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14 October 2005 @ 05:27 pm
This week's Save My Game  
Jason Nelson-Brown writes the Save My Game column on the Wizards of the Coast website. From the site:

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

We all know how common this is in gaming, and Jason has all the answers! Yay!

This month, he tackles player knowledge vs. character knowledge. What do you do when your players memorize the Monster Manual and use that knowledge to their benefit, even when the character should have no knowledge of that stuff?

The original question he answers is:
My players have memorized the Monster Manual, so they recognize every monster I throw at them. How can I keep them from using out-of-character knowledge in the game? -- Maggie at Wizards of the Coast

His suggestions are three:

  1. Beg them to "play nice." Appeal to them with DM interpretations of the Knowledge skill. If that fails, lay down the law about OOC vs. IC actions.

  2. Forbid PC actions that are based on "knowledge to which the PC isn't entitled." Huh, that sounds suspiciously like laying down the law.

  3. Punish players with XP penalties after the game, "if a player persists acting in a way that is unreasonable for his character." Huh, that also sounds suspiciously like laying down the law.

In his summary, Jesse empowers DMs to tell a player to "shut his yap" and to "feel free to stomp on that kind of activity -- and hard." Yeah, that'll save my game! Thanks!

Jesse misses the fundamental point that D&D 3.5 supports Gamist style play very well, and supports other kinds of play pretty damned poorly.

Look at Maggie's question. "They recognize every monster I throw at them." How can I stop them? Maggie seems to understand that D&D is about "step on up." She's throwing monsters at her players and wants it to be a fair fight. She feels they're cheating. But why? Your characters don't know all the stats of the monsters! So?

God, I get queasy reading Jesse's anecdote about how he squelches his 10 year-old daughter's enthusiasm when she proudly identifies the doglike creatures as kobolds and analyzes their threat level to the party. Squish! All your reading is for nought! I'm willing to bet that the reason she clapped her hand over her mouth was that Jesse was giving her some kind of disapproving look.

Adam's New Philosophy on the Best Way to Play D&D

D&D 3.5 plays best, I think, when a player can use every tool at his disposal to Step on Up, Kick Ass, and Take Names (and their Stuff). Here are some possibly controversial ideas for game play that I think will Save Your Game.

Player knowledge is fair game. Hey, man, read the Monster Manual and use that knowledge during the game. As DM, I certainly do, so you should as a player. Need an IC justification for it? Shouldn't be too hard. Your PC is an adventurer, dammit. He spent his teen years sitting in bars and listening to bards and rangers talk about their experiences. He studied under great wizards and warriors and learned all about monsters and traps. Maybe he's never actually seen a kobold, or a dire wolf, or a mind flayer, but he has heard all about them and knows their strengths and weaknesses and he knows which ones will likely kick his ass instead of vice versa.

Tell them the Challenge Rating. That's right, DMs. Tell your players how tough the encounter is and how many XP they'll get if they Kick Ass and Take Stuff, er Names. Taunt them. "What? A little CR 3 ogre gonna scare you away? Chickens." Bribe them. "You know, he probably has a +1 dagger in his boot." But give them the ultimate choice to fight, run, or do something else, and give them the knowledge they need to make the right decision. Don't surprise them with a few extra ogres and bump the encounter up to EL 6 cuz you felt like it.

You can still do surprises; you just have to inform them of the EL/CR earlier. "Hey, guys, you can either go down the left corridor, which leads to a pretty dangerous EL 6 encounter worth 3000 XP, or you can go down the right corridor which leads to a series of EL 2-3 encounters worth around 400 XP each. Your choice." "We'll take the big one." "Okay, whoever is in front make a Spot check at DC 20. Aww, damn, until they drop on you, you don't notice the cloakers hiding on the dark cave ceiling! Roll initiative!"

Play for keeps. Hey, you're letting them choose whether to fight or run or do something else, right? You're letting them read the MM and every supplement and letting them bring all that player skill to bear on the game problems, right? Shit, some of them even read the module you're running. So? So play for keeps. Try to kill their asses. Be fair, stick to the rules, and be ruthless. You told them it was CR 6, and they went anyway. A bunch of cloakers drop down and attack. Hey, maybe you'll kill the whole lot of them. Total Party Kill, baby. But if they win? Wow, that'd be awesome. They'd be pretty damned proud to survive that encounter with their four characters each level 2 or 3.

I think those things will help you Save Your Game a lot better than Jesse Decker's advice.
ptevis on October 14th, 2005 09:32 pm (UTC)
This why the next time we play D&D, we're playing Order of the Stick style. The characters know the world works according to D&D rules, and they know everything in the books. It's amazing how hard it become to derail the game when you embrace it like that.
Judd, Juddski, Chaim, Judah, Judd-oh & Pakajudd_sonofbert on October 14th, 2005 10:20 pm (UTC)
Playing Order of the Stick style sounds like loads of fun.

Great idea.
Evil Headdrivingblind on October 14th, 2005 09:41 pm (UTC)
This is a little mean, and requires a certain amount of agility on the part of the DM, but I'll also suggest...

Player knowledge is met by proportionate DM knowledge. Your players know all the special abilities and weaknesses of that Outer Flurg? Great. Your Outer Flurg gets to act with full knowledge of the PCs special abilities and weaknesses too.

I have, in the past, seen DMs purposefully make 'Yeah, but the monster doesn't know that you have that,' decisions, while the players gleefully made, 'I read the Monster Manual' decisions. When DMs do that, they're making a decision -- whether conscious or not -- to give the players a great tactical advantage. If the DM steps on up into the gamist arena, on the other hand, he should get to employ the same kind of advantages. The interesting part of this approach, though, is that it may have the potential effect of ... getting people back to separating IC and OOC knowledge: "Don't tell me what an Outer Flurg can do! I want my Sword of Flurg-Slaying to be a surprise!"
Evil Headdrivingblind on October 14th, 2005 09:44 pm (UTC)
What also startles me, though, is that the idea of "So change how the monsters work. Don't use the verbatim Monster Manual versions." doesn't seem to have ever entered into the fray.
Christian Griffen (xenopulse)chgriffen on October 14th, 2005 10:56 pm (UTC)
How about The DM Changes Key Features of the Monsters at Will Before the Encounter.

That should be standard. My 2nd ed DM always does that. No monster goes unmodified.
zigguratbuilderzigguratbuilder on October 14th, 2005 11:08 pm (UTC)
Totally. Dire Undead Neo-Ottyugh fights beside quickling bone golems.
Blue Gargantuabluegargantua on October 15th, 2005 01:39 am (UTC)

...and when you tack on a few levels of Barbarian to that Gelatinous Cube....

 Adam Drayadamdray on October 15th, 2005 03:19 am (UTC)
Sure, but that requires additional prep, and D&D is already a game that requires a lot of pre-game prep. But of course the DM is gonna change things if he wants. There's nothing wrong with that as long as he gets the CR's right.

Still, this smacks of 'trick the players' and it has the potential to change the nature of their Step On Up. "Shit, man, we wouldn't have rushed into this combat if we'd known these kobolds breathed fire. Couldn't you at least give us some kind of game warning for that?"

I think Step On Up works best when the players can bring all their abilities to bear. I think that does include the DM's ability to Make Shit Up, but the DM has an enormous advantage over the players in this regard. There's no way a player can prepare sufficiently for the DM's Made Up Shit. Stepping Up to the challenge of Made Up Shit is part of the game though but it shouldn't become the focus of it. So use "change all the stats" sparingly. A kobold should be a kobold. A neo-otyugh should be a neo-otyugh.

Advance the monsters according to the rules. That means you can add barbarian levels where that makes sense, but it also means you should reserve really odd mutations for special occasions and not make that the norm. Don't invalidate the players' "studying" because it makes the game less fun for them. Introduce new monsters, by all means, but give them warning about it. Let them know that the Demonstone seems to be giving all the monsters in the dungeon the Chaotic and Dire templates.
jhkimrpgjhkimrpg on October 14th, 2005 11:01 pm (UTC)
Well, personally, neither of these sound terribly appealing to me. I recently tried D&D again, and the second session sounds similar to your ideal. I found it dull. To me, at least, monster killing is not very interesting by itself without characterization of the PCs and exploration of the unknown.

My usual advice would be similar to yours on the first part -- i.e. arrange the PCs to have the information, such as by giving them a bestiary written by some informed wizard. If a gap between player knowledge and character knowledge is causing problems, it is a lot easier to inform the character than to take the knowledge out from the player. However, I think I would dislike the taunting and bribing. But that may just go to show that tastes differ.

Can you say a little about how games run like this have worked for you? How do the players react when you tell them the CR/EL?
 Adam Drayadamdray on October 15th, 2005 03:29 am (UTC)
You tend to be a really heavy Sim player though, don't you John? I would think that what I'm describing wouldn't be fun for you at all. Really, I think that any fun you manage to get out of D&D 3.5 would be a bit of luck.

Do I think your way to play is more fun? Totally. Do I think your way to play is more fun in D&D 3.5? Nope. Tried it and it keeps running into the same problem and apparently lots of other people have this problem too and it's so common that Jesse Decker felt the need to write DM Advice about it.

I haven't run games like that. This is all armchair theory. I want to try it and when I do I'll let you know how it went. It'd be a great Actual Play post on the Forge.
jhkimrpgjhkimrpg on October 15th, 2005 07:29 am (UTC)
OK, I misunderstood. Good luck with the experiment. I'll be interested to hear about how it turns out. As is a truism at The Forge, actual play is key.

I don't have a ton of experience with D&D, but it sounds like my experience differs from yours. Notably, I recently played two sessions in a friend's running of "The Shackled City" mega-module. The first session had more interaction in the city, while the second started in on the more hard-core dungeon crawl where characterization largely dropped away. Basically, I found the former still mildly fun while the latter seemed dull.

I'd prefer to avoid GNS labels because my experience with trying to assess my games in GNS terms on the Forge has lead to lack of consensus. But I'm not put off by rules-heavy combat. I was a Champions afficionado for many years (and still am to a degree). Also a few months ago I ran a Conan RPG event which I thought was pretty good fun. Still, D&D is not my favorite game.

I am unsure as to what (if any) sort of D&D game would be truly fun for me. I recently GMed a D&D one-shot for some largely non-gamer friends at their request, and I ran a tactical scenario with them being a group of kobolds (based on old war movie archetypes) desperately defending their lair. That was better fun, but not great though it was marred by some issues with experience and prep. I recently posted my thoughts on how I might use D&D in a game -- in LJ post Breaking Down D&D.
(no subject) - adamdray on October 15th, 2005 12:52 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - jhkimrpg on October 16th, 2005 04:09 am (UTC) (Expand)
matt_snyder on October 14th, 2005 11:06 pm (UTC)
Wow. This is really weird: I just wrote the SAME rant. We're on to something, no? We're certainly on the same wavelength about D&D, anyway!
chaduchadu on October 15th, 2005 12:03 am (UTC)
Crazy ass solution: Don't use monsters from the Monster Manual. Use Fiend Folio, or Gamma World, or some small-press OGL thingy or... (gasp) make some up yourself.

 Adam Drayadamdray on October 15th, 2005 03:32 am (UTC)
See what I said above. I think this is a perfectly good solution but you have to be careful. While "figure out what crazy thing the DM concocted this week" is part of Step On Up, it shouldn't be the entirety of it. It's too hard to get CR's right in D&D. Don't invalidate player knowledge. It's like changing the playing field on them rather than playing harder. It feels like cheating if you do it with every monster.
chaduchadu on October 15th, 2005 04:44 am (UTC)
Don't invalidate player knowledge. It's like changing the playing field on them rather than playing harder. It feels like cheating if you do it with every monster.

Good point.

I don't have a problem with player knowledge per se (fire vs. trolls, mirrors vs. medusae, kobolds are weaker than dragons, etc.), it's when players start number crunching (kobolds can only have a max HD of XX, so we can easily blah blah blah; woomples can't cast spells over level 6) that I personally get tetchy.

(no subject) - adamdray on October 15th, 2005 12:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drivingblind on October 15th, 2005 03:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - matt_snyder on October 15th, 2005 03:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chadu on October 15th, 2005 05:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chadu on October 15th, 2005 05:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - adamdray on October 17th, 2005 04:00 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chadu on October 15th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - adamdray on October 17th, 2005 05:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chadu on October 17th, 2005 05:47 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - adamdray on October 17th, 2005 07:12 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chadu on October 17th, 2005 07:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - adamdray on October 17th, 2005 07:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chadu on October 17th, 2005 08:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - adamdray on October 17th, 2005 08:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - chadu on October 17th, 2005 08:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - adamdray on October 17th, 2005 08:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)