Tuesday, January 23, 2018

When the Character is Smarter than the Player

"... the warlock decided to help out by casting flaming sphere.  However, he forgot the fact that 'flaming sphere' is a sphere that is flaming ... as in, it has flames, and the wooden ship immediately caught fire.  Oh, this is much better!"

If you watch the video, this event occurs about 4 minutes in, as the party is fighting undead gorillas.  I actually kind of like this narrator, but the above example is something I have heard repeatedly in D&D war story videos.  What it says about what seems to be a typical game is ... troubling.

Basically, the story goes like this.  The party is in trouble.  The mage casts a spell.  It is a really, really bad choice of a spell to cast, because in varying ways it is like deciding to get away from the bad guys by lighting the car's gas tank on fire.

And every time the example crops up, the DM never says, "Your mage is perfectly aware of the ramifications of that spell, and therefore will be aware that this is the effect that will happen; do you still want to cast that spell and potentially kill yourself?"

Whereupon, given the intelligence of the players as described (the video above being an example), the mage would probably say "yes," but that isn't the point.

What is it with the proliferation of this game philosophy?

As human beings, we know how tools work.  We know what will happen if we hit our foot with a hammer.  It is probable, then, unless we are batshit insane, that we're not going to do that, especially in the middle of a crisis.  "My wife is in labor, before I get the car started, I rush immediately to my tool box, pull out my hammer, and start hitting my feet with it!"

That's how this shit reads.

I blink furiously as I realize that this is the level of play that goes on.  And the level of DMing.  And apparently the level of how these humans comprehend both communication and sensibility.

IF we want to give any advice on how to improve game play, we might start by educating players as to how their spells, and any other tools they have, work.  And the effects they have.  And what to expect when the tools are used.  AND perhaps pasting a warning label on character sheets that reads, "Spell; Use with Intelligence."

Instead, we're allowing both players and DMs to play out high level intelligence characters as imbeciles in the old clinical sense, apparently because no one wants to take responsibility for the question, "Are you sure?"

I remember when I started running the game blog, I had some players who took umbrage that I, as DM, would dare to question their decisions for their character's actions, as though somehow I was breaking some massive rule that argued I was not allowed to express my human incomprehension at totally illogical instructions.  I don't see it that way.  I think that human beings, with a hammer in their hands, about to hit their feet as hard as they can, have a little voice that pops up in their heads and says, "What the fuck am I doing?"

And I think a DM has a right to be that little voice. Indeed, a responsibility to be so.

Look.  The player is sitting at a game table.  The character is factually in a visual, audial, tactile world, with blood pumping and self-awareness that, apparently, the player is often ignorant about.  If the player can't picture the character about to do something that is clearly irrational, given the character's sensory input, then I am going to make that input clearer to the player!  "Hey, player, if you cast that flaming sphere, everything in the room is going to catch on fire.  Your character knows this.  How come you don't?"

I know this is sacrilege.  But I feel it needs to be addressed.


  1. People just do things that way because they're "funny".

    Maybe once, maybe twice if we're charitable.

    There's no good reason not to correct obvious errors. It's a mental game, things get lost in the course of an evening. Just rethink it and move on.

  2. I have a reputation for running a pretty lethal game, but I have no problem asking those "are you sure?" questions. Just last night in my AS&SH game I had a situation where a player was squaring off against some religious zealots and drew his sword. I quickly reminded him that while these zealots were unarmed and wearing rags, there were about 200 of them. He sheathed his sword and nobody died.

    As DMs, we've got the whole setting in our heads. If something the players do gives you pause, makes you consider all of the ramifications of that, take a second to consider what of those ramifications would be self-evident to them, and reiterate those to make sure the players are on the same page. Nothing wrong with the players being daring or the DM being deadly, but if you make sure everyone is in agreement it leads the outcome will be more enjoyable for everyone, TPK or not.

  3. Pandred! Why do you not comment on the online game? Did you not know we started again?

  4. If "are you sures" weren't considered a violation of form, I'd be saved a lot of hurt. The only time I caught a situation like this that I can remember was during the heady days of my adolescence at a 4e table I kept together at a summer camp, and even then I remember it making my throat hoarse. The players were shadowing soldiers from a militant cult and they confronted them in an abandoned barn (I can't recall whether the players tricked the cultists into going there or just followed them there since it was ages ago). After a few rounds of combat, the wizard tried casting fountain of flame in the middle of the barn... with him and all the party, along with the cultists still inside it. Naturally, I told him "You'll burn the barn down." He started blathering about how the mechanics of the power would have it do no damage to allies, so I told him again, "You'll burn the barn down." This kept up until "You'll burn the barn down," became, "YOU'LL BURN THE BARN DOWN!!" with the odd, "YOU WILL KILL EVERYONE!" and with me slapping my hands against the table with every syllable.

    Someone else at the table had to intervene to explain what the hell kind of noises I was making out of my mouthhole to this player, and this thankfully gave me enough breathing room to explain that while how the daily was written would mean that the fountain of flame itself will do no damage, a burning barn collapsing on everyone sure as hell will. He relented, but because the player in question was about 15, "You'll burn the barn down!" became a joke at my expense for the rest of my summers up there - something he'd shout at me in an impression of my voice on passing-by. I'll admit I looked silly while I was shouting it, but nobody would have reflected on it with a sense of whimsy if he smoked everyone at that table.

    I adjusted my performance over time, going for more a gentle "Are you sure?" but sadly I dropped warnings entirely. My players would always back the hell down from any warnings I gave, but they never knew WHY they should. Dropping it meant that many of my campaigns contained an uncounted amount of barn-burnings. The table has conditioned themselves since to be scared of engaging with my world for fear of unintended consequences, and even react as if the world is out to get them. As of current, if my players got their way they would somehow flee to a deserted island with an unlimited supply of food and water and just perform homoeostasis.

    Iterating what's been said in this post, instead of giving up I should have been saying, "Are you sure, because you know what that's going to do, right?" or, "Through your character's understanding of this ability, you know it will cause this to happen as a given." I think people have been cagey about these statements since they sound too much like the typical "Your character doesn't know this; stop metagaming" tirades meant to control and corral players. People get the (wrong) impression, even though telling them things they ought to know is helpful and it's why these games have knowledge skills/proficiencies, that the DM is controlling their thoughts and by extension their actions. Too bad when in a game where the DM is not a manipulative control-freak that "You'll burn the barn down," really does mean you'll burn the barn down.

  5. William,

    When I got blow-back from players in the online forum, this is precisely the argument they gave: that I was "controlling their characters" and other such horseshit. The result was I had to boot some people, end one campaign, go round and round with another campaign and ultimately establish that yes, I'm the DM, and yes, when I say you'll burn the barn down, there won't be any dice rolled.

    What's funny, I never once had this problem in real life. But then, in real life, I played mostly with people who had been there from the beginning, not this present generation thus poisoned with this argument that somehow they understood the physics of my world better than I did.

    I think you have to be ready to throw people out of the game. Obviously, this wouldn't have solved your summer camp problem; but we have to say to the players, IF you feel I am such an asshole that I act as DM in order to control you as a person, there's the door. Because, outside the game, that is actually an insult that would end things between most people.

    If you were to say to a co-worker, for example, "When you do you job that way, I get the impression that you're trying to fuck with my head and manipulate me to do stuff I don't want to do." Not only would your co-worker look at you like you had just acquired a brain disease, your co-worker would probably say "fuck you" and not talk to you again for quite some time.

    I wouldn't take that shit from a co-worker, a friend, a family member and so on. I'm absolutely not going to take it from a player. That is a flat-out breaking of the social contract, randomly accusing people of lying and fucking with us; we say that, we better be damn sure we're right, because there ARE consequences.

  6. What? No, I had no idea we'd started again!


  7. Strangely, this taboo against DM advisory statements doesnt apply to alignment. Ok for PC to commit suicide by misunderstanding their basic capability and world physics, but not for the good aligned refusing to help the beggar. How many other aspects of bad DMing are a vestige of Gotcha-DM Gygax's personal style and competitive gaming Cons?

  8. I had a different experience with this communication breakdown. The player had a new character with powers he hadn't used before (a 3e warlock from a later supplemental book; basically a sorcerer with an at-will magic blast and some themed spells). He used a short-range dimension door power at the beginning of a fight. Into an empty space. Over an empty chasm.

    I didn't ask the question. I explained the results, the party was silent for a moment and one player commented, "that's two dead characters this adventure," referring to the player's earlier cleric who bit it while possessed by a ghost.

    Naturally, that player has been rather wary of my games ever since.

    I didn't question him because, at the time, I thought, "he has the map in front of him, he has to know how this will play out." My mistake was not taking a moment myself to ask why he would make such an obvious blunder - it was because he wasn't familiar with his character's powers, when clearly the character would be.

  9. One argument could be that in a "fun campaign" (that would be, a campaign where the players are almost assured not to die, or a campaign were the player aren't invested enough to care if their character dies) the players can afford to "learn from their mistakes" (In this situation, the mage causes problem with its spell, now it know that it is dangerous to use magic that way).
    Whether or not they will actually learn to behave differently is different. I would believe they wouldn't as such spell created shenanigans may be a source of the "fun" they derive from the campaign (and because such campaign usually lack a proper punish/reward mechanism for good play/behaviour).

    Anyhow, I agree with you that the DM shouldn't let a player unkowingly be counter-productive by dumbly using its abilities.
    You mentionned playing intelligent characters like imbeciles;
    personally, I resolve these with a check of either wisdom or intelligence (with modifiers for particularly dumb occurences) and in case of success I'll explain my doubts to the player.

  10. Wandrille,

    Why make your players make a check? Just say, "are you sure, a fireball here would start a fire on the ship." One of three things will occur:

    1. The player will argue a fireball shouldn't start a fire;
    2. The player will not take the action;
    3. The player will take the action anyway, having understood the consequences.

    I don't see why we as DMs should be so cagey with information.

  11. James,

    You raise a valid point.
    In my book me asking the player to make a test is my way of saying "are you sure?".

  12. But it comes out as saying, "You can do this if the dice gives you permission."

  13. It may.

    I'll discuss this with my players to make sure they understand and to ask them what they would prefer.

  14. Wow, it was eye-opening to watch a couple of that guy's videos. I hope "Adventure League" as depicted in it isn't typical of how people play the game today. It's unfortunate that someone might get introduced to RPGs in a session like the one in this video.

  15. It was my experience when I played. And the experience of three of my players.

  16. Pardon me, I forgot to add the jewelry and five spear heads in the room. Call it another 120 g.p. So that's 490 x.p. each.

  17. We get "Are you sure" in most of the games I play in (and the ones I ran); they certainly help - the most recent one I got was "you realise you're selling memories of your childhood here?"
    (and one power you may get in the system is "Common sense", which obliges the DM to tell you if a decisions you would make is a bad one, a certain number of times per session)

    I've played in games where is was otherwise; bleh.

    My main thought with regards of the intelligence of the characters is that it is, once again, hard to calibrate - especially if the character, by all rights, should be smarter than everyone at the table.


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