Monday, August 31, 2009

Keeping Secrets at the Table

The Dungeon Master's jaw rested very comfortably on the floor as he stared down at his notes - eyes wide. "The... the dragon... dies?"

Cheers erupted from the table.

"For the Mountain Dew!"

The Dungeon Master however, was not impressed. Sifting through his stack of papers he found the photocopies of our character sheets and made some quick references. "Wait a second. How did you beat the dragon's grapple checks? That's impossible with your modifier!"

We all looked to the victorious warrior who leaned back, a slick grin on his victorious face.

"Remember the minor Shadow Ring artifact we found in the Citadel of Midnight? You said it had the ability to change into any one magical ring. Well, I changed it into a Ring of Freedom of Movement before the battle. Pretty smart huh? See, I wrote it on my sheet!"

"Smart?" Wisps of steam rose from the pink-faced Dungeon Master's ears. "You didn't tell me you had Freedom of Movement cast! You just said you beat his grapple checks!"

"Well, the dragon wouldn't have known about the ring or it's effects on me. I knew if it couldn't grapple me the first time it would get frustrated and - not being able to take defeat well - would keep trying and waste all of it's rounds."

"I can deal with what the dragon knows. As the Dungeon Master though, I need to know what your character has for abilities and items! That's why I made copies of your sheets! How can I run a fun and challenging game for you all without knowing what will actually challenge your characters?"

"If you run your challenges based on what we can do, then what benefit is there for getting more powerful and coming up with unique strategies? You'll have an answer for every attack!"

*Cue fight music*

- - -

Secrets at the table. Good idea? Bad idea?

You Can Never Know Everything

Any good DM knows that even if they know the ins and outs of their player's character sheets, they could never know everything about a character. Some players assume that when a DM has a copy of their sheet, they lose all chances to do something which surprises the DM, but they must realize that a DM can never account for imagination and creativity.

Players, you still hold the power! So, if your DM wants copies of your sheets, try not to worry TOO much.

DMs, please remember that you can't control what the players do. Just because you have their stats doesn't mean you know everything they're going to throw at you. Even if you think you can predict your player's movements to a T, don't rely on it, lest your carefully planned campaign de-rails a little and you find yourself uttering those words no DM should ever utter.

How Much Fun Is "Challenging"?

Challenging is an interesting word. I don't think anyone, player or DM would say that they wanted a simple, non-challenging campaign. An easy campaign is just no fun. Sure, having the occasional encounter where the heroes simply stomp the enemies can be fun, but overall a campaign should be challenging.

But how do you make a campaign or encounter challenging?

Is it simply by sending boatloads of monsters at your PCs, or launching something several levels higher than them onto the grid?

One of the best ways to make an encounter challenging is to tailor a monster specifically to battle the group. If the group is seriously lacking in aerial attack power, throw something with wings at them. Take down your party's pyromancer with a monster immune to fire! Yes, this is challenging... but is it fun?

One of the big reasons DMs may keep careful tabs on their players is to tailor encounters to be "challenging" for them, but TREAD SOFTLY DMs! If you take away all of their favorite toys, your players may close down and stop having fun. As soon as a player feels "useless" in a battle, you've hit a major problem.

Tip: If you want to keep a challenging battle fun, rather than make your character's abilities useless, force them to come up with new and creative ways to use their abilities. Puzzle bosses are a great example of how you might incorporate this idea.

An Unfortunate Reality

One benefit of transparency is that it takes a big stab at cheating. Players can't change their skill points, or their prepared spells, or their eye-color mid-campaign. The other edge of this sword is that a call for transparency unfortunately does imply at least in some small way that a DM wants to keep tabs on their players.

Is that so bad?

Well, it can put pressure on the DM/Player relationship, even though it does help to keep everyone at the table honest.

Obviously this aspect of transparency at the table should be addressed in an individual group-to-group manner. Only you know what will work best for your group, and how trustworthy your players are to not fudge their sheets. In an ideal world, no D&D player would ever cheat, and in many groups it never happens.

Every so often though, there are players who make an attentive DM raise their eyebrows. I've sadly seen this more often than I'd like in my time as a DM.

Final Verdict?

The question of whether or not players should be able to keep secrets from their DMs is one I've dealt with in many of my gaming groups and really should be solved on a case-by-case basis. What will work best for your group? What will maintain levels of fun and a healthy degree of challenge?

A DM's expectations of transparency should be laid out at the beginning of a campaign (don't hold your players to high expectations that you've never explained), and players should work with their DM rather than against them.

In the end, it's up to you! It's true that "secrets, secrets are no fun", but sometimes they're the best things ever.


Wim said...

Luckily, I've never had to deal with cheating players (at least, not that I know of).

I think that when I'd catch someone cheating, I might just turn a blind eye, if it's only that one time and it better suits the story and overall enjoyment.

However, when a player would consistently fudge and thereby ruins everyone's excitement or feeling of fair-play, I'd confront.

Because in the end, isn't it the 'Fun For All' rule that matters the most?

[Off-topic: by the way, may I give just one minor critique on your writing? I would've done this personally, outside of public-domain comments, but unfortunately I can't seem to mail you directly from your blog. Could you please take more care in your 'then' and 'than' distinctions? I know I'm being a total grammar-nazi here, but it will make your posts a lot more professional and believable, how silly though that may sound. Sorry for flying off the handle like that ;). Other than that: keep those posts coming!]

Storyteller said...

I've had to approach players about cheating a few times. Never a fun discussion. I've definitely looked the other way more than I'd like to admit.

Some people approach cheating at D&D with the "If someone really has to cheat at D&D, that is sad enough already, so why bother trying to stop them" attitude. I do agree that as long as people are having fun that's most important, and usually only get up-in-arms about cheating when someone is ruining everyone else's good time or taking it too far.

[Thank you for the constructive criticism, I've made the appropriate edits in my post!!!)

Daemynic Delirium said...

I'm really unsure of why you'd want to "cheat" at D&D since it's not like it's a life or death (at least in the conventional way of thinking) matter, right?

As for whether or not you'd want to keep secrets, I think it's something that's almost important and entirely necessary. You're right when you say that it's not like we can actually ever know everything about a player's reactions but I think that's the fun of the game, the complete unpredictability. And most secrets, at least in my findings, aren't in the numbers of the game anyway, but rather in the actions or knowledge of a character.

Zzarchov said...

In the above example, as a GM, I'd be thrilled.

1.) he wrote it down
2.) It surprised me

As a GM I don't fudge die rolls against players, TPK's do happen from sheer dumb luck.

Likewise if a player does that to me, he has increased MY enjoyment.

Im a "referee" though not a "Storyteller", so I expect the players to be the storytellers and bring the plot. The dragon who is frustrated by the magically ungraspable warrior makes a much better tale to tell over the years then another grind.

Storyteller said...

@Daemynic: I agree! I think that cheating at D&D is just kind of silly. The whole point of the game is chance, if you take the chance element out of it, it just sort of crumbles!

Thank you for your take on the cheating topic! Out of curiosity, are you primarily a player or a DM? I think that DM's may more naturally be in favor of transparency while players are against it and I'm trying to see if that theory holds any weight.

@Zzarchov: I've had players hatch a secret plan before and write it down, only to have them reveal it to me and have me notice that, had they mentioned it to me earlier it wouldn't have been allowed. For example, buying an item that wouldn't have been available, or stealing something that has a magical ward on it. Sometimes it can work really well, and I do love it when player surprise me though. These are the kinds of things I worry about though. When players are responsible and write things down, as long as they're intelligent about what they can and can't do without DM permission, it does work out well more often then not.

Daemynic Delirium said...

At this point, I'm a pretty large player. However, I'm really hoping that will change in the future. I'm currently planning a campaign in 4e with the help of the current GM, and we're working together in order for me to learn more and more so that soon I'll be able to take over GMing. *chuckles* I hope that doesn't throw your entire theory out the window.

But yes, I'm a player currently with strong GMing bent. ;) I'm also a really new player, only have played Pen and Paper for the last... month and a half. So not sure how that will skew your thoughts about that.

Storyteller said...

@Daemynic: A DM in training! Excellent! Welcome to the fold. Let me know how your campaign goes!

Michael LOTRfan said...

I take the middle of the road with regards to the keeping secrets from the DM issue.

I have, I guess what you would call "limited transparency". I don't keep copies of character sheets and track how many arrows each player has blah blah blah. But I do keep a list of the info. I find most pertinent (skills, feats, magic items, total coinage to name a few). It is up to the players to be honest, and if someone wants to cheat then......they'll get away with it at my table but are they really making the game better for themselves?

The reason I believe in keeping my list of pertinent information is that you can accidentally make an encounter/adventure too challenging if you don't watch. Or, you could accidentally cause a mishap that you didn't intend.

For example: Having a party that just got an item valuable to the storyline run into a rust monster who destroys the item.

See, knowing the vital info. is not just about making the encounters more challenging, but also about avoiding the wrong challenges that sap the fun out of the game. Its really in the player's best interests to be honest.