Save My Game
Creativity vs. Guesswork
Challenging Players, Challenging Characters
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: Creativity vs. Guesswork

I have a problem with the horribly uncreative players that are my friends. I DM a game with four other people playing. I figure their classes are irrelevant, but we have a cleric, a bard, a wizard, and a barbarian. I figure that's enough spread to be creative in terms of problem solving. For example, the cliche of opening a locked door is to pull a book out or remove a torch. I made it so they had to turn a brazier in the corner of the room. It took them one real hour to figure it out, after me hinting at it! How can I breed creativity (at least a little) in them?

-- Roger, from AskWizards.com

The issue you raise is not too different from last time around, but you are coming from the DM's side of the table, whereas last time we had the player's perspective. Let me say at the outset that neither creativity nor character class have anything to do with the creativity of the players.

My professional field is education, and one of the most maddening things for a student is when they feel that they have to play "guess what the teacher is thinking" when responding to a task, be it test, paper, homework, or whatever. What you are asking your players to do in this situation is the same thing, to come up with some strange and outlandish idea of how to open a door.

Why in the Seven Heavens would you expect your players to guess that opening a locked door could be accomplished by moving random pieces of furniture? The cliché of torch sconces and random books on bookshelves serving as door-opening triggers is a cliché that applies to hidden doorways, secret doors, sliding walls, rotating bookcases. In short, it applies to doors that you don't know (though you might suspect) are there. There is no apparent door, and the protagonist, quite by accident, happens to bump something that makes a door open. The mystery deepens as our hero ventures deeper into the heart of the haunted house or creepy castle. If you are hoping to use this example as evidence that your players are uncreative (because they didn't guess that a door could be opened with a random method such as manipulating a brazier or book or torch), I think that's a stretch.

The larger issue is that you are demanding that the players use out-of-character knowledge to solve what amounts to a puzzle. There is nothing their characters can do to solve the puzzle, this is a player puzzle. Before I go too far, I'll state that there is certainly room in the game for player puzzles. Anagrams, riddles, coded messages … sometimes it's fun to not simply roll the dice. Still, you shouldn't just cut the characters out of the equation.

What can the characters do to discern how to open the door? Is the trigger the only possible way to open it? If not, what else will work?

You have a wizard -- what happens if he casts knock rather than spending an hour searching for a hidden trigger?

If knock is too easy, what about other options? Can the lock on the door be picked? Open Lock skill gets little enough love as it is. Can one of your characters whip out the old lock picks and go to town? Do you consider the trigger to be a type of lock?

Tangent: I should point out here that it seems a little unfair that Disable Device can circumvent magical traps but Open Lock has no chance to circumvent magical locks. I can disable symbol, an 8th level trap spell, with a DC 33 Disable Device check, but a 2nd level arcane lock is utterly impassable to our trusty rogue (OK, there is a rule for it in the Epic Level Handbook, but still …). Yes, I understand that you can almost always take 20 with Open Locks (although that takes a long time) whereas you can't with Disable Device, but the difference between a DC around 30 for a magic trap and around 80 for a magic lock seems extreme. This would probably be a good spot for a house rule if you would like to throw the rogues in the house a bone.

Still, I can see where you have a door right there, but no lock, so what is there to pick? Nothing. You have set up the door so that it cannot be picked. You are not interpreting Open Lock as an abstract "skill at finding a way to open things" but instead very literally as Opening a Lock that is right there. That's fair, as long as everyone is on the same page.

How does the character find the way to open the lock? That would be a Search check. Search is a skill that measures how good the character is at finding things that are hidden, at puzzling out mechanical connections. A skill such as Knowledge (architecture and engineering) offers a synergy bonus that reflects the depth of understanding of such contraptions. Then, a skill such as Disable Device is used to activate/deactivate the device -- in this case, either activating the door's secret opening mechanism or deactivating whatever is holding it closed. These skills are in the game for a reason -- they enable characters to figure out hidden and secret compartments and mechanisms and to operate them. The player doesn't need to be an expert locksmith, detective, or mechanic in order for their character to have those skills.

I am beating this issue like a dead horse because you are creating a player-level prerequisite for solving a character-level problem. Do you ask your players to explain how their magic spells work? To describe in detail the precise mechanics of their attack roll? "Well, you said you attacked the dragon on its right shoulder, which is 10 inches of solid dragonhide armor. Your sword can't possibly cut through it, so your attack is wasted. If you had been creative enough to guess or search for its vulnerable spot with the missing scale in the hollow of its left breast (it's the stereotype of Smaug in The Hobbit!), you could have killed it in a single blow." You created an artificial bottleneck in the game that depends on the players guessing your preconceived solution. Rather than encouraging creativity, this approach actually restricts it by limiting the possible solutions to one and only one. It also imposes a limit on character skills and abilities to the level of their players and requires players to essentially play themselves as characters. The game is built around mechanics that enable characters to do things that we as players can't do -- cast magic spells, swing swords, woo fair maidens or handsome lads, and all the rest. Players play the game with the expectation that they will be able to do these things. If you don't want to have those rules in the game, make sure everyone knows about that and agrees at the outset, or else everyone is going to end up frustrated and not having any fun.

I realize that none of this really answers your question of how to breed creativity (if such a thing is possible) in your players. I will try to get back to that in a later column, but for this one, it was important to examine the reasoning and assumptions behind your question and to point out some alternative ways that you could approach this situation.

Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.


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