On the Deadly Difference

There's a big difference between this. . .
There are no players who do foolish things. There are only poor Dungeon Masters.

This is a real problem that affects even the best Dungeon Masters I know (and I humbly submit I play with a high-quality of Dungeon Master).

They are good Dungeon Masters because it's very hard in their game for a player to do a foolish thing.

Players, of course, do stupid things aplenty.

Foolish (adj.) resulting from or showing a lack of sense; ill-considered; unwise
Stupid (adj.) lacking intelligence or common sense.
What we are talking about is how to avoid falling into the Fantasy Gap.

The Fantasy Gap


"A great city sits among the trees, surrounded by clouds. Strange fey creatures move among the high branches wearing what appears to be the forest itself. You feel a powerful sense of awe as the city looms above you."

. . . and this.
Ok, so what's the city made of? How is it connected to the trees? How tall are the fey creatures? A "good" player might ask these questions, maybe. But how many more questions could we think of that they didn't ask? Let's try something even more complex.

"A shadowy path leads further into the bandit woods."

What's your action here? What's the first thing you do if you need to go down the path? Prepare for ambushes, right? Or are you checking for traps? How far can you see into these woods? Is there underbrush? Would you say you were checking the treetops?

These things seem trivial to ask, but no matter how many questions you ask there are always more you cannot ask. If you don't ask a question, it's because you've made an assumption, and I can guarantee not all of your assumptions will match mine. I know the right answers, and you don't.

A "Historically-Effected" Consciousness


Your brain was formed by a variety of genetic factors, and then exposed to a certain lifestyle and set of experiences. Those experiences affect the way you view the world and the assumptions you make. Additionally they will never completely match another persons.

Any time you are describing something in Dungeons and Dragons, it is imagined in each players mind in a totally different way, a way that matches their developed consciousness. Good, skilled, players ask as few questions as they can to narrow this gap as much as possible.

This process of closing this gap is so difficult, the general trend in gaming has been to eliminate as much of it from the gameplay as possible.

Witness the birth of character skill gaming!

Fusing Horizons

So any time you see a player about to do something "Showing a lack of common sense; ill-considered; unwise" it is almost universally because they don't understand the situation well enough to predict the consequences of their actions. 

No one is going to not light a torch and walk into a wall in the dungeon. No savvy adventurer is just going to walk right into traps on the way to a bandit camp. No reasonable person is going to attempt a jump they have no chance of making. They are taking those actions because their perception of the situation is a different one than yours!

So what's the solution?

Good Dungeon Masters usually indicate what the consequences of an action might be, no matter what action the player takes. Every single time a player does something that seems foolish to them they take a moment to make sure the player understands the situation accurately.

Often, very often in my personal experience, they proceed to do the stupid thing anyway -- but aware of the consequences instead of ignorant about them.

FAQ

Isn't this just coaching the players? Letting them play on easy mode?

Absolutely not! 

No, no, you're wrong. You're telling them what's going to happen before they take an action!

I understand. You're the Dungeon Master. It all seems so clear to you behind the screen. How would telling them what's going to happen not be coaching?

Only, I can assume that you are absolutely ignoring two very important facts. 

First, the players don't know what's behind the action. 
There is a tapestry hanging on the wall. What could possibly happen?
Burning it could open a secret door. Moving it could uncover a mirror with heinous effects. It could be treasure. Undead could be hiding behind it. It could be covering a concealed door. It may be there to keep the room warm. Quick! Which of those options is true?

Second, you don't have to tell them the consequence, just possible consequences.
If players are doing something 'foolish', then it's an indicator that they don't understand what consequences can result from their choice. So list more than one. Sometimes you can include the actual real consequence in the list, sometimes you can list other options. Either way, the players don't know, you're just creating a situation they can make an informed choice in.

But every time I do this the players will know something is up!

First, that's not a problem. Players knowing where gameplay is, is a feature, not a bug.
Second, Good dungeon masters get in the habit of informing players of possible consequences any time they take actions and checking to make sure it is what they intend to do.

But how will my players learn to be good players if I'm telling them what will happen all the time?

I interpret this question as saying "I want to play a game and hide the rules. If they were good, they would know them already!" 

This activity, of asking questions, of "Fusing Horizons", of really communicating clearly with another human being is so difficult that there are college courses about it, millions spent on projects to do it effectively, and the plain fact that they moved towards removing it from the game because of how hard it was to do.

So, yes, if your players haven't been playing for at least 5 years, if not a decade, assume that they are very inexperienced. Hell, my brother who'd been playing D&D for nearly as long as I have had no idea what yellow mold was. 

Communicating isn't cheating. The gameplay isn't in obfuscation of consequences. They are already obfuscated by virtue of being a player. It's in making the correct informed choice when you clearly understand the situation and the possible consequences.



Hack & Slash
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26 comments:

  1. It seems like this post could more or less be summarized as:

    Good communication with your players is key. If one of your players is trying something stupid, take a moment to make sure they've understood the situation correctly. It's always OK to tell your players things that their characters would obviously notice, such as that "the chasm looks too wide to jump."

    This is a good point, and something that not a lot of people realize... but I felt like you were talking in circles to stretch it out to 1000 words.

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  2. Actually, I think more could have been said about the issue. Often, the only time the DM knows what the character is paying attention to is when the player provides a statement of action. And that's the point where the player gets the additional information.

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  3. This was a fantastic read! I had run into far too many moments, to my liking, when GMing when the players will see me making a face or asking "are you sure?" and respond with "oh explative, something is up!"
    This does shed new light on how I could handle those situations (if they ever come up again, since that particular group isn't really coming together again...).

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    1. Right, Instead of asking "Are you sure?" and tipping them off, you respond in a consistent manner of saying "If you do that, X, Y, or Z might happen -- is that what you're doing?"

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    2. Took my time getting back here to reply:
      It's that precise approach that did not occur to me, to spotlight possible consequences instead. It is really good advice.

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  4. Hm. So would you tell a new player, "If you hit the skeleton with the sword, it will do less damage. If you use your mace, it will do more damage"?

    If the characters approach a gallery with stone statues, do you warn them that some of those statues might come to life if they enter?

    If the characters face off with an iron statue, do you warn them that their weapons may stick in it, or they may be splashed with molten material on a successful hit before they engage?

    If an ally is charmed, then put in a suit of black armor and used as a bodyguard by the bad guy, do you say "The mysterious man in the black armor is your ally, charmed"? If not, they may not like the outcome of running him through.

    If a character meets a pretty girl at a party, do you warn the player that the pretty girl may have the wrong sorts of friends? Or that she might have a disease? How much do you tell the players about this pretty girl that their characters can't be bothered to find out?

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    1. What I do, is not assume that the players understand the situation as well as I do.

      If I have new players, I absolutely will outline tropes and dangers for them, because they don't know them. As far to your specific questions:

      When engaging with monsters, I try to be as clear as possible about their characters assessment of the monsters -- these are this size, or it looks like a great many of them, because it is important for them to understand the risk for the player to make a decision. I do not tell them ahead of time special powers or secrets. If I did have a completely new player, I would say something about skeletons being immune to piercing/slashing weapons. Otherwise, that would come out during play. (Your sword seems to bounce off the bones doing little damage).

      Re: Approaching a gallery of stone statues. I absolutely might say something like this the first time a player encounters statues: "The room ahead is filled with stone statues. From here they look like normal statues. But you never know, they could come to life, be trapped, be an illusion, or possibly be the victims of a medusa or other creature that turns things to stone. But probably not. What are you doing?" I then assume they will remember that we had that conversation.

      Yes, if they face off against an Iron statue, I might say "It's a statue made of iron. Perhaps it's hot enough to melt your weapons. It might be immune to normal weapons. Maybe it will spit magma. It could even be a golem and totally immune to magic." I make sure they understand what they are facing off against.

      Re: Charmed ally. Uh, the answer to that is "yes, I tell them." but not for the reasons listed in this article. I mean, I don't think there's anyone dumb enough in the world to not pick up on that -- it's a traditional movie trope. "Oh, one of our party members is missing, and the bad guy has a new bodyguard covered head to toe in black armor." The drama there comes from how they resolve the situation.

      Yes, if they meet someone at a party, I tell them many, many possibilities. This should have less to do with their actions -- in a situation like this, they generally are taking action based on their character's choices and thoughts. I don't think that means the player should be confused as to what is happening.

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    2. I think I read the article a little differently (or maybe just approach the same subject differently). Over the years I've learned as a player to not just describe the actions I'm about to take, but the intention and assumptions that lay behind them.

      For example, as an inexperienced player I would often tell as little as possible about my tactics in a fight, because I didn't just want to fool my adversary - I wanted to fool my GM! I could say that I circle around the enemy to the left, or that I move backwards against the wall, and then mention a couple of rounds later that I try to push the monster over the cliff or loosen the rope to the candelabra. What often followed in those days was a lengthy discussion about just how far I've moved, in which direction exactly, where the enemy was standing relative to me, etc. etc. (we never used minis in my groups).

      As an experienced player I will instead say that I intend to circle the monster to flank it and drive it towards the cliff edge, or that I wanna get closer to the wall where the candelabra is fastened. I explain the intention behind my actions and the assumptions I've made to come to that plan. This is a way for me as a player to "fuse the horizon" - when the GM is equipped with my understanding of the situation she can always counter with "that tactic isn't viable because..." or "the wall is right behind you, but getting to the rope and getting your enemy under the candelabra will require..."

      Similarily, as a GM I will stop the game for a second when it seems the players are doing something foolish to ask them what they want to accomplish, or what they assume is going on.

      In the example with the stone statues I would know as a GM that they might come to life, but there's no way to convey this to my players without giving it off (I don't have a very good poker face). I would probably tell them that the room looks empty, drawing attention to the stone statues that are intricately detailed and of good craftsmanship. I would finish my description with a question: "what do you make of it?"

      Putting as much of the assumptions as possible out in the open is really the key. It also enhances gameplay; players will often assume things that I never thought of but that would still be really cool and not too late to add in.

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  5. Does communicating possibilities to the players backfire if it is seeded with misinformation? For example, noting to the players that if they enter a gallery of stone statues, some of them might come to life when, in fact, none of them will?

    If characters are set to leave a room that has a secret door, and they have not searched for it, do you just let them go? If they are searching all the rooms in a series, and none of them have secret doors, do you at some point say something?

    Do you explain things differently to the player of a character who is drunk than you do to the player of a character who is sober?

    Part of what I'm running into as I think this through is how much information this involves telling players that their characters do not know. I guess that clashes with player skill to me, to a point. If the players have not investigated, and may not even care, how much does the DM give them for the sake of making sure they get a caution before acting against their own interests?

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    1. Andrew -- That is the whole point! You let them know what possible consequences of actions might be so they understand the situation. You don't have to even mention the actual consequence. Or you can. They don't have any idea on their side of the screen what the truth is!

      It is a "Default Stance" when being a Dungeon Master. I am constantly making it clear to them the situation in a way they understand so that the choices they are making are informed ones. They still don't know the right choice, but at least they are actually using their skill as a player to make the choices instead of -- in a real concrete sense -- just guessing in the dark.

      What don't the characters know? You aren't telling them anything but possibilities! It is the clearest, most direct way, for them to understand the consequences of their actions.

      Look at the tapestry example above. What happens when you mess with the tapestry? I have it right here in my notes. At what point do listing those possible consequences remove player skill from the equation? You don't know anything more than you did a minute ago about the tapestry, except for some examples of what's in the realm of possibility, meaning any decision you make will be an informed one, and an actual representation of your skill as a player instead of a crapshoot in the dark.

      To be clear, you're not doing this "as a caution", this is the way you go about fusing horizons to close the fantasy gap.

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  6. Do you tell players the hit points, armor class, and damage ranges of foes before they engage?

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  7. I think for me part of the problem is here:

    "Communicating isn't cheating. The gameplay isn't in obfuscation of consequences. They are already obfuscated by virtue of being a player. It's in making the correct informed choice when you clearly understand the situation and the possible consequences."

    What seems to be going on, to me, is that the question goes beyond what the characters can see. So at that point, the decision is about what information that the characters cannot see, what meta game information, the DM shares. Consequences can then be obfuscated on a whole new level as the players are not just engaged with what their characters know, but also engaged in figuring out what possibilities the DM is outlining as consequences that may or may not unfold based on their actions.

    If the consequences are always accurate, then you have the DM telling the players things they could not possibly know. If the consequences described are not always accurate, then you have added another level of sifting the players must do.

    What am I missing?

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    1. You tell the player after they hit the skeleton with their sword that, “With no flesh on its bones, your sword passes in between the skeletons’ ribs barely nicking them.”

      You generally don’t tell a player the stone statues might come to life. Nor that they might explode. Nor that they might be illusions.

      Misinformation may backfire as the point of communication is to help bridge the gap between the player’s view of the scene and that of their character and of the GM.
      I
      n Honor+Intrigue I usually tell the players whether or not opponents they face are pawns, retainers, or villains (those are sort-of levels in H+I). I may do that before hand, or after they have observed the opponent, or after they have been in combat for a bit. Given the tone of the game it is not supposed to really be a secret. Also I roll the dice openly and tell the players the NPC’s total which allows the players to calculate the opponent’s combat skills.

      I think you have gone way beyond the point of the article. So far beyond it that I think you have missed the point entirely.

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    2. The key is that you give the players information that allows them to figure it out themselves. Specifically, tell them what their characters see and hear. A GM can draw attention to important things by describing them in detail without actually revealing what they are.

      For the statue example, a GM can say "You see four stone statues of ornate detail standing vigilantly in the courtyard, their featureless eyes giving a stern gaze into the distance." in his description of the area. All of this is information a PC would know just by looking at the courtyard. Yet, by drawing attention to the statues, a GM gives a hint of their importance.

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    3. The article isn't advocating telling the players every possible outcome. The point of the article is that what may seem obvious to the GM as you set up the plot or describe the scene may be completely missed by the players. What the author is saying, is that if your players are about to take an action that doesn't make sense to you (a foolish action) simply stop and ask them if they're sure. Make sure that you understand how they're comprehending the situation (trying to jump between two buildings, but not realizing that main street separates them), and then correcting or clarifying if it's needed.

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  8. Have the characters ever heard of statues coming to life and attacking adventurers?

    If so, but you think the players might not realize it's a possibility, then of course you mention it to them.

    If neither the characters nor the players are supposed to know, carry on. Campaigns are supposed to have surprises, after all.

    If you think the players know but the characters don't, and want them to role-play not knowing, I'm not sure what you do. You could talk about how very solid and unmoving the statues look, which will probably raise the players' suspicions but make it clear what the characters are perceiving and thinking.

    But if what you want is to have neither the players nor the characters know the statues might move, but for the players to feel dumb when the statues attack them because they think, oh, that must have been in some sourcebook or something, then you just don't say anything. I think that's the kind of DMing the post was opposed to. *shrug*

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  9. I like this post a lot. It actually addresses something I had happen in my own game a week ago; something I’ve been stewing on since: my players entered a monster/dog fighting ring in a basement to find it full of giant ants. At this point we had been playing something like 6 hours. It was late, we were all tired and ready to go home, and unfortunately I got a little lazy with the descriptions. When I described the ants, I screwed up and described them as ‘Giant.’ Obviously that can be interpreted in different ways. After 2 rounds of combat, finding their foe both more intelligent and resilient than they expected, one of my players said, “How are these ants so tough?”
    To which I responded, “Well, they have a pretty good AC of 3, so it’s going to be tough for you guys to hit them, and they are pretty big. So…”
    “Oh wow. So how big are they? Because I was thinking something like the size of a dog,” he said.
    At that point I knew I had fucked up. “Oh shit,” I said. “Ya, no… by ‘giant’ ants I meant like the size of a lion or bear. These bastards are pretty nasty.”
    They still decided that the ants weren’t going to scare them off, regardless of their size, and continued to try to exterminate them. One of the PCs got his head bitten off as a result (unfortunately, the one in the above conversation). He wasn’t upset because he knew he could have run away or retreated to re-assess the situation, but I know that, ultimately, the battle began poorly because I was careless with my initial description, and so take a portion of the blame from that PC death. It is a DM moment I feel pretty awful about.
    That mistake taught me a lot about the importance of careful and vivid descriptions, that fantasy-gap and fusing of horizons you spoke about.

    So, I have a question: how do you adequately ‘fuse horizons’ in a situation like a coat, covered in yellow mold, hanging in a closet with 2 other articles of clothing. If the player says, “I go through the closet, looking at each of the 3 articles of clothing you described,” do they just get hit with the yellow mold? Or do you think the DM respond with something like, “Going through the closet touching each article of clothing will reveal any special items – and also give you a chance to possibly find a secret door, but it also leaves you vulnerable to traps. Do you still wish to go through the clothing?”
    That seems to me like the right way to respond, however it also feels kind of… well, like I’m holding their hand. My players don’t like to be pandered to (I think few people do), but they of course don’t like unfair surprises either. Also, they will immediately know something is up if I say something like that… which is fine, I guess. But it turns them into paranoid, “I throw a rock at it,” players for the next 2 hours.

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    1. Yeah, I hear what you are saying. If you do it with some regularity though, it isn't "holding hands", it's just clear communication. It's likely the first time they go through clothes, there won't be any danger, and that's when you say something exactly like you wrote. And you say so every time. Until they wave you off. And then, when they do get popped by yellow mold, you can shrug, and they can admit it's their own damn fault.

      You might spend the first couple sessions with the "I throw a rock at it" players, but eventually, if you're consistent in your application, they will grow tired of it, and realize that the clues are in the description and just being paranoid of everything is a waste of time.

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  10. C, This article really is great. Would love to see follow ups with application to roleplaying and city exploration. E.g., "the duke looks untrustworthy" or " you arrive in the new city and there are 3 things to do here." I find new players spend a lot of time faffing about and then are frustrated they can't find the adventure. Experienced players are better at "switching gears" and getting to the next phase of the journey.

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  11. "There are no players who do foolish things. There are only poor Dungeon Masters."

    You really had me all set to disagree at this point, then you brought in the difference between "foolish" and "stupid" behavior and completely won me over. THAT, people, is how you write an intro!

    This is why I prefer to have some kind of skill system. Not one that replaces role-playing or simulates character knowledge, though. It's more tasks like jumping. I like to be upfront (and as a player prefer my referee do the same) about how that will be handled so an informed choice can be made. They ask how wide the chasm is, figure out if that seems possible and about what their odds should be, and decide if they wanna take that risk or how they might try to improve their chances, likely asking follow-up questions. The skill's just laying out what my assumptions are so there's no confusion over something as simple as "how far can the average person jump?"

    To those talking about statues and such, there are different ways of communicating with your players. You don't necessarily say "Hey, maybe check for traps in this hallway. Those are a thing." A subtler approach can work. Offer clues for the observant player. If your initial description of a room includes mention of bones, they're gonna pick up on that and get cautious. If they don't, and the trap springs, they'll understand why the skeleton was there and feel they messed up, rather than the ref was just some sadistic asshole. That's what you're going for: players in any game should own their mistakes and think "I screwed up"; not "this game's unfair" or "how was I supposed to know that?!"

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  12. An excellent article, C. When a player says they search for traps, I say they see something suspicious in the room without requiring a perception check. It turns the game to problem solving venture rather than a crapshoot of "save or take damage" obstacles. I wish they'd change Pathfinder and D&D's trap systems.

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  13. Sandbox adventures always seem to blow up in my face. My players get really frustrated and always feel like they're not getting anywhere, even when they're making progress. And when they do make progress, they feel like it's just a shot in the dark. I think I'm not communicating well enough.

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  14. This article definitely reflects something I've experienced problems with, especially in the Red Box game I ran several years ago. Best example: when the dwarf, Zaltar Gorebear, threw a flask of Greek fire at the huddling group of hobgoblin young in B2. I had described the females as standing in front of them clutching crude stone knives to protect them, so it seemed natural to me that when he attacked the young in this way, the females would respond by charging him. They ended up stabbing him to death. The player was upset because he thought the females were farther away and would have taken more than a round to get to him (we were not using miniatures or a grid). I felt bad about it afterward because I realized that if the player had understood the likely consequences of the action (as well as his character probably would have, under the circumstances) he would not have done something so foolish. If the player had understood the potential consequences, and still took the action, then it would have been fair play and I wouldn't have felt bad about his character getting killed.

    Interestingly, Dungeon World solves this problem by having the GM begin with soft moves, and giving the player a chance to respond. In this case, I would have first said, "The female hobgoblins, stunned and consumed by rage, clutch their crude stone knives and rush at you. What do you do?" Instead of immediately rolling for attack and damage, as in D&D.

    Other story games solve this problem by negotiating consequences before the dice hit the table. In my TSOY game, for example, it sounds like this. "Okay, if you win this contested ability check, you'll knock the sergeant unconscious. But if he wins, his men will grab you from behind and tie you to the tree."

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    1. Yeah, this is where maps and possibly figures can be of use. Even if I don't use maps and figures, I still draw everything out on paper so everyone is on the same page.

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  15. Magic: the Gathering tournament rules have a specific penalty for "failure to agree on reality". I love that phrase, and I think it exactly summarizes the root problem that this article is trying to help people avoid.

    The only minor quibble I would have is that I think this is less about consequences, and more about reality. Or rather, describing consequences is one possible way to ensure reality is agreed upon, but not the only one. Another way is to reiterate details the players might have missed, or may not fully understand. Christopher's "giant means GIANT ants" example above is a good case study for that.

    As an aside, this is not unique to D&D-style games. I once ran an hour and a half of In a Wicked Age picturing in my head a sort of Italian Renaissance setting, until one of the characters bet the keys to his Ferrari in a card game. My players had been picturing modern, almost cyberpunk Italy all that time. So much for my powers of description!

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  16. I find there are two key things (as a DM and player) that help with the communication: 1) being specific and using comparisons and 2) voicing your assumptions.

    Using the giant ant example above, using the word giant by itself is pretty vague. Describing it as a "giant ant the size of a horse" is much more specific and makes it easier for players to visualize. Saying something is 30 feet in the air is accurate, but saying it is three stories up is a better reference for players and allows them to better judge the distance. Providing those references and comparisons really helps everyone to get on the same page.

    Communicating assumptions is a big deal especially from the player to the DM. In my experience the default assumption on the part of DMs is that characters (not players) are stupid and not cautious wile the default assumption of players is that their characters are smart and cautious. I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone tell a DM they search a chest or closet and the DM assumes that means the character just runs up and rips the door open and starts rummaging through things while the player assumed it meant that his character took some basic cautionary steps like checking for traps or odd protrusions and carefully opening things. So communicating those basic assumptions to the DM is important. And DMs, don't assume anything about how a character does anything. Make the player tell you.

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