GM: After falling through the floor above, you land about 10 feet below. As the dust settles, you see that you’re in a simple stone room which appears to have been used in the recent past as a large creature’s den. There are bones scattered about, and a nest of some kind in the corner. The walls in the South East corner have been knocked away, and a ten foot wide tunnel extends beyond them. To the north is a simple iron door.
Lirnef: If we just fell into the nest of the Forest Serpent, then we need to get out of here. We barely escaped that last encounter. Lets head out the door.
GM: Does the party agree to exit through the door?
GM: What’s your marching order?
*Party looks amongst themselves*
Merrag: Sedger, you have the most HP. I think I have spell to boost your saving throw prepared, let me cast that.
Sedger: Alright, I think I’m ready. I open the door.
GM: When you place your hand on the door’s handle-
Sedger: Woah, woah! I didn’t say I put my hand on the handle.
GM: Then how did you plan to open it?
Sedger: I kicked it open.
GM: You…kick it open?
GM: Well since you didn’t turn the latch, you’ll need to roll a strength check.
GM: The door falls inwards. The poison dart trap in the handle fires impotently into the stone wall.
Every GM is familiar with the scenario above. It is our bane, but sometimes we must ask questions which allows the players to easily infer some knowledge which they shouldn’t know. As GMs grow more experienced, they learn ways to counteract the most common of these questions. Marching orders can be established at the start of the dungeon, requiring players to speak up beforehand if they think they’d like to change it. And common actions, like opening doors, are performed using common methods unless the players specify otherwise in advance. Yet the problem remains. Even players who try to avoid metagaming don’t want their characters to get hurt, and if the GM tips his or her hand with a poorly timed question, who can blame a player for taking advantage of that?
A few years ago, I scrolled down below the Goblins comic to read Thunt’s blog. Normally his blog is just comic news, convention news, life news, things like that. But on this particular day, it was a collection of dungeon mastering tricks which had worked for him in the past. Unfortunately, there’s not really a good navigation for the blog part of the site, and google isn’t turning up the specific entry I remember, so I can’t link to the original. In the post he mentioned an idea which has stuck with me: the problem of a GM’s questions providing players with unintended information can be solved by asking ‘useless’ questions.
As an example, lets imagine that a player who wields a sword and shield is leading the group through a door. After failing a stealth check earlier, the orcs on the other side of that door, which the players don’t know about, have been alerted to their presence. As soon as the door opens, a half dozen orcish bows will fire arrows at whoever is standing in front. Since the lead player’s shield will have a strong impact on how many of those arrows hit him, the GM might ask “What do you do with your sword and shield when you open the door? You’ll need at least one free hand to grasp the latch.” This is the kind of question which any competent player will recognize as indicative of something unusual going on. That doesn’t mean the players will always make the right choice. The lead player may decide that their sword will be important as soon as he or she opens the door, and will tell the GM that they set down their shield. Or they might also choose to stand to the side of the door, and open it from a covered position. The problem isn’t the choice they make, but rather, the fact that those choices are informed by information they shouldn’t have.
Now consider the same scenario. Sword & Board leader, door, orcs with arrows, and the question. But this time, imagine that the GM had been asking simple questions at many of the previous doors as well. Not all of them, and not always the same question either. Three doors ago the GM had asked which hand was used to open the door. Two doors before that, the GM said the the door was just slightly stuck, and asked how the player wanted to apply additional force to get it open. There had also been that wooden door, when the GM wanted to know whether the players opened it inward, or outward. None of those doors had anything special behind them, and at this point the players don’t expect there to be. So this time, the player won’t set down their shield because they think they’ll need their sword more, nor do they stand to the side of the door and open it from cover because they’re worried about traps. The player does whatever seems the most reasonable, which is precisely what you want them to do. Not because you want them to fail or to succeed, but because you want your players to experience the game without outside influences.
Asking questions like this has an added benefit as well. In addition to obscuring a GM’s important questions, asking players to describe how their character perform simple actions gets the players thinking the way their character would. I can imagine that after a few sessions, players might even start offering some information without being asked, if they feel they may be in danger. So even the ‘useless’ questions aren’t entirely without value.
I’ve put together some examples of situations where the GM might ask questions, along with a selection of different questions to ask so you don’t start to sound like a broken record. Bear in mind that most of the time, only one of these questions should be asked at a time, and not every time the action is performed. The goal is to ask often enough that your players don’t read into your questions, but not so often that you slow down the game.
- What do you do with the items in your hand while you open it?
- Do you open it particularly quickly or slowly?
- It is somewhat stuck and does not open immediately. [Then, if the player decides to apply more force] How do you go about forcing the door open?
- Which hand do you use to open it?
- It opens both inwards and outwards. Which way do you open it?
- Do you step through/reach in as soon as it is open?
- It is particularly heavy and requires more strength than one hand. How do you apply greater strength?
Moving into or through a new area
- Do you look back to see if there’s anything on the walls you just passed?
- Do you walk through the light entering in through the cracks high on the wall?
- How close to the statue do you walk?
- [If the players indicate a door they would like to exit through, or object they would like to inspect] What is your path through the room?
An inventory item is used
- [If the item is small] Where do you keep this item on your person?
- [If the item is large, or if the previous question was answered “it’s in my pack.”] How do you remove it from your bag?
- Do you need to take other items out of your pack to get to it?
- How many of those do you have left?
- [For potions] What do you do with the container once you’ve used the potion?
An object is touched or picked up
- Which hand do you use to touch it with?
- Are you wearing gloves?
- Are you touching/grabbing it more gently, or more forcefully?
- Do you look at it first, or do you place it immediately into storage on your person/in your pack.
- Do you let the other party members see it?
Crossing a bridge
- How far apart do you walk from one another?
- How quickly do you cross the bridge?
- [For a rope bridge] When the bridge sways, do you stop and hold on, or continue walking?
- Where do you direct your eyes? At the other side,or at your feet?
Walking down a corridor
- [If the corridor is wider than 5ft] This corridor is wide enough for you to walk two abreast. Do you, or do you walk single file?
- Are you making an effort to move particularly cautiously or quietly? If so, what precautions are you taking?
- Are you testing for traps with your 10ft pole?
- Do you attempt to break up cobwebs before walking through them, or do you just ignore them?
- Do you try to shield yourself from the water dripping from the ceiling?
- Is the bard humming?
- Are you paying any particular attention to the architecture?
- Do you make a fire?
- Do you cook any food, or just eat trail rations?
- Do you leave the campfire burning while you sleep, or not?
- Are you keeping watch? If so, what is the watch order?
- Is anyone with abilities requiring 8 hours rest (Wizard, Cleric, etc) part of the watch rotation?
- Do you leave your food out, or do you pack it away before you go to sleep?
- Are you sleeping around the fire, or within a tent?
- What direction does the tent face?
- What are the sleeping arrangements?
- Are you sleeping with your armor off, or will you take the exhaustion penalties tomorrow?
- About what time do you decide to go to sleep?
- Do you explore the area around the campsite at all before settling down?
Breaking down camp in the morning
- Does the Wizard / Cleric wake up earlier than everyone else to prepare their spells, or do they wake up with the others and make them wait?
- What time do you wake up?
- Do you put out the fire before you leave?
- Do you attempt to conceal your campsite at all?
- Do you have breakfast before you leave?
- What time do you wake up, and how long before you set out?
Looking for something in a city, or “asking around”
- What types of places do you go to ask about/find what you’re looking for?
- Do you attempt to bribe anyone?
- How open are you in your questioning?
- How do you phrase your questions?
- To you tell people your name?
- Do you tell anyone that what you’re seeking is urgent, or of great importance?
- Do you lie to people to get answers if necessary?
- Do you speak to anyone in a guard’s uniform?
And one final note. The paradigm example of this problem is the perception check. The GM asks players for a perception check to see if they notice something, and the players roll low. But since players aren’t dumb, they know that the GM’s announcement that they didn’t notice anything only means that whatever is out there is too stealthy for them. This problem is easily solved by making note of each character’s perception skill, and rolling in secret behind the GM screen, without any announcements in the first place. I sometimes roll meaningless rolls and glance at the result just so my players won’t come to associate unannounced die rolls with missed checks.