Tabletop Highlight: Up For Interpretation

One of the things I’ve struggled with for my entire time as a DM is how to interpret what my players say. In this case, I mean everything from trying to parse vague statements so I can correctly describe my players actions to stuff like determining whether or not the player said the character did something versus having them assess the likelihood of success if they go ahead with that idea. Meaning has gotten fairly easy to ascertain at this point and I’ve learned how to ask them for clarification without giving them information they shouldn’t have, but I’m realizing more and more that the different between thinking out loud and making their character recklessly charge into a situation is mostly on me.

Before my current campaign, this wasn’t something that came up a lot. Since I preferred to run comedic campaigns, I just did whatever the group would find funniest so long as it was actually something they meant to say. Usually, players are pretty good at making it clear when something is a joke their character would never actually do and when it’s something they actually want to happen. Even if it is, most players in my shits-and-giggles campaigns understand that they might need to roll up a new character at any point in time and don’t get too emotionally attached to them. Even if it winds up costing them their character, they’re usually fine with it as long as it’s funny and I’m good at coming up with comedic but nonlethal consequences, so it usually doesn’t come to that.

In my current campaign, (which I’ve taken to calling “Broken Worlds” because the planes of my universe have been shattered by the war between the Good deities and the Evil deities so that only a handful are left in a precarious balance that could send all of existence spiral out of existence at the drop of a pinhead full of dancing angels), the stakes are a little bit higher and my players have more restrictive concepts for their characters. Laughter is always appreciated and silly situations make for excellent sessions, but they’re not going to break character in order to make a joke or exploit some comedic potential. They want to stay true to how their character would act and are more interested in the drama and risk of their current situation than a chance to make a joke. Here, my interpretation of their intent, when it comes to them discussing actions or plotting the course of action their character carries out, matters a lot. It is the difference between spending two in-game (and real-world) hours trying to burn down a wooden door and them spending a minute trying to unlock it.

If you started watching Matthew Colville’s videos on Running the Game, he says that he’s fine giving his players (and their characters) information that they either should know as a result of living in the world or that they’d be able to easily ascertain (that they wouldn’t need to use a skill check to know). I agree entirely, but I draw the line at redirecting their course of action when they’re making assumptions. For instance, anyone who looked at the aforementioned wooden door would have seen that it had a latch and a lock without needing to make a skill check. It is clear as day that the door is locked. To determine the type of lock and whether or not the door has any kind of magical or physical protection, they would need to make a skill check. If they decide that, upon hearing it is a wooden door, that they’re just going to build a bonfire in an attempt to burn it down, I won’t stop them. If I describe something they’re inspecting and they miss it because they aren’t paying attention, then I’m not going to stop them from doing something dumb. That’s an important learning experience for them.

Similarly, how they frame things is important. If they say they go do something, their character has gone and made an attempt at doing whatever it is they said. If they say they’re going to do something, I’ll cut them a little slack. For instance, if the rogue says he turns invisible, dives into the murky water, and positions himself at the last-known location of the octopus they’re preparing to kill, then his character has vanished and then jumped into the water. If he says that he’s going to do that, then I’ll let his fellow players stop him or tell him something the character would know that the player does not which might influence his decision.

I’m not an ass about it. I’ve made it clear to my players that their intent matters and they need to be more circumspect about how much time they spend dithering about or making plans. I even let it slide for the first five levels and gave them a little speech before I started. I was incredibly clear that I was expecting a little more from them and what exactly I was expecting. There’s no way they could spend two hours of real-world time discussing how to attack the next room without some time passing in the game. And if they take two in-game hours to burn down a wooden door they could have unlocked, then there’s a really good chance the people behind the door are going to be prepared for them. I could have just told them the door had a lock, but none of them checked the door for a lock and no one was listening when I told them it was a simple, locked wooden door with iron banding. As much as I love my players, I’m not going to take them time to re-describe something when they weren’t listening the first time unless they actually ask me to do so.

There’s no hard and fast rule about this sort of thing. If you’ve got more experienced players, they probably expect to be taken at their word. They’ll frame things as questions, ask for more details as needed, and try to make quick decisions–be warned: not all experienced players learn this skill. They’re generally good at making their intent crystal clear. If you have newer players, they’ll probably hesitate more and might not be good at policing their expressed intent versus their actual intent. Some players take longer than others and some new players just get it right off the bat. Some games don’t really care as much about punishing people for not being cautious and some don’t really require that much focus on people’s intent because the situations in the game don’t really leave much room for interpretation. There aren’t many ways you could misinterpret fighting a bunch of orcs.

As always, the big thing is to reflect on how it might fit into whatever game you’re running or how you play your character. There’s a lot of room in D&D for being a bit of a word-lawyer. My favorite point to make to DMs as a player is that you don’t need to make a bluff (the skill that lets you lie) check if you’re not actually lying. Most of my characters develop a certain amount of skill for skirting the true as it suits them and my favorite villains to play are the clever ones who get captured. Wordplay is one of my favorite games and not everyone spends their free time practicing how to artfully arrange words so I don’t really expect my players to take things to that level. I just give them a slap on the wrist when they do something dumb. I’ll never give them an impossible situation as a result of their poor decisions, but I will make things much more difficult for them.

After all, what’s the point of playing a game like D&D if doing something dumb doesn’t run the risk of getting you killed? There’d be no tension if they knew they’d be able to take back any wrong decision they make or that there were no consequences for taking too long. If you constantly leave the dungeon to replenish your spells and rest, then the dungeon is going to prepare for your return. They’ll be ready and waiting for you, this time, and heaven–or what’s left of it–help you if you leave again.

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