Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Eyes and Ears of the Player Characters

I'm trying to work out my own approach to running dungeon adventure RPGs. A big part of this is being the eyes and ears of the player characters. It’s the job of the dungeon master to be the eyes and ears of the players.

This idea is central to what I think of as dungeon mastering. It’s crucial to engaging the players and winning their buy-in to the game. If the players can’t see and hear the dungeon clearly, they can’t live in it or have adventures in it. The players also have a job here, which is to ask questions for the game master to answer. I’m not going to talk about that much now, but it’s important.

A lot of people equate being the eyes and ears with providing description of the dungeon and the things in it with a certain level of gleeful embellishment. This is part of it, but there’s more to ‘eyes and ears’ than a judicious use of adverbs. it’s at least equally important to be crystal clear and fair about how what they’re seeing and hearing intersects with the mechanics of the game you’re playing.

Here an illustration:

The party comes to an icy crevasse that blocks their way ahead. One of the party wants to try skirting the crevasse on foot.

How do you, the game master, indicate to the player the potential risks and rewards of this action? This is part of being the eyes and ears. There are a lot of answers to this question, and almost all of them are appropriate in some combination of system, group, and encounter.

So one answer to this suggested action, phrased in Dungeon Squad terms might be “It’s pretty slippery. You’ll need an explorer roll with a target of 6. If you fail, you run the risk of slipping into the crevasse.”

With this answer you’ve set some parameters. You’ve said what the player will have to roll. You’ve indicated that there’s a risk to failure, and described it in general terms. There’s some leeway here, and it should be set by the habits of the group. Should you also quantify the risk of falling into the crevasse on a failed roll? Do you need to tell the player how much damage that fall would cause? That’s a matter of taste.*

The point of all this is to give the players a very clear idea of where their characters stand in the fiction so they can act like heroes and adventurers and tackle the challenges of the dungeon or even fall victim to them confident that the system and the game master aren’t using underhanded techniques to trip them up.**

Probably some people are shaking their head right now, thinking that there are many times that a game master is compelled to withhold information from the players. That’s part of the being the eyes and ears as well!

Another illustration:

There’s a remhoraz lurking in the crevasse. Am I obligated to sow hints of this into my description of the crevasse somehow? In no way is the dungeon master compelled to warn the players of the threats and risks of the dungeon.

Now another consideration: a player asks if he can see into the crevasse, or asks how deep it is, or just tosses something in, waiting to hear it hit the bottom. This is clearly a way of asking the game master for more information about the crevasse. An appropriate response might be to say “you can’t see very far into it. You don’t know what’s in there”, or even, “there could be a monster in there for all you know.” This clearly indicates that there’s some risk associated with a crevasse you can’t see into, even if that risk is vaguely stated.

Being the eyes and ears is a conversation you have with the players. Like any conversation you’ve got to give and take, listen, and try to respond to the questions you hear fairly and clearly.

* I’m a strong believer in the idea of ‘free and clear’ declaration of actions. This means that before any action is taken, everyone at the table has a chance to talk about it, understand its potential consequences, take it back, suggest something else, and so on until everyone has decided what they’re doing. As far as I know, the term ‘free and clear’ comes from Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer RPG, but it’s something many game groups have done since long before Sorcerer.

** This whole idea is heavily informed by Eero Tuovinen’s discussion of challenge-based adventuring, although I’m adapting it somewhat to a more specifically dungeon-based approach.

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11 Comments:

Blogger JD said...

The Fine Line of Dungeon Mastering: Give the players an inch and they will take a mile, give them nothing and they will spend 3 hours investigating the intricate dust circles around a hole in the ground.

I vastly prefer giving my characters just enough information they need to get around an obstacle or a notice something. D20 has their Spot/Search rolls to help out with this. I roll stuff behind the scenes tell a player if they see something noteworthy and let the players be the judge of the resulting actions.

Providing a framework for the encounter is all that is required 90% of the the time. The other 10% is the DM telling them "This is a well not a nest of vipers guarding buried treasure, move along". Sometimes you have to give Common Sense to the players when they are lacking in it ;)

March 2, 2010 at 7:02 AM

 
Blogger Tony said...

Yeah, I think you're right. Being the voice of common sense is part of it.

I was reading Mattehw Finch's Old School Primer (http://www.lulu.com/content/3019374) the other day, and he speaks against having a search roll. In his vision, players prod things with poles, tap walls, and so on if they want to find someting.

I'm wondering, how does that change how the GM acts as the eyes and ears of the players?

March 2, 2010 at 7:45 AM

 
Blogger JD said...

All a roll does is enable you as the DM To say "Hey Bob the Warrior you saw something out of the corner of your eye" and let the players do what they want. You are giving them a nugget of information and letting the players do what they want.

The alternative is nothing and you have to build a methodology to handle it. Would your wizard who's prone to flinging random fireballs at bird's nest be more prone to see something shiney or perhaps that cross eyed rogue who trips over his own feet. The DM could just randomly pick someone and pass them a note or other information but it seems clunky and random and not all PCs will get their fair share of time in the spot light.

Providing mechanisms for simple obvious things and saying to the PCs "If you have this ability you can do stuff betterer!" and then actively use it gives a sense of immersion. Furthermore, the randomness of the die roll sometimes does mean that someone who could see eagles mating 10 miles away misses that buttonhole lever the bumbling rogue just happens to find.

Rolling in reasons such as tools, poles, hanging rope in front of you to see traps increases that immersion level for the PCs. Just cause he has 20 ranks in SpotStuff doesn't mean it's a God Given Talent, means the PC is taking the time and effort to find stuff that they've learned how to do over the years.

March 2, 2010 at 8:35 AM

 
Blogger Ara Kooser said...

I like the advice given in Burning Wheel. State what your character is doing and how (Task/Intent) and then roll the dice (or say yes).

This way the DM is still the eyes and ears and the players can have their characters poke/prod things.

This method works in D&D games as well.

March 2, 2010 at 11:18 AM

 
Blogger Tony said...

Good point. I still had the Old School Primer in my head, and there he purposely gives an extreme view of D20 (and warns you he's doing it).

So the search roll isn't completely replacing fumbling around with 10' poles, but it is giving you a way to fast forward over the mundane details of how that's done. It doesn't need to be entirely one or the other.

March 2, 2010 at 1:08 PM

 
Blogger crc said...

The DM might not be under any obligation to say anything about that remhoraz, but it's not clear to me why he wouldn't, to the extent that he envisions his role as helping the PCs be awesome and effective heroes.

There's no question that the presence of the monster is mechanically vital, right? You need to help the players engage mechanically with it. Maybe your players are the kind that do so without prompting - you say "There's a deep crevasse," and they say "Oh, my rogue edges toward it and listens carefully for movement," and then they fail a spot check and everyone feels like it's fair if that remhoraz pops out later. But it's frustrating to me, as a player, to have flagged the DM that I want to be an exceptionally acute spotter (by spending resources to raise my skill), and then, as a player, mistake what the DM's mechanically important talk for mere flavor, to the detriment of my character's effectiveness. Your prompting strategy ("There could be a monster in there, for all you know") seems like a good way to meet me halfway, as a player - to make sure that I know that there's a resource-spending (or taking-advantage-of) opportunity here.

March 2, 2010 at 1:09 PM

 
Blogger jaerdaph said...

In my d20 games (e.g. D&D, d20 Modern and d20 Call of Cthulhu), I had made an index card listing the name of each skill the DM/GM should make in secret for the player as suggested in the text of each core rulebook. Spot/Listen/Notice type skills always made that list. I only secretly rolled Spot/Listen/Notice when there was some important, not so obvious story element that might be missed. The players never called for spot/listen/notice checks on their own. This served two purposes - 1. the players were always unaware they had failed a check because nothing was said if they result was a failure, and 2. it sped up play because only I (being the only one in the know, so to speak) determined if a roll was necessary. Since everyone was aware beforehand this was it was going to work, no one felt slighted and anyone that had a character invested heavily in Spot/Listen/Notice competency was still rewarded. I think this approach fits in well with the DM/GM's role as eyes and ears of the PCs.

Search, on the other hand, was always instigated at the request of the player(s). The roll was still made in secret, though. If they found something, they were told about it. If they didn't, they didn't know if it was because they failed their check or if there was just nothing to find. Since you could always Try Again, and Search checks take up game time (compared to Spot/Listen/Notice, which is basically a Reaction both to the environment and game time-wise), it was up to the players whether or not they wished to continue their efforts or move on.

March 2, 2010 at 7:03 PM

 
Blogger Jon McNally said...

Tony, I like how you refer to DM-player interaction as a conversation. This "transactional" view surveys the best of my own gaming experiences.

Perhaps that's why, these days, I am wary of Search rolls and skill checks of a similarly "soft" nature. In my experience the checks halt the desired immersive conversations more often than they propel them.

Still, there must be a happy medium, as you and others suggest.

Your dungeons, by the way, are all kinds of awesome. :)

March 3, 2010 at 10:05 AM

 
Blogger Tony said...

I can see where search/spot rolls can clarify things by giving the GM and players clear mechanical guidelines on when and how the GM reveals things. I've never been a big fan of them, but seeing how other people are using them is helping me figure out my own approach.

@crc Making sure that the players don't mistake the GM's hints for mere flavor is definitely part of what I want to achieve.

@jon Thanks!

March 3, 2010 at 1:36 PM

 
Blogger Tony said...

I can see where search/spot rolls can clarify things by giving the GM and players clear mechanical guidelines on when and how the GM reveals things. I've never been a big fan of them, but seeing how other people are using them is helping me figure out my own approach.

@crc Making sure that the players don't mistake the GM's hints for mere flavor is definitely part of what I want to achieve.

@jon Thanks!

March 3, 2010 at 1:37 PM

 
Blogger Tony said...

I can see where search/spot rolls can clarify things by giving the GM and players clear mechanical guidelines on when and how the GM reveals things. I've never been a big fan of them, but seeing how other people are using them is helping me figure out my own approach.

@crc Making sure that the players don't mistake the GM's hints for mere flavor is definitely part of what I want to achieve.

@jon Thanks!

March 3, 2010 at 1:38 PM

 

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