My Players Are Dumber Than Yours

In this Thursday’s bonus blog we discuss PCs and their inability to make good decisions:

How do you steer players away from a less than optimum choice for their PCs? My example players were following clues & best choice would have been to sneak around and gather information instead they rushed in and made things more difficult for themselves, and made it difficult for them to gather more information, which they knew ahead of time was their primary goal.

B. Lynn

I am endlessly amazing by how often players make decisions that seem just plain stupid.  For a long time I viewed this as their problem.  Obviously I was dealing with subhumans that were incapable of deciphering all the great hints and tips I was dropping for them.  They couldn’t read between the lines, they had no basic understanding of investigation techniques, and in addition to this, they simply could not listen.

I seethed in my anger and frustration and allowed many a valiant PC to fail miserably in their tasks, if not die outright.  When my players seemed to be failing as much as they succeeded, and when PCs ended up dead every other week, I decided maybe the problem wasn’t them.  Maybe it was a two way street.  Maybe we needed group therapy to improve our communication skills.

After some trial and error, I started to realize that there is a fine line between too much and too little information, and that sweet spot in between is the only place where players make good decisions and still have fun.  Often what I thought was an obvious clue, meant nothing to the players.  It’s easy to think we’re giving away too much info when we have so much more than the PCs do.  If they know nothing of their current situation, other than that some random person is dead, should they really know that the blue scrap of fabric they found is supposed to point them in the direction of the city guard, whose uniform you described last week?  Are they really meant to pay attention and keep notes on the minute details of every person and place we describe?

More often than not, I’ve found that I need to give more information and more clues than I naturally assume.  In the above example, I would instead describe the blue piece of fabric as seeming familiar, so they at least know they’ve seen it before.  It can feel strange at first, it might seem like you’re giving away too much, but your players will thank you for it, and adventures will move in the right direction instead of dead-ending, or erupting into mayhem.

That being said, we can never completely predict the behavior of a group of people with 100% accuracy.  There are too many variables to take into account, and inevitably the group will make a decision that still baffles our mind.  In these situations there are 3 basic things I will do to help steer them in the right direction:

  1. Call for random skill checks
  2. Have everybody roll Gather Information
  3. Look around vaguely and scratch my head until someone changes their mind

The first technique, calling for random skill checks can be useful when they’re missing some important information.  I’ll have them make a Spot or Listen check, or something along those lines, and reveal the missing item or clue to them.

Say they were supposed to find a key in the basement, and they’re searching around in the upstairs library, and there’s no way to move forward with the adventure without the key.  If I see no hope of them returning to the basement without urging from me, I’ll call for a Spot check, and lo and behold! Their PC spots something shiny out of the corner of their eye at the top of a bookshelf. The key wasn’t supposed to be there, but only I know that.

The second technique: having everyone make a Gather Information check, I use when they have all the information but just aren’t putting 2 and 2 together.  Sometimes you give them all the information you can and they still don’t get it.  They know they have something, but they just don’t know what.  Having them roll Gather Information is a good solution for me, especially when a player has a PC that is clearly more intelligent than they are.  There’s always that player who couldn’t have more than an 8 or a 9 in Intelligence, but is playing a PC with an 18 Intelligence.  It makes good sense that his or her PC should have insights that the player doesn’t.

If the skill check is successful I won’t outright tell them what to do, but I will string everything together for them in a way that will hopefully make something click.  Sometimes I will even do this a few times as the players work things out amongst themselves.  I will also play the internal dialogue of the player who had the highest skill check.  If we go back to the guard’s blue fabric example, I might say things like, “No, that doesn’t seem right to Rupert.  He seems to remember having seen the fabric just yesterday.”

The final technique, looking about vaguely and scratching my head, is always a last ditch effort.  It’s what I do when all else fails and the PCs seem bent on failure.  Generally hesitation from me clues the players in on the fact that something is wrong without me needing to say anything.  If, in fact, it does not clue them in, well then I’ve done pretty much everything I can do to help them.  At that point, it’s their own damn fault if they screw up, and I will watch them die guilt-free.

Love and Rainbows,
The Dungeon Master

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4 Responses to My Players Are Dumber Than Yours

  1. Ask the DM says:

    Thanks for the comment! I definitely agree with what you’re saying. I think my ideas are more focused around when players just don’t choose to have their characters do something. I’m a big fan of “story over dice”, but if I expect the group to search a room and they just move on and don’t do it, either I failed as a DM or they just missed the point. It’s when things like that happen that I resort to a lot of the techniques above, but I will almost never have a PC miss out on something important just because their roll sucked. I love the randomness of the dice, but only to a point. Character and story trump all.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Right – in cases like that you have the option of re-shuffling the story so that discovery is ahead of them again, or accept that this story is over and move on to the next thing.

      Of course, if they do that enough the next thing might be 6 weeks of walking in a desert.

  2. Runeslinger says:

    Good points on the effect of perspective on the relevance of clues. This is a hard skill to keep sharp – it shifts and changes with each group and game, I find. My mechwarrior group is wrestling with this right now (me included) as we are having the first mech battle of the campaign and the players are having to adjust to not running the game as a wargame, but through the eyes of their characters. My hope is that by the end of the battle we will have found the sweet-spot you mention where I am giving them enough information to be satisfied with the soundness of their decisions, without breaking the in-universe rules, or killing the development of tension and story. It’s a very fine line.

    I like your second point as well, and use that a lot myself. I refer to it as the ‘pointed recap’ and use it somewhat like the “Last week on Firefly” pre-credit teaser to tell them what they already know and see what sticks. I think, as you evocatively demonstrate in the blue shirt example, avoiding this sort of thing places an unrealistic burden on the players to remember details out of context for extended periods of time.

    I am not a big fan of technique number one, and although I used it heavily when I was first learning to write mysteries and was building the skills I wanted in order to run Call of Cthulhu the way I felt it needed to be run in order to facilitate long-term play (back in the 80s!) I found that a saner principle that not only kept things moving, but let the players focus on working with the environment rather than fighting the dice was to weave their discovery of the all-important clues into the scene description and root that success in their actual traits and skill sets. If the story in which I wish to engage the players requires certain things to be discovered at certain stages in order to give the characters a crack at applying their talents to the larger problem, it is hypocritical of me to deny them that based on a die-roll. This idea of how to deal with the ‘important clue’ problem grew into the basic theme behind how investigation works in Gumshoe.

    I think, from the point of view of efficiency, and truth in the game world, that rather than changing the facts to suit unfavorable rolls of the dice to keep a story moving, it is more efficient to either go entirely with the dice and let the players fail, or to assume that certain key clues will be uncovered by them by the nature of their characters and established history and base the progression of the tale around that.

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