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

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
Actually, I'd like to expand on that last post.

There's an approach to roleplaying...and I think this falls under the "what would character X do?" line of thinking, that goes:
- This character experienced something in the past.
- This new experience would trigger those memories
- Therefore the character would have such-and-such emotional reaction now.

That's all fine and good, and totally valid, but it's not really my preferred approach to roleplaying.

What interests me more is (and maybe this is called "director" or "author" stance...I've never been totally clear on those distinctions and what they are supposed to mean) is the following:
- The DM describes something happening
- The player thinks that it would be cool/interesting/fun if his character had a certain reaction to it.
- The player invents, on the spot, a detail from his background...and maybe even some details about the game world...that would explain that reaction.

As far as the reaction the player chooses goes, maybe it corresponds to how he has been portraying this character so far. Or maybe this is a new facet of the character. Or maybe it's even a change from previous portrayals; evolution of the character, as it were. I guess I would hope/prefer that it's not totally arbitrary...that there's some character concept the player is sticking to. But I know when I start a new character I don't have the whole personality sorted out, and I "discover" the personality along the way. Or sometimes I think I know who this character is, and for whatever reasons I just find myself playing him/her differently. I think it's more fun to explore those things. And I think it's a lot more fun when other people surprise me with their character, instead of just doing things that I could predict.

So, going back to the question of the thread, I really don't want the DM telling me what my character thinks and feels, how my character interprets what he experiences. Deciding those things for myself, hopefully to the surprise and delight of my tablemates, is a big part of the fun.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
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).
This is precisely how it is at my tables. We are mostly all theater people, some of us are also longtime improvisers. I will make offers on how the PCs might feel about the situations they are in all the time. The players can then choose to accept it and add on additional material, or say "Well, actually..." and make a different offer to what they think (which I will then accept wholeheartedly.)

I don't force anyone to take what I give them, but I also don't pretend as though a default emotion or thought for the situation doesn't exist. If the group is in an area where their PCs probably should be frightened, I'll tell them that. Which then allows one or more of them to fight against that fear and act bravely/rashly/stupidly by overcoming it... and allow some of them to perhaps play into that fear and wallow in it. As opposed to not making any indication of what they could/should/might be feeling and just hope they choose to embrace the emotion of the situation, rather than the entire table just no-selling the whole thing.

Players will oftentimes NOT make choices at all, because to make a choice is to take a risk, and players can be extremely risk-adverse. But without risk there is little reward. And if that means I occasionally nudge them into taking risks with their characters by suggesting they actually emotionally connect to what is happening and then watch them react to it... then their reward for doing so will be much more emotionally fulfilling.
 

S'mon

Legend
I'll use words like "horrific" "dreadful" and "surprisingly". I don't tell the players their PCs feel horror, dread or surprise (unless the enemy made the Stealth check) :D

I'm happy to tell a player "You remember X" - they shouldn't have to ask me "What do I remember?" IMO.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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...
I will reiterate, because of what you wrote here - I'm talking about a case where the player *didn't create the backstory*, but that backstory is relevant to play.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
I will reiterate, because of what you wrote here - I'm talking about a case where the player *didn't create the backstory*, but that backstory is relevant to play.
Yeah, sure. Again, though, it sounds like you would tell a player both what occurred in their past AND how it makes them feel now. All I'm saying is that I would do only the former and then let them determine the latter for themselves. I might think it would be cool for the story if this puts him in a cold, righteous rage, but the player might feel otherwise, and I don't want to dictate that.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I do tell people what their character thinks. I not going to carry a thesaurus around with me to describe how your pcs is INITIALLY reacting to situation. This is just short hand as I trying to set the mood, etc of the encounter
Jasper, " The smell of the rotting sewage gags you. You try your best to not hurl as the...."
Sewer worker Steve, " it smells great. In fact I don't react to it at all. Quit telling me how my pc feels Jasper!"
Dice hitting the table. Nat 20 (after Jasper's adjusts the die)
Jasper, " Super Mutant Alligator with +3 teeth of sharpness bites Steve's Wizards right leg off".
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
I do tell people what their character thinks. I not going to carry a thesaurus around with me to describe how your pcs is INITIALLY reacting to situation. This is just short hand as I trying to set the mood, etc of the encounter
Jasper, " The smell of the rotting sewage gags you. You try your best to not hurl as the...."
Sewer worker Steve, " it smells great. In fact I don't react to it at all. Quit telling me how my pc feels Jasper!"
Dice hitting the table. Nat 20 (after Jasper's adjusts the die)
Jasper, " Super Mutant Alligator with +3 teeth of sharpness bites Steve's Wizards right leg off".
I do think it's worth distinguishing between theory (and ideals) versus practice. I'm in here arguing for never crossing the line between the external world and the character's internal mental state, but I'll acknowledge that in the midst of DMing it's easy to make small transgressions because, as you say, you don't want to stop and look things up in the Thesaurus.

Is telling a player that a smell makes them want to vomit crossing the line? I don't know, there are arguments to be made either way. And I'm not going to interrupt the game to figure it out.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Things that are OK.

* Telling the player what their character perceives - color, cold, odor, mystic perceptions, etc. - including things that happened to them involuntarily, like the floor giving way and that they've fallen into a pit.
* Telling the player that their character recalls some fact that they learned off stage.

Things that should be used sparingly.

* Implanting anything into the player's backstory without the player's consent.
* Mind control or any other thing which temporarily removes agency over the character from the player.
* Hand waving player actions in order to quickly advance the story without prior and continuing player consent.
* Imposing player actions on a character through narration, rather than allowing the player to narrate their own consequences. For example, describing to the player what their character does as they tumble backwards down stairs is a gray area. It's preferable that the player self-narrates, but many are uncomfortable taking on a thespian role and it's sometimes helpful to immersion to help the player see what is happening.
* Stopping a player to check if they understand what the consequences of their proposition might be. Sometimes players don't think through the legal, moral, or social ramifications of an act. If you think that the player is unaware of something that the character would well know, or that the player might be confused regarding the fictional positioning, or confused regarding what his declaration entails, then it may be a good time to stop them. In my campaign, a good example of this would be casting Charm Person. No single spell is more likely to get a neophyte confused. To begin with, casting a spell normally involves clearly and firmly speaking in a strange language and often making hand gestures and the like. This means that not only is the target of the charm, if they make their saving throw going to remember that you did this, but everyone around watching you is likely to see it as well. Magic is common enough that even ordinary commoners know theoretically what casting a spell looks like, and social custom requires that people not start casting a spell without explaining their purpose and getting permission from those around them. If you don't, people will - with good cause - tend to assume that you are casting a hostile spell on them, and most people - for good reason - will be terrified of this prospect. As a result, if you just start saying 'magic words' in public you are likely to start a riot. On top of that, mind effecting magic is considered a sort of witchcraft, so that if you do charm someone, you'll have been considered to be guilty of the crime of 'mind rape'. This is a crime punishably by death, typically death by immolation (burned at a stake), and so feared is "witchcraft" and other "dark arts" that it's highly likely that a lynch mob will try to kill you well before you get a fair trial and the law will tend to look the other way. So invariably, I have to stop players and make this sort of speech to them early on in every game I run, and ask them, "Now that you understand this a bit better, do you still want to go through with it." To not do this, and instead play "gotcha" is to run a Kraag Wurld. However, to do this sort of thing all the time, is to subtly play the player's character for them.

Clearly over the line.

* Telling the player how to play their character in anyway, such as...
* Telling the player that their character would do this or wouldn't do this.
* Telling the player what is in or out of character for the character.
* Telling the player how their character behaves or responds to things.
* Telling the player how they are thinking, feeling, or otherwise assuming their internal mind state. This includes telling the player that they like or dislike an NPC, or telling the player that a certain scene makes them feel afraid, disgusted, or whatever. All of that is playing the character for the player.

From that, things like "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.", are going over the line for me.

In Matt Mercer's defense though, if any GM is entitled to put on a Director hat during play (which is the GM stance that we are talking about when you tell the player how to play their character), it's a guy running a game primarily intended to be an entertaining episodic show. That is to say, perhaps the fact that the primary consumer of the game is an audience, justifies Director stance better than a normal game would.
 
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robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
I do think describing autonomic responses the character is experiencing to the player is OK: dry mouth, pulse racing, goosebumps, etc. Especially if it enhances a mood you're trying to establish - a spooky mansion or a mysterious crypt for example. I'm going to try experimenting with that in a short adventure I'm planning to run (with a different group from my usual crew).
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
The thing with telling a player what his or her character thinks, however innocuously intended, is effectively constraining the reasonable choices the player can make without objection. The DM tells the player the character would find the scene before him or her frightening, for example. So now all responses other than a fear response (which can vary, certainly) are effectively off the table. The player is put in the position of either accepting this limitation or objecting to it in the middle of the game.

This is not a position I want to put my players in. The environment already constrains their choices. It seems too controlling to me to then want to constrain their choices further by suggesting how their character feels about things even if the DM professes that the player can have the character act freely. If the DM truly wants them to act freely, then establishing how the character feels about something is superfluous anyway. There's just no reason to do it.

When it comes to D&D 5e, the DM already controls two-thirds of the basic conversation of the game - describing the environment and narrating the result of the adventurers' actions. Plus the DM decides if and when the game mechanics come into play. All the player can do is describe what he or she wants to do, controlling what the character does, thinks, and says. That's it. I don't want to start intruding upon the ONE thing the player is tasked with doing in the game. I've got more than enough on my plate. I don't need to eat off the player's plate, too.
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
So, going back to the question of the thread, I really don't want the DM telling me what my character thinks and feels, how my character interprets what he experiences. Deciding those things for myself, hopefully to the surprise and delight of my tablemates, is a big part of the fun.
This.

When it comes to D&D 5e, the DM already controls two-thirds of the basic conversation of the game - describing the environment and narrating the result of the adventurers' actions. Plus the DM decides if and when the game mechanics come into play. All the player can do is describe what he or she wants to do, controlling what the character does, thinks, and says. That's it. I don't want to start intruding upon the ONE thing the player is tasked with doing in the game. I've got more than enough on my plate. I don't need to eat off the player's plate, too.
And this.
 

Elfcrusher

Adventurer
And given the choice between telling the player that their character’s hair is standing on end and their heart is racing, versus setting the stage so that the PLAYER’S hair is standing on end and their heart is racing, I will go for the latter every time.

I won’t always succeed, but I will try.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
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...
An important thing to keep in mind about Matt Mercer is that he’s directing a piece of performance art as much as he’s DMing a game of D&D. When I DM, my players are the only audience. When Matt Mercer DMs, the viewers on stream are his audience. Obviously he wants the players to enjoy the game as well, but they’re not really the primary audience, they’re his fellow performers. And I get the sense that the Critical Role cast enjoy the game partly as an improvisational acting exercise, as much as a roleplaying game. So within that context, I think Matt’s decision to occasionally narrate the characters actions or reactions is fitting. It also looks to me like a very well-run 3e or Pathfinder game, which the first campaign was at first. They changed systems when they decided to stream the game, but Matt retained the DMing style he had been employing the whole time.

There is a lot I really like about Matt’s DMing style, and a couple of things I really, really dislike. I would say that the way he narrates actions is not one of the things I dislike, even if I would dislike it in a different context.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
In general I stick to automatic responses that a person could not control. This can include instinctive reactions such as shying away from something repulsive or wrinkling their nose at a foul smell. It can also include narration for saving throw results, such as jumping back from a opening pit, or ducking away from a fireball.

I will also use stray thoughts occasionally, but mostly to keep the story moving. For example if I know that a PC would have experienced/remembered something I will tell them when it's relevant, even thought the player may not ask. This can help speed up the game if the players have forgotten something (especially if we haven't played in a few weeks) or if I know they'll ask and I don't want a check.
 

ParanoydStyle

Peace Among Worlds
This is the most intelligent and thought provoking question I've seen asked on here: props to the OP.

Telling characters physiological sensations they're feeling is just flavor or might even convey crucial information ("you can taste a hint of bitter almonds in your wine").
Telling characters what emotions they feel is, I think, usually fine: your emotional reaction to something is beyond your control. A lot of games have mechanics for this:Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green, Deadlands, others.
Having characters relive memories their players don't remember them having is fine...as long as there's an in-game reason for their memories to have been messed with. ('Would you kindly?')
Telling characters WHAT THEY DO (unless they are dominated or something) is NEVER OKAY. I mean, it's usually not THE END OF THE WORLD but it shouldn't happen. The only place I've seen this done was in the prepared text for some adventures in the earliest editions of my beloved Shadowrun.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
An important thing to keep in mind about Matt Mercer is that he’s directing a piece of performance art as much as he’s DMing a game of D&D. When I DM, my players are the only audience. When Matt Mercer DMs, the viewers on stream are his audience. Obviously he wants the players to enjoy the game as well, but they’re not really the primary audience, they’re his fellow performers. And I get the sense that the Critical Role cast enjoy the game partly as an improvisational acting exercise, as much as a roleplaying game. So within that context, I think Matt’s decision to occasionally narrate the characters actions or reactions is fitting. It also looks to me like a very well-run 3e or Pathfinder game, which the first campaign was at first. They changed systems when they decided to stream the game, but Matt retained the DMing style he had been employing the whole time.
I often see this response to Critical Role and I think it’s mistaken. This group was playing for a couple of years before the stream began. It was absolutely not created with live streaming in mind. Do they emphasize their social interactions? Sure, but we do have to stop dismissing as some kind of performance art that occasionally rolls D&D dice. I think Matt is a masterful DM in his ongoing ability to excite and challenge this larger group of talented players. Do i disagree with some of his choices? Sure. But I would give my eyeteeth for chance to play at his table! :)
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I often see this response to Critical Role and I think it’s mistaken. This group was playing for a couple of years before the stream began. It was absolutely not created with live streaming in mind. Do they emphasize their social interactions? Sure, but we do have to stop dismissing as some kind of performance art that occasionally rolls D&D dice. I think Matt is a masterful DM in his ongoing ability to excite and challenge this larger group of talented players. Do i disagree with some of his choices? Sure. But I would give my eyeteeth for chance to play at his table! :)
We don't know if his style has changed for streaming, just that they were a gaming group before they started streaming. Not saying they changed or did not, we have no way of knowing.

On the other hand, all of his players are actors. They're used to being told what their character thinks and feels as part of their job so being told what their PC feels is probably not particularly different. I think this whole topic is probably something that should be discussed in a session 0 because some players absolutely hate being told what their character feels emotionally.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
The thing with telling a player what his or her character thinks, however innocuously intended, is effectively constraining the reasonable choices the player can make without objection. The DM tells the player the character would find the scene before him or her frightening, for example. So now all responses other than a fear response (which can vary, certainly) are effectively off the table. The player is put in the position of either accepting this limitation or objecting to it in the middle of the game.
I dunno that seems a bit overboard, the DM has not imposed the frightened condition, they’ve simply informed the players that their characters are challenged by the scary circumstances. Bravery is continuing on despite being scared, so the players are under no obligation to run away or act frightened. They can simply describe their characters actions to overcome this mental obstacle.

“My PC thinks of the poor lost NPC that disappeared in these spooky woods and steels themself against what horrors lurk within.”

I dunno, it doesn’t seem over playing the DMs hand?
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
I often see this response to Critical Role and I think it’s mistaken. This group was playing for a couple of years before the stream began. It was absolutely not created with live streaming in mind. Do they emphasize their social interactions? Sure, but we do have to stop dismissing as some kind of performance art that occasionally rolls D&D dice. I think Matt is a masterful DM in his ongoing ability to excite and challenge this larger group of talented players. Do i disagree with some of his choices? Sure. But I would give my eyeteeth for chance to play at his table! :)
I don't think it's dismissive to call it what it is: A game for an audience broader than the table at which it is played. That absolutely necessitates that they do things that groups without the audience don't do because the priorities are different. Constraining choice in the manner he does definitely fits with the format.

And while I don't care for Critical Role, I do wish more podcasts would act like they do have an audience (even if they don't) because most of them are boring as hell in my opinion. They play as if nobody is watching - and that's probably why nobody is.
 

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