Friday, November 20, 2009


If you will, picture the player: “Asking the cleric to draw the light as far back from the top as I can, I climb down the rope to the bottom of the chimney; what can I see with my infravision?”

“About forty feet down, there’s a metal plate set across the chimney. About ten feet below that, you can detect a swirling mass of color that you’re guessing is probably water.”
“I try to move the plate. Can I lift it?”

“Roll a d6.”

The situation I’ve descibed is typical. I’d like to point out, however, that I have not told the player specifically what they are rolling the d6 for. It might be to see if they can move the plate, and it might be surprise or initiative, since something could attack them. One way or another, I am very deliberate about keeping the player in the dark until I know what the die roll has told me.  That way, if it is an attack, I can inform the player simultaneously that he is surprised, or not surprised, and that the alligator has leapt up to take off a piece of the character's foot.

I have been to many games where the dialogue between player and DM is all very technical ... where the DM describes the monster according to its type, species and even it's level or character class: "You see an ogre magi cleric master of the fifth rank" ... whereas I'm likely to say that you see an ogre with a sword (or possibly not; why couldn't an ogre magi carry a club?).   I don't think it does any good to tell the players up front that the mage is casting a cause serious wounds spell until the actual spell is applied to the character.  It is enough to know that the ogre has cast a spell, and that now the ogre has entered combat.  I won't even say, "The ogre has cast the spell and now tries to touch you."  That's too much information.

Half the fun of being a DM is keeping the players woefully in the dark.  Sometimes, yes, it's obvious what they're rolling for.  If they are on the edge of a cliff, and they've just been hit by a club, I will tell them to make a "dex" check ... they might as well know at that point that if they fail they're going to fall.  But if they're crossing a courtyard, and I want to see if they notice that the statue in the center has just moved, I don't tell them that they're making a wisdom check (the roll I use for perception) ... I just say, roll a d20.  I don't want them to know why.  Particularly if they've failed.  Then it is just hanging out there - the question, "What was that for?" might never actually get answered.

I think this bothers some DMs.  I think that they are deeply involved in their designs, and truly want every facet understood, and thus appreciated, by their players.  And I think that's fine - after the fact.  During the actual adventure, they should be kept as ignorant as possible.

Which might be one of the principle reasons for the disconnect in my online games.  I do intentionally withhold information.  I do it constantly.  I have elements in my campaigns that I have literally withheld for years.  I shall give an example.

About two years ago, real time, my offline campaigners came across a caravan on the edge of the Ust Urt plateau(NW Turkmenistan), in which three ogres were transporting 17 women, none with a charisma less than 16.  The party killed the ogres, freed the women, and discovered that many of them were from prestigious households throughout northern Persia.  What followed was a lengthy adventure in which the women were returned.

The women, as it turned out, were a sacrifice planned by a high level mage by the name of Patroclus.  Patroclus wasn't happy.  But although he had every intention of frying the party down to the last member, the party returning the Emir of Tabiristan's daughter won them a special gift - a Libram of Proof Against Detection.  As long as any member of the original party holds the Libram, they can't be found with ESP, Clairaudience or any other finding spell.

Now, the party has never seen Patroclus; they have been able to identify him as one of the Wizard Princes of a region called Khorezm (modern Khiva), but that's all.  They have heard neither hide nor hair of him in eighteen months, but they know me and they haven't forgotten.  Patroclus can still find them by that old tried and true method, investigation ... and though they've teleported once as a party since, there are still elements that can be identified.  Sooner or later (and only I know when), Patroclus will find them.

But what happens then, I've never told anyone.

It is the same methodology applied to novel writing ... withhold, withhold, withhold.   No character ever has more information than is absolutely necessary, no one in the novel ever knows everything that is going on except for the one character you don't get a chance to talk with until the very end.  In D&D, the novel never ends.  Whatever might get resolved, there have always been other aspects of the journey that have been created along the way, leading to other adventures and other resolutions, some soon, some much later.

In that way, yes, D&D is storytelling.  Or rather, it is NOT storytelling.  All too often, I think, the whole story gets told right at the beginning, and nothing is really a surprise - need the key, find the key, fight for the key, get the key.

Not telling the story begins, as I began, with not telling the players why you're rolling.  Or why they're rolling.  It's in the DMG and it's good advice.  With some players, it will take time to break them of their "knowing all things" habit ... but your campaign will get better once you do.


mthomas768 said...

"Half the fun of being a DM is keeping the players woefully in the dark."

Quoted for truth.

One of the best things about this approach is your players will fill in the blanks for you. Speculation is a great source of inspiration.

Carter Soles said...

Yes, hear hear! I totally agree with you about this, for the reasons you enumerate and also for one really obvious one that is implied here: narrative suspense! I do see the characters as, well, characters in a story, so they really SHOULD NOT know what every single roll is for. Leaving players in the dark about the future serves not only story tension and edgy adventure atmosphere but is really more "realistic" as well when you think about it.

Daddy Grognard said...

Absolutely, and from a player's point of view, some of the best times in adventures back in the day were where the DM suddenly asked us for just such a roll and didn't tell us why; all we knew was that something was happening, not what and certainly not the whole story, maybe only a fragment thereof. We were alert and tense and on edge and waiting for the axe to fall, to see if we could deflect it.

We weren't just being told a story, we were in it, there writing it with the DM and the feeling was great.

When the DM starts to want to tell the players how great he is and what a good job he's doing as DM and god and world-designer,and 'hey, look at all this stuff I've made for you', there's something wrong - in fact, if he had been doing his job well in the first place, the players would have appreciated just how good a job he was doing without having to be told.

And if they have a really good DM, there is also a particular thrill for the players in thinking that they know it all until the reveal, at which point they realise that they were so very mistaken.

R said...

The only issue I have with blind die rolls is if you're the person rolling them, they are utterly meaningless without context. If you tell me to roll a d6, and I roll a 4, I have no idea whether that is good or bad. I'm not relieved or sad or have any type of reaction until you tell me what it means (if you ever do).

There's a large opportunity for suspense and excitement during the actual die roll. I used to keep my players in the dark, but have since shifted over to telling them information that increases the amount of fun/excitement they (and I) have.

If it's a die-roll to notice something like a statue moving, I won't tell the PCs "roll to detect something suspicious" - I'm more likely to have them roll and keep the details vague - "roll a d6, you want to get a 5 or a 6" just to add the sense of accomplishment to the random die rolling experience - it feels good as a player to roll well.

People like rolling dice - they feel like they're actually doing something - even though from a randomization/statistics/game rules standpoint it doesn't technically matter who rolls the dice for whom.

So while I'm all for keeping my players in the dark and not giving out free information regarding the plot or the monsters they're fighting, I still strive to make the actual die-rolling experience an exciting or suspenseful one ("Make a Dexterity Check - there's a dart flying at you from out of the wall!" etc.)

Chgowiz said...

Alexis - perhaps I'm a bit more simulationist than I thought - I tend to see the world unfolding as the players may notice it - so they get told what would be blindingly obvious, or what fits to their level of observation. For instance, one of my players has always learned to look up. Things keep dropping on his head. I allow that he keeps glancing up every so often and take that into account.

What this does is encourage players to be aware, to be descriptive and to understand that the world is not a 2 dimensional place.

@R - For me, having someone roll without context is OK, because I'll apply the context afterwards. I don't do blind rolls and then just leave it - so my players have learned that if I ask them to do a "roll d6 and tell me what you get" - they will find out what's going on.

If the information is widely available, then I'll announce it after the roll, or I'll take the successful players aside, tell them and then let THEM disseminate the information or activity. The other players are anticipating finding out SOMETHING, because they know that I asked for a roll for a reason.

Maroon said...

When my character opens a door and I ask what she sees, and the referee tells me the room is dark and to make a spot check, my first instinct is not to reach for the dice, it's to tell the ref my character ducks for cover. I've been told by a referee to roll to "notice the gargoyle". He's been a bit more stingy with information after I pointed that out to him.

When I get to be the referee, I intend to follow your advice. Not so much out of narrative concerns, but because I'll expect my players to be devious buggers who'll take any opportunity to exhort some advantage out of me. After all, it's what I'd do.