GM Basics: Obstacles and Objectives

The smallest design-component to any rpg session is the single objective or obstacle. In this GM Basics article, we’ll give you some GM Tips on making obstacles and objectives!

When you’re planning or improvising a session, always remember that every objective or obstacle you present to your players needs “three” possible solutions: A, B, and C+. Options A and B are often the most apparent options (whack the goblin / run away from the goblin; swim through the river / hop across the stones), whereas C+ represents the infinite possible alternatives that your players might come up with (pay the goblin to let you pass; chop down a tree to make a bridge, etc.). As the GM, you have to make sure your players are always aware of the A, B, C+ behind every action. More experienced players will need little support in this and will often brainstorm C+ options immediately. If your players get stumped and are unsure how to proceed, have options A and B prepared to offer them.

In order for the decision between A, B, C+ to be meaningful, each of these options needs either distinct requirements or distinct consequences (ex. swimming across the river will depend on different character abilities/proficiencies than prancing from stone to stone will). In this river example, the consequences are the same – in either situation, a failed attempt results in falling into the river. But with the choice between different options to cross the river, players will retain responsibility for the risk they’re undertaking. Alternatively, obstacles with similar courses of action can be distinct if they have different potential consequences. Having fallen into the river, any player will have to make a swim check to make it to shore before being swept away. However, he/she can choose to swim backwards to the initial shore, which is a shorter distance and thus a lower difficulty, or choose to swim ahead to his/her objective but incurring a higher chance of being swept by the currents. As this example shows, failed actions often generate a new obstacle or objective with its own fresh set of choices (A, B, C+). Similarly, creative C+ options often produce unexpected consequences on both successes or failures – cutting down the tree might require a strength check, but risk angering the landowner and thus forcing the party into a social encounter later.

Whenever players take an action, be prepared to improvise a new set of A, B, C+s resulting from their success or failure. Remember, you rarely want your players to have to make “all or die” rolls. This will make players feel like their potential consequences are being imposed on them rather than chosen. Once in a while that sort of rigid imposition can be a great way to create suspense – “the floor suddenly caves in: everybody make an acrobatics check” – but as discussed with the golden rule, taking away agency from players should be a very rare occurrence meant only to reinforce the value of their ability to choose. Instead, try chaining a series of smaller objectives/obstacles together for each of your players’ larger goals.

Most of the above examples use rolled checks as a way to distinguish between distinct courses of action. But A, B, C+s are just as important for narrative actions. If the party enters a town rumoured to have a haunted graveyard down the road, they can either choose to ask a local barkeep what he knows about the graveyard, go directly to the site themselves, or come up with any other form of investigation (the town mayor, the local priests, the nearest farmer, etc.). Because there aren’t necessarily different “requirements” in narrative actions – generally they are freely accessible – they should have distinct sub-obstacles or consequences. Consequences don’t always mean risks or repercussion, simply different outcomes. The mayor may refuse to receive the foreign party during daytime hours, or the priests may warn the party not to enter the graveyard on pain of excommunication. The point is, at all times, whether rolling or not, players should be made aware of the multiple, unique options in front of them.

Dice mechanics are an invaluable tool for tabletops, but dice are not always required. Avoid asking players for rolls on every declared action. Sometimes the narrative situation justifies giving the player a guaranteed success. If there are not significant consequences or time constraints associated with taking multiple attempts, don’t waste the whole party’s time watching one player continuously reroll. If the thief trained in lock-picking is attempting to break into a safe in an abandoned barn, there’s no compelling reason to give him the potential to fail – unless the barn is burning! These situations obviously require GM discretion, but generally speaking it can be more beneficial to the session and party as a whole to allow certain uncontested actions to go unrolled. This will help preserve a much steadier narrative pace.

Be sure to check out our other GM Basics: [x] [x] [x]

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