On the Creative Crocodile Conundrum

Are modern gamers objectively less creative than old-school gamers?

Here over at Monsters and Manuals, Noisms discusses some of the agency-sucking, mind-reading, poorly presented, 'Gotcha!' ideals that make up some of the 4thcore adventures.

Noisms postulated a problem that could be solved creatively in a variety of different ways. A treasure hoard is on the other side of the room, with a channel in the middle filled with crocodiles.

One of the posters responds:
"Conversely, any realistic solution to the crocodile problem is going to involve someone being fast enough or strong enough to do something at some point - it's also a skill check scenario (even if it boils down to the good old OSR dodge of the GM rolling a percentage chance - that's still a skill check, just a very arbitrary one)."

I do not think this point of view is uncommon—that the only solutions for problems are skill solutions. A short word about old-school play.

A dice roll in an old-school game is only made when the outcome of an action absolutely cannot be decided by agreement or fiat.

You don't roll to climb up to a ledge or a wall, get out of a pit, ride the horse up the mountain, tie up the prisoner, or jump off the horse; YOU DON'T NEED TO ROLL TO FEED THE CROCODILES POISONED MEAT or have your unseen servant bring the treasure over, you don't need to roll to climb over the channel, or to throw the bag across the channel or any one of a hundred different solutions.

Some actual dice rolls may be required for some of the solutions—but they will most definitely not require only strength or speed. Sure, if you cast web or sleep, the crocodiles will get a save. Sure, if you have the ranger attempt to calm the beasts, they may get a reaction roll.

A roll for discovery is different than a roll for allowing the player not to play.

I know the cliché of the young player looking at his sheet and going "There's nothing on here that lets me solve this problem" is a cliché because it occurs often, but the comment above got me thinking. It occurs a lot—personally—to me—in many of the games I ran. Players who only want to follow the main hook, players who wonder how they can tie someone up without the use rope skill, and even players who can only have relationships with NPC's if there are rules for romance. (No, not my current groups)

So are new school players just objectively less creative? Is it part of the generational issue of millennials having a fear of doing anything that's not explicitly permitted by authority sources? Why is the above sort of response so common? And really, as DM's, what can we do about their lack of creativity in problem-solving without holding their hands and giving them a half dozen ideas for solutions? Is this the same lack of creativity bemoaned by Gygax and Kuntz after the publication of classic D&D, or something different?

But thieves need to make a skill check to climb walls!

No, they don't. Anyone can climb walls. Just like anyone can hide or move around quietly. Thieves can climb unclimbable walls or normal walls unreasonably quickly. They can hide in the very shadows themselves and move so quietly that you never hear them until the knife enters your back.

Just because there is a resolution method for an action doesn't mean you need to use it—you don't make your players roll to kill unconscious opponents.

But if you don't make them roll, how will they ever fail?

The problem here is that you want the game to be a railroad. You don't want your players to decide what to do or how to solve a problem; you want to call for a skill check.

If you take off the safety rails and give them some freedom, you will be astounded at the bodies and rooms they forget to search and the actions they neglect to do. How many monsters or NPC's they leave on the ground unconscious to get up and get revenge another day.

I've got a post up about treasure generation. I put the opportunity for about 50,000 experience, 45,000 of which is treasure, to give the party the 10k total they need to reach the second level. Why is that? because they miss a full third or more of the treasure in the dungeon.

The fact is, if you don't lead them by the nose, player skill is a real thing they will need to have, and if they don't have player skill then they will fail.

The whole skill system is a crutch because it allows them to fail without feeling personally responsible, among other reasons.

Then you're just playing a guessing game! The whole session becomes about "Guess what the DM is thinking"!

If you tell the players what they need to know to solve the problem, they don't have to guess. They still have to solve the problem.

How come it's ok to use 'skill checks' for combat and not for something like talking to opponents?

Because at the table, I can't use my personal skill to swing an axe, but I can use my personal skill to convince a crocodile to let me pass.

Well, then how about I make my players lift something heavy when they want to bend bars, huh? Isn't that player skill?

Nice strawman, but as above—if we cannot agree or decide by fiat that you can't lift the gate, then a roll is required isn't it? This is a situation like "do I hit the monster" that is best decided by a die roll. Of course it's a continuum. I may know that the gate is latched closed, and no matter the level of your strength you will not be able to lift it, but you might be able to bend the bars.

If you use your skill to talk to the crocodile and there is no skill roll, then the DM just makes a decision—But you don't have any control over the DM's decisions! Without the dice to protect you, you'll just be railroaded into guessing what he's thinking all the time.

This is of course, another strawman—a misrepresentation of the actual process of play. The process of the DM making a decision comes down to discussion and agreement.

What does the party know about crocodiles in a skill light system?
The DM starts by asking if anyone is a druid or a ranger, but that's just where it begins.

Here is the important part - if anyone can come up with a reason that they would know something about crocodiles that is reasonable, then they do.

Reasonable how? By table consensus, but as always, the DM has the last word.

If your problem is that the DM can be unreasonable—let me assure you that more rules is not a solution to that problem.

How many solutions can you create to the Crocodile Conundrum problem?

Originally published 10/7/11

On Reader Mail, Table Talk & Communication

Evelyn writes in:
"In Pandemic, how the players communicate with each other influence and change the game a lot; since the main challenge of the game is to cooperate efficiently, I think communication is somehow part of the gameplay.
So I wondered how this applies to old-school gaming and how you manage table talk, player vs. character talk, and communication at the gaming table. "
How apt. This question strikes at the heart of gaming. 

Gaming is about communication. Dice, stats, rules, all fall to the wayside in tabletop role-playing games behind the essence of "What do you do?"

I was browsing G+ and saw someone reference a Reintsian dungeon crawl. It wasn't D&D or B/X - it was Jeff. [1] (You can search G+ for the term here!) When talking about D&D, it is not the way combat or skills are handled that differentiates the game, but the communication style in playing it. There is no question that communication is part of gameplay.

How I manage communication

I am a proponent of Old School play. [2] In old-school play, the player is the person tasked with making choices. The idea is that the player puts themselves in the role of explorer, not that of an actor playing a part.

I ended a game in media res last week. This week different players showed up. The old characters were gone, and the new players and their characters were there.

From Drawing & Dragons for LotFP
My priority is not creating a naturalistic environment that reeks of verisimilitude. My priority is playing a fun game with my friends.

Players always communicate as players and rarely as their characters, even when interacting with NPCs. Players discuss options as a group. As a general rule, anything they are saying takes time within the game and can be heard by people standing nearby. These are for the game purposes of encouraging focused play as a measure of player skill (planning quickly to avoid random or wandering monsters) and keeping play focused on adventure and not inter-party squabbles and rivalry (No discussing killing players or hirelings or other NPC's without consequences).

When players take action, that action occurs. Occasionally when players have engaged in 'take-back' behavior, I will nominate a rotating party leader and enforce that until players begin to take responsibility for what they say. Other games (run by a particularly notorious narcissistic blogger who does not deserve a link) allow no table talk, assuming that everything said is constantly said and done.

The communication structure in gaming is based on IIEE. (Intention (announcing the action), Initiation (starting the action), Execution (completing the action), and Effect (consequences of the action).) In my games, Intention and Initiation are conflated. Many players will attempt to state the Intention to bait the Dungeon Master for Execution.

This next part is so important.

I bypass the Intention/execution end around by using player agency. "You have options A, B, and C. Here are the consequences of each. Choose."
E.g. "You may remain where you are, or you may step out into the hallway, but you feel fairly certain that doing so will place you in view of whatever fired that arrow, or you may attempt to move back, either fleeing or hiding behind party member B for cover."
Players are responsible for acquiring information about the situation themselves. There are two ways this happens.

  1. They ask. I tell them.
  2. They ask. I tell them the cost to find out.
90% of requests fall into the first category. It is very, very difficult to convince players to ask and clarify uncertainties before taking action. I repeatedly tell them they can ask me for information during play, as well as make sure I state what options and known consequences there are so they can understand what they don't know.


  • There is little to no character development. Characters do emerge, but the game isn't about who these people are, it is about the choices that the players make.
  • Players are informed of their options and empowered. Since they know the possible consequences before making choices, the game seems very fair to all those involved.
  • Players have a lot of control over getting to do what they want to do each week. 


There were some more questions asked in the letter.
"But I have noticed that the group table talk often short circuit some player's actions, choices, or initiatives. Like a player is tempted to explore or interact with something, and the other players chat in, and the player shies away or just does as the group suggests  even if he or she was tempted to make a different choice. "

This is a fairly standard group dynamic. Peer culture has a huge influence on behavior. It can be situationally addressed by (politely) telling everyone to shut up and asking the player what his action is without interference from the rest of the party. In general, however, this should be considered a positive thing. You do have the power to say, "Discussion is over," and then ask for actions, free of input clockwise. Or look at other game resolution options and systems that allow choices without input from all the players.
"Sometimes, it also feels like in-game communication limitations could lead to interesting in-game situations. Like removing "on the spot" decisions."
When you design a dungeon or adventure, that is literally a truth of what you are doing. You are designing it. There is a standard mode of play, but certain situations can create an 'on the spot' decision. The key is it should be a consequence of player action. Make sure that whatever is causing the timed situation is clear (a stopwatch, a count, etc.) and driven by player choice. Then they are on the spot. Again, it should be an intended design and not simply something is done to frustrate your players. 

[1] Note that I'm not saying that system doesn't matter. Clearly, communication in Bridge is part of play, as it is in Burning Wheel.  But we are talking about D&D, which is its own broad-spectrum thing. You can design an RPG about communication as a game-play element that makes it its own game. When speaking about D&D or the base role-playing experience, it is much like talking about poker. Even through the hundreds of variations, the structure of poker and the necessary elements of communication (tells, bluffing) remain the same, even if minimized to the point of irrelevance.

[2] I've played new games, from Vampire to 4e to Dogs in the Vineyard to Microscope and more. My preference for old-school play is no statement on the validity of those other play styles. It was fun to play those other games! I imagine my assertiveness of the virtues of old-school play has caused people to assume that I'm saying something negative about those other games. When in truth, when played as designed, they can be fun! (I will admit, I want to add about 1000 caveats to that statement.) 

Originally published 9/4/12

On Reader Mail, Find Traps skill

A completely different Nick than yesterday writes: "Do you use a "Find Traps" skill for your thieves? Reading your materials, I can't really tell. I know you favor description and discovery through interaction, so if you use it, how do you have it "interface" with that? I'm struggling with this bit myself."

How does find traps interface with player skill-focused play?

This is a great question, and part of the answer has to do with infinite play and what you wish to spend your time doing; the other part has to do with the purpose of a trap.

What is the purpose of a trap?

The purpose of a trap is to make decisions meaningful. If there is no risk from just walking around, opening chests, or exploring rooms, then those activities become flat and dull. If the only threat is monsters, then you've removed uncertainty from the game, making it flatter and less interesting. Traps should make the play of the game more interesting.


Traps should represent an unseen threat. Lurking in chests and doors, they are likely not visible. But in rooms and corridors, there should always be some sign of their placement. This sign should not always be obvious but should be visible to an alert party. I've written a whole lot about how to present this.

What do we wish to spend our time doing? 

The other question becomes what do we want to actually be doing at the table? Do you want players to describe in detail how they are approaching and interacting with chests? The fact is, with any simple object like a door or chest, the ways of approaching and dealing with it are limited. It is possible to create an itemized list of activities to do when approaching a door. Depending on the type of campaign and your players, this may or may not be an issue. It depends on what you want.

The secret you wish to know

So, do I use the find traps skill?

I've found that it is hard to remember to do things. My general approach, is that all room and corridor traps are openly visible, and players either handle them manually in the game or suffer the consequences, as my traps and agency series. Openly visible means that there is some descriptive clue given to their purpose. I hid wall scythe blades in jagged shadows. Bodies on the floor is an option for easy detection, a side effect of trap placement in the description is more difficult to discern from the detection. For doors and chests, if they ask, I will simply tell them if the door or chest is trapped.

They frequently don't ask.

It is apparently really really difficult to remember to do that. 

This works very well to put the focus squarely on player skill. I want to point out, that I only do this for searching for traps, not most activities, like packing, lighting torches, etc. Specifically, I don't assume players will hit in combat, a key pillar of play any more than I assume they are going to take the time to look for traps another key pillar of play. Standard D&D does not consider remembering to pack your sword as a pillar of play. There are games that do. Again, it depends on where you want to spend your time.

Most of the games I run don't even contain a search or find traps skill. The idea behind the original thief skills, was that they were semi-magical in nature. So in systems that do have a find traps skill, I run it as either a Danger Sense skill, or allow it to be rolled as an additional saving throw to avoid the effects of traps. The same with locks, in most campaigns - any normal lock can be opened by a thief. It is puzzle locks, complicated vault locks, and other special tricks that Open Locks is expected to address.

First published 1/7/14

On Reader Mail, The Comprehensive Search Bypassing Play

'J' writes in again with another question.

"One of my players wants to bypass the game-play by saying 'I search everything'. I've responded in the past by asking them to be more specific, but this isn't working well."

This sounds like a source of irritation to both the Dungeon Master, who doesn't want his work bypassed, and to the player who doesn't want to jump through hoops. This interaction can end up being very confrontational.

The solution is non-obvious. I never approach an interaction in a game by asking a player to do more. I maintain agency with this the same way I would with any action the player takes. I would describe the consequences of their choice and ask what they wish to do.

"I search everything."
"Ok, it will take you nine turns individually, or three turns as a group to thoroughly search "everything else". This will result in either three wandering monster checks if you search alone or one wandering monster check with a higher chance of a monster appearing due to the activity and noise if you search as a group. You may instead choose to specify what areas you are searching specifically to avoid having to do such an exhaustive search. What do you wish to do?
The consequences of actions are known, and the players can make an informed choice maintaining agency and receiving the expected result from their actions. As a byproduct, consequences for bypassing the Dungeon Master's carefully crafted rooms are maintained as well as the player not feeling as if they are having to jump through hoops.

'J' Replies:
"Using your example with the random encounters, if the player does say yes to the random encounters, do you just roll and then they discover the loose flagstone behind the throne even though they did not mention the throne at all, let alone behind the throne? 
"That bugs me for some reason. I feel your method would speed play, but at the cost of actual discovery. I feel it would be more rewarding for a player to discover the loose flagstone if they thought to look behind the throne."
The rules of the game indicate that there are two levels of hidden. "Concealed" and "Secret," so the answer to the question depends on what the hidden area is.

If it's concealed, then any verbal description of saying they are going to look at the area will discover it, as will any 'through search of the room' trading time for risk. If it's secret, then searching the area gives the 1 in 6 (or 2 in 6 for elves, or 3 in 6 for Dwarves (sliding stone) given in your example) chance to discover.

It is more rewarding for them to search for it themselves. The risk of having an encounter should be a fairly severe threat, so if they want to search every room they will not make it far.

I think also, that this particular mechanic is vastly improved if you note that the detection of a room trap or a secret door does not in any way grant information on how to disarm the trap or open the door.

Originally published 3/19/13

On Mace

 Sinless is just going great. Everyone is working, we've got people playing, the final parts are getting shored up; it's exciting.

Years ago, I noticed someone whose work reminded me of Halloway and the best of old-school D&D. Jeshields is an artist on Sinless. He lives in Alaska with his wife and more daughters than I can count (who are also artists), and he's recently decided to leave a graphic design job and illustrate full-time.

. . . 

You cannot imagine the coup this is for old-school gaming. Anyway, besides illustrating for Sinless and plenty of other old-school products, he's running a Kickstarter for MACE, a book of useable monsters. It's a much more concrete book and should work nicely with Bestial Encounters Caused by Monstrous Inhabitation.

Check it out here: MACE, monster and character encounters

I'm a backer at the highest level because it's the best work in the field. Already funded. Check it out before it's too late!

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