Friday, April 2, 2010

The Transparency Question

Evaluating my playing style and the way I tend to DM has brought my attention to one topic, that was not covered in my last post.

Let's call it The Question (or Problem) of Transparency.

The issue is quite simple and I'm sure that many of you already suspect what I have in mind. It's the question of how transparent should the gaming system be to the players? In other words: should the GM conceal the game mechanics, or should he expose the game structure and exploit it?

Before I provide some examples, I'd just like to say that I am not concerned with the very old argument of "storytelling games" (like WoD and Cthulhu) vs. "rolling games" (D&D, WFRP). This quarrel has and still is taken too seriously in Poland and to me it is based around stereotypes and completely artificial divisions.

Ah, yes! So what I am concerned with is: how transparent (concealed) should the game mechanics be at a D&D table?

I must say this question came to my head only recently, mostly because of this post and due to some confusion at my own kitchen table.

Sow how do the two models actually differ?

1. An example for the concealed mechanics DMing would look like this:

DM: A troll walks out from the cave, it looks like this and...
DM: Ok, ok, roll your dice.
P: 18
DM: You score a hit, roll damage.

2. This is how the same situation would look, if the DM decided to expose mechanics:

DM: A troll walks out from the cave, it looks like this and...
DM: He's AC is 17
P: WHAT?! In that case you all see Turg grab his axe and prepare to charge, but after a brief moment of hesitation lowers his weapon and pretends like nothing happened.

I must confess that I used to think that method one is better (perhaps because of my WFRP background, since there are no target numbers and all players roll against their % abilities). It might have been due to being constantly exposed to the more dice means less atmosphere rant?

Whatever the cause might be, I'm starting to think that it's all bull shit and that in fact (as is said in the Year of the Dungeon post linked earlier) the exposed mechanics approach is more fair to the players. Especially to less experienced ones, like mine.

I might describe a monster all day and they will be scared (at least afraid of loosing their PCs), but will still attack it. The exposure of the beasts AC (once the players decide to kill it) doesn't reduce the strength of my description. In fact, if anything, it might force the players to rethink their strategy, or (if the fight is inevitable) make them really fear for their favorite characters.

A good example of using this device to DM's convinience has been posted by Zak in the early days of his blog. Here.

However, I see one case in which the exposed mechanics don't really cut it (at leas for me).

It's the traps!

Somehow, I can't see this conversation taking place:

DM: bla bla bla (describing a trapped floor segment).
Player: I see. I'm trying to block the floor tile with a piece of wood so it can't be pressed... (and so on.). What are my chances of disarming it if I do all that?
DM: about 30 %.
P: Ok. forget it. Guys, we have to find another way.

Yeeeaaah... Not very believable is it? My intuitions are, that with some traps, you've can never be sure whether you disarmed it properly until you try and walk on that fucking rigged floor tile.

I think it forces thief wielding players to role play and describe disarming attempts more thoroughly (in order to get some positive modifiers) And to me, makes playing a thief more thrilling.

Summing up: Exposing is oldschool and good, but let's keep those sappers in uncertainty.


  1. I have an idea I want to try--fighters and fighter sub-classes have better knowledge of the mechanics than everybody else. i.e. if a wizard wants to hit something i say "roll".

    If it's a high-level fighter I say "roll 15 or higher, it's ac is 18, an dit has 6 hit points left"

  2. That is a really neat idea.

    Seconds after writing that post I had a discussion with Julia about how fighters are kinda boring compared to other classes, because they specialize in the most mundane thing.

    Barbarians have the rage, Rangers can track and hunt things... But a plain fighter is just meh.

    So yeah, totally stealing it, but just for plain fighters, maybe rangers too, barbarians are too stupid for that.

  3. One benefit of announcing AC is that it speeds up combat though it does reveal your hand a bit. This can be played against by having monsters fighting defensively, using non-standard equipment etc.

    Something I've seen used to good effect is if your monster stats emphasise elements of a particular AC (say tough hide), dropping that in the description is always useful...