December 19, 2013

Theater of the Mind Action

The new D&D is going to revert to an assumption that groups will not be using maps, grids and miniatures.  For fans of 4e and Pathfinder, this will be a big change, and some are upset about it.  There will be optional rules for tactical combat, but making the core assumption Theater of the Mind (TotM) will affect everything from supplements to modules to accessories.

And especially the GM-player power dynamic...

Background

In the beginning, D&D put most of the power in the hands of the DM.  When searching a dead end hallway for secret doors, there wasn't a Search skill and level-dependent DCs; the game went like this:

DM:  "The tracks lead around a corner and down a 30' long, 10' wide, dimly lit corridor.  But the corridor is a dead end, and the tracks stop at the end of the hall."
Player: "What do we see?"
DM:  There's a bookshelf at the end of the hall.  The books seem to have been disturbed or shaken recently.  The hall is lit by a a single candle in a sconce.  The candle in the sconce opposite it has not been lit for some time."
Player:  "It must be a revolving door!  I pull on the sconce with the unlit candle!"
DM:  "The sconce resists for a second, then clicks down like a lever.  The bookcase begins slowly pivoting around a central axle, revealing a narrow, pitch black corridor beyond."

In old school D&D, the DM had massive power.  Here are some other responses that the DM could have made that would have been totally OK in a 1980s D&D game!

DM:  "As you pull the decoy lever, a grinding sound emanates from the wall, and the floor falls out from under you.  You fall into a spiked pit full of rats, and take... 15 damage.  The rats attack you immediately, dealing another... 6 damage."

...or worse, in my opinion...

DM:  "The sconce doesn't budge.  What do you do?"

Later editions of D&D increased the players' power relative to the the GM's by giving them system tools, as opposed to narrative authority (like in Dungeon World).  System tools allow players to make assertions about their characters, and give the GM a way to test those character abilities against the challenges in their game world.  By giving the player a Perception skill, for instance, the player could ask the DM for clues.  If her character was perceptive enough, the DM would have to give the player clues. In 3rd and 4th edition D&D and Pathfinder, the same challenge works like this:

DM:  "The tracks lead around a corner and down a 30' long, dimly lit corridor.  But the corridor is a dead end, and the tracks stop at the end of the hall."
Player: "What do we see?"
DM:  "There's a bookshelf at the end of the hall and two candle sconces."
Player:  "I search for secret doors.  Perception 21."
DM:  "The books seem to have been disturbed or shaken recently, implying the bookshelf is actually a secret door.  The hall is lit by a a single candle in a sconce.  The candle in the sconce opposite it has not been lit for some time. That one must be the lever that activates the door."
Player: "I pull on the lever."
DM:  "The sconce resists for a second, then clicks down like a lever.  The bookcase begins slowly pivoting around a central axle, revealing a narrow, pitch black corridor beyond."

The player made one assertion using the carefully controlled tools the system gave her:  She could assert that her character was perceptive enough to find the secret door and its operating mechanism.  If she rolled well enough, the GM would have to accept her assertion.  Because the social contract of player character abilities is "if you rolled high enough, the ability works" the DM can't respond with a decoy lever or "the sconce doesn't budge" because the player's ability (Perception) allows that player to assert that if she succeeds the check, the information the DM gives her can not be false or misleading.

A low-myth game is one where the world is created around the action, as opposed to one where the action happens in a pre-planned frame.  Such games often allow players narrative authority, which trumps tools like skills, because players can simply make the kinds of assertions about the world that traditionally only the GM was allowed to do.  Players may make assertions without using character stats, even about things their character doesn't know about.  Different low-myth games have different approaches for this, but generally it would go like this:

DM:  "The tracks lead around a corner and down a 30' long, dimly lit corridor.  But the corridor is a dead end, and the tracks stop at the end of the hall."
Player: "He must have gone through a secret door.  I guess I'll search around and find the lever that opens the secret door at the end."
GM: "Go ahead and narrate it."
Player: "There's a bookshelf at the end of the hall and two candle sconces.  I search around and notice that the books seem to have been disturbed or shaken recently, so the bookshelf is probably a secret door.  The hall is lit by a a single candle in one sconce.  The candle in the sconce opposite it has not been lit for some time, so that one must be the switch that activates the door.  I pull on it.  The sconce resists for a second, then clicks down like a lever.  The bookcase begins slowly pivoting around a central axle, revealing a narrow, pitch black corridor beyond."

In this sort of game, the player is able to make a lot of assertions about the world:  That there is a secret door, that there's a bookcase and candle sconces, that one sconce is the lever, that her character can figure all of that out, that it works, the bookshelf pivots to reveal what's behind it, and that behind the bookshelf is a pitch black corridor.  Few games are so "low myth" that the player can make assertions without any system mediation - even Donjon and Dungeon World still use some system to mediate player assertions.  Still, the player assertion is treated as if it were just as valid as if the GM said it.  The GM could not say that the sconce was a decoy leading to a trap, or that it doesn't move.  Those statements would contradict the player's assertion.

Player assertions are critical for TotM play, because TotM play does away with mutually-agreed-upon signifiers for distance, range, movement, and terrain - i.e. the battlemat.  Instead of the map, the players and GM must make assertions about distance, range, movement and terrain.  Traditional and even contemporary D&D does not generally give players the freedom to assert these things.  Here's a traditional combat scene in second edition D&D:

DM:  "Dolan kicks down the rotten double doors, and the rancid smell increases a hundred-fold -- beyond the threshold is a large 30' square room that used to be a barracks, but now is full of garbage and offal.  There, atop a big trash heap in the middle is a large insectile creature with tentacles angrily hissing at your light.  It rushes toward you.  Roll initiative...  OK, Kira, you go first."
Kira's Player: "Is the monster right on top of Dolan?"
DM:  "No, but it's about to be.  It's maybe 10' away."
Kira's Player: "How wide is the corridor?"
DM: "10' wide."
Kira's Player: "OK, cast Fireball at the monster.  I shoot the ball down the corridor next to Dolan, since the corridor is 10' wide and I can see past him clearly."
DM: "OK, your blast goes off ten feet past the monster and incinerates it.  It fails its save vs. spells."
Kira's Player: "So I do 24 damage."

Notice that Kira's player has to assert that she can see past Dolan clearly, and the GM accepts it.  Notice also that the GM kindly accepts that Kira targets the fireball so that the blast won't hit Dolan.  The GM could have said:

DM: "The ball hits the steep hill of garbage right behind the monster and explodes in a 20' radius, which, since Dolan is 10' away, burns him too.  The monster failed its save vs. spells.  Dolan, make a save vs. spells, too!"

It's kind of a dick move of the GM, but it was commonplace in TotM play in the old editions.  And it's come back!  In the live D&D game at PAX, we saw Chris Perkins pull this move on Acquisitions Incorporated, causing a friendly-fireball incident.  This is the danger of D&D Next and TotM play.

Advances in RPG "technology" gave us the use of maps and grids, so that players and GMs were clear who could move where, and what the terrain was.  This empowered players to use the grid "tech" to make assertions in action scenes.  Other games gave us skill systems so that players could make system-mediated assertions based on their character's abilities.  At the same time, TotM games from Vampire: the Masquerade through modern low-myth games and some contemporary non-tactical games (Fate, Gumshoe, etc.) started creating rules for movement, position, and terrain that didn't require a grid, but gave players the power to make assertions about their position in combat.  In Fate, there are zones and situational and environmental Aspects, for instance, and players can use an action to take advantage of those or rearrange themselves as a system-mediated assertion that the GM can't contradict.  In most contemporary TotM systems, the expectation is that the players have the authority to make assertions about their characters' movement, position, use of terrain, etc. that the GM cannot contradict.

Modern "theater of the mind" games use mechanics that empower players to make assertions in action scenes.  They either use clear tactical mechanics for making assertions about terrain, cover, movement, range, and position; or they empower players with narrative authority equal to the GM's.  TotM, done well, can work better than grids and minis for action scenes, for many design goals.  TotM is not just some nostalgia trip - it has to be a carefully balanced design choice.


Consistency

The power of players to make assertions is critical to Theater of the Mind play, but the "traditional D&D feel" that Next is attempting has dialed the game back to old school standards of GM authority.  Skills are gone, and along with them many specific rules mediating player assertions in exploration scenes are vanishing.  The social contract of the game pervades every scene from social to exploration to combat, and if the social contract gives the DM significant power to make assertions without empowering the players, I'm afraid Theater of the Mind could roll D&D back to old school whim-of-the-DM storytelling.

Let's hope the designers of Next thought of this, read some of those new contemporary TotM games, and built some mechanics that favor player assertions.


GM tips

When you're running a TotM game, keep this in mind:  You may have to shift gears when action scenes start.

  • Allow your players to make assertions about space and terrain in action scenes.  Encourage them to state their intention when they move, not just describe the fiction.  For instance a player might say "I move behind the pillar so that the minotaur can't charge me."  Instead of finding a way to have the minotaur charge that character, have it react to Kira's action.  Empowering players means explicitly affirming that their actions worked.  Empower Kira's pillar maneuver by making it clear that it worked.  Don't just say "The minotaur charges Dolan," say "After that acid arrow, the minotaur is pissed.  It's about to charge Kira and exact bloody revenge, but she ducks behind the pillar, so it decides to charge Dolan instead."
  • Ask questions instead of making assertions: "When you moved away, did you hide behind cover?" or "Are you trying to stand in between the monster and the wizard?"  
  • In TotM, the GM should have almost no assumed authority over the terrain unless she makes an explicit assertion.  Don't surprise players.  If the sniper fires and then moves behind cover, state the sniper's intention:  "The drow sniper shoots Helen, then moves behind the cover of the ruined wall so that Kira can't see her to target her with any more spells."  If the players forget something, remind them and let them change their action -- don't force their characters to screw up because the player can't actually see the terrain.  "Kira, remember the trash pile?  The monster is running toward you down a big pile of trash, so the fireball will hit the trash pile and go off too close to the party, hitting Dolan.  Do you want to change your action?"
  • Alternately work with them, not against them, adding assertions to fix their actions in the imagined space.  For instance, no player will be mad at you for adjusting their action slightly, if it means it helps: "Kira shoots her fireball at a spot off to the side of the room, and the blast blows the trash pile to flinders.  The fire and blast-wave of burning trash washes over the monster, scorching it badly without hurting Dolan."
  • In exploration scenes, find ways to empower players and avoid pulling "gotcha" moves on them.  It's more fun to see them succeed than to see them fail.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent points. It's ok for the DM to have power, but it's easy for that power to be misused.

    I think assertion of intent is key. Even with a grid, someone can do something that they think has a certain effect, but which someone else interprets a different way. "I thought I was in full cover!" "No, here's where you would have had full cover." "I could have moved there, but I didn't know!" "Sorry."

    "I cast fireball so as to hit my enemies but not my allies." If anyone takes issue with that (since the unstated balance to fireball is its friendly-fire risk) they can offer a counter assertion, rather than trying to trick the person into taking a worse deal

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    Replies
    1. Great points! Grids only reduce misunderstandings, not eliminate them. It might give you a false sense of certainty.

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  2. Great reminder for all GMs. You are not against your players...are you are just controlling everything they see feel, touch eat, smell, etc. But you aren't the enemy. The NPCs you created are lol

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