The Ant and the Grasshopper

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 09 February 2011

1919 illustration of Aesop's Fables by Milo Winter1919 illustration of Aesop's Fables by Milo WinterA topic that's occupied my thoughts of late is resource management in D&D and all of the good and bad that comes when the group emphasizes that style of play. In my mind, the issue with overly emphasizing resource management is that it often encourages a mindset that is more like the ant, constantly seeking out and hoarding resources. It emphasizes that the answers can be found in the resources you've found and collected. This is great except when you want the players to be more like grasshoppers, ignoring responsible action and doing something a bit, well, bold. As with most things, the balance between these things is what's important. But to find that balance, we have to understand how these things affect play.

So how is resource management good? One example is the tension and ingenuity that comes to the surface when people are given a limited number of items to solve a serious problem. Take, for instance, Apollo 13 and the need to create a CO2 filter and configure a sequence for restarting systems. That's some awesome and powerful stuff. Even though I've watched the movie a number of times now, I still get caught up in the moment when I watch.

Resource management also helps keep things in check and is an effective means too keep a DM from giving too much. I fight against this all the time. My players are my friends and even though I know the game is more fun if I modulate the tension and present real challenges, when they get into that serious problem solving mode, my willpower often fails me. Suddenly they find a little community of gnomes with tons of food that they are more than willing to share. Or a giant eagle flies out of the air to snatch them from certain death. An occasional bout with this is fine, but game after game?

Finally, limited resources helps with the analysis paralysis issue. If I don't have everything in the world available to me at the snap of my fingers, that means I have fewer things to choose between. To that end, I can be a bit more like MacGuyver who always seemed to make something cool out of a shoelace, a stick of gum and a retractable pen.

However, while limited resources can encourage creativity, they also make it much more likely that we'll cling to our character sheet in hopes our salvation can be found there. We page through books looking for the right ritual or spending hours deciding on which power to pick when we level up. The resources become so important we forget that this is a game of making stuff up. When someone doesn't go through this same resource collection, we scoff at them, much in the way the ant does the grasshopper. We forget about the lovely notes that improvisation can bring, thinking only of the harsh winter.

And so it begins that players disbelieve that what they want or need can be found in a town, often not bothering to ask the question at all. Wonderful ideas are nixed before they are even given a chance because surely the DM didn't think of putting something that cool there. So what do we do? One answer is to treat our character sheets like the U.S. Bill of Rights. These form the base floor of our character and are things the DM cannot take away, at least not without a good reason. But from this base we should build awesome.

As DMs we should encourage our players to think outside of the box. Most of the time it doesn't matter if I don't have an elven armor shop in my notes. Looking for something to fashion into rope? Perhaps that ivy will do. Wear them down, let them feel a little tension but at the same time encourage them to sing.

An excellent post.

I'll have to try and remember this the next time I play in a campaign. I think we all get into that mode of clinging to our character sheets instead of improvising.

The next time I DM, it would interesting to run an adventure or two where the players have to think his way. I might even offer some booms for really creative solutions.

I really enjoy it when my players do this. My group saved a starving attack dog and my husband's character, the halfling rogue, adopted him. They started doing tricks together and everything. Usually we leave it out of combat, in part due to my experience level as a DM, but it was absolutely wonderful in the role-playing scenes.

Great post.
Hopefully players will read this too and remember to try to think outside the box. In game, heroes shouldn't be thinking "There must be something here that will solve my problem." They should be thinking, "How can I solve the problem." When players start to innovate and become true partners in the story-telling, it is truly magical.

Yeah, I love when my players become partners in the story-telling. The stories become so much richer and truth is, as a team we are much more creative than any one person.

I like to keep the pace high in games and the resources a little on the spare side. This may be one of my conflict points with 4th edition and 3rd before it. Both editions mandate a certain level of treasure be awarded every encounter and the power curve is built to assume a certain level of magic items being available. I like to keep treasure more intangible or lower in general. Why? Because I love the movie, Die Hard.

In Die Hard, John McClain gets the hell beaten out of him, is always outnumbered, is always running low on supplies and when he wins in the end despite all that it is really, really satisfying. It makes for high drama. I run games that way.

When the PC's have to slug through and barely pull through by the skin of their teeth, they feel like they are bad ass. It is a much more solid rush than killing 20 orcs offhandedly. Instead they kill 40 orcs starting out with all their gear in the well....on fire. They will still win, they just need to feel like they earned it.

Maybe that is something they will emphasize more in 5th edition?

Sometimes I have trouble coming up with ideas for problems that challenge my players' creativity. A great resource is "wide games," and various games that are played at ropes courses. In the real world, these types of games are used in teambuilding activities, and require the group to work together and "think outside the box." Adding some D&D flavor after you have the basic concept behind a specific teambuilding activity is not hard.

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