The Imperfect Anti-Metagaming Mental Firewall

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To a large extent, I’m convinced by the Angry GM’s argument about metagaming: that, for the most part, it’s a non-issue that gamers shouldn’t get so worked up about.

He specifies two types of tabletop metagaming that I think of as genre knowledge and spectator knowledge. The former is stuff you know because you’ve read the rules or played the game before (or are just genre-savvy to this type of story), but your character hasn’t justified knowing. The latter is stuff you observed by spectating at the table, but your character wasn’t actually there when it happened.

Genre knowledge is pretty easy to solve. You can assume something patently obvious like standard monster weaknesses is common enough knowledge in the world for players to exploit: if these monsters exist in the world, folk tales will have prepared virtually everyone for how to deal with them, even if they’ve never had to fight them. Or, you can do the work to change things up enough that things work differently (but consistently) in your world. As long as the change-up is actually something that makes sense in world (and, ideally, something they could have figured out by paying more attention to the lore you were dropping) and not something you changed on the fly to avoid standard player knowledge, your players are likely to be pretty accepting.

Spectator knowledge is harder to universally handle. As Angry points out, oftentimes the problem is that someone is violating the social contract that other people at the table thought they were signing up for. If the rest of the party was spectating out of game while the rogue was sneaking off to donate her cut of the loot to orphans, but not telling her friends to maintain her hard-as-nails reputation, it wouldn’t be an issue. It’s when the rogue is stealing from the party that it becomes a problem.

But even when it’s not just one of the players being a jerk (almost always the rogue), this kind of thing tends to happen because GMs love their semi-PvP secrets. Being tempted by evil is a relevant genre trope, after all, and it’s hard to really build it up if the rest of the target’s friends are like, “Yo, dude, don’t betray us,” from the start. Part of the issue might be solved by just getting buy-in up front that this is a semi-PvP game, where betrayals might happen, and generating a reason for the party to stay together even if they’re suspicious of one another. Another solution is to just fully embrace the cloak-and-dagger nature of it and pass notes, converse between games, or pull one player out of the room for a discussion. When it’s totally information from the GM that the other players shouldn’t know, it’s generally easier to actually prevent players or characters from learning it rather than letting them spectate and hoping they firewall the knowledge.

Because nobody is a good enough player to totally firewall out-of-game knowledge.

I’ve been thinking about this because, as big a problem as it can be in certain tabletop games, it’s a much bigger problem in LARPs. Even LARPs that are primarily story-based games where the player base is cooperating against NPC threats tend to feature two major areas of spectator creep: NPC shifts and player OOC bleed.

NPC shifts are a problem due to limited staffing. Most boffer LARPs I’ve played have a pretty low ratio of staff to players. In the current game I’m playing, it’s often 4:1 or worse, depending on how many people can be convinced to show up for the weekend just to play NPCs. In order to do big fights where the NPCs aren’t significantly outnumbered by PCs, or just to give staff a break throughout the day, players are expected to have an NPC shift where they stop playing their PCs for a while and report to monster town to just act as an NPC for a couple hours. Often, you get sent out as “crunchies:” simple monsters for the players to fight. Others, you actually get tagged in to play a roleplay NPC, and may need to see parts of the plot and/or other PCs’ backstories to portray the NPC correctly. In either case you can learn things your PC has no way to know, due to hearing exact monster traits, learning stuff you need to portray the NPC, or just being around monster town and overhearing/seeing other things staff is sending out.

OOC bleed is a problem because players talk to each other between games, or because sometimes you have to use your imagination. Is the player doing some kind of PvP activity, getting up to something that the other players wouldn’t approve of that’s been handled secretly in game so nobody outside of staff has seen it? What happens when a drunken goobing about the game causes the player to accidentally drop the secret? Is the PC using some kind of impenetrable magical disguise? How do you handle the fact that you’re really just looking at obviously the same person, but they’re telling you to imagine that they look totally different? (This last is also a problem with any game that allows invisibility and you have to pretend someone isn’t standing there with arms crossed over their chest.)

This is a problem not just because your firewall is imperfect. If you know something that you shouldn’t know in game, suddenly you have a huge piece of the puzzle to use as an incentive to figure out the information “in-play,” laundering your out-of-game knowledge into character knowledge.

The bigger problem, to my mind, is that player investigative ability is like butterfly wings: as soon as it’s tainted by out-of-game knowledge, it makes it impossible to fly. When I learn a secret from someone who was drunk and shouldn’t have told me or from an NPC briefing, I can now never know if I would have figured it out totally in-play because that person was acting suspiciously or I otherwise put clues together. If someone is under an illusion and I’m having to pretend to be affected by it, I have no idea if I’d have figured out what was going on through context clues if what I’m imagining I’m seeing was what I was actually seeing.

I actually think people laundering out-of-play knowledge in-play is a smaller problem compared to any out-of-play knowledge suddenly making all your in-play deductions suspect. Maybe it’s because figuring out mysteries in games is one of my particular biggest pleasures from roleplaying. It feels like someone is saying, “Here is the answer. Because I have told you out-of-play, you can never figure it out in-play. That would be cheating.”

In tabletop, where the GM controls nearly all the flow of perception and information, this is a solvable problem. In LARP, it’s much harder, and I’m not sure there’s a viable solution. Never using PCs to do a monster shift is a huge burden on the staff. Trusting players to never slip with their secrets out-of-play is virtually impossible for years-long games.

And no one ever really has the same secret conversation they were going to have when they get walked up on by someone they have to pretend they don’t know is there.

Borrowing from Video Games: Pathfinder Kingmaker’s Plotline Knitting

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It took me a long time to finally get around to playing the video game version of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I ran the adventure path all the way through a few years ago, so I felt like I’d be totally spoiled for the game (on top of other reasons, like not having the time for a hundred-hour mega adventure; seriously, how did they get this much content into a Kickstarter-funded game?).

I was right that I’m pretty spoiled on the plot beats, since it sticks close to the original adventure path for overall structure. But the interesting thing is watching how the writers of the video game wove the plot of the AP into a more coherent narrative. This pleasure is almost certainly enhanced for people that already played or ran the tabletop version, and know how it went originally.

The nature of Paizo’s writing pipeline is that each adventure path is given to six (or more) different writers to generate. In order to give each writer as much time as possible, the broad outline of the campaign is given to everyone to work on basically simultaneously, rather than, say, the writer of module 4 only starting once modules 1-3 are available to reference. Everyone knows the beats mandated in the outline, and I assume there’s some kind of during-writing conversations and then a development pass to further build everything into a whole. But it’s fair to say that individual modules don’t feel intricately linked with those around them.

Even within the same module, time crunch and trying to fill pages seems to result in elements that aren’t linked as well as they could be. In particular, I’ve long been annoyed when I find a half-page writeup on the backstory of an NPC antagonist that is just waiting in a dungeon room for the PCs to kick in the door and kill in a couple of rounds. The color is probably useful if the players actually decide to be social/take prisoners, but a lot of it is wasted prose for most tables, with no suggested way for the players to even realize there’s more information to be had.

This is not meant to especially pick on Pathfinder APs. They’re just the ones I have the most experience with. I assume other publishers often have the same issues, and if you’re running modules that aren’t linked into an AP, you have zero official connection between adventures.

The video game version fixes a lot of these problems. The central antagonist is introduced very early (and is obviously behind most of the other major problems), and secondary antagonists get similar treatment. Characters that were kick-in-the-door speedbumps before get linked in so you actually know who you’re fighting (in particular, a weird one-off evil kobold from the first module becomes a recurring foil who also introduces the enemy kingdom from module 5). The barbarian tribe that shows up out of nowhere in the book for module 4 is foreshadowed early in the video game and is heavily involved in the resolution of the previous major arc before you have to take them on. It’s clever.

Obviously, in a perfect world when you spend over a $100 on a campaign, it will do all of this heavy lifting for you. But here are some methods you can use to better link together modules you’ve purchased (or even a campaign you’ve written yourself).

Meet Your Antagonists

It’s really easy to make your players hate an NPC (it’s much harder to make them like an NPC). The bad guy just needs to show up and be mean to/betray the PCs. Bonus vengeance for slightly inconveniencing them in getting something they want.

The more and earlier the villains can be on screen, actually interacting with the PCs, the better. Text props and under bosses referring to the villain are better than nothing, but aren’t the same as getting to be snide to each other.

Most late-campaign boss enemies will have some kind of powers to justify getting to talk to the PCs and escape (dream projection, illusion projection, contingency teleportation, hospitality, etc.). It’s often a bigger trick to explain why the boss doesn’t pick off the PCs while they’re low-level.

If you can show enough of the villain’s backstory in these conversations to make the players think of them as fully developed characters rather than just obstacles, so much the better.

Conservation of Characters

There are really only so many kinds of NPCs. In the broadest sense, you can probably think of them as enemies, foils, bystanders, and allies. Each module is going to invent a lot of NPCs. They don’t know your table, so even if they had the earlier modules done to reference, the writer of the module will often invent a new NPC rather than risking that you’ve already killed off an earlier one.

You can merge these characters.

Go through and find characters that perform similar roles for the PCs (or even different roles: evolve a module 1 bystander into a module 2 helper who betrays them by module 4 to become a foil or enemy). It’s especially good if there are a couple of things you like about the NPCs but otherwise you’re not excited about them: shove all the character bits you liked from each of them into one significantly more interesting character.

Obviously don’t give the NPC so many threads that they’re going to feel too important/actually be too important for the PCs to kill off, because the players aren’t going to like being overshadowed. But if you do it right, you’ll have more fun playing the NPC and the players will get a recurring character to interact with.

Personal Rather than Generic

Since the Kingmaker video game was filling out your party with pre-written characters (rather than all player-written PCs), it could do something that published module series without pregens can’t do: make the plot hooks personal for the protagonists. It’s not just a barbarian tribe, it’s a tribe that the barbarian PC was exiled from. It’s not just an ancient artifact, it’s an artifact that a PC is searching for. It’s not just a dwarven fortress, it’s a fortress that the dwarf PC has a conflicted relationship with.

The more you learn about your PCs, the more you can do the same thing. Don’t be afraid to steal plot hooks from the NPCs and give them to your PCs.

Is there an NPC looking to find another NPC? Could that missing NPC be a PC’s connection instead? In my Rise of the Runelords campaign, Shalelu the NPC ranger got every bit of her plots carved off and handed to the PC ranger.

Is there a cool magic item that shows up later? Can you plant rumors about it early so one of the PCs is looking for it and really excited to find it? In my Jade Regent campaign, an evil artifact that’s, by the book, just a curiosity dropped by the module 1 mini-boss became something the party cleric needed to destroy (at a location they’d be going to in module 3 anyway).

Is there an interesting group/location? Can a PC be connected to it? This one often requires the most negotiation with a player to get right, since you don’t want to just have them stumble into a village and be like, “oh, hey, by the way, this is your village.” If the player wrote an extensive backstory, you can probably rewrite something in the module until it fits while still fulfilling its story goal.

If you know what you’re doing and can work with the player early on, you can help the player expand on ideas (“You know, if you’re on the run, do you think maybe you’ve been dodging Red Mantis assassins?”). Most players are going to be happy working with you on something they know is going to be paid off later somehow. Though others may have had bad experiences, and worry that backstory spotlight is negative spotlight (e.g., “I stopped writing relatives into my backstory because GMs kept killing them off for cheap pathos or threatening them to make me do what they wanted.”).

Everything is Connected

While there’s a risk of making the world feel too small by making everything connected, there are still fun links you could make that the writers didn’t think of. One little addition for the Kingmaker video game is that the first bandit mini-boss was changed to be the estranged sister of a friendly NPC, who could explain more of the mini-boss’ backstory.

This can particularly allow you some opportunities to foreshadow things that can’t be directly tied to the PCs or shown on screen. One friendly NPC always wanted to see a legendary item. Another is worried about a relative that joined an evil cult, and can hand out rumors about that group which otherwise doesn’t show up until a later module. This incidental magic item can be identified to have a connection to a person or group that shows up later.

Ultimately, the point of this whole system is making connections, because reinforcement makes it a lot easier for your players to pick up on things. Deep linkages and recurrences are how you turn a generic published campaign from “a bunch of stuff happened, one thing after another” into a memorable story.

Games with No Perception Skills

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“Make a Perception check,” is the GM’s fallback.

I’ve played in games (particularly combat-light modern games where social skills weren’t rolled but were just roleplayed) where perception-based rolls might be the only rolls made for entire sessions. Even in D&D, where there are standards to encourage a wide range of skill checks in a session, most build guides I see encourage players to always be proficient in Perception if possible (which indicates that lots of such checks is common across all tables). The Gumshoe system basically exists to add variety and certainty to investigation genres where little is rolled besides perception skills.

We’re probably overdoing it.

I’d been thinking for years that, at the very least, perception checks needed to be more intentional, as a GM. Was I requiring rolls when I should just be giving the information? Was failing a perception check interesting? Was succeeding? Could skills that didn’t get used enough (like science and academics) be used instead of perception when investigating things? So when I decided to run Scion and realized that the game didn’t come with any attributes or skills that were used for raw perception, I was interested to finally get a chance to try out my theories.

It was very awkward.

The first thing I realized, not having a generic perception roll to call for, was that often gating information behind a skill does have a purpose.

  • In the most basic sense, there are often things in a scene that are obvious and things that are subtle, and calling for a generic perception check is a marker of the divide between the two: it lets you break up a scene description rather than just narrating for an extended period (and, due to players feeling like they earned the extra description by rolling well, they’re more likely to pay attention).
  • In a more extended sense, sometimes it’s clear that there are parts of the scene description that are optional but valuable. You’re not going to break your plot by not revealing them, but giving them out may grant an advantage.
  • And in the most active sense, sometimes there are enemies that are hiding or items that have been actively hidden. Perception is a way to engage in conflict.

Now, most of this, I’m convinced, is GM training. After years of running games, the call for a perception check is a reflex. It’s instinctual. The cognitive dissonance would probably lessen after further years of not having that particular tool, requiring the development of new GMing muscles. Here are some tips for building those muscles (which might be good things to try even if you do have a perception skill to use in your game).

  • Embrace the old school mindset. Describe only the obvious in a scene. Rather than using a roll to break up information, encourage your players to ask for more details. Some information may be rewarded simply for asking (“What kinds of books are on the bookshelves?”) while others may require some kind of directed interaction (“Is one of the books a switch for a hidden door?”). None of these things even need a roll, just the players describing their characters focusing on and/or interacting with part of the environment.
  • Break narration into immediate and delayed impressions. Even without the players deliberately asking for more information, there are parts of a scene that would naturally resolve over time spent in the area. Think of your scene like downloading images on slow modem connections back in the day: first you get blobs of color like an over-stretched thumbnail, then you start getting finer details. Particularly in scenes with tension or combat, you can start with the very broad and mention more after the characters have been there for a bit. For example: “The baron’s office is done in dark woods and reds. There’s a desk, chair, a cabinet, and a couple of bookshelves, with a window onto the lawn.” “You’re starting to notice a weird smell of death in the room as you look over the cluttered top of the desk. The books are haphazardly shoved onto the shelves.” “You’re getting the impression that someone rifled through the room already, and shoved things back quickly to tidy up. The bad smell is worse by the cabinet, and some of the red on the carpet that you initially assumed was a pattern might be dried blood.”
  • Consider which skills you would use to hide the information that’s secret, and let the players roll the same skill to investigate. It takes a thief to catch a thief. Roll stealth to consider where the best places in the scene would be to hide a person/object. Roll deception to figure out the techniques you’d use to distract someone from the secret you’re trying to ferret out.
  • Allow bonus information as a reward for doing well on unrelated rolls that otherwise don’t benefit from it, or flat-out gate it behind player narrative currency. “You slide into the bedroom so silently the guards don’t notice you, and you happen to pick an approach that’s so good you notice…” “You have a sense that something else might be interesting here. Anyone want to spend a fate point to find it?”
  • Make stealth/deception the only active roll in a conflict. It’s already a problem for sneaky characters that multiple guards means an almost guaranteed chance of detection if they all get a separate roll (because the more people rolling, the more likely someone is to get an unusually high result). Set a reasonable difficulty for the check based on the situation (light/cover/number of guards for stealth or believability and stress level for deception), and if you succeed, you’re good until the situation changes. Players already have a hard time not metagaming when they know they failed an unprompted perception check. “I rolled a stealth check for the NPCs at a difficulty based on the information available to you” is just as reasonable as “I rolled your perception checks in secret.”

D&D 5e: Saving-Throw-Based Firearms

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Oh, hi, welcome back to programming. Do I have enough in the queue to maintain regular posting again for a while? Let’s find out together.

This is a short, untested idea for a conversion I was looking at from Scion to a modernized D&D 5e (I eventually went with Savage Worlds, instead, which will get some explanation in the next few weeks).

Basics of Saving-Throw-Based Firearms

Proficiency in different firearms is handled the same way as other weapon types. However, instead of making an attack roll when using a firearm, the target of the attack makes a Dexterity saving throw as if avoiding a spell. The difficulty of the saving throw is equal to 8 + [Attacker’s Dexterity Modifier] + [Attacker’s Proficiency Bonus (if proficient)]. In most cases, a successful save avoids all damage. At the weapon’s long range increment, the target gets Advantage on the save.

Cover works normally to add to saving throws (as it would against spells that require a Dexterity save). Shooting into a melee, with cover granted by the shooter’s allies, if the target successfully saves, the GM may require allies on the line of attack to save as well or take the damage.

Firearms do not add the attacker’s ability score bonus, and cannot critically hit. Modern firearms do a base of 3d4 damage for a small-caliber handgun, and increase by a die size for additional caliber and weapon size (up to two steps for each). A high-caliber modern rifle does 3d12 damage. Special effects (such as a spread) may also exchange damage for the effect.

Modern firearms damages are a little bit better than bow damage (see design notes), so keep how useful you want firearms to be in a medieval/Renaissance-level game in mind when adjusting the damage ranges.

Armor that is specifically bulletproof may add Resistance to damage from firearms.

Firearms Actions

Aiming: Use your action to aim at a target that you can see that is within your firearm’s range. If the target does not leave your range, does not leave your line of sight for more than a round, and you do not move more than five feet per round or aim at a different target, you can maintain your aim upon the target. You can use subsequent rounds’ actions to improve your aim up to three total times. Each instance of Aiming adds one more die of weapon damage (to a maximum of +3 dice of damage for aiming for three rounds; e.g., a weapon that does 3d8 does 6d8 after three rounds of aiming).

Burst: Use three times as much ammunition for the attack with a weapon that can fire automatically to add one die to the damage total.

Full Auto: Empty the clip for the attack with a weapon that can fire automatically to double the weapon’s damage total and impose disadvantage on the target’s save.

Spray: You target a cone up to the weapon’s range. All targets within the cone must save against the attack’s difficulty. Successful saves take half damage (rather than no damage), unless the target has an evasion-style ability.

Spread: Treat firearms with spread (like a shotgun) as a narrow cone or line attack. For each target hit, targets further away that are also hit take a die less damage (i.e., the pellets don’t keep going after hitting a target).

Suppression: With a gun that can fire multiple times per round (i.e., not a single shot with long reload period), spend three times as much ammunition as would normally be required for an attack in order to ready an attack against enemy targets that become available in a general direction of attack. When a target becomes available while the attack is readied, that target has Disadvantage on the save. Targets know that they will provoke an attack and will have Disadvantage (because there are bullets flying wildly in their direction).

Example Firearms

  • Small Pistol (3d4)
  • Police Pistol (3d6)
  • Heavy Pistol (3d8)
  • Slug Shotgun (3d10)
  • Shot Shotgun (3d8 , Spread)
  • Light Rifle (3d8)
  • Hunting Rifle (3d10)
  • Sniper Rifle (3d12)
  • Machine Pistol (3d4, Auto abilities)
  • Submachine Gun (3d6, Auto abilities)
  • Machine Gun (3d8, Auto abilities)
  • Heavy Machine Gun (3d10, Auto abilities)
  • Belt-Fed Stationary Machine Gun (3d12, Auto abilities)

Design Notes

This whole idea mostly comes down to the lack of a touch AC in 5e. Rather than invent an armor-piercing feature for an attack-roll-based gun that requires calculation of how much of a target’s AC is from armor, this essentially targets Dex-only. That it makes spray-based attacks use exactly the same mechanic (instead of an attack roll for single targets but a save for multiple) is a bonus.

Damage is deliberately high for the weapons because of the lack of ability bonus to damage and capacity to critically hit. Most longbow users are doing something on the order of 8-10 damage per hit, on overall average, depending on how high their ability add is (and before considering magic, feats, or other damage-increasing abilities). So a gun that did 2d8 would be more or less similar under this system (thus kicking it up a bit for modern firearms to be clearly better than bows).