Behind the Screen – Chapter 7: Handling the Game

chapter-7-bankruptcy-lafayette-indiana-monticello-brad-woolley-law-officesThe title is a little ambiguous, so I will clarify; in this chapter, I will go over how to handle the game and it’s rules, about what to do in a given situation and how to deal with what the players throw at you. I will also go into such things as Realism vs Unrealism and Where Theatrics Rule. This is not about appeasing individual players, but more about creating a consistent and believable setting that the group enjoys experiencing. But, of course, that is all relative. What each group finds interesting or believable depends specifically on that group.

First off, I am going to tell a tale, it won’t be too long.

ee1Even though I have been GMing games for (off and on) 20 years, I didn’t really encounter difficult players until 8 or 9 years ago. Just about that time, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition came out. On launch day, I ran games for new players, and everything was fine. But then I ran a game for more experienced players, ones who will dissect everything put in front of them into its constituent components and then take advantage of any little loophole they find.

I had built a dungeon encompassing elements from an old computer role playing game (funnily enough that game was based on a table top role playing game, so it was all full circle), and some of the elements I used did not translate well through to the table top. I was informed of this, and learned. Because I was used to players who didn’t pick things apart just to see what would happen, I took the new 4th Edition at face value and didn’t think much more about it. But one player saw that a spell had essentially become unlimited-use, not restricted to a certain amount per day like previous editions. This player figured out that the spell could, by rules as written, be cast every six seconds with no negative. He used this to destroy a section of wall to bypass a door that I did not want the PCs to go through at that point in time. At the time, I was also unaware of hardness and associated rules. My inexperience with the rules combined with my inexperience with players meant the situation quickly escalated out of my control, and didn’t end very well. However, that session, and the discussion I had with the players after, taught me more than any other session I’ve ever played.

The players actions were not the problem in this situation. He exploited the system, while still technically remaining completely within the rules. It was my lack of knowledge about the system and my inability (at that stage) to react to the situation.

So what should I have done? With hindsight, there are many things that I could have done to disallow the player from destroying the wall, some I’ve come up with myself, some that the players, and specifically the one who exploited the system, told me.

  • If I had known about the hardness, then I would have set the wall hardness higher than the maximum damage of the spell, thus meaning each shot would have been ineffective, regardless of how many shots were levelled at the wall.
  • I could have said all the internal walls were protected by some sort of spell that prevented the damage.
  • I could have made the player take constitution rolls for tiredness, because standing there spewing outrageous amounts of magic would (in a plausible world) tire someone out.
  • If I allowed the wall to be destroyed, I could have changed the layout of the dungeon on the fly, thus making them go where I wanted them to anyway.
  • Once again, wall destroyed, I could have had several monsters spew out of the hole, attracted by the noise (since it would have taken several hours to destroy the wall).

There are more things I could have done, but they are largely variations on those previous five.

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Why did I need to tell that story in this article? Because it demonstrates a couple of points that I want to go over. It shows how an inadequate understanding of the rules paired with people who know how to exploit them can lead to unwanted situations. It also shows how realism can alter, sometimes drastically, how a game functions.

All games run on a base level of realism, even if it is never mentioned in the rules. The only time any of the base physical rules of the world are mentioned is if something is modified. Take gravity, for example. You will (probably) find no mention of it at all in the Pathfinder rule book, but it is assumed that gravity is still there. Problems normally arise when a player will try to apply real world physical rules to a situation with no real world equivalent, especially when it involves magic. There will be incongruities between a magical world and the real world, and certain comparisons just cannot be made. Things exist within the fantastical world that cannot exist in the real world. Certain things, like maximum velocity (when in reference to travel) can be ignored because of teleport spells, and the interior space of a container can hold significantly more than the exterior would suggest.

I remember this ‘device’ that I was told about, it is called the Peasant Rail Gun. I can’t remember which rules set it applies to, but I know it doesn’t work in D&D 3rd Edition and later, but I believe it technically works in a previous edition. The basic premise is to line up X peasants and give the one at the end a spear, we’ll call him the first peasant. The middle peasants all ready an action, triggered by the spear being passed to them. The ready action is to pass the spear forward. The last peasant’s held action is to throw the spear, once again triggered by being passed the spear. Because of the rules, this can happen within a round, or period of 6 seconds. The greater the amount of peasants, the faster the spear is travelling when it is thrown by the last peasant. For example, if you had 2,280 peasants, a single file line roughly two miles long, the spear would be thrown at a speed of 1188 miles per hour.

The peasant railgun is impossible, we all know this, but (if you don’t delve too deeply into the rules) then it is technically plausible. However, you have to ignore real world physics for this to work, but employ real world physics to take advantage of it. Since the damage of a spear is fixed, you have to argue that increased speed would infer more damage. But then you have to take into effect real world physics and the effect that would have on the missile itself. The air resistance would most likely cause the missile to shatter in mid flight, becoming just a shower of splinters. One could argue again (thanks to Terry Pratchett and Discworld) that the cloud of splinters creates so much friction in the air that it super-heats the air and causes the splinters to catch fire. So you don’t have a railgun in the standard form, you have something that launches massive fireballs at things.

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Another example of something that technically works in the rules, but wouldn’t function in real life, even if a Portable Hole or Bag of Holding existed.

There are more things like this that exist, parts of a game that can be exploited and technically work, according to the rules. The more expansive and complicated the rules, the easier it is to find these loopholes and exploit them. I remember reading something from D&D 3.5 (probably one of the most expanded rules sets, since Wizards of the Coast gave free reign for anyone to make and publish expansion material), where someone had figured out a specific collection of skills and feats that allowed the character to jump something like 300 yards at a time, and upon landing, convert up to 400 people to fanatical supporters instantly. When so much exists, written by so many different people, there will be points where things do not mesh with each other. As a GM, one has to watch for this type of thing and prevent it, lest a character like Pun Pun emerge.

This leads (surprisingly) into the second topic, Where Theatrics Rule.

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100% accurate, I swear.

Everything I wrote about previously is obviously impossible in the real world, but at least leans toward plausibility in those fantasy worlds. Some of that is due to the fictional nature of the material – things are always a little more free and loose. In a movie, someone might fire a gun for longer than the ammunition in the gun would allow, or survive a fall that would kill anyone else. This is because it is theatrically more exciting for those things to happen. The same can apply to role playing. A player could want their PC to jump off a third story landing, catch the chandelier, cut the support rope, ride it to the ground, jump off just before the inevitable crash and land on an unsuspecting enemy, knocking them prone.

Theatrically possible? Absolutely. Possible within the rules? Quite probably. Going to happen in real life? Almost certainly not.

But if one of my players came up with that, I would absolutely let them do it. Make them roll a couple skill checks and combat manoeuvres, bingo bango, task performed (successfully is a different matter). That is the difference between Theatrics and Realism. If someone can describe something suitably theatrical, even if it breaks certain fundamentals of the world, I will generally let it go ahead. This is another of those decisions to make when a GM first starts a campaign, to let this sort of thing go ahead or not. I only allow it when the player can describe what they want to do with good detail and how it fits in from a role playing perspective.

I’ve done the same sort of thing as a player. In a Pathfinder game I was a part of, I was a bard, built to be the most Face (read: Charismatic) character ever. He was a pacifist Orator, telling stories was his instrument, so he was good with his voice. I also built him to lie through his teeth, so Bluff was buffed as much as it could be. In the game, we were in a town getting attacked by Goblins, so my character first impersonated a Giant, making all the relevant rolls. After that, he impersonated Goblins (increased by the ability to speak Goblin), exclaiming about the Giant and running away. This convinced a group of Goblins to flee. The final thing he did in this part, was to impersonate a group of armoured Dwarves, this time speaking Dwarven and making all the relevant rolls, which I passed spectacularly (in spite of a high difficulty). Even though the GM was swearing at me all through this, he still let me do it. Since there is no real world equivalent to Goblins, no proper comparison can be made to this and the real world, but it is safe to assume that pretty much any sentient creature wouldn’t fall for such a ruse (Goblins would really be one of the few creatures to fall for this). Maybe if it were creatures with a higher intelligence, then the situation would have turned out differently, but the GM played it by the book, and my character scared off two encounters worth of Goblins, cleared out the town with no combat and generally made the other players feel useless. It was fun.

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A typical GM, intensely describing a rich scenario, melding realism with theatrics in a dazzling tapestry.

At the end of the day, a role playing game is a story. Sure, an interactive and living story experienced and modified by a group of people involving heavy complexity and taking significant amounts of time, but a story nonetheless. What level of detail and realism that story follows is purely dependent on the GM and players. I’ve know players who need a high level of realism in their games, even to the point where it can bring down the fun of the game for others, but I also know players who care not a jot for realism and just want to go over the top in all respects. As a player, I like an even mix of the two, but as a GM I don’t sway either way. I will see how the group approaches a given situation, gauge how they react, get a level of what they seem to prefer and keep that level for the rest of the time I play with them.

A GM can run a game without knowing the rules all that well, but if the players know the rules more than the GM, then all sorts of shenanigans can take place, depending on how much of a pest the players are. A system can define whether or not the game is more story based or not. Some systems lend more to storytelling, such as Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness, whereas games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder have so many rules that sometimes the story is lost behind all the encounters, combat and dice rolling.

Had any fantastic theatrical moments in your games?  Experienced a ‘realist’ player within your group?  Share your stories with us in the comments below.

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