Legends and Lore - Out of Bounds

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Legends and Lore
Out of Bounds
by Monte Cook

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

Talk about this column here.

While I can appreciate that many people out there enjoy puzzles, my first instinct is to introduce them to Professor Layton or Scribblenauts. Creative players will make puzzles out of situations on their own, like my habit of looking for ways to knock buildings down onto things.
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Why is the message I'm getting from this "the rules sucked so  bad in the old days, we had to make our own fun. Now that the rules work, we need to break them so that you have to make your own fun to."
Rogues were the best because they had to set fire to the place to do any damage! :P
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Rogues were the best because they had to set fire to the place to do any damage! :P


My wife will whole-heartedly agree with that sentiment. She loves playing pyromaniac rogues (though thankfully she doesn't play one every game).
Resident jark. Resident Minister of Education and Misinformation.
Rogues were the best because they had to set fire to the place to do any damage! :P


My wife will whole-heartedly agree with that sentiment. She loves playing pyromaniac rogues (though thankfully she doesn't play one every game).



My favorite 2nd edition character was a pyromaniac ninja. He once snuck into a camp full of ogres, replaced some water skins with lamp oil, and drained the others, then snuck back out and had someone cast Web and Fireball.

Thing is, that was pretty much covered by the rules.

And in 4th edition, he could do decent damage to the survivors as well.
Fire Blog Control, Change, and Chaos: The Elemental Power Source Elemental Heroes Example Classes Xaosmith Exulter Chaos Bringer Director Elemental Heroes: Looking Back - Class and Story Elemental Heroes: Complete Class Beta - The Xaosmith (January 16, 2012) Elemental Heroes: Complete Class Beta - The Harbinger (May 16, 2012) Check out my Elemental Heroes blog series and help me develop four unique elemental classes.
once again, i find myself at odds with mr. cook's opinions regarding d&d.

the characters are the adventurers.  they are the ones being challenged by encounters, not the players.  challenging the players--as opposed to the characters--effectively is metagaming. 
once again, i find myself at odds with mr. cook's opinions regarding d&d.

the characters are the adventurers.  they are the ones being challenged by encounters, not the players.  challenging the players--as opposed to the characters--effectively is metagaming. 



I sort of agree.

I think that every problem should be either solvable by the characters, or not be expected to be solved.  It's OK if a wall blocks your path sometimes and you can't get through it.  It's also OK if creative players come up with a way through and make a short cut.

I think players should be rewarded for ingenuity, but characters should be the target of the challenge.  Note, however, that I think there's a difference between a player saying "I'll pick the lock" and "I'll make a Thievery check".  The first is good; the character takes an action, and then the DM decides what check he should make (in this case, Thievery).  The second is bad;  the player is dictating the action with no interaction with his character.

Just because dice are being rolled doesn't mean that there was no creativity involved, and just because there's creativity doesn't mean there's no need for dice.
The difference between madness and genius is determined only by degrees of success.
And, IMO, ankiyavon wins the thread.
once again, i find myself at odds with mr. cook's opinions regarding d&d.

the characters are the adventurers.  they are the ones being challenged by encounters, not the players.  challenging the players--as opposed to the characters--effectively is metagaming. 



I sort of agree.

I think that every problem should be either solvable by the characters, or not be expected to be solved.  It's OK if a wall blocks your path sometimes and you can't get through it.  It's also OK if creative players come up with a way through and make a short cut.

I think players should be rewarded for ingenuity, but characters should be the target of the challenge.  Note, however, that I think there's a difference between a player saying "I'll pick the lock" and "I'll make a Thievery check".  The first is good; the character takes an action, and then the DM decides what check he should make (in this case, Thievery).  The second is bad;  the player is dictating the action with no interaction with his character.

Just because dice are being rolled doesn't mean that there was no creativity involved, and just because there's creativity doesn't mean there's no need for dice.

100% agree with this.  This is a good example of the razor-thin separation of player and character.
Back in the old days you had to use your imagination to solve problems.



This has never changed. Now we just have rules to support it so the DM doesn't have to make it up. If your own group has stopped being creative, that is unfortunate, but it is far from universal. Don't use "you" when you mean "my group."
Fire Blog Control, Change, and Chaos: The Elemental Power Source Elemental Heroes Example Classes Xaosmith Exulter Chaos Bringer Director Elemental Heroes: Looking Back - Class and Story Elemental Heroes: Complete Class Beta - The Xaosmith (January 16, 2012) Elemental Heroes: Complete Class Beta - The Harbinger (May 16, 2012) Check out my Elemental Heroes blog series and help me develop four unique elemental classes.
And, IMO, ankiyavon wins the thread.



Seconded.
Another day, another three or four entries to my Ignore List.
once again, i find myself at odds with mr. cook's opinions regarding d&d.

the characters are the adventurers.  they are the ones being challenged by encounters, not the players.  challenging the players--as opposed to the characters--effectively is metagaming. 



There is kind of a problem with this, though, that always arises when you (you general plural, not you specifically) discuss player vs. character in roleplaying games. Ultimately, the prime mover of the character is the player. You are always challenging the player through the scope of his character in the game world. A challenge like the mentioned room dividing wall of force is more properly addressed liks this -

"Player, your avatar in this world has a problem: a wall of force is between him and treasure. In order to acquire the treasure, you, Player, need to utilize your character's abilities, which means that ultimately it is your brain that is being challenged through the scope of the abilities you have available to you."

I think it's not about whether to challenge the player or not - you'll challenge the player no matter what ("should I use thievery?" = player is being challenged to determine what skill check he should use), it's mostly about the degree to which you do it, and whether you challenge the player exclusively or remember to include the scope of their character.


As a result of that conjecture, I put forward that a lot of the problem people have with things like puzzles isn't that it's challenging them instead of their character, it's much more likely to be related, in my mind, to the fact that it challenges them exclusively without giving them access to any of their character's tools to aid their success. If you asked the player to fight an Orc, he'd be rightfully kind of angry - he could die since he probably doesn't know a lot about fighting Orcs in real life. Hence he has help from his powers and skills and weapons in the game, as well as a simplified system that he can more readily learn and achieve success in on short notice. Similarly, if you asked the player to answer a riddle with no potential for help from their character's assets that's probably just as much an issue. The character is probably smarter than the player just like he is probably better at fighting Orcs, so why should they get to lean on their avatar fighting Orcs but not solving the riddle? The problem, then, I think is consistency.

Unfortunately, while we can all enjoy rolling to defeat the Orc, rolling to learn the answer to the riddle is probably not nearly as rewarding. I think that's probably where the problem truly lies - challenging the player through his character is easy if he's fighting Orcs, but if he's fighting a riddle or a rubik's cube it's kind of "lame" to roll your way to victory.

Why is it lame? I don't know, but that's the way it feels to me and a lot of people I've seen seem to agree, so I think that the thing we need to address is why that is the case - if we learn why rolling to victory to defeat the Sphinx's riddle is "more lame" than rolling to victory to defeat the Orcs then perhaps we shall find the crux of our issue?

Lol! We still play older editions, so we still use ours. 

We didn't like the "everything is just a roll away" philosophy of 4e.



So... what are you basing your claims on?

I've been involved in D&D since the 90s, and people are just as creative now as they were back then. The only difference I've seen is that more people who are less creative are daring to get involved, who would never have touched the game in the old days.
Fire Blog Control, Change, and Chaos: The Elemental Power Source Elemental Heroes Example Classes Xaosmith Exulter Chaos Bringer Director Elemental Heroes: Looking Back - Class and Story Elemental Heroes: Complete Class Beta - The Xaosmith (January 16, 2012) Elemental Heroes: Complete Class Beta - The Harbinger (May 16, 2012) Check out my Elemental Heroes blog series and help me develop four unique elemental classes.
I like the idea of riddles and puzzles in D&D. But in practice, they've always kinda sucked. Either they're fun but player skill-based, or they're represented by 'checks' that combine luck (?) and the character's ability mods.

Upon further reflection, much of the game is sort of a puzzle the player has to work out, completely devoid of character skill. Perhaps as an audience we are too knee-jerky when something more overtly demands player skill?

How about riddles or puzzles with a number of hints based on a character's Int bonus (if any)?
4e D&D is not a "Tabletop MMO." It is not Massively Multiplayer, and is usually not played Online. Come up with better descriptions of your complaints, cuz this one means jack ****.
And, IMO, ankiyavon wins the thread.



Seconded.



And thirded.  Seriously.

There are aspects to Monte's article that I thought were spot-on.  Basically the whole thrust of the article was going in a direction that made me go "Yeah, I agree.  That's totally true.  Word." and then he comes to some conclusion at the end that made me go "Waitaminute...what?  THAT'S what you got out of this?  THAT'S your conclusion?  THAT'S the lesson learned?  Pardon me, but...Bwaaa?"
Essentials zigged, when I wanted to continue zagging. Roll dice, not cars.
Puzzles can very easily utilize the character's skills rather than just how good you the player is at puzzles, without just making it strictly "roll to solve the puzzle."

Idiana Jones and the Last Crusade was chock full of skill checks. Everything Indie does during the trap section is based on History, Religion, Athletics, Thievery, Acrobatics, Athletics, and even Insight and Bluff (when he figures out the nature of the GRail, but doesn't give it away) and so forth. That is how 4th edition works. You use your skills to find the clues that allow you to solve the problem at hand.

He even gets an item bonus from using the diary!
Fire Blog Control, Change, and Chaos: The Elemental Power Source Elemental Heroes Example Classes Xaosmith Exulter Chaos Bringer Director Elemental Heroes: Looking Back - Class and Story Elemental Heroes: Complete Class Beta - The Xaosmith (January 16, 2012) Elemental Heroes: Complete Class Beta - The Harbinger (May 16, 2012) Check out my Elemental Heroes blog series and help me develop four unique elemental classes.
My philosophy is that encounters should be designed to be completed by characters, whereas campaigns should be designed to be completed by players. That's not to say that players should not be allowed to complete an encounter with good out-of-the-box thinking, just that such a solution should not be the expected, "correct" solution, at least not for anything necessary for the campaign to continue. (A side jaunt that adds an extra parcel to the treasure haul? Perfectly acceptable)

When it comes to puzzles, I make sure there are two solutions. One is geared towards players, the other characters. Generally, the player-centric solutions give increased rewards/stop bad things from happening, while the character-centric ones are there to keep the session moving along. Sure, your characters are likely smarter than you, but guess what? The person who created the puzzle you're solving? He's much smarter than me, as well. So, you are actually interacting with a very dumbed-down version of the puzzle your character is struggling with.
And, IMO, ankiyavon wins the thread.



Seconded.



And thirded.  Seriously.

There are aspects to Monte's article that I thought were spot-on.  Basically the whole thrust of the article was going in a direction that made me go "Yeah, I agree.  That's totally true.  Word." and then he comes to some conclusion at the end that made me go "Waitaminute...what?  THAT'S what you got out of this?  THAT'S your conclusion?  THAT'S the lesson learned?  Pardon me, but...Bwaaa?"


And fourthed.  Interesting article.  Strange conclusions.

Things which directly challenge the players can be fun, but should be rare.  Most things should challenge the characters, and the characters come with ways to simulate their approach to challenges.

Now, I'm not saying that every puzzle should just be an INT-check away, but this is analogous to the guy who's not a good public speaker, playing the bard.  If the players can't figure out a puzzle that their characters should get in a snap, then there should be a route for the characters to get it.  Just like if the players can't spin a convincing lie, but their character can, that's what Bluff checks are for.

Yes, this might entail somewhat more, or somewhat less, role-playing, but you know, sometimes I'm OK with this.
Harrying your Prey, the Easy Way: A Hunter's Handbook - the first of what will hopefully be many CharOp efforts on my part. The Blinker - teleport everywhere. An Eladrin Knight/Eldritch Knight. CB != rules source.
Why is the message I'm getting from this "the rules sucked so  bad in the old days, we had to make our own fun. Now that the rules work, we need to break them so that you have to make your own fun to."

That's been a recurring theme in L&L. 

This week's does ask an ingenuous question:
 Are the bounds of the game defined by the bounds of the rules?

The answer to it is, of course, yes.  The bounds of the game system are defined by it's rules.  A game whose rules cover very little is a limited or 'incomplete' game.  A game whose rules cover very little /well enough to use/, is simply bad.  D&D has been, through much of it's history, a bad game, in that sense.

The play experience among DM & Players, however, is not bounded by the rules.  Indeed, rules of a game can be used as little more than a jumping-off point.  Some game designers have thrown together wholly inadequate systems, encouraged their customers to just ignore them and do whatever, and patted themselves on the back for it.  Others go to the trouble to produce a quality game, and get whined at that their game is 'stifling RP.'

They should definitely listen to complaints, but they should try to filter them, at least a little, for sense.

 

 

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once again, i find myself at odds with mr. cook's opinions regarding d&d.

the characters are the adventurers.  they are the ones being challenged by encounters, not the players.  challenging the players--as opposed to the characters--effectively is metagaming. 



I sort of agree.

I think that every problem should be either solvable by the characters, or not be expected to be solved.  It's OK if a wall blocks your path sometimes and you can't get through it.  It's also OK if creative players come up with a way through and make a short cut.

I think players should be rewarded for ingenuity, but characters should be the target of the challenge.  Note, however, that I think there's a difference between a player saying "I'll pick the lock" and "I'll make a Thievery check".  The first is good; the character takes an action, and then the DM decides what check he should make (in this case, Thievery).  The second is bad;  the player is dictating the action with no interaction with his character.

Just because dice are being rolled doesn't mean that there was no creativity involved, and just because there's creativity doesn't mean there's no need for dice.




But what's the point of even playing if everything is geared towards the character?  When saving the day is a matter of system mastery and choices made well before the obstacles were encountered, there's no role-playing.  Role playing involves your approach to the things your character sucks at just as much as the things he's good at.  I should be able to solve problems without looking at my sheet sometimes.


In regards to the idea of playing a diplomat with high social skills when you suck in real life, the playing field doesn't need to be leveled constantly in order for the game to be fun.  Let people be better at some things.  I'm better than my friends at Halo, they can be better than me at acting, and in a game based around acting then they can get along better in the acting parts.  That's fine, I'm not good at everything.  The game is based around this idea to begin with.

If you want to run a fast-talking scoundrel, get better at fast-talking.  Maybe do it slowly and your DM will pretend it was fast.  You can't just go "I say something clever to impress them," and roll it.  That degree of abstraction isn't even fun, you might as well just be going "I do the correct thing in this situation," and roll a dice.  If it's a high number, you win, good job.
But what's the point of even playing if everything is geared towards the character?  When saving the day is a matter of system mastery and choices made well before the obstacles were encountered, there's no role-playing.  Role playing involves your approach to the things your character sucks at just as much as the things he's good at.



We're telling a story here. Protagonists do not confront arbitrary obstacles. Doesn't mean they always autowin either, of course.



We're playing a game, too.  In old-timey dungeon crawls, sometimes all you're doing is playing a game.

Not to be a smartass, but I literally have no idea what that second sentence could mean, the entire game is pretty arbitrary.
If you want to run a fast-talking scoundrel, get better at fast-talking.



And if you want to get better at throwing spells, better do some physics courses. And next time you want to play a Barbarian, make sure you get a good excercise schedule up a year or so in advance, and that you do some powerlifting. I will be judging how good your Barbarian swings an axe by your ability (or lack of ability) to punch a wooden board in half. And you will be solving some equations to show the exact effects your punching the laws of physics will have on the world.
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
If you want to run a fast-talking scoundrel, get better at fast-talking.



And if you want to get better at throwing spells, better do some physics courses. And next time you want to play a Barbarian, make sure you get a good excercise schedule up a year or so in advance, and that you do some powerlifting. I will be judging how good your Barbarian swings an axe by your ability (or lack of ability) to punch a wooden board in half. And you will be solving some equations to show the exact effects your punching the laws of physics will have on the world.



You fail to understand that there has to be a middle ground.  Abstracting social encounters (which should not share a resolution mechanic with that for physical feats in the first place) to a diplomacy roll is literally one step away from saying "I do the correct thing," and declaring victory.

I'm constantly making my int 8 wis 10 characters do crap they'd never think to do because I'm the boss of them.  They're not the boss of me.  Once a player avatar is the boss of the player, it's not so much an avatar as the Microsoft Office Paperclip.


Threatening to make people accomplish outstanding physical feats never hits me the way it's supposed to, I don't think.  I'm pretty sure I can run faster than my fighter even without his armor.  I think the 100m dash time on a move 6 race with the fast running feat and double moves is over twelve seconds, so I'm ahead of that.

All that exercise probably would be good for the game, to be honest, or at least its players.  Suddenly, "Oh my goodness, you're so strong!  You must play a fighter!  Here's my number, text me later if you're not doing anything."  Strength checks are now determined by arm-wrestling the DM.
I'm pretty sure I can run faster than my fighter even without his armor



I didn't know Usain Bolt played DnD. Neat.



This is getting mad off-topic, but I optimized an elf for movement speed for lulz and I'm pretty sure I couldn't outpace his top recorded speed in paragon (it's like 27 miles per hour which is literally 47 squares in a single round).

If you standard-as-move and then move as a base-6 class with fast running it takes over 18 seconds to make it 100 meters, I know more people that can beat that time than can't.
I'm afraid this is one of those polls where a clear answer - a 5 in this case - would be helpful.

While it's couched in White-Wolfish terms of role-not-roll elitism, it comes down to a very simple question: do you want a quality product, or will you buy any old crap. 

5 = we demand a quality product - an actual game, with actual rules, that actually work.

1 = we'll buy any old crap and fix it ourselves.

Vote accordingly, folks.

 

 

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@Tony,

I'm pretty sure you're misrepresenting the other camp here (as in the one I believe myself to occupy).  1 = "We very well intend to do anything that could occur to us, because why not?  Implementing a resolution system for literally any action conceivable would result in texts that would be comparable to a phone book for a metropolitan area and we'd never read it anyways so sometimes we're just gonna go ahead and do whatever."

I picked 2, for the record.  Having the magic bullet on your character sheet is nice once in a while.
I'm pretty sure I can run faster than my fighter even without his armor



I didn't know Usain Bolt played DnD. Neat.



This is getting mad off-topic, but I optimized an elf for movement speed for lulz and I'm pretty sure I couldn't outpace his top recorded speed in paragon (it's like 27 miles per hour which is literally 47 squares in a single round).

If you standard-as-move and then move as a base-6 class with fast running it takes over 18 seconds to make it 100 meters, I know more people that can beat that time than can't.



Your timescale's off. There is no defined sec/round in 4e. The relevant point is that your fighter runs at 80% the speed of a horse, and you do not, and so long as you try to brag about your track speed in an internet argument, nobody will take you seriously.



If it's anything shorter than 4 seconds then you're literally picking locks faster than you could put a key in them.  4 seconds still involves attainable footspeeds, I've literally met 12 year old girls that can beat 12 seconds never mind the almost-15 you get left with.  3 seconds and things get wonky but whatever.

And as long as you're choosing to misrepresent my point of "things move kinda slow in D&D and not-even-that-reasonably fit people can attain similar speeds," which was itself a response to the moronic "lift weights instead of rolling strength" response you always get when you mention being the boss of your character, I probably shouldn't be taking you that seriously either.

Key point here, Mac, is that these are the writers, not your homegame DM. They can, should, and must be held to a higher standard of universality in the content they produce.



This provides 3 options, then.

1: Restriction by design.  If it's not in the rules, you can't do it.
2: Absurdly large rule book.  If it's not in the rules, you'd never fathom it.
3: Sometimes you gotta wing it.

2 is obviously unreasonable, it has the word absurd right in it.  The line needs to be drawn somewhere on the scale of inclusiveness and accessibility, but removing everything on the far side of the inclusiveness line of the book seems silly to me.

You fail to understand that there has to be a middle ground.  Abstracting social encounters (which should not share a resolution mechanic with that for physical feats in the first place) to a diplomacy roll is literally one step away from saying "I do the correct thing," and declaring victory.



Myeah, the middle ground is "come up with something", not "learn to fast talkzor". If a socially inept player says "My bard gives a stirring speech to inspire the troops to stand in the face of danger", that should be perfectly fine. He doesn't need to use the actual words. If the Rogue's player needs 2 minutes to come up with a "quick, you need a response to the guard's question" and then the character comes up with that response instantly, that's perfectly fine.

You don't need to mimic the actual words, just the intent. And you don't need to match the time, nor convincingness, to make the roll. Just because you say "err...well... uhm... damnit. Ok. I tell him that I was supposed to pick up a set of armor? No wait, a sword. The captain likes swords" doesn't mean your character with 18 Cha, bluff training and a con-man background is going to. You shouldn't penalise the roll just because the player needs some time and can't say it convincingly.

Otheriwse you're putting the middle ground very close one side of the field.

Also, "run standard + run move" ain't an all-out race. You're missing an action point, at least, from a D&D character going all out. That's going to make him another 50% faster.
Epic Dungeon Master

Want to give your players a kingdom of their own? I made a 4e rule system to make it happen!

Your Kingdom awaits!
Update 5th Sep 2011: Added a sample kingdom, as well as sample of play.
This reminded me of Terry Pratchett's excellent quote: "I'll be a lot happier about thinking outside the box when I'm convinced that there's any thinking going on inside the box!"

My comment on the article (placed here for discussion, ridicule, et cetera) was:

Sigh.  "Too many rules stifles creativity" again. Acting within the rules = "challenging the character", doing stuff without rules = "challenging the player" = "creativity" = (presumably) "good roleplaying".

Sorry, I think this is baloney.  Exhibit 1: chess.

Chess has been played for hundreds of years and yet STILL admits of "creative" strategies that mean that not every grandmaster game is a stalemate. If I win at chess, I don't think "well, hey, my little guys did great - they won!" - I think "hey, amazing - *I* won!"

Same with Go, most boardgames and wargames; if I lose a game of "Napoleon's Last Battles" the little chit that represents my general hasn't been tested and found wanting - *I* have!

Creativity is just as possible within a fixed ruleset as outside it - and it can be even more satisfying as the parameters for your creation are defined rather than totally extensive.  Further to this, creativity within the game's rules has the advantage that it IS predefined; the tools for use are known in advance, and the type of knowledge and aptitude required are clear, not whatever the DM (a) is good at him- or her-self and (b) happens to have some enthusiasm for at the moment. Everyone is on a level base because they know what the topic of the challenges are, and they can read the rules for themselves.

BAD rules, of course, don't allow for much creativity within them at all. Snakes and Ladders is not what you would play for intellectual stimulation.  But D&D 4E combat is good at it. Bring the non-combat mechanisms up to the same standard, and we will have a coherent, integrated game with good in-the-box scope for creativity across the board.  Or just chuck it all into the DM's lap, where it was with previous editions, and you will have provided, um, just what is already available, from previous editions...

And regarding...
But what's the point of even playing if everything is geared towards the character?  When saving the day is a matter of system mastery and choices made well before the obstacles were encountered, there's no role-playing.  Role playing involves your approach to the things your character sucks at just as much as the things he's good at.  I should be able to solve problems without looking at my sheet sometimes.

It may have slipped by you, but system mastery is a player skill, and, in our games, at least, it is heavily in evidence during actual play as well as during character design.  I am fine with this - it is the very essence of most games, including this one.
======= Balesir
In response to reaper's point, the issue is that making skill checks really isn't a "game" in the sense combat is. Combat --particularly in the current rulestate-- is a dynamic process, and while you're not being tested as to how well you can kill orcs, you are being tested as to how well you can command a character to kill orcs. The skill mechanics by contrast remain mostly plain and unfulfilling. If there were a process more analogous to attacking the riddle, then there'd probably be less objection to resolving it via that process.


This is a good point, but I'll take it even further.

The game is always challenging player skill, not character skill.

That's because the "character" is a fiction.  There is only the player.  The only issue is what player skills the game is challenging.

In AD&D, the game would have a variety of player challenges.  It would challenge a player's ability to manage resources.  It would challenge a player's ability to be a rules lawyer.  It would challenge a player's ability to solve riddles.  It would challenge a player's ability to select spells that auto-win encounters.  Some of these challenges represent (imo) bad design.  But some of them were very fun.

In WotC-era D&D, the game challenges the player's ability to build a character, to select appropriate items, to avoid build traps, to identify feat taxes, to think strategically, to manipulate your character in conjunction with teammates manipulating their characters, and to argue why certain skills should apply in skill challenges.

A game can only challenge players.  The only issue is which illusion of "challenging the character" you are willing to buy into.  Are you willing to accept that when your team solves the sphinx's riddle, that it's the characters who did it?  Are you willing to accept that when your fighter uses a power that slides your adjacent rogue into flanking position, that it's your fighter makign that choice?

It's time to put aside this nonsensical division between "challenging players" and "challenging characters".  Characters aren't challenged.  Only players are challenged.  The only issue is what sort of challenges are to be presented to the players.
I love the "don't challenge the player, challenge the character" mindset that some take, as though they are mutually exclusive or something. The gist of the entire game revolves around challenging the player. The player decides what items to pick. The player decides what powers to use. The player decides what kind of tactics to use. Trying to insinuate that there's an actual defined split between player and character is naive, at best.

The entire game is a challenge to the player. It starts the second a player picks up a blank character sheet and pencil, and never lets up. We like to pretend that "oh, that's what my PC would do" makes it a defined split, but it doesn't. There is ZERO way to seperate yourself completely from your character. You can have built-in personality traits and mannerisms that are forefront for your PC, but your personality is constantly slipping through. Your choices. Your ideas. Your imagination. Your tactics. Pretending that doesn't happen and that your PC is independant of you is slipping a tad too far into the fantasy vs. reality quagmire.

All this being said...why not directly challenge the players? I like Monte's take on this, and enjoyed reading the article. Make 'em think. Don't let them just use the cop-out die-rolls to solve every problem. I hate that every time I present the party with a problem (whether it be a puzzle, a riddle, a combat encounter, a wall, an anything), that the first thing they do is zoom in on their character sheets to find that skill, power, or ability that will solve all their problems. For me and those I used to play with, this used to not be an issue. We would spend hours on end and never touch a single die. I'm not sure what happened between the end of 2E and the present, but it's bothersome. Think a little! It doesn't hurt, I promise!
In response to reaper's point, the issue is that making skill checks really isn't a "game" in the sense combat is. Combat --particularly in the current rulestate-- is a dynamic process, and while you're not being tested as to how well you can kill orcs, you are being tested as to how well you can command a character to kill orcs. The skill mechanics by contrast remain mostly plain and unfulfilling. If there were a process more analogous to attacking the riddle, then there'd probably be less objection to resolving it via that process.


This is a good point, but I'll take it even further.

The game is always challenging player skill, not character skill.

That's because the "character" is a fiction.  There is only the player.  The only issue is what player skills the game is challenging.

In AD&D, the game would have a variety of player challenges.  It would challenge a player's ability to manage resources.  It would challenge a player's ability to be a rules lawyer.  It would challenge a player's ability to solve riddles.  It would challenge a player's ability to select spells that auto-win encounters.  Some of these challenges represent (imo) bad design.  But some of them were very fun.

In WotC-era D&D, the game challenges the player's ability to build a character, to select appropriate items, to avoid build traps, to identify feat taxes, to think strategically, to manipulate your character in conjunction with teammates manipulating their characters, and to argue why certain skills should apply in skill challenges.

A game can only challenge players.  The only issue is which illusion of "challenging the character" you are willing to buy into.  Are you willing to accept that when your team solves the sphinx's riddle, that it's the characters who did it?  Are you willing to accept that when your fighter uses a power that slides your adjacent rogue into flanking position, that it's your fighter makign that choice?

It's time to put aside this nonsensical division between "challenging players" and "challenging characters".  Characters aren't challenged.  Only players are challenged.  The only issue is what sort of challenges are to be presented to the players.


there are times when i am so very happy that a particular person is a member of our forum community.  now is one of those times.  thanks for the insight, wrecan.
I love the "don't challenge the player, challenge the character" mindset that some take, as though they are mutually exclusive or something. The gist of the entire game revolves around challenging the player. The player decides what items to pick. The player decides what powers to use. The player decides what kind of tactics to use. Trying to insinuate that there's an actual defined split between player and character is naive, at best.

The entire game is a challenge to the player. It starts the second a player picks up a blank character sheet and pencil, and never lets up. We like to pretend that "oh, that's what my PC would do" makes it a defined split, but it doesn't. There is ZERO way to seperate yourself completely from your character. You can have built-in personality traits and mannerisms that are forefront for your PC, but your personality is constantly slipping through. Your choices. Your ideas. Your imagination. Your tactics. Pretending that doesn't happen and that your PC is independant of you is slipping a tad too far into the fantasy vs. reality quagmire.

All this being said...why not directly challenge the players? I like Monte's take on this, and enjoyed reading the article. Make 'em think. Don't let them just use the cop-out die-rolls to solve every problem. I hate that every time I present the party with a problem (whether it be a puzzle, a riddle, a combat encounter, a wall, an anything), that the first thing they do is zoom in on their character sheets to find that skill, power, or ability that will solve all their problems. For me and those I used to play with, this used to not be an issue. We would spend hours on end and never touch a single die. I'm not sure what happened between the end of 2E and the present, but it's bothersome. Think a little! It doesn't hurt, I promise!


it really is just different ways of describing the same thing:  what one person calls "challenging the character", another person can rightly call "challenging the player with respect to his character choices (see wrecan's post above for a far more eloquent explanation).

in light of this po-TAY-to po-TAH-to clarification, i will quote thespaceinvader in order to support my basic point:

Things which directly challenge the players can be fun, but should be rare.  Most things should challenge the characters, and the characters come with ways to simulate their approach to challenges.

Now, I'm not saying that every puzzle should just be an INT-check away, but this is analogous to the guy who's not a good public speaker, playing the bard.  If the players can't figure out a puzzle that their characters should get in a snap, then there should be a route for the characters to get it.  Just like if the players can't spin a convincing lie, but their character can, that's what Bluff checks are for.

as wrecan put it, the game always challenges the players.  imo, there is a right way to challenge the players and a wrong way.
All this being said...why not directly challenge the players?

Because it amounts to introducing an arbitrarily chosen sub-game that lies outside the agreed core activity of playing the roleplaying game.

Some groups may be fine with this - and bully for them. But it's not an actual part of the game being played, and there is no reason to assume that everyone will be OK with the equivalent of breaking out to play Whist in order to determine what die roll a player gets in a game of Monopoly.

It's fine as a mixed activity to experiment with (or even make a regular thing, for a group that likes it), but it's not desirable as the core rules of the game.

I love seeing the players think - but they can do so in the context of the game rules, if the game rules are designed and used well. This is what I want, because the game rules are the rules of the game we actually gathered to play.
======= Balesir
Mr. Cook's article is absolutely terrible.

First, lets take a look at the poll. 1-5 as answers to a "how often question". I'm sorry, but there is simply no way for someone to know whether 1 is most frequent or 5 is most frequent. I may as well answer the "how often" question with "blue" or "fish". This is the sort of mistake I would expect from a 4th grader creating a poll for his technology class, but not from a professional.

Second, lets get at the overall theme, which is his grognardist view of D&D. If there's an invisible wall players need to breach, there are a couple things that could be going on behind the scenes.



  • The DM could expect the players to defeat the wall with mechanical options on their sheet. Maybe an Arcana or Thievery check, maybe Dispel Magic. Those are fine.

  • The DM could throw up the wall and let the players imagine up a way to defeat it. They might try skill checks, they might ask if there are control buttons or if a ritual might work, they might go capture and interrogate a guard. The DM waits for the players to invent the solution, and that solution works. This is a great way to handle challenges, because it is cooperative storytelling that really makes 4E.


But lets face it, we all know that what Mr. Cook really wants is this.


  • The DM describes the wall. There is a button that will release the wall and it is the only solution. It is hidden under a pile of offal three rooms over, and only works if the correct prayer to Yeeoghnu is spoken at the time it is pushed. The players can only find the button if they specifically asked what is under the left half of the offal pile. The words of the prayer are hidden in a complex word puzzle, that must be solved by the players, after they have visited the rooms where the clues are. Of course, the players have to find the clues by asking the DM the right questions.....


In other words, he wants to obstruct the players from having fun by creating impossible challenges. Thus, the DM can make the players feel stupid and he can always feel superior, comforted in his little power trip.

I have no desire to return th that style of gaming.
Another way to look at this is as follows:

Who is the player trying to outthink*?

In AD&D, the game pretty much asked you to outthink the DM.  The rules were loosy-goosy.  The DM made the scenario and either had a solution in mind, or expected the players to devise one.  You were supposed to "game the DM", figure out either his solution, or a solution he hadn't considered but would accept.

If the DM was running a module, it inserted a bit of "outthink the author" because the author of the module would give out solutions to various puzzles and riddles and the DM would simply plug in your actions to fit the model.

In WotC-era D&D, the player is invited to outthink the developer.  The rules encompass more things and the DM is expected to follow certain guidelines on monster design, encounter design, and adventure design.  The rules for the players are supposed to make those encounters challenging, but neither overwhelming nor overly easy.  With system mastery, however, the player can game the system (and thus outthink the developer).

If a DM house rules a lot, or goes beyond the guidleines, you can be back to outthinking the DM.

But in the end, you are going to be asked to outthink someone.  That's the challenge.  Each has advantages and disadvantages.  DMs can be arbitrary. They can play favorites.  They can be idiots easily outwitted.  On the other hand, they can personalize stories.  They can react on the fly to new ideas and new story directions. 

Developers are neutral.  They don't know you.  They design mechanics for the generic player.  They don't play favorites.  They aren't arbitrary.  But they can't challenge certain aspects of your creativity.  They can't anticipate your out-of-the-box thinking because, by definition, all they design is the box.  They are slow to react to problems.  It takes months or years to fix mechanical issues.  But they are generally of higher caliber than your average DM because they are professionals.  But with the advent of the internet, the developers are pitted against the whole world, which makes it a lot harder to come up with challenges to players who can simply consult the Character Optimization forums to find the solutions that others have collaborated upon to outthink the designers.  Which can turn the game into a plug-and-play atmosphere that may feel stifling.


*Note that "outthink" doesn't mean "beat".  If you are telling a collaborative story, "outthink" is simply developing a story in a way that is surprising to the other players.  You outthink them by adding elements that players didn't expect.  If they enjoy the new elements, then the collaboration is fun, and you are successful.  If the added element is considered disruptive or inappropriate then the game is unsuccessful and you will probably not be asked back.
All this being said...why not directly challenge the players?

Because it amounts to introducing an arbitrarily chosen sub-game that lies outside the agreed core activity of playing the roleplaying game.


If directly challenging the players is part of the roleplaying game, then the players have agreed to it.  That is an aspect of many roleplaying games, and not merely the ones from days of yore.
The big split is going to be agreeing on "right" and "wrong" ways to challenge players.
I, personally, feel that riddles, puzzles, and such (that shouldn't be able to be resolved with a simple die roll) that challenge the minds of the players is perfectly acceptable, and a long-standing tradition in RPGs, especially D&D.

For me the "right" way is to challenge them with in-game situations, such as tactical decisions, resource management, and collaborative problem-solving. The "wrong" way is to challenge them by making them too aware of what is on their character sheets, and them having to feel they constantly need to classify every event that arises in-game by what skill will best overcome it with a die roll. I want them to think. I want them to get into it on a deep level.

In short, I want them to be aware of the numbers on that piece of paper, but to also know that they can do so much more than what they've written down. If I describe a huge wall puzzle to the players, I don't want them immediately looking at their character sheet to see which skill they can use to roll away the problem. I want them to actually try to figure it out.

This is, of course, just my take on it. I have no doubt that it will conflict with many other peoples' views on it. It usually does.
It absolutely does. If you aren't requiring your players to arm wrestle you, to walk a balance beam, to jog around the block, to find a hidden easter egg in your house, or to get a cute girls phone number in order to represent the character's ability to perform a feat of strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom or charisma....why do they need to solve puzzles to represent the character's intellect?

Why should Thog the dyslexic barbarian whose player has a 145IQ be able to solve a complicated sudoku puzzle?
Why should Thog the dyslexic barbarian whose player has a 145IQ be able to solve a complicated sudoku puzzle?


Why should Goofus the idiot bard know when it's appropriate to use a power?

We're all metagaming.  We simply reflavor the justification after the fact.  If Thog's player solves the puzzle, does it have to come through Thog?  Or is it, in fact, Thog's player answering the puzzle on behalf of Thog's party, and we roleplay that the answer was provided in a way that made the most story-sense.  Maybe the wizard actually solved it.  maybe Thog made a lucky guess.  Maybe while the wizard was totally overthinking the puzzle, Frodo Thog innocently asked jutst the right question that led to the answer.

Who cares?  If the players have fun solving riddles, rather than rolling Insight, History, Streetwise, Religion, Dungeoneering, and Nature checks to solve the riddle skill challenge, what does it matter?
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