Are you sure?

Tonight’s post is a general GMing advice. While it’s a basic thing, it’s something that even after 10 years of running games I occasionally forget. It’s also something I’ve promised to write about in one of the previous posts: misunderstandings.

Every now and then, PCs fail, and fail spectacularly. Hilarity and mass death ensues. While that could be a fine outcome for particular play styles, especially in one-offs, and roleplayers accumulate tales of favourite TPKs, it’s not something you really want to happen in a campaign. Even if it doesn’t destroy it outright, it still causes the GM to scrape all their immediate plans and start again, all the while wondering: “What the hell were they thinking?”

In GM’s mind, the sequence of events leading to the party’s demise is obvious, it is the only logical outcome of their own actions. And, with the benefit of hindsight, the players would agree: yes, they’ve screwed up. Why didn’t they see it coming? There are several reasons.

First, they could simply have been missing vital bits of information, due to bad rolls or lack of foresight to ask the right question. Having access to crucial information be dependant on a die roll is a well-known trap, and should be avoided at the stage of adventure planning. Gumshoe system deals with this remarkably well, for instance. But the smaller details still slip through the cracks, or are forgotten.

Then there’s the fact that players perceive the world through the eyes of their characters, which sometimes makes it harder for them to take a step back and survey the global picture on which the GM operates. This isn’t necessarily caused by deep, immersive roleplaying, but perhaps simply by the difficulty of switching mental gears, the extra cognitive step it takes to move from considering what a single character would do to what the whole world would do, and back again.

But the more insidious cause is different expectations. Common within a group that’s new to each other, but still creeping up occasionally in groups that’ve been playing together for years, it stems from the fact that we all think differently. Given the same set of inputs, different people will produce different projections of the likely outcome. But it’s the GM that’s the logic engine running the world, and it’s his or her projection of the outcome that becomes the in-game reality (at least in conventional RPGs).

And when all these causes are combined, when players make decisions based on incomplete data, within a limited scope, following logic that’s different from the underlying logic of the world/GM, it’s no wonder that the outcome is often not what they’d expect. So how can GM minimise such occurences? By providing the likely outcome of the actions the PCs are about to take, with some knowledge check or without, and asking: “Are you sure?”

If it’s the logic of the world that demands for PCs to be thrown in jail after starting a fight in the middle of a city, the PCs should know this, as they’re part of the world. It goes against the adversarial reflex most GMs have, the desire to shout “Gotcha!”, I know. What it doesn’t go against is the capacity the GM has to surprise the players. It’s only the expected outcome that is revealed to them, after all.  And based on it they can make an informed, meaningful choice. That way, they get to own their mistakes and embrace the consequences of their actions.

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