Archive for May 23rd, 2010


Telling Players What They Need to Hit

During a battle in last night’s White Sandbox game that involved seven PCs, ten werebear allies, and another ten men-at-arms, I often made announcements like: “OK, everybody who’s firing missiles, go ahead and roll your attacks. A 12 will hit the harpy, or a 10 for a hero.” In doing so, I fly in the face of several people I respect greatly:

Don’t ask me what you need to hit. Just roll the die and I will let you know!

– Dave Arneson

and howandwhy99, in response to a thread at the OD&D boards called “Do you tell players what they need to hit?“:

Never. Or for any roll. It defeats the entire design of the game, if a referee does this. IMO it is the purpose of the game for the players to figure out what works and how through play. At least it is in mine. I’ve pointed out before I view D&D and some other early RPGs as interactive pattern finding games. This may be scoffed at, but it’s what I see a lot of folks doing, if even only part way. This doesn’t mean all groups must play according to this design and/or in this manner, but in my experience it delivers the most enjoyment for exploration of the unknown – at least the unknown outside one’s own desires.

I think this idea of “RPGs as interactive pattern finding games” is valuable and interesting, and have been working on understanding it through conversations with its proponent both online & at GaryCon. Some analogies he’s suggested that I find useful:

  • In the game Mastermind, one player sets up a hidden pattern of colored pegs. Gameplay consists of the other player trying to guess the arrangement of pegs and receiving feedback from its creator; the game ends when the pegs placed by the guesser match the ones hidden behind the screen. (Paul Jaquays chose to write about a similar game, Black Box, as his entry in The 100 Best Family Games).
  • In a classroom, one person sets up a syllabus of knowledge they possess that others do not. Teaching consists of the other people trying to demonstrate their understanding of the material and receiving feedback from the teacher; at the end of the course, the students’ success is gauged by how well their understanding of what the syllabus means matches its creator’s.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, one person sets up a map with a key showing the locations of monsters and treasure. Gameplay consists of the other players guessing which areas shown on the map to explore and getting feedback about where rewards can be found and dangers avoided. At the end of an adventure, the player’s success can be gauged by how well their map of the area matches the one behind the screen.

Although as with any analogy, there are points of difference between each of these situations, I am swayed by the argument that figuring out what the referee knows that you don’t is a key aspect of D&D play. So why don’t I make players roll to hit?

To answer that let’s look at another kind of pattern-guessing game, which I was introduced to on a high school camping trip. All the Outdoor Club newbies are told that there’s a story that old members all know. As a rite of initiation, you’re going to learn what this story is, just by asking yes or no questions. So you go: “Is the story about Outdoor Club?” and everyone replies “Yes.” And then you go “Does the story take place here?” and everyone goes “No.”

The remarkable thing about playing the game is that everyone’s responses are unanimous; whatever question you come up with, it takes hardly any time at all for the group to decide whether the answer is “yes” or “no”. This goes a long way towards making you believe that there really is a time-hallowed story whose contours are well known to everyone who’s been on an Outdoors Club story before. But soon discrepancies creep in. If Thea asks “Does the story include Tavis, Sunyoung, and I?” the answer is “no”, but if I ask “Does the story include me, Thea, and Sunyoung?” the answer is “yes”. Puzzling out these discrepancies eventually lets you figure out the pattern whose logic creates the story, which is that (spoiler alert – select the following text with your mouse to see the answer) if the last letter of the question is a vowel, the answer is no; if the question ends in a consonant, the answer is yes.

So if D&D is a pattern finding game, would gameplay be enhanced if I added this layer of pattern to be discovered? If we take this rhetorical question seriously, the answer varies from “obviously not” – it’d break the logic of the rest of the game if “I rolled a 12 against the harpy, does that hit?” and “does a 12 hit the harpy?” got different answers-  to “maybe as a one-time thing.”

For example, solving this kind of puzzle might make a good trick room in a dungeon (with excellent old-school credentials; when I played with Frank Mentzer at the first Tower of Gygax, we encountered some NPCs at a tavern who needed help figuring out how to split their rations and gold pieces to make it come out even, and also an insectoid monster who couldn’t be hit by normal weapons; gameplay in both situations involved making guesses and taking damage if they were wrong.)

The reason I don’t usually stock my dungeons with doors that require this kind of puzzle to get past, and that I don’t usually make players figure out what they need to hit, is that doing so uses up time that I’d rather spend on other kinds of pattern recognition. Last night I called out what you needed to hit the monsters because saving a few seconds on giving feedback about that would speed up our mutual exploration of the patterns we care more about, like “will the Grey Company defeat the Beast Lord?” and “what new aspects of the dungeon’s hidden pattern of forces will emerge as a result of his death?”

I don’t think that giving away to-hit numbers greatly weakens the tactical decision-making aspect of combat. I usually don’t tell what you need to hit on the first round, so there’s still uncertainty about initial target selection, and I’ve always given lots of narrative feedback to reduce that uncertainty: first “This slime is covered in rocks, this one is clinging to bones in plate-mail armor” and later “One arrow finds a chink between the rocks, the second one pings off the armor”. I’ve got nothing against the mini-game of figuring out what you need to hit by tracking which numbers do or don’t, and mechanics (like Power Attack in 3.x D&D) that reward players who solve this puzzle by letting them optimize their tactical choices. It’s just not where I want the pattern-seeking emphasis to fall in this particular campaign.

I can see the argument that asking for target numbers breaks immersion and reminds players that it’s just a game. But carrying this logic further, I could increase immersion by rolling all the dice for PCs and NPCs alike and just narrating the results – or, to keep the bit of pattern-finding data about whether or not a 12 hits, by having the player roll the dice where I can see it, but not allowing anyone to announce the number out loud.

The thing is, I think rolling the dice and seeing what your fate will be is pure awesome. And part of why rolling a natural 20 is so much fun is that the feedback is immediate; your fate is sure to rock. When you roll a 12 and have to ask me whether that hits, the gratification is delayed, but if I’ve told you ahead of time that a 12 will succeed, there’s no lag between rolling the dice and getting immediate confirmation of your success.

All the above is a lengthy explanation of things of which I’m already convinced. Or, at least, areas where I already know where I want to draw the line. For example, I’m OK with another delayed-gratification step in combat, in which the player rolls for damage and has to wait for me to tell them whether that kills their target. I could remove that by telling everyone the HP of each creature in the battle, and letting players tally their decline so that they’d know right away when their blow drops a foe. In an OD&D campaign I don’t see the time that would save as being worth the decrease in immersion and uncertainty, but in a 4E convention game I might decide differently.

Here are some things I haven’t decided about:

In last night’s game, Arnold used Zolobachai’s Impertinent Invitation and a good reaction roll to gain an audience with the Beast Mistress (or at least her successor, the previous holder of the title having been killed in the previous session by “drunken adventurers” with no relation to the current party). Once contact had been established, he attempted to poison her with a waterskin full of the Water of Life, whose generative properties he knew had caused all manner of foulness to spawn from the attempt to heal the dead leather of its lining. I rolled her save vs. poison, which was a success. Then I decided to roll a new reaction roll to see how she’d respond.

This was an exciting moment for me; separated from the rest of the party, surrounded by minotrice in their lair, Arnold’s fate hung on the roll of the dice. They came up 9, “favorable”, so she assumed he was an idiot who didn’t know that the Water of Life can only be transported in a living vessel. But since I kept that roll to myself, the players didn’t share in the tension, and had no way of knowing how close Arnold had come to being killed and eaten.

When the Beast Lord was in combat with Merselon the Magnificent, before I rolled for the blow that killed that brave adventurer, I announced “The Beast Lord needs an 8 or better to hit.” I did this because it was a key moment, and to enhance the feeling of hanging on the roll of the dice, I wanted everyone to be able to know right away whether Merselon had or hadn’t dodged that lethal axe.

Should I have similarly announced my thought process beforehand with the wineskin: “The Beast Mistress will correctly intuit that Arnold was trying to kill her unless I roll a 9 or better on 2d6?”  This goes against my previous thinking about reaction rolls, which kept some of the outcome secret from players, but I feel like that scene might have been more satisfying for the players if, knowing what was at stake, they’d had a glimpse of the odds and a ringside seat when the dice delivered their judgement.

Another way to not keep patterns secret from the players that I’ve been considering recently comes from a post at Delta’s D&D Hotspot:

Showing wilderness encounter charts. In a very concise format, players get a concentrated, playable dose of campaign setting information. They can use this information to strategize about the exact advantages and disadvantages to different travel routes and adventuring locations, connecting gameplay to campaign knowledge in a deep way. It simulates well the lifelong experience and rumor-mongering that their PCs would have. Anticipation is raised to an intense degree when encounter checks are rolled.

I want there to be a place in my game for the ideas that inform howandwhy99‘s decisions not to tell players what they need to hit – that information is an essential resource in old-school play, and there can be great satisfaction in wresting knowledge about how things work from the DM’s cold, dead hands. Although in many ways I admire the way that 4E makes the rules of the game transparent and equally curated by everyone at the table, it struck a chord with me that, when George Strayton was talking about his 4E Temple of the Frog game at the Arneson Gameday, he said that it took a dose of the Master’s “don’t ask me what the rules say, just imagine the situation and let me tell you how it responds to your actions” to get his players into the mode of exploring an unknown and often deadly pattern instead of simply stepping through a series of comfortably level-appropriate and rules-bound encounters.

At the same time, I also want there to be a place for just handing players concentrated, playable doses of information in order to raise anticipation to an intense degree. These motives pull in different directions, but I don’t believe they’re ultimately incompatible because giving away some parts of the puzzle of how things work can free up time to devote to solving other parts. Speeding up combat gets us quicker to the question of what Tavis and Paul Jaquays know, but the players don’t, concerning the consequences of touching the solid gold throne of Zeus…

UPDATE: Just saw this post by Cyclopeatron in which he lays out arguments for and against telling players what to hit based on that OD&D board thread I cited above, which he started!

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2010

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