Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ineffectual Effects

I'm realizing that the kinds of effects magic items and monsters can have on player characters is fairly limited by the gaming situation.

I first started thinking about this with Brandyvein Beetles. They make dungeon explorers drunk which is a totally cool idea if it were in a piece of fiction or a movie. But the only way to really simulate it at the table is to push the responsibility onto the player: "Okay, pretend you're drunk" (or have players like mine, which are well on the way to "simulating" drunkenness no matter what the situation, hah).

There are a few effects that the system can handle decently. Because the DM controls access to knowledge of the game world, effects that cut it off can be simulated-- blindness, disorientation (getting lost). And effects that cut off the players' ability to interact with the game world are easy-- sleep, paralysis, petrification.

But that's about it. And you can see some of the classic effects are already huddling around the few, true ways to affect characters. In essence, the difference between sleep and paralysis to the pc is flavor.

The other thing a DM can do is apply modifiers to the system-- strength, speed, and pretty much anything that gives negative modifiers to combat. "Okay, you're drunk, you have +2 to strength, but -4 to hit."

But what happens when you want pcs affected by something else? This came up in one of my sessions when a magical statue made a pc paranoid. On the note I handed him communicating the effect I'd tried to apply the effect to the player rather than just his character. It said something like "Someone in the group wants to do you harm." But the player knew what was up. The only real way to simulate it was for his player to act paranoid. It was immediately apparent to everyone at the game table that he was under a magical effect and proper measures were taken. Yeah, it was sort of funny to see him act paranoid for a bit. But it seems like the potential for interesting things to happen is pretty limited by the nature of the game.

The nature of the game is that the players share a consciousness; any information one of them knows will tend to be known by all of them. And I'm not talking about "bad" players or players "cheating". Just the fact that we're all sitting around a table means it takes great effort by the DM to prevent everyone from knowing everything (individual notes, ear-whispering, talking in a separate room). And, even those efforts will tip the rest of the players off to the fact that something fishy is up.

This is not meant to imply that players roleplaying effects isn't or couldn't be fun. I'm just trying to think here about how much system can do for us, and if there are any ways we might creatively get around this hurdle.

Here are some effects that would be hard to simulate without pushing it onto players as a roleplaying responsibility:
  • fear
  • paranoia
  • any kind of insanity, really
  • confusion
  • love
  • charm
  • drunkenness
  • dizziness
  • memory loss
  • hallucinations
Some notes:
  • Confusion could be crudely handled by making a chart of possible actions and having a player roll randomly each round.
  • I just realized that the way the 1e DMG handled insanity was for the DM to take over roleplaying the character from the player, so no help there.
  • Hallucinations and some forms of insanity could fit into the DM's parceling of game world information. It's just that the goblins fighter bob keeps hearing behind doors never materialize.
Some possibilities:
  • Look for new ways to obscure/filter game world information.
  • Look for new ways to mess with the shared pc consciousness.
  • Think about ways to actually affect players in lieu of their characters.


  1. Not that you didn't know this, but "fear" is usually just handled by not allowing the player to do stuff, since they're too afraid to attack or move or whatever. Not very cool, but there it is.

    Also, you're absolutely right, and it's one of the reasons that horror games are hard to pull off right. It's easier if the entire party is hallucinating/insane, since you can then filter your information to make it more difficult, but that simulates mass hysteria, not the much more personal insane.

  2. "The nature of the game is that the players share a consciousness; any information one of them knows will tend to be known by all of them."

    I actually make it a point to break the shared consciousness idea from the get-go. You can accomplish a LOT more if you stress this way of playing from the start.

    For example, I routinely pass out notecards to my PCs. Probably about 5 per PC per 2 hour session. These are written up beforehand, and I've said over and over "if you share the information, please do so as your character." This does a good job of preventing them from just reading the cards aloud as written.

    The trick to insanity/fear/paranoia and so forth isn't to tell the player to act that way, it's to make the player feel that way :-)

    I'll pass notes that say things like "you hear whispering...or maybe the wind? Either way, [another character] is staring at you"

    Notes like this are supplemented with notes to the other players that say "So and so is acting really weird and maybe talking to himself."

    There's actually a lot of wiggle room here (and it's really fun).

  3. One way to simulate/cause paranoia is to pass out notes to everyone who isn’t paranoid saying

    “Thanks for reading me. Now please refold me, and hand me back, and do not reveal what I’ve said to anyone else.”

    On the note to the paranoid character write something like “You notice the walls in this section of the dungeon seem to be closer, and the ceiling a little lower than in previous sections. Refold and return”

  4. Hey, thanks for the comments.

    I don't necessarily think its a bad thing that players end up sharing information. In some cases the whole ironic distance is more fun precisely because of that.

    You know, players saying "Haha, dude look what ridiculous thing I'm going to make my paranoid character do." Especially if keeping them ignorant requires too much work by me ( This blog might have a subtitle of The Lazy DM).

    I'm just bummed we can't have a little more variety in the way we can effect characters.

    My intuition is telling the first category of possibilities above might be fruitful, but I don't have enough brain juice to explore it right now.

  5. (This blog might have a subtitle of The Lazy DM).

    *Ahem* I think you mean "efficient DM"!

    This is another good post, and brings to mind two words that come close to encapsulating the worries I have about this kind of thing: Potion of Delusional Clairuadience which I always thought was one of the coolest D&D ideas to spring on someone, but I haven't had the guts to use it yet, because it really highlights the personal insanity type conundrum that N. Wright mentioned above.

    The other idea I've wanted to use but haven't figured out a way is a maddeningly confusing attendant at an "Information Booth" deep in the dungeon who issues such infuriatingly useless information that the PC consulting it goes (mechanically) insane with rage.

  6. @David:
    Something to try, is to have on all the unaffected characters cards, a Y/N question about the target's appearance, or a request that the un-affected player remind you about what the target said at one point (try for something funny).

    It might let the normal players figure it out, but until/unless they do, they're looking at the target, and smiling or chuckling...

    If it hasn't been discovered by the end of the session, you then need to pull the target aside and let them in on it, which gives them until the next session to get into "character."

  7. Fear is definitely an interesting thing to try to inject into a game. It's something that even the most skilled GMs have a hard time doing on a consistent basis.

    In one D&D game I ran years ago, the party was making their way through a forest to destination. The problem was that the weather was pouring down rain and the sunlight was quickly vanishing from the sky.

    Their destination was to nearby hamlet that was being subjected to an increasing amount of smaller raids by goblinoid creatures.

    There existed a road that lead through the forest but they were tempted off of it by seeing and hearing (before the rain started) the sounds of movement and sight of shadows. At one point, since the players were a little hesitant to leave the main road, I had something fire an arrow that missed one of the players' heads.

    This spurred them into action. With little ability to track the creature other than by sound they quickly found themselves getting deeper and deeper into the forest.

    This is when the rain started. It was very late afternoon at this point. With a few pointers the direction savvy in the group realized they were cutting through the forest in the right general direction. They decided that rather than going back to road after they'd given up on their quarry that they would instead press on through the forest.

    The rain was causing problems. Mostly in their minds as I described the undesirable parts of their situation in detail. Their minds did the rest. This is one of the keys. Don't force but describe a situation in such detail that their minds help them to understand the emotion you actually wish to convey.

    They wanted cover, and I provided it. The party came upon a seemingly abandoned cabin. There were no lights but it was hard to see with the pelting rain. The fighter types scouted closer. Eventually opening the door.

    Inside was a simple one room abode. A stone hearth and fireplace dominated the back wall. A single bed on the left wall. A counter and food prep area making up the right. Against the wall with the door was a writing desk, more of a table than desk but one with single drawer attached underneath. In the center of the room, a large circular carpet. There were windows at each wall aside from the one with the fireplace. Everything was covered in dust.

    The fighter types brought in the rest. The last player in paused and scouted because he heard something in the dark. Something that wasn't just rain. A precursory search lead to nothing but rain, mud, the damp smell of detritus being washed from the surrounding.

    The players set about to making fire. Two ventured out of the cottage to see if there was any wood or something of use. One caught the glint of something in the darkness moving fast, but in the end both could not find anything of note. They found a stack of cut wood against the back of the cottage covered by some sort of thick clothed tarp.

    Uncovering it a bit one of them heard something that might be sound of muffled laughter. Again a look into the darkness was quelled by the pouring rain. Both agreeing to get back to the task at hand they started to gather wood.

  8. [continued]

    As one picked up a log something fell to his feet and landed on a shoe. Looking down he quickly realized it was white. Bone white. At this point the players, you could see by the way they were acting, felt isolated. This is good. They also felt hunted. They kept hearing things but not seeing anything.

    The story goes on to find them back inside. They light a fire. The windows have no curtains to speak of and as such the cabin becomes a beacon of light in a dark forest. I pointed this out indirectly when one of the elves wanted to look out side. I mentioned that now that the fire was going the light from the cabin played havoc with the elf's infra-vision as it spilled out into the dark forest. Between the rain and a convenient new moon there was only blackness to greet even the most gifted of scouts.

    I played up the fact that there was nothing out there but their own fear. Each bump turned out to be nothing and sound equally nothing until it finally did become something. I played the boy who cried wolf so much that eventually they wrote it off as a GM who was trying to be sneaky and failing.

    When something finally did show up one of them actually squeaked. It was all I could do to keep the grin off my face. What added to the fear was not knowing what the creature was.

    It stood about a meter tall with large saucer like eyes and body whose muscles moved much like liquid metal. When one player saw it in the window looking back she freaked. The creature moved out of the windows site.

    Another player looked out the window to be greeted with blackness. All the horror movies the players had ever seen started to fill their minds automatically. One player secured the door. Another suggested they go out and dispatch the creature when they heard scampering on the roof.

    "You can hear something moving up above. The sounds of movement on the roof. It seems to be heading to the western side of the cottage (the left side upon entering). As your eyes follow the sound to the window you are greeted with 4 more sets of eyes, the same as the one you saw before. The creatures seem to be pressing their faces close to look at what's inside."

    As you might already have guessed when the players scanned around they realized there were others at all the other windows. The players were spooked. Scared. All this by taking even the macho ones and putting them in a place that that let their minds do all the work.

    None of this would have worked if it was a creature they were familiar with. I try to always describe the creatures instead of calling them by name. D&D 4e really sucks for this as the descriptions are not in the monster manual anymore.

    Telling the players they are scared is nowhere near as effective as making them scared. Movies are great way to influence players because they have usually all seen a movie that has elements that caused fear for them.

    The more you describe the emotions of NPCs the more you can use even an expression to influence the players.

  9. @Nyteshade: What were the things? What did the players do?