Worlds of Design: The Lost Art of Being Lost

If you’ve played tabletop RPGs long enough, you’ve probably been in an adventure where your party got lost. Yet it’s much less likely to happen nowadays.

If you’ve played tabletop RPGs long enough, you’ve probably been in an adventure where your party got lost. Yet it’s much less likely to happen nowadays.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

You got to go down a lot of wrong roads to find the right one. - Bob Parsons
If you’ve played tabletop RPGs long enough, you’ve probably been in an adventure where your party got lost, or cut off from retracing their path home (which amounts to the same thing). Remember how exciting it was? Getting lost is a common occurrence in actual military operations. Yet it’s much less likely to happen in tabletop RPGs nowadays.

Fog of War​

In the first years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, many of my most memorable adventures were ones where we got lost in a place with few pathways, such as a dungeon. The cause could be as simple as a one-way door, or a rotating room. But this has changed, and it’s due in no small part to computer role-playing games (CRPGs).

In D&D’s early days, one of the fundamental roles of any party was the mapper. The idea being that the dungeon was concealed through fog of war, in which games simulate ignorance of strength and position of friends and foes. A common staple of board games, it was carried over into wargames and D&D. A mapper was an out-of-game role for a player (although presumably, the player’s character was also creating a map) so that retreat and further exploration were possible.

Fog of war changed how D&D was played. Being lost or cut off from home requires a different mode of play. In typical play you can go through an encounter or two, then stop (or go back home) to recover before you continue. But when you’re lost, you have to husband your resources much more carefully (depends on the game rules, of course).

Fog of war has a lot of fiddly tactical elements, not the least of which being that it requires keeping players in the dark. Dungeon masters must keep track of what’s happening with two separate maps, one representing the “real” dungeon and one representing what the PCs have explored. If the game is procedurally generated, it may be that even the DM doesn’t know the layout of the “real” dungeon, creating it as the players explore it.

This is a lot of work, which is why when the concept was ported to CRPGs, mapping was offloaded to the program.

Computers Take Over​

The Dunjonquest series of games were one of the first to replicate dungeon exploring, using numbered rooms and text descriptions that were read separately in a booklet resembling a pen-and-paper adventure module. But it wasn’t long before games just mapped everything for you. As computer power increased, virtual worlds got bigger, as did the opportunity for players to get lost. Many CRPGs provide waypoints that show the direction, if not the distance, to the next quest.

This led to the conventional wisdom that CRPGs should “always make sure the player knows what to do/where to go next.” It’s a form of handholding, making sure that players don’t get frustrated, that derives in part from the prevalence of free-to-play (F2P) games. If a free game is frustrating, players may quit it and (easily) find another to play.

The design objective in free-to-play video games is not to challenge the player(s), but to engage them in an electronic playground long enough that they’ll decide to spend money on micro transactions, or other methods of acquiring the player’s money. In a game that costs the player nothing to procure, anything that’s frustrating tends to be avoided, except when that frustration is a slow progress “pain point” that the player can fix by spending some money to speed things up. Negative consequences are avoided.

This approach can surprised players accustomed to CRPG-style exploration.

The Fun of Getting Lost​

The same factors that led to CRPGs streamlining mapping affect tabletop games: lack of players, lack of time, and getting players up to speed quickly so they can play.

While getting lost can be fun, not everyone wants their first play experience to be wandering around in the dark. New players expect to jump into the action, at least in part because so many other forms of entertainment allow them to do just that.

This of course depends on the style of play. Players might not be as frustrated in sessions where the GM is telling a story, as players will regard getting lost as a necessary part of the story. In a story, getting lost is exciting and mysterious. But (as GM) if you’re “writing” a story for your players, you have to control when they get lost, you can’t let it happen randomly. And if they’re used to you guiding them through a story, they’ll lose that excitement and mystery of getting lost, because they’ll know you’re in control.

Consider the Secret Door​

Whether or not a DM uses secret doors encapsulates if characters can get lost in a dungeon. If the DM is telling a story, a secret door is more of an obstacle—the PCs will presumably find it no matter what to progress the story. If the DM is running the game as a simulation in which the PCs’ dungeoneering skills are tested, the secret door may not be found at all and the room behind it may never be discovered.

Where this becomes an issue if players think they’re playing a story game but the DM is running a simulation. A dislike of secret doors by novices in D&D, sometimes termed by players as a “dirty GM trick,” represents the conflicting approaches. Some players want clear paths instead of obstacles. They’re not interested in allowing secret doors to perform their primary function: rewarding players for skillful dungeoneering.

Video gamers learn what they "should" do next. Board gamers of the Eurostyle learn the Generally Accepted Best Move in This Situation, and other players may actually get mad at you if you play differently! (This is partly a consequence of "multiple paths to victory" that everyone must follow to solve the puzzle of the parallel competition.) TTRPGers have much more "freedom," fortunately.

If your campaign is a simulation, then getting characters lost is a good way to challenge and excite players. If your game is a playground, or a storytelling session, the players might not react favorably.

Your Turn: Do you allow parties to get lost in your games?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

M_Natas

Hero
But that doesn’t really require being lost. That’s just a random encounter, much like any other. The lost part is pretty much just an afterthought. And also not an idea you can use more than a couple of times before it gets very stale.
Getting lost/being lost does two things:
It takes up resources (food, water, time ...) and it can get you to an unexpected/unplanned place.

If you don't track resources, because your group decided to not use encumbrance and doesn't track food and water, in the Ressource department, getting lost starts to get pointless. There is only time left. And that only matters if there is a time constraint.
Like, I wrote an adventure where the party tracks some bandits. If they have a bad check, they need more time to find the bandit camp, which changes what they will encounter there (the stolen goods were already sold to another trader, for example). So getting lost needs some kind of consequences. for that, we need context. That is a big problem in most D&D rules discussions. They happen out of context. Out of context getting lost is as pointless and boring as a DC 10 Pittrap.

So in the context of a game, where the characters have no time constraints and don't do resources management outside of HP, Spellslots and other Character abilities, getting lost is mostly pointless, because it doesn't matter If you take one or two days to get to the location.
But if you want to reach the city before the other adventure group gets there because they want to steal your client, then getting lost in the swamps of Misdirection has a point.

If you do resource management by RAW, you have to plan the expedition to the ruins of interesting things, which is roughly 6 days of travel from the city of heroes, you need to get enough food and water with you to get there, explore the ruins, get the McGuffin of interest and get back. And if you get lost, suddenly, maybe your resources are not enough anymore. The characters now need to make decisions like do they press on and risk running out of food? Do they forage? Do they go back to town and prepare better, but risk that their nemesis group will get the McGuffin first? Now we have interesting choices for the party.

Getting lost needs game context. If the party just wants to go to the next city, they Don't have a quest and all the time in the world, getting lost is pointless.

Unless for the second reason: finding unexpected Locations/Things. Is it just another random encounter? Yes. But that is the second reason for getting lost: it is another random encounter/location trigger. It also makes the world more real.
Oh, we got lost, utterly now we found this little Shrine in the mountains, that is nice. People must worship some mountain spirits here. Could you just put that on the road without getting lost? Of course, you can do that. But finding stuff by getting lost has a greater feeling of verisimilitude. Getting lost is accidental exploration.

If they encounter interesting locations on the road, without getting lost, it is just something the DM planned for the characters to find. If the group gets lost, it is something unexpected, it is something real in the world when they find the Shrine. Something g that feels like it would be there, even if the characters would never have stumbled upon it.

So: In 5e, to have an interesting gameplay experience while getting lost, you need 1. to do Ressource management and you need 2. interesting things to discover. And 3. you need Ingame context that makes getting lost matter. You need some urgency.

If you have these three things, getting lost can be something fun.
 
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