity was always the key to winning encounters. And very often, the DM didn’t actually have a set solution in mind ahead of time. He expected the PCs to come up with something on their own.

To put it nicely, this is not the way I remember it. Players generally relied on their characters’s strengths, which was usually something to the effect of stabbing or blasting monsters, picking locks on doors, bashing doors open, etc. Things that all required dice rolls. I remember playing a fighter and trying to lie to a NPC to get them to let their guard down, and the DM had me make a Charisma check to see how well I pulled it off. The only thing that has changed over time is that actual, solid mechanics have been provided to help DMs adjudicate their decisions and players get a better bead on stuff that their characters could reasonably do.

This isn’t true of more recent expressions of the game. There are few encounters that can’t be won simply by using the PCs’ straightforward powers and abilities. For example, consider fire immunity. In older versions of the game, the red dragon was immune to fire. If you’re packing fireballs, you’re just out of luck. In the most recent version of the game, the designers decided that it’s no fun if the game tells you that the choices you made were wrong, so red dragons are resistant to fire, but not immune. You can still use your fireballs.

The game still “punishes” them, it just does not render them utterly useless. If you fight a red dragon then fire attacks can do something, just not nearly as well as they otherwise would. It still has an impact. It still has meaning. Aside from making some thematic characters take a back seat during what will probably be an epic battle I see no benefit to this, and I thought Monte Cook had moved away from the whole system mastery philosophy? 

That’s a viable design approach. You make sure that no choices are bad choices. You make sure that every lock has a key that can be found. Every barrier has a way past it. You ensure that the PCs are never presented with a challenge that they can’t somehow overcome. You encourage the players to roll some dice and then move on to the next thing.

There should be no "bad" choices. Again just because the game makes it more difficult for a character to be rendered obsolete, does not mean that every challenge has to have a way around it. Not having “bad” choices does not mean that everything has to have an obvious or immediate solution. These two things are not related.

Now imagine a simple dungeon room. There’s a pile of treasure on the far side. The PCs come in and quickly discover that an impenetrable force field blocks the far side of the room from them. In an “old school” dungeon, the players would be forced to figure out a way to get past the force field or somehow get beyond it to reach the treasure. The DM might have no preset solution in mind. It might very well be impossible for the characters, given their resources, to get the treasure.

Which differs from recent editions how? I can throw a forcefield in a dungeon on a whim with no clear way of getting past it. I can even say that it cannot be damaged. I could throw in a monster that cannot be hurt by non-magical weapons, or weapons period. Or even hurt by a specific weapon. The closest parallel I can think of are 2nd Edition monsters that were immune to weapons without a minimum bonus, and if DM’s really want to do that then they still can without needing WotC’s approval.

As the game developed over the years, solutions were inserted into that encounter’s design. Perhaps there’s a lever somewhere else in the dungeon that lowers the field. Maybe a spell or the right combination of spells would bring down the barrier. Perhaps a secret passage circumvents the force field. Or maybe just pounding on it long enough will destroy the barrier.

This statement bothers me for two main reasons. The first is because he seems to believe that spells that let players instantly bypass challenges—comprehend languages, detect secret doors, knock, break enchantment, disintegrate, dispel magic, passwall, find the path, miracle, etc—did not exist before. If anything 4th Edition has reduced the number of abilities that allow characters to say fuck all and just skip obstacles.

The second is that he acts like that DMs who designed encounters just plopped shit down on paper without any clue as to what players might do about it. Maybe it is just me but as a rule of thumb when I design encounters I consider my group demographic and at least one way for the players to get by. Well, assuming I want them to.

And maybe that’s really the takeaway here. The rules are not the sum total of the game. The game is larger than that. Breaking the rules, circumventing the rules, or ignoring the rules does not take you out of the game. The game encompasses that type of play. It’s built upon it, in fact. So why shouldn’t the design of the game also be bigger than the rules? Why shouldn’t those kind of assumptions be taken into account? It puts the responsibility back in the hands of the players, rather than the DM or the designer. Success or failure lies within their own hands again.

More importantly how the hell does doing away with a solid foundation of mutable rules put responsibility back into the hands of the players? As a DM I like having something to go off of, and as a player I like generally knowing what to expect when I try to do something. Personally it sounds like WotC already has a plan for an upcoming edition, and at least these articles are steeling for me a change that I seriously doubt I am going to like. Maybe I am just reading it wrong, but the threads on the WotC forums and RPG.net are not giving me much hope.

{ 4 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. I actually think this is one of Monte's better columns. The more recent iterations of D&D have tilted the game's focus heavily towards combat. I'd agree with Monte that player challenges (outside of combat) is an aspect of D&D that's been almost entirely lost.

    One thing that I think is important to remember is that from the player's perspective, they don't know whether the elements in the dungeon are obstacles they can overcome, much less how to overcome them. To use Monte's example, the players faced with the forcefield in the treasure room don't know whether they need to find a secret lever, bash the wall down, or return when they have access to higher-level magic. I think that's where player creativity and problem solving ability become really important.

    I think it's critical that when a DM designs an adventure, he has multiple solutions to the problems that the PC's might face.
    Easy example: A locked door can be picked by the rogue, bashed down by the fighter, the key can be found somewhere in the dungeon, or a monster can be bribed into opening the door. Multiple solutions and multiple ways of completing adventures gives the players the feeling that their actions matter.

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  2. My past experience with D&D--mostly 2nd, 3rd, and 4th--has often been heavy on fighting, I can only think of a few puzzles off the top of my head that required the players to puzzle it out for themselves, with no regard as to how smart or stupid their characters are. A wizard with an Intelligence of 18 and a Wisdom of 16 can probably figure out riddles and puzzles WAY faster than a large chunk of players, but I find that some people seem to balk at the notion of even providing hints.

    One issue with the column were that he seems to be trying to connect that "no bad choices" equates to "every problem has a solution". As I said, these are not related things. Published adventures are not really a good barometer for this sort of thing, and nothing in the current edition prevents you from making issues with a solution that is currently impossible for the players.

    Really, what I would like to see from Cook is instead of trying to try and convince us that "back in the day" it was all about how smart the players were, and instead provide some good advice on creating puzzles, allowing the character's ability scores to matter, and ensuring that there are multiple paths for challenge resolution.

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  3. The whole "no bad choices is bad" thing reminds me of how Monte Cook very openly admitted to deliberately putting bad ("trap") feats etc into 3e to reward system mastery. The old man wants to turn D&D into a game of "read the DM's mind and ask a thousand questions about a statue", the answers to 999 of which will be "wrong". No thankee, sir.

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  4. Yeah, like I said whatever comes next might be the edition I skip.

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