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Fair or Foul? Planting the Evidence

The following is a situation that I’ve thought about using in an adventure.

During rush hour in the big city, it’s not uncommon to bump into people on the way to work. Most of us don’t even take notice besides an “excuse me” and perhaps a quick wallet tap.

In my scenario, I was going to have a PC watching the news while having lunch. A woman’s face flashes across the screen and she’s wanted on suspicion of terrorism. At that point, I would have the PC remembering bumping into her that morning. She seemed in a hurry and didn’t apologize. Now panicking, the PC makes a search check and discovers an unknown flash drive in an open pocket of his travel bag.

My question this Friday is “fair” or “foul?” Did I need to actively play the “bumping” scene even if I intended to roll (and, let’s be honest, fudge) the sleight of hand in secret? Would it matter if this was a plot hook to introduce an adventure or just a complication during the adventure?

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Fair or Foul? Planting the Evidence"

#1 Comment By lady2beetle On October 10, 2008 @ 8:07 am

1. If it’s the beginning of an adventure, then it’s very fair. As the GM, how many times have you giving your players a quick rundown of their past to connect their character’s background with the opening scene? How many times have you planted a hook in that character background? This is just one example of that.

2. If this is in the middle of an on going adventure, you might have a little more resistance from the PCs, but I still say it’s fair. Your players should recognize it as a hook, because you are ending the opening with a “what do you do” and offering them with a multitude of options. Quite opposite of railroading, you’ve actually given them MORE possible actions based on this info, so the PCs should have fun with it.

#2 Comment By Rafe On October 10, 2008 @ 8:08 am

Ah, good grab from Enemy of the State. I say “fair.” It’s adding a hook and should bring that player right into the game, immersed and rarin’ to go. Now, if life becomes insanely difficult for the character as a result of this… likely “foul.” As usual, it’s about how you implement it and how much control the character has over proceeding events.

#3 Comment By PatrickWR On October 10, 2008 @ 8:09 am

Now panicking, the PC makes a search check and discovers an unknown flash drive in an open pocket of his travel bag.

The key is not to rush this particular scenario. It sounds like you’re expecting it to happen right there, in the lunchroom, possibly as a result of you (the GM) saying something like “Make a search roll. OMG, there’s a mysterious flash drive in your pocket!”

That’s probably the wrong way to play out the encounter. I don’t have a problem with your bumping scene, but you have to play out the conclusion (finding the flash drive) in a way that makes the player feel in control of his character and not merely the beneficiary of some GM magic.

#4 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 10, 2008 @ 8:33 am

Patrick – I was just anticipating the typical player reaction, lol.

#5 Comment By drow On October 10, 2008 @ 9:01 am

totally fair.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On October 10, 2008 @ 9:33 am

I agree; in fact, if you want to be “completely fair”, roll the sleight of hand against their passive perception (or 10+spot in 3.5) before the session begins. If they later ask why they didn’t get a chance to spot it, tell them about the roll.

And totally fair as an overall event– better than a mysterious stranger in a tavern and puts the PC in control of how he wants to handle it.

Does your plot fall through if the PC doesn’t engage and just calls the police to hand it over?

#7 Comment By BryanB On October 10, 2008 @ 9:43 am

I like the idea myself, but I would have a roll total handy just in case your PC is a rules lawyer type. Still, the intro part of a game is usually fair game in my mind. It is part of the intro narrative before the gameplay actually commences. If it leads to an exciting adventure, then it was well worth it.

Scott mentions a possible risk. What happens if the PC tosses the drive in a trash can or gives it to the authorities? I’ve had things like this happen before and I sat there needing a five minute break to figure out: What the hell now?

I try not to hinge an entire gameplot on one clue, but sometimes it is unavoidable. When the game hinges on one clue, I try to come up with an alternative hook that can be used as a backup idea — One that the player’s are almost certain to use or at least gain info from.

Anyway, I was getting off topic there… I say “Fair Play” in this particular case.

#8 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 10, 2008 @ 10:24 am

Scott and Bryan – I don’t want to get into the particulars of what to do once the PC realizes that he has the McGuffin since it isn’t relevant and, to be honest, I hadn’t gotten that far in planning 🙂

You can tell that this is a GM site…no fouls so far, lol

#9 Comment By koranes On October 10, 2008 @ 10:47 am

Well, I would go by the “john wick”-way: “Play it f***ng dirty!” There are no rules for you, cause you are the GM. What would be more cool, than to find a flash drive in ones pocket? finding a flash drive with a note attached to it (something like “help me”, thats adds a call to the players).

When the read the flash drive in their computer, give them all the choice between three informations, not all, but they would need them all… after they have chosen to read two of the clues .. Boom … the flash drives explodes and they will never get the third information. The heroes will know: this is important buisness and will get paranoia in some degree…

Dont give the players rolls (that is easy, roll for this, roll for that, and so on). Give them decisions!

The actual handing of the flash drive could be an encounter (to build tension for the players. What about a car with guys grabbing the poor little terrorist girl soon after the bumping? Maybe cops? Or the girl could be in some kind of drunk state … or you could simply ignore this scene and play on. I dont know your story enough, to get into pros and cons for the other possibilities …

I would call it a plot hook. If they dont catch it, it will be just a “complication” during the adventure!

#10 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 10, 2008 @ 10:57 am

My first thought is:

Would the bumping scene have been fun to play out? Would the possible results of a spot sucess led to a fun encounter?

My next thought is: What if they don’t search for the flash drive? Why would they jump to that conclusion instead of calling the police and reporting where they saw her?

I’d do it like this – Situate the PC somewhere via in Medias Res where they’ll be actively looking for something. Maybe they’re picking up someone from the airport, maybe waiting for a blind date or a contact. Heck, maybe someone bumped them hard enough to knock their bag of groceries out of their hands. Then when you ask for a spot check there’s none of the “I roll spot too!” “Crap, I didn’t see it! I check again!” schenanigans. If they fail the spot, play it off like they didn’t see what they were looking for. If they DO get the spot, go ahead and play out the “why are you putting crap in my bag” encounter. OR just have the NPC “accidentally” drop something on top of their bag (probably depends on the degree of their spot sucess or a follow-up sense motive) and get lost in the crowd (further spots/searches vs the NPC’s stealth to find/tail them) before they can be confronted.

This is a fun encounter in it’s own right. Nothing wrong with your setup. this is just an alternative.

#11 Comment By Brent On October 10, 2008 @ 11:14 am

I love Matthew’s alternative, and I agree that the encounter works without it. Seems perfectly fair to me.

#12 Comment By Sarlax On October 10, 2008 @ 11:15 am

I’d like to know about the PC. Do all of these circumstances match their own qualities and behaviors? Does the PC regularly eat out and pay attention to the news, for instance?

Next, how observant is the character? In every game I’ve played, the PCs specialize, and there’s usually a character who is perceptive (Martin plays the druid who scores Epic Spot checks in my non-epic D&D game). If the PC who gets the drop is good with perception or empathy, they will rightly want to know why they didn’t get a chance to note this or act on it. It’s completely plausible that a stranger might slip something into your pocket unnoticed, but it’s also quite possible to catch someone in the act of doing this.

How about this woman? When did she become a wanted terrorist suspect? Just that morning, or days before? If earlier, the players may also want to know if they’ve seen her on the news before. IE, if I bumped into bin Laden 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have known it, but there’s a decent chance I’d recognize him if it happened today. Again, the perceptive PC may have noted the woman before running into her in person.

I’m not in favor of the pre-rolls. If you’re truly using randomness to determine the false-encounter’s outcome, there’s a chance she actually gets busted when she tries to make the hand-off. Are you okay with that setup failing? If not, then you can’t honestly roll, and the player will figure this out if you say you “rolled earlier” for the result.

I’d just bypass this specific drop and make it something cleaner. Maybe she was running and tossed it in the partially rolled-down window of his car while it was on the street, or ran through the diner and dropped it in his jacket while he was on the toilet. IE, something that occurs outside of the PC’s involvement at any time.

Better, maybe the PC has the chance to act in order to get the data. Rather than forcing it into his hands, you can let them do something to get it. Maybe they first see the woman on the news, and later spot her stashing the flash drive, but at enough of a distance to not grab her right away, such as tossing it into a different stranger’s pocket just before catching the subway. The PC makes the perception check, figures out the stranger is just a bystander, and they grab it and intervene.

That kind of setup would require certain PC types, though – those inclined to intervene. If I myself saw that in real life, I’d probably just call the police (I saw a terrorist!) on my cell and give them the details. PCs, though, aren’t known for normal behavior.

#13 Comment By LesInk On October 10, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

Foul! Foul! Foul! I cry foul.

Okay, just kidding. I hate to say it, but I really do agree that it is fair, but only lightly.

As a simple ‘hook’, it is fair. However, I could easily see an unhappy retort from a player here or there that bemoans the ‘I would have seen that’ situation. You’ll have to assess your group to determine if that will be an issue. If not, its totally fair. You don’t even need to roll as the players will have “buy in” and work it into the story.

If I was a player, I would have wanted something that said I was there and something happened that I didn’t notice. Therefore, as the GM, I would tend to want to establish some sort of foreshadowing for the later discovery. This could be as simple as a single sentence as describing the morning commute as the player(s) start their day (e.g., “You head to work as usual fighting the crowds as you are swarmed with people all around you on the subway system.”). Another technique is the ol’ magician’s trick where you have the player(s) focus on one thing while another thing is happening. You could describe a smelly bum that got on next to you causing the players to shift and bump into a woman who smiles slightly at the character(s). Or you can role play it as part of another adventure going on. For example, the players meet up with an NPC for whatever reason in the subway and while they are talking with the NPC, the woman makes the drop. All of this can happen regardless of a roll.

I think the only reason I raise the foul alarm is that I think the GM can do so many more things to give foreshadowing while still forcing the outcome. But with that being said, if the game would be greatly enhanced by skipping the scene, then sure, you got that right.

#14 Comment By Tommi On October 10, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

I’d have a chance of PCs noticing the process, through dice or decisions, as appropriate to the game and playing style. It will be an engaging scene that way, too.

#15 Comment By sineWAVE On October 10, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

I wouldn’t roleplay the bump, because any player is going to (correctly) attribute significance to that bump because you even bothered mentioning it. Have a prerolled sleight of hand vs. spot or whatever the system uses in case someone gets picky, but I wouldn’t be afraid to fudge it.

#16 Comment By farfromunique On October 10, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

As a GM, I say fair – after all, you are ultimately in control of the story. However…

As a player, I’d say it depends a lot. If it is the START of the campaign, or after a long break (more than triple the normal between sessions) then it’s totally fair. But if it is in the middle of an established game, with no break, it’s foul. In the middle of the game, Deus ex machina isn’t cool. Let me play out the scene, EVEN if you’ve already determined that the person will succeed.

But your brief description makes me wonder… You say the PC discovers it “that evening” while watching the news. Why wait so long? Why not…
“…a few moments later, something at the newspaper stand catches your eye. There, on the front page of the daily news, is the face of the woman who just ran into you. Do you buy the paper?
{if yes}: As you dig for change, you find a thumb drive that you know isn’t yours. You hear sirens nearby.
{If no}: Ignoring the paper, and realizing that you are now running a little late for work, you hurry on your way. Behind you, you hear sirens.”
What do they do? Where is the rest of the party? Do you want them implicated?

This is a plot I want to run, now. 🙂

#17 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On October 10, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

FarFromUnique – Watch the quoting. I said “while having lunch” not “that evening.”

Your scenario sounds fun, but what’s relevant to my original question is not when or how that the PC realizes something happened to him earlier, but whether, as a GM, it’s fair for you to inflict something on him that he didn’t have a chance (through description or dice roll) to react to.

#18 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 10, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

It’s fair, but certain types of players may object. Those types of players are a pain in the butt. (IMNSHO)

The GM can just say, “This happened”, and the player can just roll with it. Or the player can object, and stop the game before the stage is set, and argue with the GM for a roll. At which point the GM can make the goddamned roll as hard as it frickin’ needs to be for the stubborn-assed character to fail… after all, he’s the motherfucking GM, bitches!

Either way, “this happened”, but sometimes a dumbass doucheba- er, player has to insist that his precious illusion of control be maintained.

Um… What? What are y’all looking at? Was I using my outside voice again?


#19 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 11, 2008 @ 12:35 am

Meds, Telas. Meds. The doctor warned you that not taking them would lead to this… 😉

#20 Comment By GeoffA On October 11, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

If I am understanding the original situation correctly, it sounds like it’s important that there be some time lag between the woman planting the drive and the PCs realizing that they have it. I think it is reasonable to have the evidence planted without roll for a couple of reasons.

1. As GM it’s certainly within your power to give the evidence planter good sleight-of-hand skills and pick on the PC who is least likely to notice such a thing right away. Even it it were to come to a roll, you could stack the odds in your favor and it seems less heavy handed to just say “it happened on the subway this morning”.

2. A large percentage of PCs will cotton on to the fact that if you’re role-playing it then something important must be happening. Unless you routinely play the morning commute to the office, or you have players who are remarkably good at separating player knowledge from character knowledge, you are giving out extra information if you role-play that scene.

3. Most people don’t pay that much attention 24-7. For example, I’m a teacher. If I’m giving an exam then I’m actively using whatever spot skill I possess to make sure nobody is passing notes or whispering to their neighbor. During another class, I’m not quite so alert. Walking through the subway station (like the PCs getting bumped) my mind could be a thousand miles away, thinking about the class I have to teach later that day. Unless a person is looking for trouble, I don’t think it would be too hard to slip something onto them.

4. I don’t think this would bother me as a player unless perhaps I was playing some hyper-vigilant, paranoid CIA agent and I had sunk all of my character points into spot and empathy. In that case, I might feel a little cheated out of an opportunity to do the one thing my character does well.

#21 Comment By Kaelbane On October 11, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

A possibility to avoid the unrolled plant would be to drop the evidence somewhere else near the encounter, such as in a garbage can, in a grate or by the tracks of a subway. Then the PCs remember, hopefully go back to where they last saw her, and either find someone else grabbing the goods or find it themselves.

I always hate reading “after picking the PCs pocket, the NPC thief escapes into the crowd” in published adventures. Sometimes when the module contains the stats of the NPC involved, there would be no way for them to pull it off. It screams foul to me.

#22 Comment By Target On October 14, 2008 @ 7:17 am

I see no reason why the drop can’t be made de facto. If you want to roll for it, you have to be ready for fate to throw you a curve.

That said, there is also no reason the players can’t be allowed to notice something happen. They are headed to work, another typical day. In one hand is their briefcase and their lunch. The other carries a newspaper to be read on the train. They get bumped knocking the newspaper onto the sidewalk, the bumper (noticed why? attractive? extra rude? too much haste, pushing and shoving?) hurries away. They check their wallet. They check their pockets. Everything comes back normal. They retrieve the scattered newspaper and continue on to work. They proceed to work. At lunch time, they find a flash drive sitting on top of their PB&J.

Anybody who claims that they checked their lunch bag is either super paranoid or a PITA.

My take, it’s totally fair. Just make sure that all reasonable PC actions are taken by the PCs in the narrative. It’s all in the presentation.

#23 Comment By Omnus On October 15, 2008 @ 11:42 pm

God doesn’t roll dice, nor does the DM have to. If you would fudge to frame the scenario, why on Earth would you not just plant the hook? The choice to be the receiver of the flash drive is not in the player’s hands…there is no drama to it. What he/she does with it, THERE’S the drama.

The only other option I can see is polluting your game with lots of other meaningless skill checks to cover ones in which you’re advancing the story. (“Make a Spot check” “Made it, I got a 68” “That Ork just flicked something at you, looks like it came from his nostril” etc.) Otherwise the characters will attach importance to every event you have them roll for. My final solution would be to decide how many Spot and Listen checks you’ll need for the whole game (and maybe Saving Throws) to be made in secret, have them roll them all out in advance, and use their rolled result as you need them. Yay, more numbers for you to keep track of.