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

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Pentallion

Explorer
There are two problems with this though.

1. If you haven't planned anything from point A to point B, then getting lost simply means random tables. There is no "unplanned chapter". It's just random, pointless filler until such time as you become unlost.

2. As you say, if you have planned something between A and B, then you aren't going to leave it up to random chance. Most people are not going to create an entire scenario based on the off chance that the party randomly gets lost.

Getting lost is what I've heard called a rowboat sandbox. Basically, you're in the middle of the ocean and it doesn't really matter what direction you go because any direction will give you exactly the same results. And, the old saw about having one and only one random encounter holds true because, well, everyone at the table knows that this is just filler. Presumably we're traveling to point B because the adventure is at point B. It's a destination. It's where we want to go. Anything that delays that is just more or less pointless filler until such time as we get to point B.

Any traveling adventure is, by it's very nature, linear. You are at A, you want to go to B. You have a path from A to B. It doesn't really get any more linear than that. Adding in "getting lost" doesn't make it non-linear. All it does is delay the line. It's not like the party is going to have a couple of random encounters on the way from A to B and then decide to abandon B. Again, why would they? They WANT to be a

There are two problems with this though.

1. If you haven't planned anything from point A to point B, then getting lost simply means random tables. There is no "unplanned chapter". It's just random, pointless filler until such time as you become unlost.

2. As you say, if you have planned something between A and B, then you aren't going to leave it up to random chance. Most people are not going to create an entire scenario based on the off chance that the party randomly gets lost.

Getting lost is what I've heard called a rowboat sandbox. Basically, you're in the middle of the ocean and it doesn't really matter what direction you go because any direction will give you exactly the same results. And, the old saw about having one and only one random encounter holds true because, well, everyone at the table knows that this is just filler. Presumably we're traveling to point B because the adventure is at point B. It's a destination. It's where we want to go. Anything that delays that is just more or less pointless filler until such time as we get to point B.

Any traveling adventure is, by it's very nature, linear. You are at A, you want to go to B. You have a path from A to B. It doesn't really get any more linear than that. Adding in "getting lost" doesn't make it non-linear. All it does is delay the line. It's not like the party is going to have a couple of random encounters on the way from A to B and then decide to abandon B. Again, why would they? They WANT to be at B.
The whole "there's nothing between point A and point B but filler" proves what I said on another thread about sandboxes just being an illusion. you're on a railroad taking you from A to B or you're just playing filler
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Is this a bad time to point out the DMG actually does have a section on becoming lost?

What was that meme about the DMG again?
Yeah, just after I posted that I thought, "hey, I should check what is already in the DMG".

I will say, however, it is also a good time to point out how annoying it is to find something in the DMG. I don't have the print version handy, so maybe the index would lead me to the rules on getting lost. But in D&D Beyond? Gah! Anyway, after poking around, I found it under "Adventure Environments/Wilderness Survival" (apparently getting lost is not something likely to come up in urban environments, dungeons, or "unusual environments").

In any event, I find the DMG rules on getting lost rather lackluster. Perhaps that's why I forgot about them. Basically they will help you calculate how long it takes to get from A to B. Depending on the terrain and how fast you are travelling you set a DC to make a survival check against. In the check fails, the party spends 1d6 hours trying to get back on track and can then make another check.

I would rather the a longer section that discusses approaches to getting lost in a variety of situations and giving advice on different approaches.

Getting lost, for example needn't always come down to just survival checks. You can connect it to social interaction rules to get directions and assistance. You could have some generic random encounter tables that tie into other rules: social interactions, chases, etc. E.g., Party runs into a Deadly or worse encounter they are unlikely to win. They need to sneak to avoid or escape from a chase, etc.

The rules given in the DMG make sense for a hexcrawl or TOTM where you are tracking miles travelled. But other options can be discussed. Such as a travel montage using 4e-style skill challenges.

There are a lot of cool ideas in third-party products and in discussion boards, the DMs Guild etc. I would be nice to have more of these tools given as options in the DMG.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Because heaven forbid we actually delve into something like personality or personal relationships in a game. :erm: There's a lot more to role playing than just exploration and combat. There's that whole other pillar - social - that is a pretty big one in some people's games.
That in no way detracts from his (and my) point that exploration is fun and our favorite part of the game. Liking that doesn't mean we don't care about personality or personal relationships. Caring about those things  also helps with immersion, because real people care about those things too. Everybody has a preference, and yours is not superior to anyone else's.
 


Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Yeah, just after I posted that I thought, "hey, I should check what is already in the DMG".

I will say, however, it is also a good time to point out how annoying it is to find something in the DMG. I don't have the print version handy, so maybe the index would lead me to the rules on getting lost. But in D&D Beyond? Gah! Anyway, after poking around, I found it under "Adventure Environments/Wilderness Survival" (apparently getting lost is not something likely to come up in urban environments, dungeons, or "unusual environments").

In any event, I find the DMG rules on getting lost rather lackluster. Perhaps that's why I forgot about them. Basically they will help you calculate how long it takes to get from A to B. Depending on the terrain and how fast you are travelling you set a DC to make a survival check against. In the check fails, the party spends 1d6 hours trying to get back on track and can then make another check.

I would rather the a longer section that discusses approaches to getting lost in a variety of situations and giving advice on different approaches.

Getting lost, for example needn't always come down to just survival checks. You can connect it to social interaction rules to get directions and assistance. You could have some generic random encounter tables that tie into other rules: social interactions, chases, etc. E.g., Party runs into a Deadly or worse encounter they are unlikely to win. They need to sneak to avoid or escape from a chase, etc.

The rules given in the DMG make sense for a hexcrawl or TOTM where you are tracking miles travelled. But other options can be discussed. Such as a travel montage using 4e-style skill challenges.

There are a lot of cool ideas in third-party products and in discussion boards, the DMs Guild etc. I would be nice to have more of these tools given as options in the DMG.
One of the reasons I prefer print over pdf or (ugh) web-based content, is I find it much easier to look things up.

I know some people disagree, so no need to pile on with how wrong I am.
 

Hussar

Legend
That in no way detracts from his (and my) point that exploration is fun and our favorite part of the game. Liking that doesn't mean we don't care about personality or personal relationships. Caring about those things  also helps with immersion, because real people care about those things too. Everybody has a preference, and yours is not superior to anyone else's.
That's not quite what he said though. He said that the choice is exploration or mindless, meaningless combat and mentions nothing about the social aspect of the game. That's what I was responding to.

And, yes, I agree that the idea that sandboxes are "nothing but filler" is nonsensical and I most certainly do not endorse that line of thinking.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Nope. All it proves is what @Hussar's opinion on the matter is.
And that people who hate sandboxes shouldn’t try to run them. “All that’s between A and B is filler.” Sheesh.
One of the reasons I prefer print over pdf or (ugh) web-based content, is I find it much easier to look things up.

I know some people disagree, so no need to pile on with how wrong I am.
There’s something about the physical object and sense memory. You turn the pages and get a sense for where things are in relation to each other. “The text I’m looking for had art opposite with a halfling. And it’s a few pages past that two page spread of the dragon. Now, where is that dragon…”
 

Hussar

Legend
Note, just to clarify, I DID NOT SAY that all sandboxes are nothing but filler. Please stop putting someone else's words in my mouth.

What I DID say is that in a travel scenario, when you are going from A to B, it's extremely unlikely that there is anything but random filler in between. If your sandbox is so detailed that you have actual material in between? Great. But, by and large, being lost is just a couple of die rolls and maybe a random, pointless encounter.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
What I DID say is that in a travel scenario, when you are going from A to B, it's extremely unlikely that there is anything but random filler in between. If your sandbox is so detailed that you have actual material in between? Great. But, by and large, being lost is just a couple of die rolls and maybe a random, pointless encounter.
i think this is part of the issue, that the encounters you have while lost essentially serve as filler on your journey to point B, they are not part of the Main Story(tm) so they're thought of as filler so they're built as quick one and done filler, and because they're built as filler that reinforces the idea that they are filler, oh so you fought some bandits the moment you saw them but nothing really came of it except a few scrapes that we healed almost immediately after, handful of gold, a healing potion and the EXP from killing them, the encounter serves as little more than the fight itself usually and is then immediately forgotten as you try to find your way back to the road again, of course you're going to think that was filler because it served no purpose except to happen and then have no follow up.

it is my opinion that being lost should give you opportunities to find things, be that a whole bandit camp to sneak into or raid, a lost temple with a sacred artefact hidden within or discovering a small hidden village, and then those one-off encounters actually become significant, the bandit leader swears revenge on your group, a church asks you deliver the artefact to the main temple performing the traditional pilgrimmage, a wizard in the hidden village offers to teach you some lost magic if you go fetch some difficult to aquire reagents for him, being lost ought to be as much of an adventure as being on the Main Story(tm), i remember it being said in one thread or another that modern gaming tends towards 'adventuring to tell a story', whereas older games it was 'the story that came from adventuring'
 

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