Have you ever had that weird sensation that you’re not actually playing the same game as everyone else at the table? You’ve described the scene: a noble and his retinue are in a large hall. The noble is about to engage the party in conversation, almost certainly to hand out a mission. And then the rogue chimes in with, “When he starts talking, I’m going to try to pick the noble’s pocket.” You wait for someone else at the table to point out how ridiculous that would be, but they’re all looking at you as if it’s a great idea…
What now? Throw the scene, end up with the group in jail, and maybe convince them to do the job as punishment? Risk a free-for-all as the guards rush in? Let the dice decide? Ignore the request?
Here’s another option that works for me: Take a moment and restate the situation in order to ensure that everyone at the table has the same visual image before proceeding. “OK, let’s clarify this. You’re standing in front of Lord Wassisname, and about twenty other people, most of whom are paying attention to both you and him, many of whom are armed, some of whom are guards.”
You’ve probably played the ‘telephone game’ as a kid. You know the one, where someone in a circle whispers something to the person next to them, who whispers it to the next person, until it comes back around, almost certainly altered from its original meaning. It’s the nature of verbal communication that words get misheard, or dropped entirely, and meanings get altered as we translate what we’ve heard into what we’re imagining. (If you don’t have a mental image of an arrow sticking out of a gazebo by now, you probably haven’t seen this  story.)
Let’s start with two assumptions:
- One of the main jobs of a GM is accurately communicating everything in the world to the players.
- Ultimately, responsibility for accurate communication lies with the speaker, not the listener.
If the players are about to do something that is obviously stupid, there’s a pretty good chance that some critical piece of information was lost or misinterpreted. In the above example, perhaps the rogue didn’t realize that “retinue” means “entourage”. GMs such as myself, who try to emulate Gygaxian prose or use archaic words should be especially vigilant, as many of our players (and sometimes even we) may not be as knowledgeable as we think about such things. (For further proof, continue reading my blog posts; I’ll eventually do something stupid based on a misinterpretation.)
The players are not entirely off the hook, either. Communication is a two-way street, and the listener needs to help carry the load by paying attention, providing feedback, seeking clarification when necessary, and making sure that her assumptions and visual image are shared with others at the table. The roles are reversed when the player is acting. She needs to make sure that the GM understands her, and he needs to pay attention, etc.
GMs: This is not a license to question your players’ actions. We’re all pretty familiar with the awe-inspiring ability of players to leave a GM (or an entire table) shocked and speechless with a single action that is simultaneously so brazen and stupid as to earn him a reputation to rival that of the French at military matters or the Japanese at wholesome and mature graphic novels. I don’t think any amount of restating the situation will (or even should) stem the tide of “you do WHAT?” moments in the game.
But what can be caught are mistakes based on simple miscommunication or unspoken assumptions. My own example is from D&D: I was playing a barbarian with a few ranks in Climb, and our party came across a cliff we had to climb down. It was about forty feet to the bottom, and the GM described it as a typical rock wall. I looked at my own experience with climbing and at my character’s stats, figured that “a typical rock wall” should be pretty easy for him, and went to climb down.
What I didn’t know is that the D&D rules consider “a typical rock wall” to be about as difficult to climb as a brick wall. I had considered it about as difficult as a modern “climbing wall” for beginners, and figured a strong character with some training should be able to handle it, no problem. I was wrong; my character fell on his first check, and took some damage (mainly to the ego; barbarians may not be able to climb, but they sure as hell can take damage). It was no big deal, and I managed to write a nice story about it, but the whole thing could have been avoided had the GM simply restated the situation. “Looking closer at it, you realize that it’s pretty much a sheer cliff; it’s nearly vertical, without a lot of hand and foot holds.”
Restating the obvious will not prevent the over-thought yet under-considered schemes of your players (and secretly, we all do love those schemes), but it will prevent mistakes based on poor assumptions or miscommunication. I consider it as that voice in your head that points out the obvious mistake in your plans, or the gut-level reaction your body has at doing something really stupid. (If you’ve ever felt that last bit of hesitation on the high-dive, or when you’re about to pull that bandage off a sensitive spot, you know what I mean.)
Some GMs like to use the generic “Are you sure you want to do that?” question as a last resort. This is handy, in that it points out that something is wrong, but it’s not specific enough to differentiate a decision based on faulty assumptions from a decision made out of sheer folly. Players will make a lot of questionable decisions in the course of a game, and many GMs may be justified in asking if they’re sure before pulling the trigger, but that’s another topic for another time. Right now, I’d rather just eliminate mistakes based on communication and assumptions.