Did you see that?

What do I see/hear/find?

A very common question in gaming.  Whether the player is trying to discover something, or the ref needs to know how much their characters are aware of, this mechanic is probably the second most used mechanic in just about any RPG, (the first of course are combat rolls.)  But how should it work?  If a player makes a roll, and it come up poorly, the character is unaware of whatever it is, but is the character?  If it is very successful, should they always find the well hidden murder weapon?  Should a ref roll it secretly and just tell the players what their characters see/hear/taste…

In the last post, we talked about drama and conflict.  This mechanic seems to work against that.  I have heard of refs that have everyone roll several Perceptions/Notice checks before game starts, and he then uses these as the players rolls as things come up.  I have seen referees use notice checks simply to create tension, allowing them to roll and tell them that they have determined nothing to be going on, or if they fail, then lead them astray.  I have also seen Refs create, or games with, a passive perception mechanic that will inform what the character espies even without searching.  Of course, any application of the perception mechanic must be played without Player Knowledge, only using the Characters Knowledge in-game.  So, lets talk about its use.  Does it take a player out of “immersion” to roll and fail?  Does it lead to meta-gaming no matter the result?

As far as immersion or meta-game, I don’t see its use as anymore than any other dice roll.  The player knows there is a randomization mechanic that informs the characters play.  So, a perception roll is no different from a Shoot M-16 roll, in that respect.  But the simple fact that the ref called for a perception check informs something about the situation, doesn’t it?  By telling the players which ones are allowed a perception and which ones aren’t may as well.  So, why doesn’t the ref always roll the checks for all the players?  Well, doesn’t that interfere with the players choice?  What if they wanted to roll different dice?  What if there is a re-roll mechanic?  How does that work, when the ref rolls, or for that matter, when the players all roll a set of Pre-perception checks?  What about when this check is being used to solve a mystery and look for clues?  Does the roll presuppose that the character has checked everything they can thing of?  What about when the player thinks of someplace/thing that the ref did not?  Can they force a re-roll because they are checking under the carpet beneath the desk?

Let me make some suggestions based on how this mechanic might be used.  Sometimes it might be a simple opposition mechanic; one character hides with whatever bonuses and penalties due, and the other person tries to find them.  Perhaps it is a simple “My roll is better, so I win this!” system.  But what if they both roll horribly?  One tries to hide by rolling around in a pile of leaves, but the other looks around by seeing why the dead trees are rustling.  Obviously they both failed?  Does success, in this case go to the one who failed the least?  Fortunately, this particular mechanic is usually well covered in whatever rule set you are using, so we don’t really need to break it down anymore.  What about the ref calling for a notice as people walk into a bar?  Well, this question, like in previous discussions, is Why?  Is the intent just to notice some particular detail?  Is the detail important to the ongoing story, or just add color or flavor?  If it’s not important, leave it out, unless someone asks about it.  If it’s important, is it important like they game stalls if they don’t see it?  Let them see it!  OR, have an in-play trigger that will allow them to find it.  “We know that our contact reported that he saw a bloody hand print on a Vase in here, last night, so I am looking at each of the visible vases, as well as in them to see what I see,”  AHA!  A knife…a very particular knife is found in one of the vases by the stairs…

What about treating the players as the omniscient audience?  Let them know what is coming up, with the realization that if the dice fail them, the characters will suffer the consequences!  This is a decent technique that could be used in a system with a re-roll mechanic.  The player can make a meta-game decision, based on the Meta-mechanic of dice and rerolls!  Is the fact of not noting what ever it is worth the resource to either automatically notice or the chance of still failing to note, depending on the mechanic.  RefMentor!!!  You can’t tell the players about an ambush!  It ruins the character involvement!  I hear your plea’s on this, and it took me a long while to wrap my head around the concept.  So, let me provide an example from a system that you know I love; Savage worlds:  The players have been tracking down a mobster, but have failed a number of streetwise tests, so now the mobster is aware that they are on his trail.  So, he sets up an ambush outside of one of the players house.  A car full of 6 guys with Tommy-guns.  The players return from an evening of revelry, which the mobster knew they were at, and upon arriving at home, they are given a notice roll, but with them slightly tipsy, and the darkness, and the nondescript car, none of them pass, so they fail to notice and the thugs open up full auto, given them about no chance of survival.  They have benny’s to re-roll, but maybe I am just going to tell them that the neighbors cat is out again, so they may forego spending the last of this resource.  But if they are told, when you arrive at home, there is an ambush by 6 thugs armed with sub-machine guns.  If you fail to notice, they will open up with surprise and other bonuses.  If you notice them, then they lose surprise…Now they know the value of expending that resource!  Keep in mind that this is no different than any other Player vs Character knowledge situation.  And like any of these other situations, like knowing a target number to roll, or the identity of the masked man…The Players AND the Ref need to make certain that this meta-knowledge is not used!

Perception checks are sometimes used to give a player additional information about something.  For instance, everyone sees there is mud on the step just outside where the man was killed.  But a notice will provide more information, depending on how good their result was.  So, what can they learn from this mud.  Maybe a shoe size or type, maybe it is unique to a specific location nearby or maybe something about the gait can be seen.  So the ref might assign value levels; a good success can determine the shoe size, and excellent success will determine the mud comes from a nearby coal mine, and a truly outstanding success shows that the prints were made by a person with a noticeably shorter leg, or perhaps club foot!  This is a pretty good system if you are not short-changing the person who took local soil as a skill!

As I stated in the beginning, this is a mechanic that is much over used, to the point that very few characters will forgo some expertise in it.  However, this discussion has granted a few problems with this over use.  What is the fix?  Simple!  Make the roll count!  Like so many of the rolls that players make it should make a difference.  If they have the time to examine things in detail, give them whatever information is available.  Decide if there is complimentary, but not required, information that might be discovered with a roll.  If the roll is failed, the players and their characters still have a way forward, but it won’t be as easy as it could have been.  If the information is required for them to go forward, give it to them.  But if you wish to, make a failed roll get them into other trouble rather than not finding the required information.  Perhaps, just as they find it, a trio of guards walks by and challenges them to put their hands up and back away from the safe, or the failure triggers a cohort getting the information back to the bad guy that the characters now have it!  Or perhaps they only got a copy of the front side of the headpiece, rather than both so that when they start their dig, they are in the wrong place (of course, you will need to come up with a way to get them back to the right place…probably just as their food is running out!  Don’t make a notice/perception/hearing roll result in them noticing that the fire is going out…unless there is no reason it should!  But, as in the last example above, don’t use a notice in place of another, more appropriate skill.  If your game does not have myriad skills, a perception check might always be the best way to find out information that is hidden.  But if you have many skills at your disposal, use the perception, with these presented caveats, and whatever analysis skills to determine their import!

Now, credit where credit is due:  The whole idea of giving the players the information that their characters don’t know for the purpose of the meta-mechanic is not my idea.  I first heard it on the Savage Worlds GM podcast.  Check them out, if you are playing or interested in playing Savage Worlds!

RefMentor wishing you only better games!

How does it start?

I have talked about lots of different things about how to run a game, and how to do referee things, but only brushed on the meat of it.  So, lets choose a setting and go through the steps of actually building an adventure to run your players through!  I am planning on doing this in three sections, each a separate post, hopefully no more than a week or so apart.  This one will go through outlining a session.

Some caveats to this process.

  • Know your system.  You don’t have to be a guru at it, but be comfortable enough to know what the system you’ve chosen can and cannot do well.  As mentioned several times in these posts, you can tell any story in about any system. it’s just a matter of how well or how smoothly your system does it.  Knowing this, you will not make a central part of your adventure something that the system does not do well.
  • Consider your scope.  How big of an adventure are you creating?  If you are planning a campaign (out of scope for this article), your stories are considerably different from if you are making a single session game.  This step becomes more important as the scope becomes narrower.
  • The last caveat is more a reminder; plan to have fun!  Know that your players will likely do things you had not expected and that’s ok.  Know that you may miss a few things in your set-up, and that ok.  This is not a matter of life or death (well,maybe to characters and a few stiff drinks, but…) and it can all be made better by a simple discussion.  With these things in mind:  Lets get started!

We will start by choosing the setting.  For the purposes of these post, I am not going to refer to any system mechanics. I’ve mentioned a few created settings in these posts, so I am going to choose our Space Centurion setting.  Next we decide how to set up our game.  We need to make a few decisions at this point.  Probably most important is scope.  Generally the amount of work for a campaign set up is about the same as a single adventure, as well as anything in between, because as the focus gets smaller, the details need to be more fine.(however, the bigger the scope, obviously you will be doing more work overall because you will be bringing that focus sharp over a series of directly connected stories).  For this, because of the impetus behind these posts, we will focus on a single story.

At this point, we need to come up with our story.  Keep in mind that an RP adventure is not the same as writing a story.  In a story, you control everything.  In an RP adventure, you control the world, the antagonist and his resources, but the protagonists, (the players) really tell where your story goes and how it get there.  So, what do we need?  Conflict.  Every story is a story of conflict, as we all learned in 7th grade English.  Depending on your school, you may have learned different “Man VS” conflicts, but here lets just kind of look at Man VS Man (probably the most common in RP), Man VS Nature (This may be monsters, or just the world) and Man VS Self (Very difficult to do in RP (particularly with more players), but often very satisfying…doppelgangers do NOT count as Self! 🙂 )

Once a story-line is made, then you will need to turn it into an adventure.  There are lots of ways to do this, but lets look at a low detail version, a high detail one and a middle detail one.

  • For the low detail, you just need to come up with your antagonist, the goal of said antagonist, and the resources available to accomplish it.
    • But wait!  Can a Man VS Nature have an antagonist?  Of course!  the Volcano/earthquake/hurricane/flood/jungle may not Decide to interfere with the heroes and their goals, but it does anyway.
    • Many Nature stories feature time as a resource of the antagonist…usually the heroes are  running against the inexorable and may not have enough time to complete their task!  Once you understand that, throw the players in the mix!  you just need to figure out how the bad guy responds.  Done.
  • This usually requires a strong understanding of your game mechanics and your setting as well as the ability to improvise responses.
  • A high level of detail would start with the basics, as above, but you may define specific resources, perhaps even down to the number of wagons and oxen the evil baron has, so you can keep track of the attrition afflicted by your meddlesome players.
    • It requires you to work out at least partial stat blocks for the bad guy (as above), but also his support and at least generic supporting cast.
    • You can work out a flow chart that addresses each scene/event and direct the players along it.  Maybe each encounter has a very positive outcome, a positive outcome, a neutral outcome, a negative outcome and a very negative outcome (one step above Total Party Kill (TPK)) and each of those lead to the next event on your story arc.  This method can be very gratifying visually, and perhaps some events might only have two outcomes (did they get it, did they fail to get it) and others may have more.  This makes it quite easy to play out as you can see what has been accomplished what effect each success or failure has had on events and so on, but can be frustrating because you come up with all of these options and the players may get very lucky (or skillful) and blow right through your chart, leaving all of these cool ideas to never see the light of day!  (A common hazard of the world building GMs!)
  • Finally you might create beat or point arc.  This is not as loose as the first version, but much simpler than the last version.
    • Here, you take your villains goals, and determine a vague idea of where your players can affect them.  Maybe they will have one chance before the boss battle, or maybe they will have three, and if successful with a key one of those, they will add one more.
    • When building this version, remember that each point along the story or each beat of the adventure should have a fairly direct consequence on the outcome.  It should weaken the players or the big bad, or strengthen them.
    • Information about the weakness, or even just learning of the next plot (particularly in a campaign) gives them some bonus against the enemy.
This single story adventure will be primarily Man VS Man. 

Homer III is a frontier planet of the Star Empire of New Rome, but a planetary non-citizen (read alien) has been capturing some of the intrepid citizens, draining them of fluids and leaving their desiccated husk draped across the archways of their villas.  However, the citizens don’t know what is happening, they are just finding some of these farm holders in bizarre positions and bled dry.  Is it an alien infection?  is it an  enemy of the Empire?  Who knows.  SO the Proconsul has contacted his senator and requested aid from the Empire to protect the Citizens and deal with this…thing.

  OK. We have a story that is focused, has some intrigue and some sort of confrontation in the end.  Obviously I need to figure out some details, but we have the basics.  One of my first considerations is characters.  However, characters are the topic of the second post, so we will cover that in more detail later!

Characters are considered, and perhaps discussed.  Now you need to work out the story  details:

If I am going to build the simple version, I simply need an understanding of Homer III, and I need to define this Man-Spider Alien.  Does it have access to Empire level science?  perhaps it is a wholly primitive hunter, or a bit of both, ala Predator?  I need to stat it at least partially.  If it is alone, how is it capturing these citizens?  Do I want to throw in a few hints of a possible disease?  Perhaps the proconsul is ill when the cohort arrives…  It’s goal is to drive the Empire from its world so it can hatch its eggs in the upcoming rainy season.  It is a member of a hunting pack, while not quite as intelligent as normal humans, it is quite clever.

In a detailed story I want to cover many possibilities.  I will start with them meeting the proconsul, who is showing signs of a wasting disease.  He will give them the information available, and explain that the Empire has never sent the normal Janissaries or the phalanx troop so the colonist are fairly vulnerable to issues such as these.  If the players examine the proconsul, they will find he has a rare form of space cancer…one that requires high empire level medicine to cure…but it can lead to a wasting type illness, but it has never shown itself to be contagious before.  If they try to send for information on the security detail they will have to wait 3 days for the response, and are then told that one should have been formed, are they sure?  Eventually (enough successful negotiations) they will have a detail formed and sent, but it will take time to actually form, drill and deploy them…during this time at least one more colonist will show up dead.  If they go to investigate the villas, they will find that all but the most recent have been scrubbed clean by the slaves.  the most recent however, has had one of the slaves, a non-citizen of local stock disappear.  The wife has gone to her fathers, so only the caretaker is left. He can tell what he saw, when the thing left his master in the archway.  Knowing that the story can’t go on without some clue, if the players don’ talk with him, they can find a drag trail leading up to the villa.  with enough success, they can tell it is recent, that there was two sets of foot prints, and that the drag marks represent bare toes…and there is a dried trail of some sort of liquid .

But, to keep from working out all of the rest of the details, i would finish this with a mid level of detail.  Taking what was already detailed above with this:  I want 5 adventure beats.  The first is the interview with the proconsul.  the second is the evaluation of the most recent villa.  Next is the site of the killing, then is the tracking of the big bad, and finally the final confrontation.  Again, to keep the story going, we know that none of these can lead to a complete dead-end (unless it leads to a return to the main story line…maybe the tracking point, but that would then strengthen the enemy by giving them one more victim)  To workout the rest of this game, I need to create an impact for each point.  If the players are successful they weaken the enemy, or get something to use against it.  If they fail, then the benefit the enemy or hinder their own cause.  And because it has been presented, i might overlay every beat with a virus threat…but they might be able to mitigate that at some point.

Alright!  hopefully next week, I will post the next part of setting up an adventure, the Characters!! Keep in mind that when using the medium detail style for campaigns, each beat can be a complete adventure built like this.  Like a bead on a string, that can be examined and expanded into the beads on a string of this post!

If you have questions, feel free to comment, and I’ll try to get you an answer!