ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Walk a Mile in Their Dice: The practical limitations of “Don’t be a dick”

“Don’t be a dick” has become something of go-to gaming advice, like a social Rule Zero.

As a general truth, it’s great. I mean yeah, don’t be a dick. As advice or a rule, it’s useless. Why? There are two cases where someone is being a dick in a game:

1) Malice: The person is intentionally being a dick. Will giving them advice help? No. Someone who is knowingly being a dick is pretty unlikely to say “oh, gee, you’re right, I should stop.” That’s part of the definition of being a dick. If you could just tell jerks to stop being jerks and they listened, the world would be a far simpler place. q.v. Trolls.

Fortunately, real malice is a vanishingly small subset of the gaming world, at least where I game. You may be gaming with a lot more jerks than me, in which case my best advice is to go hang out with a better class of people.

Far, far, far more common is the second case:

2) Misunderstanding: The person being a dick actually thinks they’re the victim, that other people are being dicks to them. They’re just defending themselves. Reflecting “ah, right ‘Don’t be a dick’” doesn’t help, because they don’t think they’re the problem: those other guys are being dicks, not me!

Before you know it the dick-spiral feeds back upon itself, rapidly becoming a nigh unstoppable dick-juggernaut: you feel the sting of an unintentional insult, behave like a dick to defend yourself (all while thinking the other person is the dick, not you), so others dickishly respond to your (seemingly spontaneous) dickishness thinking they’re defending themselves… Dick dick dick dick dick dick. Where does it all end?

This is the great quagmire, the root of most hostility at the table. It can happen to anyone, even the nicest, most perceptive person. Parroting “don’t be a dick” doesn’t untie this knot, because it ignores the cause. It winds up being smug criticism instead of helping you do the right thing.

My advice: stop saying “don’t be a dick.” Start thinking about why people are being dicks (or seem to be dicks). Start with the extremely magnanimous assumption that someone being a dick doesn’t intend to be one. Assume there’s a misunderstanding. Walk a mile in their dice.

Benefits of Tyranny

If the internets are to be believed, the world is filled with tyrannical “behold my works ye mighty and despair” GMs, game masters who dominate the table and tell their story with the players as witnesses or minimally free-willed participants. They go by many names: storytellers, railroading illusionists, social puppet masters. Tyrant GMs.

There are lots of arguments why this happens: the GM has more the authority and power corrupts, rules-heavy systems require the GM to do lots of prep which gives him a disproportionate ownership of the game when everyone gets to the table, etc.

But never mind for a second why a GM would want to be overlord and god: instead ask why a player would put up with it.

If it’s a widespread problem, then there must be lots of players agreeing to play in those games. The usual disclaimer is something like, well, the players don’t like it but it’s the only game they’ve got. They have no choice, the poor waifs! But that’s hardly a flattering explanation. It’s almost as insulting to the hapless players as it is to the tyrant GM.

I started out making a value judgment that GM tyranny is a bad thing, but by doing so I skipped over the possibility that there could be something advantageous about the whole arrangement.

Let’s face the unspeakable question: are there benefits to GM tyranny?

Freedom is Slavery (and we have always been at war with Eurasia)

Let’s say there are two kinds of responsibility a player has at the table: creative responsibility and social responsibility. On the creative side you are trying to make a good story, to do something interesting and add to the fiction. On the social side you are trying to make sure everyone else is having fun, and that their idea of what is good and interesting is also being respected.

All that can be a lot of work. But with the tyrannical GM, you have one person who steps up and says “this is my game, it is my creation, I’m in absolute control and make everything happen. I resolve all disputes and I make sure all players are entertained.” Which means you, the player, are completely off the hook. You can be as selfish as you want, or as rude as you want, or as lazy as you want, because the GM has taken responsibility for making the game work and taking care of everyone at the table.

By claiming absolute authority, the tyrannical GM frees the players from responsibility. They don’t have to worry about making the game good, or playing well, or really just about anything. They get to abdicate responsibility, so they can kick back and have a beer. They can just indulge themselves and have fun.

This basic truth can be found in many walks of life: you can live a happy and carefree life if you just let someone else make decisions for you. It’s an old, old story.

And think about it: this is just a game. A recreational pastime. Why not relax and let someone else do all the work? What’s wrong with that? You watch movies right? What’s the difference?

That’s pretty much the philosophical dividing line: do you think gaming is recreation or a creative art form. And even if you are someone who believes gaming is art, a tyrant GM gives you the luxury of grumbling about every single thing that’s wrong with the game without having to worry about blaming yourself. You aren’t in control, so you can’t possibly fail, like the would-be writer who just knows he’d be great if he ever wrote something, so he doesn’t write lest he finds out he’s wrong. It’s a cozy being a critic, an oppressed genius.

This is not a love song

Am I saying this is a good thing? Am I saying this is a desirable dynamic? Am I saying this is the game I want? No to all three. But if it works for some people, that’s what’s important.

Instead of just saying “damn, those people are stupid, my way is better” take a deep breath and accept that different people want different things from the table. Maybe your game-fu is superior, or maybe they just have an entirely different goal than you do. Different victory conditions.

Is it ironic that playing with a tyrannical GM is a more like playing a video game? Not when you consider how many more people play video games than role playing games.

Bad Trap Syndrome (part 2), Curing the Bad Trap Blues

You are in a room. Before you are two doors. On the floor are ancient runes that say beyond one of these doors you’ll find the cure to the bad trap blues.

Choose wisely!

Door 1 — Writing a language of traps

To make more and better interactive traps we would need a language for traps. D&D has a complex language for combat and critters, but traps just borrow a little piece of it, usually to make more zap traps. When I made the traps for Death of Dr Null I extended things a little bit and laid out how each trap would operate each round, including rules for traps surprising or not surprising each character — if you’re not surprised, you get that much more opportunity to do something before the hammer drops.

A complete trap system would include building blocks for making multiple step interactive traps the same way the rules let you build elaborate types of monsters or characters, along with a subset of the combat system specifically for traps. What are the species of traps? How do you link these building blocks together to easily construct unique interactive traps? What kind of actions are appropriate in each? What can you do each round?*

The other rethink is to change how rogues or anyone else interferes with the trap. If the trap becomes a complex system like combat then the rogue can serve a prominent role during the interaction without stealing (or canceling) the show. Much the same way as a big armored fighter can protect other characters, the thief could weaken elements of the trap even while the party is in the middle of it. Poison darts strafe the party as they thread the idol maze, but because of the rogue’s warning everyone gets a bonus to their save. The rogue doesn’t prevent the water from filling the room, but his quick actions partially block the spigots giving the party more time to escape before the room fills up.

Door 2 — Traps as Role-playing

Like a lot of groups we’ve been getting back to our roots and playing some old school Basic D&D in memory of Gary Gygax. We’re talking a low-level dungeon crawl, 10′ poles, iron rations, the works.

When I made the dungeon I did something a little unusual: I made all the traps easy to spot.

Yep, no surprise traps. You might not know exactly _what_ the trap is, but it is always pretty clear there is something dangerous. It might be the remnants of past victims (a litter of half-melted bones scattered in front of one unusual door…) or some particularly suspicious detail (why is there an open spiked pit at the bottom of that staircase?).

Part of it is just game world logic: if there are monsters and other people tromping around, the only trap that would still be a hazard is one that resets, which means other things would have been killed before and their remains would still be there. A one-shot trap would have to literally be somewhere no one had ever gone before to still be a hazard. The other part is game balance: low level D&D can naturally be quite lethal, since any damage roll is a potential instant kill for the average character. The thief? Yeah, he has a 10% chance to find traps.

The interesting part is that removing the surprise and basically announcing there’s a trap (for anyone who’s paying attention) completely changes the dynamic of play. Instead of being a hit point tax for walking down the hall, it becomes, well, a game. The players huddle, they have their characters look around, they brainstorm possible dangers and ways to get around them. And since this is old school D&D and the no Spot check rule applies, they really do have to think and ask questions to figure out the problem. Even zap traps become interactive because the players are interacting with them before they go off.

Sure, even with all the time in the world and all the evidence to examine sometimes they come to completely incorrect conclusions about how the trap will work and walk smack into the buzz saw anyway (“it’s not a door, it’s a grey ooze pretending to be a door? Crap!”), but even when that does happen the players are engaged rather than turned off.

Why? They are seeing the results of their decisions (successful or disastrous) rather than being hit with something they couldn’t do anything about.

* yeah I know, some of you are screaming “system grids! system grids!” but we’ll have to save that for another time

Bad Trap Syndrome

“We approach the door.”
“Half way down the corridor you step on a trap and darts fly out of the walls! The first character in the marching order takes” (roll roll roll) “7 damage!”
(scribbles damage on character) “Okay, we keep going. Someone open the door.”

I’m willing to bet that in all the hours you’ve logged in dungeons, you’ve been in more good fights than good traps. Come to think of it, have you ever been in a good trap, a trap that actually added something to the game?

Why is that, you ask? Bad Trap Syndrome. It’s a sordid tale, a dysfunctional love triangle between rogues, traps and the GMs that make them…

Are You a Good Trap or a Bad Trap?

Traps fall into two basic categories: zap traps and interactive traps. The difference isn’t the kind of danger, it’s how they work in play.

A zap trap is over as soon as it starts: it inflicts immediate harm on the intruders (zap!) who don’t really get to do much more than make a save or hope they don’t get hit. The unfortunate victim steps on something or touches something and then something falls on them or stabs them, gasses them or whatever. Done, move along.

Making zap traps is easy. Just think of what is going to do the messy bit (darts, gas, jets of fire, crushing blocks, whatever) assign the damage, saves, etc. You can litter a dungeon with them in minutes flat.

They’re easy to make but they’re also bad gaming. Zap traps are wandering damage with a pretty description, a hit point tax for walking down the hallway, or (if you prefer) a very short fight where only one side gets to do anything. Just like Action Shticks, if you can’t really make any decisions–if you don’t interact with the situation–it fails the “is it a game” test. No choice, no game.

Which conveniently leads us to the alternative, the interactive trap. The interactive trap creates a situation the characters have to react to. They’re trapped in something or being threatened by impending danger or carefully navigating through something, but no matter which it is they get to make decisions about what to do.

Even the humble 10′ pit can be a minimal form of interactive trap, since if you survive you probably have to figure out a way of getting out of it or around it, but really juicy interactive traps have things like arrays of idols that shoot different beams out of their eyes when you step on certain squares, mazes of scything blades, etc etc.

Interactive traps are often really puzzles, even if the riddle the players are trying to solve is just “how do we get out alive.” Like any puzzle, it can take quite a bit of thought to design an interactive trap that is challenging but still solvable, not to mention stylish.

Rogue Busy Work

“It’s a trap!”
– Admiral Ackbar, typical rogue

Now let’s say you’re the GM. You’ve worked very hard to make a complex interactive trap. It’s a work of art. You’ve figured out how water slowly collecting in cisterns floods the chamber but then drains hours later after the intruders are dead and even raises the fallen block that sealed the room — because any serious trap has to be able to reset, right?

Along comes the rogue. Rogues are supposed to be the guy that finds all the traps and helps the party avoid all that damage. Lo and behold, the rogue can make a roll to find the trap and a roll to turn the whole thing off. Crap.

No GM wants to put all that work into something and then have the whole thing get cancelled by one roll, particularly if you were counting on it to fill play time. It’s like skipping a major battle you prepped because someone made a diplomacy check (oh sure, you all have anecdotes about that one time that happened and how cool it was — sheesh, it was one time!). It’s just a bad design work vs playtime pay-off.

So you subtly sabotage the rogue. You make it too hard to find the cool trap or you fudge the roll, and even though you are being a rat bastard GM your instinct is correct: making a roll to skip a whole encounter isn’t good game play (being clever and skipping an encounter, maybe, but just rolling clear is lame). If the encounter was interesting, you are skipping the interesting. It’s a little like rolling to skip the adventure.

But now you have guilt. You’re taking away the rogue’s whole thing. Hmm, better give the rogue something to do. Better put in a lot of zap traps in the rest of the dungeon so the rogue can be useful. Now the rogue can remove all the lame hazards that you shouldn’t have included to begin with. It’s rogue busy work.

The other option is to play it straight and you let the rogue bypass the trap you put spent all that time on. What does that teach you as a GM? Not to waste your time building cool traps. Next game you just put in more fights instead.

Welcome to Bad Trap Syndrome.

next up: Curing the bad trap blues

Initiative: the Silent Killer

“The main thing to remember is to do everything in an orderly, step-by-step fashion. Deal with your players’ actions and reactions one by one instead of all at once, or you will never be able to keep track of what round it is, and who’s doing what when.”

– Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1979

In what’s unintentionally turning into an ongoing “what’s wrong with kids these days” series, today I swing my withering gaze towards initiative, the silent killer of good game play. No, really.

In modern d20, combat is a very orderly process. Everyone has an initiative number, and you go in order from top to bottom and then start over again next round. It’s a natural, simple method for keeping track of where you are in the combat and making sure everyone gets their turn. Hard to argue with how logical it is.

Back in old school D&D you determined initiatives for the whole side together, not individuals (it also made you roll each round, but that’s another story). So, if the players won, all the PCs went, then all the monsters went, and so on. The specific order the players went in was usually decided by something terribly scientific like going around the table or just letting people go when they thought of something they wanted to do. It could get pretty messy, hence the stern advice in the opening quote.

At first glance, d20 initiative seems very different from old school D&D, but if you collapse all the different player initiatives and ignore the metaphysical concept of when a round begins and ends, the system turns out to be pretty similar: all the players go, then the GM goes, then all the players go, and so on (it may not seem that way round 1 if some of the players rolled higher than the GM and some lower, but after round 1 that’s the pattern).

That’s all very interesting, you say, but what’s the big deal? It sounds like nothing has really changed except to make it clear when each player goes?

You are exactly right, but as it turns out that tiny detail, giving players a specific turn order, can have a huge impact on the game.

Tell me when it’s my turn…

The GM rolls the attacks for the last slizzard raider (it was a bad round for Fred). When he’s done he looks down at his crib sheet to check the initiative order and says “okay Mikey, you’re at initiative 17, it’s your turn. What do you do?” While Mikey’s deciding what to do, and maybe asking the GM questions about the situation, the other players are basically waiting for their turns. They should be paying attention and thinking about their upcoming actions, but given human nature they may be chit-chatting, kibitzing or strolling into the kitchen to get a drink. Either way, they’re waiting. After Mikey’s done, it’s the next player’s turn, and he gets to wait too.

Seems fine right? But there’s a subtle but powerful difference between having a turn for the players as a whole versus having a specific turn for each individual player:

Saying “okay, the monsters just went, now what do you guys do?” tells the players to huddle up and figure out what they’re doing. It implicitly encourages the players to cooperate and play together. There is negotiation or even debate about who goes when.

On the other hand, saying “okay, initiative 17, so now it’s Mikey’s turn” tells one player it is their turn to act, and tells the other players that it is _not_ their turn so they should butt out.

By precisely enforcing when each player goes, in effect by slicing a broad turn for all the players into several smaller individual turns for each individual player, you set the stage for each player to make decisions in isolation. Each player is closer to being in a solo game with the GM rather than playing with the other players (for extra credit, add up the amount of time each player talks to the GM rather than to other players).

Isolated decision-making also leads to inattention: players pay attention when the GM goes, but stop paying attention to each other. If you aren’t interacting or coordinating with your fellow players, watching what they’re doing becomes a lot less interesting. Players pay attention when the GM acts, because the GM may try to kill their character (one of the more drastic forms of interaction).

Mountains & Molehills

Crazy! you say. I’ve never seen anything like this in my game! You’re totally exaggerating!

Maybe. But rules influence play, and sometimes those influences are quite subtle. Invisible to the naked eye. It took me about 200 games to identify this particular problem, but maybe I’m just slow.

No, individual initiatives doesn’t prevent the players from working together, or having a great game. Obviously not. But it’s hurting rather than helping. It discourages the fun, whether your group consciously realizes it or not.

The Challenge: Embrace the Chaos

“Now initiative dice are rolled, and party A’s score is lower, so party B gets to react to the assault. Balto attacks Aggro (who is in AC 2) with his staff…”

– Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1979

What’s my challenge, you ask? (of course there’s a challenge, there’s always a challenge)

Forget about individual initiative. Just alternate between the GM’s turn and the players’ turn. When it’s the players’ turn, just let them go in whatever order they want. If it gets messy some rounds just sort things out — you’re the GM after all.

Players can already move their initiative order around by delaying and re-delaying, so this method doesn’t really change rules balance, just social behavior. If you’re a stickler for details and want to avoid any possible balance issue, roll initiative normally at the start of the combat and let those players that beat your GM initiative go first, then do the monsters, then let all the players go together from then on. That keeps things the same as the normal d20 rules.

What difference will it make? Hopefully you’ll see more chatter, more attention, and just more interaction at the table. Give it a try.

Don’t Roll, Think

DM: “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?”

Player 1: “Yes, let’s get out of here and go someplace where we can find something interesting.”

Player 2: “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.”

– Dungeon Master’s Guide, 1979

Here’s a Generation Gap moment for some of you: old-school D&D did not have a Spot check.

There were no rules to determine if you saw something, or heard something, or smelled something, or whatever. There were rules for surprise, rules for listening at doors (but only doors) and there were rules for finding a secret door (“tie the elf to a stick and wave him around!”), but a generic Spot check did not exist (or Search check, or Listen check, or Notice check or whatever).

Wow, you think, things are so much better now in this modern world! Now I have an accurate way of determining whether a character notices something or not. Now I can give them fair unbiased information about the world around them with a simple die roll!

How did those primitive gamers survive, you ask? Simple: players listened to the GM’s description of the game world. Then they asked questions. Then the GM (ahem, DM) told them the results.

Rolling dice is not supposed to replace your brain. Making Spot checks all the time is just a lame way of saying “well, you haven’t asked anything that would really tell me if you would notice this or not, so we’ll just roll and let the dice decide.”

And if the information you may or may not notice is pertinent to the plot, it is asinine-by-design to decide whether to reveal it with a die roll. Scene from a GM lynching: “well if you had rolled better you would have seen that the tribe had red banners instead of black and that whole game would have probably made more sense to you, but hey, you failed your Spot check…”

One Roll to Rule Them All…

Why am I picking on the poor Spot check? Partially because I’m a big bully, but mostly because it’s a good example of a bad trend.

It’s not surprising that as a game evolves, people expand the rules to cover more and more cases. Do we have rules for car chases? No? Better add some. Even if it’s just a question of applying a core mechanic where it has not been applied before, its logical to want to be able resolve more and more situations with dice.

The trick is that dice are supposed to improve the game, not replace the gamer. What’s the final outgrowth of resolving more and more things with dice instead of brains? The one-roll adventure: if you make the roll you win! Game over. No player decision making needed.

What are dice supposed to do? They’re supposed to resolve things that cannot be resolved in the polite confines of a kitchen table or in the physics of our world. Does my car explode when I crash into that tanker truck? Does my broadsword cut off that dragon’s head? Does my magic spell levitate the castle?

If it’s something you can do at the table, you should do it, not roll for it. Unless it’s boring. Or rude.

Your character is your representative in the game world, not your replacement. Tell your character what to do. Ask the GM questions. Explore the environment. Think, play, etc.

A Spotless Game

Here’s the challenge: if it’s not a combat situation or about to become one (aka checking for surprise or attacks at unawares), don’t use Spot checks. At all. None. Zero. Let players describe what they look for or how they are behaving and just arbitrarily decide what they see or don’t see.

Once your players get the gist of it, see if they become more inquisitive, interactive and basically just play more instead of falling back on the Spot check crutch.

What other rolls should you stop using in favor of play? You tell me…