Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What is the REAL Problem?

I attended a wedding on Sunday, and while there I got to hang out and talk with a lot of friends who are also into gaming. While talking, someone made the concept that I am hard to prepare for (in any situation I guess) because I think "sideways". I asked exactly what the person meant, and he brought up some examples from games we've been in where I have had creative solutions to problems. Solutions that in a couple cases have had the GM go "Ok, I need to take a moment. I didn't expect you to bypass that so quickly". Thinking about it critically though, I think the only true difference in approach I have is that when presented a problem I like to think about it in the simplest terms I can. What do I mean by that? Read on to find out.

So, before I go into what I am talking about, let me give you an example that kind of illuminates the problem. It is a common example for this, and I'll say why I used it after. So, the situation. You're playing in a game, and you are confronted with a locked door. The locked door has a puzzle on it to open it up, it is an intricate puzzle that involves complex thinking and logic to get by. So now, what are your possible solutions to this problem? The "rogue" can pick the lock, but there is no lock just the puzzle. The "fighter" can break down the door, but the door is thick steel so that is out. The "wizard" can magic the door, but there is an anti-magic bubble. So I guess you're stuck with solving the puzzle, right? Wrong.

What is the actual problem here? It isn't the door, it isn't the puzzle, and it isn't that the GM is being an ass hat. The problem here is that you need to get to the other side of the door. So, how do you solve that problem? The door is insurmountable without solving the puzzle, sure. What about the walls? How about interplanar travel? If the walls are stone, I bet you could pull out a block to slip through. The mage could make someone ethereal for a round. There are a lot of ways to solve the problem of "How do I get into that area", but only a few to "How do I open the door".

This very problem is addressed in one of the first episodes of Burn Notice. Michael Weston needs to deal with a guy, and the guy has greatly improved the security of his door. Michael smiles, and then explains to the audience that even a moron will soup up their door, but most of the time they don't fix up their walls. Making the wall the easiest way to actually get the guy.

Now, this is a very simple (and common) example, but it is one to think about when you are playing. Don't think about the problem that the GM has given you, instead boil the problem down to its simplest and truest form. It is not "A door is in my way" it is "I need into that room". It's not "This trap needs to be disarmed." it is "That thing is going to kill us".

Once you know what the problem is, take stock of your resources. What do you have to use? No, not just on your character sheet, the whole thing. Is someone in the room with you? That's an asset. Even if they're an opponent, they can still be used. This is where true creativity comes in though, finding ways to use those things that are not considered by most people to be usable. So let me just say straight off, almost anything can be used to your advantage.

Another example? You're trapped in the classic trap, the pit and the pendulum. You're bolted down to a table, and a blade on a pendulum is slowly lowering closer and closer towards you. You are bound tight to the table, the table is solid stone, and you can't worm your way free. totally screwed? Wrong. So, what is the problem here? "The pendulum blade is going to cut me in half" right? No, the problem is "someone is trying to kill me with a pendulum blade". Why? Well, you didn't get bound to that stone table that well all by yourself now did you? So who put you there? Probably the person you were going after before hand. What do you know about them? What do you have that maybe they could want? Think about it, and think fast, after all the real problem here (despite what I said before) isn't that the blade is going to kill you, it is that you only have X amount of time to make something happen or that person is going to have killed you.

So, find something, and use it. "Wait, I'll talk. I can help you, I know where is", "Don't you want to know why I was sent to kill you?", or "There will be more if I die, but I can help make it stop!" All of these are tempting things to call out. Presumably someone is listening, after all you don't just leave someone in an elaborate death trap. What you are playing for here is time, to talk to you they have to stop the blade. You bring it to a different encounter and can get out of it. You aren't confronting the problem of the trap, because that isn't the core problem. The problem is the person who put you into the trap. So deal with that problem, and it will solve the other one for you quite nicely.

So, the next time you find yourself in a tight situation take a second to look at it, and ask yourself "What is the real problem here?" You might be surprised at what you come up with, and the solutions that that brings to your mind.


  1. This is good advice. Excellent advice. As a DM or a fellow player, I would enjoy having you at my table (from the sound of this) and I tend to play similarly -- however-- you can take this kind of thinking too far.

    One good reason not to do these things? Genre conventions. Spy dramas evade problems by blowing out the wall... fantasy characters tend to solve the puzzle. Spy villians want to talk when they leave you in the deathtrap... the Joker? He just eants to laugh as he walks out of the room.

    I'm not saying "never" but I've been the guy who takes this too far... and, some players at the table (and clearly the GM) actually do want to have a 'door-with-puzzle' moment.

    Just thinkin out loud...

  2. Oh god yes, I couldn't agree with you more on it. There is a time and place for everything, and creativity is one of those things.

    I like creative thinking and plans, but they definitely have places to be and not to be. And playing up to the genre is always a good thing to do, and ruining the fun of others is not cool.

    Mostly I wanted to show how you could do it. Whether you do or not is up to your discretion.

  3. Oh, I definitely got that from your post, and it really is something I'm glad to hear people doing... I just know I have a tendancy to frustrate my fellow gamers doing this kind of thing...

  4. What I like most about this post is that you actually pull the curtain back and show the process of doing the thing you decided to address.

    [I also like it because it references Burn Notice. It is right and good to refer to Burn Notice.]

    I do agree with the comment from the Rhetorical Gamer that it can go too far, either by violating genre conventions or character capabilities, but in truth putting limits on going too far can also go too far and leave players not going far enough for no good reason. "My character wouldn't do that!"

    I think this is a valuable post. A lot of people can get mired in just waiting for something to happen (You are all sitting in a tavern, when a stranger approaches you...) and actually learning to interact with the setting and story in unscripted ways is not reinforced in many other gaming methods.

  5. Glad you like it Rune, when I bring things up I try to go into them a bit in depth. It makes for longer posts sometimes, but at the same time I hate it when I read an advice column and it gives me the situation but not a way to handle it.

    Restrictions are bad, except when they're good, seems to be the general rule on them. Sadly, in a lot of cases, it is one of the things where you just need to keep your eyes open and pay attention to where the line is so you can stop before you go too far across.