Sunday, March 8, 2009

My Conscience

No, I haven't been writing very much non-campaign material. At this point, I'm pretty sure that 90% of anyone's interest in this blog comes from myself and my five players, so it may have been a mistake to try the system without initiating another blog. C'est la vie.

Part of why I don't want to write has to do with what my opinions might be about the ongoing campaign and why I don't want to throw a monkey wrench into the player style of play. I know that I have about thirty articles I could write on what I'm seeing, some good, some bad, but every time I sit down to put any of that to print, I'm thinking, how will the players view it.

However much a DM might like feedback, giving feedback to players is always a touchy subject. I have at various times in my career had to throw people out of my campaign and house, end physical brawls between players, manage players who have become far too upset by what are really minor things (losing a level for instance), scream at players who just won't shut up, cajole players who won't talk at all and generally act as mother and priest...since so much of life happens outside of D&D, and people need to talk to someone, I'm an authority figure for them.

It has been this way since I was fifteen.

The emotion one generally feels is to pick up heavy objects like glass tumblers and start hurling them with adroit precision. The emotion one generally displays boils down to, "Uh huh. So what do you do?"

At this risk, then, of spoiling the campaign, and increasing even further my bad reputation--and because this is the only thing on my mind which is remotely connected to D&D, I'm going to make a few gentle points about those measures of play which are, frankly, baffling me. Be warned, however...some of these do NOT come from the online campaign, but from my offline campaign, which I ran last night.

Red Herrings. A discussion went on around the table last night about a tournament campaign one of the players participated in as a DM. She decided that she would see if she could tie up her party of apparent morons and keep them from finishing the quest, without doing anything really. I don't know why, she just a bitch I guess. The starting level was a goblin lair, and the tournament had suggested the DMs should "make it real." So when this DM described the cave-in blocking the passage, she decided to say that a goblin arm was sticking out of the fallen rock.

The result was that, for the next forty minutes, the party in the tournament did everything they could do discover the "significance" of this arm, including unearthing the whole body from the stone and searching it, guaging where the arm might be pointing to and so on. Naturally, since it was a red herring, nothing came of these investigations.

As I run what I perceive to be a real setting, I'm not particularly concerned about the "meanings" behind what I'm describing. My world is, in a word, meaningless. At least, in terms of "problem solving apparatus," such as those occurring in video games. In a video game, everything that exists on a dungeon level is relevant (though I am told games of late have started to move away from this). But in the world around us, most of what we see is utterly irrelevant. Goblin arms do not point at secret passages, insignia often do not have special meanings, sometimes innocent people are actually innocent. Sometimes, there's a knight in the bar because he's thirsty.

Curiousity. In spite of what I've just said, not everything is a red herring. Mystery novels are built on the investigator's ability to separate the difference between a significant detail and dreck. Fetish shows like CSI try to stuff so much information into a 42-minute episode that they haven't got time for dreck, so everything is seen as important. Reality shows like Survivor are so full of dreck that absolutely nothing that's said matters. Somewhere between these two extremes is good drama.

In my world, the character's ability to tell the difference between a relevant detail and fluff is the dividing line between who will survive and who will not. Most D&D campaigns I've found will either a) produce fluff which is so clearly unimportant that it can be safely ignored; or b) augment every detail with such a display of trumpeting that it cannot be ignored. I do neither.

The "correct" thing to do as a DM, at this point, would be to give no details whatsoever about the party. I've never been comfortable with that. I am concerned that my world is too different, that my expectations are too high, that I'm being unreasonable about conclusions I'm making. In other words, I'm acknowledging that I am human, and that my style of play is potentially unfair to the players, who don't know me, can't sense my tone of voice from an online description, can't really visualize what's happening or why they are about to die.

I've had it described to me by a smart fellow who doesn't play D&D and who didn't find my world compelling, that part of my problem as a DM is that I have a tendency to make suggestions to players. That I will answer someone's action with, "Are you sure you want to do that," or even, "Had you considered...?"

I'm told that, strictly speaking, it's better to let players make their mistakes, kill them off if need be and let them learn. In other words, to behave as a video game would and be merciless.

I'll tell you what the problem with that is.

The player is not the only person to have invested time and energy into this character. Unlike a video game, I am conscious of time. I have no desire to spend all of my campaign helping players roll up character after character, as this is not what I particularly enjoy. Moreover, I don't see why a player can't learn, and enjoy the game, without having to be killed over and over again uselessly. I will kill a player if they insist on behaving irrationally or if they stubbornly stick to a course of action that is bound to end in their doom. I have had players in my world who, upon getting to know them better, proved to be such vile human beings that I couldn't wait for their characters to do something enormously stupid so I could kill them in some humiliating fashion and thus move the person conveniently out of my campaign and my life.

But my reasons for giving "clues" and making moderate suggestions are intended to save me time, energy and peace of mind. The player may be unsure of how to behave, but if I can have them make a wisdom or intelligence check correctly, I will tell them the answer to the puzzle just as if they had opened that imaginary lock with their dexterity.

I have already been told by one of the players in my online campaign not to make suggestions. I appreciate that. But it is not my style as a DM. Nor is it my nature as a human being.

And now I find myself staring at the screen and pausing before going on. I want to make a small list of things; but first I want to say a short word about...

Character. I am all for players having "character"...meaning, a personality they wish to run. Where this ALWAYS falls down, however, is that most of the time to personality the player has decided to play is self-destructive--someone who is either hopelessly random in their actions, or a toxic, unpleasant individual, or someone who is just plain stupid. I've known many players who have moved through my world systematically drawing ire and hatred from NPCs, until finally one of those NPCs says, "fuck it" and kills the bastard. Being someone who has drawn much ire and hatred in my life, I have to say that I've never felt the need to enter a bar, insult everyone present just for the fuck of it and then destroy property at random. I've never felt the need to make deals with important people and then snub my nose at them for fun. I've had players do this, all in the name of "character." Usually, after they are killed, they will roll dice and go about producing the dead character's emotional brother. Somewhat like Bob does in Knights of the Dinner Table.

This isn't meant to be laudable behavior. In a comic, its funny because its true. In a campaign, it is merely annoying.

Successful players are ALWAYS those who do not put on a pretense of being some imaginary character, but players who dig down within themselves to find something which they don't generally display. This usually turns out to be a remarkable trait they possess. I have a cleric in my offline who, when not a cleric, is shy and speaks little. But who will, at play, display vocal support for the party, resolve, bravery and generousity. That is because, deep inside, the player in question has these traits--she isn't making them up for the sake of "character."

Players should be themselves.


All right then. Some concerns that I have. Keep in mind that these are recorded because nothing, or little of value, was written online about them. I don't know what is going on in anyone's head. I don't care. These are concerns not because they were not thought of, but because they were not ACTED upon.

1) The lack of any recognition that the smell of blood might be important.
2) The meaning of the word "beets." A great many jokes were made, and some rationalizations, but the matter now seems to be completely forgotten.
3) The fact that a writ of seizure was not provided to the party.
4) The fact that clearly Frau Meyer or Herr Meyer were threatened when the party arrived, suggesting that all might not be as it seems.
5) The clear mastercraftsmanship of the homestead, suggesting that Herr Meyer has been here for some time, is likely to be able to read, and quite probably is as dangerous as an ogre.
6) The fact that Meyer left his shop to speak to a stranger, far away from any town or people, without weapons, indicating that he's not afraid, and therefore that he is almost certainly not zero level.
7) His sending Melanie into the house, suggesting that he felt threatened, and was not likely to respond any longer to either threats or entreaties of goodwill.
8) The fact that the house that Melanie has just entered is made of stone, and is likely quite impregnable.

Finally, I'd like to remark on a few things that have, well, seemed contrary to normal behavior, and in some cases the survival of the party.

1) The murder of Ells. Um, the murder of Ells. And lastly, the murder of Ells. I don't really care about murder. Murder the three-year-old boy if you want to. But does this seem the path to a successful future?
2) The expectation that a homesteader will willingly walk to the edge of the woods with a total stranger "who just wants to talk." Seriously. Are there DMs who would have the NPC say, "Sure, why not? Tell me total stranger, who is seven-foot-six and dressed in leather armor, how can I help to move myself away from my protection and my wife and children, and any weapons I might have stashed, so I can walk fifty yards away towards the thick woods with you"? Really. Are there DMs like this out there? I want to know.
3) The failure to react to the homesteader's being Jewish, made clear through several references. Does it not seem strange that a German merchant should wish to push a Jew off his land just outside of Dachau? Of course this MIGHT be a red herring. But surely, come on, someone must realize the arrangement is a tad too poetic to be completely meaningless. Put together with the lack of a writ of seizure, there should be some serious questioning going on.
4) Oh, and the murder of Ells.

All right then. My conscience is clear. We'll see who is still playing tomorrow.