So that’s how it is.

This week we’re talking about how smart players are. Sorry, but this one is mainly focused on tabletop games.

Players will almost always try to think ahead of their Dungeon Master. If they can out think you, they can predict what you’re going to do next, and be prepared for it. And if they’re prepared for it, they stand a much better chance of surviving it. Probably, at least. The thing about players, though, is that they generally have to discuss their theories with each other, and considering they’re generally sitting across the table from you, you generally get to hear both what they’re planning, and what they think is going to happen.  A bad dungeon master will take this information and use it to thwart their players at every turn. That is the sort of behavior that leads to players communicating with each other only in whispers, passed notes, and semaphore. As a rule, if your players decide to leave the room once in a blue moon because the ultimate battle of ultimate destiny is about to happen and they want to keep their preparations secret, let them. But, if they leave the room when deciding what route to take to the store, you need to reevaluate your table dynamic.

That being said, one of the greatest thing a DM can do is steal from the players. They are going to be coming up with all kinds of ideas about how your game world works anyways, you might as well use some of them. If you’ve come up with an explanation for something, like why the chancellor is plotting his revenge against the king, and the players have decided he’s out for revenge over the perceived slights the king has been heaping upon him for the last thirty years while you decided he was being mind controlled, incorporating the player’s idea will only enrich the story. Perhaps the demons in his head found firmer purchase thanks to the years of abuse he felt he had suffered. Storytelling is a collaborative effort, and it pays to get help with it. That being said, don’t tell your players you’re doing this, as it detracts from the feeling that the game world is a concrete place. Letting players know you changed your mind about why the great space war was fought based solely on an offhand remark one of them made about how funny it would be if the space elves had masterminded the whole thing will draw unwanted scrutiny to your universe and make it seem far more fluid than it should be. Also, while blending of ideas can be done fairly regularly, such as the mind controlled chancellor example, outright stealing of ideas, such as the space war being masterminded by the elves and not starting over a mineral dispute in Alpha Centauri, should not occur with any kind of regularity. Players love to find out that their suspicions were right all along, but it doesn’t do to let them think they’re smarter than you are, unless they do actually guess what you are planning, in which case they earned it. Quick little explanations, such as the shop keeper being prejudiced because he hates elves, are generally fair game though.

In summary, your players sometimes have good ideas. Just don’t ever tell them that.

I didn’t need to know that.

Today we’re talking about explanations.

Many times, while you are running a game, players will demand to know the rational behind a certain choice. Why did the orc choose to stab the rogue instead of the fighter? Why did the designers of this warehouse decide it needed an acid pit in the center? Why did the quest-giver decide that the fate of the world/universe/kingdom was best left up to a team of murderous vagabonds? And no matter what explanation you give, they will endlessly question and debate your reasoning. As a rule, if you’re players are asking such a question, it is because they have come up with a separate, and in their minds far better, explanation for why whatever situation has just occurred should have been resolved differently. The orc clearly should have stabbed the more dangerous looking party member! That acid pit is a workplace hazard and OSHA would never have stood for it! Fighting the inescapable horror from beyond the universe threatening the world/kingdom/universe should really be someone else’s problem!

And you will want to argue with them! It’s only natural, they are impugning your ability to craft a believable universe, it’s only right that you feel the need to defend your handiwork. You might even start trying to explain things ahead of time, in an attempt to forestall argument. The orc realizes the rogue is an elf, and takes a swing at his hated racial enemy! Do not do this! Your players don’t need an explanation, it’s enough for them the things their characters see and hear. It’s perfectly fine to give them hints, along the lines of “The orc snarls as his eyes fall on your pointed ears and takes a swing”, and it definitely provides an enriching experience for the player, but refrain from telling them why YOU are doing anything. Maybe that rogue is getting stabbed because he’s tactically the most dangerous, or because the player is getting on your nerves, or because the fighter is completely untouchable. It doesn’t matter, because you’re not going to tell them. They are living in the world you establish, and it is up to you to make sure that world makes sense, not them. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use player input, which I will cover later, but it does mean you shouldn’t discuss the rational for game decisions with your players.

If you’re players ask within the confines of the game, though, that’s a different story. If they subdue the orc, kidnap the building designer, or make demands of the ruler, they deserve an answer. They may even do some research into their questions, searching the infoweb or ancient libraries for reasons. This is a good time to get in your backstory, give out the thought processes behind the NPC’s decisions, and put a bit for realism into your world. That being said, I’m not in any way suggesting you have to tell them the truth, just that they deserve to know something. Remember that NPC’s are allowed to be just as untrustworthy as your average player.

Remember, don’t explain yourself, don’t have your NPC’s explain themselves unless someone asks, and don’t forget to lie to the player when appropriate.

Game! Set! Story!

Ok, this one is coming at you a bit late, but real life is one of those things.

This week I’m talking about the importance of set dressing, the little touches and objects that give places and people character without you having to rub your player’s noses in it.

Unobtrusive set dressing is one of the best ways to convey information to players, and it gives your game a vibrancy it would otherwise lack. A player who walks through town to the mayors office and told “Times are hard because of the recent goblin attacks, and we need you to fix this” is going to be nowhere near as engrossed as the player who walked through a shantytown of refugees to the scorched walls of town hall, where the bedraggled mayor pleaded for their assistance. I should stress, though, that sets are not just a matter of applying adjectives until the right feeling is achieved. Seeing an object can generally be relied upon to get the player thinking about how it got there, which in turn helps fabricate their opinion of someone. For instance, the crusty old barman might have a hook for a hand, but it’s the well worn sword hanging on the mantle behind him that tells you how he got it. Objects speak volumes, and go a long way towards giving players the back story they need to hear, but could never possibly stay awake for. The town was saved by a mighty hero hundreds of years ago? There’s a statue of a burly man with a sword standing on a dragon’s head in town square. This kingdom has been at war with the dwarf mines for fifty years, and have settled into an uneasy truce? The tavern has a “No-Footstool” sign up and there’s still a couple of people with beards nailed up on their walls. The humans and weird blue skinned aliens have had an alliance for hundreds of years? The holonews has an alien and human anchor, and all signs and announcements are in human and crazy alien gobbledygook.

The rule is pretty simple. If you can show it or tell it, show it. A player who can visualize your world more clearly is a player who is more immersed. Same for visual media, don’t tell the player, put it there for them to see. Not in a cut-scene, but something they stumble across in their travels. Possibly the best use for set dressing is for defining characters. If you walk into a man’s office and he has a messy desk, newspaper clippings of his past triumphs on the wall, and a half empty bottle on a shelf in the corner, you can suddenly form a picture of them in your mind. This sort of thing is remarkably easy to do, and can be done fairly quickly. Generally, all it takes is to think about the person or situation you want to describe, and come up with three sentences about it. Simple things, like a dungeon being damp and musty, or an abandoned outpost having moss growing over it’s broken walls, or even the sides of a man’s computer being covered in layers of post-it notes will let the players delve deeper into your world and construct a more satisfying narrative.

Nowhere is this concept more important than in a video game wherein the player’s character is expected to have a certain personality. Giving the player a chance to visit some space that belongs entirely to them is by far the one of the best ways to tell the player who they are and why they act the way they do. A fussy character may have an extremely neat desk denoting his meticulous personality, a grizzled mercenary commander may have a little box of medals and a picture of the girl of his dreams hidden in his locker to show he is courageous but sensitive, and pretty much any character would have a box of machine parts shoved discretely out of the way because they are secretly a robot. The main thing is that you let the players see the environment their characters have created for themselves, so they know why they are expected to act they way they do.

Remember, use objects, not just adjectives, and try to make three sentences. It makes it long enough to be worth listening to, but not so long they tune out.

Ten Foot Poles

This week’s post is on the nature of traps.

Traps are more than just a way for characters who put ranks in disable device to feel useful, they are a way to make your players think creatively. Traps should create a situation that inconveniences players, without instantly killing them. Exceptions to this exist, occasionally in the mouths of stone dragons, but there are exceptions to every rule. When you put a trap in a game, you have two options. You can either have the trap trigger and cause a harmful situation, or have the trap be visible and need to be avoided. Either way, it forces the player to think creatively and come up with an interesting solution.

Let’s take a pit trap, for example. It’s fifteen feet deep, it’s got spikes on the bottom, and it’s covered in a false floor. Let’s take it in steps. First, detection. the floor looks different, somehow, over the pit. Maybe there’s a little crack in the ground all around it, or it’s a slightly different color. Either way, your players should have the chance to notice it somehow. Let’s say they don’t, and suddenly you’ve got a few players at the bottom of a bit, sporting a couple of nasty puncture wounds. As soon as they take stock of themselves and see to their wounds, the thinking starts. How do they get out of the hole? It depends on what’s in their packs. Maybe one of them packed a grappling hook, maybe somebody can change size, maybe they’re even one of those smart parties that come with an extensible ladder packed in the bag of holding. Or maybe not, and they have to pull the spikes out of the ground and jam them in the wall, forming a makeshift staircase. You get the idea.

The second kind of trap, the visibly dangerous ones, are handled much the same way. First, the trap is detected. Perhaps green gas is pouring out under the door, or someone else walking down the hallway in front of them was just bisected by a swinging blade. Either way, the players are alerted to the presence of danger, and the method of dealing with it is up to them. Resist the urge to allow them to simply roll a die and defeat the obstacle. If they manage to find where the gas emitter is hidden, allow them to roll to plug it up, or if they shimmy up the wall and pry the hatch off the swing blade, let them jam the mechanism. But require some form of problem solving on the part of your players.

Do you have a favorite trap? And are you for some reason reading my blog? Post it in the comments.