Friday, February 17, 2012

the material conditions of fudging

So I was just thinking, when you're running a game, why on earth would you ever fudge the dice or check your swing?
I think part of the blame lies in the module system, and here's why:

- if a module is mainly about the puzzles and the monsters, and not about a story (least of all a time-sensitive one), then players are just there to be challenged and clever and explore lots of stuff. They die? Then I guess they aren't good enough, mwah haha! A challenge here for the DM is to think about what content is likely to be experienced and what content is likely to remain hidden or unknown - - you don't want to put too much work into an amazing set of traps if it's unlikely the players will choose that path in the first place.
[- - Being able to re-visit a given dungeon can reduce the "unseen content" factor, but of course in one-shots and the like, this just isn't a realistic goal]

- OTOH, if a module has a strong component of setpieces (things that are time sensitive and maybe sort of "mandatory" to get the "full experience"), then there's an incentive to make sure at least some of the players survive long enough to see them. And if we put our fancy hats on and try to design puzzles or "experiences" that require a certain minimum number of (living) players, or a particular class is required for some reason to get through it, then the DM is going to feel that much more of a squeeze to let everyone live, always.
[- - Setpiece-focused design is all about the performance. It's like being on a ride! Ultimately, the priority of showing off the module's content supersedes the priority of no-holds-barred exploration. When you start to figure out that the DM isn't going to let you die, it changes the dynamic, and not always for the good.]

You know which side of the fence I'm on! But that doesn't make it any easier - just because you're committed "ideologically" (so to speak) to a particular play ethos doesn't mean you can just snap your fingers and make it happen - apparently that takes practice.
Cases in point:
1- I didn't really think very tactically about how to play Ishigiri the Ogre Mage (homebrew: Dwarf Troubles Lv 1), and instead of him using his 1/day cone of cold on the healer, he used it on a henchman. The dice roll was pretty epic, nonetheless: I ruled that, due to extreme overkill, the henchman's feet broke off and remained frozen to the floor while the rest of his icy corpse went skidding along the tunnel, only to shatter against a door.
2- I did make sure that people had appropriate warning about the pit trap in the opening hallway (homebrew: Lair of the Cyclops Lv 1) - - "the floor's creaking", "the dwarf senses a trap", etc. Once you are given a warning, and you keep walking on the creaking tile floor, it's on your head ^___^ There's a trick to it - imo, in order to be a reasonably likable and trustworthy DM, you can be cruel, disgusting, and vicious, but only insofar as you have established reasonable credibility (a highly localized phenomenon) regarding your ability to be fair.

What is fair? I think it's a fairly simple matter of establish-then-execute. AW & DW talk a lot about this: do what the fiction demands. How do you know what it demands? Well, kid, the MC/DM moves tell you what you can put into the fiction and when, but the players do a lot of that for you and you just wait til they screw up a dice roll.
Creaking floor? OK, the pit trap is good to go.
Glowing eyes? The cultist's magic powers are good to go!
In the case of Ishigiri, I think a frost theme around his lair could have signaled that that's one of his signature powers. That, or fog-breath, or something. Hints like that are big, loud, alarm bells to the veteran adventurer, and something subtle really can establish your credibility enough (adventurers like to blame themselves for dying...)


  1. Concerning the first part, yeah, if your making the module and the players fail after doing 10% of it, then you throw away 90% of the module you made - only to make another. And if they fail that, you again throw away 90% of your effort?

    I've been thinking about this recently, coincidentally. I started thinking if they fail the first dungeon (or wont do the rest), of making the next dungeon simply using an incredibly simplistic format (long corridor with doors or gaps opening onto rooms) with monsters at the nastier end and not much treasure. Easy to make and it means getting the first dungeon right means you'll get a crafted dungeon next.

    On the second part, it sounds like foreshadowing. And I don't think it automatically, 100% gains you credibility with the players. I don't think there is any 100% way. You just have to realise (like in a recent Zak post) that you make adventures at a certain level of difficulty, the particular difficulty level is hard to say. And that some will say it wasn't difficult but impossible or just plain bad, when actually it was too hard for them, but they wont admit that in a million years.

    I will say, however, that if you foreshadow and yet to complete the adventure one is forced through the foreshadowed event, then it's no use. Foreshadowing gives a hint as to what choice to make - if there is no choice though...

    Like recently I had a flesh golum in a room in a dungeon a 2nd level party was exploring, which I foreshadowed even before they opened the door as there being a loud, rasping breath in the room from a powerful chest and through a gap in the door, something big and menacing sat on a chair inside. But they didn't have to go in the room. If they did have to go in, its pointless or fluff text to describe the rasping breath.

  2. Something Keep on the Borderlands did well was give the players the ability to easily split up the dungeon - - in that case, each monster-faction lives in a different, totally separate cavern.

    I think once people refuse to admit it's too hard, you know for sure they're committed and really enjoying the game overall.

    Re: the rasping - I love stuff like that! I once played a game of Kagematsu where I was narrating an outdoor scene and saying, "every couple of seconds, there's this clack-clack sound..." and it turned out it was only the sound of a woman playing Go against herself.
    I don't think the value is in the effect, be it for humor or for menace. I think the value is in engaging your player's other senses besides sight - good stuff!