Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Nothing Sacred: Separation of Concerns in Role Playing Games

“There’s some kind of weird six armed statue on the dais. It’s about four feet tall and it looks like it’s made out of some kind of metal.” This was it. The epic climax of my adventure. Half the party had died to make it this far, and a trail of bodies was strewn across three levels.

“How heavy is it? Can we carry it?” That would be Ogbar the dwarf’s player– only interested in one thing.

“You can’t tell how heavy it is just by looking at it,” I said… perhaps a bit too smugly. “I dunno, though… if it was made out of brass or something, a couple of you could haul it out of the dungeon. It’d slow you down because you’d have to stop and rest every ten minutes or so.”

“Thief! Check it for traps!” Ever since getting hit by that crossbow bolt while looking for secret doors, Flinderflaff the elf had been noticably more careful. Heh.

“Yeah, okay. I check it for traps,” said the thief’s player.

“Yeah, but how do you check it for traps,” I asked. “Describe your actions!”

“Well… I walk around it and look it over very carefully. I keep my distance, though. I don’t want to come any closer than one foot from it.”

“Okay. You see nothing special about the statue.”

“Fair enough,” said Ogbar’s player. “I’m going to sort of tip it over to see if it comes off the dais without us doing any stone work. Thufir, give me a hand with this, will ya?”

Thufi’rs player nodded in assent.

“Okay, Ogbar…. You grab the statue and give it sort of a shove… and yes, it does tip over. It doesn’t seem overly heavy. Not for you, anyway. But before Thufir can pick up the other end of it… you notice that the statue begins to glow with a dull cobalt light.” At this point, I picked up an oversized twenty-sided die and rolled it in front of everyone. It was a seven! “Huh. That’s weird. Your hands have gone numb.”

“Wait, what did you just roll? Was that a saving throw?”


“I’ve always rolled my own saving throws.”

“But, well–”

“That’s not right!”

Sometimes things happen like this that make me realize just how big of a cultural gap there is between me and some of the players in the games I run. In the first place… the rules at best govern what goes on in maybe twenty percent of what we do at the table. And secondly, most of the rules that we have are there for one reason only: so that when I say, “you’re dead,” you starting rolling up a new character instead of kicking the table over. Role playing rule sets are, if anything, a solution to the long standing cops and robbers problem. (And you do realize, of course, that if things get to the point where you’re making saving throws that it’s pretty well game over for you anyway, eh?)

Never mind, for the moment, the absolute absurdity of anybody insisting on being able to roll their own dice. Sure, it’s a courtesy of the game master to let the players to do that. And yeah, gamers love their personalized dice sets. Role players especially are superstitious as hell. But at the end of the day, the only reason you get to roll your saving throw is that it’s fun. You hold that swirly D20 in your hand and think about all the stupid stuff you’ve done in the game… and everyone is watching to see how this plays out…. It’s just stupidly fun.

But maybe there are reasons that I might want to roll something like that myself. Maybe I suspect that certain players have loaded dice or else are fudging die rolls– maybe I just want to be one hundred percent sure of this roll’s authenticity. Maybe I don’t want to go through a big production of asking a player to look something up on their sheet and rolling a die. Maybe there’s some stuff going on that I want to be more discreet about. Maybe I just want to make a real quick roll to keep the game going…. Or maybe… just maybe… you have a huge misconception about what we’re doing. Maybe we all think we’re playing this thing called “Dungeons & Dragons,” but in actuality, we’re both bringing radically difference assumptions to the table about how this works.

So… let me make myself perfectly clear…. The rules aren’t there for you and they aren’t there to protect you from me. And even if I were one of those mythological “abusive Dungeon Masters,” rules cannot afford you any protection anyway. (“Rocks fall; you die.” Q.E.D.) If the rules could protect you from me, then we wouldn’t be playing a role playing game anymore. It’d be either a straight up tactical wargame or else some kind of board game. What really holds the game together is a loosely enforced separation of concerns. The players and the referee are each responsible for different things– and the individual player and the party as a whole each have their domain as well.

With that in mind, here are ten meta-rules that take precedence over anything that is spelled out in the actual rule sets:

1) Play the game I’m running, not the game you think this is. If something goes wrong or else something doesn’t work out quite like you expected, you will feel a strong temptation to blame it on the rules. Don’t do that. You’re probably focusing on what other systems emphasize anyway.

2) Quit making rulings. Focus on imagining exactly what your character is doing. (I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a veteran player explain to a new person that they shouldn’t even try something because of their interpretation of the rules… or even because of the rules in some other edition of D&D! In a lot of cases, I would have just said, “yes” to whatever they were suggesting in order to keep the game moving and reward out-of-the-box thinking.)

3) Don’t tell other people what to do with their combat turn. Sure, there are times when the party could conceivably hash out a game plan before battle; that’s cool. But in the heat of battle, you’re just not going to have time for a full-on committee meeting. Of course, explaining a new player’s options in order to be helpful is different, but the “help” should be given in a spirit of preserving their individual autonomy.

4) Likewise, if your character is not in the same location as another party member and they’ve found something cool or dangerous… then step back and let them play it out without your interference at least until your character gets into their vicinity.

5) If you’re dead… then please just be quiet about everything the surviving party members decide. Really. Go roll up a character or something. It’s part of the suspense to slowly be losing the creative input of other players over the course of a session.

6) Some players get hung up on who knows what and which players can communicate with which other characters. For the most part, I am happy to hand wave all of this and just assume that the entire party knows everything that is discussed at the table. In an immediate situation, who knows what may matter a great deal… but after it is resolved, it’s safe to assume that the party has hashed out the ordeal even if they have to pantomime it.

7) If rules and rulings are the domain of the referee, then deciding what your character does is yours. I will not stand in your way– even if it will kill you or set the campaign on an unsustainable course. Player autonomy is sacrosanct.

8) Strategy and tactics are therefore the domain of the players. It is bad form for a referee to tell players the finer points of these things directly. Divulging “what might have been” or even slightly more efficient solutions to known problems really kills the magic of the game for some reason. (I’ve never heard anything good come of it.)

9) Death, then, is the only real way that I have to signal that your tactics aren’t effective. Sure, a lot of deaths are just stupidly random… but others are flat out your responsibility. And even the random ones are something you have to be prepared to manage. Instead of begging for more resources or more character options, try to think about what you could have done differently.

10) If I’m running a classic module that has unique monsters in it, it is an extremely bad idea to announce their true names and then start iterating through everything you can recall about them. Anything that smacks of this brazen, meta-gaming, spoiler-ridden attitude makes me want to kick the table over!

18 responses to “Nothing Sacred: Separation of Concerns in Role Playing Games

  1. shortymonster May 14, 2013 at 6:43 am

    I really don’t get the superstitions players bring to the table with regard to their dice. I see it every week from people who are in every other respect skeptical rationalists.

    Good rules though. Letting deaths happen has been on my mind after a character death very close to the end of a campaign caused by a critical failure resulting in more damage being done.

  2. RogerBW May 14, 2013 at 7:21 am

    For me, the trick in die rolling is that sometimes as GM I don’t want to say what the player’s rolling against, or what the modifiers are. (I’m currently running a Madness Dossier game with some of the GURPS cinematic options turned on, and it’s an interesting discipline for me to have to announce in advance how hard the rolls are so that players can decide whether to spend points to modify them. But I don’t intend to do that every time.)

    • PeterD May 14, 2013 at 7:50 am

      So you roll, his guy dies?

      In that case, I sympathize with the player – I’d want to roll the die. If I get to roll them other times, why not now? What I might do is hand them a die and say “roll this one, and let’s see what you get.” My players have learned that sometimes they roll for things without knowing what they’re rolling for. Even that’s extremely rare, because I trust my players and I trust their dice. But if I was playing, the GM just rolled and announced bad stuff happened to me in a situation where I normally get to make the rolls and see . . . yeah, that lots of non-fun. I figure it’s your guy, you make as many of the rolls as possible in the game. No one tells a fun gaming story that ends with “and then the GM rolled a 7 and I died.” They tell ones that end with “and then I rolled a 7, and I died!”

      I have some thoughts on #1, but they ran long so I’ll post them on my blog.

      and #10? Man, that kills me too, but I realized, that’s my problem, not theirs. If I use a classic monster, I’m as much as saying “I expect lots of you to know the exact rules for these.” In fact, I’m saying “I expect you to react to these based on what you think you know.”

      • jeffro May 14, 2013 at 8:26 am

        Yeah, I get that it’s fun. And of course, you’ll see that when things are dicey, I usually announce what my rulings are and then have the dice rolled in front of everybody. But here’s the thing… if I do something different than that, it is because in my judgement, the tone, pace, and suspense actually matter more for some reason I don’t even want to hint at. Having an argument about who gets to roll what die and when in those circumstances is *also* unfun.

        And #10? No, that monster hashing thing… for extremely old modules that have monsters that are basically unique to them… that can ruin hours upon hours of session time that is building to certain reveals. If I have to accept that “hard core gamers” are so boorish that they are unable to bite their tongues in the presence of people that are new the game or people that haven’t read every single D&D book ever written… then there’s basically no point.

        Both of these are prime examples of violating a necessary separation of concerns. They are direct attacks on the fundamentals of play. (And I mean “play” there in the broadest sense of the term. The laws of play transcend all games and all rules.)

      • RogerBW May 14, 2013 at 8:58 am

        But if I was playing, the GM just rolled and announced bad stuff happened to me in a situation where I normally get to make the rolls and see . . . yeah, that lots of non-fun.

        As a GM, it’s not something I do often… but my players have come to trust me! So I can get away with it as an occasional thing.

      • PeterD May 14, 2013 at 11:12 am

        “If I have to accept that “hard core gamers” are so boorish that they are unable to bite their tongues in the presence of people that are new the game or people that haven’t read every single D&D book ever written… then there’s basically no point.”

        Well, if you tell them you consider it boorish and it’s not acceptable and then they do it, it’s a problem. If you don’t tell them, what should the assumptions of the players be? Is it, I can use what I know and I am expected to do so, or is it, I should only use what I think my characters should know and not use meta-knowledge, or is it some specific formulation in between?

  3. Wayne May 14, 2013 at 10:18 am

    From a gameplay standpoint, players out of the game due to character death can be troublesome. Watching other people play an RPG is often dull, and unattached players can be disruptive. For that reason, I strive to keep everybody in play if possible.

    I tend to avoid “Save vs. Death” effects, replacing them with other effects. Enfeeblement, Alignment change, polymorph, sleep, paralysis, rust, grow/shrink, dispel magic… There are any number of effects that can harass charcaters without killing them.

    Even still, characters can die from combat or poor choices. In that case, I’ll have the player take over a henchman, somebody’s familiar/animal companion/summons, a prisoner the party stumbles across; anything to get the player back into play.

    • jeffro May 14, 2013 at 10:34 am

      Me, too. But if I’m reticent about any of those workarounds, I’d like the liberty to order the campaign according to what I discern it needs.

      If you die in my game, just hang tight. The rest of the party might get killed off in a few minutes. If not, they might have some say in how and when you come back into the game. And I might want to place limitations on that in order to preserve whatever I think the campaign’s integrity consists of.

      This assumption that all players will be engaged at all times and that death is (at most) a minor inconvenience is derivative of First Person Shooter scenarios. Such a presumption is not necessarily consistent with the premises of many role playing games.

      • Wayne May 14, 2013 at 11:09 am

        “death is (at most) a minor inconvenience is derivative of First Person Shooter scenarios.”

        That refers to easy resurrection, which I wasn’t suggesting.

        Coming back into play as somebody’s henchman with mediocre skills, an animal companion that can’t talk, or a prisoner with half hit points and no equipment is anything but a minor inconvenience. My players still fear death, rest assured. ;>) But lots of good roleplay comes out these inconvenient situations, and the flow of play continues without uninvolved players loitering around.

        But you’re right, there is great tradition of characters being whittled down to a few, makes for an epic dungeon adventure. I use that style more often at conventions, where the player can leave when their character is dead.

  4. Jason Packer May 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    I agree with most of what you’re saying here, almost verbatim. I would include the now well-covered point on #1 that you need to be communicative from the beginning about how you play. If you’re a fast and loose, rulings on the fly sort of guy, the players need to know that about the game. If you’re like me, and more inclined to follow the rules, even when they’re house rules, that’s another thing to make sure you cover.

    But most of what you write boils down to “Honor the GM’s authority”, “Stay in Character” and “Don’t Metagame” – all three of which I would hold as sacred.

    • jeffro May 14, 2013 at 1:31 pm

      Everything in the list was stuff I discovered in the course of play. I couldn’t have mentioned it up front if I wanted to. Fortunately, role playing is pretty robust in spite of mistakes and conflicting expectations….

  5. Jimmy Anderson May 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    First – this is one of the best blog posts you’ve written! Makes me not only want to play a role playing game but to wish I was playing in YOUR game. :-)

    I don’t think players should assume they should be able to roll. Back in the Top Secret RPG days done times I would roll to make something appear random (I think there was a Traveller module that actually instructed you to do this very thing).

    When it comes to known things, I’m fine with the player rolling. “You need to roll a 5 or less to avoid the darts…” Etc. From this though, it sounds like it wasn’t a save – just a roll. I’m good with it.

    As for number 10, you always have the option to say, “yeah, I remember that too, but are you SURE this is the same thing?” Sow the seeds of doubt. ;-)

    • jeffro May 14, 2013 at 1:27 pm

      Wow, thanks. I still feel like a total cranky pants for even saying this stuff, though.

      And of course rule 10 takes us directly back to rule 1– play what I’m running, not what you think I’m running. It’s a möbius of rule zeroness.

  6. morrisonmp May 14, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I’ll echo some of the other comments here… I think this is a great list and I tend to run my games in a similar fashion. I think that communication is vital. For the players to know what kind of game you are running you have to tell them as much as show them… it’s one of those rare instances when telling actually is as important as showing. I try to be very up-front about my intentions when I start a game.

    I’ll also echo/agree with your point above about character death. I lost 5 characters in 8 levels in a recent campaign and had a blast with every one. It’s just one of those things… yes it can be boring to watch other people play but I hope anyone I’m playing with is mature enough to handle a moment of bad fortune with grace and can endure an hour or two without being “in-game” before they are able to rejoin the group. Especially in old-school D&D making a new character isn’t really a chore for about the first half of the levels (it does eventually become tedious even in older editions) but hey, it’s cool.

    Great post.

    • jeffro May 14, 2013 at 6:15 pm

      Oh yes, good call on the tell-don’t-show. Or rather… show AND tell. Subtle and coy are the attributes of the frustrated novelist… not the good Dungeon Master!

  7. Andrew May 14, 2013 at 7:25 pm


    1) not sure if this is covered by what you mean, but I hate when GMs and players get rules wrong, not its +1 not +2 no like really wrong: ‘vampires in vampire the masquerade heal bashing damage each turn’…. Ummm that’s not the rule I based my character and my actions on the rules can we play them?
    2) when GMs make awful rulings I can’t not argue… ‘I kick him’ oh that’s a extra +1… Me so it’s 80% more difficult for me to roll.,, like really?

    I make bad decisions too sometimes so I can see the other side.

    9) dying sux. It penalises you in the meta game and the actual game. I usually try to give players something else to do: NPCs or even playing monsters.

    • jeffro May 14, 2013 at 7:53 pm

      1) Yeah, I try to play by the rules-as-written as much as possible… and with as few house rules as possible.

      2) Either the gm stinks or else you’d be happier playing a more tightly engineered game. At any rate, the best time to argue about that in-depth is after the session.

      9) The everybody wins and nobody dies table is running during the time slot before mine if you’d rather do that.

  8. Darcy Perry December 4, 2013 at 2:24 am

    To sum up your words of wisdom in just four:

    “Don’t be a dick.”

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