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I had a situation in a recent game where the PCs (who are all robots, in a setting where humans are long dead) came across a rusted-out android in a dilapidated shack on a small dock. They needed fuel and power, which was present in abundant qualities at this shack, but the players felt they needed to give 'Scrapheap' as they called him something in return (good for them).

This android was, at the time, working on some sort of brasswork engine component, and would only talk incoherently about a boat. There was a boat moored on the dock behind the shack. I told the PCs that the component was far beyond repair with the resources they had available.

The way I thought it would go was that they would inspect the boat's engine, which the component came out of. They'd then jury-rig it to work without the damaged component, and the android would then give them a lift on his boat (driving the boat having been his original purpose).

The PCs got stuck when they found out the part was irreparable, though- it never occurred to them to try to get the engine running without it, and they never tried any other solution. I refused to give a hint on the grounds that the challenge was optional- there was really nothing stopping them from just taking the fuel and driving the rest of the way to their destination over-land.

This immediately killed the game.

So my question from all of this is, when should I as a GM give up on the players overcoming a challenge on their own, and either give them a hint or just eliminate the problem?

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"Before putting the puzzle in." –  mxyzplk Feb 27 at 18:58
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You don't mention why this immediately killed the game. That sounds like where the problem occurred. –  SevenSidedDie Feb 27 at 20:21
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I want to play this game. –  Koveras Feb 27 at 22:33
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" I told the PCs that the component was far beyond repair with the resources they had available" You telegraphed the opposite message you meant to. If I was a player I would instantly read that as, there's no way to fix this. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Feb 28 at 19:31
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@SevenSidedDie That's what I wanna know. –  Schilcote Feb 28 at 20:02

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

When to Give Up

To answer the title question directly: When it ceases to be fun.

That seems a little glib, but it is fundamentally the truth. It's obvious that the players and/or the GM came to find the situation unfun.

Specifics from the described situation

The description provided indicates several break-downs in the story flow:

  1. The players don't know the part isn't needed.
  2. The players have been told the part is irreplaceable and irreparable.
  3. The GM has fixated on a single story direction.
    1. the story direction is fixated on overcoming the engine problem
    2. the GM allowed failure point on the "railroad"

Taking these in turn...

The players don't know the part isn't needed.

This is a GM communications failure. Simply put, if the part isn't needed, then they should have been told the part isn't needed.

You needn't come right out and tell them, but you can make it clear upon an inspection.

The Part is Irreplaceable and Irreparable.

While not a problem in and of itself, it's generally bad form to present a "big shiny thing" that doesn't work, and then tell them they can neither fix nor repair said shiny part. It's an instant frustration factor.

Some better ways to handle it are:

  1. to set an insane repair difficulty; on a fail, the PC breaks it.
  2. to make it so that the story doesn't fixate on the part at all
  3. to describe the part as safety factor only - for example, the flywheel cover, or radiation shielding. Or the Air Cleaner housing or fuel filter.
  4. to outright tell the character with the highest repair skill that it's not an essential part.

In other words, communicate more effectively that the part isn't the solution.

The GM Has A Single Story Direction

This is only a problem because the GM failed to present the problem in a way that the players could decode. There's nothing wrong with a bit of story-railroad from time to time, provided the stops along the way are meaningful down that railroad.

The problem is, when the GM puts the story on the rails, the GM needs to make bloody certain he's presenting solvable challenges. And make clear the branches and sidings of that railway.

Sometimes, however, it's better to "say yes". It's turning into a hoary old chestnut, but Vincent's Admonition is very applicable here: "Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes." When they sought to fix it, you should have assigned a difficulty and let them roll, or simply let them fix it.

Mind you, Vincent also says "Bang! Something’s at stake. Launch the conflict and roll the dice." If the conflict is fixing the engine, it needs to be set up as a conflict, not a puzzle. Set clear steps, and then guide the players through them.

"Who's inspecting the engine? Who's attempting to fix the irreparable part?" Once they select, "Tom, while inspecting the engine, you realize that you can work around. If you succeed, the part won't be needed. It's a hard repair roll, and on a fail, you're out time, and . Rich, while examining the part, you realize it's just a safety system. You can attempt to repair it, at Insane difficulty, but if you fail, you break it and hurt yourself. Guys, Going to try?"

If they fail, give them an option to make a sail. And when they do, just say yes. Or...

Failure Doesn't Always Mean Failure

Sometimes, the task can be redefined so that failing the roll isn't failing the Task.

For example, telling Tom "If you fail, you'll still get it working, but by using servos from your left hand." The stakes are now personal, rather than story impeding. If he fails, he still gets it repaired, but now has a permanent injury to later repair.

Meaningful stops on that railroad - ones that matter.

The Players Need To Have Input

The players set themselves a goal - to get it working, period. Once they make it clear it's their goal, the GM needs to give up his story in favor of their fun.

So, in this case, once they got fixated, the GM needs to realize that his "minor encounter" is now a "big deal encounter" and treat it as such. "Say Yes" and get it moving, or make it a series of meaningful rolls which have clear consequences for the story.

Those consequences need not be "you failed to fix it," as mentioned above. They can be, "You hurt yourself" or even "You figure you can repair it in about 4 weeks of machining new parts" - but some way forward needs to be evident.

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Problem #1: Expectations of GM Narration

So, a common problem for RPGs is that many players are used to the GM giving them a limited set of options - as in most pre-planned adventures with either a linear path or branching path. So when the GM says, "This thing isn't fixable with the resources you have" that could mean "So go look for other resources" or it could mean "No, it's just not fixable".

This is where it's useful to be sure to explain to players based on their characters' judgment the situation - "Well, you can't fix it with what you have, but you might be able to find something to get it to work if you look around?"

This is also where a game that has something like a "Scavenging" or "Repair" skill would make sense to roll to get the idea of where to look for parts. If it's not a dungeon crawl kind of game, most players are not going to think about describing looking for things.

Problem #2: Puzzle Design

Puzzles are very hard to design.

These work well in videogames because a) videogames often make it easy to tell "clickable"/"usable" objects from non-interactive objects. So the actual number of things you deal with is quite small in these games, even if there's a lot of interesting background objects around. In theory, in RPGs, anything is interactive, so it's much more murky as to what is a puzzle vs. background element.

Puzzles work best when it's clear there's a thing to solve and it's clear that there is a means to solve it (though, the exact methodology of it, is unclear, which is how it actually is a puzzle).

I find in tabletop rpgs, there's two ways to come at it - if a puzzle has a limited or single solution, you have to be very clear that this is a puzzle. Usually, you take something like a moving block puzzle or similar so the players go, "Oh, I need to think of this AS a puzzle."

The other way, is to leave it as a problem - which is different than a puzzle in that there may be MANY ways to solve it, including ways I haven't even considered as a GM, and that I should be willing to let players use the skills/dice their characters have to solve these problems.

"Oh, I don't know how to fix this part, but I know how to access the Old Database of Engineering. I'm going to use my Computer Skill to try to see if I can get more info on these parts and how to fix them or where to find them."

"That's a good idea! Ok, here you go, roll X to do this."

It's pretty important to work out with players at the beginning of play if they should be expecting to deal with puzzles or problems, because otherwise they might be treating it as one, when it's the other, or just assuming it's "non-interactive" and that the whole part about the robot is just colorful talk.

When to Give Up

Assuming the players also know that it's a puzzle, you give up when they find it no longer interesting. Presumably, there's other interesting, fun things to do in the game and the players move on. Most dungeon crawl games have puzzles, but the thing is you can go do other stuff and come back later after you've had time to think about the puzzle.

If the players aren't even clear that it's a solvable puzzle, or that it's not just fun background element... it's not so much give up, it's that it hasn't even started. The group should be clear that puzzles are an expected part of play, and you have to be clear on what a puzzle looks like in this game.

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"The intended solution was" is indeed a good hint that you are railroading them, which is generally considered a bad thing. –  Orion Feb 27 at 18:44
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@Orion Perhaps 'the expected solution' would have been a better term- I would have accepted any solution that made sense, including as I mentioned just taking the stuff they needed. Plus this is a made-up-as-I-go game, so I don't think it's even possible for me to railroad- I wouldn't know where I'm trying to force them to go! –  Schilcote Feb 27 at 18:53
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Too much railroading is a bad thing. Many players find a certain amount of railroading helps with a well thought out plot and are fine with it (in limited quantities). I think it is especially acceptable to have an expected solution in an entirely optional puzzle, especially if you are also open to solutions you haven't thought of yet. –  TimothyAWiseman Feb 27 at 19:51

The biggest roadblock I encounter with players is sort of a deer in headlights effect because players don't think like you. Especially having designed the puzzle it couldn't have been more obvious to you that there was an easy solution. Since I saw in a comment from the OP that this is a sandbox world, it seems that the puzzle might not have had any information that the players are (yet) keyed into to look for a quest/puzzle instead of flavor text. Quite frankly though, the players won't use the same logic as you. Someone muttering about their boat could just be a crazy robot worth looting because it doesn't know that other people are around it (exaggeration). Depending on how you described the boat, the players may not have realized that the technology they needed was even part of the vehicle. (When I hear about a dilapidated boat tied to a dock I think of a rowboat personally, even in post-apoc settings.)

Tools you can utilize when trying to hint the players without stomping your foot and fake coughing while saying something loudly is to maybe put more detail into the things you want them to inspect. As Bankuei put it, video games are fairly obvious about important objects (is that valve handle sparkling?) no matter how immersive the environment. So make sure that if you refuse to give them meta help on request, to give them the clues in the preamble and let them explore with what their characters can do.

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Don't give up

The problem in this example seems to be that you only thought of a single way of how the players could overcome the obstacle. That's not optimal. Even without thinking about it beforehand, there are many alternatives in how this could play out.

Don't make an 'anything goes', but any reasonable and/or sufficiently creative idea should at least have a chance of overcoming the obstacle. Don't forget: You have dice to decide if something works or not. Set a difficulty and let them try.

Don't refuse them hints for optional stuff

They clearly were interested in getting the boat to work. So they didn't figure out the one, single, unique, very specific way you wanted them to solve it. And then you refuse to even help them find out what this one, single, unique, very specific way is? That's not optimal. If you insist on railroading the party through something (which sometimes, just sometimes, can be ok), then you need to drop them a generous amount of hints, maybe even allow insight checks or similar things if things get too slow.

It should be fun, and since you are a living breathing human - don't turn this into the equivalent of an old-school adventure game. There is no 'stuck' in a table-top role playing game.

And don't use optional in that way

I think you made have an un-fun idea of what optional should be. Optional should be the stuff that you might have prepared or though about beforehand that doesn't interest the party, or that they miss. If they explicitly mention they want to do something - help them. Let them, or let the dice decide, but don't just say "No".

And even if you really, really, really want them to succeed only if they use the one, single, unique, very specific way you think is right

Then at least lie to them and pretend that they have a chance, roll in secret, and announce that they failed.

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You need to have more than one possible solution to the puzzle already thought out. If there's only one solution, no matter how obvious it is to you as the puzzle designer, it's possible that the players just won't see it.

My favorite CRPG series, the Fallout series, addresses this for most plot points by having three distinct paths to get past most obstacles. Typically these are combat, speech, and one or more of sneaking/computer hacking/lock-picking or some other skill challenge.

Not every puzzle will have the same kinds of possible solutions, but it's good to try to think of a couple of other ways to solve any issue you put in front of players. Take a look at the character sheets, and try to come up with some way to use either a skill or a class ability from each character to resolve the issue.

For example: The engine part is broken, and the PCs can't fix it, and the Android can't fix it, either. Besides your solution, you could have also had something like:

  1. The part the Android needs is actually there, but he can't find it for some reason. Maybe the part number on the box is misprinted, and he's not flexible enough to see that it's actually just what he needs. The PCs talk with him, and one of them realizes that there's something there that can work.

  2. This requires some extra preparation, but maybe have an earlier encounter where the PCs encounter some mechanism that's very similar to the broken item. If they remember the previous instance, they can go back and get it.

  3. Instead of fixing the engine, can they perhaps fix the android? If he's supposed to be some kind of repair/maintenance expert, why doesn't he know that the engine can be made to work without this part?

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  1. Rather than having a solution in mind for an obstacle, engage with the solution the players come up with. That doesn’t mean their solution will “just work”, but you tell them what they have to do for their solution to work. What some people call, “Yes, but...”

  2. Rather than something be optional, make everything optional. Always try to have at least three directions the players can choose from. Then, whenever they get stuck or need a break, there’s lots of previously unexplored directions they can decide to go explore.

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