I’ve been thinking lately about what makes a good adventure from a player’s perspective. I think it’s fairly simple as far as old-school gaming – you want to feel challenged while you overcome obstacles, monsters, tricks, traps, and resource depletion. You want the choices you make to be meaningful and not feel forced into a choice just for the sake of progressing the DM’s vision of what you should be doing or where you should be.
From the DMs perspective, accomplishing this means that when you design an encounter, you have to provide multiple ways to succeed. If you have just one, you will be tempted to fudge rolls or cheat to make sure players succeed, or the players may feel railroaded into failure (or death). When I first started playing again after a many-year hiatus, one of the first adventures I ran my kids through was ‘The Ruined Keep’, home-grown, two-level dungeon set underneath a hilltop ruin. I had one entrance, a door at the center of the ruin that could only be opened if the players solved a riddle. This seems silly in retrospect – I wanted to provide a fun dungeon crawl, and I felt immediately pressured to make sure the riddle was solved by dropping hints so that we could all get on with the fun.
There is a similar issue with one of the rooms in ‘The Hall of Bones’, a free RPG day adventure by Frog God Games (warning – spoilers ahead if you will be playing in this adventure!). Getting through one of the caverns without dying is dependent on entering a cage, closing the door behind you (so as not to be attacked by the 60 giant spiders – 1d6 per round) and finding a secret door in the floor of the cage that gives entrance to a tunnel. If I were running that as-is, I would be sorely tempted to fudge a die roll, maybe an Elf in the party would see something ‘unusual’ about the floor of the cage as they approached. Or, I would just modify it to allow more ways to make it alive through the cavern. Perhaps I would add a side-tunnel with a portcullis that could be lowered behind the fleeing party, or I may give some warning by leaving clues that a large number of spiders were ahead. Maybe one of the pre-adventure rumors would reveal hints of the secret door and escape from the spiders.
Note that this is not about game balance or save-or-die traps. Old-school games are frequently full of deadly encounters, especially for low-level adventurers. It’s about having choices, even if some of them are not clever or result in worsening the player’s situation. TPK’s will still happen, but they should be a result of a (presumably bad) choice by players. If you can keep the players engaged by offering them meaningful choices, they will have fun and won’t mind the occasional disaster.