Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Conflicting Assumptions while Gaming

My sporadic playing in a 3.5 game has been interesting; it's been the first time I've spent anything more than a one-shot on the players' side of the "screen" since I started refereeing, so it's been interesting to see someone else referee after having worked on my own referee skills.

One thing I've noticed is that players and referees can have very different assumptions. This has gotten me into (in-game) trouble twice so far.

In the first instance, we had killed some kind of demonic or otherworldly being that had infiltrated the temple of Pelor or something (I wasn't there for that session) and were in a town where lots of weird stuff was apparently happening. One of the players was playing some sort of "chosen by Pelor" character. We wanted information about what weird stuff was going on. We are playing in a setting where you can buy just about anything, including magic items, on the 3.5 lists and where most un-leveled NPCs own a magic item or two. This is not a low-magic setting.

So, I suggested that we take the corpse of the thing we had killed out into the town square and burn it in public, announcing that we had killed it, it had been infiltrating the temple of Pelor, we thought more weird stuff was happening and we needed information. I thought a theatrical demon-burning and an announcement to be on-guard and that we needed information would result in 1) the town being on guard about weird stuff going down, 2) probably some information from NPCs that had seen something and 3) our show of righteous strength in the service of Pelor would win the support and respect of the townfolk

Instead, we had an irrational mob form that apparently got so confused that it got angry and our characters almost got arrested for inciting the mob. Confusing. Frustrating, even.

In the second instance, all the characters except for mine failed their Fortitude checks against spiked stew and so my Wizard was the only character awake to fight some bandits. I had some great spells prepared, but the referee insisted that I couldn't use most of them because we were fighting in pitch darkness and I apparently needed to see my target before I could cast spells on him.

Now, on the one hand, that makes some sense. On the other, I don't think I've ever heard that discussed before, either in rules or in conversations, on or off-line (granted, I've read very little of the 3.5 rules). I'd just assumed that spells that didn't make you roll for a ranged touch attack or whatever didn't need to be aimed, at least not by sight. I ended up losing the fight because the ref and I had different assumptions and most of my spells didn't work (I didn't have any way to make light. I know, I know…)

Have you ever encountered issues with different assumptions about the setting or about some rules question that isn't addressed in the rules (at least as far as you know)? Of course you have. This is the OSR! OK, seriously, how would you have ruled? How have you dealt with other situations like this?

Personally, I'm drawn to Jeff Rients' quote in the left column. And I think there's a responsibility on the part of the referee to explain as much of the setting assumptions as possible to the players. In the first situation, he heard me talk about the results I expected, knowing that my expectations were unrealistic in the setting, something my character would probably have known. I wish he'd informed me that my expectations actually wouldn't have been shared by my character, that my expectations wouldn't in fact be met. I've seen writing on meaningful choices in gaming, where players should be making choices where they can at least predict a range of likely consequences for their choices. I'm feeling too tired to put that more eloquently right now.

The second instance… that's a bit more dicey for me, and I can't deny that I'm biased because I was involved in both of these situations and had a stake in them.



  1. Here is how I would have handled each situation:

    1) If it was common knowledge that the actions of a character would result in a mob, I would have told the player up front. If it wasn't common knowledge, or if there was a question as to how the crowd would react, I would have at least allowed various players to make Knowledge rolls (or some other arbitrary die roll if not playing 3.5) to see what info they would have. If the crowd was being somehow influenced by bad guy forces, I would have informed the players that the mob behavior was unexpected or unusual after the characters nearly got arrested. Thus, I would (at the very least) give the players an opportunity to gain information regardless of outcome.

    2) A ranged touch attack is like any other attack — one can attempt it in just about any situation where one could reasonably make a normal attack; however, firing off a spell blind would garner a -4 on the roll and any miss by 5 or more would result in the spell hitting a random space other than the target (which could include party members). Thus, I would explain the consequences of the choice to fire off the spell and allow the player to do so with full knowledge of just how horribly wrong it could go.

    1. The thing was that the spells I wanted to use didn't require a ranged touch attack. That I could have swallowed a lot easier (and I would have probably taken the -4 and the chance of hitting something, especially since my party wasn't in the room we were fighting in) but this was some variant of sleep or charm, I think, and the ruling was that I just plain couldn't cast it.

  2. For reference, 3.0 rules may support the DM's position in the second scenario, but it depends on spells and it may have changed in 3.5. If the spell targets a creature or object, you must be able to see or touch the target. If it creates an effect (like Summon Monster) or an area (like a fireball), you must either see the location where it will appear or define it in terms of range and direction (so that would work in complete darkness). You always need a clear line of effect, but this isn't affected by darkness or other sight-blocking factors.

    One of the things that rubs me the wrong way about 3.x is that in order for your character to be competent, you have to know about the wording of a rule in the section that everyone skips over because we just want to see what our spells can do. It creates a "Gotcha!" situation where your character presumably would know how his spells work but you totally didn't.

    1. Yeah, the DM was pretty certain I needed to be able to see and he's a lot more familiar with 3.5 than I am. What you say about the rules not being in the spell descriptions themselves makes sense. I think I got bit by that.

      Which leads to one of the big differences, in my opinion, between Old School games and 3.5: a player in an Old School game doesn't need to have read all the rules in order to be competent.

  3. I think both examples are failed opportunities for "yes, but..." instead of "no." In the first case, you could have been given the chance to talk the mob down. In the second, you could have been given a random chance to aim your spell correctly. These are symptoms of a DM who thinks that the rules (in the second case) or the game world (in the first) are a totality, enabling deterministic play without surprise or player input except when directed to.

  4. This is exactly how someone denies player agency.

    I wrote a bit about a Quantum Ogre. That's about forcing a situation. In the following discussion about that issue many ways to prevent the loss of agency.

    Player agency is the ability to take actions related to your intention.

    If the Dungeon Master heard what your intention was, and failed to provide information about his differing perspective, he was actively removing your agency.

    This is pretty explicitly a dick move. What purpose did he serve by obfuscating possible consequences? Did it improve play? What it did was confuse and disempower the players so that they can't trust that when they take an action, it will produce the intent behind that action.

    You know what people who do things and in return have random and illogical things happen do? They quit doing things and usually become depressed.

    I would find a new Dungeon Master.

  5. Without knowing much of the details, I'm guessing the DM had plans about how the adventure should go and he was trying to steer things in that direction. He wanted the demon-in-the-temple thing to be resolved some way that didn't getting help from townies and he wanted the party captured by the bandits, and you were trying to take the train off the rails. But that's just my assumption. You need to ask the DM what the deal was, and then you can figure out if it is really just a matter of not getting the assumptions (which he can clarify next time) or dickery/railroading (which might be something the DM will be willing to change if the rest of the players agree with you, but don't count on it). Good luck!

  6. As to the mob: I think this is one of those missed opportunities to talk about the setting. If I see the player doing something that strikes me as oddly risky (hauling a demon corpse into town and burning it) because of something about the setting I think has either already been expressed or ought to be assumed, my reaction, as a GM, is to assume that I've not communicated properly. To preserve agency, I'd probably say, "Hey, you know, these are pretty down-to-earth people and seeing a demon, dead or not, is probably going to freak them out." And if you do it anyway, I'd do a reaction roll with a pretty shitty modifier on it, because, yeah, the demon corpse freaked them out.

    As to 2: This is a special situation, really. It was handled poorly. If you telegraphed your intent and the GM _knew_ that it wasn't a rules viable option, then the GM should have told you. Agency issues aside, it seems even slightly unethical to have withheld that knowledge.

    When players are new to a system/iteration/edition I normally have us both read the rules together before they decide to do something. Some players hate it so I just read them the rules. It doesn't fix everything, but it would have fixed this scenario. Really, though, what it does is encourage the new player to read the rules _before_ they even act, so you wind up with them having worked out a lot of this stuff themselves.