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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
Aren't there lots of popular video games that embrace open world design and the potential to get lost? Sonic Frontiers, Pokemon Violet/Scarlet, Elden Ring, Hollow Knight, Minecraft, the entire Elder Scrolls series, etc.
 

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Stormonu

Legend
Aren't there lots of popular video games that embrace open world design and the potential to get lost? Sonic Frontiers, Pokemon Violet/Scarlet, Elden Ring, Hollow Knight, Minecraft, the entire Elder Scrolls series, etc.
Definately, lots of open world games allow for a level of exploration that was unheard of back in the day (Breath of the Wild and GTA5 being my fave - the latter for nabbing a car, putting on the talk radio and just checking out somewhere I’ve never been).

But vast, open worlds to explore is far different from getting lost in such worlds. Checking out a place you haven’t been before can be fun, but getting lost when you’re trying to get from one place to another is just plain frustrating.
 

Hussar

Legend
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'

The problem becomes time. Unless you happen to have bandit camps or lost temples in your back pocket, it’s not very likely to happen.

And can we please stop with the “old school” crap? I played back in the day too. I was there just as much as anyone else. And even back then, getting lost was a pointless exercise in tedium. Even then it was a couple of random encounter rolls and not much else.

This isn’t new. It has nothing to do with “how the game changed”. Getting lost has never been fun. There’s a very good reason why the getting lost rules in 5e are so bare bones. It’s the recognition that getting lost in the game was never a fun challenge. It was a tedious waste of time.

If it was actually fun and people enjoyed it, then it would play a much more prominent role.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
The problem becomes time. Unless you happen to have bandit camps or lost temples in your back pocket, it’s not very likely to happen.

And can we please stop with the “old school” crap? I played back in the day too. I was there just as much as anyone else. And even back then, getting lost was a pointless exercise in tedium. Even then it was a couple of random encounter rolls and not much else.

This isn’t new. It has nothing to do with “how the game changed”. Getting lost has never been fun. There’s a very good reason why the getting lost rules in 5e are so bare bones. It’s the recognition that getting lost in the game was never a fun challenge. It was a tedious waste of time.

If it was actually fun and people enjoyed it, then it would play a much more prominent role.
So you've been playing for a while and never found any fun getting lost? Fair enough, but that says nothing about anyone else's experiences.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
So you've been playing for a while and never found any fun getting lost? Fair enough, but that says nothing about anyone else's experiences.

But it may very well say something about a lot of people's experiences. Otherwise your premise has to be that this sort of thing was moved away from just for the hell of it.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
But it may very well say something about a lot of people's experiences. Otherwise your premise has to be that this sort of thing was moved away from just for the hell of it.
No one can speak for other people's preferences; only their own. Appealing to the supposed popularity of your opinion is a flaw in logic.
 

Hussar

Legend
So you've been playing for a while and never found any fun getting lost? Fair enough, but that says nothing about anyone else's experiences.

The problem is I’ve asked about how to make the process of being lost fun and all I’ve gotten are platitudes about how it’s fun for some people.

Bandit camps and temples aren’t fun because you’re lost. They’re fun in their own right. And, there’s a significant difference between exploring unknown terrain (hexploration) and being lost.

All being lost does is add needless tedium to the game. So far no one’s actually shown why ir how it’s fun for the table.
 

Hussar

Legend
No one can speak for other people's preferences; only their own. Appealing to the supposed popularity of your opinion is a flaw in logic.

Then what would be your explanation for why getting lost rules have faded further and further into the background?

And, let’s not start with “oh gamers these days”. Even 2e and Basic/Expert DnD barely had getting lost rules that were any more fleshed out than 5e’s. Heck even the earlier example someone made about 4 hour turns is more fleshed out.

If getting lost is this really fun experience, why isn’t it being used more?
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
The problem becomes time. Unless you happen to have bandit camps or lost temples in your back pocket, it’s not very likely to happen.

And can we please stop with the “old school” crap? I played back in the day too. I was there just as much as anyone else. And even back then, getting lost was a pointless exercise in tedium. Even then it was a couple of random encounter rolls and not much else.

This isn’t new. It has nothing to do with “how the game changed”. Getting lost has never been fun. There’s a very good reason why the getting lost rules in 5e are so bare bones. It’s the recognition that getting lost in the game was never a fun challenge. It was a tedious waste of time.

If it was actually fun and people enjoyed it, then it would play a much more prominent role.
As I keep saying, the issue is that for certain people, challenge in and of itself is fun.

And the game only supports that in terms of exploration: inventory management, rationing, light, wandering monsters.

There's nothing there for people who don't like that. No real stuff on creating fun locations to explore, no like hunting or fishing mini-games, non-combat encounters, improvising story tie-ins for when the players go rogue, etc, etc.

Exploration and 'getting lost' is a portion of the game that never really advanced much in the past several decades.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
But vast, open worlds to explore is far different from getting lost in such worlds. Checking out a place you haven’t been before can be fun, but getting lost when you’re trying to get from one place to another is just plain frustrating.
Thing is, that frustration (or tedium as @Hussar calls it) is sometimes part of the point. In fact, IME the more frustrating it gets the better the "victory" feels once you do get past the obstacle (in this case, of being lost).

Not everything is going to be action-driven and immediately pushing the story forward, and nor should it be. This ain't a movie trying to fit in to a pre-set run time, in fact quite the opposite: the only absolute time limit is the lifespan of the GM and-or players.

Novels also have diversions and not-plot-relevant parts (e.g. the Tom Bombadil diversion in LotR). On a broader scale, varying the pacing such that the action sequences stand out is a good thing.
 

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