We’ve all had mental blanks from time to time. When we’re players, a GM presents a problem that should be a slam-dunk to solve – but we can’t seem to grasp the blindingly obvious. Similarly, there are times as a GM when a problem has an obvious solution that we completely overlook, and times when we need to identify the obvious solutions – so that we can make the problem more challenging for the PCs. After all, a game in which the PCs automatically succeed in everything they attempt is quickly going to become dull, or worse still, devolve into a battle of wits between players and GM. Which can be fun in its own way, at least for a time – but is usually not enough to sustain a game in the longer term, and carries the potential for abuse of power, accusations of abuse of power, and other sources of ill-will. I have seen long-term friendships torn apart by these problems.
When I find myself confronted by any of these situations, I think of a box.
Doesn’t make sense? Well, let’s see it in action…
The Alleyway Of Doom
Thugs chase your character into an alleyway. How do you get out again?
The alley is a box. It has two sides, a top and a bottom, a front and a back. Presumably there’s a wall or something in front of you preventing you from simply continuing to run.
Each of these box surfaces contains potential ways out. Think about each in turn.
- Above: can you fly? If not, this might not be very helpful.
- Left and right: are there unlocked doors? Are there ladders you can climb? Is there somewhere you can grab with a grappling hook and rope? Is there anything you can hide behind?
- In front: can you jump over the wall? Can you climb it? Can you break through it by sheer force?
- Below: is there a sewer hatch? Behind: is there anything you can use with a running jump to leap over the heads of the pursuing thugs? Is there anything you can use as an improvised weapon?
This is a relatively trivial example. But almost any problem can be treated as a box – and can be simpler to solve when thought of in that way.
The properties of a box
A box has six faces. It has four edges on one side, four edges on the opposite side, and four edges at right angles to both. It has eight corners. All these are valuable attributes to using a box as problem-solving tool.
The Box as a metaphor
The trick is to use the box as a simulation or metaphor for the problem at hand. If necessary, simplify the problem and treat it more generically to make it fit.
This is useful because a cube is the most complex solid most people can visualize completely, within their heads. I can picture more complex forms, but not the whole thing at the same time.
You’ve passed through an extra-dimensional portal that’s closed behind you. Supposedly the portal was to lead you to a confrontation with your ultimate enemies – whoever and wherever they are. You find yourself standing on a flat rock in deep space – but you can breathe. Your magic doesn’t work, and you are quite alone here – no enemies in sight. How do you escape? That’s the problem.
Define each aspect or parameter of the problem as the side of a box. Think about each in turn, looking for ways to escape from the box in that ‘direction’. Some might be literal, others metaphoric.
In this case, Above and Below are literal – you’re standing on something (below) and there’s space above you. The face in front of you, you might designate as representing the enemies you are supposed to be confronting. The face behind you is where you’ve come from – the portal (even though it has apparently closed). The left-hand face is metaphoric – your magic doesn’t work, and you had been relying on it to enable you to escape any trap. The right-hand face is also metaphoric – you can see, so there’s light of some sort from somewhere. What are the other characteristics of this strange space?
- In front: could it be that the enemies you’re after are actually here – but hidden or invisible? Or that they can be summoned to this place? Is there anything that might function as a signal?
- Above: can you jump high enough to escape? Is there something – that, perhaps, you can’t see – that you can grab hold of and climb out of this place? There’s breathable air – can you manipulate it somehow? Can you make wings or a parachute and just jump off the rock? (That’s a last resort unless you can find something to tie a rope to – in which case, it’s safe to experiment.)
- Below: is there anything written on the surface? Are there switches that can be manipulated? Is the rock completely featureless? Can you feel any objects that you can’t see?
- Behind: is the portal still there, just invisible? Can you get back to it by walking backwards? If the rock on which you’re standing is spinning on it’s axis, the portal might reappear if you wait (same thing if there is any other sort of cyclic phenomenon). Can you throw a rope with a grappling hook back through it and bootstrap yourself out of the trap?
- Left: is there something that might be preventing your magic from working that can be deactivated? Can it be overloaded? Are other spells working? Magic devices? Might it simply be that you have to rememorize your spells? Is it simply your type of magic that’s not working – could other types work? Or perhaps only one type can be blocked at a time? Can I draw or construct a ward or defence against whatever is blocking the magic? Is it possible that this is all an illusion?
- Right: What else is working here? Presumably gravity is – or the escape “above” would have succeeded. Where’s the light coming from? Even if the source is invisible, does it cause you to cast a shadow? Can you escape into that? If you pour some water on the rock, does it reveal any hidden features? Where does it flow to – and what happens when it reaches the edges of the rock? What are the physical parameters of this location? Does time flow at the same rate here? Do any materials in the character’s possession appear to have unusual properties? If I light a torch, can I tell anything about where the air is coming from – or where it is going?
Graham McDonald, a friend of mine (who, sadly, passed away last year) once trapped a party in just such a space, under exactly these circumstances, in a D&D campaign – except that he added a well and a waterfall. They looked around, saw nothing, and just sat down to wait until their characters thought of a way out. Graham was very old-school – you didn’t get answers, or even clues, from sitting on your duff. But his players couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t do something to get the game moving if they simply waited around for the solution to be handed to them on a silver platter – meaning that they had seriously underestimated Graham. After four hours of doing nothing, he told them to start rolling up new characters, because it didn’t look like their old ones were going to be getting anywhere anytime soon (I’m not necessarily endorsing the approach, just saying that’s the way it was).
On being told this story, I started running through the above litany of questions. By the time I was finished, I had found EIGHT different ways out of the trap (since Graham was the type of GM who improv’ed all the time and ruled that if you tried anything sensible to solve a problem, it would work) – five of which were things that even HE hadn’t thought of at the time. And that was before I even got started on the waterfall and the well!
Depending on how you define the sides, the edges are where each combine or connect. This is useful for a GM looking to construct a challenge of some sort for the players to solve of the type “You can’t do X because if you do, Y will happen”.
For example, let’s assume that the problem is that the PCs want to prevent a political enemy from interfering in what the PCs are about to do. I would define each face as being a political ‘force’ or authority, and look for a way for that faction to take advantage of the political enemy being blocked – a way that will be detrimental to the PCs.
That would mean that the PCs can only achieve their ultimate goal – blocking their political enemy – after they have prevented each of the other factions from taking advantage of the situation, i.e. after they have created the ‘correct’ political climate. This will almost certainly involve playing one off against the other – in other words, exploiting the ‘edges’ of the box, where the two connect. The edges thus represent the current political and social relationships between the ‘sides’.
Alternately, you can list the first six possible ways of achieving the goal and assign each to a face – then complicate each of them by ensuring that the PCs know (or think) that someone is in position to take advantage of the resulting circumstances. This is, ultimately, less effective than the first technique, as the results are less robust and have a greater flavor of intentional railroading by the GM.
The first approach simply points out consequences of forces already at play in the campaign, the second manipulates what is there to block the PCs – and introduces new forces to do so if there’s nothing already in place that fits the recipe.
The Edges, Part II
This is also a great way to define a complex set of political or social relationships, the sort of complicated puzzle that comes into existence naturally all the time. Once they are defined, all you need is for the PCs to stumble into the middle of the labyrinth – the adventure writes itself, perfectly sandboxed. Define each “side” of the box as a faction or individual:
- Side 1: Town Council
- Side 2: The Head Priest
- Side 3: Town Militia
- Side 4: An external threat
- Side 5: An internal troublemaker
- Side 6: The Mayor
Next, define a relationship between each of these and one other – an ‘edge’ – which causes them to behave in a way that is not what the PCs want.
- 1: The Town Council would like to help the PCs, but the High Priest is already poised to denounce and rouse the populace against them and they are afraid of giving him any opportunities.
- 2: The High Priest believes the Mayor to be dangerously unstable and will block any sort of success on the part of his office. Paranoid, he will assume that the PCs are in league with the forces of evil that he believes are acting malevolently within the town.
- 3: The Town Militia are hyper-reactionary. The Mayor has given them directions to stomp any trouble or potential trouble into the ground – with prejudice – and Adventurers (PCs) are nothing but trouble waiting to happen.
- 4: There’s a tribe of Gnolls lurking outside of town who have been hired by the Town Council, who fear arrest by the Militia on trumped-up charges. But they are getting tired of waiting around, doing nothing.
- 5: The innkeeper is trying to bring down the town council supposedly because of the crushing taxes the council has been levying of late.
- 6: The Mayor is being forced by the innkeeper to enact repressive laws.
Now, get out a d6 and renumber the factions so that these relationships are reflected by an edge between the two numbered sides.
- The Town Council can stay as “1”. They are connected to the High Priest, who has to be 2, 3, 4, or 5.
- The High Priest can stay as “2”. He is connected to the Town Council and now adds a connection to the Mayor, who has to be 3, 4, or 6. We can’t yet see where the Mayor will fit.
- The Town Militia used to be “3”. They are connected to the Mayor. If the Mayor is 3 or 4, they have to be 5 or 6; if the Mayor is 6, they have to be 3, 4, or 5. We can’t tell which combination works best yet.
- The Gnolls connect to the town council (1) so they have to be 3, 4, or 5. They are not connected to anyone else, so anywhere will fit. There is no obvious potential for connection between them and the High Priest, so let’s put them opposite him in 5. This reduces our options for the Town Militia.
- The Innkeeper is connected to the town council (1) so he has to be 3 or 4. It’s still too soon to say which.
- The Mayor – already listed as being one of 3, 4, or 6 – also has a relationship with the Innkeeper. If the Innkeeper is a 3 or 4, as we just determined, the mayor has to stay 6 because 3 and 4 are opposite each other. So the mayor is a 6, the town militia are 3, and the innkeeper is 4.
- The upshot: the relationships we defined have resulted in the associations of faces 4 and 5 being exchanged. All others can stay as they are.
If you don’t have a d6 handy, remember: opposite sides always add up to 7. That will always tell you which side is NOT adjacent to the one you’re thinking of: If you are looking at face 2, 7-2=5 so five is opposite, and 1, 3, 4, and 6 are adjacent. This arrangement makes it harder to roll the dice and get a desired range of results – if all the high faces were adjacent, you can learn to bias your throw to only get low or high).
So, what we now have is:
- 1: The Town Council – connected to 2, 4, and 5.
- 2: The High Priest – connected to 1 and 6.
- 3: The Town Militia – connected to 6.
- 4: The Troublemaking Innkeeper – connected to 1.
- 5: The Gnolls – connected to 1.
- 6: The Mayor – connected to 2 and 3.
(This step may seem trivial, even a waste of time, but making sure the existing relationships are accommodated becomes essential as we add further layers to the mix). The third step is to make note of those factions that can never connect, and ask ourselves why not:
- 1, the Town Council, can never connect with 6, The Mayor, because: They ousted an killed the Mayor a decade ago – but he did not stay dead.
- 2, the High Priest, can never connect with 5, The Gnolls, because: They are servants of the Mayor who the High Priest opposes.
- 3, the Town Militia, can never connect with 4, The Innkeeper, because: They have been bought off, but can never publicly reveal this, so it is strictly business from all appearances and will stay that way.
At this point, I can start to see where this particular knotty problem is headed. Perhaps you can too. The PCs arrive in town and meet the friendly old innkeeper who tells them about the Gnolls, and how the mayor has been forced to instruct the militia to be harsh or even repressive in order to keep the council from seizing total power. ‘The people would get rid of the council’, he will tell them, ‘if it were not for the threat of the Gnolls with whom they have an alliance’. He hopes that the PCs will be fooled into doing his dirty work for him, ousting the council and leaving his puppet in charge. The PCs infiltrate the Gnolls and verify the arrangement between them and the council. They head off to confront the Council only to be attacked by the High Priest, who believes they are secretly in league with the Mayor. From him, they learn that things may not be quite as black-and-white as they seemed – the council are not the ultimate evil they had been led to believe, and the Mayor is allegedly a worse danger. The problem is that the mayor can’t be destroyed until his hidden master, who keeps returning him from the dead, is revealed and taken out. The PCs have now swung around to be wholly in sympathy with the position of the high priest – find the hidden master, eliminate him, permitting the mayor to be removed, permitting the council to release the Gnolls – but the Gnolls won’t go, they have been promised looting and women and fighting, and have to be driven out by the PCs. Knock over the first domino, and the whole mess unravels itself.
That’s a nice little adventure, with something for just about everyone in a typical party – investigation, cloak and dagger, political subterfuge, roleplaying, combat, and something for the party cleric. In itself, this shows the power of this technique – though there are other ways of achieving the same result. The real power of this technique lies in its ability to take matters further, something that most other methods of plotting have difficulty in achieving satisfactorily or easily.
There are two alternative approaches that can be used: the sympathetic connection and the conundrum mechanism.
The Sympathetic Connection
In this approach, we take each opposed faction and engineer them in such a way that they will appeal to one of the PCs if they would not normally do so, or be disliked or mistrusted by a PC if that PC would normally like or trust them. The party thus becomes a microcosm of the overall problem.
For example, what if the party cleric inherently mistrusted the High Priest? Perhaps the High Priest is a servant of a deity that the cleric dislikes, distrusts, or considers evil / manipulative. This throws immediate doubt over a key element of the plot outline – that the PCs would come around to the high priest’s way of thinking. If we use a similar technique to muddy the waters with respect to each of the PCs and another of the planks in the plotline, either by reinventing the faction or by outright deception by a faction, we complicate the whole situation to the point where it looks more like a Dallas episode than the relatively straightforward plotline presented earlier!
- …when the PCs investigate the Gnolls they discover them conducting a ceremony worshipping a god of Justice, or Law, or Nobility. Suddenly, they aren’t just mercenaries…
- …the mayor offers a cock-and-bull story about refusing to remain in his grave while his beloved town is in danger from a hidden cult who seek to summon a nightmare from beyond reality, pointing the finger at the innkeeper, in an attempt to win free of his ‘master’…
- …the militia are tired of being hated by their friends and neighbors and are at the point of attempting a military coup, having been ‘encouraged’ by a smooth-talking stranger who has offered sympathy and support and financial aid – for no apparent reason (cue devilish laughter)…
…well, you get the idea.
There’s only one thing wrong with this approach: it relies on the PCs behaving in a manner that is predictable by the GM. Sometimes, that is possible, at other times it is not. When it works, it is the best possible solution, because it guarantees that the players will become engaged in the plotline, enriching that plotline in the process. But when it falls flat it can feel like an attempt by the GM to railroad the plot by manipulating the players – a truly cynical interpretation that is not entirely unwarranted.
Unless you are sure, absolutely sure, that you have correctly interpreted the way the PCs will react, you are often better off employing the alternative approach: The Conundrum Mechanism.
The Conundrum Mechanism
At it’s heart, the conundrum mechanism simply adds a second set of plots and relationships on top of the first. There are a lot of unexploited edges to our box, and linking them together to form a set of circumstances whose path to resolution is the exact opposite of the first does indeed achieve the stated goal of locking everything in stasis until the PCs arrive and start destabilizing the situation.
The requirements for the second plot layed out in the preceding paragraph make the task easier in some ways and more difficult in others. The nature of the factions and their relationship to this plot is clearly spelled, so instead of a blank canvas apon which to draw, we have a tightly restricted one. While that means that a subset of the full range of possibilities are all we need to consider, and we have some clues as a result of what the nature of those possible plot elements will be (that’s the easier part), we have to stay strictly within the confines dictated by the first plot and retain a consistency of characterization on the part of the factions – so the criteria to be satisfied are more strict (that’s the harder part).
The place to start is by summarizing the characterization of each faction from the first plotline and indicating thereby the role that the faction is to play in the new plotline. To continually remind myself that this is a counterplot, I generally list the participants in reverse order, from six to one.
- 6: The Mayor: an ambitious lesser evil, a high-level undead – Lich, Vampire, etc.
- 5: The Gnolls: monstrous mercenaries, supposedly in the service of the town council.
- 4: The Innkeeper: a troublemaker, secret master of the Mayor, and the hidden ultimate evil in town.
- 3: The Town Militia: corrupt forces of law and order, under the thumb of the mayor & his hidden master.
- 2: The High Priest: a slightly senile old man who reveals the truth to the PCs – eventually.
- 1: The Town Council: have resorted to evil (hiring evil mercenaries) to fight a larger evil – and keep themselves in power.
Next, I list the edges that don’t already have a plot connection:
- 6: The Mayor: 5
- 5: The Gnolls: 3, 4, 6
- 4: The Innkeeper: 2, 5
- 3: The Town Militia: 1, 2, 5
- 2: The High Priest: 3, 4
- 1: The Town Council: 3
Those are the resources we have with which to construct a second plot using the same factional elements. One weakness of the first plot is that it is very self-contained, with minimal connection to larger plotlines in the world outside – this can be an asset if you are running an episodic campaign, but even episodic campaigns can benefit from hinting at a future adventure. This is an opportunity to increase the scope of the overall adventure just a little.
It’s usually the case that there will be one or two factions with fewer options to exploit, and that’s the best place to start. In this case, that gives a choice between a Mayor/Gnolls connection and a Town Council/Militia connection. The first of these doesn’t spark any inspiration in me, so I will pick the second, a connection between the Town Council and the Town Militia. From that point on, I just build connections from amongst the remaining choices, crossing them off as we go. (NB: Crossing out didn’t show up very clearly so I’ve just rendered the numbers in red).
- 1: The Town Council: 3: So far the Town Council has been depicted in not too-unfavorable a light, overall. They’ve done some questionable things, but they’ve been desperate – so foolish, but not evil. So let’s darken them up a bit to make the PCs choice a little harder. Perhaps they have a line on some evil artifact that will permit them to do something nasty, but are blocked from going all-out for it while locked in this conflict with the Mayor. Their chief rivals for this is the head of the Town Militia, who has his own men searching for the artifact, using the martial law imposed by the Mayor in plotline #1 as a pretext.
- 3: The Town Militia: 1, 2, 5: The Militia have come to suspect that the High Priest has already located the artifact, or is deliberately blocking their attempts to locate it. They intend to raid the Temple complex under a pretext, and to arrest the High Priest if they can.
- 2: The High Priest: 3, 4: We have two choices with the high priest. We can either complete his rehabilitation or we can make him as sinister as the other characters in town, depending on how we handle his connection to the Macguffin. Does he have it in his possession, as the Militia believe? Or is he searching for it like everyone else? And what does he intend to do with it? We still have three factions to involve, and that should weigh into our decision as well. Perhaps he knows where it is but can’t retrieve it because of the trouble in town. That idea has possibilities….
Okay, so let’s say that he found a map to the artifact, but when the trouble started in town, he hid it in the last place anyone would suspect – within the Mayor’s files, using a spell to actually remove the dangerous knowledge from his mind so that the Undead Mayor could not attempt to Charm Person it out of him. The Mayor is, after all, some type of high-level undead. Suddenly, the High Priest has a whole new reason for opposing the current regime, one that requires only the appearance of altruism.
The problem with this is that it relies on a connection we already have for plot #1, so we also need a new connection, and out only remaining choice is a connection to the Innkeeper.
- 4: The Innkeeper: 2, 5: If the High Priest does not realize the connection between the Mayor and the Innkeeper from plot #1, but only knows that some hidden enemy keeps restoring the Mayor to life, he might have let his guard down a little. If the innkeeper was somehow capable of extracting part of the truth from the High Priest, we have our connection – but with the knowledge removed from his mind for safe keeping, the Innkeeper could not get the final piece of the puzzle. A disguised Mind Flayer fits our prescription, but then begs the question (which we have avoided so far) of just how the Innkeeper is controlling the Mayor. The relationship seems to go a bit beyond the normal domination by an evil cleric (rebuke undead), which might function when the dominating influence is present, but would hold little sway once the two were separated. It seems more persistent, and yet leaves the Mayor more capable of independent functioning.
One way of explaining this is for the mayor to not actually BE an undead (making him resistant to the usual anti-undead tricks of a cleric) but is actually in some sort of state of “suspended resurrection” that the Innkeeper can complete – or cancel – at any time. This could also make him immune to attacks that usually work on non-undead, making him REALLY dangerous. It would also mean that the Mayor is elevated to sufficiently dangerous to make the fight with him a non-anticlimax. Perhaps a preliminary fight to show how tough he is, from which the PCs barely escape, before the party figure out that the “hidden master” has to be taken out to leave the Mayor vulnerable.
One of the very first blogs I wrote for Campaign Mastery was ‘A Quality Of Spirit: Big Questions In RPGs’ which talks about not being afraid to look at some of the bigger questions in RPGs. The plotlines being developed, which threaten to involve the nature of life and death and undeath and how they are connected, is exactly what I was advocating.
At this point in the article, I had written, “To keep this post manageable in length, I’m not going to go into the subject at this time – I’ll simply note that the GM will have needed to settle this question in his own mind before this plotlines can be completed, and move on.” The intention to leave things there lasted a whole three or four paragraphs, when inspiration struck. If the Mayer is just one in a series of such servants controlled by a conspiracy of Mind Flayers, and the artifact severed the links between body and spirit, it could conceivably destroy all undead then extant in the world, including the not-completely-dead servants of the Illithid collective. Or perhaps it is the connection that permits undead to exist at all – and cannot be destroyed permanently because doing so would end all opportunities for resurrection, reincarnation, or transit to an afterlife. Depending on what “life” actually is in the campaign, it might also severe the connection between the Gods and their worshippers, the Gods and their clerics, and even Devils and Demons and those they have corrupted.
There would be all sorts of unlikely allies trying to get hold of such an artifact, and cooperating to restore it if it were ‘destroyed’.
Or perhaps it simply slays all living things within a 10-mile radius and raises them as undead?
If we’re going to continue linking all the factions to this second plot, we need a narrative connection between the Innkeeper and the only available faction he’s not linked to: The Gnolls. Perhaps the Innkeeper – a troublemaker, remember – has decided to use the Gnolls in the same way that the head of the town Militia is using his forces, and the reason the Gnolls are becoming more aggressive in plot #1 is that they are looking for a pretext to mount a raid in search of the artifact.
- 5: The Gnolls: 3, 4, 6: That’s remarkably un-Gnoll-like behavior. The Monster Manual describes a brutish and rather short-sighted species ruled by their stomachs. This is an opportunity to muddy the waters and shake the complacency of the PCs if they rely too strongly on “public” material. What if these Gnolls weren’t quite so primitive, and had rudimentary concepts of honor and nobility – if they were the most enlightened Gnolls the PCs had ever seen, who were only pretending to behave brutishly because that’s what they have been paid to do, they might be reluctant to wipe them out. Give them some civility and urbanity, even a hint of gentility. Throwing an appropriate alignment shift, to true Neutral or Lawful Neutral, completes the transformation into Gnolls their mothers would not recognize, and gives the PCs another conundrum to resolve; the Gnolls have at least a passing consideration for the ethics of a paid mercenary, they will do whatever they have been paid to do – which happens to include opposing the PCs. And while they would not be averse to a side-contract, they won’t do anything that compromises their original deal – which includes being bought off or driven away!
- 6: The Mayor: 5: The last link we have to consider is between the Mayor and the Gnolls. Frankly, I don’t think this is necessary; we already have an extra connection between the Mayor and the Innkeeper, and another between the Mayor and the High Priest, as part of plot #2. Of course, given where the map to the artifact has been hidden, the Mayor’s office will ultimately be the target of the Gnoll’s raid (though they don’t know that), so (in a way) there is just such a connection already.
Putting the resulting plotline together is then just a matter of copying and pasting the plot elements from plot#2 into the more straightforward plot #1. The result is a list of encounters and what can be learned from each, plus a “helping hand” starting point from the Innkeeper to get the PCs involved up to their necks (if not deeper)!
The corners of a box are the ideal representation of political alliances and intrigues of the most Machiavellian sort, because each represents a confluence of three factions – and six factions give no less than eight alliances, each with a single objective. Each faction is allied to someone in order to achieve some goal while opposed to them achieving some other goal.
Again, it would help if you had a d6 handy to contemplate at this point. Consider the 1,4,5 corner – the 2,4,6 corner opposite would be opposed to whatever the 1-4-5 group wants to achieve, by definition. At the same time, the 1,2,4 coalition wants to achieve something else, opposed by the 3,5,6 allegiance.
In fact, the same principle can represent the politics of many more factions provided that the others are neutral with respect to the ambition or plot in question, and that you swap the members represented by each face around as necessary when considering other issues.
Larger dice, like a d8 or d12, as a representation, permits even more byzantine politics to be codified.
To use this simulation as a plotting tool, it is only necessary to remember that for every move, a rival faction must make a countermove, which then weakens or strengthens another faction to which they belong, which necessitates a member of that faction to respond or attempt to take advantage of the situation, which then… but the chain of effect should be obvious at this point.
In fact, it should be so obvious that at this point, I think I’ll call it a post. So the next time you’re in a bind, whether you’re a player or a GM, try thinking your way into or out of a box. It might just get you to a solution.