That Was… Almost Too Easy

“What kind of graduate program,” I ask, glaring at the computer screen, “doesn’t even make you write an essay?”

I’m still in the throes of grad school application, comparing the one I’ve been stalling on my app to with the one I’ve probably just been accepted in. Sure, the former is cheaper, but something’s been bugging me about it since I first started looking over the application process: it seems too easy. I’ve given up on one because my third potential reference never got back to me. Another one (only requiring two, thank goodness) had involved a week of utter panic trying to get all my materials together. This one—it’s ALA-accredited, so I shouldn’t have an issue with it, but it’s odd. I’m not surprised that it doesn’t ask for my GRE scores. They were optional at the last program. But no references? No academic honors, or work history? No letter of introduction/personal statement? I’m downright suspicious at this point.

It got me thinking about the challenges we go through to acquire things in games. Sure, a good portion of the standard RPG is good old-fashioned power fantasy. And sure, a lot of power fantasies do include things just… well, falling into our hands. On the other hand, one of the nice things about the characters we’re playing is that they actually have the heft to earn things like ending up in charge of an empire or being feted in every city as a legendary hero. So even in game, we probably have—or can be trained to have—the same suspicion of things that seem just the slightest bit too easy.

But how do we get there?

The first step is to establish a norm. If you’re going to get this done, generally it takes this, this, this and this. Legendary magics often involve unusual ingredients that themselves regularly require tramping over half of the mapped world to fetch everything, and that’s presupposing you can just find it rather than having to go on a quest just to find the money to buy the instructions/satisfy the keeper of the ancient library/demonstrate worthiness to some divine representative. That brand-spanking new power source is going to require loads of research, possibly getting together some of the greatest innovators from two cultures that just plain don’t get along and making them play nice long enough for the project enthusiasm to take them the rest of the way. The grad school requires two or more letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and at the very least a one-page essay.

Once we’ve gotten people used to the norm, that’s when we hit them with the exception. Depending on how suspicious we want it to be, we can go one of several routes. One is just offering it to them, no strings attached (or at most, a ’small favor’). This, of course, is the most suspicious way, since even the most credulous or lazy of characters is likely to remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Another method is to make it along the lines of the usual entry cost, just enough of a challenge that it does seem like they have to expend some effort, but nowhere near comparable to whatever the norm is. Still another is to make the task something entirely different and just-enough-of-a-challenge; this is good for a really subtle feeling, since it’s a lot harder to compare apples-and-oranges effort and resource costs.

In the end, though, making something just a little too easy is an excellent way to give people a bad feeling about it without actually pushing too hard the question of what makes it so questionable. Have you given it a try?

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