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

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Something I’ve 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. He’s 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 didn’t suggest they try and recall? Do you describe what PCs think about a situation?
 
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".
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
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.
 

jgsugden

Explorer
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."
 

Nagol

Unimportant
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.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
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.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
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.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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 didn’t 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.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
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?"
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
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.
While I don't disagree, I think there's a difference between describing emotional reactions and remembering something. So "you know from your time aboard a ship that having full sails in this kind of weather is extremely dangerous" vs "there's a cold pit of fear in your stomach as you hear the void of your nemesis Tim". Assuming of course that Tim doesn't have a fear aura.

One is telling them what they know, the other is telling them how they feel about something.
 

Jer

Adventurer
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.
Personally I think it varies from group to group and even from game to game with the same group. It depends on how much collaborative storytelling the group wants to do vs. playing avatars in a game world. If they're into collaborative storytelling for the game, it's going to be very much "yes and" all over the place and input about character moments are not just going to be appreciated but expected (and not just from the GM, but from other players at the table as well). If they're more into playing avatars in the game world then descriptions need to stop at their five senses.

That's one of the things that is interesting about listening to games like Critical Role or TAZ - they're a group of performers who are doing improvisational theater using RPG rules as a basis for their improv. That's a different dynamic from the type of gaming I grew up doing - where it's much less about collaborative storytelling and much more about the GM dictating the world and the players dictating how their avatars react to the world. I don't know if it's because they're performers building an entertainment for an audience, or if they just come from a different RPG background than I do, but it does mean that not everything that Matt Mercer or Griffin McElroy does at their table would be appreciated or wanted by the players at mine.

I know that those types of players and those types of games existed before livestreaming became a thing - you don't get systems like Pelgrane's DramaSystem in a vacuum, and I've played sessions at cons that were run like that since the 90s. But it's a style of game that seemed rare to me before and now seems pretty widespread, so it's interesting to watch. (It may not actually be widespread - it may just be that for the purposes of creating an entertaining actual play podcast that's the best mode to be in - but I'm always open to the idea that my impressions might be wrong).
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
That's one of the things that is interesting about listening to games like Critical Role or TAZ - they're a group of performers who are doing improvisational theater using RPG rules as a basis for their improv. That's a different dynamic from the type of gaming I grew up doing - where it's much less about collaborative storytelling and much more about the GM dictating the world and the players dictating how their avatars react to the world. I don't know if it's because they're performers building an entertainment for an audience, or if they just come from a different RPG background than I do, but it does mean that not everything that Matt Mercer or Griffin McElroy does at their table would be appreciated or wanted by the players at mine.
I think you've nailed it as far as those tables are concerned. There is a tremendous amount of trust among the players and DM and that most likely comes from their improv/acting experience. Trying that with a regular group would probably end quite badly! :)
 

ThePlanarDM

Villager
I mostly agree, but would add that, if there's a situation where a character would obviously know he is gravely overmatched and thus appropriately terrified, I would tell that to the player. Or better yet, just tell the character something like, "you think one of these monsters would be difficult on its own--you don't think you stand a chance against five of them" without mentioning their fear.

Players are often conditioned to believe fights are winnable and players do not have all the info that PCs do, so sometimes it's best just to spell things out very clearly, even if it means going beyond stimuli.
 
I don't draw a line at all. Real people don't control their thoughts or feelings. To me there is no difference between saying, "there is a frightening monster." and saying, "you feel frightened." It is up to the player to recognize those feelings in their character's behavior or not, as they so desire.
 

cmad1977

Adventurer
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?"
I inject a lot of ‘maybe this is scary to you given the situation or... ‘
The players respond with either
‘Yeah... Soralon is definitely scared of this and squeals as i run around the corner towards the party.
Or..
‘Grim jaw yells in the face of imminent death! RAAAAAGH!’
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
I mostly agree, but would add that, if there's a situation where a character would obviously know he is gravely overmatched and thus appropriately terrified, I would tell that to the player. Or better yet, just tell the character something like, "you think one of these monsters would be difficult on its own--you don't think you stand a chance against five of them" without mentioning their fear.

Players are often conditioned to believe fights are winnable and players do not have all the info that PCs do, so sometimes it's best just to spell things out very clearly, even if it means going beyond stimuli.
There are other ways to deal with this so the players can decide for themselves without a DM telling them what their PCs think.

One example would be to have the party encounter the bloody scene of another party of adventurers, freshly slaughtered. Shortly thereafter, based on observing some scratches on a few of the monsters and fresh gore on all their weapons, the players can cast their lot accordingly.

Or, if it's available, just show them a picture of the monsters in question and describe how big and powerful and bloodthirsty they appear if the thousand words of the picture need some enhancing. The players can draw their own conclusions.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
One is telling them what they know, the other is telling them how they feel about something.
Yep. There's a difference.

In the case where the event is not something the player originally envisioned, telling them how the character feels about it informs them of the event's import and impact that we didn't have time to communicate through other means. For example - "You watched kids getting sold into slavery in The War - as you see this guy push kids around now, it makes you very angry." They are still free to act on that anger or not, so I view this more as a tool for the player to remain in the context, rather than an imposition.

In the case where the issue is competency, the emotions or thoughts detailed are unlikely to be particularly visceral. When given a story about something that happened at court, the character with understanding of Diplomacy might be told, "You're skeptical - the king is well-known to hate fish, so him being happy about a gift of smoked salmon sounds... off." It is still what they think or feel, because that *should* come with the competency, but it doesn't tell them what they should do about it, so they still have a great deal of agency.

Note that real people don't have a whole lot of control over their emotions. This is real neurophysiology here: emotional responses are not controlled by the conscious portions of our brains, and the bits that determine them run faster than our logical centers - we feel things about stimuli before we can make conscious decisions about them. We only get to choose how we outwardly act on those emotions, and then only sometimes.
 

jgsugden

Explorer
This is intended to be joint story telling. As such, I do feel free to give the PCs their stimuli and involuntary responses (often after a die roll), but I also let them contribute to the story beyond their character actions.

For example, if a player asks if something that *might* be found in a room is there, I usually say yes. "Is there a chandelier in the center of the tavern tat I could snag with my whip and then swing across the room? - Yes"

Or, when a player casts a spell on a creature, I let them decide fluff around the spell (Liam does this often on Critical Role).

My players and I do a little back and forth at times when something doesn't seem right to both people in a discussion, but we're working together to tell the story - so it rarely ends up being a true argument. More of a feedback and alignment type thing.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
For example - "You watched kids getting sold into slavery in The War - as you see this guy push kids around now, it makes you very angry." They are still free to act on that anger or not, so I view this more as a tool for the player to remain in the context, rather than an imposition.
Let me be clear that I'm not saying this is the "wrong" way to play, but my personal preference is to not cross the line of telling players what their characters' reactions and emotions are.

I might prod a player, especially if they haven't invested in their backstory and/or aren't up on the lore and history of the world, by telling them something about their past experience. "You watched kids getting sold into slavery in the war." If they want to run with that and decide this makes them angry, that's totally up to them.

Note that real people don't have a whole lot of control over their emotions. This is real neurophysiology here: emotional responses are not controlled by the conscious portions of our brains, and the bits that determine them run faster than our logical centers - we feel things about stimuli before we can make conscious decisions about them. We only get to choose how we outwardly act on those emotions, and then only sometimes.
Sure, but neither are our emotions under the control of somebody else. Given the choice between the DM artificially simulating my character's nervous system, and me artificially simulating my character's nervous system, I'll go with me. Likewise, when I'm the DM I don't want to do that for the players.
 

Advertisement

Top