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!

A Book of Blue

Is the Secret in the Sauce?

In my last post, I discussed the importance of separating player knowledge from character knowledge; that is, how to avoid metagaming.  OK.  So, you have that well in hand, but how do you get your players secret information?  Can you get secret information out without letting anyone else even know that you did? And, is any of this even needed?  I’m glad you asked!

In this post I will talk about blue-booking, as well as about tools to help you use PK (Player Knowledge) against CK (Character Knowledge)!  “But, Mentor!”  I hear, ” what is this Blue-Book You speak of?  Does it hold the Secret of Understanding?”  Well, it holds the secret…

Blue Booking is a means of passing secret information to players.  Somewhere in the dim history of our hobby, somebody had a blue notebook, that they passed to the ref with a pertinent query (such as how much gold did I get when I pick pocketed our fighter?) that they didn’t want the other players to know, and thus the term was born.  It is one of the two simplest ways to pass secret info to players, and no, the book does not have to be blue, or even be a book.  It can be a torn piece of notebook paper, scribbled with your question, folded and passed to the ref, who then either scribbles an answer or nods and eats it!  The other way is the dreaded “You, come with me…”  This is when the ref points at a character and takes them out of the room.  (Of course, it might be a player pleading to go out of the room with the ref!)

Benefits of each…the player in question can carry on with secret shenanigans and the other characters are none the wiser…the players may be, but the characters aren’t…But, if the players know something is going on, aren’t they all going to try to make notice rolls and check their pouches, you ask?!  As we went over before, that would be using Player knowledge where the Character has no way of knowing anything is amiss.  Then why pass secrets this way, if you have an expert set of players who will NEVER EVER use player knowledge?  Simple.  Drama! Using these techniques may allow the players some clue that something is going on, but it also allows them the enjoyment of finding out what is going on through their character!.

However, to throw a bit of a monkey wrench into players perceptions (remember when I told you that you can change what a character perceives?  This can also be done , to an extent to the players) by randomly handing a paper to another player with such a cryptic statement as, “enjoying the game?” or “you hear the wind!”  That can be accomplished in a call out as well.  “How bout them Bronco’s?” (they play football…)  This will get the players either overly cautious, missing some of the more important things (You never saw the man run past with the bag of gold, as you were busy checking your pouches) or begin to ignore the exchange because it is none of their characters business!!!

If you can do this with a blue book, when would you take the time to actually do a call out and waste game time? Or, if it not a drama concern, and your players are good what is the benefit? What if you wanted a character to suffer amnesia.  You could just blue-book her with “you have amnesia until I tell you otherwise.”  OK, works, but…It also leaves a lot of questions.  So if you take her out you can tell her what happened, if needed.  You can have a back and forth about how much she still knows, if there is anything she needs to remember…You can pass all of the things you need to accomplish to meet your story goal!  And, the players are in the main room, sweating into their nacho’s about how long you’ve been gone!

Here is a cool trick that works for particular settings.  Say you have a group of players, that are pretty good at NOT metagaming, and you want one player to have a portentous dream that includes the other characters.  Well, you could tell everyone that you want to do a dream sequence.  Boring, but works.  You could play it out, responding to the players constant questions of “how are we on a boat?  We are not even by the sea?” by saying “you just are, OK?!”  and then at the end…”HAHA!  It was just a dream along!  Back to regular game!”  OK, that works.  But what if you needed each of the players except the dreamer to relate some sort of clue?  Answer: Blue-book!  Give everyone a short list of instructions.  All of them can get the…OK, this is a dream, go with it…but what if everyone but one player got that instruction.  What if everyone, but that character was told to use a given phrase at least twice during the session?  What if that persons instruction just said, there will be some weird things that happen, but your character should not notice them…See what we have done there?

How would you handle another odd situation:  One player has been kidnapped and replaced by a Doppelganger.  (what if the character is killed?  You could run the whole combat as a call out or kidnap them, and then game in off time to see about them surviving the ordeal…)  The Doppelganger knows some/most of what the character knows…Before you run something like this, you must trust that you Player can face a role-playing challenge.  You will find that many people find it difficult to play their character slightly different…not in the bad day way, but a “now you are a hidden enemy that wants to eat the other players” way…

What other tools maybe available to you to pass the all important secrets.  In a live game, most players have cell phones.  You can text message each other!  In an online game, usually you can whisper or isolate a single player to pass info to.  What about email between game sessions?  Great tool because you can detail significant info without taking game time!  Also, you can do a lot of scheming in an out-of-game session!  (Let me be clear…this is still game and takes in-game time, it just happens with a character or two rather than the whole party.  It needs to have the time to happen between sessions, or it can get pretty awkward.  Yes, I am planning a post about dealing with game time/real-time!) It doesn’t take a genius to work out these tools, but if you never think about it…it will never get thought of!