Frustration Tolerance

When we get new members of our groups, there is always a honeymoon period where the players are very excited about the format of their new social skills group. Teens and adolescents love that they get to come play Dungeons and Dragons with us. And for the first few sessions, they have a blast. It’s an open fantasy world full of possibilities and they they are playing a powerful hero. What could be better than that?

Then the honeymoon ends, the players get frustrated by the restrictions of the game, and we have to tell them (and their parents) that this is a natural part of learning the game…

…and that we are doing it intentionally.

Why intentionally frustrate players?

First of all, it’s not hard to do in a game like Dungeons and Dragons. When players roll a 20 sided die to determine the success of an action their character is attempting in-game, there is a 5% chance that the roll will be a 1, which is considered a “critical fumble.” This means that even when a character is proficient at a task, no matter how many times they’ve done it, their is a chance they will fail.

This is a valuable lesson.

In life, we are destined to be unsuccessful as we learn new skills and overcome challenges. Resilience lies in our ability to successfully navigate challenging situations, not in how we avoid them. By increasing players’ ability to tolerate adverse situations, and give them the skills to persevere through them, we are preparing them to handle life’s critical successes and critical fumbles with the same resolve.

How does this happen in groups?

Developing frustration tolerance and resilience doesn’t happen if the players just get frustrated and give up. Resilience develops when players feel challenged, get frustrated, and then push through to a resolution. As the game masters, we have to scaffold the level of challenge to the appropriate level for individual players—without going over. Once a player is emotionally flooded, the work becomes about emotional regulation and self-soothing: important related skills, but we’ll save those for another blog post.

In order to keep the players feeling optimistic about their challenges, we try to never let a failure be just a failure, but have them treat every failure as a new opportunity. When a player does roll that nearly inevitable critical fumble, we take the opportunity to interject something interesting or provide a new bit of humor into the game.

There’s an inside joke at my game table that rolling a 2 is worse than a 1 because of how we turn our critical fumbles into opportunities. A player rolls a 1 while searching a room for a hidden key? His character instead finds a box of themed collectible trading cards that entrance him for the next several minutes. He doesn’t find the key, but later in the game he will remember that he still has these cards and use them to barter his way past a bouncer into a wretched hive of scum and villainy. A character rolls a critical fumble while attacking a monster with a sword? It flies out of his hands and while he traverses the room to reclaim it, he notices that the monster is standing directly under a heavy chandelier.

A story from a Game to Grow group:

As we mentioned in our origin story post, one of our favorite in-game challenges we use to develop and assess frustration tolerance is lateral thinking puzzles we call “the lava puzzle.”

The party of adventurers is questing for a magical sword, and seem to have found it in a treasure room deep in a dungeon. The room is full of gold, trinkets, whosits and whatsits galore. On a pedestal in the middle of the room is the sword!

As soon as the players grab it, all of the treasures (including the sword the players have been questing after for weeks) crumble to ash, the door they came in slams shut, and molten lava starts slowly pouring into the room from every corner. They have to think fast about how to get out!

The next phase of the game takes the players into turn-taking, where every turn the lava gets closer and closer. Eventually the players will get out, but not before many of their attempts fail and they must push through the frustration to success.

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