Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"Waiting is the bane of Exploration"

I was watching an old egoraptor video for some reason about The Legend of Zelda, and he dropped this line in the middle of a rant about Ocarina of Time's failings in design: "Waiting is the bane of exploration." The line made me sit up in my chair, because it kicked my brain over. There are parts of table top RPGs I don't like, and it is always hard to put my finger on them. I know I - in general - don't particularly enjoy dungeon crawls, and while I like the idea of exploration a session just about exploration tends to turn me off.

Don't get me wrong, I know people who are good GMs that can do these things properly and well. I'm in a game right now with a heavy focus on both exploration and dungeon crawling that works. But those aren't the kind of things I engage in as easily, and that also tends to make them things that I don't put into my own game. This line gives me a strong grasp as to the reason for it.

I hate waiting.

What Waiting?
What are dungeon crawl and exploration segments in games full of? Waiting. At the very least you have to wait for the GM to use words to paint the picture of what you are seeing. This can be fine, but exposition is best done in small chunks and sometimes small chunks just aren't able to convey the full scene. In a video game or movie you can convey this information instantly with messaging. In a book I can skim ahead to where the scene stops being described and things happen again (if that is what I want to do). But at a table top session I have to sit there and listen. And when we're talking about describing a scene that is pure exploration, input is going to be minimal.

The troubling part for this is my tolerances for how much description is good, bad, needed, or unneeded can not only change by the day but by the hour or description. And what I need, might not be what another player needs. And I know people who love this aspect of the game, so it's good to have it for them.

Dungeon Crawls are full of a different kind of waiting though. And that is while you still have the standard "describe this scene" - that can be as detailed or brief as the GM feels is important - but there are all the mechanical pitfalls of waiting you fall into. Is the Rogue scouting ahead? Great, now you have to wait while the GM describes stuff for them, they do their thing, and then come back to you. Is there a door? Well, that's 1 to 4 rolls - checking for traps, disarming traps, picking the lock, listening at the door - each of which needs the GM to tell one player what to roll, the player to roll, the player to do math, the player to tell the GM the result, the GM to compare the result to the difficulty, the GM to narrate the effect/result of the roll, and the GM to call for the next roll.

That  adds up. That adds up a lot in a random session, and the more doors you have the more it adds up.

Why Is This Bad?
The reason the waiting is bad is because - ostensibly - you aren't there to wait for the GM and the Rogue to resolve 4 rolls for every door. Yes, your character is a professional adventurer. Yes this is part of the adventurer's life. But you know what? It's the tedious part of the adventurer's life, and I don't know anyone who sits down for tedium at the gaming table. A couple times through to make sure the PCs are being cautious? Sure. But by the dozenth door you've spent about 2-3 hours of time checking half a hallway's worth of hotel rooms and maybe - maybe - found something of interest in 2 or 3 of those rooms.

The other problem is that this isn't just waiting. A dungeon crawl and a combat in said dungeon crawl can involve just as much waiting for mechanics. The dungeon crawl feels worse though because combat is almost another game where the point is to use game mechanics to beat the enemy force. The point of a dungeon crawl is not to wait for the rogue to pick the lock on a door. Generally you're in a dungeon crawl to explore the dungeon, fight monsters, fight the boss, and get sweet loot. And the waiting is just making it harder and longer for you to do one of those things.

As an aside, this is specifically talking about dungeon crawls in campaigns. If I'm in a dungeon as part of the story to fight some boss, I want to be moving towards that goal and waiting to clear every room with all the rolls involved slows that down to an annoying degree. If, however, we're doing a classic dungeon crawl where the point is to survive the dungeon? Well, that can be fine then. Too much waiting still bad, but the threshhold is different because the purpose is different. Just like with combat.

How to Fix
So how do you fix this? Well, first, do you even need to? If you have one player like me, and four players that love this aspect of exploration and dungeon crawls, than 80% of the time I  just need to suck it up and deal. Right? I should know what I'm getting into, but I can't expect my wants to trump the other players.

But what if you have a table of players like me? The solution is easy: keep progress happening. The problem comes in when the waiting makes the obstacles feel like a grind, as opposed to a challenge. There are lots of ways to do this. Don't bother for rolls with unimportant doors. Use the "passive" result (if you're doing 5e) and only call for rolls when needed from that. Just reduce the number of doors - have them destroyed or something.

Basically, do what you can to speed up the interactions and keep things progressing towards whatever goal the players have. It can be a far away goal. It can be a close goal. Just as long as there is a feeling of progression you should be fine.

Everyone has fun different, and that's fine. Do what makes things fun for the majority of your players. Be clear about expectations. And do what you can to not get bogged down in minutiae. Unless that is the entire point of what is going on.

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