Monday, September 26, 2011

Playing By Committee

Occasionally I'm going to post something about a D&D party that isn't the one on-line.  This is one of those occasions.

Let me just say first of all that I would love to post 'content' everyday.  It would be marvelous to have a new map, or a new table, that I could trot out and amaze everyone and piss off a few others ... but the reality is that it takes more than a day to churn out the kind of maps and tables that I consider worth creating ... that is, more than seven lines and two columns.  More often than not, it takes more than a month to create a good map, and really a lot of time to come up with and create a good table.  'Content' isn't like simply writing my opinion for twenty minutes.  And yet I like posting something every weekday on here.  I don't want to post other people's crap, I don't want to post pictures, I don't want to post things that have nothing to do with D&D and I don't want to post about old modules and box art from shit produced 30 years ago.  So what you get is my opinion.  Luckily, I have a lot of opinions.  Three and a third years now and the opinions are still coming.

Today the opinion is about an annoying habit that I see from players, one that stems from the language they use.  It is a defensive mechanism, one that is designed to protect players, and I am certain that many a DM has fallen into its trap.

See if you can recognize it.

Player 1:  What do we do, then?

Player 2:  I think we ought to get together on having some kind of plan.  How high is the fortress?

DM:  It's on the top of the hill overlooking the sea, perched upon a 75 foot cliff that surrounds the fortress except where a very narrow cut descends from the landward side.

Player 2:  How narrow?

DM:  About four or five feet.  It is not used for moving supplies - those are raised to the fortress by a rope that raises a large box.

Player 2:  Does anyone have any ideas?

Player 3:  We could climb up the side, perhaps at night.

Player 1:  My father was a mountaineer and I have experience at that.  We would need to get some equipment.

Player 2:  We'll get it.

Player 3:  Are there many guards?

DM:  You have no idea.  You can't tell from the ground.

Player 3:  Maybe we should ask around the village.  Perhaps someone knows how many guards there are, or has been up there and seen.

Player 4:  We might watch to see if they carry torches.  It's not night yet, right?

DM:  No.

Player 1:  I'm for climbing up.

Player 3:  Me too.

Player 2:  Great.  If we're agreed we should get what we need and get started.

(All players look at the DM and wait)

DM:  So, what are you going to do?

Player 2:  What we said.  We're going to climb up the mountain at night.

At this point, I usually sit, and wait, and the players start up again about their plans.  They work more things out about what they're GOING to do, making no actual statements about doing any exact thing at this time.  Virtually every idea is spoken of in the future tense, not in the present tense, and it becomes quite plain after twenty or thirty minutes that the party is waiting for the DM to say, "Okay, it's night, and you're climbing up the side of the fortress."

Only problem is, that's NOT for the DM to say.  Until the party actually says, "We wait for night," the amount of time that is passing should be considered real time ... since in fact the players haven't actually done anything.  They haven't said they go to the market to buy equipment, they haven't looked up any persons in the town, they haven't actually said they go to the foot of the cliff and so on.  The tactic is a player trick to push the DM into editing all that for the sake of keeping the game moving ... and thus putting the responsibility on the DM for what was, and what was not gathered.  Really clever players will try to argue that they did get this or that (past tense) before suddenly being on the side of the mountain, and the DM will realize that he jumped forward a bit too fast and now has to compensate the player.   If the DM really isn't on the ball, the party can fuck around with him or her quite a bit this way.

Sometimes, I'll make a point in the running to tell the party that no time has passed and that they haven't done anything ... to encourage them to stop talking constantly in the future tense.  Sometimes I'll sit and do nothing, waiting for them to say, "is it night yet?" so I can answer, no, it's about five minutes later than when we all discussed what we were going to do.  And sometimes the party won't seem to notice, and I'll have a lovely forty-five minute or hour break in the middle of the running as they talk and talk and talk about the future.  What a lovely thing is the future.  It doesn't actually require the party DO anything.

I think we naturally do this as people, waiting for time to push us into activity, thinking mostly about how we're going to go to the gym or work or to the store ... and most of the time we're not really active about something until we're pushed by the clock into doing it.  Uh oh, it's seven, if I don't get going now there won't be time to get back.  And so we get into the car and go.  Finally.

I really enjoy a party that doesn't 'plan' quite so much.  And it moves the game along better when the player doesn't turn to others and say, "we should go there" but instead, without waiting for the others, says, "I go there."  This will usually get the others to say, "Me too," and the activities will begin.  If there's any need for a deeper plan, someone else in the party can say, "No, wait, don't yet."

But nine times out of ten a party makes plans when no actual plan is necessary.  Why would one need a plan to buy equipment?  Or get started on a journey.  When the question "where?" is settled, don't mumble about what you ought to buy or have or get ... just go get it.  Take charge of your character's actions - not everything needs to be a committee meeting.

It just wastes time.


Wickedmurph said...

I find this can be a particular issue with online games. As a DM I often have to ask the group specifically - "so what are you going to do right now?" or "Are you going to go check out the cliff or are you going to go to the village?".

It can be a bit of a pain - although I find deciding on a "party leader" can also be helpful.

noisms said...

Excellent post. I get pissed off by exactly the same tendency both as a DM and also when I'm one of the players.

A related problem is a lack of willingness to take leadership. Sometimes as a DM I'll be sitting there for 10 or 20 minutes waiting for somebody to take the game by the scruff of the neck and just say "Right, we're going to do [X]" instead of sitting around being polite and hoping for utter outright consensus.

gdbackus said...

Agreed. I would like to think that it is an unintentional lapse on the part of the players, but no - after this long, I do think that it is a 'tricky player' thing. I'm all for the players taking the time to discuss approaches and make plans, but then when they turn to you and await your comments on the resolution without them actually having said that they have begun to undertake them? Grrr.

Carl said...

I took a cue from Alexis a while ago and I just wait in silence until they say, "We're doing stuff," and then proceed to lay out what they are doing.

I find silence is a pretty powerful motivator to get people to speak or act. Just shut up and wait. They'll break down.

The key to this working is when to be silent. You have to answer their questions. You cannot just freeze them out.

At the point you find yourself wanting to ask, "What do you do?" wait for them to speak.

Doug Bonar said...

I'll try again to take the players' side.

"I'm sorry Mr. GM. I didn't read your mind and use exactly the right phrasing. Will you please just get on with the game rather than staring at us blankly for minutes on end."

Do you at least talk to your players about the fact that you are hung up on their tense choices? Do you explain that the reason there are strange pauses and stalls in the game is because you are waiting for specific cues from them like a Zork parser?

Kevin Markley said...

I've been reading the online game (still got some catching up to do) which is why I'm late to this party, but I've noticed that you yourself frequently describe events in the future tense, Alexis.
To quote a couple examples that jumped out at me from the post I'm currently on ("Afternoon, the tide going out," Sept 26 2011) "...Gerhart will unload your goods..." "...Emmanuel will offer to stay..."

Most of the time I understand where you're coming from, but at least once I've been left wondering when those things are going to happen. I seriously doubt your intention was to trick the players, and likewise I believe that when most players do it, their intent is not to "trap" the DM.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The fact that I am as guilty as anyone doesn't make it right, Kevin. I should stop doing it also - and the party has caught and called me on it.

Who knows if I have a subconscious will to trap the players or not? I have less motive than the players, since I can 'trap' them at will and I have nothing to gain ... regardless, no one should be doing it, not me, not they.

Sometimes we do not live up to the standards we know are best - this does not mean the standards should be tossed. It means we must try harder.

Kevin Markley said...

I appreciate the swift response, particularly regarding a post from so long ago. If you feel like this subject is dead, I'm willing to drop it.

It may not be "right" in that there certainly are clearer ways to communicate, but I think it's a natural progression from stating an intent regarding a hypothetical or fictional parson. In other words, it's a small step from "I would like my character to act thusly" to "my character will act thusly." I think, in large part, we do this specifically to... protect ourselves, I guess, from mis-speaking, because there is always a chance for someone - particularly the DM - to say, "Wait, no, you don't. Instead, this happens!" Essentially, there is no PRESENT for the characters, events pass immediately from the future to the past. Something either has happened, or is yet to happen.

I do agree that it is more clear to speak of actions in the present tense, though, and I'm considering enforcing that as a rule the next time I run a game.

But personally, I don't see anything "wrong" with using a hypothetical or future tense when referring to the characters, as long as it is used consistantly and confusion is avoided. I've participated in such games, and we would discuss our plans as just that. "I intend to..." or "We plan on..." or "I expect..." whereas "I will..." or "I'm going to..." were reserved for expressing actions.
Mind you, I'm not saying it worked flawlessly all the time, but my main concern is that you see malicious intent where I see players - unconsciously, I think - slip into a less wordy manner of speaking. I apologize if this comes off as insulting, but I have to wonder what kind of people you've played with; it seems you're used to people showing a worse side of themselves than I am.
Or maybe I'm just being naive, I'm sure there are players out there who actively look for ways to game the system, but I certainly haven't played with them.