Monday, February 15, 2016

DMs Changing the Goalposts

Mujadaddy's comment: ". . . you don't seem to be allowing for the concept of failure."

In 1853, an American military officer by the name of Elisha Kent Kane began an expedition into what would alter be called Kent Basin between Ellesmere Island and Greenland in the far north extreme of Baffin Bay.  It was named the second Grinnell expedition, after the owner of the Advance, the ship that Kane commanded.  The first expedition had been funded in order to uncover the disappearance of John Franklin's expedition in 1845 - but that is another story.

Kane's motivation was to seek for a passage that would enable him to obtain fame and glory by journeying farther north than any expedition had before (source: The Arctic Grail, Pierre Berton, 1988).  However Kane, an army surgeon, proved to be a terrible commander.  When the Advance was trapped by the ice in the winter of 1853/54, it set a chain of events that was to both prove Kane's incompetence as a ship captain and yet redeem him as perhaps one of the greatest figures ever to manage a disastrous situation.

It was common practice to bring a ship into the Arctic in the mid-19th century with the expectation that as winter approached, the ship would become trapped in the ice until the following summer.  Since in this part of the world the sea would typically freeze solid by late October (or earlier) and remain frozen until the following July, Arctic expeditions by necessity were forced to stock up for the 9-10 month period and make preparations for the men to amuse themselves through a variety of means - putting on plays, participating in tournaments, taking part in lectures that gave something like university-level experience and so on.  Keeping morale up during the long winter was critical in keeping the men under control.  Naturally, a part of this was ensuring that the stores were carefully managed and that the men were kept aware of the tenuous situation.

In Kane's case, during that first winter, he grew morose and took to long periods of solitary.  This left his underlings in charge of the men and a general sense of discontent produced a winter of extraordinary difficulty.  Several events that came close to murder occurred that winter and it was clear that by the summer of '54, after one failed exploration, the moral of the ship was at an all time low.  Some details of this can be read on the Wikipedia page linked.

This was made worse by the discovery that there was no game at all on the northern end of Ellesmere island, as there tended to be in other parts of the Canadian Archipelago.  Worse, as the weather improved and expeditions set out to explore the area around Kane basin, Kane managed to thoroughly piss off an anger every group of Inuit that the ship-master encountered - primarily due to his failure to understand his situation or his dependence on the good will of the locals.

That summer, the ice did not thaw.  The sea simply remained frozen through the entire season.  This also occasionally happened.  While the sea in 1853 was warm enough to allow the Advance to sail into the bay, that proved to be unusual.  Without new food, without new supplies, without any possibility of extricating the ship and without the support of the natives, the crew of the Advance faced another long winter without escape.

Here is where things get crazy.  As scurvy set in and it seemed probable that no one would survive the winter, Kane made the decision to abandon the Advance and set out on two whaleboats and a dinghy.  It took him three weeks to transport the men to the abandoned Inuit village at Littleton Island.  From there they struck south to find open water at Cape Alexander.  Throughout this process, Kane's military and medical experience enabled him to rise to the occasion, proving him to be a monumental commander when his feet were on the ground. 

When the boats began to leak, they took to island hopping, hunting as best they could, surviving on bird's eggs and melting ice for water.  At the end, the nearly destroyed boats were yet used to drag their supplies and the infirm overland (this at the end of two months of continuous physical endurance while having been starved since the previous year) until they were able to reach Upernavik.

It's really an incredible story.

But why have I gone through all this?

To emphasize that the adventure is not automatically made irrelevant by the planning, preparation and careful distribution of supplies, equipment, camps and supporting personnel.  And to emphasize that Kane did all these things and was able to live because there were food depots along the way, he had men and equipment and he prepared his boat well enough to survive at least through all of 1854.  His mistake was not, in fact, that he failed to prepare but that he insulted the one group that could have sustained him through the winter of 54/55 and enabled him to make his trek out in far better condition than he did.  That he escaped with the loss of only one man was a miracle and a testament to Kane's leadership in a crisis; but Kane's leadership when all was well sucked in the extreme.

What worries me is the tendency for a DM to see "creating adventure" as spontaneously inserting monsters or trumped up changes in behaviour in order to ensure that the player's camp should suddenly be wiped out or that everyone should suddenly decide to go home.  It always seems as if DMs feel irked by players having thought their way through a situation, so as to invent something that will smash the players design for no other reason than that it is there to be smashed.   Build a camp?  Oh, of course a monster will come along in the next running and smash it.  We can't have camps being built in the wilderness. Why, in the whole world there is not one camp, anywhere, that can survive the wilderness for a month.  Purchase an agent to act as a buyer and motivator in town?  Impossible!  All agents are thieves and crooks and must act to destroy everything the players have built.  Or else, all agents are weak-kneed spineless dweebs who will die instantly at the first tiny spider bite.  Nowhere in the world do 'agents' act as capable, rational, reasonable agents!

Kane got it in the teeth because of the weather.  That is, because of something that was always there, that didn't come into existence because he sailed a ship into it.  Presumably, long before the player characters arrive at the dungeon, the DM has already a strong idea of what the dungeon involves.  Unless the DM has predetermined that there is a huge monster lurking around outside the dungeon, the DM has no fucking business putting a huge monster there after the players have set up camp.  If there are stirges and owlbears wandering around the forest where the dungeon is, then the DM is responsible for telling the players this before the players even venture into the area.  What, the residents of Wyoming don't know about the bears?  The residents of Siberia don't know there are tigers in the forest?  Ridiculous.

Kane knew he was going to be frozen in the ice.  He perhaps did not know that he was going to be frozen for a second year, but this had happened to other expeditions in the Canadian Arctic and we can presume he did his reading before he went (tales of the Arctic were huge big sellers after the 1820s and after half a dozen expeditions to find Franklin just prior to Kane's expedition it was front page news everywhere in the world).  When the sea failed to show any signs of thawing in June and did not thaw in July of 1854, he would have had plenty of warning to guess what was about to happen and make his plans.  He wasn't caught by surprise.  He was given a challenge and he was forced to make another plan to survive it.

This is what D&D has yet failed to learn: that quick scares and instant monsters make totally shit adventures.  Slow, difficult, creeping doom surpasses such methods by about 1000%.  At no time in my previous two posts about tackling a dungeon did I suggest that the dungeon be less dangerous or that all the difficulties of the lower level, not yet tackled, disallow any possibility of failure.

Mujadaddy's question is borne of one thing: a fixed belief that every effort and every innovation by the players MUST be seen in terms of the potential for the DM to smash it all to pieces if the tiniest error in calculation or proposal can be found to justify that smashing.

Does the DM view the player's camp and think, "Ah, probably one camp in a thousand throughout the whole world will be attacked by a big monster this month - I'll roll a 1 in 1000 chance of it happening."

No, the DM thinks, "Wow, camp in the wilderness.  Wildernesses are dangerous.  There MUST be a big nasty monster that will absolutely hate this camp and need to see it destroyed immediately."

This is how DMs think.  And it is shitty thinking.  


  1. "Mujadaddy's question is borne of one thing: a fixed belief that every effort and every innovation by the players MUST be seen in terms of the potential for the DM to smash it all to pieces"

    Certainly the phenomenon you mention occurs. I wasn't suggesting that Weeping Angels pull up the tent stakes and poison the water every time the players blink. And I wouldn't suggest inserting something not natural to the area, and players who have been careful in their scouting of course should be rewarded for it.

    I was thinking that all that activity in the valley might attract more attention than a few scout parties around the perimeter. Call the attention a wandering monster check, if you must; it doesn't seem vindictive on its face to me at all.

    "His mistake was that he insulted the one group that could have sustained him through the winter"

    Now we're talking; I'd left your 100 orcs wandering about. What happens to Kane if the natives are actively working against him? Again, I'm not suggesting inventing orcs to thwart the players, or hiding them from all detection because the players have "beaten" you, only that knowing that there are bears and orcs somewhere in a valley doesn't turn a hex "clear".

  2. This has caused me a lot of pain as DM. But you are absolutely right, throwing absurd things at the party to try and pump up the excitement has the exact opposite effect. And your players usually see it coming. "Things are getting a bit slow now. A huge monster is bound to jump out any minute." It reminds me of the shock scenes in campy horror films. The seasoned viewer will know precisely when they are coming and all the director's work will fall flat.

    The other part to this, of course, is when the DM becomes adversarial with the group. That, to me, is a tragedy far too common. It's one thing to create a world or setting you know will rough up even experienced parties--it's another thing altogether to abuse your party simply because they out-maneuvered you, out-smarted you and ruined your fancy plans. That's DM malpractice and I see it all too often.

  3. You'll notice, Mujadaddy, that the Inuit didn't work against Kane. That is part of the point. They just didn't help.

    Your tendency to propose the contrary is telling.

  4. The wilderness is dangerous, which is why mankind has tamed it with logistics and forethought. The wilderness doesn't have those, and it's only the 1.5kg of gray matter that allows mankind to survive in a world that is decidedly unfriendly to us.

  5. "the Inuit didn't help"

    Yes, I specifically brought up the contrary position to raise the idea of how screwed Kane could have been if a few tribesmen had felt wicked one winter evening. The question was, "What happens to Kane if the natives are actively working against him?", and the answer looks fatal to me.

    "Your tendency to propose the contrary is telling."

    Lock-step agreement and the "echo chamber" phenomenon don't interest me. You have good ideas, and you can defend them. Naturally, in service to rounding out my own ideas, I attempt to draw attention to the untamed hexes of your posts. I think we both get something out of the discussions.

  6. @Jeremiah Scott:

    Jump scares "work" against the reptile brain/fight-or-flight instinct system: unexpected sensory input must be processed by this system before the full 1.5kg of gray matter can be engaged to react.

    It's almost impossible to do this at the table. As you mention, noticeable lulls tend to imply the opposite is pending. (Alexis mentions striving to keep his descriptive language delivery flat, so as not to expose the future before it happens.)

    Those of us running for "seasoned viewers" have to strive constantly to prevent staleness of technique.

  7. Well, I don't think you're a troll, Mujadaddy. But you've been commenting on my blog for a couple of years now and you seem hell bent on proving to me that I don't mean the words I'm choosing to use.

    I really don't understand what's implied by "lock-step agreement" and "echo chamber" - nor do I care why you brought up the contrary position.

    Of course Kane would have been screwed if such and such had happened; he'd have been screwed if a meteor had hit the ship too. He'd have been screwed if the crew had lynched him and if he had contracted a tumor that killed him. It isn't relevant to describe any of the ways he could have been screwed.

    What makes the Kane story a good tale? It is that he was beset with troubles that could have destroyed him and his men but did not. As a DM, when I look at what sort of troubles I want to give a party, I am looking for the sort of troubles that COULD kill them but won't necessarily do so. I am not looking for options for failure; if failure occurs, it will happen because the party does not act sufficiently well in the face of that thing that could kill them. When you express the game in terms of your quote - "you don't seem to be ALLOWING" - you imply that either I am giving the party a free pass (which I'm not) or that the gameworld I'm presenting isn't dangerous enough to kill them because the way I design my dangers are not the way you would design YOUR dangers, because of YOUR argument that the wilderness is dangerous in a specific way that YOU design.

    There is more in heaven and earth, Mujadaddy, than is defined in your philosophy.

    I'm willing to try to explain this to you, again and again, but it's a worthless effort if you can't read the words I'm using and parse your arguments according to my message and not your prejudices.

    The reason I don't think you're a troll is because your arguments are real and considered and because, for the most part, you don't make the same ones over and over - but now and then, if you're just not getting what I'm saying, you have to let it go. If I'm wrong, you don't have to prove it to me.

    The universe will do that for you.


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