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!
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.