Lie To Me

Today we’re going to talk about little white lies, and whether they can enhance your game.

A lot of this will depend heavily on what type of game you’re running, the attitudes of your players, and the investment of everyone involved. I have heard a lot of people talk about cheating to allow player survival in environments which would be narratively unsatisfying to allow them to die. If you begin a dramatic chase scene and a player critically fails his jump check and tumbles off the back of the airship to his death at the very beginning, that’s not the thrilling and climactic scene anyone had envisioned. A DM is well within their rights to fudge the numbers there a bit, or make up a save, to keep the game running and to allow the player to continue with their story. I wouldn’t, and I prefer games that don’t, but that’s a matter of person opinion. I’m the DM who has allowed chickens to murder or cripple a number of PCs over the years, because if they hadn’t started it it wouldn’t have happened, and I fully believe in luck and consequence. But I respect that that is a matter of personal opinion, and I can have another post later about lethality in campaigns.

I should also specify that for the purposes of this article, lieing to the players constitutes any action by the DM that they can and should pretend they were planning all along, but was in fact made up on the spot. Anything from from the PC from the earlier example landing in a support gondola, taking him out of the chase but leaving him alive, to the throwaway NPC maid having the key to the vault at the base of the Inn because the players have gone completely off track and you don’t have an adventure otherwise. Even a villian swooping in at the last minute to snatch victory from the heroes or the one room they didn’t check being loaded with guards counts, but those are not my favorite examples.

The first question we need to answer about lieing, is WHEN it is acceptable to lie to your players. The only universal answer to that question is that lieing is OK when something happens in the game that the DM didn’t expect and that isn’t fun for the players. If the players are traipsing through a carefully crafted mystery, but they’ve somehow missed every clue and decided that they need to travel hundreds of miles away to consult a sage, and you know logically all the mystery will be done by the time they finish, then have the sage be in town for their daughter’s wedding and you’re back on track. The classic example of this is sending thugs hired by a villian to fight the players, and having them have a clue back to the villain on there person. And when I says ending thugs, I should clarify You, the DM, are sending the thugs. A gang of hired killers after the players and a group of muggers out looking for easy marks both point the players at the local crimelord, and the Players will likely care much more about the dungeon you spent all that time designing if orcs keep coming out of it and trying to take their stuff. Personally, I like to have a few floating encounters planned out that I can toss at players when they’re getting disastrously off track, and I just insert them wherever is thematically appropriate.

If you aren’t too worried about the sanctity of your game world as you designed it, you can even lie about big things. If the players interpreted the clues wrong and they’re looking for the ancient temple in the swamp instead of on the mountain? That’s fine, it’s in the swamp now. Did they bypass that dungeon you laid out for them at level three but they’re board at level eight? Upscale every encounter and now it’s the local dungeon of a new town. It was always there, and they won’t know that it wasn’t. Again, I prefer games where it’s possible to end up grid searching a forest for clues because I’m too thick to figure things out on my own, because I feel a lot more accomplished when I do figure it out, but I’m a little weird.

Even in very narrative driven campaigns, though, this can go too far in the direction of catering to the players. Resist the urge to let them have everything, because never having the chance to fail doesn’t create drama. Don’t take away things they won through accident or skillful play, because they deserve their achievements. Remember that it’s a shared story, and resist the urge to exert absolute control. The balance is going to be different for every player and every table, but that’s OK.

So now we know when, but how do you lie to your players? The answer is “seamlessly”. I have always been a proponent of DM screens, because I think the flexibility of being able to keep information hidden is important. Even more important is to make a show of carefully selecting some dice, rolling them, and then telling the players whatever should have happened. It may have been a while since I’ve been surprised at the table, but even the most predictable player can throw you a curveball, and then you need something to buy yourself time. Players should always feel like what is happening to them is a cohesive part of the story. If you tell them they did something unexpected, that you didn’t plan for, then the immersion these games create is compromised, and they know you’re off the rails. Characters can be surprised, villains can be surprised, but you should be prepared. Whether it’s extremely clever or catastrophically stupid, if you’re allowing it as a choice then it’s a part of the game world. And anything that has been allowed as a choice should be able to be integrated into the world without too much trouble. If you let them hurl a handaxe at extreme range and they managed the three needed crits and dropped the campaign archenemy five levels too early, then the world needs to cough up a conceivable replacement, not an excuse for why it didn’t work. She had a son who is following in her footsteps, or her organization, which appeared to be a cult of personality, is following her ideals. As long as the players trust that the world is built on logic and is larger than their characters, you can make this happen.

So lie to your players when it would hurt their enjoyment and you don’t have a plan, and don’t let them know you’re lieing.

And, as an added tip, every time you have to lie to the players, figure out what happened and make sure you have something prepared for that in the future.

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Strength And Dexterity

Today I want to talk about statistically influenced mechanics.

In a game of any kind, mechanics control the methods by which you as a player interact with the game world. This is as true in a color matching block game as it is in Football Manager, but I have a very specific topic I wish to discuss today.

Specifically, I am going to talk about the different ways in which accuracy and power are presented in games, especially role-playing games, and what they mean for the players. We’re going to be using Dungeons & Dragons as the ur example, but this is applicable in what should be a fairly obvious array of cases.

In Dungeons & Dragons, a character possesses six statistics, including the eponymous Strength and Dexterity. Strength purports to be a gauge of your character’s aptitude at at tasks requiring physical power, while Dexterity measures your character’s natural talent in challenges that require speed and coordination. You may not be surprised to learn, then, that Strength is the traditional purvey of a melee focused character, while Dexterity more greatly benefits a ranged combatant, as in both cases the single statistic does a fine job of seeing that character through their allotted tasks.

So, this clearly works perfectly well. But why does it do so, and how might it work differently?

Well, traditionally, most games with a more complex set of data for the player to consume benefit from streamlining when they can, as long as it is not at the expense of the experience. Accessibility is a wonderful thing, and any veteran of gaming knows that any game with any RPG elements at all benefits greatly from the ability to say “This is my strong guy, I put all his points in strength, now on to the next fellow”. It also makes things easier on new players, as a character who possesses a great deal of information but relies on a central attribute is one that can be explored at the player’s leisure, absorbing information in their own time.

So, why change it? For a different, more thoughtful, more balanced sort of game, of course. Imagine, if you will, a game of Dungeons & Dragons where all bonuses to strike the enemy were derived from Dexterity, and all bonuses for damage were derived from Strength. Ignoring the more recent invention of Finesse weapons (which can be disregarded if you haven’t heard of them), think of what this does to the landscape. The Ogre, a tremendously strong brute with a previously unerring club, is suddenly a lumbering thug whose strikes spell death for those it hits, if only it lands one. Suddenly, the man mountain in armor and the nimble rapier duelist are on an equal footing, one dodging war-hammer blows by a hairsbreadth and the other trusting armor and luck to save him from death by a thousand cuts. It brings a certain air of Robert E. Howard fantasy to the concept, and is at least a departure from the norm. It also encourages a broader array of abilities than previous, as a warrior with moderate speed and strength will likely prevail over one solely focused on either.

White Wolf actually makes use of this concept in some of their World of Darkness games, in fact. A character needs a solid combination of Strength and Dexterity to stand a chance in combat in Scion, for example, where a strength focused hero will find they cannot land a blow. However, White Wolf also often makes use of an interesting mechanic wherein a well aimed strike gains additional chances to do damage, providing further incentive for improving your character’s Dexterity to prepare for combat situations.

In conclusion, the most important thing to keep in mind is what you want the effects of your mechanics to be on your game. Decide what you want the player to be able to do, and what you want the game to feel like, and then work backwards to create mechanics that support that feeling.

Down with classists!

Ok, I talked about the reasons roles exist and how to define them, now I’m going to talk about how to present them to players.

For this to work, first you need to figure out what level of freedom to allow your players. The spectrum runs from games that allow a player to build whatever character they see fit, as exemplified by games like the Elder Scrolls series and GURPS, or force them to progress along a very specific route, showcased nicely in games like pretty much every game ever without those nebulous “rpg elements” in it that still has power progression. If you’re making one of those, that’s awesome, but this isn’t the post for you.

So let’s look at an example of the middle point. Pathfinder (and several editions of D&D, the game it was based on) has a system in which players choose a class that defines the basic nature of their character. A fighter fights, a wizard casts magic, a rogue stabs people in the back and takes their shiny things. But within that structure, there exists a lot of customization options. Some classes allow you to select from a suit of abilities, and all classes receive a number of skill points to be spent on non-combat related skills, like opening locks and professional home decorating, and a number of special abilities, called feats, that they can choose from a largely universal pool. Characters are also free to combine classes, gaining additional benefits at the cost of not increasing their starting class.

The question becomes, as a designer, how much do you trust your players and yourself? A game of complete freedom might make for very interesting character creation and some very interesting characters, but you run a grave danger of players creating characters who are completely unsuited for the game ahead. For an example of this, the latest Deus Ex tried to follow it’s predecessors freeform progression system, but had segments where a character without significant combat capabilities could not progress. This could have been solved by toning down those sections, allowing a way around them using the same methods the character had been using to progress through the rest of the game, or (and this is the game design aspect we are focusing on here) they could have separated the progression of the character in such a way as to not force the players to choose between competence with weapons and the ability to read your boss’s emails.

The more freeform your creation and progression system, the more hand holding you need to do. Shadowrun does an excellent example of this by providing a series of premade characters with descriptions of how to play them and why they are effective, and the player can use these characters straight off the rack, customize them, or just use them as inspiration for their own characters. Alternatively, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (the second edition) forces characters to progress in very very straight lines, and only needs to provide one sample character who is only used as an example to show how to apply the character creation rules.

The opposite of this, of course, is the more constrained your character creation and progression is, the less unique and interesting the characters made in it are. Rules exist, in GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System, to allow players to create magic using dinosaurs who, over the course of the game, learn how to hack computers and craft elegant herbal teas. The level of player freedom can be as great as the player’s imagination, which simply cannot be said about Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. But if the focus of your game is supposed to be very tight, that might be fine for you.

So remember, with great freedom comes imagination and occasionally stupidity and with great focus comes reliability and occasionally boredom.