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
Curse you DM empowerment! How dare you give DMs the ability to skip being lost so that they can focus on the stuff they prefer! WOTC should force everyone to go through logistical challenges! That way everyone would play D&D the way it was meant to be played!
 

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EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Curse you DM empowerment! How dare you give DMs the ability to skip being lost so that they can focus on the stuff they prefer! WOTC should force everyone to go through logistical challenges! That way everyone would play D&D the way it was meant to be played!
Perhaps, then, we can finally recognize that the whole "DM Empowerment" thing was never actually sincere about wanting to empower DMs to do as they wish? That it was always, really, about getting a different set of priorities as enshrined as possible within the rules so no one could ignore them? That it was always about making the "traditional" way de jure required, unless actively opposed?

Because, I mean, DMs never were actually disempowered. They have retained the full breadth of powers they always had: rocks fall, everyone dies. The only things that have changed are transparency, communication (especially with third parties), and an expectation of more equitable relations between those claiming authority (DMs) and those over whom they claim that authority (players.)
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
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.
Sure. But those "diversions" as you put it are expected to be entertaining for their own sake. Having a diversion in the story that is both irrelevant to the plot and straight-up tedious is going to turn off a lot of readers. It's one thing to have a weird mysterious character like Tom Bombadil; it's quite another to have the characters spend an entire chapter where nothing happens, no interesting character interactions occur, no plot threads are introduced or developed, and which is actually tedious to read. I'm thinking something along the lines of actually reading someone doing their math homework or (to cite an actual, big-time author who actually got criticized for this sort of thing) Robert Jordan's penchant, in the later books of the Wheel of Time series, to blow entire pages describing minute details of something that will have no relevance at all outside the chapter where it appears.

Being lost is not entertaining. Period. It doesn't add, advance, complicate, or resolve anything. The amount of time the party should spend on actually being lost should be extremely short, because it (literally and figuratively) doesn't go anywhere. The game should relatively quickly move on from "we literally have no idea where we are and no idea how to fix that" to "okay, we have some idea of where we are, and it's not where we want to be." Because the former is, by definition, insoluble so long as it is true: if you have no useful information about your current location, you cannot even in principle do anything meaningful to correct that problem.

Once you are merely off-track rather than actually lost, you can do something. Indeed, that's the moment when the actual stakes come into play. In knowing where you are (perhaps only loosely), you come to know (perhaps only loosely) how to get to where you want to be, but aren't. And that process can be exciting, dreadful, scary, exhilarating, any number of things.

But simply being lost, with no idea where to go or what to do? That's very boring. The only action worth taking is "figure out where the heck you are" (or, in especially boring cases, "wait for rescue.")
 

Hussar

Legend
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.
See, to me, there's a very good reason the Tom Bombadil diversion in LotR was cut from the movies. It was boring and pointless. I've skipped entire pages of the LotR because I just cannot be bothered reading it. It serves no purpose. It does not further the plot. It does not show any character growth of the protagonists. It's basically just a big middle finger to the reader - here's this guy that could save all the death and misery of the entire story but he's too twee to bother worrying about little stuff like that.

To me, this is the very worst advice you could give gamers. Grinding through boring bits which, again, are not something that you can overcome. It's entirely random. Did you roll high enough on that check? Yup? Great, you're not lost anymore. Knock off that many rations and move on. There's no puzzle. There's no play. There's no actual game here.
 

To me, this is the very worst advice you could give gamers. Grinding through boring bits which, again, are not something that you can overcome. It's entirely random. Did you roll high enough on that check? Yup? Great, you're not lost anymore. Knock off that many rations and move on. There's no puzzle. There's no play. There's no actual game here.
So taking this one step further with say 5e.
Easy and Moderate encounters are or can easily be grinding/boring bits. Depleting resources is about as interesting as getting lost in that regard which means that 5e which is based on x encounters per day is rather meh.
 
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CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
while tom bombadil was an encounter that amounted to nothing in LotR, a character like that can prove very interesting for players to interact with or for the GM to use in a DnD game, like, the players have an obstacle or have found a magic item they don't know what it is so one of them pipes up "hey, lets go take it to that super powerful magic guy we met that one time, i bet he'll have some advice on what we have to do!" how many times has that happened? the PC's remembering some one-off NPC you never intended to amount to anything.

being lost originally lead to random encounter tables, but* not every 'random encounter' had to be a fight, being lost let you discover cool things, and finding cool things was half the point of the game.

*as far as i am aware
 

Thomas Shey

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.

Again, so your premise is that this change was done for just the hell of it? Because that's pretty much your options here; that at least the designers thought that most people found this tedious, or that they just decided to do it for no reason. While their information is not infallible, I think assuming the people who own the game don't know more than you do about the player base is, well, very much a hot take.
 

Hussar

Legend
while tom bombadil was an encounter that amounted to nothing in LotR, a character like that can prove very interesting for players to interact with or for the GM to use in a DnD game, like, the players have an obstacle or have found a magic item they don't know what it is so one of them pipes up "hey, lets go take it to that super powerful magic guy we met that one time, i bet he'll have some advice on what we have to do!" how many times has that happened? the PC's remembering some one-off NPC you never intended to amount to anything.

being lost originally lead to random encounter tables, but* not every 'random encounter' had to be a fight, being lost let you discover cool things, and finding cool things was half the point of the game.

*as far as i am aware
But, in order for there to be "cool things" to discover, you either have to create those for your random tables, or you slot them in. Which, considering that they are only going to randomly occur, means that it's an awful lot of work for the DM for very, very little pay off. Would you seriously put a godlike being on a random encounter chart? Which is basically what Tom Bombadil is.

It's not about every random encounter has to be a fight. That's not the point. The point is, if you're lost, every encounter you have is largely just filler until such time as you aren't lost anymore. Any encounter is simply a step to getting back to the original point of being not-lost. Ok, the random encounter is helpful gnomes that point you in the right direction. Great. Umm, so, what was the point of that? We got lost, something that the players have no control over, the DM rolled a random encounter, again, something the players have no control over, the encounter was friendly, again, something the players have no control over, and now the players aren't lost anymore.

Or, instead, we don't worry about getting lost, don't waste table time on stuff that the players have no control over and no actual connection to and get on with the game.
 

Hussar

Legend
So taking this one step further with say 5e.
Easy and Moderate encounters are or can easily be grinding/boring bits. Depleting resources is about as interesting as getting lost in that regard which means that 5e which is based on x encounters per day rather meh.
Not sure that this is actually countering my point. You're saying that pointless bits of the game are pointless, therefore, it's okay to waste time on these pointless bits?

Does anyone actually design their adventures on the x encounters per day paradigm? I know I sure don't. The game is more than robust enough not to worry overmuch about having just the right amount of encounters per day.

But, in any case, pointing to another boring slog part of the game is hardly telling me why being lost is so much fun. Which seems to be the question I keep coming back to. "Getting lost is fun because you have random encounters" doesn't really seem like a benefit of getting lost. I'm perfectly able to have random encounters when the party isn't lost too. Random encounters is not something that's tied to being lost at all.
 

Not sure that this is actually countering my point. You're saying that pointless bits of the game are pointless, therefore, it's okay to waste time on these pointless bits?

Does anyone actually design their adventures on the x encounters per day paradigm? I know I sure don't. The game is more than robust enough not to worry overmuch about having just the right amount of encounters per day.

But, in any case, pointing to another boring slog part of the game is hardly telling me why being lost is so much fun. Which seems to be the question I keep coming back to. "Getting lost is fun because you have random encounters" doesn't really seem like a benefit of getting lost. I'm perfectly able to have random encounters when the party isn't lost too. Random encounters is not something that's tied to being lost at all.
I'm not countering your argument. I'm perhaps merely thinking aloud due to my own frustration with the game which your post reminded me of. I was just drawing out similarities I perceived between your post and a particular playstyle. Apologies for the confusion.
 

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