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.

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 the player\s 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 the characters 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 players ask there are always more they cannot ask. If the players don't ask a question, it's because the players have made an assumption, and I can guarantee not all of your assumptions will match mine. The Dungeon Master knows the right answers, and the players don't.

A "Historically-Effected" Consciousness

The 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 people view the world and the assumptions they make. These assumptions will never completely match another persons.

Any time the Dungeon Master is describing something in Dungeons and Dragons, it is imagined in each player's 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 the Dungeon Master sees 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, they proceed to do the stupid thing anyway—but aware of the consequences instead of ignorant about them.


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?

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 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 in third and fourth edition 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.

Originally published on 2/17/2014.This content is available in print at Lulu and digitally from DTRPG. See the Directory for more articles. 

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