Thursday, August 12, 2010

Heroic Mime

"Crono's Complaint:" The less the main character talks, the more words are put into his mouth, and therefore the more trouble he gets into through no fault of his own.

I had to think for some time before I get a handle on this cliche and how it would apply to D&D; a number of the cliches on the Grand List defy translation into traditional RPG's ... and eventually I know I'm going to have to skip some of them.  Like the one above. 

I should talk about DMs putting words in character's mouths, but I don't do that, and I don't care about other people doing this.  They will get theirs..  I can't think of any examples from my campaign, except where it happens due to communication misunderstandings, and in those cases I rescind my position and we move on. 

Thus, I'm not going to write about this cliche, and I won't include it in the cliche list.  But I will talk about something obliquely related.

Recently my friend Carl posted on his site Three Hams Inn a common, frustrating dilemma - revolving around the age old problem, how strict should a DM be regarding the players explaining exactly what the intend to do.  In this case, if the players do not say, "What is in the bag," despite actually taking things out of the bag, is the DM responsible for giving them a complete inventory.

To give another example.  Let us say that a player steps out of a door and into a garden, where there is a prominent, fantastically beautiful fountain immediately opposite said door.  And let us say the player says, "What do I see?"  Well, the DM would obviously describe the fountain.  But does the question automatically indicate that the player has steadfastly searched with their vision every possible corner or evident detail of the room?  Should I mention, given the above question, that the player perceives immediately that one of the stones in front of the door's threshold is one half inch lower than every other stone in the entire yard?  Is this without question something the player should be told in response to the above question?

That question carries with it a great many intrinsic problems.  Let us say that there is a tiger in the room, and that it is 90% hidden by foliage.  Do the players see the tiger?  What if it is 80% hidden?  Or 60% hidden?  At what point am I duty-bound as a DM towards declaring that there is, in fact, a tiger in the room.  Obviously, if the tiger attacks, the party should roll surprise.  But the very act of telling the party to make a surprise roll gives away more information than the DM might want to give.  Of course, I could make the surprise roll myself - an accepted D&D practice but hardly one which my players would accept.  At any rate, a failure to be surprised on the player's part does not absolutely indicate that the tiger can be seen.  It is possible to be ready and ignorant at the same time.

But what if the party is being very specific: "We look everywhere in the room.  What do we see?"

Define 'everywhere.'  Are we saying that the party is looking under every leaf?  Has the party reached their hands into the fountain to check the fountain's bottom?  Has the party, by making this statement, effectively stated that they have entered the room?  No.  It's assumed they look 'everywhere' as far as they can from still standing in the doorway.  Which means, in effect, they still only see what they're able to see.

I can stand in a doorway and 'look everywhere' and still fail to figure out where the fuck I have put my glasses.  In fact, I have proven that I can stomp around a room for ten bloody minutes without being able to see my goddamn glasses poised on the edge of the bookshelf where I have put them down eleven fucking minutes ago.  'Looking everywhere,' even while in motion, doesn't generally seem to do a lot of good.  It doesn't get the job done.  It doesn't automatically reveal the aforementioned stone.  No matter how much looking is done, the trap can still work.

But I am drifting from my original intent.  My point is this - no matter what information the party requests, it isn't going to be enough.  When it comes right down to it, asking the question isn't relevant at all towards the actual detail to be gained.  No?  Don't agree?

What if the party member has opened the door and has failed to ask a question?  Am I to assume that the character has his or her eyes closed?  That's obviously not a fair assumption if the player hasn't said, specifically, "I close my eyes before opening the door."  It seems far more reasonable to assume that the character is, at present, eyes open.

In that case, as the DM, I'm basically duty-bound to describe what the player sees.  That is, I am accepting that the player-as-mime is still fundamentally the character that has just opened the door.  If it is a fighter with loads of experience, I would have to be some kind of major dork to take the position that the fighter opens the door, and is immediately mesmerized as if by magic by the fountain in the middle of the roomHorseshit.  Here we have a fighter who is capable of detecting by the blink of an eye a sword rushing towards his gullet and deflecting it away, but he's blind to the huge tiger in the room that is standing in the corner to his right - for no other reason than that the fighter failed to say, "I look to my right - what do I see there?"

Perhaps one reason that I have a very loyal group of players is that I don't play ridiculous headgames with practical, useful information.  Listen.  If the tiger attacks, I'll have the player roll 'surprise.'  And if the player rolls and is surprised, well, the player is going to get a bit mauled.  But the player is going to feel as though he or she was treated fairly ... ie., I'm not launching random tigers - or anything else - at the player without first indicating the fair likelihood that a tiger is going to be noticed in a room.  If said tiger is hidden behind foliage, then I better damn well describe the foliage beforehand, and I better goddamn mention that the foliage is thick, with big green leaves covering enough of the garden that it could conceivably hide something as big as a tiger.  It's not enough to say, "Oh, there are a few plants."

Now, regarding the stone - that's a bit trickier, but it is the kind of thing it takes a thief to notice - based on the thieves 'find and remove traps' ability.  Here the DMG and I part ways, majorly.  I think it is the worst kind of cheap cheesy fuckwadness to insist that players have to say the words, "I check for traps" for them to have any chance at all of finding them.  I prefer a much more reasonable assumption, that any time there is a trap, to roll the thieves' ability automatically and then - when successful - to reveal the trap as having been discovered.  In other words, to answer the statement "I check for traps" with, "You already have, and you see nothing out of the ordinary."  But I know the Gygaxian Prigs out there don't roll that way.

This is a long, long way around the barn, but it sets up the second part of my argument - namely, that players deserve to have certain 'default' settings for their characters.  This brings us to the leading suggestion.  One which I don't like giving, but which I feel deserves to be given.  And oh, don't I know how many DMs feel uncompromising on this point.

Namely, the player is about to do something really, really stupid.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the player plans to jump across a gap that's 10' feet in diameter.  With only a few steps of running room.  Over a 90' drop.

There are a number of circumstances that could have led up to doing something this dumb.  The player is trapped.  The player has no rope.  The player has a very high dexterity, leading to overconfidence.  The player may be unaware that, although I used much of the Unearthed Arcana, I don't use the table for thieving jump distances.  Or the player has possibly decided that my world runs on television physics.  Or, my very, very favorite, the player has played 3rd Edition.

So we can see how this is going to play out.  The player asks a very few questions about the distance, the amount of running room available, whether there are any hand holds on the other side, etc.  The player has argued, vehemently, that 10' isn't that far a distance and that any person ought to be able to jump that far.  In retrospect, it really does sound reasonable.  It's only ten feet, right?

The player backs up, and says, "I dig my feet in, I crouch, and then I rush forward and jump as far as I can, reaching out to grab the other side."

Question 1:  Do I mention to the player that they've failed to remove any of their equipment?  Including the 6 lb. long sword on the scabbard over their shoulder?

That seems fair that I should mention it.  It's kind of hard not to notice the sword when crouched down, or the leather armor, the backpack, the additional daggers, blah blah blah.  I have certainly played with DMs (major assholes) who would have said, "You jump, but because you failed to remove any equipment, you die."  Frankly, I don't want to run that kind of world.

Question 2:  If you're standing on the edge of a cliff, looking at another edge of another cliff, what exactly does ten feet look like?  I mean, if this wasn't the sort of thing you did all the time (like rock-climbers I used to know, one of them dead now), would you be really able to judge what 'too far' was?  Ten feet is dungeon master lingo.  In reality, the description ought to be something like, 'far,' 'awfully far,' and 'too fucking far.'  Should I suggest to the player, beforehand, you're just not going to make it?

Tricky.  There are a lot of people out there who would argue just as vehemently as the player that they could jump ten feet, that they have jumped ten feet and that it was no big deal.  None at all.  Which assumes, of course, that they have any idea what ten feet looks like.  It's funny how when you draw ten feet out on the floor and suggest to someone they should give it a shot, how actually hard it is.  But then there follows the arguments that characters aren't players and that they ought to be able to do anything and so on and so forth.  And there's always the argument that the character doesn't have to jump ten feet - that they just have to jump far enough to grab the other side and hang on.

And here we have the television (or movie) physics in question.

There are three different cases of Kirk grabbing onto an edge to prevent himself from falling in Star Trek (2009).  I thought they overused it a little.  The kid was skidding along the ground, so I can almost buy that one ... but not really, since his body dropping over the edge would wreck whatever purchase his arms and fingers could have gotten in the soft dust of the edge, as depicted - the dust would actually help his body along into the drop.

The second occasion, it's the pure Hollywood cliche, Kirk's thrown to the edge in a fight and his hands just perfectly grab onto something.  Chances are, even if there was something there, his hands wouldn't have the strength to arrest his 200-lb. body in mid-movement ... but this is so common everyone just accepts it.

The third occasion, Kirk manages to fall onto a very smooth surface with a sharp edge and still he's able to arrest his fall, this time with amazing-grip arms.  I suppose you'd have to argue that he's getting so much practice in the film that it's nothing for him now to defy physics.

(Of course, you know I love the film)

It's hard to explain to people that mass has certain properties that are inherent - and one of those properties is called the conservation of energy.  This is why, if you leap at a cliff and expect to just grab on with your arms and stop, you're going to be very surprised - because your body is going to bounce off that cliff just like a billiard ball from a pool bumper.  You're going to mash up against the cliff, and then the energy that you expended to get there is going to move partially into the rock, but mostly back into the liquidy, fluidy creature that is you, bouncing you back inot the air - no matter how wonderfully dexterous is your character.

But can you explain this to some people?  No.  No, you really can't, and you will find yourself as DM pedantically trying to explain the simplest bits of reality to some people who will insist a hundred times that you're being a deliberately cruel shithead.  That's why I don't like the whole, "You didn't think of this so you die" methodology.  I really prefer the "I warned you twice and you insisted on doing it anyway like a moron so you die" policy.  It tends to get me in good with the other players, I get to look reasonably compassionate and on the whole the game is better for it.

Where I draw the line, however, is difficult.  I've been doing this for a long time and I have a sort of self-correcting pattern where if I realize I'm being blatantly unfair, I will change my plans mid-stream before implementing them ... ie., I forgot to mention the foliage in the garden, so now there's no tiger, either: we'll put the tiger in a cage under the garden and that will be the trap, good enough ...

Yes, I really do think in the third person pronoun when I do think at all.

It helps to have a sense of fairness, a strong and powerful commitment to the GOLDEN RULE, which largely gets ignored by DMs, and a healthy sense that while puzzle-solving is a big component of the game, we're not talking strict puzzle-mechanics like crosswords or jigsaws - we mean flowing, abstract puzzle problems, the kind to be found in strategy, tactics, deception, persuasiveness and the implementation of duty.

Hm.  Duty.  Good post topic.


Carl said...

I think that in Star Trek, if young Kirk had stood up from his skid towards the quarry and displayed the iconic torn shirt, I could have forgiven every other flaw in the movie. As it is, I still loved that movie, but oh, for just one torn shirt.

The Hex Master said...

I think transparent rule mechanics are good ways of handling situations like these. Since you've chunked out the jumping table you might want to replace it with a difficulty over distance table which allows for the possibly of failure for even short jumps in stressful situations. In the case of the impossible jump, I'd say, "The far side of the gap looks just out of reach. If you want to attempt the jump roll a d20 plus the maximum dex mod allowed by your armor type. You need to beat a 30." I've still had players push forward and commit to such folly and have slept soundly after their character met their deserved fate.

4e has a decent mechanic for perception checks which you might find adaptable to your game. Characters have fixed (based on ability, level, etc. similar to "taking 10" in 2e/3e) passive perception scores which act as their default ability to notice things. The DM sets a difficultly level for each detail worthy of note. Characters with passive perception scores higher than the detail's difficult score successfully spot the detail. Players who state their characters are actively searching may make an active check using a regular skill roll which has the possibility of exceeding their passive score.

An interesting result of this mechanic is that the DM knows in advance which player will notice which details assuming the players are not actively searching.

In the case of the hidden creatures like your Tiger, an opposed roll mechanism is used. The players passive perception is compared to the Tiger's stealth role. (4e Tigers do have the stealth skill and are quite good at it.) I find this system works well and helps keep me in check.

Zzarchov said...

In terms of traps I make "Detect Traps" a saving throw. Everyone can announce how they are checking for traps, but a mere second before setting off a trap..a thief can roll detect traps and pause at the last second. Think where indiana jones pulls his soon to be betrayer of a henchmen back at the last second from stepping on a pressure plate.

I also always ask players "Movie physics or real physics...because if you choose movie physics that is going to make it very hard for you to mulch some opponent with a dastardly trap or sneak up on the villain without being subject to a horrid monologue". I do that from the get go so everyone is on the same page.

The most frustration I find isn't from how the rules work, as from different opinions on the subject that come up in the time of crisis.

Anonymous said...

considering the jump off the ledge (or any similar situation), the player needs to know what his chances are (the character would probably know them, even if the player is considering movie-physics). if his chances are crap and he still goes for it... not the dm's fault.

while it breaks immersion digging out a rulebook and looking up the jumping rules it solves any problems either player or dm could have with the situation (unless the rules are crap ;)).

so your duty as gm is to give the players the tools to properly evaluate their actions. that might mean rules, a detailed description of a situation or maybe a simple "are you sure you want to do that?".

dealing with hidden things should be done with dice i guess. most rulesets have mechanics for that, so why not use them? if the rules you use don't make some up. if a tiger is 90% hidden beneath some foliage they better get a good roll. obviously any actions/statements/special rules of the party need to be taken into account.

My point is this - no matter what information the party requests, it isn't going to be enough.

which is a good thing. the game is boring if you have all the info.

Carl said...

I support telling the player what their character's chances are for completing an action. I don't view this as metagaming, but rather risk assessment. What I don't support is giving the player information that would be outside their character's ability to know. Obvious information (like Alexis' example of the tiger in the garden) should be available, but if a character is especially dumb or stupid, they may not even notice the thick foliage, per se, being completely enthralled by the pretty fountain. Splashy-splashy!

Using a character's ability scores helps a lot with these situations. Specifically, using Intelligence and Wisdom to guide the description. For purposes of my argument, I'm going to define Intelligence as knowing whether or not you could succeed, and Wisdom as knowing whether or not you should attempt whatever you're doing.

If a character has a low Int, then when they evaluate their chances of succeeding, they have a low potential of getting an accurate result. "Can I make this jump?" I'll roll some dice to determine if this is the day the blind squirrel finds a nut or not. The higher the Int, the more likely they'll get the right answer.

Evaluating their Wisdom is a little trickier. A smart character with a low Wis (i.e. poor impulse control) may well know that such a leap is impossible, but may be determined to try it anyway. How to resolve this? How do you get the player to step away from their desire to keep their character alive but to play their ability scores within reason?

I think the answer for my game lies in an amalgamation of the scores. A smart/wise index number would be useful here. If someone is smart but has poor impulse control, that would lower their chances of getting a correct judgement of their chances of completing the leap. Same deal with high Wis, low Int -- they may know better, but be too stupid to realize that a 12-foot standing broad jump is nearly impossible.

This plays out with almost no discernible difference to the player. "Can I make the leap?" is still answered with "You think so," or "Probably not."

For the DM, there's a bit more going on behind the scenes, but I think this adds depth to situations where the outcome is uncertain, but evaluable by the character instead of complexity by implementing a more detailed task resolution system.

Silver-tongued Bae'qeshel said...

As a former freerunner, I would argue the point that the jump and grab resulting in bouncing off of the cliff very much depends on your technique. Using the feet and legs to absorb the energy makes it possible to make such a jump, and to transfer your forward motion into upward motion, using only the energy stored in the natural spring that is the amazing structure we call the leg. My skill at doing such is represented in 2nd Ed with a NWP, and in 3.x with ranks in the Jump skill, or alternately represented by being a class skill in 3.x. The point still remains however that a jump and hang is one of the simple fundamentals in free-running. :)

Steve Lalanne said...

The passive skill checks of D&D4E mentioned above are a great way to handle many of these problems; I have adapted it into my own game rules (Mailed Fist).

More ambiguous game situations and some answers:

Does the DM assume the PCs stop searching for secret doors once they've found the first one in the room? An answer: the DM should ascertain as early as possible how the party conducts their searches, but without giving away why he wants to know.

When they search for hidden trapdoors, does the DM assume they're also checking the ceiling? An answer: the DM asks for details of their search, such as, "where do you look?" He then assumes the same procedure for future searches.

When looking into an unexplored room, do the party members look at the ceiling? An answer: the DM assesses (perhaps using passive checks) how easy it would be to spot the thing attached to the ceiling and judges whether to incorporate it into his general description of the room. If the thing is not in plain sight, and the PCs aren't explicit about where they look, dice are used. On the other hand, the DM should mention if the ceiling is high and/or in shadow, or if there are rafters or stalactites above; wary players can then direct their attention accordingly.

When handling a mysterious item, does the PC remove his gloves? An answer: describe the item under the explicit assumption that the gloves remain worn. This allows the player to react unambiguously. Example: "you can't feel the item's texture very well through your gloves," or, "it's awkward handling the wine glass while wearing gauntlets" (the latter is either a giveaway if the glass is trapped or a red herring otherwise). The player may then tell the DM his PC is removing his gloves. Either way, the ambiguity is eliminated, and players become aware of the importance of volunteering such details and what the DM assumes. Also, a gauntlet-wearing character is more likely to drop an item or inadvertently crush/mangle something delicate.

Where are the party members standing when they open a given door? An answer: have the players establish where they are standing when the first dungeon door is opened, and tell the players that you will assume this procedure from then on--unless instructed otherwise. This is much like handling marching order.

A lot of these come down to the PCs establishing default or assumed behaviour. The DM can play with this to avoid the process of dungeon-exploration becoming mechanical.

Steve Lalanne said...

"An answer: the DM should ascertain as early as possible how the party conducts their searches, but without giving away why he wants to know."

Here's a way to go about this if you're using lead/plastic figures (or counters, etc.) and scale floorplans. It's advisable to do this the first time the party is searching for secret doors (when it is unlikely that there is more than one to be found), in order to establish a default routine--if possible. When the players announce they're searching for secret doors (as veterans, my players just slur the words as "we checker seeker doors"), ask them to position their lead figures on the floorplans according to where they begin the search and to tell you the direction in which they search (e.g., Guygaks starts to the left of the main entrance and proceeds clockwise around the walls of the room; Adolphus starts in the far left corner and works counterclockwise, etc.). The DM uses dice to determine which character finds which door and can easily establish where each character is positioned when the first door is found. He then moves the figures to where they'd be standing at this moment and announces that a secret door has been found. The players won't know why the DM is doing this; the DM can throw them off by pretending to be interested in their respective positions for other reasons (such as where they are standing when/if the first character opens the newly-discovered door because of something that might happen when the door is opened). If this is too much of a giveway, he can inform the finding PC of the new door, ask what the PC is going to do about it, and then move the figures to their new search positions, waiting to see what the players do (i.e., continue searching or investigate the door).