Thursday, September 29, 2016

No Deals

At the Edmonton Con, we had a fellow, Otis, approach our table who was bemoaning the way his players took advantage of him.  I will give an example.  Instead of drinking a healing potion to heal, Otis explained that the player was always trying something completely out of left field, something unexpected.  "What if I just use a little of the healing potion on my wound, rubbing it in with my hand.  Will that do anything?"

Whereupon Otis looked heavenward in dissatisfaction, sighed (I'm really not making this up) and told us, "I don't know what to do when he says stuff like this.  I wish he'd just use the potion.  I have to say something like, 'Okay, if you roll a 1 on a d20, it like heals three points of damage.'  And then the player rolls a 1!  I hate this stuff!"

Um.  Yeah.  I tried to explain to him that he was only enabling the player by offering a chance of success.  the actual answer is, "No, it does nothing."  Park Place costs $350.  It doesn't cost $325 if you roll a seven when you land there, it doesn't cost $310 if you're wearing a green shirt, it doesn't cost $290 if the player on your left thinks that's "fair."  The cost is, was, always will be, $350.

Otis, poor fellow, proved inconsolable.  We never were able to make him see that his players were taking advantage of him by trying to end-run the rules or that he was encouraging their behavior by constantly finding ways to fan-service them.

Fan-service sucks.  I just had a long conversation with my future son-in-law regarding "gold rounds" in the online game, World of Tanks.  These are special shells that players can buy that are effectively breaking the game . . . but when haven't we watched profit-mongering by game designers destroy a game by feeding those who have the money to pay in?  We've seen this pattern for decades now: a great game appears, it seems to reward effort and adaptation with opportunity and benefits . . . and then someone else can step in with money and side-step working at the game by purchasing a super-mega-killer-death-action sword and within a year, poof!  No game.

It's presumed that this is a video-game problem but no, it's actually a game problem.  If you're unsure about this, ask someone's opinion about the designated hitter's presence in the American vs. National baseball leagues.  This is a rule adopted 43 years ago, in 1973; debate continues.  If that isn't enough for you, have someone who understands the in-field fly rule explain it for you . . . and then have them explain satisfactorily why the rule exists at all (please, if you have an answer for this, write it on another blog).

New rules break games - and this includes a rule made up on the fly, designed to spontaneously satisfy a player's momentary ill-thought innovation.  I'm a great fan of innovation:  when Ned Cuthbert stole a base in 1863 or 1865, that was the right kind of innovation - he wasn't breaking a rule and he didn't need one to be made for him.  When the Oakland A's chose not to steal bases because they were statistically viable, that was the right kind of innovation too.  I applaud players who try to innovate inside the rules.  I crush players who try to do it outside.

I'm sure Otis, however, is not alone.  I'm sure there are many caught in the same trap, who don't see that they are themselves the architects of their own misfortune.


  1. Dang, you robbed me of one of my few chances to explain the infield fly rule; alas...

    Doesn't this come back to DM's lacking confidence in our games' continuing existence? We are afraid if we don't appease our players at every turn, they will simply walk away.

    But, I suppose that is the paradox of the whole situation. By trying to avoid ending our games we contribute to their eventual downfall. It took a long time for my players to eventually trust me as a DM, and I live with most of my players. I can't imagine how hard it must be for others.

  2. I intuitively think you're wrong about this, Alexis, at least in part. Let me see if I can explain it.

    The crux of the matter is the phrase "New rules break games - and this includes a rule made up on the fly, designed to spontaneously satisfy a player's momentary ill-thought innovation.". It should be "New rules made up on the fly, designed to spontaneously satisfy a player's momentary ill-thought innovation, break games". New rules do not break games, per se. Improperly designed, researched, vetted and tested rules break games. I will concede that, most times, you do need to NOT bend to your player's desire. Then, after of the situation, ideally after the game, you can calmly think about the proposed new rule (and iff you find it a worthy addition, discuss it with your other players). You have included new rules yourself, based on player's suggestions, haven't you? It may be that most suggestions are too evidently tries to bend the rules in favor of the players (about which every arbiter should be firm to the point of strictness), but I don't think that rule change suggestions need to be considered a priori worthless, just because they were made on this purpose. They may have some value, after being straightened and removed of loopholes.

    I would suggest to Otis that yes, he needs to learn to say "no". No other advice will suffice. But given that he's currently unable to do so, he may still progress toward it by establishing a table rule like "Rule change suggestions, even if accepted, won't be implemented sooner than the next playing session". This removes the immediacy of action that pressures the DM to make a (bad) snap decision, and thus may help him to afterward say "no" without the complication if the time pressure.

  3. Of course you're right, Scarbrow.

    I meant the phrase to be a default - as in, before rushing into any adjustment, presume that any new ruling or rule is going to weaken the game; then, prove rationally or logically that it won't before going forward.

    As you say, with the number of new rules I make, I can't really mean that one should never make new rules.

  4. Having the luxury to be an armchair quarterback, I might have let the player try that with the potion as I don't like to encourage metagaming. Then, explain that nothing positive happens; perhaps through an herbalism or alchemy check I pass on to the player that the potion was brewed to be injested and does not work topically. Then, when the player goes to drink the potion, it has a reduced effect due to some of it being used already.

    DM'ing can be challenging when there are challenging players in the group!

  5. Sorry, Jason,

    That actually makes no sense. Letting the player try that with the potion IS metagaming; it's trying to end-run the rules in order to give his character more power than he is warranted. The player is challenging the GAME RULES, not the setting.

    We want challenging players, yes, obviously ~ but your definition here of "challenging" is very simple and trashy. My lord, man! Do you not know how much more challenging this game can be than simply making up rules and hoping the DM agrees?!!!?

    Seriously, you have got to read deeper into this blog and then into my wiki. You've only just begun to scratch the surface of "challenging."

  6. I should have internalized the line in your post where you said that the player was trying to take advantage of the DM. That's much different than a new player that doesn't know the absolute limitations or characteristics of a potion. I've got to pay better attention if I'm going to comment here!

    As you perceived, I am a fairly new reader, but I certainly can see this isn't your average RPG blog. I appreciate the challenge to the status quo. I'll do better homework before I think to comment again :)

  7. Welcome aboard, Jason.

    Once you're used to the drift, and you get past my being an ornery bastard, you'll find I'm fairly harmless. Thanks for writing back.

  8. I'd suggest anyone read "The 5 Geek Social Fallacies" for insight into this way of thinking. I don't know if it's due to the roleplaying demographic or something in the nature of the hobby (as commonly practiced), but some people are afraid of and resistant to even the most minor conflict, to the point of being codependent. In this way of thinking, the DM is responsible for everyone's fun while the players decide what constitutes their fun. The root of the "Never say no" rot, which tends to limit outcomes to "Succeed now or succeed later." Also why people who act like creeps to female players or cheat are tolerated.

    In my forum reading days, I found myself asking "If the rules you're using need to be ignored when they produce the dreaded 'unfun', why don't you use different rules?" Especially when PC death was deemed unacceptable in a game with extensive rules concerning PC death.

  9. Hare,

    Last Saturday night, in my first game in a long time, I roared at a player who had made about six or seven smart comments and had been caught three times chatting about things that were not D&D. I mean it: roared. "What the hell is your problem?" I demanded, then identified his behavior and Socrates-like I put him on the spot.

    He apologized at once and the game moved forward without anyone having the slightest issue with it ~ not me or the player.

    "No" is a necessity sometimes in dealing with humans.

  10. By "smart comments" you mean metagame jokeyness?

    I think you're probably a bit of an outlier as far as how easily you pound the hammer, but everyone needs to be able to set boundaries, in the game and in life.

    (I should restate the caveat I've made from time to time: in addition to the factors I mentioned above, there's the demographic of people who seek advice on solving these kind of problems on RPG forums.)

  11. Thing is, Hare,

    When you have a table of players who are all used to not hearing the metagame jokeyness, because it has ceased to exist, the players are begging me to drop the hammer. In fact, before I did, the players were telling him to shut up; that is actually what made me act.

    I'm only an outlier because I believed from the beginning that the jokeyness COULD be stamped out, that most players would want it stamped out.

    But DMs are afraid of that one asshole player; they think that somehow the most vocal member of the group has the most power, like volume is the measure. It's a mistaken perception.

  12. I should have said "an outlier as far as how *comfortable* you are dropping the hammer.", although I think both are true. Didn't mean it as a criticism at all.

  13. "Most players would want it stamped out." Have you ever had people that have played a lot before express surprise at how much they enjoy a focused game? Like it never occurred to them that Monty Python jokes aren't actually funny? This is pure conjecture on my part, but I did enjoy your post describing a 3.5 player's epiphany in your session. I could see a lot of similar ones for people who aren't used to the things characterize your game.

  14. Did not remotely take it as a criticism, Hare. Read it exactly as you intended. Just wanted to add the extra point for why I feel comfortable dropping the hammer.

    Have I had players express surprise at enjoying a focused game?


    Okay, not completely true. Some have HATED the focused game, have hated the requirement it has, hated the detail they were supposed to keep in their heads, hated that dangers weren't telegraphed or that cliches weren't embraced, such as alignment or a host of other things (such as an online player who once quit on me because a 7th level fighter wasn't dressed like a super-bad ass in a Judge Dredd comic ~ apparently, not a Jack Reacher fan).

    Those that stay for more than one session? Yes, all of them. This is why they are READY when I'm ready. Because I feed them a diet of epiphany, novelty, reward and satisfaction.

    Sorry if this sounds conceited and self-promoting. I am offering a class on how this is done. I think I'm past the point of telling people I don't know how to DM a game.

    And again, sincerely, no criticism heard from you. I've thoroughly enjoyed all your comments to date, Hare.

  15. I tend to worry unnecessarily about written communication on the internet.

    I think a lot of issues that arise in games come from a lack of shared assumptions, especially when people think that they are on the same page when they actually aren't. You're a great example of "Here's the deal. Give it a try and you'll probably dig it. If not, seeya." The result is a coherent experience not based on satisfying every random rpger's idea of what's supposed to happen. At the same time, there's no limit to what the players can do *within* the established game. As a new DM, this is good for me to read as I tend to worry unnecessarily in that realm too. I can play long jazz improvisations or renaissance lute music making no attempt to be accessible without worrying about people's reactions, so I guess this comes down to experience.

    In an ideal world, some of your players who came around to the different way of thinking would then run their own games and you're "too serious" "unfun" approach would spread.

    Your 7th level fighter comment reminded me of one of the lessons I learned running: the party doesn't encounter "clerics", "bandits" (especially), or "mages". They encounter people whose clothing/ armor/ etc provide some information but not all. Think this makes for a more interesting game, and what self respecting wizard would wear one of those pointy hats anyway? What surprised me is how I unthinkingly announced "a group of x-" before I realized that.

  16. Alexis,

    I was thinking of a situation I've discussed with a player and it made me think about this issue again. How much information do you give players about non humanoid monsters not previously encountered? Is it purely descriptive or are they given mechanical information (ex HD) at some point?

  17. Purely descriptive. I never discuss a monster's HD, nor its actual hit points, not even after it's death, because I might give the monster again. That said, there are two things to consider:

    Often, I don't agree with the write up of the monster in books, so I will add HD, alter special attacks and abilities, alter the armor class, adjust its size or its agenda in keeping with my own view of that monster. On the whole, I usually remove details from the books; monsters have LESS powerful special abilities; they often have MORE raw strength or power. As well, I will also have multiple species of a particular kind of creature, say a manticore, each having a different kind of tail or head, with different special attacks.

    These changes, however, are usually kept from the players except in how they manifest visually. There's no reason why their characters should have a reliable knowledge about something's hit dice or abilities because the players have read the books. Monsters should be strange and unknown; so I adjust monsters to enable this experience.

    At the same time, I do have sage abilities that provide players with knowledge about various monsters - but these are like reading a biological account of how a species of ant attacks or how strong a bear is. Again, they do not describe statistics. As best I can, I keep the metagame out of it ~ which can be hard, as every DM knows, since players will sit up MEMORIZING statistics for when they encounter these monsters. I have had two or three such metagamers get furious with me for not sticking to the "rules." I don't see monster stats as "rules" but as "guidelines." The very fact that these metagamers know the HD of a roper, a rakshasa or a catoblepas shows that they are playing a different sort of game from what I am playing.

  18. Thanks for the response. I certainly don't have the metagaming problem (right now). I'm pretty sure none of my players have purchased the rules. One of my players has told me he would have expected his pc to know a little more about giant fire beetles going into a combat in which a retainer was instantly shredded. My initial response was "Now you know."


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