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Author Topic: Character Weakness  (Read 935 times)
Spawn of Ungoliant
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« Reply #15 on: April 24, 2018, 05:47:04 PM »

sparkletwist

The point I'm trying to make, though, is that in a real game the players are going to think of some things that you haven't accounted for, and perhaps try to use items they have or character abilities or features of the dungeon or whatever in ways that you didn't anticipate they ever would.

That's true, but that doesn't mean they necessarily need rolls. In a game a few years ago my wife's character figured out a way to permanently seal a group of vampires into a specific room on a steamboat, in a way I totally did not anticipate.These vampires were repelled by salt, but could find various ways to disturb salt-lines drawn to deter them; I had imagined players using salt to temporarily curtail vampire mobility, but the vampires would inevitabaly mind control crew-members to sweep the salt away, conjure gusts of wind to blow it away, etc. However, my wife's character lured the vampires into a room and sealed them in using a combination of salt and tar/glue/pitch found in the lower decks of the ship, thus creating uncrossable lines that were extremely difficult to disturb. This was not remotely a situation I had thought of, but it was brilliant, and hugely reduced the numbers of rolls that would have otherwise been conducted - we ended up relying far less on the rules than I had thought we would (and this was back when we were playing Pathfinder, too - indeed, I think of this as a formative moment for my evolving philosophy of gameplay). Add sunlight, and poof, dead dead vampires.

Another example, from this session:

Sacrifice

The elevator hurtled downwards for many levels before opening into a gloomy chamber which appeared to be some sort of shrine. It was dominated by an idol of obviously Librarian construction, one of the Unspeakable Ones: a massive, sphinx-like thing, though with the body of a giant crustacean-like entity rather than a lion. In place of a face the idol had a gaping black void which seems to extend infinitely into darkness.

“The Thing Without a Face,” Sister said. “The Librarian god of oblivion, slumber, and the void.”

“Interesting!” Alabastor said, approaching the idol. “Do you think there’s something inside?” He clambered up the idol and poked his head into the gaping emptiness where the thing’s face should have been.

Instantly, Alabastor felt an invisible force pulling him into the darkness, a kind of horrid lure, tugging him forwards. He wrenched his head back as he realized the hole was closing in around him. It dilated back open.

“It wants a sacrifice.” Caulis said.

“Hmm. I have an idea.” Alabastor took out the Snatcher’s sack – the extradimensional bag containing the phantasm’s many victims, including Cagehead. Edging close to the idol, he gingerly opened the sack and, trying to keep his hands clear, emptied the contents into the idol’s faceless void.

A tremendous screaming, screeching, snarling, tearing sound was audible as dozens of forms were sucked from the bag and drawn into the void, snatching and clawing at one another – a huge mass of ghouls, ghasts, gugs, and other creatures. Cagehead tumbled out last, a mass of bloodied flesh and lashing chains. The sack’s prisoners tumbled into oblivion. The idol’s hole closed, and the room rumbled.

A feeling of immense peace filled all within the shrine. Wounds closed, and even old scars and injuries faded. The hole where the idol’s face should have been opened again – but this time, instead of a black, endless void, the party could see light, and what looked like a room beyond.

I hadn't even predicted that the players would even get hold of the Snatcher's sack, let alone use it to feed the Idol of the Thing Without a Face a bunch of sacrifices, but the players thought up this idea, and it struck me as a great one. I had notes on how the idol worked, but I figured the PCs would have to subdue an enemy elsewhere in the dungeon to pull off the sacrifice.

In both cases, I didn't see any need to add any additional rolls in, because I thought those ideas made total sense, were the product of good critical thinking, and were consistent with the world as I'd described it. Introducing rolls seemed superfluous to me - why cramp the players' style and give them a chance of failure when by their very cleverness they'd thought up a solution to avoid the risks they'd otherwise be exposed to? Indeed, giving the salt or sacrifice a chance of failure would be to violate the consistency of the world as I'd described it. And yet, I hadn't thought of either of these solutions beforehand.

sparkletwist

I mean, we can say that a "good idea" will always just work by DM fiat, but that's very subjective and difficult to quantify, especially when the players earnestly think something will work and the DM, either by virtue of having more information about the setting or just a different opinion on things, has decided that it won't. In the absence of any sort of structure being provided by the rules, what then? How is anyone to know, and how can we avoid an argument, if not by using rules?

Again, I am not anti-rules or something. You keep talking about the "absence of any sort of structure being provided by the rules," but I am not decrying that structure entirely or dismissing it as totally unnecessary in all instances. Indeed, I see it as essential for precisely the sticky, difficult-to-resolve, uncertain-seeming situations I think you're discussing, where there does seem to be contention or where some element of human error could really make a plan less than successful. I don't see how this is inconsistent with a fallback approach to the rules, though.

sparkletwist

At one point some years ago, I played in a game where we spent the better part of an entire session hatching this complicated plan to trick the main villain involving using this psionic artifact that we'd found to conjure illusions or something like that. The whole thing failed, but not due to bad luck or plot twists or anything, but rather the GM had just decided that our plan was a stupid idea and wasn't going to work.

Yeah, this is terrible DMing in my opinion.

sparkletwist

However, since the whole thing was ultimately based on a "crazy off-the-sheet solution" adjudicated by GM fiat, I also feel like it's relevant.

For sure, yes. I guess here's the thing, to clarify how this works: I will almost never, ever use DM fiat to simply make a plan plain-old-not-work if the consequence is going to be serious and negative. I will use DM fiat to make something succeed without rolling if I think something makes total sense and seems viable based on the world that's been established. If I'm unsure if something is going to work, I will fall back on the rules and call for whatever roll(s) seem appropriate. But if I think something is a plain old dumb idea with 0 chance of success but which the players seem to think is absolutely viable, and which if it fails will have serious, negative circumstances, I would have to come to the conclusion that I have screwed up in describing things, and will usually either provide the players with an in-universe hint or further explain something to show them that their assumptions were incorrect. But you're right, fundamentally, that this comes down to having a good DM. My method of play here is in no sense DM-proof. And it's also the case that other styles or methods of play that rely less on DM judgment - i.e. where the rules are much more front-and-centre much more of the time - might be more fun than a game run poorly in the style I'm describing.

sparkletwist

I mean, sometimes puzzles in RPGs work like that, but I generally prefer more open-ended sorts of things, because it can be annoying otherwise-- it's no fun to just be stuck, and it eats up valuable play time. When thing are open-ended, though, that means the solution is often going to be something the DM never thought of.

I'm fine with either/both. Earlier that session we had spooked a herd of brontosauruses to stampede and kill a horde of zombies, which I don't think was a pre-planned solution to a problem. But I don't mind trying to figure out a specific puzzle the DM has come up with, provided it's a good puzzle. I love puzzle/adventure games, and if the world is well-described, rather than getting stuck, you're spending time putting the pieces together. Of course, we were never plain-old stuck: we could have tried other things to get the treasure. But there was enough information provided, and it was provided skilfully enough, that I don't think it took us more than a few minutes to figure out the solution; these were some of the most fun minutes in the game for me.

EDIT: I might add that in certain trial-and-error situations where the consequences for failure aren't especially detrimental, I might be a bit freer in using DM fiat to shut a plan down - but in such instances, the trial-and-error approach, where you're figuring out how something works, is part of the fun.
« Last Edit: April 24, 2018, 06:32:30 PM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #16 on: April 24, 2018, 07:32:40 PM »

Steerpike

That's true, but that doesn't mean they necessarily need rolls.
Right, and I probably should have made it more clear that the thing that I am advocating for here is not rolls but rules. The two often go together, but it's also important to have at least some codified idea what your character can just do, without a roll, in order to have a sense of your capabilities and place in the world. Knowing what you can do without a roll is, of course, even more important in a game where the rolls are likely to be stacked against you, because you'll probably be trying to avoid having to push your luck.

So I'm not saying to insert rolls where they aren't needed, or anything like that. I'm saying that the game needs some semblance of structure in order that players are able to have a sense of what effects their actions will have. If all players have to go on is pure DM fiat or trying to guess some pre-defined puzzle solution or something, then that adversely affects player agency, because they can't really guess-- critical thinking of course requires that you are able to reason an outcome.

In this context, I think our views are starting to converge, because, in my way of looking at it, "vampires are repelled by salt" could very well be thought of as a rule. It is a rule that can be talked about in-universe, which is not true of all of them (and due to the inability of specific simulationist rules to account for everything the players could possibly think of, I'm much more of a fan these days of Fate-style meta-rules) but it's still a defined capability that is being put into the players' hands and can be used by them in order to guide their actions.

To go back to what initially prompted the discussion, I think that this is why I still think that characters who have a healthy number of a capabilities have more to work with when it comes to creative solutions. It's true that they may also be able to just use numbers to bludgeon their way past a problem, but I still contend that feels like it's just as much bad DMing to let them get away with too much of that as it is to arbitrarily call an idea stupid and say it won't work. For example, a player playing a character with a high bluff or diplomacy bonus should still have to roleplay what they say. A talented wizard still has to think how to use those weird spells, and some like silent image are useless except in the hands of someone willing to come up with clever solutions to problems. These are abilities that are on the character sheet, rather than being in the world, so they're "easier" to some extent-- but they're also abilities that the player is going to be intimately familiar with, because they're always with the character, so why not make use of them?

Steerpike

Again, I am not anti-rules or something.
I didn't mean to imply that I thought you were. I think the disconnect is that I see uncertainty and sticky situations where you may not, so I'm looking for rules to fall back on in places that you probably won't. For example, since I mentioned meta-rules above, I very much like how Fate is structured, with the idea of being less about rules that tell what happens and more about rules that exist to tell how to tell the story in a way that players retain agency and have certain codified levels of narrative control. You'd probably prefer to not do this quite as much, due to the way it can be immersion-breaking.

Steerpike

My method of play here is in no sense DM-proof. And it's also the case that other styles or methods of play that rely less on DM judgment - i.e. where the rules are much more front-and-centre much more of the time - might be more fun than a game run poorly in the style I'm describing.
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think you're a good DM, so I don't want to bash on you or anything; maybe you're a good enough DM to even be able to pull this stuff off, but I feel like that's not the usual case, so I tend to advocate for solutions that are a little more tolerant of human error.
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« Reply #17 on: April 24, 2018, 09:08:55 PM »

sparkletwist

In this context, I think our views are starting to converge, because, in my way of looking at it, "vampires are repelled by salt" could very well be thought of as a rule.

Aha! OK, yes, if we're going to call that a rule, I would definitely agree that a lot of my players' and/or my own characters' off-the-sheet solutions rely on rules. That said, they're often rules made up for a specific creature or situation (these creepy leech-vampires I created) which the characters have to discover in play (sneaking into a room, reading a journal, experimenting), as opposed to a rule they found on a character sheet or in a rule book.

So, in a sense, the character’s abilities can’t be exhaustively codified, because there’s a theoretically infinite, open-ended number of specific things characters could attempt to do, which no rules system could ever enumerate. But once they discover the rule “vampires are repelled by salt,” they can then apply a basic understanding of everyday physics - “glue is sticky” - to come up with a new solution - “glued-down salt-lines create vampire-proof boundaries.” In a certain sense by letting that solution work, I suppose I’m exercising DM fiat, but it doesn’t feel like an arbitrary or wholly subjective judgment to me, or one that would be meaningfully helped by looking something up a in rulebook; it feels like a logical conclusion based on the pre-established facts of a shared, imagined world. I see a big part of the DM's role as establishing those facts clearly and then exercising logic well in thinking about how they fit together, and relying on rolls to resolve more contentious or uncertain elements.

sparkletwist

So I'm not saying to insert rolls where they aren't needed, or anything like that. I'm saying that the game needs some semblance of structure in order that players are able to have a sense of what effects their actions will have. If all players have to go on is pure DM fiat or trying to guess some pre-defined puzzle solution or something, then that adversely affects player agency, because they can't really guess-- critical thinking of course requires that you are able to reason an outcome.

I agree with that very much. I do think a lot of that structure can come from specific things the DM thinks up for a particular environment/adventure, or that the players come up with on their own, as opposed to being provided by the system/character-sheet. I absolutely fully agree though, that you absolutely need to give players the ability to reason. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a pre-defined solution in mind, though, if there is enough information that someone can realistically reason the right outcome, as in the piggyback encounter.

sparkletwist

I think that this is why I still think that characters who have a healthy number of a capabilities have more to work with when it comes to creative solutions.

I don't wholly disagree, depending on what those capabilities are. I think why I generally am on the side of weaker/less powerful characters is that a lot of standard character capabilities lead to what I find obvious and sometimes boring solutions (the fighter swings a sword, the wizard casts a fireball, the cleric turns undead, the rogue disables the trap). But there are definitely more interesting capabilities, like various weird utility spells (like silent image, as you point out), or some types of skills, that can lead to interesting solutions, and I tend to like those. Even these *can* become a bit rote if the environment repeatedly features challenges that can be solved by the same spells, but again, I don't want characters who are limbless torsos, just those who are going to need a lot of clever reasoning to solve problems without risking serious consequences.

sparkletwist

I think the disconnect is that I see uncertainty and sticky situations where you may not, so I'm looking for rules to fall back on in places that you probably won't. For example, since I mentioned meta-rules above, I very much like how Fate is structured, with the idea of being less about rules that tell what happens and more about rules that exist to tell how to tell the story in a way that players retain agency and have certain codified levels of narrative control. You'd probably prefer to not do this quite as much, due to the way it can be immersion-breaking.

I think this is a good summary of our differences.

Essentially, here's my position in a nutshell, bullet-pointed:

  • I want players to think their way around the uncertain/sticky situations by concocting clever, unorthodox solutions to problems, some of which I might have pre-imagined, but others which are wholly novel. If I'm playing, I want to do this myself.
  • By making the default or obvious solutions to problems extremely risky, upping the danger associated with them, or decreasing player character capabilities in some way (playing with weak characters), unorthodox thinking is incentivized.
  • While characters should have some competencies (especially ones that already incline themselves to interesting solutions), and the system's rules do need to be there to provide structure when necessary, unorthodox solutions will often depend more on specific environmental or unique "rules" and require less dice-rolling or standard applications of character abilities than the obvious solutions.
« Last Edit: April 24, 2018, 09:13:02 PM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #18 on: April 24, 2018, 10:39:17 PM »

Steerpike

OK, yes, if we're going to call that a rule, I would definitely agree that a lot of my players' and/or my own characters' off-the-sheet solutions rely on rules. That said, they're often rules made up for a specific creature or situation (these creepy leech-vampires I created) which the characters have to discover in play (sneaking into a room, reading a journal, experimenting), as opposed to a rule they found on a character sheet or in a rule book.
Yeah, I said "could very well thought of" because I'm honestly kind of back and forth as to whether this is really the sort of thing that I'd call a rule, because it sort of is (in that it's a defined fact about the world with clear gameplay consequences) and it sort of isn't (because it's also very specific and a more of a fact about the setting) but in any case having definite facts about the world that can be found out does help with player agency, which is ultimately what I'm actually after with my constant harping on about rules and such.

This does make me wonder, would you feel particularly like players were circumventing the chance for creative solutions with numbers (or whatever you want to call it) if they came about the idea that vampires are repelled by salt by succeeding at a knowledge check rather than doing some more in-depth roleplayed thing like looking in a book about vampires, or whatever?

Steerpike

That doesn’t mean there can’t be a pre-defined solution in mind, though, if there is enough information that someone can realistically reason the right outcome, as in the piggyback encounter.
To an extent, sure, though it seems too easy for a puzzle with a single pre-defined solution and not a lot of wiggle room to turn into a "guess what the DM is thinking" sort of situation, and that's no fun for anyone. This is probably another case where I don't have quite as much confidence in the the DM (as in, in the abstract idea of "the DM," not a specific person) as you do.

Steerpike

I want players to think their way around the uncertain/sticky situations by concocting clever, unorthodox solutions to problems, some of which I might have pre-imagined, but others which are wholly novel. If I'm playing, I want to do this myself.
Me too, for the most part.

Steerpike

By making the default or obvious solutions to problems extremely risky, upping the danger associated with them, or decreasing player character capabilities in some way (playing with weak characters), unorthodox thinking is incentivized.
I'm basically on board here, too, as long as it's also clear that the unorthodox solutions are likely to be safer, which is probably how it works but not necessarily. I mean, in a sadistic sort of negadungeon game the DM may put in weird ideas that end up being even more dangerous... that's a little too much of a 'gotcha' design to me, but some of the oldschool Gygaxian death dungeons did stuff like this.

Steerpike

While characters should have some competencies (especially ones that already incline themselves to interesting solutions), and the system's rules do need to be there to provide structure when necessary, unorthodox solutions will often depend more on specific environmental or unique "rules" and require less dice-rolling or standard applications of character abilities than the obvious solutions.
I think this is where you kind of lose me. I understand what you're saying, but this kind of situation also has the potential to turn into a railroad really quickly. I think you're a good enough DM that you'd avoid doing that, for the most part, but it's a very real risk, especially in games that aren't as richly developed and dynamic as yours.
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« Reply #19 on: April 24, 2018, 11:58:41 PM »

sparkletwist

having definite facts about the world that can be found out does help with player agency, which is ultimately what I'm actually after with my constant harping on about rules and such.

100% with you in terms of this. I think we have a few differences about meta-level narrative agency vs player agency at the level of "actions characters take in the game," but we're really fairly close on this. I really want my games to have a sense of freedom to them.

sparkletwist

This does make me wonder, would you feel particularly like players were circumventing the chance for creative solutions with numbers (or whatever you want to call it) if they came about the idea that vampires are repelled by salt by succeeding at a knowledge check rather than doing some more in-depth roleplayed thing like looking in a book about vampires, or whatever?

Interesting... I don't totally mind using Knowledge rolls as providing general hints. I think I'd allow a Nature roll to figure out that leeches don't like salt, and a Religion roll to learn that standard vampires don't like garlic, but that other breeds of vampires have been known to exist which might have more esoteric weaknesses (and maybe on like a super stellar Religion roll I'd give it to them). A lot of the scenario, though, the PCs weren't even sure these guys were vampires. They had to find out a lot by talking and skulking around as the vamps hid in plain sight as passengers on the ship (a lot of the adventure was also figuring out who was a vampire and who wasn't).

The genius of the salt solution was really in the glue, though - that's what kicked it from solid play to like "wow, you have just put a bolt through the vampires' plans, that was brilliant." And I definitely wouldn't allow like an Int roll for the glue solution, mostly because it didn't even occur to me.

sparkletwist

I mean, in a sadistic sort of negadungeon game the DM may put in weird ideas that end up being even more dangerous... that's a little too much of a 'gotcha' design to me, but some of the oldschool Gygaxian death dungeons did stuff like this.

Yeah, I agree with this. I have occasionally straight-up told characters that something is a bad idea, usually through the thin veil of an NPC or familiar, if I think they're missing somnething big that their characters would probably grok, especially if it's something in the setting they would all for sure know.

sparkletwist

I think this is where you kind of lose me. I understand what you're saying, but this kind of situation also has the potential to turn into a railroad really quickly. I think you're a good enough DM that you'd avoid doing that, for the most part, but it's a very real risk, especially in games that aren't as richly developed and dynamic as yours.

Interesting. I think I agree this is a danger (though not an unavoidable one) if the game relies too heavily on just general DM fiat type stuff, but could you give an example? I suppose the earlier situation you mentioned would qualify... like for more like I said, this usually is just about saying yes to some zany idea tha players dreamed up because it sounds crazy enough to work, which feels like the opposite of a railroad. I guess this is probably what you might call player-empowerment, although for me it tends to come hand in hand with a certain player disempowerment (or character disempowerment, more accurately) when it comes to the difficulty of the challenges PCs face - again, because asymmetric power balance discourages straightforward approaches to solving problems.

Hack and Slash has what I think are a pretty good set of suggestions for this, a few especially good ones including:

Hack and Slash

When dropping hints, drop them three times.

When the players are discussing things, and they have misunderstood something or your intent, correct them.

When the players tell you what they are doing, also ask them what they want (why they are doing it) and make sure that their choice matches their goal. Pacing is difficult enough to maintain - if the players want to find treasure, let them know before they search an abandoned building for six hours of game time that there's not much treasure there. Tell them where to go to get treasure. (Yes, but. . .)

If you told them, and 30 seconds have passed, you may tell them again. (Remember. . . )

If the players ask a question, try to answer what they want to know. (No, but. . .)

Don't give the players blind choices. Always give some sort of information with the choice. A choice with no information to distinguish between the options isn't any sort of choice at all.

The invisible wall is anathema. Say Yes. . . or Say Yes, But. . . If you tell the players they can do anything and then continue to tell them no and no and no, well, they can't really do anything, can they?

Or, as Goblin punch puts it, more simply:

Goblin Punch

...You need to reward creativity when you see it.  When players ask you if something is possible, say yes.  (Or "yes, but".)  When you are devising a ruling for some ridiculous player shenanigans, lean in the player's favor. I'm not advocating that you should allow stupid ideas to succeed, but solving an OSR-style problem is usually going to involve some kludgery, so be lenient when deciding how likely crocodiles are to eat a bomb disguised as a pig.
« Last Edit: April 25, 2018, 12:42:03 AM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #20 on: April 25, 2018, 01:46:54 PM »

Steerpike

Earlier that session we had spooked a herd of brontosauruses to stampede and kill a horde of zombies,
Looking at that example out of context and probably missing critical information, that reads like a rather stupid plan that ought to go disastrously wrong. Which is to say that it's something I wouldn't even propose to try unless there are some really convincing, known factors that make it make sense IC. These enabling factors would be information drawn from the rules, the setting and prior in-game revelations. For example, if there's an animal handling skill or such that is broad enough in scope to allow controlling the brontosauruses in this manner, and sufficiently easy to pull off that failure is unlikely. Even so I'd want some reliable means of a failsafe, such as a magical item with which to instantly teleport away. Ignorant of any such enabling factors, I'd assume that trying it would only put me in the path of stampeding dinosaurs.

So what I'm saying is that merely having the brontosauruses in an area near the zombies isn't enough to suggest a viable plan, further information is necessary. And that information could well be supplied by the rules.
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« Reply #21 on: April 25, 2018, 03:59:23 PM »

Ghostman

Looking at that example out of context and probably missing critical information, that reads like a rather stupid plan that ought to go disastrously wrong.

Some missing info that probably explains further:

(1) We were in a boat at the time, while the dinosaurs were on land.

(2) We spooked the dinosaurs remotely, using a spell, at a safe distance. So there was an ability from a character used here, albeit one that didn't require any sort of roll or failure chance.

(3) We were behind the dinosaurs, the zombies were ahead, and so unless the brontosauruses decided to stampede into the source of their distress (not typical herbivore behaviour) and then into the river, we were confident we'd be unharmed.

Certainly if we had instead been on the ground trying to spook the dinosaurs "by hand," I think animal handling would be very appropriate.

I raised it more to show that there were problems we did clear creatively without pre-ordained solutions, rather than as an exemplar of off-the-sheet thinking.
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