How far is too far when describing what a PC senses and feels?
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  1. #1
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    How far is too far when describing what a PC senses and feels?

    Something Ive not delved into much, but I see Matt Mercer do quite often, is describing the internal state of a PC, even up to recalling memories and having thoughts...

    For example, when encountering some scary creature he might suggest that the PCs feel a sense of dread and a cold pit in their stomach. When encountering an intimidating NPC he might describe a PCs throat going dry. When entering some familiar location he might describe a PC having a memory of some past experience. Hes even gone so far as to suggest what a character thinks! That last one seems like a step too far for most tables but his players trust that these moves are all in aid of building an engaging and memorable story (which is reliably the case).

    So, where do you draw the line? Do you describe autonomic reactions the PCs might feel? Sweat, hairs rising, bile in the throat? Do you provide memories that the player didnt suggest they try and recall? Do you describe what PCs think about a situation?
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  2. #2
    The DM can tell everything a character senses. He cannot however determin what the character thinks (unless it's mind control).

    I'm often struggling with that too. Like I want to narrate "You run past the arrow slits. To your surprise, no arrow come flying at you. Maybe either because they aren't manned or you ran past them fast enough." - then I'm like "Wait a moment... that last sentence is a conclusion that the players should come up with themselves." and remove that sentence again (when playing in written form). I'd go so far and even question if I can say "To your surprise".

    It's mostly a struggle between "Only give information that PCs perceive" and "I want to narrate in a cool way that's easy to read/listen to".
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    I generally avoid telling people what they feel or think unless it's supernatural. Even then I try to do it with environmental and physical effects. Instead of a "sense of dread and paranoia" I might instead try
    • You feel like someone is watching you but no one is there.
    • There's an odd chill in the room and you feel an involuntary shiver despite the heat.
    • You get the sense that someone is standing directly behind you, but no one is there.
    • You know that feeling when there's a mild electric current? You feel that when you touch the door, along with a greasy slime even though physically it's just a dry wooden door.



    But do those cross a line, even an involuntary shiver? I dunno. But it seems like every other PC is that tough guy that "feels no fear" unless it's magical. I even do it sometimes myself once in a blue moon.

    So describing the emotional state of a PC is not my job, it's the player's.

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    I prefer as DM to stick with describing the environment - where the PCs are and what's around them, including the basic scope of options that present themselves. I sometimes use evocative language to establish mood and tone, but that is for color, not to suggest a character feels a certain way about something. Describing a monster as "horrible," for example, is just saying something about the nature of the monster. It is not saying in my view that the character feels horror upon seeing it - that's for the player to decide.

    When I narrate the outcome of the adventurers' actions, I attempt to do so with an eye toward the impact on the environment e.g. the orc staggers back from the blow, the door cracks in half and falls off its hinges, the lock makes an audible sound when the lockpick turns, etc. I want to avoid saying what the character is doing, since that's not the DM's role, and the player will have already said what the character is doing anyway. At most, I will reiterate what the player already said, but prefer to just say its impact on the environment before starting the play loop again.

    I try to avoid using the word "You..." when describing the environment or narrating the result of the adventurers' actions. That's a good trick to prevent oneself from describing what the characters are thinking, doing, or saying, which is the player's role the DM is well-advised to avoid trampling on.
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    As a DM I describe sensory input and involuntary reactions (often after a fie roll), but leave all active choices up to the players. At times I suggest how a PC might voluntarily act in the name of carrying a mood or keeping the game moving, but I don't override their choices.

    (Rolling a d20 wisdom save and getting a failure - indicating an involuntary negative response to the macabre scene at the end of the hall): "As you scout down the dark stone hall your darvision provides you with a scene of decay and rot in the room at the end of the passage. There are mutilated corpses litered throughout the room, reeking of a smell that will haunt you for days. The smell suddenly intensifies as you approach th entrance to the room and your stomach suddenly turns, forcing your lunch to join the decaying flesh on the floor."

  6. #6
    I agree with the first couple of responses. I will only provide stimuli, never reaction. If I tell the player he feels dread, it is because something in the area has the effect of making him feel dread regardless of his base reaction (i.e. a spell, area effect, what-have-you). Even in game systems with more codified personalities (Hero, GURPS, Pendragon, FATE), I will simply call for the appropriate check/offer and let the player provide the reaction.

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    It depends on how violent your players will get, and how quickly they move, when you take away their agency. In most cases "on the other side of the table" is sufficient distance.
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    So it seems like the general feeling (so far at least) is that external senses and stimuli are the boundary line (unless there are magical effects) which is certainly how I've been doing it too. But I also sometimes feel that it leaves things a little sterile.

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    Quote Originally Posted by robus View Post
    So, where do you draw the line? Do you describe autonomic reactions the PCs might feel? Sweat, hairs rising, bile in the throat? Do you provide memories that the player didnt suggest they try and recall? Do you describe what PCs think about a situation?
    It isn't the same in all cases.

    For example, I have run a significant number of one-shot scenarios in which the PCs are pre-generated, with pre-written backstories. In such a case, it may not be inappropriate to insert memories, as that history is not entirely in the player's hands.

    I will sometimes add commentary about what the character thinks when we are considering a competency the character has that they player does not - if the player can't be expected to know what something means, but the sheet says the character would have an idea, I provide it. Similarly, some games have elements where the player specifies how the character feels about a thing (like, say, a flaw saying the character is an alcoholic) that give insight into ways the characters thoughts and emotions are not really under their control all the time - it is fair game to tug on those strings if the player has provided them.
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    Quote Originally Posted by robus View Post
    So it seems like the general feeling (so far at least) is that external senses and stimuli are the boundary line (unless there are magical effects) which is certainly how I've been doing it too. But I also sometimes feel that it leaves things a little sterile.
    Perhaps asking the players how their characters feel about the situations they are in will help with that. "What is Ragnar thinking as the ferocious ettin lumbers down the corridor, both heads screaming, weapons outstretched?"
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