Friday, August 16, 2013

See A Penny ...

I've had this rattling around in my head for the last couple days, since writing it, and I'd like to discuss it:

"... In 33 years of DMing, no matter what the level of a player, I've never had a player feel any amount of experience was too little to bother recording. Even if they need fifty or a hundred thousand, if you give a player five experience, they will diligently write it down."

I need to qualify that, because while I think that's true with experience, it hasn't always been true with every part of the games I've run, or with every player.  I feel that I must advise the gentle reader that if a player is sitting at your table who doesn't write down the experience you give them, or some part of the treasure you've given them (because its not worth bothering about), then that player is going to give you trouble.

As a test with new players, offer them some incredibly small amount of either treasure or experience and watch their reactions.  Say they are walking down a road, on their way to an adventure, and while they stop for lunch you say, "Oh, Charlie sees a copper coin on the edge of the road, just sitting there, by a tuft of grass."

Now, that is going to create overthinking, probably.  For the very obvious reason that DMs don't think of it (I don't), anything mundane that would really happen in ordinary circumstances tends to get overlooked.  Finding a random copper coin on a long road, like one might find a penny or a nickel, would probably happen if circumstances were real and not invented out of my head.  At any case, parties are programmed to see everything as a clue, so I'd suggest you make it clear to them that it really is not, that it can't possibly be.  It's just fallen out of someone's pouch, apparently when they were counting their money.

What's important to note is the enthusiasm with which the various party members react to keeping the coin.  Do they offer it to other people from friendliness, or out of apathy?  If you give them a chance to find it on their own, do they remark on how they don't tell anyone else?  Do they carefully note it down, or do they not note it down at all.  The way they react to a stimulus like this will tell you a lot about what sort of player they are.

What any DM wants in a player is engagement, enthusiasm, a spirit of cooperation with others and diligence.  What happens in the game should matter to them enough to make the effort to record things.  The only real manifestation of that coin is changing a number on the character sheet ... and a player who does that with the feeling that they have just felt the coin in their hand is the sort of player you want.

The way a player reacts to the banal will translate to how a player reacts to any opportunity.  Some will argue, "I'll pay attention when it's interesting."  That is NOT the player you want.  That is the player that is going to grind the game down every time you have not scheduled a morning of 'Shuffleboard with the Stars' for that player (if you want to be a cruise director for your campaign, that's what it will feel like).  For good players, it is "interesting" because the player is interested in what is happening, and interested in organizing themselves for what's bound to come next.

For example, people not in the military have a perception that military training is all about running, climbing ropes, shooting guns and more running.  It isn't.  There are massive amounts of training on how to organize a foot-locker.  How to organize your pack.  How to set up a camp.  How to keep things clean.  How to keep yourself clean.  You know, boring shit.  Shit that doesn't make an interesting Hollywood scene.  The sort of thing that some players roll their eyes at because they'd rather be fighting.

I have this ponderous equipment list that I use, that has nearly 1,500 items on it, that shift and change depending on when I happen to generate the list.  Sometimes things aren't there, sometimes they are, and the whole thing is organized in non-alphabetical order.  There is some really useful stuff there, but the really useful stuff tends to turn up only once in a while ... so every time you happen to go into town to buy something, you have to remember to look for it.

And because it can be several runnings between towns, players often forget they wanted to buy something, and so when they've left, they think, geez, I didn't even look to see if it was there.

Some players really hate this.  They hate that the list is so long, they hate that everything isn't always there and they hate the time it takes to find some miserable small thing they want.  So they ignore the list.  They buy a few things and they get it over with as quickly as possible.

Other players dive in, full hog, and load up their characters with all sorts of minor, vaguely useful stuff they probably won't need but which might prove useful.  I once had a player solve a door-trap puzzle with a comb that they'd thought to buy, that didn't weigh anything anyway.  Now who goes to town in D&D and buys a comb?  Players who are enthusiastic about the game, and who picture their character wanting a comb to keep their hair straight.  They don't care that the comb will ever be useful ... that's not what they're buying it for.  They just like the idea that in the morning, their character combs their hair.  It produces a good feeling for the player, knowing that.

The player who couldn't be bothered, who can't identify with that feeling, who thinks it's "silly" or a waste of time ... that is not the kind of player you want in your campaign.  That player will browbeat you every time you don't organize your campaign for their benefit, which will always mean a D&D version of Call of Duty or DDO.  Every time you try to lift the fantasy element of the game a bit higher, that player will do his or her level best to slap that fantasy into hack-mode, while sulking moodily the rest of the time.

A good player will pick up the copper coin.  There will be a recognition that, while there may be a meaning, there's no point in mulling over the meaning for half the game right now.  A meaning, if there is one, will make itself evident soon enough.  No one can prepare for something on the basis of finding a coin on the road.  The player will offer the coin to others.  If no others want it, the player will record the coin on their sheet.  The player might even designate it a 'lucky coin,' particularly if the party catches some break that night and the player makes the connection that - even though it was pure chance - it's 'fun' to think of the coin as lucky.  The player won't feel any need to demand that the coin is magical.  The coin will thereafter get a unique line on the equipment list, and if the player is told fifteen months later that, after being dunked and nearly drowned in a stream, some of their equipment is missing, that player will immediately say, "Is my lucky coin gone?"

Because that is engagement.  That's enthusiasm.  That's doing more than tacking power points to a sheet of paper, that's living through the character and feeling better and more alive because of it.


Giordanisti said...

Great post, Alexis. I often see the most of this kind of engagement out of players the newest to the game, who aren't locked into some mindset of how D&D ought to be played. For newer players, the game is a new world. For a lot of older players, it's a familiar video game that they think they already know how to play. The latter's engagement tends to be in terms that they remember from past games, rather than in terms of what's actually in front of them.

Luckily, I've also seen some cynical people remember that they can engage however they want once someone sets the example. Good playing is contagious.

JDJarvis said...

I might not take the coin, it's about 1/10,000 of typical starting funds. But I would look for someone who might have just dropped it and I will point it out to a lackey so they can have it.
I do like myslef some detailed equipment lists and am indeed the type with extra buttons, a cloak pin (odd most folks with cloaks never buy one), a comb, or a hat.

I am picturing the wild goose chase and/or murder spree a stray copper coin could generate with the group I DM for. I'm going to have to see what happens.

Dave said...

Excellent post, and the copper coin idea will be used in my next OD&D game... although I already have a pretty good idea which of my players will take the bait and which will not.

Matt Judge said...

The point about enthusiasm is well taken, but I don't think you can infer much about players based on their reactions to a detail the DM already informed them is insignificant.

Bottom line, you want people with good attitudes who take personal responsibility for having a good time.

Nebu Pookins said...

I suspect there is a large proportion of players who are "good" in the sense that they like the idea that their character would comb their hair in the morning, and thus purchase a comb, and yet who would not pick up a copper, feeling apathetic about it.

Most characters tend to have very loaded and bulky backpacks, for example, and I like to imagine that it takes a lot of effort to either put down and re-pick up my backpack, or do kneel down while carrying my backpack, and the amount of effort it would take is not worth it for just one copper.