Player skill without player frustration

The Zork II computer game from 1981 includes a locked door that you can open by solving a clever puzzle. The door has the old-fashioned sort of lock that lets you look through the keyhole and see the other side. Except here, the key is in the other side of the lock. You slide a mat under the door, and then poke the key out onto the mat. When you pull the mat back, you have the key. (See Zork 2, part 2 for more.)Zork II Box Art

Back when D&D consisted of the original brown box, before skills, before rogues, before thieves, all the obstacles in the game invited that style of play. You overcame obstacles by immersing yourself in the game world, making decisions, and problem solving. I loved it.

This style of play suffers from the same problem as the puzzle in Zork. When Zork II came out, I had only ever seen that sort of old-fashioned lock in my grandma’s house. And if you’ve never examined that kind of lock, the door puzzle simply leaves you stuck and frustrated.

In the old computer adventure games, when you became stuck and frustrated, you had to send money for a hint sheet, and then wait for it to arrive in the mail. With table-top games, that never has to happen.

The great thing about table-top games is that the dungeon master can allow creative solutions.

Sadly, not every DM is open to creative solutions. Typically, these DMs fall into the mindset of beating the players. Frustrated players mean I’m winning D&D!

Fourth edition attempted to eliminate frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door you can pick the lock with thievery, or break the door with strength.

But when the game emphasizes character skill, the players never need to make meaningful decisions or engage the game world. They just look at their character sheet for the best applicable skill. I suppose this improves on playing guess-the-solution-I-thought-of with an inflexible DM, but the picking a skill and rolling is much less fun than D&D can be.

Of course, you can emphasize player-skill with any edition of D&D.

Have you ever noticed how the Tomb of Horrors makes the demi-lich only vulnerable to a short list of curiously-specific attacks?

The demi-lich’s skull can be harmed only as follows:

  • a forget spell will force the skull to sink down without taking a soul
  • a shatter spell thrown at it inflicts 10 h.p. of damage
  • a power word, kill pronounced from the an astral or ethereal magic-user will destroy it.
  • only a fighter with a vorpal blade, a ranger with a sword of sharpness +5, or a vorpal weapon, or a paladin with the like or even a +4 weapon can inflict damage on the skull
  • an exorcise spell will cause it to sink as a forget does
  • a dispel evil spell inflicts 5 h.p. of damage
  • a holy word pronounced against it will inflict 20 h.p. of damage
  • a thief slinging one of the large gems in the crypt will inflict 1 h.p. of damage per 10,00 g.p. of value, i.e. 1, 5,, or 10 h.p. of damage, but the gem is thereby shattered

A power word, kill does nothing, unless you happen to be ethereal or astral! How would anyone think of that? Also, the demi-lich is vulnerable to the destruction of very expensive gems. That messes with the players in the best(?) old-school tradition. Only someone immersed in that tradition would even consider the gem attack. Is Gary guilty of the same sort of inflexible, narrow approach that I criticize? Yes. In the case of Tomb of Horrors, that’s the way Gary wanted it. He created the Tomb to be “ready for those fans who boasted of having mighty PCs able to best any challenge offered by the AD&D game.”

When I DM, I love to be surprised. I think one of the great joys of being a DM is crafting some trap or obstacle, leaving a couple ways to overcome it, and then watching as the players crack the problem with a third way. I’ve run campaigns for groups who proved so good at coming up with unexpected solutions, that I stopped worrying about planning any solutions. I just sat back and watched the players come of with something.

I have three bits of advice for refereeing game-world obstacles that demand player skill to overcome.

  • Watch the players for signs of frustration. Be prepared to let the characters uncover a new clue, or to just have something on the other side of that locked door come and open it.
  • It’s good to say yes, but avoid being too quick to accept implausible solutions. If a couple of players are deeply engaged in a predicament, and you allow any dumb idea to work, they just get annoyed. The last thing you want is a player arguing that something you allowed wouldn’t actually work.
  • Watch out for clever ideas that break the game. I remember a player who regaled me with a story that he remembered fondly. His party defeated a dragon by enclosing it in a wall of force shaped like a giant fishbowl, complete with an opening on top too small for escape. Next, they created water above the opening, filling the fishbowl and drowning the dragon. I suspect that no version of wall of force ever actually allowed such shenanigans, but as a one-time trick, the stunt created a moment the players’ loved. I wonder what the DM decided to do when the players kept trying to repeat it. If you can use this trick on a dragon, the dungeon becomes your aquarium.

5 thoughts on “Player skill without player frustration

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  3. Ilbranteloth

    Actually, for Tomb of Horrors I believe it was originally the opposite. When Gary first ran it for his home campaign, he had a couple of ways to kill it in mind. Originally, the object was for it to not be killable, that it would be so feared by the PCs that managed to make it that far, that they would just grab treasure and run (which did happen).

    But then some players started trying creative solutions. And he decided that they were good solutions and retained them for the tournament and published module.

    Don’t forget that by that level there’s a fair amount of divination magic, and I would also say that if they met Acererak and survived, that researching how to destroy him would make for a good adventure in itself.

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  5. majorgs15

    “the game invited … over[coming] obstacles by immersing yourself in the game world, making decisions, and problem solving.”

    Thank you for this. With all the noise about D&D being about shared storytelling that was never, and still isn’t what the game is about for me. As a player, it was about problem solving, with the added challenge of doing it in the persona of another, with both limited capabilities and offsetting drawbacks (as opposed to superheros who all can do everything). As a DM, it was about creating challenges that required teamwork (because each character had something ONLY THEY could do that would combine with their party members to resolve the dilemmas and allow the PC’s to advance past the last obstacle and move toward the adventures climax.

    All your other points are equally outstanding. If the fun was problem resolution through teamwork, the ability to determine a WORKABLE solution was more important than “poking the key through the keyhole” as the sole answer. Thanks for another great article (even if I am just now reading it 5 years later. 🙂


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