Perception Checks

After reading It’s a Trap! To Roll or Not To Roll? and The Perception Check of OD&D, both popping up in my feed yesterday, I considered my own use of perception checks. I tend to give anything from 0e attention with the assumption there was purpose and proven utility, I don’t tend to shoot for doing things the old school way as an end to themselves. The various, overlapping rules about detection are too numerous and complex for my aims.

I’m inclined to respond to actions about specific perceptive activity with an automatic success, especially if clues were followed. I always want that moment when the player offers a theory and moves directly to a discovery. The reward for this clever play is immediate satisfaction.

For hidden items that might be noticed passively, the difficulty ought to be figured during preparation. It’s easy to rate the challenge with a target at the same time it’s being written into the room notes. It’s also easy to note the intent that a passive check be made.

Non-obvious features of an area can be built into a table similar to a set of rumors that appears at the beginning of modules. These can be delivered in order or randomly. They can be granted by passive checks, or 10-minute searches. Contrary to rumors, hidden information about a room organized this way should be true, but it can be trivial and therefore valuable only in mood-setting.

I like the idea of combining both INT and WIS bonuses to represent how intelligence and intuition might work together or against each other in stumbling into noticing something. That leads me towards setting a DC rather than using a d6 mechanic. To factor in certain racial bonuses, such as a dwarf noticing a sloping passage, a 1 in 6 bonus can easily transfer to +3 on a d20.

I can appreciate the idea about letting players roll as a way to deflect disappointment towards the roll of the dice. It’s also necessary to roll behind the screen even when there’s no chance of success so as to leave some doubt, and therefore the option to spend another 10 minutes searching. The proposition of a wandering monster is enough to make the decision interesting.

One Dice Six

Table I from Dungeon Master’s Guide Appendix A

It’s common for role-playing rules to include tables for generating complex results, similar to the image to the right from the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for generating dungeon maps. The user is meant to roll a twenty-sided dice and find a matching row from the first column. A roll of 4 matches the range of 3-5, indicates a door in the random dungeon and directs the user to Table II.

Automating the results with code provides two advantages over manually rolling. In the moment, at the table, it can be quite dramatic to click once and see a result. The other advantage is being able to rapidly re-roll and pick suitable results, such as when working on a new adventure and riffing on random results.

Effects of Reading an Elven Diary

While exploring elven catacombs, the characters in my game found a diary in a magic box they pulled from a sarcophagus. The box was 12-sided with no obvious hinges, only a finger-sized hole. Fortunately, they did not try bashing it open–it would have delivered a lightning bolt. Instead, one of the elves stuck his finger in the hole and it opened.

Inside, they found the diary, which will dribble out lore about how the ancient elves worshiped demons and buried their dead in caves. Two of the party are elves and will have no trouble reading the diary. The humans, the dwarf or the halfling will find reading the diary produces subtle, unwanted results.

  1. Age one year. This will be particularly inconvenient for humans who might read through all the pages and die of old age.
  2. Ears grow into points. Acquire the elven resistance to surprise.
  3. Shed 10lbs and generally become slimmer and elven of build. Return to normal over the course of a year.
  4. All facial hair falls out, particularly odious for the dwarf.
  5. Crave leaves. Suffer 1d4 damage each day for a week until leaves are eaten. During this time, no other food is necessary.
  6. An intense feeling of heat compels the removal of clothes for a week. A fighter will find himself undefended while wearing only a loincloth. +1 for any temperature-related saving throw.

While reading the first few passages of the diary, a non-elf will experience the ideas as attempting to squeeze into a too-small garment or swinging an ogre-sized club.

Session Format for D&D

Following from my setting of expectations, I outlined a session format to remind our crew every session of expectations as well as the necessary preparations and wrap-up activities. That format is as follows.

  1. Open the initiative tracker on my own screen and the one viewable by everyone at the table. Also open up browser tabs for audio enhancements.
  2. Ask everyone if they are well-fed and have a beverage at hand.
  3. Speak an invocation that reinforces expectations.
  4. Recount previous events.
  5. Ask for the next action.
  6. Play.
  7. Distribute loot and experience.
  8. Ask when will we play next?

Here’s some color on those steps.

The initiative tracker is a Google spreadsheet with tabs for tracking initiative, loot and monsters killed. The initiative tab stays up on a screen near the table that anyone can view. A macro rolls initiative for everyone the party and for the foes. This makes combat go faster than if we were rolling dice.

At times, our younger players come to the table having skipped dinner. They may suddenly feel thirsty or hungry. Emphasizing the need to feed the body ahead of playing cuts down on interruptions.

I’ve been using a short rundown of expectations that I think of as an invocation. The players have heard it enough to being to memorize it. To add even more flavor, I recently created a poetic version, which follows.

Hokus pokus, all will focus. The game begins within this locus.
Let be no outside insult heard. Amuse us with your avatar’s word.
Without delay we make our call, clearly stated to one and all.
“Know yourself” is our creed. “Accept your fate,” fail or succeed.
Remind us once. Remind us twice. Ignore us should that not suffice.
Those not true will not be held. By sworn oath shall they be expelled.
Now we begin the one, true game. We call on spirits name by name.
We call on Gygax! We call on Arneson! We head for dungeons to slay their dragons!
Huzzah!

Empty Z Session Invocation II

The invocation done, I ask for a recap of the last session. Players who missed the last session need to be caught up. Some players may have forgotten what happened. Having a log of session events, which I prepare and publish on emptyz.com, serves as a handy reference. Immediately after, I might reveal new events that happened since play stopped last.

And then I ask the players what they want to do next. Play begins and continues for approximately 3 hours. When it ends, we look at the tabs in the tracker for monsters killed. It sums experience points and divides up by party size. Similarly, we review loot found and the players decide who gets which loot. As players head out the door, we may discuss availability for the coming week.

Setting Expectations at the D&D Table

I’ve been a professional programmer for more than 25 years. Most of those years my job titles have included words such as president or chief or officer. Long before that, I was one of the employees trusted with opening and closing the local Software, Etc. I’m also a father of two boys, now teenagers. I have significant years of experience managing people and systems.

I did not have the specific experience of managing a table full of pre-teens playing D&D for the first time when we started playing in May 2017. Sometimes the chaos churned out a half an hour of fart jokes. At its worst, it led to players leaving with hurt feelings. The typical struggle has been about focus. Dragging attention back to the game, away from phones or silly side conversations, produces annoying gripes from the adults.

It was a classic case of unspoken expectations. I addressed this with a short list of expectations that I now review at the beginning of every session as part of a session format that I’ll discuss later. I present the expectations that follow as commandments for maximum evocativeness.

Focus on the Game

We get to play once a week if we’re lucky. We all have other commitments. Many other pastimes of various worth (reading Reddit, eating candy, teasing each other) can be done almost any time. We only get to play D&D for this particular three hours.

Know Your Character

Certain aspects of the player character are clearly written on the character sheet or in the rules. It wastes time to mindlessly roll a 20-sided and then ask the table whether you hit. You should know your Attack Bonus. The DM has already told you the Armor Class. Likewise, if you wonder how many hit points are restored by the Cure Light Wounds spell, look it up well before you cast it.

Decide Without Delay

The flow of the game cannot halt for a player to slowly cogitate over the best next action. There is plenty of time when focus of the game is on other players. When your turn arrives, you should be ready to make your move or we will move on.

Communicate Clearly

Precision matters when describing character action. Leaving out details requires the DM to make assumptions. At its worst, lack of clarity is a tool used by players to test actions and yank them back as the consequences play out. You may not revise the marching order after the DM asks the lead character to make a saving throw avoid falling in a pit.

Accept Rulings

While there is a some room to question results, generally the rulings of the DM should be accepted without argument. Fine points of spell effects might be missed, but forward progress of the game is more important than be technically correct with every encounter.

Entertain In-Game

We gather to have fun in the context of the game. Jokes made in-character increase immersion in the game world and provide opportunities for the emergent story to advance. Conversation unrelated to the game represents an interruption of play.

Remind, Ignore, Expel

When expectations are violated, we first remind the player of the expectation, perhaps a second or third time. After it’s clear the player is failing to honor expectations, we ignore the player. Ridiculous suggestions may meet silence. Turns may be skipped. This lack of attention from the rest of the players can turn the play back to the game. In the most extreme cases, a player will be asked to leave. Rarely, a player asked if he’d like to go home will accept and the game moves on.

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