Monday, July 11, 2011

What Do You Do When The Rules Interfer With Your Story Line?

There is an interesting discussion going on at ENworld regarding the cliche dying scene.  Here.  It is a good discussion, with some well reasoned opinions on both sides.

I find myself on the side of follow the rules.  The DM might just be trying to build an interesting fantasy scene, with drama and pathos, and not thinking too closely about the rules.  The players, ever alert to challenges & to combat evil, immediately try to intervene.

DM: You find a man on the floor.  He is a bloody mess, and appears to be almost dead.  He motions you to come closer with a great effort while his life blood oozes readily to the floor.  As you approach, he starts to speak in a faint, almost inaudible voice-
Player (interrupting): I cast a cure spell on him.
DM (surprised): Er... Um... no, he is too far gone for that.  He does manage to whisper in his dying breath, "Beware the bearer of the Ruby Cup....."
Player: Wait... He was still alive and could speak but my spell didn't work?
DM: Um... Yes.  Well, No.  You just think you were too late.
Player: That is awfully suspicious.  I cast detect magic.  Do I sense any residual magics here preventing my cure from working?  Then I cast detect evil.  Lastly I check the corpse to make sure it is real.  You know, not an illusion or something else.  This is really strange.  Next I -
DM (interrupting): No, really, you just were too late.
Player: That makes no sense.  If he could speak, then why couldn't I save him.
DM: Listen, don't make such a big deal of it.  It was just a death scene to give you information.  Lets move on.
Player: Oh.  Ok, I guess.

I'll quote ENworld poster Nagol, "To the DM, it’s just a bloody death scene. For the players it is a situation where their expectations for in-game effect do not match with observed effect. As far as the players are concerned this could be a CLUE."

Its not like I have never painted myself into a corner and had to come up with feeble, "just because", excuses in game.  However, I find them unsatisfactory.  The verisimilitude is broken if you have to move between the dramatic scenes where the rules don't function, and the scenes where players can use their skills, abilities and clever ideas to achieve an outcome.  Sure, you can agree that when the DM is wearing the moose antlers you just enjoy the dramatic scene, and when he is not, you get to play.  I am sure that works fine for lots of folks, and at times I may put on the moose antlers myself, but overall I try to let the players play.  Even if that means they mess up my dramatic scene.  That just means I should have planned it better.

There are rule ways to handle some of these kinds of issues.  And in this case when I say rules, I mean more like how the world functions rules.  Next time I'll write about coming back from the land of the dead.

The dice never lie


  1. This sounds like an issue of player expectations. Later editions of D&D seem much more focused on making sure the DM has to play by the 'same rules' as the PCs, and one consequence is exactly this -- you can't have things happen that are not covered by the rules (or covered by the legalistic coditions under which the rules can be broken). So players expect that anything that happens in the game is covered by the rules. This is one reason I don't really like the later eds. as much. I trust the DM to decide what needs to be covered by mechanics and what does not. And interestingly enough, for me it breaks the versimilitude if 'everything is covered by a rule' because in real life no noe really knows what the rules of the universe are exactly, we just have approximations that usually work (i.e. science). So sometimes things don't jibe with the known rules at all, and in a dungeon or fantasy world generally I expect that to happen with some regularity.
    I think some things can be unknowns, particularly for the PCs, and in those case the players don't necessarily need to 'know' what is goingon either. suppose they interact in some way with a god -- it gives them an answer or strikes someone down. Would your players insist on knowing a deity's skill ranks or base attack bonus? Would that hurt versimilitude?
    I think *any* game is going to have certain situations that you can't quite bend to fit existing mechanics, and that's ok.

  2. @Mike - thanks for the comments.

    Certainly it is an issue of player expectations. I don't know if I agree that players expect that anything that happens in a game is covered by the rules. However, in my experience players expect the world to react consistently in areas where the characters have some expertise or experience. Healing/curing is the example I used in this post. The character is assumed to have some expertise and experience in healing but is confused when their character cannot heal an NPC who they 'thought' was alive.

    I agree, some things can and should be unknowns. This is a fantasy game. I am solidly with you on that point. However, the unknowns shouldn't randomly conflict with the knowns. Can you have magic that is beyond character understanding? Certainly. Can you have people die for reasons beyond the understanding of the characters. Certainly - but I don't think it should be a random plot device. It should smack of the unknown/unknowable for a reason with some hints towards that.

    A player shouldn't know (or have the temerity to ask) about the stats of a god, monster, NPC or whatever. The players get to know what the DM tells them, and they infer to make further decisions. What is the bad guys armor class - well you don't know, but you can see he is wearing plate mail and carries a shield; so the player should understand he has pretty good armor. If the player wants to chart out the actual armor class during combat by keeping track of which rolls hit - that is up to them, but I don't see stat tracking as 'fun'. (though many baseball fans would argue with me). I don't see the question of players knowing stats of monsters as the same as the world behaving consistently regarding mundane actions - and healing becomes somewhat mundane because it happens so often.

    Regardless of what edition you play, there is a line where players are no longer able to act. Whether zero or a negative number, the players die or fall unconscious. If a DM rules strictly the players can take no further actions once that happens (take speaking for example) how is it not confusing to the players if NPCs can do what they cannot? Sure, there might be a special circumstance which allows it, but shouldn't that supernatural occurrence be made somehow to the players, even if they don't fully understand it?

    I like the players to use their brains to solve problems and puzzles. If the world is inconsistent much of the time - why would they try to make sense of it?

    I'm not saying random and high fantasy is wrong/bad fun - just that at my campaign I try to be consistent most of the time, and let the high fantasy shine (obviously) when the time comes.


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