Someone brought up the issue of the quantum ogre on the Eberron Discord server recently. I had a fascinating time looking up the terminology and a few different arguments. Simply put, the quantum ogre is when a Game Master removes the player agency or meaningful choice from the players. The ogre part is that no matter which direction the characters go, that ogre will be there.
I pondered for a while, forgot what I was going to say, had to leave for appointments, then came back and pondered again, before finally remembering my comments. I wanted to take the opportunity to post here what I posted on the server.
I looked at the problem from an adventure-for-publish point-of-view, because the entire issue was a bit difficult to encompass given no constraints or parameters. Also, I am in processing of writing an Eberron adventure path, so I wanted to relate back. The constraint of adventure writing is that once the adventure leaves your hands, there is no way to advise or speak with the Dungeon Master. All designs stop and the information is presented “as is”. This is the same for video games, which I will reference later. There is no infinite time and research that you can do in order to run the game–you leave that in the hands of the Dungeon Master. All you can do is prepare as much material as is reasonably possible given the medium and time allotted before publishing. It will not cover every possible edge case or random things the player characters might think of doing.
As such, there are times where set encounters are used. Take the ogre example. There are three paths, and whichever path the players select, the Dungeon Master inserts the ogre encounter. Players are uncomfortable with that loss of agency. However, what if I was to tell you that EACH of the paths contained an encounter already written (pre-determined) in the adventure? And that encounter is with ogres? No player agency is removed because the encounters are part of the adventure. To save space, a designer might reference one encounter block for all three instances, instead of wasting space writing the same encounter three times. However, the ogre is no longer quantum. It is three different ogres, waiting at three different locations, because the adventure was written that way. And the designer might be applauded for efficient design. With a single line or sentence, the encounters could be changed by adding an environmental or cosmetic difference (i.e. axe instead of greatclub).
What is the difference between the quantum ogre and the pre-determined ogres? From a designer’s point-of-view, about three sentences of text and page references. That might bother some, so let us go one step further to video game design.
Video games have no Dungeon Master to intervene or interface between game and player, where every moment is either deterministic or reactive to a player decision. If the players decide on one path, the video game is either scripted to run the encounter or runs the encounter in response to their choice. Regardless, the encounter is already programmed into the game. If the encounter is scripted, it is not a quantum ogre, if the encounter is reactive, then… is it?
I have posted it before, but one of my favorite episodes of Writing Excuses deals a bit with this issue and how it applies to writing for video games. Go give it a listen and think about your own ideas about the quantum ogre… personally, I might just give it the ability to teleport.