“The cave, remember your failure at the cave!”
Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

In a recent email to one of the players in my gaming group, I referred to their failure in the dungeon adventure they just completed. (I think I used the term “botched.”) But they got experience and treasure. They advanced something like five levels (one of those was admittedly a “freebie”), and survived. But I would call it a failure.

Why would I refer to it as a failure? I think it would be like how getting a “passing” grade of a C, or scoring in the seventieth percentile is a failure. Sure you passed the test, but did you learn anything? Chopping off Darth Vader’s head might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but what did you get out of it? Why was he there?

There’s no reason to think the adventuring party couldn’t blunder there way from one encounter to the next, remaining ignorant of their greater purpose. They might even learn a thing or two along the way, but it means at the end of the day they’re tools to be manipulated by an unseen hand. They never rise above the rank of pawn.

Well, maybe that’s a bit too harsh. They might get promoted to knight, rook, bishop, or even queen, they’ll just never be “king.” They certainly won’t be the players in any cosmic Chess games between forces beyond mortal comprehension. Nothing will distinguish them much beyond, “moved across the board and took a few pieces.”

And you know what, that’s fine too. It’s okay if the players don’t look for anything beyond what’s placed in front of them, if their aspirations extend to the next loot drop. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teasing them with what they missed – tantalizing them with a view of something greater. Isn’t that the point?

“This is what you could be doing!”

There isn’t anything rude or cruel about the practice of informing the players of other options they could have taken, making suggestions for things they could do next time. I won’t boast of any magnanimity on my part, I just want my players to play at their best. Solve puzzles faster, better, harder, whatever. I want to be challenged.

Which is not to say that I want the players to challenge my rulings, my judgment. They have that front covered well enough. A little too well at times. Arguing with me about the rules and how I decide something is encouraged, but can be tedious.

When I lean back in my chair at the end of the day, I ask myself, “how will they apply what they learned in this dungeon to the next challenge they face?” to which I answer, almost mournfully, “what did they learn?” I’m not perfect, and I don’t hold myself above my players to any extent, but I know they’ll fall for all my tricks a second time.