Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bad DMing the Old School Way

Badelaire over at Tandards & Broadswords has a few things to say about the dice-are-evil style of gaming:

However, one argument that I will make for this older approach is the old adage that you only take a gamble when the stakes are worth it. In other words, leave to chance only that which you must leave to chance, and find ways of making sure everything else is a "sure thing'. If you can figure out how to find the hidden widget or talk your way past the palace guards without leaving it up to a potentially disastrous roll of the dice, so much the better. It'll require more engagement from both the Players and the GM, but in the end, isn't "engagement" in the game part of the fun?

I certainly agree, but there are hazards to this sort of play, and they're not always obvious. For instance, Darkwing (of Arcadia Prime fame) comments:

If I tell the DM I want to do X, Y, and Z, and he says "doesn't work, doesn't work, doesn't work" it gets frustrating. Even if he intends to railroad me, the act of making me roll to see if I succeed at least provides the illusion that there's a nonzero chance of success.

Yeah, that would be frustrating, but it's hardly the biggest risk you face with that sort of gaming. There was another sort of DM we all learned to recognize and avoid back in those days who were even worse than the “doesn't work” sort. When playing with this sort of unpleasant DM, you'd lay out your idea and the DM would just nod, letting you know that your plan was in action. And then, at the worst possible time, you would find out that something that should have been blatantly obvious to your characters rendered your plan inoperable. Maybe the soft sand of the seaside caves was too weak to hold your tripwire, or the door you needed to keep the minotaur out was flimsy and rotted through. Sometimes this was our fault. We just hadn't been paying enough attention when the DM described the room. More often than not, the DM would simply shrug at our protests and say, “You never asked what sort of shape that door was in.”

There's a fine line between being thorough and pixel-bitching. Itemizing every object in a room and going over it with a fine-toothed comb might be a smart move for the CSI team, but fun adventuring it is not. There's a reason the TV show reduces such scenes to a montage. Sometimes, yeah, it makes sense to pay a bit more attention to the evil baron's desk, or the floor leading up to the ancient altar upon which sits the golden idol. But not every room or door deserves such scrutiny. If there's something that ought to be blatantly obvious to the most casual observer, then the DM should mention it. And if the players seem to have forgotten that fact as they put their plan into action, the good DM will point it out again, making sure they understand the implications for their cleverness.

Note that this is not the same as saying “doesn't work”. Instead, the DM is saying, “so long as this condition exists, your plan won't work.” Sometimes, the players can change things so the plan does work. Sometimes, they'll have to come up with a new plan. But the DM doesn't just say no. And the good DM doesn't smirk behind the screen while something that should be blatantly obvious unravels all the clever thinking of the players.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

which is probably why there is the passive and roll based checks for 4e.

you just get to roll and anything that should come up to the more observant than average PC either comes up or fails to, and moves on from there, unless something changes that allows another DC.

4e DCs look like they are specifically designed to get rid of that fine tooth comb problem along with the unhelpful DM problem, turning it in effect into a "CSI montage" DC for everything in a location.

If you fail the DC, then whatever consequences come from that are borne out, such as a trap, or a monster starting an encounter with you, etc.

4e alleviates all those time consuming and non-fun problems, streamlining the role and play aspects of the RPG called D&D.