Saturday, April 25, 2009

Poll Result: Not Enough Information

Another Eleven Foot Poll came to a close while I was on holidays. A good proportion of you are sworn enemies of those damn showboating NPCs, but in the end result the consensus was that DMs who don't provide enough information are what really get our goat up.

What does it mean as a DM to provide not enough information? Does it mean we haven't educated our players in sufficient length on the history of our campaign world? Does it imply we've been stingy handing out our background notes, and anything less than a fully realised novel gets a firm thumbs down in this information-rich epoch?

Probably not.

I think in large part it's a question of meaningful choices, and for anyone who hasn't read my post on that, go check it out now - it's a good'n.

As players we need enough information to take actions that have forseeable consequences. We need to know what's risky, what's valuable, what's friendly and what's suspicious. We need the requisite clues to distinguish a party-eating level 28 Death Slime from a trivial first level Delicious Jelly. We need to know when "treasure" means an epic horde as described in legend, and when it means a pitiful scattering of coins barely worth crossing the room for. When a villain laughs at our pitiful attacks, does the DM intend to spur us on to greater efforts, or is he warning us we've picked a fight we can't win and our survival depends on an instant retreat?

As a DM there are no points to be won for being coy. Acquiring information should not always be a challenge. Sometimes you need to tell it like it is.

When should you make information easy to get? When acquiring the information is a necessary precondition of engaging with the intended content. In Keep on the Shadowfell, getting the players to the keep, or for that matter the kobolds, is fairly dependant on having the Winterhaven villagers natter on about those major quest destinations. Villagers who are distrustful and sullen around strangers may be realistic and gritty, but in practice it leaves your players in a holding pattern wondering what's happened to their adventure.

It's called gating content. You're conditioning access to content B upon successful completion of content A. You can see the problem with it in the maths - 100% of players will see content A, but only those who complete it will see content B. You want your best content to be your most visible content, so if A is a half-baked dialogue challenge and B is the meat of your adventure you're deliberately shooting your own strengths in the foot.

As a player, how can you deal with an uncommunicative DM? One way is to be frank. Say, "My character needs some guidance," or, "I need some extra information on this topic in order to take meaningful action." If the information guessing-game is frustrating you, stop playing it and tell your DM it's not working. If you don't know whether you've gotten involved in a winnable epic encounter or a player-killing meatgrinder, say so. Tell your DM your character's hope is flagging and unless there's some kind of sign you can win you feel it's time for a desperate retreat. Your DM wants to show you his best encounters and you want to experience them, so be an active conspirator in allowing that to happen.

As a DM, look for players who don't seem to be enthusiastic about their decisions. They're probably players who don't have enough information. Similarly, groups who can't decide on a course of action could probably benefit from some clarity. Remember that players often regard danger as a challenge, so if something is well beyond their ability to survive be absolutely clear in saying so. Conversely, players can overrate the most trivial of difficulties, so if they're hesitating to tackle a pitifully weak trap or monster be sure to tell them that it's something a competent hero would have no trouble with.

As with any aspect of DMing, the best way to learn is to ask for feedback at the end of each play session. Ask your players what worked and what didn't, and try to adjust for next time around.


Jimi said...

As a young, inexperienced DM some four or five years ago, I always found myself running into these traps. I always had to have my NPCs as the center of the action and the most important characters. I used to take glee at having them kick the PCs asses over and over. We were all new players, so we had no idea what a good D&D game entailed. We had a lot of fun, but I got rightly lampooned later on by my friends for it.

As for not giving enough information, I don't fall into that trap often now, but I find it difficult to find the prose necessary to exactly define settings. As a result, I'm always afraid that I'm not explaining enough to the PCs, although they've yet to complain about it.

Anonymous said...

This blog is amazing. I haven't played RPGs since high school, but just recently got back into it with a few friends. We've been having a lot of fun with 4e, and hearing an old hand pick apart exactly why certain encounters do and do not work is extremely informative. I'm going to be running Scales of War, and will definitely try to import some of these lessons to my game.

Greg Tannahill said...

Thanks Jimi, and also thanks anonymous commenter!

I think the reason these kind of mistakes are so recognisable is that they're so easy to make. I've been DMing 20 years and I still fall for them often enough to feel silly; I've seen guys who've been running longer still running afoul of them.

I haven't played Scales of War myself, although I've read the first two adventures and was favourably impressed. I'd be open to hearing people's experience with those adventures in the comments, if anyone wants to share.

skrap san said...

The scales of war story arch is actually a solid one. The only bad memories i have from it is because of the inexperienced DMs running it. (we use it as a vacation game for old gaming friends, giving us the continuous feel and possibility to rotate DM). But despite this, i can see certain qualities forming. The rooms are farily logical and makes for great dungeon crawls. We had to think a bit outside the box, not terribly far, but still a bit. And even though we have only played the first two i can sense a story forming.

This is all on the players side though, and I have noticed that a DM looks quite much more pro on the other side of his screen than I know hes feeling (I'm usually default DM).