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.


Michael S/Chgowiz said...

For what it's worth:

1. I purposefully didn't read the spoilers because I enjoy finding out surprises or the results of my actions. If I do dumb things, I should pay/learn/get the full effect. That's gaming and that's part of getting experience both from a PC perspective and a player perspective. I learn how to operate in your universe and that's a good thing. So I'll be playing tomorrow.

2. You can always email me and give me comments. I try to do that to my players and when I play in a game, I'll give feedback to the DM. I'm an adult, I'm playing in your game and we might not always agree, but it's your court, your rules and I'm good with that. If I ever felt so strongly, I'll take my dice and go, but probably not until I figure out the WHY it bugged me so bad that I had to leave - because there's a lesson there, even if small.

Anonymous said...

Like Chgowiz, I'm welcome to comments on my playing.

As for missing cues, I have to confess to being very guilty of this. Much of it is ignorance on my part; I suppose that means I have to ask more questions in the future. :)

DMWieg said...

Feedback is welcome, gentle DM. Personally I appreciate the "early warning" as opposed to letting something fester.

I must confess that the way I am playing in this play-by-blog game is a deviation from my usual play style.

I think these are the two big factors:

1. I work in an office all day, and sometimes the things I'm working on are fairly involved and I can only glance at the game for a few minutes at a time. I've developed a bad habit of skimming and I think I'm missing important details. I've tried restricting my participation to my lunch hour or coffee breaks, but then a lot seems to happen and I miss out and people are wondering where I am. I will try to manage my play time more effectively.

2. I don't know a lot about historical medieval society. Some of the details (not having a writ, trying to push the Jewish merchant off his land, etc) escape me because of this; in previous games I've played in that have been very non-historical, writs of seizure and the like would not be a factor, and religion/ethnicity were non-issues.

That's all I've got. I'm not trying to make excuses, I'm just explaining the reasoning behind my play style. I've got no excuse for poor Ells; I think that was just some of the random player action you mentioned and that I have myself bemoaned as a DM. (And gosh, you'd think I'd know better...)

I guess all I can say is that I'll try to do better, and if I don't... well, then whatever happens to Kazimir, happens.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Alexis, really good comments.

To me, when I read that this smith was on disputed land, I took it that he was a renter and that this building might have been built by someone else. The attempt to lure him was in hope, and in a bit of frustration that everyone else wanted to go in swinging. Best intentions, yadda yadda. Sometimes plans work, sometimes they end in rolling initiative.

The David's cross wasn't lost on me, I just didn't get to a point in the conversation with Herr Meyer to make reference to it. The fact that Jews are a persecuted lot wasn't lost on me - I've been doing Google/wikipedia research on some of the hints.

I was *really* frustrated by the spell being attempted and the strong arming. Unfortunately, unless I manage to run away, I'm going to pay for it, but it's a game and we all learn from the experience. I feel none the worse for it.

FWIW, it's been a HUGE challenge to think like a medieval guy. I've enjoyed it, although there have probably been some epic fails. That's OK, again, it's a learning experience. You present the world and the stage, we figure it out together.

As far as the murder of Ells, the comments in private emails have all been basically "uhhh... wtf?" but in game, Delfig doesn't know Ells got whacked so he's going to act on what he knows... which is that he's facing a 10' pole up his nostril right now...

Original_Carl said...

I have missed these posts. Thank you for putting one up.

For years I've struggled with Red Herrings. Sometimes the most innocent and/or trivial thing will set a group off on a wild goose chase. Once, it was finding a body floating in the Ethereal Plane. Seemed like something that might be floating around out there, so I added it for color. The party spent 3 hours on it, pissing off a new player that I had invited because it seemed they were intentionally delaying her introduction to the group. They weren't. They were just being players.

Snipe hunts frustrating for me, because like you, I invest a lot of time in my games and derive a great deal of pleasure from them and my play time is limited. Having the players spend an hour fucking with a dead goblin would (and does) piss me right off. Endless searching for secret doors, attempts to detect evil, Sense Motive checks, pedantic room searching and other non-productive and time-consuming player activities also make me grind my teeth.

However. I, like you, do not run an easy game. The players often look for any advantage they can get. They are trying to think outside the box, so to speak. In many cases this behavior is a cry for help, or at least I've come to recognize it as such. They want to contribute to the success of the group or get to the next phase of their adevnture, or just figure out what to do next.

So, I do what you do. I offer suggestions, I ask questions, and I help them to examine all the pieces of the puzzle. I feel as you do, that a player using their character's dexterity to open a lock is equivalent to them using their intelligence to solve a puzzle or their wisdom to solve a problem. All it takes is a die roll, which is one of the most beautiful things about D&D and role-playing games. You may not have a 200 IQ, but your character does, and so voila, he's figured out the secret code!

I think that the "correct" thing for a DM to do is to figure out what works in terms of keeping them happy being a DM and their players happy playing in the game. Balancing risk and reward is not an exact science. I think it's more like alchemy. A D&D game is like a golf swing. You can have the most incorrect swing in the world and still hit the ball straight and true each time. It's all in how you balance it. You have a harsh and realistic world and you expect your players to manipulate their characters as if they were real. This is a lot to ask, but to balance it you counsel and cajole. That sounds like a working DM style. One that, without experiencing it myself, I would vouch for.

I'll type to you again soon, Alexis.

Unknown said...

I'm just coming in because this got linked at another blog, but I'm not sure I get the whole Jew/German/Dachau thing in the context of your game world. Does your game world have those things with the same context as in the real world?

Alexis Smolensk said...


You may be unaware that the persecution and mass slaughter of Jews began in the 4th century A.D., with various well known pograms occurring regularly over multiple centuries...all long before the Nazis. So while my world, which takes place in 1650, does not actually reflect the Third Reich, it should be noted that within the context of events prior to 1650, most of the historical events of Earth did occur.

For an example to the contrary, the Russian State did not expand to the Pacific Ocean in the 16th century, because unlike the real world where that land was mostly unoccupied, in my world it is occupied by quite a number of goblins and hobgoblins, while the territory around the Ural Mountains is occupied by dwarves, ogres and gnolls. Thus, in 1528, while in the real world the Russians were founding Yakutsk, in my world they were having their ass kicked on the Kama river west of Irkutsk.

As far as the poetic Jew-German-Dachau thing, why would I add that as a DM to people living in the here and now if it wasn't at least a notable red herring? As I said in the post, it wasn't that the thought might not have occurred to players, but not speaking aloud (writing) about anything particularly distinctive is a sign of not paying attention.