In the last article, I discussed how a Dungeon Master should ensure that all encounters played a role in the overall story. I argued that all types of players should find elements they appreciated in each scene. In passing, I mentioned it was paramount to avoid bottlenecks in your adventure and I promised to visit the subject later.
Here we are.
An adventure bottleneck occurs when a precise course of action or success in a given task is required for the story to move further. Any DM with an iota of experience has had uncomfortable moments linked to such bottlenecks. I recall times where my players floundered to find crucial clues or found themselves blocked by a door PCs were unable to unlock.
Ironically enough, during the 3.x era, my players became goddamn mining engineers when it came to negotiating doors.
Bottlenecks bring games to a halt and often cause frustration around the table. In this post and the next ones, I’ll tackle categories of such bottlenecks and offer advice to deal with them.
D20 games and their successors feature binary skill checks system. PCs either beat a target or don’t. This usually translates into success or failure of the task at hand. A bottleneck skill check must absolutely succeed or the adventure grinds to a stop. For example, a room where players must ask to search in order to get a chance to spot a lost magical key. Said key opens an unbreakable vault that is the only access to the MacGuffin of Sorrows (TM), the PC’s main quest item. If players fail to ask or flub their skill checks, the key remains hidden and the adventure grinds to a stop.
In such situations the DM has two choices. She may allow re-rolls until the key is found, thus making the actual rolls meaningless from a story point of view. Alternatively, she’ll have to fudge things and tell the player who rolled highest “You’ve found a key”. In either case, the challenge loses all its significance and becomes an unexciting dice roll in.
Some checks aren’t true bottlenecks, but may function as such because of lack of information on the part of players. For example, when dealing with a locked and trapped door to get deeper in the dungeon, failure may stop them cold and drag the scene until they find a secret door they had absolutely no clue about that would lead them to the same area.
Such examples is what made my 3.5 era players become champion hinge breakers and wall miners.
The Basic Approach
My easy fix to these issues is to review what was planned before the game and tweak all types of bottlenecks. Make sure they don’t occur. Get rid of “must win” skill checks by assuming the PCs will make it. Put the damn magical key to the unbreakable vault on the Hobgoblin boss instead of hiding it. You find search, climb and diplomacy checks that block the way? Blow them to smithereens!
Now I’m not saying “make the adventure a cakewalk”, hell no! I’m saying “remove obstacles that stop the adventure dead”. Skill checks can be relevant, especially to “unlock” bonus content.
For example, what if a climb check allowed a character to find a Runed Stone of Unsummoning (TM) on the ledge? That stone could be used to banish the demon minion the BadGuy (TM) uses to guard his sanctum. Thus, acing that climb check makes dealing with the adventure easier, but failing to do so still permits players to deal with things the old fashion way.
The Chatty Treatment (AKA Mouseburning-lite)
Why not embrace bottlenecks instead of nuking them? What if we took binary obstacles and made them into “trouble milestones” instead! Lets make success awesome, and failure even more so. How? First, when a bottlenecky checks springs up, ask a player to take the lead on the roll and inform him/her that partial success will be assumed. Tell the group that you aren’t really interested if they succeed at this task or not but very much interested about HOW much trouble they could get in if they flub it.
This may need a little bit more work backstage but is worth it. First, decide what kind of trouble a failed roll; would spell out for the character(s)<. Be careful not to fall back to the binary model.
For example, lets say an adventuring party must cross a 10′ wide pit trap filled with venomous snakes. I’d ask for a PC volunteer to jump over with a rope to allow the rest of the party to cross safely after. I’d award skill bonuses for any ingenious ideas the party implements to make the jump easier. Once all modifiers are figured out, I usually go like this:
Chatty: Okay, so you need to roll XX or more. If you succeed, you get to describe how you made that jump. If you FAIL, you’ll clear the pit but something really bad will happen to you.
Player: Like I’ll sprain my ankle on landing?
Chatty: Something like that. Do you want to go for it or do you want to find another solution?
(Chatty’s evil failure plan: The PC barely misses the jump but catches himself on the opposite edge at the last second, legs hanging over some very annoyed vipers. They get one “surprise” rounds with the hero’s legs before he gets a chance to climb out.)
Bam! The bottleneck becomes a significant challenge rather than a pass/fail obstacle.
If you are intrigued by this approach and are ready to go further, I wrote a post last year that tackles skill checks and failure (I called it Mouseburning). Try it!
How do you deal with unplanned or published bottlenecks in your games?