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Our current GM is going to be out of town for a few weeks, so I have decided to try my hand at GMing our group using the We Be Goblins module from Pathfinder. The module is short and has good reviews and a fun premise, so I think it will be good both for the purpose of acting as an interlude in our regular campaign and to give me an easy first task as a GM.

The problem I am having is that the first half of the module has a lot of things that, while funny, don't really give players much agency. It starts with a bunch of challenges that effectively come down to "roll a dice X number of times and see if you win". Specifically you:

1) Dance with Squealy Nord: Ride a pig. Make 3 DC 15 Ride checks in a row. 2) Eat a Bag of Slugs Real Quick: Make 5 out of 10 DC 15 Fortitude checks. 3) Hide or Get Clubbed: Succeed at 1d10 opposed Stealth checks. 4) The Rusty Earbiter: Crawl through a spiky tunnel. Make three DC 15 Escape Artist checks before failing 3 in a row.

For the most part, the players don't really have an impact on the outcome other than deciding which player's stat block is best suited to the task, which since it is only one type of check per challenge, basically comes down to "who has the highest check". There are a few places where they can impact it, like for example:

In Eat a Bag of Slugs Real Quick the the players can decided each time to make a DC 10 check instead of a DC 15 check, but if they do so, at the end they need to make a DC 15+(number of DC 10 checks) Fortitude save or be sickened for the next 24 hours.

Still, this basically comes down to only one real decision and then a bunch of random rolls deciding the outcome. I want to try and figure out how to set up the scenario let the player's decisions have more impact on the outcome. Preferably, I would like it if there is some way that every roll they make can at least partially be impacted by how they approach the problem.

My preferred option would be to rewrite the challenges to be more open ended. If an example non-spoiler challenge had been "Climb a pole (3 DC 15 Climbs checks)", I could change it to "Get a flag to the top of a pole", where the most straight forward solution would be the same as the original, but alternative options (eg. Mage Hand) could do it too.

When that doesn't seem possible, how do I encourage my players to consider other solutions to problems like these, so they feel they made an impact on the outcome. In the "Climb a Pole" example, how might I encourage a player to look around and grab some rope to help them? If you give someone a hammer and a screw, they will generally try to hammer the screw rather than looking for a screwdriver or a nail. How do I present the problem in a context that reminds the players that there is a world they can use to get better solutions?

In summary I am looking for:

  1. A good strategy for turning narrow challenge (ie. make a check) into a more open ended alternative.
  2. When that is not possible, a way to present a narrow challenge that encourages creativity.

Most importantly, I am looking general strategies rather than specific solutions. I will likely be running We Be Goblins, Too which has a similar problem at the beginning, so I want to know how to deal with this problem generally and not just get a solution for this particular adventure. An ideal answer would give general strategies and illustrate with examples related to the challenges from We Be Goblins.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do the challenges need to be done to progress in the story as written? (I have no idea, having never read this module) \$\endgroup\$ – The Nate Jun 12 '17 at 6:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TheNate In the first one the challenges are optional and they players just get better equipment for doing them. In the second one technically it is required (the PCs are proving they are tough enough to do the main challenge), but it could easily be rewritten to have it be optional. In both cases, if the PCs skip the challenges, the modules will be very short. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Jun 12 '17 at 16:08
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I agree with Dale M's answer and his focus on informed decisions to create player agency:

As I said there, my definition of agency is:

Players making informed decisions that have reasonable and foreseeable consequences

To qualify as a informed decision there has to be:

  • Two or more alternative actions the players can take that move them towards their goals (whatever they are)
  • Each of which has a risk/reward/cost profile known to the players
  • None of which is obviously superior to the other(s).

I would like to add ways to effectively apply this in practice.

Key is the presentation of the challenges. It has to be such that players know alternative solutions are an option and give them some pointers where to look.

  • Describe the challenge in open terms - not tailored to favor a specific solution or to prompt a check.
    • "Climb to the top of the pole" becomes "Get to the top of the pole".
  • Establish the context as allowing different solutions. Often that automatically is the case, but sometimes you'll have to make it clear.
    • In this case, before the challenges begin, make sure that your players know that goblins aren't known for playing by the rules and respect cunning and wiliness.
  • Think of a few solutions and add interactive bits that point to these solutions to your description of the scene.
    • "You're facing the pole you're supposed to climb. A rather rotten and brittle tree trunk, held upright by heaping sand around its base just high enough. Around you, most of the village population has gathered to observe, crammed between the shabby tents, careful not to trip over the ropes holding them up. The chieftain just now climbs the ladder to his skull-adorned chair even higher up than your goal, sits and looks on expectantly."
  • Long-term: Foster a culture of creative thinking in your group. Make sure they understand that your scene descriptions aren't complete and that they can ask about any details whenever they like - if you didn't mention it, it doesn't mean it's not there. If they're looking for means to implement a creative strategy, allow it if conceivable and don't have any bias about its chances of success, just because it's not your planned solution (but neither because it's their solution!).
    • "Well, yes. Indeed some goblins in the audience have hatchets at their belts."
  • Re-design the scene to allow for more agency, if it doesn't out of the box. Sometimes scenes just don't work the way you'd like. It happens - both in your own creations and in published modules. Don't be afraid to go back to the drawing board and change things until you're satisfied.
    • Let the characters know the challenges some time in advance so they can prepare and maybe nudge the odds in their favor before the actual contest.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, I really like that these are subtle changes that keep the module largely intact but present things in a way that opens up options. In particular, I like where you removed the skill name (Climb) from the description of the challenge to make it clear there are other ways of doing this. I will have to think about how I can apply this to the challenges in the module. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Jun 7 '17 at 16:35
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While not a direct duplicate, your question has a lot in common with How do I make engaging Man vs Wild encounters that aren't excercises in rolling dice?

As I said there, my definition of agency is:

Players making informed decisions that have reasonable and foreseeable consequences

To qualify as a informed decision there has to be:

  • Two or more alternative actions the players can take that move them towards their goals (whatever they are)
  • Each of which has a risk/reward/cost profile known to the players
  • None of which is obviously superior to the other(s).

Please note that nowhere in my definition did I mention anyone rolling dice. Dice are only needed when there is uncertainty in the outcome: choices do not have to have uncertainty.

Rolling 3, 5 or 7 dice instead of 1 does not create agency!!!!!!

You should only roll a dice when there is a difference between success and failure and that difference informs the player's next decision.

Take the squealing pig example: "Make 3 DC 15 Ride checks in a row." If I have +4 on my ride check this is exactly the same as saying roll an 8 on a d8. Since there is no point in the sequence of 3 dice where the player makes a decision (e.g. to keep trying or not) we might as well do the latter and save a bit of time.

In general, any probability tree can be collapsed to any node - this is just an exercise in mathematics, not agency. Agency comes when each node is a decision point i.e. things are changed by the someone making a decision, not by rolling dice. If that decision involves an element of randomness, it should be resolved by 1 die roll and 1 die roll only which should take you to the next decision point.

In contrast, the eating slugs real fast contest does introduce agency. After each roll, the player makes a choice and different consequences come from each of them. However, is being sickened for 24 hours a meaningful consequence - if the pace of the adventure is such that they will have to performed while sickened than it is, if it is dealt with by saying "we wait 24 hours" then it isn't. Nevertheless, this is actually a good example of how to introduce agency.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the response. I largely agree with you, and that is the reason I want to change the adventure. I'd say though that the slug example adds some agency, but not a ton. It basically changes the scenario from a free pull on a slot machine to choosing between a free pull and one that pays out better, but you may have to pay for a bad pull. It is a choice, but it isn't a particularly interesting one. If you assign a value to winning the mystery prize and to being sickened, it has a globally optimal solution, so once the players have placed a value on the outcomes the agency is done. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Jun 7 '17 at 0:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Barker Assuming they can do the maths but even if they can it's not like the prize (cash?) and the cost (sickness) are equatable even in game terms. Because this is a subjective judgement there is no universal optimal solution - therefore agency. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jun 7 '17 at 0:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the discussion, it is helping me think about what I am looking for. The issue I have I think is that the slugs feel more like choose your own adventure agency than RPG agency. It comes down to "do you pick option A or option B?" Those are OK some of the time, but in RPGs I like that, sure you can hit the ogre with a sword or a spell, but you can also bull rush him into a fire pit or bluff that you are his long lost brother. I want at least some of the beginning of the adventure to feel like there is no prescribed path to the solution rather than choosing from a menu of options. \$\endgroup\$ – Barker Jun 7 '17 at 16:22

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