Article Header Image
Out of Bounds
Legends and Lore
Monte Cook

G ame design theory is filled with dichotomies. Game versus simulation. Complexity versus simplicity. Sandbox versus storylines. And so on. Among the more interesting, as it pertains to D&D, can be expressed as a simple question with complicated implications:

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

For example, can all monsters be defeated in straightforward ways, which is to say, attacked with swords and magic missiles until they die? Can all physical obstacles (walls to climb, narrow ledges to traverse, rivers to cross, and so forth) be overcome with die rolls? Are those die rolls achievable given the PCs’ level and abilities? Is the solution to every puzzle available to those with the right skills or spells? Is the counter or resolution to every problem hardwired into the game?

Put another way, need a player look any further than his character sheet to solve every in-game challenge? Are the bounds of the game defined by the bounds of the rules?

Looking back at the game’s roots, the answer to these questions was usually no. In the early days, the game’s mechanics rarely provided solutions to the problems the characters faced. Players stretched beyond the bounds of the rules and looked for solutions not covered in the books. Player ingenuity was always the key to winning encounters. And very often, the DM didn’t actually have a set solution in mind ahead of time. He expected the PCs to come up with something on their own.

This isn’t true of more recent expressions of the game. There are few encounters that can’t be won simply by using the PCs’ straightforward powers and abilities. For example, consider fire immunity. In older versions of the game, the red dragon was immune to fire. If you’re packing fireballs, you’re just out of luck. In the most recent version of the game, the designers decided that it’s no fun if the game tells you that the choices you made were wrong, so red dragons are resistant to fire, but not immune. You can still use your fireballs.

That’s a viable design approach. You make sure that no choices are bad choices. You make sure that every lock has a key that can be found. Every barrier has a way past it. You ensure that the PCs are never presented with a challenge that they can’t somehow overcome. You encourage the players to roll some dice and then move on to the next thing.

Now imagine a simple dungeon room. There’s a pile of treasure on the far side. The PCs come in and quickly discover that an impenetrable force field blocks the far side of the room from them. In an “old school” dungeon, the players would be forced to figure out a way to get past the force field or somehow get beyond it to reach the treasure. The DM might have no preset solution in mind. It might very well be impossible for the characters, given their resources, to get the treasure.

As the game developed over the years, solutions were inserted into that encounter’s design. Perhaps there’s a lever somewhere else in the dungeon that lowers the field. Maybe a spell or the right combination of spells would bring down the barrier. Perhaps a secret passage circumvents the force field. Or maybe just pounding on it long enough will destroy the barrier.

There’s actually a spectrum of different approaches here. For example, if there’s a trick to getting past the force field, that still requires player ingenuity. The encounter gives the characters a safety net but still requires players to do the heavy lifting. The extreme opposite the “old school” approach is where the force field can be overcome by the most straightforward use of almost any character ability: dealing damage, making a skill check, and so on.

D&D has historically been a game that challenges both players and their characters. Not every problem is solved by bashing on it. Some problems don’t have solutions at all—unless the players come up with them. If the players know that every challenge they face is going to be solved simply by the most straightforward application of their abilities, with only the vagaries of the dice being the thing that might actually bring defeat, the game is going to get dull for many players eventually.

D&D is as much about accomplishment as it is about storytelling. It’s as much about overcoming obstacles as it is about epic destinies. Deep satisfaction comes from coming up with a solution that lies outside the bounds of the rules but is still well within the bounds of the game.

And maybe that’s really the takeaway here. The rules are not the sum total of the game. The game is larger than that. Breaking the rules, circumventing the rules, or ignoring the rules does not take you out of the game. The game encompasses that type of play. It’s built upon it, in fact. So why shouldn’t the design of the game also be bigger than the rules? Why shouldn’t those kind of assumptions be taken into account? It puts the responsibility back in the hands of the players, rather than the DM or the designer. Success or failure lies within their own hands again.

This Week's Polls

When overcoming challenges (monsters, traps, tricks, barriers, roleplaying encounters, and so on), on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “virtually never” and 5 being “every time,” tell us how often the best solutions should be within the normal bounds of the rules governing standard PC abilities (attacks, checks, etc.):

 How often should the best solutions be within the normal bounds of the rules governing standard PC abilities?  
1
2
3
4
5

Last Week's Polls

When it comes to character creation, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being "not at all" and 5 being "very much," I value the following things in D&D books:

Simplicity
3 35.7%
4 25.3%
2 18.3%
5 12.0%
1 8.8%

Quick Creation
4 26.2%
3 25.6%
5 24.4%
2 15.7%
1 8.1%

Ability to Customize Fully
5 36.3%
4 28.7%
3 23.8%
2 8.6%
1 2.5%

When it comes to character creation, what's more important to you, simplicity or customization?
5 37.2%
4 25.2%
3 22.7%
2 10.8%
1 4.0%

Comments
Sort Items By: Newest First Oldest First Top Rated
 >
There are no comments yet for this article (or rating). Be the first!
 >

Create Comment
Follow Us
RSS
Find a place to get together with friends or gear up for adventure at a store near you
Please enter a city or zip code