Friday, December 28, 2012

Conscience To Play With

It's Christmas end and I'm not feeling well, which is typical for this time of year and is also one of my least favorite things.  Thankfully, I'm not trying to work sick, at least.  Instead, I can spend my holidays coughing up a lung.

So, briefly, this conversation came up before Christmas, as a bunch of us were sitting around and talking about D&D.  I advanced the question, how far should I go towards giving advice to players, given that it is a game that is a) played for fun; and b) played for its challenge.

The first stance is the hard line:

No matter what the player says, that's what the player does.  The DM says nothing.  Nothing whatsoever.  Give no hints, no warnings, no suggestions, etc.  Do not even argue that the player's intelligence or wisdom would suggest that the mage, cleric, monk and so on would know better.  If the character dies, it dies.  Tough luck.

I've never been comfortable with this.  I know for a lot of people, this is the heart of the game; the brutal, unrestricted challenge of live or die based on nothing but your instincts and insight.  If the player wants to win, he or she must play WELL ... or else what's the sense anyway?

Fair enough - that is, if you're a good player.  If you've been at this a long time; if you're very aware of all the rules and angles and options you can play.  If you're not that good, well, too bad.  Lose fifty or sixty characters, and you'll get your mind right, eh?  "That's how I did it ... these young noobs today, they expect the first character they run to live, can you believe it?"

Part of my bigger problem is that I'm no noob myself, and I hold a lot more cards than the players.  I know there's a dangerous pair of 7th level, 18 dex gnomish bowman waiting behind that tree, and that if the party tries the obvious thing - crossing the bridge in broad daylight - I'm going to pick them off.  Is it fair?  What's fair.  That level and that dexterity are rare, and the party is more likely to think I'm lucky than that I'm hitting every time because these guys can really shoot.  Given the tendency of parties not to quit and seek shelter (run away), there's a really good chance I'm going to kill someone.  Was that because they made the 'wrong decision?'  Weren't they trained to make the wrong decision?  I mean, by playing up to that time where I've never actually put that kind of talent against them?

Note, I don't say "amount."  I say "kind."  As in, two humanoids are almost never especially dangerous.  Over and over, as you level, two humanoids are almost always more or less taken by a party of six or eight.  What I'm saying is, after a lifetime of being the sheriff of a shit-hole in Washington State, is it fair to throw Rambo against the party?  Or a pair of Rambos.

Sure, say some.  Whatever happens, happens.

Yes, but isn't it true that I decided on this?  I created the scenario, I set it up, and I duped the party into thinking it would all happen like it always does ... the party takes a few hits, crosses the bridge and kills the gnomes.  They miss the trap in the middle of the bridge that makes it fall apart, they miss the dimension door  nine tenths of the way across that plops them back into the center of the bridge, they miss the two hippogriffs that take flight and attack the party on the bridge, they miss the tiny glyph of warding that has a chance of paralyzing everyone, they miss that the ground that appears to be but thirty feet under the bridge is an illusion and that its actually a 500 foot gorge and they miss that the two gnomes are actually two titans who are in disguise.

All I'm saying is that IF the only chance the players have is that they correctly roll to check for traps and disbelief and saving throws and so on, sooner or later, no matter how good a players they are, bad luck is going to get them.  Chances are, a lot sooner than later.

But maybe that's not convincing enough.  Maybe there are players who know that and like it and heck, they're just trying to play the odds until they run out.  Okay, let's take that as a given.

Have I, as a DM, truly conveyed the right emotion here?

Look.  You're on this side of the bridge.  The center of the bridge is 30 feet above the ground, strung between two fifty foot cliffs.  The bottom appears to be a dry river bed.  There are some scrubby oak trees on the other side, about 150 feet away.  The bridge looks pretty rickety ... the party is going to move half speed while crossing it.

Okay, now some smart guys are going to figure, "half-speed."  Why would the DM say that?  "There's something wrong with this bridge, fellas," someone says.  Good enough.  I want them to be worried.  I want them thinking about their environment.  I want them picturing making their way across, the bridge shaking as they go.  If they do start across, I'll remember to mention that they probably shouldn't all go at the same time - or at least to stagger themselves, and not to march in step, since that tends to make a bridge rock more.  Most of all, I want them thinking, THIS IS DANGEROUS.

And still, at the same time, I can't let them know it is, can I?  Heck, any party that travels through a mountainous region is going to come across bridges like this all the time.  They can't see any danger, can they?  Of course not.  Does the thief see any problems?  No, not from here.  Does the party have detect magic?  Sure, but I knew that, so there is no actual magic on the bridge, or below the bridge (I was fooling with all that stuff about illusions and so on before).  Do they see anything special?  Of course not!  And naturally, my face is open, friendly, half-grinning as the party makes a bunch of ridiculous preparations.  "Okay," I say, again and again, as they fuel themselves up for this oh-so-dangerous bridge.

Now, are there two gnomes on the other side?  It's up to me, isn't it?  How many bridges do I have to describe before I catch this party failing to make preparations?  How long is it before having made preparations and blown their protective spells crossing bridges that I catch them with their pants down three hours later?

How long can I make them chase their shadows and prep for things for no good purpose, so they don't have those things available later on?  Forever.  And no matter how they prep, no matter how many hit points they have or spells they can throw, in every situation like this, I can have something step out from those trees ahead that they just won't be able to handle.

Either I am perpetually forced to show the party my hand, like a bad detective novel, where the description of everything is so obvious the party knows, yes, here is where I get my spells ready ... or I'm going to catch the party with their pants down just because I'm clever enough to do it.  Can the gentle reader understand what I am saying?  Either I am forced to play bad, cheesy situations which gives the party all the clues they need to not die, or I am forced to play guaranteed party-equal encounters where there's at least a 50/50 chance the party will live.  Both ways, its a pretty crummy game.

No, haven't got it yet?  If I want to have two deadly gnomes across the bridge for the party to fight, to play the "no suggestions" to player's action method of gaming, I have to leave trails of bread crumbs everywhere, to play "fair."  I have to have some old man warn the party about the two gnomes (gawd, the cliche!).  I have to dress the gnomes like Christmas Trees so the party knows they're dangerous (they can't be dressed like peasants, they'd be wearing expensive armor and hand crafted weapons, blah blah blah).  I have to go out of my way to give the party every chance of knowing that these two gnomes are NOT like any other gnomes they ever saw, right?  Or else, I'm doing nothing more than fucking the party, period.  I made the gnomes, I made them party killers, I created the situation, etc.; if I don't give clues, even if they wouldn't be there except that this is a game, then I'm a party-fucker.

Well, what's wrong with that?  It is a game, right?

Does it have to be this same crappy cliched bullshit that makes every adventure like a bad Republic Serial from the 30's?  I hope not.  Because that Rambo shit happens every day.  You're just beatin' up another bum you've found on your city streets.  It's just another couple of gnomes with short bows.  No big deal.  "No sweat, guys, I'll take these two by myself."

And after I've killed the cocky fighter this way, what do I say to the rest of the party?  "Oh well, fellas, no sweat.  We're all having fun, right?"

Sounds to me like I would be - if I were the sort of prickish DM that pounded my pud over things like this.

So what would I do?  When the cocky fighter said he was crossing the bridge, alone, I would say, "Are you sure?"

I think this is fair.  I think its part of my responsibility to point out that all may not be as it appears.  I also think it's my responsibility to add that the fighter might think of changing out of his plate mail, if he doesn't want to get across the bridge next week.  And to turn to the other party members and say, "Are you just going to let him go out by himself?"
Because I think that's how consciences work.  It's easy for four players sitting around a table to let a fifth player sitting around the same table to do something stupid.  It would be harder if they all really were on the edge of a cliff, by a rickety bridge, watching someone they'd been with for months start out on his own.  And I want it in the party's heads that their characters are doing this ... and so if, as DM, I can throw a little guilt into the mix, by jeezus and elvis I will.

And finally, I'm going to say a couple of times, "I don't know ... it sure is a looooong way across that bridge."  With facial expressions and so on to match, as if to say, "What, are you fuggin' nuts?"

This is my particular way of sitting an old man at the front of the bridge to tell the party about the bad gnomes.  I'm sorry if it doesn't seem better; or if it seems worse ... but it gives me one hell of a lot more play on playing the party's emotions, the situation, their impressions and in general their reactions to things.  Hell, the other way, the stuffy DM says nothing way, gives me jack shit nothing to play with.

That would just make me want to kill parties.


  1. Or you could just have the players do whatever is natural to the characters until something out of the ordinary happens... like the first shot. Or if someone DOES spot a gnome behind a tree...

    But then we get into the problem of a DM assuming...

  2. I think fairness is the one thing a DM should be capable of. And it doesn't need that old man to warn the players. In your example with the gnomes it's all about probability. Those gnomes will influence travel on that road and this is information that could be gathered (tracks, stories in the last inn on the road because someone got away, etc.). Futhermore, this bridge - being crucial for the ambush - might show signs of combat. How likely is it that those gnomes encountered and attacked a magic-user (or a group with a m-u) before? What typical signs might that have left behind? Are they covered? How? Depending on the number of battles on and around that bridge, even an excellent cover-up might leave some hints. Anyway, all I'm trying to say is that there might be more than enough evidence for those gnomes being around without the need for a DM to go out of his way to warn the players. Nothing comes out of nowhere or without leaving a footprint in the world. If a DM gives the hints and the players can't or won't connect the dots, a kill might be justified. But even then there might be one or more ways to get out of a situation like this. Plus: if the players get the feeling they are treated fair and had more than one chance to realize what's happening around them, they won't hold it against the DM if they die (it is crucial for players to know that it is possible to "beat the game"...).

  3. I don't quite follow why you'd set up an encounter like this to begin with. It might just be how I roll as a DM, but if there was a bridge guarded by two sharpshooter gnomes, there might be rumors about it. Or maybe there are some arrows stuck in the bridge. And why are the gnomes guarding the bridge? Is there treasure on the other side? If so, the players should probably figure out that there's going to be someone guarding the treasure.

    What I'm trying to get across is that I think there are ways of setting up the campaign such that your premise, characters happening across a bridge guarded by two deadly gnomes with no connection to anything else, just doesn't happen.

  4. I don't hear logic here. I hear a host of assumptions, beginning with the gnomes camping out - that they couldn't just be wandering along, like the party. I hear two people who want the world to fit into a neat little box.

    "... characters happening across a bridge guarded by two deadly gnomes with no connection to anything else, just doesn't happen.

    In what universe?

  5. The problem is, how often do people have hints they're going to get mugged?

    In the DnD world, the 'bad part of town' aside from the ones inside an actual town, is everywhere outside town.

    Oh and easily two gnomes like that could be simple bandits looting the leftovers.

  6. As far as logic goes, the example with the gnomes doesn't allow for more than inductive reasoning. The sense of probability a DM is able to achieve in a game gives him room to bring a random encounter like that, even without the old man warning them, but not without the main premise that information about the characters surroundings might be gathered to some effect.

    And I certainly wouldn't do it to teach them a lesson and say "Well, shit happens, look at that shooting the other day...". But that's just me being nice.

  7. I get your point, JD. But don't you see, this example besides ... if this is your argument for every event that happens in your world, then you ARE limited in the scope of your game to cheap pulp fiction plots.

    If you know there's a "point," then the players know it too. And there goes the TERROR that comes from not knowing. People ask, how do you build terror into a D&D game. How do you get the blood racing, the player sweating?

    By not insisting that "effect" is a guarantee. There is nothing so undermining to confidence than the knowledge that death may not only come without warning ... it may come without purpose, too.

    You say that's unfair. I say the game is about life, not pulp fiction. And life is not always fair. Oddbit's point is perfectly valid. 2 bandits. 7th level. With the sort of stats the party would have. Picking a perfectly fair opportunity to use their bows.

    It is not in the least unlikely.

    But that's the philosophical difference between you and I ... the same difference that has existed between writers for two hundred years. Do you convey a story? Or do you convey life?

  8. I guess we are all limited in the scope of our games somehow. Though I would argue that even in pulp fiction beauty and truth can be found and have a place. Maybe it is just a matter of capability, that I don't know. But the argument is on 2 levels: one is about characters interacting with a world, the second about players feeling what's happening. Two completely different animals. You address the second and I think you are right with your assessment. The terror comes from not knowing and every trick you can muster to achieve this with players is legit. Character interaction, on the other hand, is about plausibility, to name the least, and the amount of involvement (or interest) you can inspire in your players (even with random events). This is were stories get important, in my opinion. It's not about why something is happening, but about what story is told after it happened. And just like in real life, it's what you make of it. As a DM you have the opportunity to connect those levels (or maybe even the obligation). Like with the shooting, we are recipient of a story and the level of engagement is totally dependent on distance and agenda.

  9. Your story, or theirs? And if theirs, where is your obligation?

    Those words sound good, but to me they conceal a miasma of ethical conceit. We really do look at this very differently.

  10. True that. I like "miasma of ethical conceit", although it's beyond the point.

    I tend to believe the story is "ours" and the obligation, if that word applies (we talk about a game after all), for a DM is to make the game click. Ideally, again, my opinion, the DM is neutral, not giving any ethical or otherwise intended inclination whatsoever. Every event, random or not, is an opportunity. It will be used. The difficulty is to use it without an agenda and get a story out of it nonetheless (maybe like an interpretation linked to a common denominator?).

    To claim objectivity in order to project some kind of superiority might work, but in the end that's just ONE idea how the world works and one agenda to force upon players.

    So if anything, there should be a taoist element to any approach of DMing.

    I'm also fine with agreeing to disagree...

  11. I am never fine with agreeing to disagree.

    However, you make your point fairly and I rescind my previous statement.

  12. Thanks! This really got me thinking about how I prefer to DM a game and might be worth thinking about it some more. I appreciate that and the fine argument.


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