How To Stop Pixel Bitching In Your Adventures - Roleplaying Tips

How To Stop Pixel Bitching In Your Adventures

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #596

A reader asked for tips on how to help players who overlook clues, which then causes your adventure to grind to a halt. One form of this problem is pixel bitching, which Urban Dictionary defines as:

“Originating with the point and click adventure games that the computer gaming market was overflowing with in the 80’s and 90’s, pixel bitching is the act of sweeping your mouse cursor across any given screen of such a game, in order to find the minute cluster of pixels you need to progress. Often used by gamers as a last resort when they can’t find any other items/pathways to proceed.”

Today I have some tips for you on how to prevent the tabletop RPG equivalent of pixel bitching in your games.

Hide What You Don’t Want Found

The best campaigns are smart. NPCs behave realistically. Villains use cunning tactics. The environment is not fair or foul. It just takes the path of least resistance to operate according to the natural laws you’ve designed for your world.

However, this approach butts heads with tabletop dynamics.

In general, committees (i.e., the party of PCs) are “dumber” than individuals unless they have a strong leader. Groups of players have a poor signal to noise ratio when it comes to smart gameplay, including distractions, jokes and out of character talk, fatigue, tunnel vision from rules or metagame thinking, and interpersonal dynamics.

On top of that, we GMs have to be great communicators. We need to arm players with all the salient information the PCs would have to help them suss out adventure secrets. We need to make ourselves heard and understood, which is a skillset to master and is difficult at energetic game tables.

So, do we make what’s hidden hard to find because that’s playing the world and NPCs to their maximum potential? Or do we make secrets easy to uncover to account for the reality of gameplay?

I encourage you to do both. Here’s how.

Step 1. Put On Your Evil Hat

Start with your design. Make your secrets (treasure, information, secret doors, locations, etc.) as difficult to find as possible up to the limits of the NPC’s ability or your ability if it’s environment-based. Hide what you don’t want found.

For example, if I had to dispose of a body, I’d destroy it. If a wizard, I’d use acid spells to turn it into sludge. If a commoner, I’d burn it to ash or tie heavy rocks around it and throw it into the nearest, deepest, fastest-current body of water.

If I had to hide the entrance to my inner sanctum, I’d put the secret door in the least obvious place, where no one would think to search for it or discover it by accident. I wouldn’t put it at the end of a dead-end corridor. I’d probably put it in a ceiling, because nobody ever looks up. And I’d put it in a place where nobody lingers or pays attention to where they are, so maybe a coal room or simple hallway.

If you start with your most cunning design, you first get great GM practice. How can you become a better designer if you don’t challenge yourself?

Second, it’s a realistic, believable foundation. NPCs acting in their best interests gives them depth.

Third, it challenges the players to bring their “A” game to the table. This is the best approach to entertain experienced players and prevent your group from getting jaded.

Step 2. Put On Your Player Hat

With your cunning design in place, as it exists in your adventure, do a bit of roleplaying. Step into your players’ shoes for a bit. And assume they are playing smart.

How will they uncover the secret? Pretend you’re the magicker, the Swiss Army Knife, the living knowledge base, the face man. On high alert, on the lookout for “anything unusual”, how can they beat the design?

The best answer is they can’t. Sorry James Bond, you’re screwed this time. Evil cackle.

Chances are though, the PCs will succeed:

  • Account for luck. What dice rolls will they ask to make? What happens when they roll well?
  • What special abilities will they use? Will any of those work?
  • How will the metagamers think? Assume they will.

Uncover all the holes and weaknesses you can. Make a list.

Now, either improve your design or say, “Great, it’s possible to find the secret and that’s their reward for good gaming.”

Step 3. Create Three Lifesavers

When people fall overboard, you toss them a lifesaver so they don’t drown. Drowning players get frustrated, get passive aggressive or act out, and eventually they quit.

So add to your design three progressive levels of lifesavers – clues and assists that’ll help them uncover your secret.

I like this approach to gameplay best, because you end up challenging players (in a dramatic and entertaining way, not an asshole way) to the best of their ability.

You don’t just hand them the solution. You offer them ever-easier ways to solve things themselves while not giving them something too easy too soon.

Assume players are smart and creative, so your group picks up on that vibe and aims to fulfill that expectation.

And gameplay remains immersive because there’s a believable progression. Nobody thinks “Oh, the GM is just being nice so we finish the adventure.” Players will feel like they’ve earned it.

It’s like slowly easing the tension on a stretched elastic band. You don’t just let it go and snap it back (ouch). You’ve still got to use muscles, and it gets easier to lower the tension as you go.

There is one golden rule for Lifesavers: Always offer them in-game.

Deliver clues and hints through NPCs, events, encounters, items and anything in your GMing toolbox. But never just come out and say, “The secret door is over there. The hidden treasure is under there. The butcher killed his rival.”

This might be obvious, but when combined with the progression approach, you become a better storyteller. Rather than starting with the easiest plot device to solve the players’ conundrum, you pick something that still challenges them, and in turn this challenges your storyteller skills.

Here are the three progressive steps of lifesavers, in order:

  • PCs are aware it exists
  • PCs know roughly where it exists
  • PCs have specific details about it

Lifesaver #1: PCs are aware it exists

Knowing what you seek does indeed exist gives you huge confidence. This often translates into a breakthrough moment at the game table.

When your group knows they’re not chasing a phantom, all the arguing and doubt stops. The group has a clear goal again.

This also solves the problem of “You don’t know what you don’t know.” If players do not even realize treasure is hidden nearby, or a clue to the mystery lurks just a connection away, they won’t think to search for it. These are the most frustrating dead ends.

By clarifying that yes there’s something worth searching for, you’ve got the story progressing again.

For example, a divination might reveal the treasure truly exists. Or in the next room the PCs discover a book that tells of the legend of the treasure, confirming its existence. Or the group chats up the locals and hears a rumour that the building’s architect had a fondness not just for traps and clever tricks, but for secret rooms and hidden doors.

So Lifesaver #1 is just confirming the PCs are on the right path so they pursue the trail with renewed confidence and energy.

Lifesaver #2: PCs know roughly where it exists

Still stumped? Toss out the next lifesaver – clues to the location. This immediately helps players narrow their search, questions and thinking.

Let them now swarm to the area and investigate, roleplay, detect or otherwise uncover the secret.

Again, you are not just giving them the answer. You can throw some challenges in here to add to the story and draw out the progress to make your group feel great when they emerge victorious. “Sure we got that lucky break, but we worked hard for it in the end!”

For example, the killer butcher’s neighbour, Sam The Merchant, is selling a PC more arrows:

GM: Sam looks tired today. He covers his mouth and coughs.

PC: Are you ok Sam? I can help you with that.

GM: Aye, that would be much appreciated. The damn butcher kept us up till the wee hours last night, and now I’ve got a touch o’ fever and this dang hack.

PC: {Casts a healing spell} There, that’ll fix you up right good. Did you say the butcher was up late? What was he doing?….

In this example, you make the butcher a suspect. The PCs now have clear direction on where to go next. But this clue was not just handed to them. The player had to be perceptive. And then they had to roleplay.

Also, your general plan was to somehow find a way to help show the PCs where to go next. It just so happened a PC went to the merchant neighbour. But you were on the lookout for any opportunity to give the PCs a clue to visit the butcher next, under any pretense. This makes GMing a lot easier.

I’m not saying to design all these clues and lifesavers in advance. That’s the strength of the three lifesaver progression. Dole out the help sparingly. And the structure helps you brainstorm on-the-fly. Just knowing the next clue, Lifesaver #2, should be about a location hint helps you figure out what to do next.

Lifesaver #3: PCs have specific details about it

The final lifesaver involves giving more information about the secret, but just one detail at a time until the PCs succeed or you halt.

The PCs already know the secret exists. They also have a general idea where it is. If still blocked, start giving out specific details.

These details might help with spells or special abilities. A DNA sample, for example, could help the group break things wide open.

Remember to use all the senses for details so you can still be vague enough to add challenge but provide something tangible to help the PCs. Sight, smell, hearing, touch, taste, intuition.

“I heard a big splash in the river last night. Must’a been old Fishy teasin us, darin’ us to catch him.”

“You feel a cool draft for a moment and then it’s gone.”

“You smell something like rusty metal. Yet there’s just the monster corpse and nothing else in the cavern.”

Just think about the attributes of the secret and how they could be perceived. Think about how treasure might tarnish and rust over time, or what a windy day might do to secret doors, or how even a strong man might stumble in the night with a heavy weight at the river bank.

You circle around the thing without calling it out directly. Again, this makes players work for it, but the progression is at the easiest stage now. And if you offer these detail clues in ways that make sense and are believable from in-game events or actions, the game stays intense.

Lifesaver #3 is to get specific but just offer one fact at a time until solved.

Still blocked? It can happen. What’s obvious to you behind the screen is opaque to players tired and struggling. But even now, do not give in and just hand them the secret.

Instead, we use the next tip….

Game It Out When Players Are Foiled

Everything has failed. The PCs missed the treasure, can’t find the secret door, can’t solve the mystery.

We go into emergency procedure here and give the secret up…but through gameplay, of course.

My favourite in-game way to reveal a secret is through the PCs’ rivals.

One campaign the players left a ton of great treasure in the dungeon. They killed most of the denizens, did find some great stuff, but got lazy and left. Further, one piece of unfound treasure was a plot hook to another adventure I had planned!

So I had rivals pass the PCs en route back to the city. Then a couple days later, the PCs went to a tavern and found the place rocking. The rivals were buying everyone drinks. And they were bragging about all the great loot they found in this dungeon….

To really rub it in, the rivals told stories of great battles and dangers they endured to bring back all this marvelous treasure. Well, in reality they just searched the nearly empty dungeon a little more thoroughly than the PCs and got lucky.

But nothing’s better than rivals playing up to a crowd to get the PCs stirred up!

In the end, the PCs found the item that was my adventure hook when they robbed the rivals. I figured something like that would happen – because I knew the players would feel they deserved ALL the treasure.

NPCs of any kind and story role can help deliver secrets.

In a different campaign the PCs’ patron and guide turned out to be more mercenary than the characters. When the group missed a vital clue, I had the dwarf employer discover it and keep it hidden. I roleplayed his ever-stranger behaviour (as he went to great lengths to hide the secret from curious and prying PCs).

When the characters finally got the full story out of the dwarf, they cursed him. But they never felt like I just handed things to them – they earned it by becoming suspicious and looking deeper.

End Pixel Bitching

When players get stumped and run out of leads, they’ll give up or feel forced to look over every “pixel” of your adventure to find a break.

This slows the game down and raises frustrations, especially amongst players who are thrill junkies or hate pedantic gameplay.

End this pixel bitching by throwing your group lifesavers.

Our GMing approach should be to always offer challenges, even when assisting stuck PCs. And we always offer in-game challenges. This keeps the plot moving forward and your game believable.

Start with a devious design. Then offer an ever-easier progression of lifesavers. This gives players an ongoing sense of accomplishment even though you assist them.

You can plan your lifesavers in advance. That’s great practice for figuring out lifesaver ideas. But the broad categories of the lifesaver levels will help you GM without wasting planning time.

If you know you need to help the PCs confirm a secret exists, where it might be and various aspects of it, that’s often enough to find ways to think up and deliver clues in-game.

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Brief Word From Johnn

NPC Bundle For Charity

My wife and I are dog lovers, and she supports Dog Rescue charities and animal shelters.

She read on Facebook about a local couple who rescued a whole bunch of puppies that needed medical attention, and the couple amassed a massive veterinarian’s bill getting them all fixed up.

So I’m putting together a bundle of NPC books to raise funds for these kind people. I’m selling the books directly via ejunkie because I don’t pay transaction costs, to help increase the fund raising.

You probably have already purchased one or more books in the bundle, so I’ve split the books out in case you just want one specific title.

The bundle is a great holiday gift idea to treat yourself or maybe a friend to!

The Awesome NPCs PDF Bundle:

NPC Essentials: $7

200 Hooks + 150 Backgrounds: $5

Bundle: All the above for $17

Everything is an instant download. The bundle ends Jan 4. Thanks for your kind support!

Retro Issue Divides Readers

Last week I put together a newsletter in the old format and style, which was long and combined reader tips, feature article and interesting GMing links.

  • 45% of subscribers wrote back saying they liked the long format.
  • 51% said they preferred having smaller emails sent throughout the week – easier and faster to digest
  • 4% said they had no preference as long as the tips kept coming!
  • Thanks everyone for your feedback and ongoing support!

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Want to Get Published?

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This includes free access to the next RPG Creation Bootcamp, which starts Jan 6:

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Reader Tip Request: Hexcrawl Hooks

Long-time reader Fred Ramsey sent me this help request:

“I plan on running a hexcrawl game, and am looking for ideas to motivate a group of adventurers to travel to many different locations in the world. There’s always the doohickey of 9 parts, but hopefully people can come up with some other ideas.”

https://plus.google.com/109020049572893363722/posts/DXiRTkv7fPo I posted his request to the G+ GM Tips group and received these ideas:

  • Establishing lucrative trade routes (illicit or otherwise).
  • Contacting the widespread descendants of a famous (infamous?) person.
  • Bathing an heirloom blade in the holy water of all Seven Temples.
  • Seeking the perfect bride for a princeling.
  • To see what’s over the next hill.
  • The antidote to the exotic poison is known to a recluse who lives somewhere in the far south.
  • Uncle Bob has problems with bandits and lives in the far north.
  • A wealthy collector/temple of a lesser deity hires the PCs to find the four lost thaumaturgical books/holy scrolls spread across the country/continent/world.
  • An important/cherished family heirloom is sold to an unscrupulous travelling fence – get back the heirloom.
  • There’s gold in them thar hills! Oh, and orcs, trolls and dragons too.
  • Retracing the steps of the famous explorer could lead the party to the explorer’s fabled lost treasure.
  • The evil cult seeks to break the 8 hidden chains that bind The Great Evil Beast to the underworld – stop them or get eaten/learn Cthulhuian as a second language.
  • Every decade, a great competition in an Around-The-World-In-80-Days fashion is held by the Temple of Saint Holy Dude/Royal Family/Eccentric Elven Merchant, and the party have been invited/coerced to enter.
  • The party is hired to find the 10 greatest warriors of the known kingdoms and invite them to the once-every-100-years fighting tournament to honor the god of warriors.
  • The PCs learn that the mystical Wandering Palace of the Fae is set to appear in the next county in a month and the queen of the fae offers the elixir to eternal youth/great power/serious bank to those who impress her (with exotic presents). The palace teleports around the world like the Black Fortress from Krull.
  • Mounted shire-reeves patrolling the west country for the first time.
  • Give them a good villain to chase. If an NPC pisses off your group they follow him/her anywhere.
  • A powerful NPC/creature hounds the PCs across the world. They could adventure as they run seeking to find weaknesses and gather power while they hide.
  • The PCs are being pursued by bounty hunters/law enforcement in an endless quest for survival outside a prison cell. They not only have to evade law enforcement, but also have to earn the money they need for objective x, which can only be gained in any fashion through crime! The stakes keep escalating as they make their way around the world, drawing more attention, in an endless cycle. Campaign quest: break the cycle.
  • They could travel to a distant land, and must pass through many locations along the way.
  • Teleport trap.
  • All in the name of religion.
  • A star falls beyond the horizon. What is it? Where did it land?
  • “Aliens” invade through a gate. Travel back through the gate to learn more about the powerful and hostile invaders.
  • The addictive drug keeping the Emperor alive is running out. The land has already been scoured and mined out. Send ships to all compass points looking for more.

Do you have any other campaign hooks for Fred?