16
Mar
10

Trash? On the staircase?! BATTLE STATIONS!

Two or three weeks ago, while playing in Tavis’s White Sandbox game, our gang of crafty adventurers descended into the Caverns of Thracia, where we came across a pile of trash . . . on a staircase!

This was obviously a trap, or a monster, or a trapped monster.  And it took our party of eight 4th-Level adventurers at least 15 minutes to bypass it.  Mainly by tentatively suggesting an outcome, and then pulling back in a panic, and then suggesting it slightly differently . . . and then not getting a confirmation of the theory, necessitating a new cycle of guessing and tentative theorizing.

  • “I poke at it with my 10′ pole . . . NO WAIT”
  • “I sprinkle holy water on the pile of trash, just one drop.  Does anything happen?  No?  Okay, two drops.  Anything happen?  No, okay, three drops.”
  • “I roll to hear noises coming from the pile of trash.  But not right next to it!  My ear is, like, 5 feet away.  But I’m listening.  Unless it’s psychic.”
  • “I use ESP on the pile of trash.”

This was really funny . . . for about five minutes, and then the paranoia became aggravating.  With eight players, it’s never clear when we’ve had enough and are willing to take a chance–because once one person has become satisfied, another person’s curiosity will have been piqued.

Every session we have a moment like this, where everything . . . grinds . . . to . . . a . . . halt as we debate whether to stand on this 5′ square or that 5′ square, or whether we should kill the Gnoll guards by a frontal attack, or kill them through backstabbing.  It’s like the 90/10 rule: 90% of the discussion involves only 10% of the plan.

As a semi-frequent player, I can endure this.  But if someone is brand-new to our campaign, and thus a little unsure of what’s socially appropriate and/or lacks the knowledge about the campaign world to contribute, I suspect this would be frustrating as hell.

Question for the audience – How do you solve the problem of allowing players maximal freedom, including the freedom to fail and the joys of sometimes pointless exploration, without it bogging down to wasting time?  How do eight people come to a decision, given limited information, in something less than 20 minutes of second-guessing and third-guessing?

(As a GM, when I get bored of this stuff, I say, “Look, maybe there’s just nothing there,” but that’s only socially useful if I get bored before the players do.)

PS.  It turns out there were caltrops under the trash.  Thank God we finally figured it out, though I can’t remember how we did so – so that if we need to do it again, we’ll be back at square one…


19 Responses to “Trash? On the staircase?! BATTLE STATIONS!”


  1. March 16, 2010 at 12:56 am

    The traditional way to speed things up is to say, “Gosh, you guys have been investigating this for a while… time for a wandering monster check!”

  2. March 16, 2010 at 1:03 am

    “How do eight people come to a decision, given limited information, in something less than 20 minutes of second-guessing and third-guessing?”

    In my experience this is a sign of leadership failure in the party. I suggest talking to someone you think would make a good leader in private. There’s probably some goal-oriented player who is just as frustrated as you. All they may need is a signal from you that they should try to whip the group into shape.

    Barring that sort of intervention, more wandering monster checks always help motivate people to dither less.

  3. 3 James
    March 16, 2010 at 3:20 am

    The problem with the Wandering Monster check, IMO, is that 5 times out of 6 it’s a false alarm. I.e., it would be more effective to just fake the roll and declare, “I’m bored! Monster time!” (Okay, maybe you wouldn’t explicitly say “I’m bored,” but y’know.) The check itself is a deterrent but a very unreliable one.

    But even then, unless the party has to flee the Wandering Monster, it’s at best a temporary distraction, and might only lead to further dithering. “Okay guys, no time to screw around. Let’s solve this thing, once and for all! Suggestions?” So it’s at least possible that a powerful or competent party (such as ours) really wouldn’t get bent out of shape over wandering monsters – yet they’re intellectually fixated on solving the Piles of Trash puzzle without incurring any risk.

    I’m wondering if this isn’t a deeper problem about playstyles in general.. Gygaxian D&D tends to reward paranoia and caution – there are very few situations where rash, ill-considered risk-taking is openly rewarded. Meanwhile the ideal GM, supposedly, allows the players to pursue all manner of false leads, or doesn’t flag things for importance, while also providing lots of atmospheric details (for paranoid players to fixate upon).

    In some indie games, there’s a trick called scene-framing, where you basically show up in a scene and declare, more or less, what’s worth fretting about. Once that’s resolved, you usually fast-forward to the next interesting thing. You can’t really do that in D&D as traditionally understood – exploring the environment haphazardly is part of the game, and (usually) there is a lot of dead space or red-herrings in the dungeon…

    Also, part of the problem is that D&D pretty much requires teamwork, which means people have to stick together – which means that one person’s intemperate action can screw everybody else. (Like the time my character accidentally roused a Lizard God and we all had to run away.) So long as you’re playing in a party, you’re kind of locked into the same risk tolerance as the most risk-averse member of the group…

  4. March 16, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    The particular trash on the staircase was, I think, intensified by the fact that we had only two elf PCs actually interacting with it; every other non-infravision-enabled character was hanging back while their players kibbitzed. Ordinarily if eight PCs are there, I’ll be able to use the GM technique of hearing someone propose doing something and taking it as an action. Play styles vary here – I don’t normally act as if everything said out loud represents character intention (tho one hears about GMs who do), but I’m not above selectively doing so if it’ll have safe results that will move things along, or checking to make sure that what a player is saying really represents their intent if it’ll have disastrous results.

    One thing I think is true, and have been meaning to post about, is that our pacing changes naturally over the course of a session. When there are hours left on the clock, players are hilariously paranoid; as the real-world time nears when we mandate leaving the dungeon, players frantically take risks in hopes of last-minute loot. I like the way this works out because paranoia at the beginning raises tension, and the rushed carelessness at the end increases the likelihood of something going boom and creating an exciting release of tension as everyone flees for their lives. If it were all dithering, or all heedless action, I’d be more concerned about pace.

  5. March 16, 2010 at 9:25 pm

    I feel your pain, James. When I’m DMing, it’s worse. I’m torn between playing the impartial judge of a living world, where people are free to poke at trash for as long as they want, and It’s Fucking 9:30pm, Will You Please Go Down the Stairs Already?

    One technique I use is the amount of attention and detail I request, where more detail == a flag that something is there. I started doing this for traps, because of an article I read somewhere or other about how boring traps are if nobody knows they’re there. And now I do it for anything out of the ordinary.

    In the case of the trash on the stairs, my script would have gone like this:
    1. Mention the trash.
    2. If somebody investigates, ask for more detail from them, signaling that there is something at stake (ie caltrop damage). The more is at stake, the more I might probe for detail, though honestly this sort of flagging always results in a sort of “Whoa! Nobody touch anything!” reaction in B/X D&D, so it’s never come up.

    This doesn’t help in the short term, but some of the veteran players learn to read my cues and react accordingly.

    It also doesn’t work if you decide to bluff. :)

  6. March 17, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    I’m the opposite, cr0m; for me this kind of debate is worse when I’m playing: not knowing whether what people are worrying about even matters is frustrating. When I’m DMing, I do know that things are at stake, and there’s interesting tension for me in everything the players try: will this get them killed, or cause me to reveal a clue? Or will the debate stretch on for long enough that I get to bring in a wandering monster? All those outcomes are fun (for me)!

    So there’s kind of a conflict of interest in that as DM I have the most ability to move things along, but have the least incentive to do so. I agree with Jeff that having a leader take charge of the investigation would help; there’s plenty of player power waiting to be claimed, and I’d gladly work with whoever emerges as the driving force.

    Good point about risk affecting the entire party, James. That harkens back to things Eric was saying about Arnold’s bravery: that it could also be seen as the willingness not to listen to the most risk-averse member of the group, who might suffer if poking the trash rouses a monster capable of killing everyone…

  7. 7 James_Nostack
    March 17, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    “I agree with Jeff that having a leader take charge of the investigation would help; there’s plenty of player power waiting to be claimed, and I’d gladly work with whoever emerges as the driving force.”

    Oh, from a player’s perspective, that’s already happened. The party leaders are John, Maldoor, and Ookla, handling our “foreign policy,” “magic & logistics,” and “security policy” respectively.

    They do a great job! As a player, I don’t really mind ceding most of these decisions to them.

    But – they are the most risk-averse members of the group. And that’s not an accident! First, because wise, careful, cautious people are the types of guys you’d want, to make hard decisions. Second, D&D punishes hasty play excessively, so those players whose characters survive to higher levels likely learned the value of caution.

    And that’s fine. But from our side of the screen, it’s not clear when we’re faced with a “hard” decision or a purely trivial one, so everything defaults into the “I use ESP on the trash!” level of paranoia.

    I think D&D needs more urgency – like, an explicit time limit in turns, or harsher wandering monster penalties, or something – so that players have an incentive to be reasonable.

  8. March 17, 2010 at 10:40 pm

    I think this whole thread is void because James neglected to mention that there was a string of bells above the trash. That changes everything.

    I had no problem with the pace of The Guano On The Staircase and would be kind of appalled by a big effort to sidestep this sort of thing. It’s part of what I sign up for when I come to a dungeon crawl game. I wasn’t one of the two scouts so mostly tried to keep my mouth shut (though I got entangled in an exchange about of whether you call the little ding thing in a bell a tongue or a clapper [both hood]), but internally I “solved” the trap within a minute or two. I just enjoyed watching the fiction get there, especially in the actions of our 15 yr old player.

  9. March 17, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    “wise, careful, cautious people are the types of guys you’d want, to make hard decisions”

    please note that I was the star of the Spirit of the Staircase post

  10. March 17, 2010 at 11:53 pm

    Mmm, that’s right, bells! What a diabolical bastard I am.

  11. March 17, 2010 at 11:59 pm

    I love this kind of stuff.

    The last time I ran Castle of the Mad Archmage at a convention, the party took 10 or 15 minutes to figure out how to deal with a trash can. Filled with trash.

  12. 12 Scott
    March 18, 2010 at 1:01 am

    Did the cleric try turning the trash?

    Also, I love Eric’s responses!

  13. 13 James_Nostack
    March 18, 2010 at 1:36 am

    Invincible Overlord writes . . . “It’s part of what I sign up for when I come to a dungeon crawl game.”

    I guess my tolerance is a little bit lower. Several minutes of this is great–say, 5 to 10, especially if everyone is participating. But there has to be a point where we, as a group, reach some kind of consensus about (a) is there any evidence left to gather, (b) whether we take our chances with the Piles of Trash or retreat.

    Neither problem can ever be fully resolved in-fiction, because there’s always another idea and Wandering Monsters won’t reliably deter us. The only time limit is self-imposed, and I wish ours were just a little bit shorter.

    I think, in general, that if everyone at the table gets to ask three questions about an encounter, that’s probably enough to exhaust every avenue of reasonable investigation. At which point we can conclude gathering information, and commence arguing about the right response.

    I would suggest that once the GM makes his first Wandering Monster check, we should come to a decision even if it’s imperfect. Not because we’re afraid of the monsters, but if the GM is bored, it’s a good bet that several others are bored too.

  14. 14 James_Nostack
    March 18, 2010 at 1:37 am

    Scott, we didn’t try turning the trash. That’s a good idea! I think we might have been missing a cleric that session – we only have one, I think, in a party of about a dozen players.

  15. March 18, 2010 at 4:56 am

    Spending 10-15 min on that doesn’t seem like too long.

    But if it’s too long for group they can use eggtimer or the like. When someone gets bored to death they set out the eggtimer, group has that long to come to consensus.


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