Boulders vs. Keyholes: Crafting RPG Obstacles
Have you ever had the experience as a GM where you’ve crafted an exciting adventure and your players get stuck on the very first obstacle. The answer is so obvious but they have tried a million different ways without coming close to the solution. Now everyone is getting frustrated any the session is coming completely off the rails.
When I first read the Mouse Guard RPG it I was amazed at the rules for failed challenges creating story twists instead of stopping the plot. What an “innovative mechanic” as Russ Wakelin would say.
It’s funny, really, because this should be self evident to a good GM and doesn’t require rules to incorporate in any game, in any system. In my case I’ve been applying this principal in Dungeon World.
The way I like to see a good obstacle is as a boulder in a stream. It charges the flow of the stream in dynamic and exciting ways. Meanwhile a bad obstacle is like a keyhole. There is only one way through it and the process is mechanical.
Strangely keyholes take more work than boulders. You have to come up with a problem and a solution. Boulders are easy, create the problem and then stop. Let your player’s do the heavy lifting. It’s amazing the crazy crap they’ll come up with. Sometimes a simple obstacle can turn into an entire evening of enjoyable roleplaying.
Take that energy you would have put into railroading your players and start thinking of how to make their choice interesting and incorporate it into the story. In a recent game a player needed to bypass a cluster of guards to reach a warehouse. I was thinking she would take to the roofs like any proper thief. So fine, time passes and the guards leave. She drops off her package and heads back to the inn where she learns that their next task takes them to a haunted house. Too bad she spent so much time hanging out because the sun is just now starting to set.
How about you? Do you have any stories of crazy player solutions to simple problems? Any missed opportunities where you forced the game to conform to your plan? Leave a message, send me a Tweet on Twitter or a message on Google+. You can also Subscribe to get my next article automatically to your favorite RSS reader.
Mouse Guard Roleplaying Game is a game by Luke Crane and David Petersen. Mouse Guard game content ©MMX Luke Crane based on The Burning Wheel. Mouse Guard art and comic content ©MMX David Petersen. Published by Archaia. Art used with permission.
Dungeon World is a roleplaying game by Adam Koebel and Sage Latorra. ©MMXII Sage Latorra and Adam Koebel. It was released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. You can find more about the game on Dungeon World’s Official Website.