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!

True Neutral

(Well!  News!  You should be able to post without having a wordpress account now!  If you haven’t posted before, I might have to approve it first, but that should only happen once!)

Does the ref need to be absolute Neutral?

A recent game has had me reflect.  We had a conditional TPK.  TPK?  yep…Total Party Kill.  How do you get a “Conditional” one then?  Well…two players were available, the other two players were steel bucketed.  (Steel bucketing protects PC who cannot play.  They are impervious from death, but not from bad things…)  Anyway, the buckets of player stayed back with a REF PC (Yeah, another post…the difference between NPC, Ref Character and a PC played by the Ref…), and the others got involved in a situation that got them killed.  As Ref, I gave them a few fortunate breaks, which is definitely Character leaning, rather than neutral.  So, it got me to thinking: “Is it really the Ref’s job to be absolutely neutral, neither aiding the players or the black hats???”

Like so much else, it depends.  And this is one of those things that some Ref’s get really up in arms about,  so this is my take…but I will at least touch on other views, so you can make up your own mind.

For me, the answer is a definite NO!  Everyone is at the table to have fun, and that includes the ref.  Sometimes a ref feels sorry for the players, and the challenges drop in scale.  That way, the characters will survive, so no hard feelings, right?  Or what if the players have just pissed you off, whether on the table or in the game, so to get back, characters start dropping like flies.  That’ll learn ’em, right?  Both of these are the wrong reasons not to be neutral.  As a ref, you are a force of nature in the game worlds, so the life and prosperity of characters is in your hand.  It is easy to give them everything or take it all away from them.  Your job, in MOST cases, is to enforce the world laws with impunity.  The risk of a characters life, health or even livelihood is a significant part of the drama of the game.  If a character gets in over their head, they will probably come out the other side worse for wear.  My rule for this has always been “I will not kill a character on a dice roll.”

What does that mean?  A character should not die JUST because of bad dice rolls.  Or Most “Random Encounters” (anything not directly connected with the plot arc) should not kill a character.  A character should only be killed in a story arc connection.   If a character should understand that they are outmatched, it might be  the correct thing for the ref, to let the player know that, in case the player doesn’t realize even when the character should.  Sometimes, the dice are just against the players.  They can’t get a good roll at all, and so cannot catch a break.  Or, they have no way of knowing that the shi……shtuff they just stepped in is a hell of a lot deeper than they had any reason to expect.  In those cases, I have no problem stepping in, changing an outcome in the characters behalf.  It will usually be bad, but they will probably survive.  They wake up naked, in chains, over a cauldron of boiling oil…Or find themselves sold to the mines as slaves…The one thing I resist is altering world laws to make this happen.  If they are hit by a Death Star main cannon, It’s not as if they will find themselves recovering in a healing vat…they are, unfortunately, destroyed.  What if they die in the middle of a desert from giant scorpion.  Could a group of nomads show up, fight off the scorpion and save the character?  Maybe…maybe not.  But for the moment, lets look at another piece of this argument…

What if the character and the player know they are facing horrible odds, and still feel it is the right thing to get involved with?  Slightly different story.  In this case, I will often still try to keep them from being killed, but I will be much more neutral.  If the black hats are wavering between killing them and using them for experimentation later, then I will aim to keep the characters alive.  But, if the black hats have no reason to keep them around, or will even be disadvantaged, then the character buys wholesale agricultural property (Yup…they buy the farm).  Why do I save the first set and not the second set?  Well, the player has chosen to be a hero.  If they survive the challenge, they become heroic, if they do not, well, they died a hero’s death.  In my view, as a ref, that is the more fun option.  (remember what I said earlier…that is why everyone is here!)

The final issue where refs often become non-neutral is when dealing with significant NPCs.  Sometimes, as a ref, you have created a great villain, and the characters completely surprise him and destroy him on two lucky dice rolls.  Well…the rules state that they can do it, so…They win!  not fun.  Think about your villain as a Player Character.  Would you be happy for one of your players to be defeated that simply?  Well, come up with a survival strategy.  Maybe he has “Always had” a secret escape trap door, so that when he falls under that great blow, he drops through and disappears…Or maybe he had a double…But, on the other side of that, just because your players outsmarted your plot, don’t decide that, oh…he wears armor that is only vulnerable to Blue Iron…so that characters cannot harm him as he and his minions now tear them to shreds!  This villain may have been your crowning achievement…but where is the fun ending?  If several of the players are killed, but the last one has sworn a vendetta against the villain in character creation…well…at great cost…he could win!

Here is my simple rule for this:  What is the most enjoyable outcome?  When you have one player, and that character is killed, that had better be a satisfactory ending.  That single player is killed by the Big Black Hat, but they knew they were not ready, but had no option.  Would the BBH, then wish to capture the character to soliloquize over their defeat?  Think of that one player who thought their character just died…and after a few moments of mourning, you tell them that they wake up…If all of your players have charged the Light Brigade, but all get killed…is there a successful epilogue that you can regale them with?  Have fun.  Characters are robbed and killed.  That is what our games emulate.  But is that what makes a good game?  Sometimes, but not always!

A final consideration…The sniper bullet on a dark night in the back of the head.  Believable?  Very.  Particularly if your players have been causing all kinds of problems for a criminal kingpin.  Fun…no.  The other way?  Characters spend two game sessions tracking down the kingpins movements and set up an ambush.  Their long gun loads explosive, poison, glass bullets.  Shoots him from across the street as he steps into a pool of light.  Rolling natural crits, does the kingpin die?  What is the funnest outcome?  Maybe it wasn’t through the back of the head, but right through the shoulder…or maybe the character kills the kingpin…only his arch rival was waiting for such an opportunity…Follow the Fun!