On an Analysis of Death

I wrote a transcript the other week describing the in-play event of a character's death. It was unedited and contains the exact sequence of events that led to his demise.

There were no die rolls involved -- except for the saving throw.

This is a crucial issue to the kind of game I like to run.  Is this fair? Was the death due to player choice or factors that were outside of player control?

Player Agency:  There are several factors regarding the discovery of the mold.

First: Yellow mold (like green slime) is a classic trope of Dungeons and Dragons. From the very first OD&D books and modules, items that look 'golden' are often just colonies of yellow mold. There is a historical precedent for the description of yellow mold as a 'golden' color on objects.

Second: The players were in a hurry. They had 'cleared' the house. By that, they had (mostly) survived the major conflict in the area. As you can see from the transcript, they are moving forward in a hurried manner, attempting to 'clear' out the house.

Third: This is the subtle but key point to player agency. It is also often where people get upset about 'DM Fiat' and games being unfair.

The rule is, if it can have an effect or is important, then it must be mentioned to the players. In this case, on first observation the mold was mentioned.
"DM: Sure! You pull the door open. Inside it's empty, except for on a hanger, there is a dark cloak that looks like it has a gold lining."
Compare this to "It is empty except for a cloak on a hanger".

Because they were in a hurry and I was feeling rushed, I did make the error of stating if asked if it was torn or decayed, "It looked fine". The original module I was cribbing from, does indeed note that the cloak is tattered. I am only human. However in true DM tradition, "It looks fine" doesn't mean that it is.

This style of agency is straight from the first edition DM guide.

DM: "The sacks hold rotten grain, so the cleric will go and help the magic-user as ordered. They find the refuse consists of castings, some husks of small victims of the spider, hide, bones, a small humanoid skull, and 19 silver pieces. Do you now fire the webs overhead?”
LC: ”Examine the skull first. What kind of humanoid was it? Can we tell?”
DM: ”Possibly a goblin. When you are looking at it more closely, you see that there is a small gem inside - a garnet.”

And

DM: "First, the others checking the containers find that they held nothing but water, or ore totally empty, and that the wood is rotten to boot. You see a few white, eyeless fish and various stone formations in a pool of water about 4' to 6' deep and about 10' long. That's all. Do you wish to leave the place now?"
LC:"Yes, let's get out of here and go someplace where we can find something interesting."
OC: "Wait! If those fish are just blind cave types, ignore them, but what about the stone formations?  Are any of them notable? If SO, I think we should check them out."
DM: "Okay. The fish are fish, but there is one group of minerals in the deepest part of the pool which appears to resemble a skeleton, but it simply - "
OC: "If the pole will reach, I'll use the end to prod the formation and see if it is actually a skeleton covered with mineral deposits from the water! I know the Shakespearean bit about a 'sea change'!"
No search rolls. No character skills.

Pure player skill.

Fictional Positioning:  This discussion after the fact was delicate but necessary. One of the errors I made was that I called for saves before resolving the positioning of each character. Having rolled the die, forced Garth into a situation where he felt strongly that addressing his actual position would be regarding as cheating.

One offhand comment was made that this was a case of "Mother may I". This is explicitly incorrect, because he wasn't asking for permission. As I've noted, fictional positioning is addressed as a group with verisimilitude as the metric. Part of his hesitation was in wanting both to be fair and confronting what is traditional one of the vestiges of DM empowerment. Fictional Positioning in this game is something decided by the group. The players are in charge of their characters after all -- who have personalities of their own.

19 comments:

  1. I don't know if you are asking for 'Monday Morning Quarterbacking' or not, but I think the way you resolved the action is fine.

    I like the "talking" method of playing... the DM offers a broad sketch and it is up to players to ask questions, eliminating 'notice' rolls and similar stuff does not decrease potential player agency, it just means that it is up to the players themselves rather than the game mechanics to determine what happens.

    I'd forgive you for leaving out 'tattered' or 'shabby' in your description of the cloak. With all the info the DM is handling, mistakes will sometimes happen.

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  2. Nice series of articles -C. I like how you approached these in particular(this article and those linked from within it). Good food for thought throughout.

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  3. The problem with player skill is that it needs to be learned and honed.

    Were all your players familiar with the 'anything that looks gold is probably colonies of yellow mold' trope? If so, cool. If not - probably a guessing game.

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  4. Well, as hoary as the trope of "yellow gold = yellow mold" is, it just doesn't convince me. Slime molds are bright yellow, gold in a dark place would be a kind of glinting dark brown. Some of the classic uses are not that convincing (like the one where you see gold plates on a table but they are actually covered with yellow mold - they'd only be even vaguely the same color in a coloring book.)

    That said, a perfectly effective and naturalistic trick would just be to describe "a cloak with a bright yellow lining." If the players aren't poking *everything* with a spear or 10' pole they got to learn! Play your cards right and they'll be more afraid of yellow than the Green Lantern is.

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    1. I don't think this method should depend on any knowledge of D&D tropes. Maybe the equivalent of yellow mold in my campaign is neon pink. Player skill is built from player learning. A well designed setting, in my opinion, would also include hints and clues regarding things like this so that there are ways to learn that include methods other than dying once to the particular hazard.

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    2. I agree.

      There were situational clues. The room was totally empty except for the wardrobe and the cloak.

      I do wish I had said 'bright yellow' instead of gold, but the player didn't feel it was unfair. He was holding a 10' pole in his hand.

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  5. the part you can't really tell from the partial transcript, and maybe the most important part, is whether this kind of threat was consistent with the type of game you run. By that, I mean are the players already conditioned to expect that ANY random object they interact with could be a deadly trap, so that NOT checking it first can be seen as a fatal error?

    Not knowing your game, I can't say whether this applies to you, but one phenomenon I've noticed lately, especially with DMs who are rediscovering the "old ways", is that they want it both ways. On the one hand, they get annoyed if the players are prodding each and every stone with a 10' pole and generally moving at a glacial pace (they want to "keep the game moving") but at the same time want to be able to spring random "gotcha!" traps like this one.

    As long as the players know what to expect going in, it seems totally legit. But if the game up to that point has been a fast moving, I'll-let-you-know-when-you're-in-danger kind of game, a sudden "Save or Die!" breaks the player trust.

    Sorry for the ramble, but hopefully it made sense.

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    1. I don't get annoyed with my players for moving at a glacial pace if they want to, but there are generally consequences for moving more slowly. For example, by the book (well, most books), searching a 10 x 10 area thoroughly takes an entire turn. If there are things like wandering monsters or other costs to spending time, then taking that super cautious approach will have its own dangers. Also, one can mitigate this by allowing players to "precompile" certain actions. I feel it's not reasonable for players to say I do X all the time from now on, but it's totally reasonable for players to say we always look up for piercers in these immediate caverns from now on (and I'm explicit about the scope and costs of these kinds of precautions).

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    2. Yes. They are well aware.

      There are two thresholds. One is leaving town. Then the are exposed to wilderness encounters that can easily kill them. None of these encounters are unavoidable. There is always a chance to bypass or parley with an encounter that will certainly kill them.

      The second threshold is the 'adventure site'. Upon reaching the adventure site, any action can result in death - but as I've said, not from a source that isn't given the opportunity to be investigated.

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  6. I love the narrative, and very much like to play this way. My issue is that my players, who grew up playing a different style of game, just want to say, "We spend the time and turn the room upside down" instead of describing their actions.
    How would you have handled this encounter had that been the response? What about the hidden pouch of gold behind the dresser?

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    1. Sq footage of room / 100 / # characters searching = turns required for search. Depending on how cleverly the pouch is hidden, maybe something like a secret door check required, but usually I would just give it to them if they spent the time. Realistically, one should probably get diminishing returns per extra character searching.

      Or they could just say "I look behind the dresser" and have it done in 30 seconds of in-game time.

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    2. Oh, and explicitly regarding the "trapped" cloak: I would say you find a cloak inside the wardrobe ("description of cloak"), what do you do? At that point, the interaction is pretty much as Courtney described. I also periodically ask for clarification in situations where there are not dangers present, so the act of asking doesn't necessarily give away that something is hidden or a hazard. If they really don't want to interact with the world, that means they are relying on the ability checks or saving throws passively. At least, that is how I interpret it.

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    3. That is certainly something that is allowed. It guarantees that they will disturb any home of rot grubs, yellow mold, violet fungi, traps triggered by movement such as opening doors on dressers, and any other hidden opponents, traps, and dangers.

      The players know that saying "We spend the time and turn the room upside down" will involve doing just that -- tossing the room with all the attendant risks from the time that it takes to the dangers inherent in such a choice.

      If they say "We toss the room carefully" that is perfectly acceptable. My response is "how?" and we are back to where we started.

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    4. If you want to curb that behavior, my advice is to go "Ok!" then, without telling the players anything, roll a d4 to see who triggers the yellow mold, and have everyone roll percentiles, everyone who rolls XX% or over (75%? 80%?) is outside of the area affect, and then call for fortitude/poison saves. After all the rolls are completed, describe to them what happened and who is dead.

      If they are unhappy with it, then let them know you never make them decide to engage in unsafe activities. If they say it's not fair, explain that although life isn't fair in general this situation is extremely fair -- the results are the logical consequences of their choices.

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    5. My final comment is my players would never say that because they are tired of rolling up characters.

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  7. Pixel-hunting is nice, as long as you have a group of players that enjoy it. Just don't include explosive runes in your traps. They have a trend to detonate early, when the DM is describing them.

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    1. How is this pixel hunting? It is pixel hunting if the players need to find something (and only that thing) to proceed. That is not true in this example.

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    2. Indeed. There is no thing necessary to advance (since the players are in charge of what the plan is) that is hidden. There are many hidden things, but nothing is necessary. If there is a trap, there is always some sign in the enviornmental description, plus red herrings.

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