The tusked beastman, once famous for rending his cousin atwain with naught but his fist and a flagon of ale, now travelled with humans who renounced drink, wealth, and preemptive violence. Instead of seeking treasure, the Order ventured through dungeons to put a stop to the denizens threatening peace and order in the humanoid kingdoms.
Thrager once wielded Black Serpent’s Wisdom, a mighty warhammer forged from the melon-sized molar of a dragon and possessed by the evil and willful intellect of the same. His path to enlightenment began when he spared a foe’s life, tossed the hammer into a bottomless pit, and thus ended his thralldom to the Black Serpent.
Thrager’s player had invested a great deal of time in his character.
One fateful evening, on the seventh floor of the tower of the Shadowy One, Thrager and his kin faced down the devil’s general who, through some profane pact, now wielded the once-lost Black Serpent’s Wisdom. The hammer had already claimed the life of Neela, the gentle elven healer, and Thrager now faced off against two foes: a well-equipped warrior with a diabolic weapon, and his own rage that built in his heart against both this man and his weapon. Thrager kept a cool head, and tricked his foe into overcommitting on a swing.
Thrager knocked his former weapon from the grasp of the Shadowy general.
“As the weapon clatters across the ground,” spoke Thrager’s player, “I strike it with my Golden Fist Attack.”
“As soon as Thrager touches the weapon,” countered the GM, “he hears the whisper of the Black Serpent in his mind. Thrager checks his blow and instead grabs the weapon.”
“But I wanted to rid the world of the hammer!” began Thrager’s player. “But you knew touching it summoned the Black Dragon’s presence!” countered the GM.
While this is a particularly dickish example of a GM screwing over her player, variations of this seem to come up all too often in gaming. For some GMs, the easiest way to create conflict for their players is to simply make their player’s life difficult in the easiest way possible. The worst part of all of this is that it is easy to accidentally do, especially when the thrill of resolving a character action is particularly “neat” in the GM’s sense of story. However, nothing sours me on one of my own characters faster than being punished for an action for which I or my character have a reasonable justification.
Today, we’ll talk about those times when player intent gets misinterpreted and the ways other players might be tempted to seize advantage from actions when misinterpreted, then explore possible solutions (with their pros and cons) to this issue.
Reasons for Broken Connections
Stupid Player Mistakes
There are many reasons why player intent gets separated from character action. Among the most frustrating of these is ineptitude on the part of a player; that is, those times when your character would know to take or not take a certain action that you as a player forget, overlook, or are simply ignorant of.
Thrager’s story is an example of this; the player presumably knew at one point that touching the weapon brought about its curse, and the GM was penalizing the player for not retaining this knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong; I think there is plenty of awesome story opportunity from Thrager’s reunification with this bane of his history, not least the possibility of true reconciliation and redemption (my personal bread and butter in a heroic journey). It’s possible the GM’s dickishness in this example is a result of a desire to pursue this storyline, but this is an invasion of character space. I’m surprised to use these words, but this is less fun than a “save or die” effect in an ongoing campaign. (Which I’ve used against players in an ongoing campaign. Which I didn’t find fun.)
Madcap Idea + Heroic Execution
This has been the death of more than one of my characters, and evidence that it’s not just the GM’s job to communicate around the table.
I find that many games turn from Dungeons and Dragons to Negotiations and Naggers. Players around the table endlessly debate how to solve a particular problem to the detriment of the reason for playing a game: having fun. Bold, heroic action can be a phenomenal tonic against such drudgery.
Take, for example, the tale of the bard Igneous Scriver, slain by a pack of stone mastiffs whilst running alone into a tower to feel if a torch was giving off heat.
Running alone into a tower? You might think he deserved to die. The fuller context of this story is that my party had debated for nearly a half hour about whether the tower was occupied, and what the best way to enter it was. The GM kept hinting that the main floor of the tower was open, there were burning torches on the far wall, and there was evidence that a high tide would cover this entrance to the tower.
Igneous reasoned that determining whether the torches were mundane fire was a sure way to ascertain whether the tower was occupied or not. And the doors were open, and no immediate threat was apparent, so he left the debate to feel the torch for heat and the knowledge of whether the fire was mundane or magical.
No one backed him up.
Sure, the rest of the party engaged in combat when the dogs came out, but it quickly became clear that the party would leave Igneous responsible for his unilateral action. Fair? Perhaps. Would I have acted differently if I’d have known that my own action would fail to inspire the rest of my adventuring party to action? Yeah. I probably would have thrown in the towel on the debate and gone for a beer run.
Words Without Ideas
The former two are concrete examples of how particular miscommunication happens; this is more of a broad generalization. Miscommunication is inherently an expression of words without meaning. As beings driven by pattern recognition, we seek to impose our own meaning onto the abstractions presented to us.
I’m far more inclined to lump actions into this category than “stupid player mistakes.” Take again the story of Thrager. His GM might think him foolish to have forgotten what’s in the “boxed text” for the weapon. I prefer to commend the player for keeping his focus on character and not on game mechanics. While it’s true that a long-term new struggle with the weapon might be a great redemptive story, it could also be redemptive (and damn satisfying) for the character to sunder the weapon.
Let’s look at some ways that can happen.
Connecting Motive to Force
Start with Intent
The most obvious way to make sure intent is communicated is to seek to communicate intent before action. For example, Thrager’s player could have said, “I want to destroy the weapon. I’d like to use my Gold Fist Strike on it.”
Pros: This works when it works, which is often in low-intensity situations or places where the ratio of character expertise to player expertise approaches 1. For example, if your Space Marine is attempting to hotwire a Courathi Hunter-Class Spacefighter, you’ve gotta start with intent rather than an explanation of how you perform your action.
Cons: Ever been in the “I hit him with my sword again” style of combat? It gets old. Apply that to every action in a RP session, and it gets older. Faster. Think about the Igneous situation; the core reason for Igneous’ decisive action was too much talk. Would more talk have really helped?
Beyond this, there’s a recursion problem; our very act of using words is an attempt to express intent. If we must use words to express the intent that we’re attempting to express with words, must we then use words to express the intent behind the words we used to express the intent that we’re attempting to express with words?
Did you have a hard time parsing that sentence? Therein lies the rub.
Remember the end of Wayne’s World? If you don’t, you’re not my target audience. Close your browser now.
OK, I’ll have mercy. The movie ended with Wayne’s love interest choosing some douchebag over Wayne, and Wayne and Garth’s show getting cancelled, and Wayne and Garth crying. Then they acknowledge that this ending sucks, and “rewind” to just before the last scene to do it differently. In Thrager’s case, this would look like “Oh, I’m going to be a thrall to the weapon again? Then I don’t touch it; I’ll attack the general instead.” With Igneous, this may have been “Wait, there’s enemies? I thought we could see clearly into this room; I wouldn’t have rushed in if there were obvious places for creatures of this size to hide.”
Pros: This is generally the fastest in execution if it happens soon after the misinterpreted action. If these sorts of miscommunications don’t happen often in your game, this is your best bet.
Cons: I remember learning in fifth grade chess club that “a piece laid is a piece played.” That rule was only important when playing with someone who abused their “undo button” privileges and thus made the game an exercise in drudgery. When abused, rewind sucks the whole party into a morass of inaction. Even if it’s used in good faith, rewinding over more than one action becomes an exercise in group memory which generally isn’t very fun.
Furthermore, players can abuse rewind as radar. In the Igneous case, rewinding would have totally sucked for the GM, because he’d already revealed the foes in the tower. If I were running this game, I would have likely only allowed “rewind” insofar as allowing the character to stop running when he spotted the foes.
An alternative to “rewind” often used to overcome problems of resolving interactions between the time of the unintended consequence and the time the player decides that consequence isn’t acceptable. In the case of Thrager, this might look like his player saying, “Wait, I really don’t want to do this” four turns after picking up the weapon, and the GM relenting and saying “OK, let’s say that you went into a trance out right before you picked up the weapon, and the last four turns have been a dream. The damage you’ve done is instinctive reaction to being attacked.”
Pros: Elegant when plausible.
Cons: Not often plausible, and it deflates sense of continuity and meaning when overused.
The best option the majority of the time. This is when players who hear something they don’t understand stop and ask a question. In Thrager’s case, the GM may have said “You know that touching the weapon is dangerous, right?” In Igneous’ case, even if I was making a mistake by rushing into the tower, this may have looked like another player saying “Dude, that’s crazy. Why are you doing that?” Who knows, I might have done what I should have done from the start: say “Guys, can we stop arguing and do something?”
Pros: This is stupid simple, and it elegantly skirts the problem of accusing the player of communicating poorly by making the burden of understanding a mutual position in the exchange.
Cons: When misused, this can come across as condescension. It also relies on the listener having awareness, which is problematic if part of the problem is the lack of awareness on the speaker’s part. Still, in my mind, your odds are better at finding a modicum of awareness among two people than just one.
Roll With It
The best option when it works, but it usually only works for the GM as the players have less of an opportunity to define reality (depending on the game). I was once in a game where we had to solve a Sphinx-style riddle in five minutes. Our group’s answer did not match the one in the GM’s notes, but the GM loved the reasoning behind our answer, and so it became the right answer. For Thrager, this might be, “OK, you sunder the weapon” (or it might equally well be “As your hand draws near the weapon, you feel a familiar evil force. Do you want to check your blow?”)
Pros: With this option, there’s no need to point out that a miscommunication has happened, so play doesn’t have a hiccup.
Cons: As mentioned, this is often only an option in the GM’s toolkit. Furthermore, unlike most of the other options, this one relies on correctly interpreting the player’s intent; as we’ve explored, however, that can be problematic.
Maybe they bore Chase, but I’m a sucker for roleplaying stories. Tell us about a time you got screwed out of a character or a time when clear communication saved the day in the comments!