Friday, December 26, 2014

The Snowden Effect

This is the third post of a trio.  The first is The Dungeon's Front Door.

Many DMs - particularly those with little experience, who require time to learn that the methodology is not a virtue - fall into the trap of believing that Newton's Third Law of motion ought to apply to role-playing games.  I made this mistake myself, and often, before time and wisdom supplanted the habit.  Every action should not have an equal and opposite reaction, yet no doubt we will always encounter DMs who stubbornly cling to the maxim.

On the surface, it looks very reasonable.  Player actions, it is presumed, deserve consequences.  If players blindly kill people, justice or some other principle should step in and punish the player for acting in a clumsy and stupid manner - particularly if the player has committed the crime in plain view, in the middle of a town full of guards, where the player is a foreigner without allies. It seems proper that punishment should follow crime like night follows day.

In fairness, this is true.  The trouble with Newton's Law of Role-playing - oh, and I'm sorry I haven't written the law out clearly and precisely - is that so often it IS a reliable, responsible way to run the game.  Stupid player behaviour must compel consequences . . . the problem lies in the definition of "stupid player behaviour," for all too often this is subject to a very vague interpretation by the DM, the one person who knows every aspect of every consequence that can potentially occur.  Substantially, from the DM's perspective, every action that doesn't follow heel-and-toe in the DM's belief system can absolutely be tagged 'stupid.'

Players, however, are not invested with the DM's knowledge - and what looks stupid to the DM, the source that invokes Newton's Law, can very much look quite the reasonable action to the player.  If the DM doesn't possess the empathy to understand this - and most new DMs do not - then a campaign will quickly become the invocation of Newton's Law in every circumstance.

Here I'll print Newton's third law, as played in far too many RPGs:  For every player action, there is an equal and opposite non-player reaction.

The error lies in the word 'every.'  It does not take long for a party to recognize this behaviour in a DM, nor to begin looking over their shoulders waiting for the trap that is due to spring when the DM decides to ultimately blindside them.  We might call this paranoia among players "the Snowden Effect" - since it results from a party, doing the best they can with the information they have, to anticipate the rain of shit that is due to result from the DM deciding what the appropriate 'consequences' are.

Strangely, however, there is a context in which Newton's Law of RPGs does not apply - that being, inside a dungeon.

Oh, this doesn't say that dungeons aren't full of consequences.  Step on the crack, break your paladin's back, that sort of thing.  However, dungeons are also filled with possibilities that have no consequence whatsoever . . . a point to which I have alluded, without explanation, for two posts now.  In a dungeon, my party and I may quite reasonably come across a humanoid stronghold, enter it, kill every being alive within, women and children included, pillage, burn and ultimately escape without any negative consequence befalling the party whatsoever - because what happens in a dungeon in role-playing stays in the dungeon.

Granted, we've had to overcome the consequence of waking the humanoids up, of having to fight them in their scores, of having to risk every trap and so on - but there's no one to hire an assassin to compensate for the squidgy spawn I smashed with my mace, nor a vendetta to follow the mass execution that has just made me and my party rich.  In a dungeon, the consequences are reasonable, predictable - and best of all, finite.  Eventually, with the cleaning out of the dungeon, the last consequence is put to bed.

Not so in the outside world.  Out there, DMs willfully and mercilessly ensure that every possible consequence that can be minutely justified will be conjured and used to haunt the party into the grave.  There is no last consequence outside the grave.

Consider again the four principles with which I ended the last post.

In truth, an imminent threat (point d) can exist anywhere.  The character can be sitting on a river bank, resting in the middle of the day, chewing a carrot and some of the jerky the party has brought along for provisions, when a badger can emerge from the verge inches away, only to go berserk upon the character's toes.  This sort of thing happens all the time.  No one is ever truly 'safe' - that being the sort of thing emphasized by the 'wandering monster.'

The world outside the dungeon can of course serve to upgrade the character (point c).  Hunting big mammals, clubbing to death some fellow as he emerges from a tavern and making off with his money, breaking into the guardhouse on the edge of town, looting the paybox and then dropping down the outside of the walls to safety, this sort of activity can be planned and brought to fruition without much trouble.  A player doesn't actually need a dungeon to upgrade their character.

Nor are narrow, cramped settings (point a) to be found only in dungeons.  Narrow settings exist whenever the player finds that only a few choices (perhaps two or three) are practical. It doesn't matter that these choices are limited by the underground or by circumstances - players will naturally seize upon what action seems best without those actions needing to be artificially limited by walls, doors and darkness.

The only real separation between the two sides of the Dungeon's front door is the matter of consequence.  It's here that I return to the argument with which I ended the last post.  You don't need a 'dungeon' to produce the positive effects of the dungeon.  What's needed is a reasonable and rational approach to consequences - when they apply and IF they apply.

Without a doubt, many DMs need to back off.  They need to accept that occasionally it's fine if the players overcome the guards in the guardhouse, grab the lock box and get away scot free without ever being found or brought to justice.  The DM arguing that this is unacceptable will have trouble explaining how this is fundamentally different that breaching a traditional dungeon, killing the inhabitants and escaping with the treasure.

As a side note, I am surprised when I hear complaints about the 'meaningless' use of wandering monsters, merely because the presence of such monsters are irrelevant to the adventure.  Once again, back off!  Why is the wandering monster meaningless but the wholly convenient trap between rooms 19a and 19c perfectly in keeping with good gaming?  How is it that the presence of a monster that the party can quickly dispatch, without consequence, earning themselves a bit of experience and perhaps a bit of treasure (depending upon the monster), a completely unacceptable thing?

It seems to me that there are a number of arbitrary judgements cast about regarding what makes for outside dungeon play and what's acceptable for its counterpart inside.  We need higher principles than those.  We need an understanding that reaches past the artifice of the dungeon for what makes enjoyable, lucrative advancement balance the satisfying benefits of immersion.  We need a doorway the players can comfortably stand in, where they know with reasonable assurance what risks they take when moving back and forth through that door.  Finally, we need it hammered in stone what benefits both sides offer the campaign and why players should care.

Write that on your Dungeon's door.  Be sure to write it on both sides.


Algol said...

Reading this, it brings to mind a couple of thoughts I have. The separation of consequences frees up the DM as well as the players. The interaction of groups, the internal logic of a setting, the consequences of placing "this particular magic item" have to be thought of in both dungeon and outside dungeon.

That separation of consequences between the two frees the gm to just not have to make all the moving parts fit together between dungeon and outside world. A dungeon can be a sort of "setting in a bottle" with the DM free to add more whimsical, fantastical ideas which could hurt the logic of the setting. That separation of consequences provides the DM a breather in that they only have a small and defined amount of moving parts to deal with. If the DM desires a change of tone, milleiu, "feel" or to experiment with new gameplay ideas, that separation of consequences makes the dungeon a perfect place to experiment because the dungeon keeps those experiments contained within the dungeon.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I have always run my world that way, Algol - but I must tell you, I appreciate greatly this contribution.

I've been bouncing around in my head trying to figure out the wider ramifications of what I've been writing, and here you've nailed it.

You don't mind if I steal from you later on and make millions with this idea, do you?

Algol said...

Oh I wouldn't mind if you expound on it at all.

It's one of my favorite aspects of dungeons, how if say I'm really digging the idea of science fantasy or an odd interpretation of a classic monster, I can introduce those elements without radically altering the wider setting for the idea to fit. The best cure for DM ADD I've found is to throw a small dungeon at the players.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Algol said...

ADHD I suppose. If a GM has reams of half aborted ideas and has trouble sticking to one thing for two long, it seems that dungeon centric campaigns work well for them. The kind of GM who preps for wildly different games he'll never have time to run has a chance to recycle material which many not be appropriate for the wider setting.

Some thoughts on applying conceptually what a dungeon is, rather than just an underground maze. In a sci fi game a backwater planet or an asteroid with mysterious structures can be similar to a dungeon. It's a defined and self contained area, the players enter and leave through the port or safe landing area. It's a sort of point from the wilderness of space that the player can drop into or leave without galaxy reaching implications.