2020-02-07 Transparency at the table

Yesterday, @hardcorenarrativist posted a link to Good Faith and RPGs by @paulbeakley.

I find these ideas have shown up in my games as well ever since I moved away from D&D 3.5 and the play style I upheld back then. When I decided to no longer play „rules as written“ and read about making rulings at the table, together with the players, about rolling in the open, asking players for flashbacks and ideas – I slowly started to realize that I didn’t need rules to protect me from people I didn’t want to game with anyway. Rules don’t substitute for social skills. And I think my game got better for it.

As for the players… I ended the campaign which I didn’t enjoy and started new campaigns that had less rules than D&D 3.5 back then, no more character building, and with that I lost all but two players; but I found new players and I’m still happy, so you might say that I agree with the self-selection element mentioned by Paul Beakley: if you remove the things you don’t like and are honest about the things you do like, like-minded individuals will show up at the table (eventually).

I don’t know much about other people’s games, and I currently have just have one game going where I run a B/X derived D&D, but I’m also a player a 5E game where DM Peter rolls in the open and we often discuss the direction the campaign is taking, our character goals, what we like as players, and so on. Neither Peter nor I fudge rolls, nor do we change encounters during the session or play mind reading games with our players.

I can’t imagine playing in a confrontational game. I am reminded of a one shot where we were trapped in some sort of magical field being hunted by an undead creature and we spent the whole session running and trying this or that and when we finally decided that this was stupid and let the undead creature reach us our characters died. And then the referee was incredulous: “Why did you do that‽” Too bad I wasn’t as immersed in role-playing games back then or I would have told him that his game was shit. Or preferably, much earlier: “Uh, I don’t really know what we’re doing here. Can we move on from this scene? It’s frustrating.”

Anyway, today I saw Noisms’ post, Transparent DMing. I like the structure of the post and would like to go through the same points, explaining how I run my games.

I roll all dice in the open. I don’t explicitly tell my players what I’m rolling for but it’s always obvious: random encounters, surprise, initiative, attacks, damage. Players roll reaction rolls.

I use a screen. I used to think that it was useless but when I was a player in DM Florian’s game, I noticed that I as a player did not enjoy noticing when he was making things up and when he was looking them up. I preferred the illusion of him having everything prepared, of us exploring an existing imaginary landscape. I think I would still suspect with a screen, eventually, and when I run my games I try absolutely to have all the things prepared, but there will always be times when the players push into unprepared territory and I personally want to maintain the illusion up to the end of the session (and will prepare appropriately for the next session). So yes, I use a screen.

I don’t give players narrative control. I never ask them where monsters are going or what the backstory of the current location is. I’m with Simon, who commented on Noisms entry and said: “I fear that would harm player immersion by pulling them out of actor-stance and into author-stance.”

I am happy to ask their advice when making rulings. Yes! Absolutely. I’ve written about rulings before and called it “a short negotiation.” It’s short because I make a proposal of how to resolve the situation, make a pause so that players can interject alternatives, or that we may all moan at the suffering in store for us today, and then we move on. I often make a ruling and add a simple “I’d say that’s fair, what do you think?” That’s the implied invitation to propose a different ruling.

I am generally unwilling to retcon. I might reconsider when somebody loses a beloved character and we all forgot about something important that would have saved them, but generally speaking, with my approach to rulings I find that when the dice fall and bad stuff happens, we all agreed to it, explicitly or at least tacitly by not speaking up. On the contrary, I feel that it is bad form to complain about rulings once consequences have manifested. Take the setbacks and move on, I say. Enjoy the experience of defeat. I know that I like to risk my characters or have them fail catastrophically after a while. I’m not saying I want this to happen all the time. But occasionally, I want to know what defeat feels like.

I never change the result of a roll or fudge. I commiserate our fate, the random encounters, the terrible odds – but it is what it is.

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