Wednesday, August 3, 2016

I really don't want to know (DM transparency in D&D)

Quick story: Last night I played in a session of Sean's 5th Edition D&D game, which he documents here. During the game, our group encountered a wraith, which with some powerful dice rolls struck my character to unconsciousness from nearly full hit points in a single attack. In fact, my character was one failed save away from being effectively slain.

This wasn't my least favorite part of the session. It actually didn't bother me at all. I was happy with the decisions I'd made for Nefresil to that point, both from tactical and role-playing standpoints. Untimely things happen in D&D. When making choices, it's important to weigh the odds and understand the impacts of randomness and dice. As a player, you control what you can control and learn to live with the results. If that means your character dies a hero, so be it.

My least favorite part of the session was picking through treasure after the combat and being told, without the aid of any spell, that we had found a short sword +1 and a wand of lightning bolts with seven charges remaining.

(I should pause here briefly as I realize I've used the words "least favorite" two times now, and I don't want to give the impression that I don't enjoy playing in this game or that Sean isn't doing a good job as DM. Sean is extremely new to DMing and running from a module, so all this discussion is intended to be instructional and expressive of the way I like to play D&D, nothing more.)

This brings us to the topic of transparency. Not to engage in edition wars per se, but citing the 2e PH description for the spell identify:

The item never reveals its exact attack or damage bonuses, although the fact that it has few or many bonuses can be determined. If it has charges, only a general indication of the number of charges remaining is learned: powerful (81%-100% of the total possible charges), strong (61%-80%), moderate (41%-60%), weak (6%-40%), or faint (five charges or less). The faint result takes precedence, so a fully charged ring of three wishes always appears to be only faintly charged.
Note, specifically, how the AD&D version of the spell stops short of providing the caster with concrete mechanical information about the item. D&D characters don't understand game mechanics, they understand the nature of magical items in abstract terms. Leaving the mechanical details shrouded keeps the players more interested, and less certain. It helps create tension.

Tension, in D&D, is everything.

To Sean's credit, in his game, the short sword came with a tale behind it that our characters were familiar with from lore. The blade was visibly identifiable as one of a pair that was previously wielded by a renowned historical NPC. The two weapons were never known to have been separated, so the fact that we found this one here, in isolation, was exceptional. Whether this flavor was added by Sean or part of the module he's running, it provides an interesting hook that we could potentially become involved with later on. This is good stuff.

Setting that aside, however, we have an issue of transparency. How do our characters know that the short sword is endowed with a +1 bonus? How do we know that the wand casts lightning bolt? How do we know that it has seven charges remaining? Short of casting a spell that yields specifically this information, our characters shouldn't know these things. Being told the mechanical details outright, in addition to breaking believability in the fantasy world, has deprived us, as players, of discovering the properties on our own. Imagine our characters experiencing the horror of unexpectedly running out of wand charges at exactly the wrong time! Because this information was handed to us freely, this can never happen. We need never plan for it. This in turn makes the game less interesting for us overall and reduces our immersion level.

Similarly, as DM, there's a fine line between telling the players what their characters observe and dictating the conclusions that the characters derive from what they observe. It's OK to tell the players "The orc shifts uneasily as you step into the room," but the DM shouldn't go so far as, "You know that the orc will attack you if you advance any further." We do? How could the PCs possibly know this without trying? Players need to be allowed to draw their own conclusions about the information provided to them, and being overly transparent as DM waters down the game for players who want to feel immersed. They're being shortcut through the nuances, which often end up being the most fun and rewarding elements of role-playing and decision-making.

In the end, I don't want the DM to let me in on the truth. I want to uncover the truth for myself by interacting with the fantasy world. Don't tell me things that my character should not rightly know.

It's important to note that the kind of transparency I'm describing here is different from the kind that the DM employs to show that he's playing by the rules and to instill trust around the table. When every DM die roll is hidden behind a screen, it's too easy for the players to feel (rightly or not) that they're being lied to when unlikely things happen. Transparency with dice rolls to remove doubt that the game is being adjudicated fairly is different from transparency with information. The DM at all times needs to be exceedingly delicate with exactly which details are presented to the PCs. Information and spoilers cannot be retracted.

Now, at some point, spell or no spell, a player needs to know, mechanically, that his or her character is wielding a short sword +1. The intent of this post is not to say that a player should never be privy to this information at all, simply that it should not be handed over without in-game justification. I'm generally not going to silently add a +1 modifier to a player's attack rolls for months on end; it's reasonable to assume that, over a short duration of using a magic weapon, the PC will get the gist of it enough that the bonus can be conveyed and written down on the character's record sheet. We just don't want to deprive the player of learning the nature of the weapon on his own.

It's a poorly-kept secret of DMs that we sorely want, at times, to tell the players everything, to let them in on every minute detail that we've been plotting and preparing over the course of a campaign. But a good DM need always remember that the time for revealing this kind of information is after its in-game relevance has unequivocally passed.

And not a moment sooner.

1 comment:

  1. A couple follow-up notes based on conversations with Sean and Jason after posting:

    * The lore behind the short sword was indeed Sean's, which is sweet. Interestingly, some of the best elements of his campaign so far have been those he's added in himself (for example, the band of mercenary NPCs he ad libbed for us to hire at the end of session #1 - his first session ever DMing).

    * The 5e DMG provides an optional rule for making magic item identification more difficult, and more in line with the AD&D approach. (It's sometimes hard to decide whether to give points to 5e for being flexible or annoyed at its outright refusal to show allegiance to a particular style of gaming.) I don't think any of us knew about this rule beforehand, but interested to hear Sean's thoughts on it in more detail.

    * My "most favorite" part of the session was the realization that we could converse with the floating skull in the furnace room, which was an unexpected and refreshing reprieve from the dungeon-crawling cadence of the mine.