Why Will It Be Fun?
We get stuck in our own heads. What we think will be fun for players is actually ego strokes for our GMing. Don’t fall into this trap. Here’s a perfect example.
A GM asked for help polishing their encounter:
GM: “As the PCs explore a cavern I plan on having a flash flood hit them while they are climbing up.”
Johnn: “Why will the flash flood be fun? What gameplay do you expect from it?”
GM: “The surprise on their face when they only have seconds to make a choice of heading backwards or trying to find a high place to wait it out. When a flash flood comes in the desert it looks like a pile of little sticks flowing at you. It does not really look like water. My players like to be kept on their toes and have surprises. If they are unable to find a safe place, they will be split up, need to regroup, or possible revived.”
First off, thank you GM for asking the question and sharing your ideas. We are all learning how to be better GMs, so my critique that follows comes from a good place. 🙂
To me, this encounter is a bit flat. It’s mostly about the GM getting stuck inside their own head.
Yes, getting an emotional reaction from players is fantastic. That’s key to storytelling and crafting memorable experiences together.
However, let’s look at this from the players’ point of view.
The flood comes with no warning. So there’s no options or game-to-play for this prior. No fun there.
Players must then make a choice. Retreat or climb. As a player, why do I care? Why is this fun?
Let’s work out the likely gameplay here. I’m making assumptions.
Choice: Retreat. This is probably going to result in a saving throw or skill check.
Choice: Climb. This is probably going to result in a skill check.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Choice A, boring. Choice B, boring. And neither choice results in different gameplay. Roll the dice and move on.
Ok, next part is how the flood looks. Some great detail to introduce the danger. However, it doesn’t answer my question about how any of those details affect player choices or make the game fun.
You get through those details in two seconds and then what? What are the players supposed to do with that information? Is it a clue? Does it make one choice more difficult? Does it hook into a character sheet somehow?
The last part is where we get to some interesting gaming. The GM thinks the party might split, setting up future gameplay. Ok, good stuff. However, that does nothing to make the current encounter interesting from the players’ perspective.
It’s More Like An Inciting Event
Play it out in your head. Flood hits. Players are surprised. Undifferentiated choices are made. Dice are rolled. PCs might take damage. PCs possibly split as they head in different directions or get carried away by the flood.
To me, this is all a great setup for a bigger encounter. It puts the PCs in a tough position as the hook for the actual meat of an encounter.
There’s a whole bunch of nuances here. I did make assumptions. For example, if this encounter is for first-time players, then it shows them different aspects of the game. Swimming, climbing, and jumping rules might get involved. And they don’t know what they don’t know. So random choices and die rolls and whatnot are all still exciting.
Not so for an experienced group. They’ll just want to game this through as fast as possible to get beyond this railroady trope they’ve gamed before.
Ideas For Improvement
So, how could we tweak this encounter for better gameplay?
First, we always look at the trigger. What player choices are presented prior to the encounter so gameplay gets affected?
Currently (sorry, no pun intended), there’s no reward or gameplay value for any kind of approach prior to the flood. It just triggers regardless of whether the PCs are cautious or brazen.
Therefore, add details about the upcoming danger. Describe how the cavern looks because there’s been flash floods before. Provide clues for players to noodle on.
Then spring the danger with two rounds’ warning. Describe first the sound of it crashing closer. Let players wonder what the hell that sound is. Here comes dice rolls for knowledge checks, though I’d reward players who guess right using clues presented with a Yes.
Then hit players with a round of wind buffeting them. Another clue about the imminent danger. And a hindrance to deal with.
More importantly, we’ve changed two seconds of surprise to a couple minutes or more of drama at the game table. What’s the danger? How dangerous is it? What’s going to happen? Players will be apprehensive. Tension!
Next, let’s look at what happens when the flood hits. How can we make options meaningful?
Maybe above it a cave the party can climb to, but as the flood approaches a glow emits from the cave. What’s that about? Is it another danger? It might only be the sun coming through a crack. Or it could be enemies approaching to watch. Add clues as desired.
And retreating? Perhaps you put a cliff a short ways back. The PCs had to climb up it. Do you run back and hug the cliff to avoid the instant waterfall?
Also check character sheets. What happens if the wizard blinks? Or the fighter says his 19 strength will hold while water buffets him?
Why & The End
Last, let’s look at why and the end.
Why did the flash flood occur? Was it raining outside? Clues and warnings could be delivered leading up to the encounter if so.
And why now? Just random bad luck? This is good once in awhile. But you soon feel helpless if random crap happens to you all the time without rhyme or reason.
So we look at the end. What happens after? Once the surprise is over. Once the flood wounds or splits the party. What’s next?
This is my favourite part. Start at the end and work backwards. What if the flood was not random and no accident? What if enemies caused it? Perhaps there’s a dam they could break. Maybe the flood is a result of a water ritual. Maybe the flood is a water elemental.
Now we have a fist-shaking obstacle. Khaaaaaaan!
And we have a good reason for the encounter instead of randomness.
Puzzle As Reward
I’m still not happy about the flood’s gameplay itself, however. It’s still just skill checks.
This is where modifiers for good and bad thinking could come in. Reward players with bonuses to their rolls if they come up with good ideas for reacting to the danger.
Maybe the party has a grappling hook they’ve used in the past. Hint about ways it could be hooked with a good throw into the ceiling or a crack in the wall to ride the river out.
Maybe there’s a small cave in the cliff revealed to be empty when the PCs checked. Remembering that means retreat offers a great place to escape the water.
Maybe the cave glow from above is torches. NPCs approach. A successful parley means the NPCs lower ropes or offer a helping hand, whereas aggressive behaviour just makes the situation worse.
Thank you GM for asking your question. You’ve got the start of a great encounter, methinks.
Keep challenging yourself to add more fun. Put yourself in your players’ shoes and run through the timeline.
After the great two seconds of surprise, where does the next fun come from? And what do you think, readers? How would you tweak this encounter for fun gameplay? Hit reply and let me know.