There are always moments in games that frustrate us as players. It’s inevitable. We’ve all got different play styles and most games provide a little something for everyone. Maybe it’s the long drawn out narrative based scenes that are frustrating to the action-minded player, maybe it’s the overly complex combats that tweak the hardcore role-player the wrong way. Maybe it’s the sparse mechanical basis of a system that grinds the gears of the player who likes to dig into the rules and options to find the best character combination. Some frustration points are unavoidable, and, as a player, you just have to understand it’s not your cup of tea and move on. But sometimes, the frustration points are completely avoidable and should be breezed past to speed up the game and get to the fun parts.
I realized one of my frustration points while playing an old school adventure/puzzle style video game the other day. You know the ones where you collect an item like a banana pie and use it to lure an ape out of it’s cage so that it opens a door for you. The item you need is always really far away from the object of the puzzle, or something you have to pick up that seems unrelated at the time. So, you have to backtrack a long way to get the thing, then back to the puzzle and use the item, and then you can move through a door, but then have to guess at what the next item is, etc. While playing this game, I thought back to a tabletop RPG situation that was frustrating in the same ways and realized that even with wide open options of a tabletop rpg, frustration points can crop up if the GM doesn’t watch out for them.
A Frustrating Situation
We were delving into a temple that had a moon theme and the only way past was to go to all corners of the temple and get the pieces of the ore that fit together into a big moon shape that was the lock. We’d played for 3 hours of solid dungeon crawling and barely surviving to get to this point. When we found out we would have to get a bunch of small pieces and hadn’t come across any of them yet, the group tried every single thing they could to get past the door without having to go to all the spread out areas of the temple to get the pieces of the moon puzzle. Sure, we knew that was what the GM wanted us to do and what was written in the adventure, but we’d already spent hours getting to this part of the dungeon, one of us was a damn good thief who could probably lockpick it and the wizard could move tons of rock with a spell.
The GM was adamant about us getting the pieces and some magic or another prevented us from bypassing the puzzle in whatever way we came up with. What was most frustrating about this wasn’t the heavy-handed GMing, but the fact that the challenge was manufactured instead of legitimate. Walk back to the various areas, search out the dungeon, find the Mcguffins and open the door. That is standard for a game of this genre, but the execution had become frustrating. It took us hours to get to the door, and after we collected the first piece (2 hours real-time later), we realized there were 5 more and we tried to get past the door in multiple other ways again.
Dealing With Frustration
The GM called it for the night. The group was frustrated and this was easily a case of bad GMing, but not realizing and removing the frustration points for the players could have made more than 2 of us show up for the next game. It could easily have been done in multiple ways:
Keep the moon puzzle pieces close to the puzzle.
Keep them far off, but short-form most of the trip through the very large dungeon for at least the first or second pieces so we felt like we were accomplishing something.
State up-front the play style and that this was meant to be a puzzle solved over multiple nights.
Put the moon puzzle farther up in the dungeon so we didn’t play for 3 hours before getting there. Then our battles and struggles would feel like they had meaning.
Let us through the door and bash us with horrible consequences – monsters, the goddess of the temple being mad at us, the guardians of the temple being awakened since we picked the lock/magicked our way past, etc. Victory our way, but tempered with consequences.
Inform our characters (or the players) why it was important to get the puzzle pieces. (We later found out we would restore the temple by doing so, but based on all player and character knowledge we just wanted past that door to get to the treasure and the deeper dungeon.)
The heavy handed GMing was one thing, but the real flaw was in not realizing the frustration point for the players and why it was frustrating. It wasn’t the puzzle, the trope, or already long play time – it was that the challenges outweighed the fun we were having – and that is the key to creating a frustration point. Frustration points can be many and varied, and each player or group has their own frustration points. The first step in making sure your players aren’t stuck in frustration points is to assess what is frustrating them. Ask outright, give them the option to end frustrating scenes when they feel like it, or keep a careful eye on the group to see if they are having fun. Once you’ve done this and kept your eye out for frustration points, you can start doing something to fix them.
What are frustration points for you as a player? What about frustration points from the GM’s side of the screen? How do you avoid frustration points, or do you just feel that sometimes things are going to be frustrating?