On Mechanical Misery

An example on how a modern mindset led to party disaster.

The party was almost completely murdered on Sunday. Their dwarf henchmen had picked up a magic blade, which overpowered his personality, causing him to fulfill the sword's special purpose, slay evil. The party's alignment tends towards neutral evil.

(Also, I know you see the picture, we're getting to that in a second)

On the way to the dungeon a random encounter was rolled. An adventuring party. I randomly determined the adventurers from my preset list. They were heading towards town away from the Dwarven ruins, carrying sacks filled with their haul. There were 8 of them, I made 3 of them men-at-arms, and the rest were mostly 1st level, with one dwarf F/T 5/6, and one elven F/M/C 3/2/3.

I'm sure you can see where this is going.

When the party shot a fireball at the adventurer's from the back, the dominated dwarven sword wielder activated the weapons detect evil ability and cut down the party mage and assassin.

After some discussion about a party disaster I discovered several enlightening things. The first was the player perception of the encounter was that 'it was a good idea to kill them because if we passed them, they could set up an ambush for us later.' This struck me as a by-product of the player/plot centric adventure design. My response was, how many people do you see walking down the street that you worry will set an ambush for you later? Few encounters with opponents have anything to do with a low level party or its players.

This led to the player responding, "See, this is why I like Pathfinder skills, like sense motive because then I could have made a check and just known what was going on with the other adventuring party." Enlightenment dawning, I responded, "Ah, well if you were curious about the motives of the encounter, i.e. the same information a successful sense motive check would have given, you could have just asked and I would have told you - no check is necessary."

The creation of subsystems (feats, skills) that encompass activities anyone should be able to accomplish (e.g. "They are an adventuring party returning from the Dwarven ruins, looking to get back to town as quickly and safely as possible. They wish you no harm, appearing to want to avoid this random encounter") is one of the biggest problems with modern rule systems. This design by limitation can lead to silliness (<- the picture reference), and restrict tactical infinity. An excellent assessment over the issue is addressed over at Comma, Blank_

Now this isn't to say that there's not some ground for design of a 'social combat system' or that well designed feats aren't possible. ACKS does an excellent job with its 'proficiencies' keeping them balanced and powerful - having them help define your character. Also, it is important to point out, this isn't the first player to note that I play many (but most certainly not all) human NPC's as terse and unwilling to engage armed strangers. (One former player said, "If this world is filled with assholes, it doesn't matter what I do!"). Also, I myself am more then guilty of player blindness (An encounter! Time to kill things I guess!).

How to navigate the waters of a game like Pathfinder, to allow agency an creativity without being restricted by design? This is my question. If you have any advice, comment below.


  1. I know that when we play our Pathfinder game, a lot of us are guilty of exactly this sort of thing. facing an encounter, there is a lot of gazing at the skills and feat section of the character sheet. For myself, I've managed to move away from this since running my own Old School game, getting back into that mindset, but it can be tricky. As a DM, before the game starts, I tend to remind people that their characters can try anything (within reason, of course) and after they've described their actions, I'll call for what rolls I deem necessary. Of course, often a player will point out that a certain skill or feat already covers that and then flicks through the book to find the rules, which slows the game and just makes me head my head and shed a little tear.

    I don't think there's an easy way to bypass this trend, but talking to the players is certainly the first step.

  2. To me, it doesn't matter whether the other party was evil or not. They did not act aggressively, aside from paranoid speculation the party had no reason to believe they would regret letting them go.

    Attacking people from behind with deadly magic without provocation. Come on.

    Also, you don't have to agree about whether or not it was "evil." It comes down to this. "Talk to the sword; the sword decided it was evil. Don't argue with me. Argue with the sword."

    HOWEVER, I think the main difficulty here is an interpretation of the spell operation. My understanding is that detect evil is to work passively; this person is evil, this object is evil. Not looking at actions: this person committed an evil act. This person has evil thoughts.

    If the defense is to say the "detect evil" triggered the intra-party stabbing, I'd be grumpy too. If the defense is to say the sword doesn't like people doing evil things and protested the assault by stabbing aggressors, that's a much firmer rationale.

  3. @Fictive Fantasies:

    I might have been unclear. The group of people I'm playing D&D with are, er, were, running mostly evil characters. Neutral evil, lawful evil, some Lawful/Chaotic Neutral members, but mostly evil.

    They acted in character (attacking from the rear etc.) and when that happened, the sword forced the owner to detect evil (I didn't have to do anything, really, the player knew what was coming) and that was all she wrote. Having a bunch of evil squishy mages and assassins near the smite evil sword lead to a short fight.

    Afterwards, during the game discussion, one of the players expressed some confusion over the way the NPC's in the encounter acted - why were they terse, etc. And in that, wishing for some skill that would let him know.

    The insight I had was that he didn't feel like he could just ask.

    The ability to detect evil in the sword was triggered, and the party was definitely, unabashedly evil.

  4. Yeah, the sword doesn't like evil and is in the middle of an evil party, it's just a matter of time, right? So quibbling over the trigger strikes me as... odd. Thanks for the clarification.

    The character sheet is the connecting membrane between the game world and the player, and the DM uses it to judge character ability.

    I think your insight is about how thick or thin that membrane should be; whether the sheet is the primary filter, or only in certain circumstances. Interesting.

  5. I'm pretty sure my players, who are inexperienced as rpgers, would have asked the adventuring party who they were, tried to start a conversation. Experienced players can bring a lot of assumptions to the table. And those are hard to get rid of.

    But in other contexts it would be odd, and on the player, like being familiar with Fallout 3's scaling word and so feeling free to travel anywhere relatively safely, but then playing Fallout New Vegas and heading into the hills to die over and over and over, because that world is not scaled.

    Or maybe a better metaphor would be a friend telling you he finished Oblivion in a few hours, being boggled, then finding out he "finished it" because he didn't know you could talk to NPCs!

    I enjoy playing with brand newbies because, while they may stumble around making mistakes, at least they don't assume they know how things work based on previous play.

  6. Skills once given are hard to rescind. This is the main thing that bothered me about Monte Cook's recent D&D columns; he seems to think he can have it both ways, when in fact written rules tend to crowd out GM rulings.

  7. Roger - I agree. I've had players in the past tell me "well, there's actually a rule for that situation." They went on to tell me that, basically, if you're just going to ignore part of the rules, why bother using the rules in the first place. They felt if you did that, you "can't really say you're even playing D&D at all, can you?" This, rather disturbingly, reminded me of something Gygax himself said in the preface to one of the 1e books (the dmg maybe?)

    I'd much rather have 'the amount of rules I want and no more' than 'the amount of rules I want and no less.'

  8. @Roger
    Won't you G+ that +Monte Cook, or perhaps e-mail him that comment?

    This is the future. how important is it that he hear that?

  9. Skills and feats are definitely a muddy area. The way i conceptualise them for my group,and how we work them in the DH group i play in is along the following lines;

    Skills and feats are either a representation of your character's proficiency at something that needs to be abstracted, perhaps acrobatics or perform or some such that can't really be totally addressed through role-play


    They are a way of bending the campaign world to your whim if you cannot think of a role-play way to do it. So for diplomacy a character can try and talk out a situation by role-playing with a NPC, but if they get stuck or talk themselves into a whole then i would ask for a diplomacy check.

    Similarly if somebody says exactly how they climb up a tower I won't force a check, or at very least i will give them a bonus to the check, the check being to determine only if the botch the attempt.

    Basically skills become a fall back position for when role-play fails, and i think this is a useful way of implementing the use of skills and feats. The players have more control if they simple ask questions of the GM and role-play, but if they botch that then they have their weighted percentages of skills to back them up.

  10. So i guess you would want to say something like that to your players, that within reason for their character they have to substitute the normal skill checks they would roll to 'force the GM's hand' with actually asking questions and engaging.

  11. No offense -C, but what you aren't including is that the players did in fact attempt some roleplaying. The other adventurers came across as abrupt and negative. Instead of just flat out asking, "Hey do these guys seem like they may attack us" we tried to find out through conversation. When the party said they would wait a bit, one of the guys stood there and watched us. From previous experiences with other DMs, that gave me as a player (and others) cause for concern that they would attack us either when our back was turned or when we returned from the ruins.

    Discussion after party devastation pointed out the faults in my modern mindset that has nothing to do with the rules of a roleplaying game - Thinking that a party we met on the road would be willing to have a casual conversation. Instead I had to remember we are competition on a dangerous road full of bandits and villains (eh hem...) that they just wanted to get by. “I” knew the sword would activate. I didn't know it was a god-sword. I didn't know the adventuring party had a level 5 fighter 6 thief with a ring of invisibility that he could activate as a free action. And honestly, I do try to keep some metagame knowledge separate. I personally knew the sword wanted to kill evil (not me, I’m Neutral) but my character didn't know that. I know some old-school players don't care about the differences, but we had been talking about attacking any other "bandits" we saw coming back from the ruins ever since we started forays to the ruins. When the chance presented itself, it was 5 against 8 and they didn't seem to be more powerful or have better magic. So we took the opportunity.

    To conclude, perhaps a Sense Motive check may have prevented the decimation, but it wasn't the only thing. If the sword had been a thinking being that DIDN'T have “Detect Evil”, we may have gotten away with it. Like the cavalier class, we always justify our evil actions. Somehow the cavalier manages to stay good so it goes to follow that with proper justification we may have convinced the sword we weren’t acting in an evil manner.

  12. All I can really think of is cutting the relevant feats out of your games or something.

    If the offending feats are ever in supplements then it really hammers it home; before they wrote up that feat how were you supposed to do it?

    You'd just have to kind of cut them off before selecting that kind of stuff with "Well why would you bother when I would let you do it anyways?"

    It's not really ideal, because ignoring rules that suck doesn't actually make the system better, but that's the only real answer for a random bit of published rule that implicitly denies actions.

  13. @McCabre
    I run 1e/Hackmaster. There are no feats or skills.

    During the disscussion, the player said that if he had access to sense motive, it would have prevented any misunderstanding. I pointed out that I would gladly answer any questions that a successful sense motive check would answer, anytime, without a check.

  14. @Domdem,

    I'm not offended and didn't mean to imply that role-playing wasn't attempted.

    The article isn't meant to be an argument or critique against you or any player, and I apologize that it comes across that way. The intent was to disscuss skills and feats that cover things that players should be able to do without the skills and feats.

    The dwarf turned invisible, and then charged the next turn.

    The sword is a +3 sword that can detect evil within 10', gives ultravision, and when striking evil people can blind them.

  15. @-C,

    I was actually responding directly to the original post with how I typically like to see it done in the systems you mentioned.

    I figure information-gathering types of skills in PF are best used as a safety net for the players rather than how they interact with the world directly. Rolling spot is for when they walk forward and didn't see the trap, sort of like a bonus save before they set it off.

    Anything else that blocks options through implication gets the axe.

  16. -C, Not a problem, I didn't take it at all as an argument or critique against myself as a player or any of the others. What I was trying to say was in fact in response to your discussion on "skills and feats that cover things that players should be able to do without the skills and feats". In this instance, we attempted to gain information by speaking to the NPCs. We weren't trying to roll diplomacy or sense motive checks, but actually act out the situation and get what would amount to the same results as if we had "rolled" which I do agree with you is NOT the preferable means of social conflict resolution.

    The difference in our perceptions is how we as players perceived the encounter. We thought the NPCs acted suspicious and if not aggressive, at least antogonistic in their refusal to be civil and have a normal conversation. Your characterization of the NPCs in your perception was of people attempting to avoid a conflict with someone on the road they were traveling.

    Specifically, I do not think this failure to understand what the DM was conveying had anything to do with preconceived notions of feats or skills, but more a failure due to what the players expected out of running into a random group of adventurers on the road. At least, that is how I as a player believe it to be.

  17. @Domdem- Yes, it was a misscommunication, always made worse when the result is bad for the players.

    Normally I take steps to clarify things before players take actions, but I was off my game Sunday for sure, as I'm sure you noticed. In the long run, I think it was a good thing, giving me a chance to switch off for a few weeks, and a breather.

    Also: I should point out that I had no idea who the opponents would be, nor what items they would have. I randomly generated party size (3-9) and made 10-60% of those 0 level henchmen, and then randomly determined party composition based of my list of pre-generated adventurers. Their levels were determined by normal population distribution (I.e. Most were first level, a few second level, and one or two higher level then that.) and then the treasure they carried was randomly determined. There were outside of potions and scrolls and +x item, there were only two things of note. The rod of awareness, and the ring, which I did not have any foreknowledge of, being randomly determined at the table.

  18. In light of DomDem's comment, here's how this post sounds to me: "Players shouldn't attempt to role-play! Instead, they should play a guessing-game with the DM where they try to figure out which out-of-character question will get them the information they want." Come on, are you a GM or a computer point-and-click "adventure" game?

  19. In other words, if you think there's information the players should automatically get, don't wait for them to specifically request it. Sounds like the whole encounter could have been avoided by you saying from the outset something along the lines of "They look weary, and cluster around their wagon as if afraid you'll attack them."

  20. For values of "out of character questions" which include:

    What's going on here?
    What's up with the other party?
    Can you clarify what's going on here?

    Also: remember the alternative is to ask the same questions, but require a skill roll before handing out the information.

    Also: I would hesitate to say "Afraid you'll attack" being that they were stronger than the party, but I see what you're saying.

  21. In Pathfinder, I encourage player skill, and use the player's skills as a back up.

    Example 1: Disable Device. The party had found a cave where they believed the goblins had hidden a stolen artifact. While the ringleader escaped, he had no time to gather his possessions. In the final room, there were 4 trap doors in the ceiling. 3 of them were just for decoration (to kill time while people opened them, just in case), and the 4th had a huge pile of loose dirt placed above, effectively burying anyone who opened it from underneath. None of the doors revealed anything to detect magic (too much dirt).

    The party looked at each door, rolling for perception. Noticing that the 4th door was buckling slightly was not a high check (it is possible you could miss it in the confusion/dark). There was a rogue in the party, who had rope, and the ranger had an awl (or something, he liked carrying lots of stuff). The rogue drilled into the trapdoor, and dirt started slowly trickling out. He wanted to tie a rope to the handle, and pull from a distance, but the ranger warned that they did not know what was up there, or how much dirt it was. So the rogue drilled more holes, they waited until the dirt stopped trickling, and then opened it with a rope from a distance. The artifact fell out onto a bed of soft dirt, and the day was saved!

    If they had just rolled a disable device check, I warn them that the roll is final. He would do enough (unspecified) mumbo jumbo to the trap, and if it worked or not would depend on the roll. If they had opted for that, and failed, I would have narrated a little how they tried (tapped the door twice, said 'looks fine'), and what happened (and opened it from below, immediately getting buried in dirt). If it had succeeded, I would have narrated a little bit (you tap the door a few times lightly, determining there is a lot of weight piled above, drilling a small hole you see dirt trickle out. Go back to ground level and shoot the door with you arrows until it is pouring like a sieve. When it stops, you climb up the dirt pile, open the door, and out falls the artifact).

    By explaining explicitly what a "skill roll" means, they are encouraged to try player skill ways, relying on the skill roll if they cannot come to a decision. The result of the roll then gives them feedback on how to approach or not approach these situations in the future.

    Example 2: Diplomacy to Gather Information
    If they have a question, they can ask it to any of the people they know in town who will help them. If they ask all the people they know, and get nothing useful, they can try a roll. This montages them through a series of small interactions with locals from the town (mother doing laundry, a different barkeep, a shady guy in sunglasses, and a group of kids, for example). As per the rules, if they get a 10, they get the average persons answer to the question (as phrased by the random participants). 15 entitles them to more priviledged info (maybe the kids saw a cave in the woods, and ran away when they heard grunts, maybe the guy in sunglasses is a member of the organization they are trying to find). A roll of 20 means they will be getting some pretty darn good information. The problem is, since you are getting it from more than one source, they still have to use player skill to figure out whose information was worthy of the high roll, and what was that 80% filler information you can expect to get when asking random people questions for 1d4 hours or whatever.

  22. Example 3: Craft(trap)
    Crafting traps sucks, is not explained for the most part, and traps like are described here every Thursday would take several years to construct. So when the party want to wedge a door shut from the outside, and attach a bell so they know if anyone tries to open the door from inside or tamper from outside... I let them do it. I also ask them to roll the craft skill simply so the enemies disable device roll could have meaning (as for opening the door from the inside, no chance. But a person coming down the hall from the other side might just drop the bell while detaching it if they get a poor enough roll).

  23. Two groups of heavily armed and violent people meet on the road. Neither wants a violent encounter but due to miscommunication violence ensues. This doesn't have to be an RPG, this happens every day in the less civilised parts of our world.

    It has been mentioned before - in an RPG the onus is on the DM to give the players more information then you would actually get in real life. For example, "They put their hands on their weapons and their leader says "That's close enough. We don't want any trouble." They look cautious and capable but not aggressive."


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