Thursday, October 13, 2011

Question Authority—Especially if that Authority is Me

I’ve noticed something about my own players and several others that I’ve shared a table with over the last two years, a phenomenon that I’ve not been able to deduce the whys and wherefores of. It might be a strictly local trend, one that doesn’t occur elsewhere, but it could also be indicative of the way the game has changed after the release of the 3rd edition. Maybe you’ve seen this happen too.

My players don’t ask a lot of questions in-game. This is completely alien to me because that’s all I ever do when I’m playing. Maybe it’s because I’m a referee or a designer or simply because I play these games to temporarily lose myself in the fantasy we create and becoming invested in the shared world makes it easier to do so. Most of my players, however, and others that I’ve gamed with are seemingly content to lay back and assume a completely submissive role in the play experience. Unfortunately, this can be fatal to their characters.

Here’s a recent example: I was running a quick filler game using the material I created for my Out of the Box campaign. It got off to a good start with the players going to the tavern and one making an inquiry about any recent goings on in the area. The barkeep revealed that some settlers had been attacked on the road recently, and had been kidnapped by forces unknown. I was happy. The guys were interacting with the campaign world at large, which was a big step forward for some of them. But then old habits kicked in.

They learned that the local temple couldn’t provide any healing potions, but heard a rumor that a witch in the woods might be able to. Rather than ask any more questions, they figured they’d just stumble around in the woods for a while and run into her. Things got worse after they decided to leave the safety of the keep and go dungeon-crawling. There were three options on a map that a local had, all of which were merely names on a paper. The party picked one at random and headed for it, not even pausing to see if anyone knew anything about the site they had chosen. As it turned out, the dungeon they picked was scaled for 3rd level characters and the expedition resulted in a massacre.

The same tendency occurs during the actual adventure. In my Stonehell game, the PCs occasionally encountered phenomenon or items that they didn’t recognize. Occasionally a player might ask something like, “Does my magic-user know anything about this?” or “As a dwarf do I recognize that?” When I answer “No,” they seem to take that as “No and you never will.” The thought of seeking out an NPC expert doesn’t even occur to them.

Compare this to my approach in the Labyrinth Lord game I’m participating it. We were running through the Village of Hommlet and the party, after learning of the Moathouse, decided to head out there and loot it. Immediately. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I cried. “Let’s see if we can’t learn a thing or two before we go out there.” My magic-user asked around town and learned of the backstory behind the Battle of the Moathouse and talked to a few soldiers who had been there that day. In doing so, he got a rough sketch of the exterior and learned that there was a single known dungeon level underneath the fort. He also got Rufus to kick in some troops and offer up a bounty for exploring the place. Sometimes knowing these little facts and whether you’re bound to run into goblins instead of orcs can save lives, especially fragile, 1st level lives.

After a bad run in with the frogs, my magic-user consulted with the local druid, thinking that if anyone could offer some advice about giant frogs, he’d be the guy. This lead to us getting a magic orb that created a cloud of monstrous flies and helped draw off some of the big batrachians in our path.

Maybe I’m just an exemplary player or perhaps reading all those “advice to the players” articles in Dragon back in the day stuck in my brain. Whatever the case, I’m just not seeing this trend in the gamers I’ve been playing with and I’m wondering why. Is it merely because they are “poor” players or is this symptomatic of a larger cause? Have video games that feed the players tidbits of information at predetermined points made gamers more passive? Did including a “Gather Information” skill make players think that the only way to get important information was to make a skill check and when that skill is missing from their plate of options they believe that information is unavailable? Am I a sucky referee who runs a game that provides no impetus for the players to peer beyond the surface? I really don’t know.

This had been on my mind a lot lately, mostly because I’m re-examining what types of games I enjoy running and because of some changes in my regular group. I look at Jeff Rient’s Twenty Questions and part of me wonders if it’s even worth answering them if nobody’s going to make those inquiries in the first place. This also explains my request that folks interested in play testing not “lay back and think of England” but get excited and get involved. A great deal of my lack of enthusiasm for continuing to run Labyrinth Lord comes from this absence of investment in the shared world we’re supposed to be creating around the table.

I’m not trying to be harsh or rude to my players, but it’s something that I have noticed in the year and a half we’ve been together. Not from all of them, but enough that it affects me and my own interest in running a game. And with my plan to introduce a new setting/game that I consider to be my most personal and immersive campaign ever, these concerns make me think that this is not the right time or group to do so.

Am I alone in noticing this trend in gamers, especially younger ones? Is this a singular phenomenon or has this affected your own games as well? I’d really like to diagnose this affliction and see what might be done to address it.


Timeshadows said...

Michael, as I have spent most of my time GMing, I can say that the percentage of players who ask meaningful questions and continue to follow leads has been minimal in my experience, too. Not just now, but for thirty years.

As a player, I have been scowled at by my GM and fellow players for asking, 'too many questions'. It seems that many folks simply desire to hear of a thing to do and then set out to do it.

> shrug < Different strokes, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Interesting observation, and I think you are on to something. I've noticed that in our Scales of War campaign, we completely stopped asking questions. This was a game with five players, one of whom was under 15 the others who were over 30. Interestingly the under 15 year old asked the most questions.

I believe it is related to the amount of sedentary entertainment that we consume. We expect stories to be told to us either in video games, movies, or on Facebook.

dragolite said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Curtis said...

I don't want to come off like "You're doing it wrong" and I completely understand that some folks will never get involved in a game past the minimum amount needed to play, but it just seems that there is more apathy to the setting now than I remember from the past. It's possible this is all rose-colored glasses or that I was truly blessed with my old groups. That's why I was asking this question...and hopefully initiating some changes in how to interact with the campaign world--no matter who is running it.

Taketoshi said...

Michael, I started a supers game last night after my last campaign ended a couple of weeks ago, and I was surprised to find that my players avoided leads that might provide them with important (potentially life-saving) information even when it was tossed right at them.

Out of seven players at the table, only ONE moved to investigate the presumed residence of the villain in the adventure while he was out terrorizing folks--as a result, when they rushed headlong into the fight against him they didn't know the first thing about his abilities.

Literally--they had theories about his abilities but not the first bit of knowledge about what he might do. Every single thing he did during the fight caught them by surprise, all because they didn't want to spend ten or fifteen minutes of game time investigating and instead figured "we were told this bad guy is there--obviously we need to go fight him!"

It's a little embarrassing and also frustrating as a GM.

dragolite said...

I know what you mean. In fact several of my players have been "screwed over" by this lack of questioning.

Yet, it is something that I have noticed and I will try and bring it up to my players.

Good post.

-C said...

I've been talking about this - my last post covers it in depth.

The consensus is, YES, players are less creative.

Spawn of Endra said...

Maybe you could expose your players to Rients's 20 questions (or a sample of them) to get them to think about what else there is to know about the game world. I'm saying that you answer the questions for them, just give them the questions to ponder.

Anonymous said...

What might be done to address the problem? May I suggest informing the players upfront that in your game asking questions and investigating options before leaping into a dungeon is a very good idea? If all you are giving them are answers like "no" of course they will take that to mean it is a dead-end for them. How about something like "No, but someone in town might"?

I am stumped as to why you know this is a problem but have not taken it up with the players... clearly they do not know to ask questions (maybe they never read all those DRagon magazines you did.) I realize you think it's a shame and an example of bad play - I agree with you. But the answer is plain as day: let them know up-front what kind of game you run, and the things they must consider doing to be successful.

Michael Curtis said...

I have taken it up with the players and stated that asking questions will be reward. Hell, I even make it a point to reward players with in-game bonuses if they contribute to building the shared world. This is apparently slow to sink in which leads to much frustration after a year and a half. That's why I posted this. I wanted to see if it was indicative of a larger problem than my own table.

The Iron Goat said...

A lot of players just want to get to the part where they get to roll dice. They assume you will lead them there and that the challenges will be balanced to their characters. They get irritated if you are (in their eyes) screwing around and making the game drag by questioning what color the draperies are or what's in the soup.

Not sure if this type of player is more prevalent now than when I was a kid. It's just a player type.

John Harper Brinegar said...

The Iron Goat is onto something here. The baseline assumption in 3e D&D is that every challenge offered to the players is balanced for their level; that's why the monsters have challenge ratings and why the 3e DMG can state that characters ought to level up every four adventures. Players used to that assumption wouldn't feel the need to ask questions, since they'd already know that they could handle anything the DM would offer them.

Timeshadows's comment also matched my experience: lots of people I've played with over thirty years have been allergic to questions. So it's a perennial tendency exacerbated to some degree by newer editions of D&D.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for explaining... I think it could be a larger problem than your table then, Michael.

I have a similar situation in my games, but my players are not youngsters, so it is not necessarily indicative of the newer generation. I also don't see it as a problem, per se.

It seems to me it is a combination of A) "D&D is just a game", not a game of survival tactics that needs to be deeply thought out, but something to provide amusement; and B) lack of exposure to that kind of idea to begin with.

I can tell you that one player (my age, in his 30's) has likely never seen D&D played that way, and another player (who played since the original boxed set) used to always play that way, and she does exhibit a bit more of that survival instinct, but not a whole lot more.

I think they are just more mellow about it all, and don't especially CARE if they don't survive, as long as it was fun. I am not a lethal DM, but they know I will pull no punches, will not fudge dice rolls, etc. Our (player originated) motto regarding PCs is taken from Ivan Drago in Rocky IV: "If he dies, he dies!" :)

K. Bailey said...

Sometimes the group just wants to go on auto-pilot because they're unfocussed or tired or whatever.

Sometimes they are sick of arbitrary obstacles, and so they stumble ahead blind almost as a protest.

Sometimes there's simply no leader among the players.

Sometimes they think they are being good players by not trying to hog the DM's attention with dumb questions.

Sometimes they are just used to railroads, or other games where they are trundled along automatically to places where they strike dramatic poses, instead of exploring and investigating.

Sometimes they got burnt the last time they asked questions. Maybe by you, maybe by a bad DM years ago.

Sometimes they are intimidated.

Sometimes they know there's a "right" way to do it and they reject it because it's like having to talk to everyone in the village before you get the quest. They don't want to do it the boring expected way. They just want to get to the action and hate that other stuff.

Anonymous said...

I think playing in a D&D game (or any tabletop RPG) is a different experience from playing computer RPGs. It requires a different player skill set and different player interactions.

In a CRPG (which is really more of a Story Completion Game, though that doesn't detract from the fun you can have with them) your character has specific ways of interacting with the world. Try playing Morrowind and see if you can cut a rope strung between two posts as a fence and use it to tie up a monster. Nope? That's because the rope is a static object and was never meant to be interacted with except as a minor barrier and visual cue to tell you where the road is.

Also, CRPGs, most of which are grand-daughters of D&D, have lost some of the old game while keeping other parts. For example, in Neverwinter Nights, you can find traps and secret doors (with mods) by putting on your Search skill and walking slowly. In that game, there are no random encounters, so walking slowly isn't a problem. You can also rest anytime you like to completely fill your HP bar and get spells back. But in D&D, spending all that time results in the game world punishing you by giving random encounters that give little EXP and no loot. That's just one example of a system that breaks, making no sense in the CRPG, because the CRPG took only certain rules and left the rest.

What this all comes back to is the list of tabletop player skills that are not required by CRPG players. Since most new players have played a CRPG and feel they are successful at them, they bring their well-honed CRPG player skills to the table and wonder why they don't work - or the DM is a CRPG player at heart and doesn't demand tabletop player skills from the players. It's not a matter of being a "bad player", it's a player of a different kind of game. It's like asking a basketball player to be as good at golf.

Frotz Self said...

I don't think your table is the only one with this problem, unfortunately. Like Timeshadows, I've been playing and DMing for a long time and there are few players who are invested enough in the game to do more than look for the next "quest bang". I think it's more prevalent now than ever, with nearly every player constrained in some way because of limited imagination or understanding. It might be that the player cannot think beyond his character sheet (with the sum total of what his character knows encoded in skill checks), or that a player just expects or wants the DM to gloss over things until the next big fight. I'm currently playing with a newish DM who wanted to try out a sandboxy game, and she's frustrated at the lack of independent thought that passes for game play. I've ended up doing a few sessions one on one with the DM to get my unending questions answered, and am trying to get the one other player who's invested in the game to realize that the combat stats for his character are not the limit for what he can do in-game. This poor guy wants to explore, but he honestly doesn't know how to do anything in-game if it's not printed on his sheet. It's pretty disheartening for the DM, as her group of players essentially want her to tell them which button to press to move on in "the story".

Red said...

Completely right on. Even when I encouraged a player go to the library, he didn't follow up on any of the clues. When told that a magical mace used by a famous cleric of the previous generation was now an heirloom to a noble family, he didn't ask WHICH family. He would have found out it was one he'd already met and done favors for....

"If you didn’t think of checking the tavern for one-armed men,
consider it a comment on your skill as a player."
Matt Finch, Old School Primer

Anonymous said...

It's called Baby Bird syndrome, and it's been around since I started DMing, players want to kick in the door, kill the monster, and get the magic sword. No one really role plays, 3rd edition just made the game more PC friendly. Less chance of characters dying, even if they really mess up.

Wordman said...

Give one of the players "magic glasses" that makes frigging yellow question marks appear to float above the heads of NPCs that might be useful to them. Once they get used to the idea that NPCs might actually be useful to them (instead of say, sending them out to gather a dozen vulture gizzards or whatever), have a fireball or something break the glasses.

robertjparker said...

This has nothing to do with the edition of the game. As a DM of 18 years, I have seen this issue with players using a variety of system. Certain players love to explore the world that they're a part of while others have less of an investment in doing so.

At the heart of your problem is that your players haven't developed play skill. Notice that I use the word 'skill', because it is something that is developed with practice. Some new players will come into the game with a talent for this sort of thing, but others will be need to be trained.

The method for training your players is relatively simple, and it comes down to incentivizing creative innovation and exploration. Rewarding those players who employ skill is an important facet of training, but ultimately it comes down to brutally punishing those who fail to do so.

In my experience, the game that best trains players is Call of Cthulhu. The odds are stacked so high against players, and the reliability of their skills is so low, that they're forced to engage in investigation and creative problem solving to have any chance of successfully completing the scenario. It may help to put your campaign on hiatus and run them through a few sessions of CoC, which should get them into the mood for exploring their options before leaping in head first.

Finally, some players are 'lumps', and will steadfastly refuse to develop their skills. In my experience, about one third of total players are lumps, which means you're going to end up with one or two at any table. If you're looking at a higher ratio than that, you may want to start seeking new players. Before you do, however, I would strongly encourage you to determine which players simply have not developed their skills and which are true 'lumps'.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I don't think players personalities have changed that much over the years, but I do think it's getting harder to find people who are willing to play older versions of D&D. So I wouldn't be too hard on them, otherwise you might have nobody at your table to play with,

HDA said...

I have noticed this as well, and when a player comes in who asks lots of pointed questions, play can change dramatically (especially if he is the only one in a group of non-questioners). I find it extremely frustrating when the PCs just bumble along, tripping over everything and expecting to survive based on die rolls alone. Surely this is the definition of "new school play"?

Anonymous said...

This seems like a major barrier to sandbox play.

I'm curious though, if players are learning their skills from computer RPGs, has the nature of these games changed so much that they no longer reward discretion or investigation?

The early exploration-style games I grew up playing demanded that you search every room to find the "keys" that might open the "locks" or solve the puzzles in other rooms, often led you to the lock before the key, and necessitated drawing your own map if you ever hoped to find your way around. And this wasn't just the seemingly homebrewed games that got passed around on "back-up copy" 5 1/4 inch floppies. Even "Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Woods" and "Mickey Mouse in the Solar System" demanded these kinds of skills if you were ever going to get anywhere besides lost and starting over.

Even Super Metroid on the Super Nintendo forced you to explore on your own, supplement your own exploration by finding maps, think creatively to figure out how to get from one room to the next, manage your resources so you didn't run out of "keys" to get through all the locked doors, run away when you're about to die, and get somewhere safe before you could heal. It also let you encounter areas that you were guaranteed to die in long before you had the tools you needed to survive there. Any door you could open might lead to a room that would kill you, any room that didn't seem to have a door might have one hidden in some way, and anyplace you had been once was worth going back once you had some better equipment.

Even Legend of Zelda, for goodness sakes, let you get into dungeons where you were guaranteed to die, unless you figured that out quickly, and went looking for one you could actually clear. Even freaking Mega Man demanded that you discern which of its unordered levels you ought to try first, and which order you'd have to fight the bosses in order to have any chance of defeating them.

Are today's computer games really so much more linear that they don't teach any of these skills?

Anonymous said...

I've seen this all too often, and it gets tiring training people who, generally, don't want to be trained.

My best solution has been finding players who already play the way I like. I run short games and invite a broad group of players, spot the people who latch on and are keen and enthusiastic, and then skim them off into another, long term group of like-minded people I can enjoy running for, rather than beating my head against the wall. Everyone has more fun, and I don't end up burning out engaging in the RPG version of the task of Sisyphus!

Good luck.