In the James Fenimore Cooper novel “The Pathfinder, or The Inland Sea,” which is one of the Leatherstocking Tales, the party sets out for Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario.
The group that accompanies the Pathfinder, master of the long rifle, nearly sounds like the quintessential adventuring party. (There is the scout, Arrowhead, his wife, Dew-of-June, the wise warrior Chingachgook, the old salt Charles Cap, a freshwater sailor Jasper Western and the fetching Mabel.)
Early in the trek, they face a dilemma when they reach the falls of the Oswego River. They can either pull over and portage, but at the cost of a considerable loss of time, or take the falls in their birch bark canoe.
For the Pathfinder, of course, there is only one answer, they must shoot the rapids (and, in the process, have a bit o’ fun at the old salt’s expense).
The lesson is clear. While on the journey to adventure, it is no place to “play it safe.”
Some players, of course, are adverse to risk. Whether this is the learned behavior resulting from GM “punishments” for hasty action in the past (“What? You failed to check all four corners of the door frame? Well, you set off the trap, my friend.”) or a desire to preserve their beloved character’s life at every turn, who can say?
But I think an adventure is best served by players taking bold action. It’s up to the GM to adjust accordingly and give everyone a reasonable chance at success – even if they aren’t experts at the task.
(After taking the canoe over the falls, Pathfinder confesses to Cap he isn’t a superior paddler. But we made it, right? We took on 14 cups of water instead of 10, so what the hey!).
Being a facilitator of bold action has two main benefits:
- The game runs at a brisker clip. This can’t be overstated in its effectiveness. Games that bog down die. So long as the players are having their characters do things, they are inclined to keep their interest.
- The players feel like their characters are being heroic. Just as this novel would feel less like an adventure if Pathfinder had chosen to lug a canoe overland to avoid the falls, your roleplaying games feel less like an adventure when they do the same.
So, next time you design an encounter, think about giving your adventuring party a chance to “shoot the rapids” (so to speak). It just might be the springboard you need to catapult into a memorable adventure.
Because after the falls, there’s a war party massing on the opposite shore …
I think the GM in my current Dresden Files game is doing a great job on “shooting the rapids” and with 6 players, getting bogged down in a debate about the best course of action is very probable. Luckily we have a few NPCs to help remind us of the deadlines we face.
Our most recent example was a raid into Hell. We closed three gates to from hell to Brooklyn. It was impossible to do in the real world, but once we were in the Nevernever (the Hell portion) it took almost no effort for our mages to close the portals. Our party has been going for almost 36 hours with cat naps when our characters are out of a scene. Driving upstate for 2 hours? Give the driving to someone who doesn’t need as much sleep!
Sound like you’ve got it nailed.
Just be sure to keep it a choice! I’ve had some DMs before that loved the “shooting the rapids” so much that if we had (metaphorically) carried the canoe across land, we knew there would be a war party waiting in the forest. In cases like this shooting the rapids isn’t heroic, it’s just following the tracks.
In order for shooting the rapids to be heroic, going overland has to be the safer (although less rewarding) route. Successfully shooting the rapids should benefit the party, but shouldn’t be a requirement.
Correct, it should always be a choice. Though the other option should have some obstacles. Maybe not a war party, but certainly Mosquitos, and maybe some treacherous footing …
The problem is, how do you reconcile this with some player’s strong desire to make the optimal choice? Humans love puzzle-solving, and I think it’s natural to feel satisfaction for figuring out the best way to do something. That can conflict with “shooting the rapids” if the bold approach is needlessly risky.
So I prefer not to ask my players to take bold actions simply for the sake of adventure. Instead, if possible, make the bold action more rewarding somehow; or arrange the adventure so that ALL paths are risky (and they have to choose the least risky).
And if the “boring” option is really the best one, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect PCs to pass it up, nor would I want to pressure them into a more exciting course. Instead, let them go the safe route, and just narrate past it as quickly as possible. (I am sure James Fenimore Cooper did not narrate every single time the Pathfinder has to make camp or take a leak on a tree or whatever.) More danger will head their way soon.
No disagreement. This is to encourage GMs to think about providing shoot the rapids option.
If the PCs are in a canoe, rest assured there’s a war party waiting for them, somewhere that’s inconvenient. That’s just where War Parties happen. Ain’t you never been to a War Party, down by the River? I see them from my van all the time.
Around here there are parties down by the river … I think the war part has gone out of them.