Plot transparency
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  1. #1
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    Plot transparency

    Expectation of plot transparency

    Think of Lord of the Rings. Frodo has the one ring and is told by Gandolph that every time the ring is used, it alerts the ring wraiths and the dark lord himself. Thus, Frodo at least is aware of the consequences every time he used it (even though used in haste).

    Take this concept and apply it to gaming.

    If the DM is going to take an ability/spell/item/power and tie it to the plot such that every use of the ability/spell/item/power is going to have an effect (for better or worse!) on a later encounter ...

    ....does he need to tell the player (meta knowledge) so that the player can make informed decisions on whether or not to use it since it might have consequences?

    ... does he need to tell the character (in game) under the idea that the character can sense the unintended consequences after the first use?

    ... or is the DM not breaking a social expectation if he decides to keep it a secret to be revealed at a later time?

    Does the answer change if it's a "regular" ability that is so mundane and trite that the gamer (meta) expectation is to use it like second nature (rather than using some super special item that could be considered an artifact)?

    Maybe every time the PC casts fireball, it is alerting a fire elemental in the area and it starts preparing to confront the mortal who dares shape the essence of fire being like a tool... okay, that's a corny example, but it's as best as I can give at the moment.

    Basically, how much plot transparency is expected when the plot is tied to an item/ability when that specific item/ability is in the PC's control?
    thoughts?
    Last edited by fba827; Saturday, 28th May, 2011 at 07:42 AM.

  2. #2
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    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    Expectation of plot transparency

    Think of Lord of the Rings. Frodo has the one ring and is told by Gandolph that every time the ring is used, it alerts the ring wraiths and the dark lord himself. Thus, Frodo at least is aware of the consequences every time he used it (even though used in haste).

    Take this concept and apply it to gaming.

    If the DM is going to take an ability/spell/item/power and tie it to the plot such that every use of the ability/spell/item/power is going to have an effect (for better or worse!) on a later encounter ...

    ....does he need to tell the player (meta knowledge) so that the player can make informed decisions on whether or not to use it since it might have consequences?
    Not just no, but HELL NO. Giving metaknowledge to players is almost always a bad idea, at least for my playstyle.

    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    ... does he need to tell the character (in game) under the idea that the character can sense the unintended consequences after the first use?
    Only if the character can sense the unintended consequences after the first use. If he can't- Frodo would have had no way of knowing that the Nazgul were drawn to the ring, for instance.

    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    ... or is the DM not breaking a social expectation if he decides to keep it a secret to be revealed at a later time?
    It depends on the game, but I have absolutely no interest in dming or playing in a game where the dm is expected to not throw surprises at the party.

    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    Does the answer change if it's a "regular" ability that is so mundane and trite that the gamer (meta) expectation is to use it like second nature (rather than using some super special item that could be considered an artifact)?
    Not a bit.

    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    Basically, how much plot transparency is expected when the plot is tied to an item/ability when that specific item/ability is in the PC's control?
    thoughts?
    There is as much plot transparency as the player unearths. In other words, Frodo will figure out that the Nazgul see him and are drawn to the ring as soon as he puts it on around them.

    I don't care whether it involves an item, npcs, the gods or whatever; the players (in my campaign) can never expect full transparency. They have to put it together. Sometimes they don't know who is on their side unless they dig around a little. Sometimes they don't know why so and so is on their side. Sometimes they don't know the full consequences of defeating the bad guys. Sometimes they don't know the full consequences of leaving town to go adventure. They have to pay attention and put it together.

    YMMV, but to the idea of handcuffing the dm so that he isn't supposed to throw the party curve balls- honestly, that sounds like a really boring game.

  3. #3
    I agree with The Jester save in the case that the ability is a regular ability that the player chooses for the character prior to play.

    As an example, A DM I know was running a CHAMPIONS campaign where the players were among the first super-powered beings created on Earth.

    He defined a consistent "power base" that all powers would draw their energy from and told the players that such a base existed and its nature would be revealed in play. He further decided that the power Desolidification was an eventual death-sentence under this power structure. He did not inform the players of this case. This in my view is a mistake.

    The DM took an ability the player expected to be reliable and work as written and added a nasty rider to it without warning or recompense. This broke the social convention that the known abilities work as written and can be relied on by the player.

    Any external ability gained from the world like an item, spell, or granted ability is fair game because there may be aspects neither the character nor the player know.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nagol View Post
    I agree with The Jester save in the case that the ability is a regular ability that the player chooses for the character prior to play.

    As an example, A DM I know was running a CHAMPIONS campaign where the players were among the first super-powered beings created on Earth.

    He defined a consistent "power base" that all powers would draw their energy from and told the players that such a base existed and its nature would be revealed in play. He further decided that the power Desolidification was an eventual death-sentence under this power structure. He did not inform the players of this case. This in my view is a mistake.

    The DM took an ability the player expected to be reliable and work as written and added a nasty rider to it without warning or recompense. This broke the social convention that the known abilities work as written and can be relied on by the player.

    Any external ability gained from the world like an item, spell, or granted ability is fair game because there may be aspects neither the character nor the player know.
    I would agree with this.

    If it's a standard rulebook power or magic item players expect them to work "as advertised" and design their characters around those preconceptions. Sometimes players know on a meta level that something has a catch.

    Start throwing in Artifacts (like the one ring) or funky plot effects and it's a lot more acceptable (and in some games downright expected) that there will be catches. Heck, Greater Artifacts are practically a giant DM license for odd side effects.

    I'd still say that as DM, a polite reminder to the players that you have special consequences for some things in your game may help. Details will be things to find out in-character, but letting the player know that there may be non-standard effects or unusual consequences for some things will help defuse a later feeling of "where the heck did you pull that out of?"

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    ....does he need to tell the player (meta knowledge) so that the player can make informed decisions on whether or not to use it since it might have consequences?
    Quote Originally Posted by the Jester View Post
    Not just no, but HELL NO. Giving metaknowledge to players is almost always a bad idea, at least for my playstyle.
    Not just Yeah, but HELL YEAH!

    Well, it depends on your gaming style and your players, but I have players who love to use player knowledge to get their characters into trouble. That is not to say that these players have meta knowledge about every aspect of the game, but I am happy handing over a little narrative control to them in this way. And they do it with such flair and it adds romantic irony, i.e.,

    'This is easily fixed! I will just use my magic ring! Would could possible wrong!'

    This sort of comment never fails to elicit a laugh. Or groan. But it's still fun.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    Does the answer change if it's a "regular" ability that is so mundane and trite that the gamer (meta) expectation is to use it like second nature (rather than using some super special item that could be considered an artifact)?
    Yes. I think the key distinction is whether the player spent points on it, or used up a similarly limited resource, like a sorcerer's spells known choice. We've actually played 3e D&D in this way, with expected gold per level turned into the points to purchase magic items.

    The usual idea is, if the player spends points on something then it belongs to the player, it is within his sphere of control, and the GM can't mess with it. This is explicitly spelled out in Amber DRPG, for example, where it applies to items. If a player spends points on a magic sword then it's his special item, it belongs to him, like Mjolnir belongs to Thor or Captain America's shield belongs to Cap.

    It would kind of suck in a typical 'one long term PC per player' game if the use of any spells or magic secretly empowered the opposition. Otoh I can see how finding that out might be interesting, and it could serve as a good balancing mechanism for magic, which is usually OP anyway.

    Maybe every time the PC casts fireball, it is alerting a fire elemental in the area and it starts preparing to confront the mortal who dares shape the essence of fire being like a tool... okay, that's a corny example, but it's as best as I can give at the moment.
    That's a really good idea, not corny at all imo. Arcane spells in D&D are supposed to have extraplanar power sources, so it's entirely reasonable that a fireball opens a portal to the elemental plane of fire, something that might be noticed by a fire elemental.

  7. #7
    Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP) and 40,000 (40KRP) have these concepts tied to using magic. It's potentially dangerous. The players know it and the characters know it. The meta game mechanic is that the casting player rolls a number of d10s. If a 1 on 1d10 results, or any doubles, triples or quadruples come up on 2, 3 or 4 d10, then a chaos manifestation happens. It could be relatively benign like milk turning sour or pretty bad like a couple of daemons showing up. The story side for the player characters is that witchcraft shows itself in these weird ways in the game world. I think it works if the players & the characters know about it up front & ahead of time, but I think it would epic fail to spring it on some D&D players without them knowing about it ahead of time.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by fba827 View Post
    Basically, how much plot transparency is expected when the plot is tied to an item/ability when that specific item/ability is in the PC's control?
    thoughts?
    Instead of thinking of these options as "how much information should a DM tell the players", think of them as some of many options in your bag of tricks, each useful in a given place.

    Make the information available to neither player nor character

    I think you'll find this is a popular tool for many GMs and groups. Many groups have an understanding - sometimes implicit - that the only information players get about the campaign world is through the eyes (or other sensory apparatus as appropriate) of their characters. It's also what you'd use if you want to create a mystery or problem that needs to be solved in the game - with lots of well-thought out clues if the mystery is central to the campaign's current focus, and maybe fewer clues but harder for something less central.

    Make the information available to both player and character

    This removes some of the sense of wonder, but places the focus directly on to the consequences of using the McGuffin, so it's well-placed if you've got a cool hook that you want to dive into straight away. It will tend to have the players thinking tactically about the game ("is it worth bringing this out now? Can I get away with it?"), but it can also produce some pretty heroic moments when the PCs know full well what the cost will be for their actions but do it anyway.

    Make the information available to the player, but not the character

    If you tend to have brainstorming sessions with the rest of the group about what the next campaign will be about, this could be a useful idea. And if the consequence is somewhat offscreen, it could ratchet up the tension for the players, while their characters remain blissfully unaware. For example: "Every three times you use the Tome to provide an answer, the villain can create a doppleganger of you with these advantanges and disadvantages...". Now the players are wondering exactly how and when this is going to show up and complicate the game. On the flip side, it feels like it would be a bit awkward if the stated consequences affected the characters directly.

    This isn't meant to be definitive or prescriptive, rather just some ideas about how those different options could be used. But I wouldn't think of this in terms of what information the DM owes the players. Rather, it's more about what you (and the group) want to highlight and focus.

    Also, +1 in general for previous comments above concerning rules and game-mechanical constructs, which mostly should be as advertised on the tin. Not that you should never change this stuff without being upfront, but you'd want to be a lot more careful about the players' plans for their characters.

    Hroc
    Fun fact: Dwarven darksense comes from the ability to pick up minute vibrations through their beards.

  9. #9
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    Do not--and I cannot stress this enough--give your players the One True Ring™. They will never throw it into the depths of Mt. Doom. Even the most pure and noble PC will be a Pippin or a Saruman at best.

    Shamus Young said it best at "DM of the Rings." Start here if you've never read this comic before, but be prepared to lose at least an hour.

  10. #10
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    (OP here)

    For what it's worth, I agree with the Jester on all points with the small caveat of "as long as the unspoken plot consequence is not an autofail/autowin situation"

    I just wanted to see if I should consider the other side of the coin more seriously than I am.

    'Cause I don't want to get to a certain climax and whip out consequence and have a player feel like I'm retroactively picking on him/her (or have the other players feel like i'm giving the one player special favors if it ends up being a beneficial thing). Though, as said, it wouldn't be an autowin/autofail situation, just, a nudge one way or the other based on how/when/if something gets used. (I can't explain more since the people i play with visit these boards ....).

    But, in any case, thanks for the responses so far. They have given me some perspectives to consider.

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