Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooking Bacon In a Dungeon

I love breakfast.  I cook all the weekend breakfasts, and it's usually waffles with fruit and syrup; pancakes or french toast; eggs, meat, OJ, all that stuff on the side.  In the mundane world, we care about what we're having for lunch, for breakfast, what's for dinner.  Days are described by where we went to lunch; periods of the day are measured out in meals.

But I don't want to hear what a character is having for breakfast during the game.  Or lunch.  Or dinner.  What the players need to be talking about is their plan for getting into the dungeon.  Grab gear, and hit the road.  "But I want to buy some things!"  Fine, write the list down, mark off some money, don't do anything stupid like buy 500 vials of holy water, and get back to telling me how you're getting into the dungeon.  We don't need to role play "transactional scenes" like meals and shopping.  I don't care what you're having for breakfast in Greyhawk City.

This isn't meant to sound like a rant (my own players don't always bury me with mundane details) but I raise it as a springboard into a discussion of "DM background authority", "narrative control" and "character advocacy".  Okay, to get it out of the realm of "RPG theory speak", the issue is about this - when is it okay for the DM to speak on behalf of a player character to move things along, and when can the player, to move things along, make decisions regarding  the DM's world?

A simple answer certainly could be, "the DM can never make decisions for the players", but then things won't move along very fast, will they?  And I doubt *anyone* would really play in that style.  Example:  The characters just raised their dead companion and need to spend a few weeks in town healing up; I don't want to go through the painful day-by-day Q&A of what the characters do.  Submitting that nothing exciting is meant to happen, I'll let the time pass quickly by and advance the calendar to an appropriate date.  Assumptions need to be made.  Some DM's will even let players get X,Y and Z done in their down time; does anyone allow players to write little vignettes about what they accomplish in the intervening months?  Like, how does Black Dougal the Thief use his free time to do thief-stuff around town, and rise to prominence in the local thieves guild?  (That's a trick question - Black Dougal is DEAD).  More seriously, does every single transactional scene need to played out in relentless detail?

There's a theory of story telling, role playing, and even improv theater that says what we really care about are peak scenes in a character's life, pivotal scenes where something dramatic happens; no one wants to see how a character brushes his teeth, what kind of toothpaste he uses, did he floss, how does he put his pants on.  D&D is not The Truman Show, and the DM is not an ever-present camera; no one cares.  We want to see the players back in the dungeon mugging some goblins.

Everything changes in the underworld.  A kind of hyper reality sets in, where very moment in the dungeon has tactical import, and we track time down to the smallest of intervals - 10 minute turns, 10 second combat rounds.  Mundane details around food, water, sleeping, praying, memorizing spells, even cooking, become important.  As a DM, I'm suddenly very interested in all of that minutiae, and indeed want them spelled out finely for me.  The ever presence of danger elevates mundane activities to mission critical life saving procedures.  Whether the players are frying bacon for breakfast or chewing hard tack is now an important distinction.

Wilderness travel causes me no end of problems in this area of "advocacy versus narrative control". Our unit of time is on the macro level; we count off hexes in days.  And yet, encounters can happen each day, plunging us from that 10,000 foot view of miles-per-day back into the hyper reality of 10 second combat rounds, caught in a life or death struggle.  What about the in-between?  And where lies the balance of advocacy (player control) and DM narrative control?

Consider this example:  The party is traveling through a wooded 6 mile hex.  Any given hex of woods will have pockets of dense wood, small open glades, streams to cross, ridges to climb, thick brambles to bypass; there are a wide range of obstacles and features in a single square mile of woods, let alone along a 6 mile hike.  When the DM determines a wandering encounter happens with some gryphons, just where does it occur?

I would hazard most of us are okay with the DM quickly determining if the gryphons are flying or landed, hunting or performing some other activity, perhaps the DM rolls some surprise checks and calculates encounter distances to help piece together a mental scene.  All of the data points converge to allow the DM to describe the moment when one of the parties becomes aware of the other one.  Through fiat and in the interests of excitement, the DM chooses to place the encounter when the party is crossing a wide stream, which creates a natural break in the tree cover and exposes a wide section of sky to the circling gryphons.

How much power does the DM have to decide the state of the characters?  This guy over here is halfway across the stream when he hears the gryphon screech, these guys are milling around the bank, that guy over there is taking a leak, that other guy has already crossed and is looking ahead.  There's a balance between springing the interesting scene on the players, part improvised, part generated die rolls, versus the player's expectations, which is that they're always on high alert, scanning the skies, or woods, or ground, or stream, or wherever direction they're being surprised.

Another example, which I absolutely love, is in The Fellowship of the Ring movie, when the hobbits are hanging out on Weathertop, cooking "tomatoes, sausage, and nice crispy bacon".  No PC in their right mind would have a cook fire, with sizzling bacon, in a wilderness crawling with undead.  Characters are mere game pieces, and they're rarely role played to take into account comfort factors unless imposed by the DM… "No, you can't sleep standing up in plate mail".

There's a relationship between the unit of time in the game and the amount of abstraction and player control.  Players control all of their character actions in the combat round; they mostly control their actions in the 10 minute turn (though might establish procedures to fall back on); the traveling day is mostly abstracted to standard procedures; larger units are totally abstract.  As player tactical control goes down, the DM's ability to interpose a situation on the player character necessarily increases.  I could reduce it to a chart like this:

It's one of the many reasons dungeons are the backbone of a game.  There's a much clearer line dividing the adversarial DM role and the role of the players advocating on behalf of what their characters are doing, and the time scale supports that level of description.  The wilderness time scale creates a grey area and often requires a bit of "social contract" to finesse:

I'm going to spring wilderness encounters on you appropriately, based on surprise, distance, party procedures, and so on, and I'll place you guys in appropriate but interesting terrain, and then turn over control of your characters back to you once the scene is set.  You don't bitch and moan that sometimes a monster might stumble by while you're taking a leak, because sometimes you'll stumble upon a monster that's taking a leak… it's a matter of trust.

An alternate approach I've been considering is to change the time scale when a wilderness encounter is about to take place, and give the players direct control earlier in the process.  For instance, when I decide they've come upon a wide steam, let them explain how they're proceeding as typical character actions and go forward from there.  This would slow the game down quite a bit, since I'd want to run a number of "false alarms" each day so the players don't assume an encounter is coming every time we shift into "tactical time".  It would be important to have sub-terrain tables for creating interesting encounter points in various macro hex types.

My current campaign is about to go into an extended wilderness period, so I've been ruminating on how I want to handle daily travel and intermittent encounters this time around.  Oh, the things we do, to strike a balance between detailed character actions and not having to hear what your character had for breakfast that day.

I can see some follow-on posts already; one involves the idea of narrative control in D&D, and do we DMs ever shift it entirely to the players ( like in the new school games); the other involves exploring those mundane details of daily life I casually dismissed.  On topic for this post, though, I'd love to hear how you narrate wilderness travel and handle the shift from travel time to combat time, and shift control of the game back to the players.