There are always moments in games that frustrate us as players. It’s inevitable. We’ve all got different play styles and most games provide a little something for everyone. Maybe it’s the long drawn out narrative based scenes that are frustrating to the action-minded player, maybe it’s the overly complex combats that tweak the hardcore role-player the wrong way. Maybe it’s the sparse mechanical basis of a system that grinds the gears of the player who likes to dig into the rules and options to find the best character combination. Some frustration points are unavoidable, and, as a player, you just have to understand it’s not your cup of tea and move on. But sometimes, the frustration points are completely avoidable and should be breezed past to speed up the game and get to the fun parts.
I realized one of my frustration points while playing an old school adventure/puzzle style video game the other day. You know the ones where you collect an item like a banana pie and use it to lure an ape out of it’s cage so that it opens a door for you. The item you need is always really far away from the object of the puzzle, or something you have to pick up that seems unrelated at the time. So, you have to backtrack a long way to get the thing, then back to the puzzle and use the item, and then you can move through a door, but then have to guess at what the next item is, etc. While playing this game, I thought back to a tabletop RPG situation that was frustrating in the same ways and realized that even with wide open options of a tabletop rpg, frustration points can crop up if the GM doesn’t watch out for them.
A Frustrating Situation
We were delving into a temple that had a moon theme and the only way past was to go to all corners of the temple and get the pieces of the ore that fit together into a big moon shape that was the lock. We’d played for 3 hours of solid dungeon crawling and barely surviving to get to this point. When we found out we would have to get a bunch of small pieces and hadn’t come across any of them yet, the group tried every single thing they could to get past the door without having to go to all the spread out areas of the temple to get the pieces of the moon puzzle. Sure, we knew that was what the GM wanted us to do and what was written in the adventure, but we’d already spent hours getting to this part of the dungeon, one of us was a damn good thief who could probably lockpick it and the wizard could move tons of rock with a spell.
The GM was adamant about us getting the pieces and some magic or another prevented us from bypassing the puzzle in whatever way we came up with. What was most frustrating about this wasn’t the heavy-handed GMing, but the fact that the challenge was manufactured instead of legitimate. Walk back to the various areas, search out the dungeon, find the Mcguffins and open the door. That is standard for a game of this genre, but the execution had become frustrating. It took us hours to get to the door, and after we collected the first piece (2 hours real-time later), we realized there were 5 more and we tried to get past the door in multiple other ways again.
Dealing With Frustration
The GM called it for the night. The group was frustrated and this was easily a case of bad GMing, but not realizing and removing the frustration points for the players could have made more than 2 of us show up for the next game. It could easily have been done in multiple ways:
- Keep the moon puzzle pieces close to the puzzle.
- Keep them far off, but short-form most of the trip through the very large dungeon for at least the first or second pieces so we felt like we were accomplishing something.
- State up-front the play style and that this was meant to be a puzzle solved over multiple nights.
- Put the moon puzzle farther up in the dungeon so we didn’t play for 3 hours before getting there. Then our battles and struggles would feel like they had meaning.
- Let us through the door and bash us with horrible consequences — monsters, the goddess of the temple being mad at us, the guardians of the temple being awakened since we picked the lock/magicked our way past, etc. Victory our way, but tempered with consequences.
- Inform our characters (or the players) why it was important to get the puzzle pieces. (We later found out we would restore the temple by doing so, but based on all player and character knowledge we just wanted past that door to get to the treasure and the deeper dungeon.)
The heavy handed GMing was one thing, but the real flaw was in not realizing the frustration point for the players and why it was frustrating. It wasn’t the puzzle, the trope, or already long play time — it was that the challenges outweighed the fun we were having – and that is the key to creating a frustration point. Frustration points can be many and varied, and each player or group has their own frustration points. The first step in making sure your players aren’t stuck in frustration points is to assess what is frustrating them. Ask outright, give them the option to end frustrating scenes when they feel like it, or keep a careful eye on the group to see if they are having fun. Once you’ve done this and kept your eye out for frustration points, you can start doing something to fix them.
What are frustration points for you as a player? What about frustration points from the GM’s side of the screen? How do you avoid frustration points, or do you just feel that sometimes things are going to be frustrating?
I hate packaged adventures which present a must-do challenge and then insist there is ONLY one way to overcome it. Invariably this prescribed way requires either traipsing through every bit of creativity the author packed into the module up to that point (as with the MacGuffin above) or has a consequence that railroads the group into doing exactly as the author desires for the remainder of the adventure. I despise this both as a player and a GM.
As a GM I want to reward players for creativity or resourcefulness beyond what the author of the adventure anticipated. That applies when I am the author, too! In the situation above I would likely use the “Yes, but” strategy you proposed: The manufactured key and/or lock picking skills are sufficient to open the door and advance to the next phase of the adventure, but there is some undesirable effect of failing to use the proper key. Perhaps it’s not until the final challenge when they realize they need to go back and do it. By then perhaps they’ll be more powerful, in better shape, or at least not still so frustrated about the puzzle.
Too rigid adventures are definitely a frustration point. Most of the time I’ll hack an adventure or let the players proceed no matter what, but there are a few I’ve seen that have no end to issues if you don’t follow the prescribed path. I haven’t seen one like this for a few years though, so I think the industry as a whole is embracing a more open design methodology, in as much as they can. As the author of a pre-packaged adventure, you can’t imagine what all shennanigans the PCs will get up to and can’t write for every situation. It’s better to not write absolutes though.
I learned 20 years ago that players would seldom do things in the order I imagined when I devised the adventure. Occasionally their acts are inspired by brilliance, though more often they surprise me with hasty decision making and poor impulse control. 😉
One of the lessons of this applies to writing adventures. A good writer designs adventures as webs rather than linear stories. Because games are interactive environments, not books or movies.
The other lesson is flexibility at the gaming table. A good GM allows for and adapts to player creativity on the fly instead of trying to shut it down. Partly that means designing flexible adventures or, when using prewritten materials, anticipating where the group may hit snags. And partly it means knowing when to punt. I think that’s the biggest mistake made in the example you gave– the GM obstinately stuck to a questionable design long past the point where the group got frustrated and lost interest. I’ve been frustrated playing with GMs like that. And I’ve been “that GM” at least once, too.
As a GM I certainly try to keep tabs on how the Players are engaging with the game, but this is not always easy. Sometimes, as GMs, we can become too wrapped up in the process of running a game, that we can miss how the game is being experienced by the Players.
This is a timely reminder that we should always be aware of how the other people at the table are engaging with our game.
One of my biggest frustration points as a player in the past was when the GM had what seemed to be a well planned out (and fun) campaign but seems to lose enthusiasm for it somewhere in the middle. (As seen by the change in their excitement level on game night, the quality of descriptions/adventure length/details, etc..)
Seeing a campaign we’d invested weeks into slide down hill into mediocrity because the GM “was bored with it” really felt annoyed me, much like when ones favorite tv series (*cough* Fire Fly *cough*) gets cancelled after the first season just when things were getting really good.
Turns out that Gm had ADD gaming issues (also known as too many great ideas) and got more enthused about another awesome concept to the point of losing interest in her current one.
Fortunately the problem was alleviated by letting her run 3 separate campaigns and rotating between them every few weeks as her interest levels varied.
As a GM my biggest frustration point was when players fixated on/fell in love with a random helpful NPC and attempted to recruit them into the party/hire them to work on board their star ship/join the rebellion, or otherwise turn them into someone much more important/regular than the one off personality I’d spent 30 seconds on inventing.
Usually when I gave the NPC a in game “good reason” not to want to go with them the players often responded by lengthy negotiations, extreme concessions, (“you have a husband and three kids? Sure, they can come live at our frontier keep too!”) Or out right bribery (“would 1000 gold and the position of grand healer at our castle change your mind?”) rather then taking “no” for an answer.
The best work around I found for the issue was simply tossing a plot point at them and flat out saying “you realize this minor person isn’t of adventuring quality and wouldn’t survive the dangers you regularly face” so they’d drop it and move forward with the adventure.
(Granted I could of let the individual in question come along and suffer a gruesome fate, but that usually sounded like more work then it was worth; and knowing the characters personalities they’d likely sacrifice themselves if necessary to try and save one of their own band of heroines.)