When to Throw in the Towel
Fear not, my few loyal readers (that I can only hope exist) and many passers-by, the towel isn’t about to be thrown in on this blog, but rather this is a post about when giving up on something you’ve designed is a better plan than not.
In coding projects there’s generally a tipping point for the more complex ones, and that tipping point is betwixt two goals: patching the code to fix a problem versus scrapping the code and doing a fundamental re-write. Writing projects of most varieties often work the same way, where eventually when you aren’t getting the result you want sometimes it’s just better to throw it all out and start over. What “all” means, though, can vary in a gaming context quite dramatically, from an entire campaign right down to a single problem. Like most people, I find that scrapping concepts is extremely hard once you’ve begun to invest energy in them. Psychologically, this is known as the sunk cost fallacy, and it results when people are willing to throw good money after bad because “not getting a result after investing so much already would mean the investment went to waste!” We can see this around us every day, from stock traders who won’t admit a stock is just going to keep going down and it would be better to jump ship while they can still make back a fair amount of their investment, even at a loss, all the way to wars where because lives have already been lost in pursuit of a goal more must be spent so those losses weren’t a meaningless mistake (note: I’m not referring to any war in particular here; I have no opinion on such current ongoing wars, but such things have definitely occured in the past at the very least). Yes, indeed, this even happens at the gaming table.
The most iconic example of this problem that I’ve encountered is an iconic example at all primarily because I was something of a third party, and so I could recognize the sucking black hole of a fallacy from the outside, rather than inside of its event horizon where it is much more difficult to detect. An acquaintance of mine had designed, for my use, a simple puzzle based on the premise of the characters of my RPG campaign at the time taking water from one basin, depositing it in the other basin, and thence from that basin back to the original, so causing the water of both basins to be mixed with that of their opposite. The problem here was that, besides one basin containing hot water and the other cold, there was absolutely no clue as to the fact that this might be the solution except the very most tenuous story link using information that the players were not yet aware of. In other words, it’s one of those “guess what the GM is thinking” puzzles. As I was running the puzzle I looked on in dissatisfaction at how hard a time the players were having, and after some minutes wasted with plans that came close by coincidence (mixing water from one into the other, but not the other into the first as well), eventually I simply recognized the puzzle for what it was – a bad one – and had to step back, break suspension of disbelief, and explain to the players that I had in fact gotten this one wrong and it was a stinker, sorry for wasting your time, let’s just skip right to the good bit where you’ve just solved it.
Had the puzzle been of my own devising I’d like to think I would have avoided the mistake in the first place, but, no matter what inflated opinion I may hold of myself, eventually we all screw up, even on things that we think we’re good at, not unlike rolling a natural 1 and getting a critical failure. Although the campaign I was running at the time was an open sandbox game centered on exploration, meaning the players could’ve taken off and gone elsewhere, ignoring the bad puzzle for what it was (a waste of time), I still took the time to note my error, explained to the players that I was sorry that one kind of sucked, and that I’d do better in the future, and then by way of making it up to them I gave them the solution and the swag that went with it (a powerful magic felling axe, which became the favored weapon of one of my most engaged and frequent players, along with a bit of cryptic exposition from a magic mouth).
The lesson in all of this? Don’t be afraid to give a serious critical eye to your own creations, and try to be very critical of when you have screwed the metaphorical pooch. What’s more, don’t be afraid to simply cut your losses rather than trying to endlessly patch the situation like a leaky boat. Remember that it becomes harder to be critical as things grow – a session is easier to cut short than a campaign – and that things of your own devising suffer an equally great clouding effect on your judgment. A lot of the time some creativity and elbow grease can salvage a bad situation and even turn it into a winner, but sometimes it’s better to just throw out your leaky boat and buy a new one instead of constantly buying rolls of duct tape.
Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM