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!

Ante Up!

Another post inspired by a question from a fellow, and related, referee…How much buy in can you expect from your players?

The simple answer is:  As you might expect…it depends.   The final answer is that they will probably only ante up with the least amount they can.  Let me explain the issue, and then I will offer a few bits of advice…that’s what you came here for, right?

Buy in is what you want from your players.  You want them to WANT to come to game, to WANT to experience everything you have planned.  And, if your game is based on a very common setting, basically if you can say “We are playing in the Battlestar Galactica universe, as portrayed by the most recent television series, before season 3,” your players will likely know exactly what to expect.  But the farther you get from that statement, the more “Buy In” you are expecting from your players.  If you use the earlier statement, but tell them that the game takes place on an unknown miner, with only a couple of raptors for protection, the buy in becomes higher.  You want your players to go through the notes you provide them to know who the other 15 members of the crew are.  Now, your players may be that rare breed who will devour everything you have written, point out your logical flaws, and pose questions on how much a 10’ pole costs in your setting!  But more than likely, they want to know the setting so they can build a character.  Anything else, they want you to tell them when it becomes pertinent to their game enjoyment.  Nothing wrong with this.  But as a ref who loves to build my own settings it can get frustrating, when I need to constantly remind the players that the “Moon” in this world is visible all the time, that the common man thinks of the day divided into 20 segments of time called horas.  “These are important to the setting of the game,” I wail…and the players ask…”so is it still late afternoon, or is it evening?”  and all I can do is say…yes…it’s late afternoon…

What I have discovered is that while fascinating backgrounds intrigue players, particularly explorers or story-tellers, very few are willing to ingest vast amounts of info to play in it.  What you as a ref need to decide is how much of your background is story info and how much is setting info. Lets see if I can make this clear.  If your next game is taking place in our space faring Roman Empire, you need to decide if the game outcome will depend on knowing when the Leo rebellion occurred and the order the planets were taken back into the Emperors benevolent protection because a serial killer is carrying out murders based on those dates, then that info is vital story info.  However, if the story requires exploration of one of the Leo Rebels ancient Villa’s, then who owned it is really only story dressing.   This is important, because when setting your players up there is a delicate balance of info you can give them without making it obvious the importance of the fact.  The setup for both of these could be very similar: “Game will be set in the Leo Recovery Planets.  As many of these games go, there is a crime that needs solving.”  If you add “It is important to know about the Leo rebellion and recovery, particularly the dates of reintegration.”  that kind of gives away part of the mystery.    As a ref, you have already written 12 pages on the Leo Rebellion, but have any of your players read it?  Of course this borders on character vs player knowledge. (hmmmm…foreshadowing, anyone?)

Generally, epic games will have more story arc related background info, while in episodic games, most of the background info is just setting.  Obviously, there are exceptions to that.  If your information is just setting, then you can simply feed it to your players if and when appropriate.  When it becomes story linked the issue is more problematic.  Of course, you can hand out a “writers bible” version of your world that covers key points of the background.  You could explain all of the background info that might be important.   However, for certain games, just by highlighting that info might change the outcome of your story.  You can just tell your players where all the background is, and remind them that they may need to know everything in there.  However…let me address the other side of Player Knowledge vs Character Knowledge!

One of my pet-peeves is refs that seem to forget that what your players know is different from the characters, who have lived in this universe all of their lives!  Unless you can describe your game as “Our game starts in our real world, and the first game day will be yesterday AND you will be playing yourselves,”…it is very likely that the knowledge of the player and their character are not the same!  Even in this case, it may likely be different as what the characters know will be filtered through your, as the ref, understanding of their knowledge.  When keeping this in mind, remember that the players WANT to experience your game!  You have all agreed to play and look forward to it.  When you are getting ready to play the new setting, it is your responsibility to sell it to them!  Give them the highlights that WILL be part of the story arc.  Depending on how much that takes give them more.  Then Guide their character creation!  What does that all mean?

First, you should be able to present the highlights of the setting in a few sentences.  30 – 60 seconds.  If the players balk at that point…it is not a good time to change settings.  Find out what turns them off.  Can you come to a compromise without changing core things?  If so, do you want to?  If they are intrigued, and willing to consider, then…

Give them the highlights!  With the pitch, you have hooked them.  with this, you are giving them a taste.  You are letting them know enough of the background to let them understand what kind of stories might occur.  This is where you buff off your best Used Car Salesman jacket, slick back your hair…and fast talk!  Make them AMAZED by the setting…want to bury themselves in the potential!  After this, they should be clambering to make characters, bursting with character ideas!

Now you take off your storyteller hat, and put on your ref hat.  Guide them in character creation.  Don’t let them create characters that don’t fit the setting.  If you are like me, you want to let them play whatever they want.  That’s fine, if they are willing to fit their idea to the setting.  Sometimes, you need to veto certain ideas.  Usually, however, you can guide them to build the character core with setting clothes.  Done?  Ready to Go?  OK…Play Ball…

However, all of that is about getting them to pay up during buy in…and they still haven’t memorized the names of each of the prayer hours, or the ranks of the Emperors family!  “Refmentor!  You have Failed ME!!!!”  Nope! say I.  This is the next part of your responsibility!  Remember that I don’t like players trying to try to play a characters knowledgeYou are the memory of every character.  YOU need to use the proper language!  YOU need to stop, or at least remind them, that their character may or may not do something given the situation.  Of course, you can forbid them from doing certain actions, but it is better to offer them an alternative.  YOU need to be ready to answer a player regarding a setting question.  This does not mean you have to reveal secret knowledge, nor should you, until they have actually discovered it.  Avoid long discussions of setting info if possible…the players don’t need to know the whole cultural history of why it is appropriate to haggle in stores, but not on the street.  If the player wants that info, make a note of it to discuss after game, or tell them where that info can be found (Such as your games WIKI!).  You can remind them, when they are chasing the potential murderer through the alleys, that the bells are chiming Baynar prayers now…are they willing to risk their health by not taking the time to properly thank Baynar for their Hale body?  Will the murderer respect the prayer hours?  What happens if they don’t pray?  Can they seek atonement latter?  Is there an immediate effect?  This is info you need to tell them!

So, yes.  You can expect buy in at least to a certain level.  But, you need to be ready to sell your setting AND you need to be prepared to enforce the setting rules.  If failing to pray to the God of health results in immediate wasting sickness, then don’t just strike them with the sickness and then tell them “Oh, you missed Prayer!”  Their character would be well aware of this even if the players find it incredibly annoying.  Does the bad guy carry a relic that allows him to avoid every other prayer?  Then he may well get away this time…If not, he may still get away, but they may find his body later, having died from the wasting!  Make your players WANT to learn this info, or even better, allow them to add details!  As long as they keep within your flavor.  Looking forward to hear about your worlds and the adventures that occur in them!

(Promise it won’t be so long for the next one!)