On Banishing the Design Demon and Having a Cup of Tea

So I have gotten a lot of questions about this and this method. Here is a FAQ.

Hey, this series is a little like. . .

Yes. The Quantum Ogre is about agency for players. How to respond to them without shutting them down.

This is about design, and how design can influence creating agency heavy play. How to free yourself from the burden of 'making things realistic' as a design goal, and making your game more fun for the people involved.

I would rather have a balance between verisimilitude and a playable game.

You are right! It's good not one thing I suggested would create a game that doesn't maintain verisimilitude. No option when used as presented would cause problems with suspension of disbelief, unless you are astoundingly uncreative and unoriginal. I don't think it is likely that would be true if you're playing Dungeons & Dragons or even role-playing at all! If it is true and you are really that uncreative and original you have bigger problems then this series of articles. But you are too frigging metal for that!

But you said that you weren't interested in simulating reality!

That's right! But even if I totally ignore that goal, it still happens, because that isn't the responsibility of the Dungeon Master!

Things making sense, coming together, and immersion occur in the minds of the players. My responsibility in the role of Dungeon master is to engage all the players by creating environments that are filled with interesting choices. I'm not interested in it, because I don't need to be for it to happen.

But why ignore it as a goal?

Because if you make it a goal, you end up doing crappy things to your players.

You convince yourself that you must do things in order to make your game more realistic. Then when you do them, you make your game less fun. Otherwise I would never hear things like "searching empty rooms becomes tedious."

The rules are a method to give us guidelines for simulation, that's what gives us interesting choice.

Sure that's one way of looking at it. It's certainly possible that it results in interesting choice. However if you decide that your primary concern is simulation, you are guaranteeing sooner or later (hint: it's sooner) that you will be spending time on things that don't provide interesting choices.

Make interesting choices the design goal and by design, you will never spend any time making things that are boring and without choices that have interesting and significant consequences.

So every encounter must be interesting and related to the players?

Absolutely not! the whole point is to create variety in encounters so that interest is maintained.

Often this means you design nothing to happen.

Does avoiding mother may I mean that players always succeed at anything they try?

This has to do with table style of play. My players never ask for permission to do anything, nor do they ever have to wonder what might happen if they take an action.

I give options and either their likely outcomes or what resolution we will use for an outcome. If something unexpected comes up, we talk about it as a table. This falls under techniques to increase agency in play.

Doesn't this take a long time? How are players supposed to search everything?

I would say that this process is certainly longer then simply rolling a die. Considering it is actually what game-play consists of and the most entertaining part of play, then I would say the fact that it takes a long time is a positive thing.

I am curious why people think players should search everything. There is no pre-determined outcome and no reason the players are entitled to find everything. If they get bored of searching or are upset because they are triggering traps, then let them know that they are free to choose to do something else.

If they are complaining of boredom, look first to your design, then to their choices.

But if you design every encounter, you're destroying the greatest strength of Role Playing Games! Players able to do creative things to solve problems.

Why? What about creating deliberate interesting choices prevents the players from coming up with new creative ideas?

You gave examples of rolling for finding traps and searching. I thought you were against that?

I'm against rolls that eliminate interesting game play and increase tedium.

This is the 'end' of the Design Demon series. Further questions will be added to those above.


  1. Maybe I can sum up the philosophy this way: if you see boredom at the table, empower yourself to break it. If X becomes not fun any more, avoid it. If the players have a goal and not-fun is in the way, offer an alternative with fun (it can also have costs and danger). Is that a fair summation?

  2. While playing video games, I feel the compulsion to search everything because I know the best items are the most well-hidden, usually one-of-a-kind, and often only available during a limited time frame. What I miss about tabletop role playing is knowing that anything I miss can be found somewhere else, and often the treasure isn't even rolled-up until the horde is located.

  3. "My players never ask for permission to do anything, nor do they ever have to wonder what might happen if they take an action. "

    I still need help understanding this. Here's the way things happen at my table.

    PC: "Can I use this tablecloth to blind the ogre?"
    DM: "Sure, roll a climb check to get up him, and a dexterity check to tie it in a blindfold. That will give him -4 to hit."

    If the players don't ask you, how does that situation turn out at your table? I can only see three options:

    1.The players already instinctively know how you would adress the tablecloth trick, either because you've been playing together so long or because you're enmeshed in a psychic mind-net.
    2. Your players would never do anything outside the pre-agreed rules. (This seems obviously ridiculous).
    3. The players ask The Table how that situation should be resolved, instead of asking you specifically. That still seems like Mother-may-I, but maybe that's what you mean.

    1. Hey Jack,
      Good question.

      They don't have to ask permission. Of course they can use the tablecloth to blind the ogre. If they have a tablecloth, and there is an ogre. . .

      Now, as to how that works? I don't decide that. Either the rules do, or if it's a new thing, I suggest something. I then ask if that thing seems reasonable. We talk about balancing it against repeated implementation, abuse, etc. Then they agree to the proposal and we move forward.

      That is how it works at the table. This next part is very key:
      The players have agency.
      Which means they know the consequences (or the possible consequences) of any action they take before they take it.

      Nobody ever does anything without being told either what will happen, what is likely to happen, or they don't know what will happen but here is how you find out more information.

      It is not semantical. They are literally not asking for permission. They are saying, "If I try to blind the ogre, how will we resolve this?"

      They obviously are not reading minds, nor staying within perscribed rules. They are also not asking me or the table exactly if they can do something. They are asking me and the shared responsability of those people playing the game what will happen when they do something. The second is not asking permission, nor mother-may-I.

      It's asking about consequences of choices. Not asking for leave of action.

  4. It seems after every entry you have to follow it up with a laundry list of rebuttals from people who, according to you, just "don't get it".

    Your problem is that you want to have it both ways. You want -only- meaningful choice, but still want the empty rooms. You want to have a world devoid of verisimilitude, but are so certain that your players will still find that it exists, "in their mind". A world where nothing uninteresting ever happens will never fool anyone.

    But wait, I forgot, we just "don't get it". Gotcha.

    In that case, the ultimate irony in this and the Quantum Ogre series is that in your quest to explain how to create clear, concise and meaningful choices for players in RPGs, you have a comment board full of people who have no idea what the hell you're talking about. You're thesis has been anything but clear, concise or meaningful. More like, "let's all try 20 questions to figure out what he means".

    1. I believe there is only one person qualified to state what it is I want; and being myself, I can state for a fact that it isn't at all what you claim it is.

      If you'd like to cite specific instances of these "laundry list of rebuttals" then we can talk about the specifics which is useful, as opposed to your vague inaccurate generalizations.

      I've had players ask me what dice they need to roll for reaction rolls before. It says so in the actual books, but they either haven't read it or haven't thought about it.

      Take a look at the comment section for this post.
      There are five comments. The post has 1163 unique visitors over the time it's been posted. By those metrics 99.6% of people who read it had no questions. Seems like it's pretty clear to me.

      If you'd like to discuss something specific, I'd be welcome to.

    2. "I believe there is only one person qualified to state what it is I want; and being myself, I can state for a fact that it isn't at all what you claim it is. "

      Boy would I hate to be at a table with you as my game master and hear such alienating, self-centered words. The irony is so thick with you I can cut it with a knife. You try to explain in these very posts that you want your players to be free from having to guess where to experience the "fun" in your encounters, and then scold those who are utterly confused by your explanations.

      Not only are your posts meandering, contradictory and confusing, but attempt to decipher them and you're met with condescension. And I believe that any person who reads your blog is free to interpret your meaning based on your own words. If I have to be inside your own head to understand exactly it is what you want, then you've failed miserably as a GM.

      You wrote the rebuttals yourself in bold above. Check the list above and other lists of rebuttal questions you've assembled in past posts on "Adventure Design" and "The Quantum Ogre". Did you forget you wrote them? Or are you now claiming that nobody really had those question about your posts? Or do you just like to create non-existent straw-men to counter your own arguments?

    3. Thanks for the reply. I think I now understand what you are talking about.

      The "rebuttals" above are an example, in text, of using the Socratic Method. to teach about a subject. The socratic method is most useful for topics such as these that require critical thinking, rather than rote memorization, procedures, or practice; that is why it is the method I use to try and communicate and teach about Dungeon Mastering. If there ever was an endeavor that required critical thinking it's that one.

      Your replies make several claims without any specific citation. My experience has led me to believe that this is trolling behavior, but I'm in the business of talking about Dungeons & Dragons, so I generally persist until it's clear that it is trolling behavior. To wit: "Scold those who are utterly confused by your explanations." Who have I scolded? "according to me 'just don't get it'" Where was this said? "If I have to be inside your own head to understand exactly what you want, then you've failed. . ." Why is what I want relative to DMing? Why do you feel you have to understand what I want? I don't understand the relationship between your assumption of what it is I may or may not want and how that's related to running a game.

      Many people have interpreted both what I write online and in person as condescending. I've learned that this is a valid emotional response to my method of interacting with people in life. I strongly agree that people should interpret my meaning based on the meaning of the words I use! The problem I often find is that they assume meaning beyond the words I write. My wife also informs me this is totally normal, even if I view it as a type of tone argument. Communication is complicated.

      To be explicit: The responses are not questions about my post or non-existent strawmen. Just a technique to teach and examine skills that require critical thinking. Part of the socractic method is having a dialog, so I always welcome questions.

  5. But if you design every encounter, you're destroying the greatest strength of Role Playing Games! Players able to do creative things to solve problems.
    Why? What about creating deliberate interesting choices prevents the players from coming up with new creative ideas?

    This sounds like a devolution of the argument that RPG authors shouldn't need to write good rules for [X], because that strips the DM of the freedom to make things up on the fly. Same concept—X doesn't need to do their job in the "TRPG system," because they can throw something together and pass the buck to the next guy.


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