Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Problem with Perception

One of the earliest problems DMs ran - and run - into in adjudicating Dungeons & Dragons (or any role-playing game) is that they are the pipeline of all data about the world to their players. While props, audio tracks, etc. can help set mood and convey information, the reality is that they have to be the eyes, ears, noses, sense of touch, etc. - and by default, all of those senses get short-changed. On the one hand, there is something to be said for challenging the players, not their characters, for that certainly is part of the Old School way - on the other hand, taking that too far can lead to the following transaction -

Dungeon Master - You open the door. Beyond is a room. 
Player One - is there anything in the room? 
Dungeon Master - yes. 
Player Two - (sigh). Does my sight provide any information to me about the room's contents and dimensions? Explicitly, please? 
Dungeon Master - Yes (after a pause) The room is longer than it is wide, and somewhat large. 
Player Three (exasperated) Is the room lit, and by what? 
Dungeon Master - There appears to be some source of illumination in the room, perhaps torches. Maybe if you examined the walls? 
Player Five, after a day and a half of this - HULK SMASH PUNY DM!!!!

The above is, sadly, not too much of an exaggeration of what some DMs put their parties through - the players have to work and toil for every piece of information about a room, either because the DM is making it all up as they go along, or because they feel that this is the way you 'challenge' players - right up until the moment someone's boot goes up their backside. At its most extreme, this kind of pixel-bitching is far worse than even the most deliberately obtuse text adventure game - at least those usually gave you a paragraph or two of description when you actually examined (or even just LOOKed) at a room. Of course, on the other side of it, you can get the situation where a single perception check provides more information than even Sherlock Holmes could hope to acquire at a glance -

Player One - Okay, I'm checking out the room. 
Dungeon Master - Sure. Give me a Perception check. 
Player One (rolling dice) - uhh... let's see - Wisdom mod plus skill plus a 15 is - twenty three! 
Dungeon Master - Your trained eye scans across the room, which is thirty-seven feet long by twenty-three feet wide, with a four foot by six foot alcove at the rear left corner. The room is lit by eleven oil lamps on shelves about five and a half feet off the ground, spaced evenly around the room. There are three equidistant doors along the right hand wall - you can see the light of a beeswax candle guttering through the gap between door and floor of the middle one. Tapestries adorn the left wall - the one closest to the alcove is fluttering weakly at the bottom corner, as if blown by a breeze. Four large tables, surrounded by chairs and benches, are placed somewhat haphazardly in the middle of the room - they are cluttered with an assortment of tools, plates, drinking mugs and other eating accoutrement. The room still faintly smells of pipeweed - a northern blend, you believe. The stones of the far wall seem off somehow - there's something wrong about the way they are laid, you think. 
Player One - Okay. Danielle, have Aychera check out the secret door behind that tapestry. Bill, let's let Watusi the Wily deal with whatever is up with that far wall - maybe it's a trapped compartment. The rest of us quietly make our way into the room and line up a crash crew on that middle door - Tom and Janelle, have Robur and Lyra keep an eye on the other doors. Steve, Borax the Brave is up top for door duty, with Meliar behind - Frank, keep in mind that Fireballs in small spaces hurt this time, okay? Everyone else, watch and make sure we don't get stomped unexpectedly, please? Given the pipeweed, I'm betting this is where that spell-casting assassin bailed out to. 

The problem being that the DM gave up too much information at a glance - precise dimensions, exact numbers, too many hints and clues all at once. The team Caller immediately tumbled to, well, everything - the secret door behind the tapestry, the hidden compartment on the far wall, etc. etc.

The trick is that both of these are extremes. On the one front, the players are expected to operate with no information from the DM except that which they specifically ask for. In the other case, they're being given the entire plot. The best way of playing, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

Unreliable Narrators
One problem is - while humans are really good at noticing motion, picking out patterns (even too good), and detecting that something is off, we're really not that good at noticing detail - not reliably so, anyways. This is borne out by years of research into courtroom testimony - although people put a lot of faith into an eyewitness account - in reality, they're not that good unless backed up with video surveillance, or cross-referenced through a large number of independently verifiable testimony (so if something happens in front of a large crowd, and those people are all individually interviewed, when taken as an aggregate, their story will probably align with the truth - but any individual person's account may be wildly inaccurate). Even highly trained individuals can end up missing significant pieces of information - which is why crime scenes have entire teams going over them.

Challenging the Players, Not the Characters
One of the fundamental assumptions about the Old School gaming style (or the OSR movement, anyways) is that a game should challenge the players, not the characters. Characters are seen - to a degree - more as playing pieces than as fully fleshed-out individuals in their own right. (This, obviously, varies from group to group - some groups pay little or no attention to role-playing details, character history, etc. in general, while others pay quite a bit of attention to such things, but still see the character as distinctly secondary to the player). With this in mind as a founding statement, one can see how perception - and some other skills - can be denigrated in the abstract. 

Of course, this system breaks down fairly rapidly. While we can, for the sake of discussion, ignore the strawmen arguments about how players aren't asked (in a tabletop game, anyways) to actually fight monsters, or cast spells, there are numerous situations (picking locks, deciphering old scrolls, etc) where the players could be more directly involved in the "how" of doing some task - but these tasks are, generally, relegated to a die roll instead. 

A Spectrum of Tolerance
The reason for this is, quite simply, that every player has a differing level of tolerance for "pixel-bitching". For some players, they see their character as carrying most of the workload for things that happen "in game" - the player's job is more one of director, soul, and conscience than actually "inhabiting" the character in any sort of way. Facing these players with endless puzzle traps, riddling gynosphinxes, etc. is not a way to make them happy - quite the opposite. For these players, while the second example is still a bad one, they want something closer to that than "You see a room, medium-sized, with an L shape, you're on the wall that would be the "top" of the L. The room appears lit from some unknown source." They have no problem with using a Perception check to notice that the tapestry on the far wall is twitching a little (from the breeze caused by a secret passage?). 

Other players, however, eat that sort of thing up. They love obscure prophecies that have to be decoded, and bits of doggerel that help the players short-circuit death traps, and riddle-battles with arch-magi, and all that sort of stuff. For them, "Room, stone walls, twenty by forty-ish, tapestries on walls, lit from oil lantern hanging from ceiling." is plenty for them to run with.  While they might not appreciate having to individually check every single book on the library wall to see if it has a secret door trigger - they're going to be the one asking if one of the books is less dusty than the others, or shows more evidence of having been moved recently. They don't need a Perception check - and if asked for one when asking for specific information, might be put out. 

So DMs have to walk the line between those two groups. As always.