Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What They Know vs. What They Don't Know

From the 10,000 word post:

"Complete information can be defined within the game format as all the information that is necessary for a player to make an informed decision ... with the understanding that if harm arises from that decision, it is not because the DM failed to tell the player something the player would certainly know about in that moment."

I recently had a situation come up in which the online party decided to storm the front gates of a castle, in order to stop the lord of that castle from continuing an evil ritual within its walls.  The party comprised of a 4th level, a 3rd level and two 1st levels.  To obtain control over the castle gates, they had to overcome 12 guards.

How much information was necessary in this circumstance?  To begin with, the players are entitled to what they can see, hear, smell and so on - in effect, what their five senses tell them.  Said information would be the location of the guards, their general equipment and the kind of activity in which they are employed: where they are, what they have, what they're doing. 

The players have, presumably, learned something about what the guards are protecting.  And the players may have access to information gained through magical means.

What the players are not entitled to includes what the guards are thinking; nor does it include anything about their motivation, nor does it include anything about how strong or dextrous the guards are, or how many hit points they have, etc.

It was suggested to me (abusively) that as a DM I was duty-bound to provide clues to the strength of the guards.  Certainly, if any of these guards is of high level, he or she should be in plate mail.  They should carry ornately carved weapons.  They should be tough-looking and huge.

Be careful of these kind of tropes.  They exist throughout prefabricated RPG literature, and represent two-dimensionalism in writing and game design.  There are reasons not to wear plate mail, like mobility and speed; the guard may be multi-classed; the guard may have a temporary skin disease which precludes the wearing of plate.  The guard may simply not like plate metal.

Not all persons of strength and power wish to draw attention to themselves with outward expressions of wealth and status, such as carrying weapons of a fabulous nature, or bedecking themselves with jewels, or wearing expensive clothes while carrying forward ordinary mundane duties.  Many party players keep the same weapons level after level; some players develop an sentimental affection for the sword they carried through this campaign or which they used to slaughter such-and-such a monster.  Nor are all magical weapons necessarily remarkable to look at; there are benefits to having a +4 sword that looks ordinary, with a worn handle.

Not every "tough-looking" soldier is high level; some are simply soldiers who have eaten a lot of poor grub and lived a long twenty years in the service of their lord.  Virtually every guardsman is tough-looking.  And why should a guard necessarily be "huge"?  History isn't filled with short, wiry men who could kick your ass from here to Mars if they wanted?

Players are going to try and trap you into giving them more information than they are entitled to have - through tropes like these, or with questions to which they could not possibly know the answer.  Few are the nights where I run a campaign where a player does not ask me something like, "What is the guard want?"  As a dungeon master, you're not responsible for conveying what the guard wants; the players are only entitled to what the guard says.  The guard's motivations, or background, or hit points or level are not things the players are able to glean with the use of their senses, SO DON'T TELL THEM.

Remember that momentum is always the child of tension, and that tension is always created by what the party does not know.  Of course the party will want to know these things; knowledge is power, and the more power the party has, the safer they are.  The less they know, on the other hand, the less power they have, and the less they feel safe.  Not feeling safe creates a strong, ambiguous feeling in the gut that makes the body uncomfortable and the player anxious.  Do not let your party get comfortable.  Comfort murders momentum.  Terror provides it.

Remember also that the party will learn all they need to know in due time.  They will eventually, through fighting the 7th level fighter, that the fighter is 7th level.  True, it may be too late for them.  It may result in their deaths.  But that will only instigate in your player's mind a layer of terror that will be there for you to exploit once they've rolled up a new character and are set to tackle the next instance.

Finally, remember that none of this begins the subject of disinformation, in which what the player's senses betray the player into thinking they are getting information they're actually not getting.  Disinformation is a nasty part of the game, and is sure to make your players upset, distrustful, addled and prone to overreaction and extreme cautiousness.

Ain't it fun?


Butch said...

I'm not complaining about that particular situation -- it was a foolhardy charge, regardless of the level of opposition, but one we felt like we had to make -- but I disagree with that approach.

Why not just have a random spot on the floor, looking like every other spot in the room, be a lethal trap? Wouldn't that be "instigating terror", too? Wouldn't that be realistic?

Wouldn't it also be bullshit?

I want clues. I want to be able to puzzle things out. Or at least have an idea of what I'm getting into.

Wouldn't you hate a mystery novel if the guy who did it was introduced just five pages from the end?

I don't think this is true:

Remember that momentum is always the child of tension, and that tension is always created by what the party does not know.

Walking into a room and abruptly dying does not create tension, even among the survivors. It creates a sense of capriciousness.

My two cents, anyway.

Alexis said...

It really depends on what you consider a "clue," doesn't it?

Of course a random spot that looks like every other spot might be a trap. There's no point in creating a trap that stands out like a sore thumb, at least to the lay person - and we know that there are experts about such things, and we know the ability of experts to identify such traps - right down to the percentage of success they expect to have.

You must concede that some of the rationale for charging the gate was created by far too many prefabricated, purchaseable materials that present every group of guards at the front of a castle as weak collections of zero levels - just as Hollywood guards are most always useless mooks standing around waiting to be knocked senseless by the hero.

I happen to not buy into this. I happen to think that if you, as a castle owner, don't want the doings inside your castle to be messed with, you'll put a bloody dangerous guard in front of the gate. The townspeople, the NPCs, are going to know he's a bloody dangerous guard, because all guards look scary. ONLY a player, trained by poor adventure module writing, will think a guard isn't dangerous.

Insulted a policeman to his face lately? Of course not. Is it in the movies all the time? Yes.

So in fact the clues are everywhere - IF YOU WILL ONLY SEE THEM. That they are not the clues players have been preprogrammed to see is not my problem.

Butch said...

True enough. I have no problem with subtle clues, red herrings, trope subversions and the like... I prefer it, actually. (And from you, I expect nothing less!)

I'm just saying I always prefer, even if I'm surprised, to be able to look back and say, "Ah... now I understand why all those breadcrumbs were on the floor."

Scarbrow said...

I understand your reasoning, Alexis, and for the most part I agree.

However, I've also been subject to Hollywood fantasy. All gamers have. The only way a standard group of players would know to stop before they storm a castle would be to severely punish them for trying, maybe with character death. I understand that may be necessary so they will think it twice the next time (although I've always thought that character death is always too harsh a punishment), but then, the next time they face a guard, how can I reasonably expect they'll face it and charge, while they know they might be risking their very lives? Yes, that would build tremendous tension, for only when really, really sure that the prize is worth their lives will they risk them, but otherwise, wouldn't raising the stakes so much deter the common player from taking risks?

As I'm writing this, I'm realizing I want to have that kind of player on my table. The kind that will take the risk even knowing what it's at stake. But when I put myself in the position of that player, I believe the only reason I would ever do that would be carelessness. After all, in real life, I wouldn't take serious risks without a way to assess them. Why should I do otherwise with my character, who I've played long enough to get attached to?

I still think there should be a reasonable way to provide your players with a risk assessment without giving them the exact difficulty (in levels, or in Challenge Rating for 3.0 users). Or else, a reasonable chance to escape after they've discovered the difficulty of the encounter the hard way. Do you have any tips?

Alexis said...


I've never been a huge fan of the "kill the party, that'll larn 'em" approach to dungeon mastering. Yes, it happens. Yes, sometimes that's what it takes. But if there's a way to avoid it, I will.

Mostly, if the party is really in trouble, I'll do what I can to send help; a hundred houseservants wielding brooms was my plan for the party that rushed the castle gate. They may have not stopped the guards - but they would have given a smart party time to back off, particularly if a standoff between the guards and the house servants stopped the fighting for a few rounds.

Regarding the player's willingness to take risks. To succeed, the potential reward must match the potential risk; I'm not saying you must give artifacts to parties if they raid an orc nest, but if you dangle something suitable shiny and mollifying in front of a party, they'll bite even if it means getting a hook in their mouths.

Anonymous said...

For instance,

So, at my company there’s a VP named Archie Bishop. Archie has a handful of directors, one of which is my boss’s boss, Mary. Mary, in turn, has mooks beneath her… one of which being Marty, my boss. Marty can always rely on me, James C., to get a job done and I, in turn, have a mook or two that I can always count on in a pinch.

So one day Archie Bishop has got Mary in his his office and he says, “You know Mary, I’m really going to need some guards on that front door while I’m raising the dead in Arnsberg. Mary, being no fool, assures Archie it will happen.

But Mary knows that during the dead-raising vigil she’ll be in France rendezvousing with the nobles her boss has crafted an alliance with to bring down the houses of Nassau etcetera, so she in turn calls Marty on his blackberry, to let him know that his department is in charge of guarding the door.

Of course, Marty reflects, Mary has forgotten that he’s currently in Calenburg assassinating Archie’s other political rivals so he turns to me, James C.

“James C., the big boss is working up some foul mojo on Friday night and you need to see that the door is guarded. This is important stuff, please see that it is done.” So me, being a good employee of Mr. Bishop’s, ensures that my #1 mook Manfred is out there with our best door-guarding subcontractors. Sure, I’ll keep an eye on things from the parapets, to make sure nobody’s slacking off... but then there’s that scullery maid who has been flashing me the bedroom eyes, and the dead-raising vigil is a perfect time to slip away for a dalliance, and the rank of mid-level manager in Archie Bishop’s Evil Incorporated must have some benefits, should it not…