Friday, March 5, 2010

Ignorant Players

No, this is not a post about how terrible some old-school Dungeons and Dragons players are. In fact, TO A PERSON, old-school D&D players (and DMs) are a fine, intelligent, imaginative, pleasant, and humorous lot, who just want to enjoy an occasional evening of casual role-playing.

This post is about one of my assumed tenets of old-school play, one that has gotten short shrift in the blogoverse: players should be largely ignorant of the physics of the game world. That is to say, they should have only the information they need to properly interact with the world.

For example, Players do not need to know that a falling body accelerates at a speed of 9.81 m/s2. They don't even need to know that falling damage in my game world is a flat 1d6 for every 10' fallen. All they need to know is that if they fall a distance of 10' or more, they will be injured, and the farther they fall, the more damage they will take. If the players begin with first-level characters, I should tell them that a fall of even 10' is likely fatal.

I consider this tenet of old-school play to be applicable to magical physics as well: the effect and potency of new magic is best revealed "in play", rather than at the moment the player obtains a new magic item or spell. For example, the bonus of a +1 sword should be revealed only when the character first uses it in combat. Similarly, the full impact of a "new" magic spell should only be revealed the first time it is used.

Some old-school DMs like to provide information about their assumed physics to the players. This is particularly true when it comes to magic items and spells. That magic spells appear in every Players Manual makes it difficult to manage this particular tenet and avoid player knowledge of the effects of those spells. I also appreciate that there is a certain convenience in a more forthcoming approach, as you can then assign the players the responsibility to manage the in-game effects of those physics, rather than having those duties fall on the shoulders of the DM.

I titled this post "Ignorant Players." Part of the fun of being a player is in facing the unknown -- being ignorant of the larger world in which you adventure. Being ignorant is fun, because there is great satisfaction in ferreting-out the secret machinations of your antagonists, discovering the secret passage to the treasure trove, facing and defeating unfamiliar foes, and solving the riddle above the entrance to the Dwarven mine.

That which is freely given is often unappreciated.

I sign off with a little piece of wisdom from the 1983 Mentzer Dungeon Master's Rulebook.

"For now, if you only wish to play and not run games, then -- DO NOT READ THIS (DUNGEON MASTERS) BOOKLET. This booklet contains information for the Dungeon Master. You will have less fun playing if you learn the information ahead of time! A big part of the game is the mystery and excitement that comes from not knowing all the answers."


The Rusty Battle Axe said...

I agree that (1) it is important for players to work for their knowledge and (2) there are plenty of things that are not worth knowing, from a player's perspective. My party of dungeon delvers have spent all their monetary treasure on "identify" spells performed by a local wizard. They have figured their handful of magic items, but impoverished themselves in the process.

Flynn said...

Too true, Paladin, too true. I think I have the greatest fun when I'm running games for a group filled with at least two enthusiastic newbies who are learning about the rules and the world all at the same time, and having a great time doing so. I almost feel as if I'm reliving the joy of discovery vicariously through them. It's great!

Thanks for a great post,

PS. The wv for me was "sappee", which could easily be defined as the person receiving the sap as part of a nonlethal sneak attack from a backstabbing thief. :)

biopunk said...

Yeah, pretty much I agree, but the difficult bit is deciding just what would be "known" to your character as you play...

I play in a 4e Forgotten Realms group as someone who never played or read anything (other than what appeared in Dragon magazines 15 years ago...) from that game setting in real life.

I think it is easier to play a fighter as some one who just up-and-left-the-family-farm in search of adventure, as opposed to a cleric or mage, whose very nature necessitates some kind of background interaction with the setting's history, pantheon and system of magic. I don't need to know the mechanics, just enough to make myself fit as a player.

Speaking as a 4e player and old school DM, that disconnect between actual and in game knowledge and experience can be really hard to pull off, but like you said, it is fun when it works.

biopunk said...


That should be "Dragon magazines 25 years ago..."


Obiri said...

I'm hoping to bring back a bit of the mystery in our next campaign. With the veterans I play with it won't be easy, but its a new setting and there are a few new elements that hopefully will catch the players off guard and guessing.

Derobane-bane said...

People that have never played the game before are at such an advantage. Ignorance is bliss.

/Matt said...

I recently ran two games for two different groups where I had to explain the rules as the game progressed.

I think the players had more fun being ignorant of the rules rather than having all the answers. Both times were very enjoyable.

Tim Shorts said...

The biggest difficulty is most the players you run into have read DMs Guide and know the stats of a monster by heart. When I am DMing I like to have the players guessing at least what kind of magic item they hold and tweak as many of them as I can so they are not so word for word out of any of the books.

But yes, I like to keep the players in the dark until they experience it in some way. More fun that way. Especially when they thought they had a +3 sword and find out that it is a +3 sword but it drains the life of the user.

myrystyr said...

Not only do I agree, I don't even show the players a map of the world. Not after the following incident, that's for certain...

"Are those mountains [hundreds of miles away and not visible from starting city] snowcapped?"
"You don't know, go there and find out."
"I just want to know."
"Then have your character go there, and find out."
"Can't you tell me?"
"Go there and find out!"
[Player left the group a few sessions later]

Dungeonmum said...

Great post. The idea is that you are exploring the unknown - why shatter the illusion by taking the player 'behind the scenes'? Our DMs never tell us what monster we're facing, only describe it. Sometimes they've made them up, sometimes they're obscure ones so it adds to the fear (we don't know how many attacks a round they can make or even what their attacks are). Keeps us on our toes and adds to the fun. If there's a puzzle or problem solving situation we'll never get told what we 'ought' to have done, it will always be a mystery.

A Paladin In Citadel said...

I had a great time playing with several new players over the summer. The lack of metagaming was refreshing.