What’s Good For The Goose

I wanted to talk a little about in-game GM rulings, and making sure you are not unfairly disadvantaging players in the name of realism.

This was inspired by a thread on the Paizo boards about “My GM doesn’t let me move with a loaded crossbow, he says the bolt will fall out.”  But it led me to think about a lot of related rulings and general tendencies I’ve seen among GMs over time.  A desire for “realism” is admirable, but it shouldn’t be restricted to just PCs and thus discriminate against them.

Think about it from your player’s point of view.  If you:

  • make them track encumbrance minutely
  • require them to make a lot of rolls to “wake up” in a campsite combat
  • make them not carry loaded crossbows
  • make them draw their swords in the first round of every combat
  • require lots of skill checks to distinguish their ass from a hole in the ground
  • and other stuff like that

You really need to think about whether you are requiring the same of NPCs and opponents.  Because most of the time, when I as a player wander into the bad guys’ barracks, they are all up and attacking on the first round.  None are ever dozing, busy taking a dump, out of their armor, thirty feet away from their weapon, slowed by their gear, et cetera.   They are all watching the door and immediately recognize that the PCs are no one they know from their whole fortress.  (Unless it’s one of those scripted “they’re all asleep if you make Stealth checks” rooms.)  No humanoid is ever encumbered (nor, seemingly, do they carry about the food and water and supplies that they likely would need to survive if they were a PC).

Which is fine, you can decide if you want a very simulationist detail-heavy kind of game or not.  But what’s not appropriate is to make the PCs deal with the minutiae and not inflict it on the enemy.  If your PCs are having to worry about their potions breaking when they fall ten feet, or about all the arrows falling out of their quiver when they get tripped, you need to be as anal on the bad guys.

You think you don’t do that?  Well, let’s see.  Do you require a Stealth check from everyone in the party (and when rolling 6 d20s, someone’s going to roll low)  whenever they are trying to sneak up on some enemy emplacement, and if so, do you make monsters do the same thing?   There’s a very common fallacy I see all the time here – PCs are sensed, and don’t sense anything, unless they take positive action to make a skill check.  On the other hand, bad guys are never sensed, and sense everything, unless a PC specifically is actively using Spot or Stealth to thwart them.

Do your PCs always have wounds, long term ability damage, and hangovers from drinking or fatigue from not sleeping the previous night?  Well, if the bad guys are a gang of berserkers in a war zone, why are they always totally fresh and unimpaired?

I’m definitely not anti-realism.  I like a gritty “everyman” campaign from time to time.  If you want to go that route, you *can* inflict similar hindrances on your NPCs. Remember that from their point of view, it’s the PCs who are the wandering monsters.

Give your players breaks!  If the alarm hasn’t been raised and they’re sneaking around a castle, why would the off duty guardsman intent on his whittling even bother looking up when someone in armor walks into the barracks?  He has a pretty good chance of just continuing and only realizing something’s wrong when someone runs at him with a sword.  Flat-footed should be a common ailment among bad guys in a location that’s not on alert.  Some percentage of people should be asleep, depending on their sleep cycle… Even if they run watches 24×7, at least a fourth of the people/creatures in the dungeon/castle/ruin are asleep at any given time.

Do quick ad hoc rolls for “combat readiness.”  Roll one bandit as a random encounter?  Roll d20, and “1” means he left his weapon and armor back in his tent and is sprinting to the latrine because he’s vomiting (“sickened”) from too much rum.   Not only is it “cutting PCs a break” (though not really, because you probably inflict all this on them), but it makes your world seem a lot more realistic.

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6 responses to “What’s Good For The Goose

  1. “require them to make a lot of rolls to “wake up” in a campsite combat”

    Oh come on now, the “Someone wake me up!” “Wake up the mage!” “Don’t wake up the mage, he’ll blow us all up!” argument is a time-honored staple of the game.

    Agree with you on the rest, except tracking enemies’ encumbrance – this actually hurts the players more, because enemies’ items become players’ loot.

  2. To be honest, I ran a campaign where all these hinderances were the bread and butter of the PCs. They were a band of thieves (not just rogues!) that set up heists and pulled them off. This included giving guards food poisoning the day before (thus putting a lot of the guards in the loo and barracks who could have been patrolling), establishing patrol patterns and guard watches, etc. All of the things that can hinder a party were used against the NPCs and my job as a GM was to give the PCs that opportunity.

    Also, in my requisite 4E plug, I like that drawing your sword/wand/zappy-thing is a minor action, which only really hinders a few people. To be honest, that was one of the worst thingw about 3E quick draw; it turned players into rules lawyers about that sort of thing, because otherwise that player took a useless feat for no reason. Thus they’d always ask the other players if they were drawing their weapon, then mention “Oh, since I have QUICK DRAW, I’ll whip out my sword and attack this round. Please note how kickass I am!”

  3. @Swordgleam – yeah, but if you don’t bother for the enemies and do for the players, they won’t be able to carry that loot off with them anyway. “Thoe orc is carrying 6 gold bricks, but each one is like 25 lbs, you can’t carry them all… “But then how was *he* carrying it?!?” “Oh, he wasn’t carrying them, when a bad guy is killed he morphs into a treasure drop, you know.”

    @Steve – Cool. Yeah, 3e/Pathfinder has tried to kinda make it easier over time at the cost of bloat – “You can draw a weapon as a free action as part of a move as long as you have a base attack bonus of +1 or more.” Still a little overly complex. I guess it depends on your desired realism factor. If you’re doing a very gritty game, then “who draws first” and the like can be important. In a kick-down-the-door dungeon crawl not so much.

    I must admit in our Pathfinder games we basically ignore drawing weapons and the Quick Draw feat as “complexity we don’t need.”

  4. Nethys / Karui Kage

    If it helps, I’ve noticed that the Pathfinder APs often include plenty of areas where they describe the guards within as being distracted or otherwise occupied unless they make a Spot/Listen (Perception) roll at a penalty to hear the approaching party.

    It’s just often DMs forget these kind of things.

    Personally, I agree with most of your list, despite doing a lot of it myself. Rolling to wake up is done, though usually easy since the DC for battle is 0 and you only take a -10 for sleeping.

    Drawing the weapon does make some sense for both sides. It’s often the PCs have to worry more about it than the enemy since a lot of enemies are monsters with natural attacks, otherwise I agree that the enemy may need to take time to draw their weapons too (ambushes and such aside).

    I do agree that any realism included needs to apply to the enemy as well, and it should never bloat things so much to the point of slowing the game down.

  5. Nethys / Karui Kage

    Oh, as for helping with the carrying woes? A Pathfinder Chronicler or a Balanced Scale of Abadar could come in incredibly handy with encumbrance. If not, the value of a pack horse or pack mule at the entrance to the dungeon or somewhere else nearby, guarded by some hired NPCs, is pretty handy.

  6. I wouldn’t allow a character to carry a loaded crossbow on horseback. But while in a tactical ‘raid’ type situation? Sure, no problem. Heck, I own a crossbow that has a small ‘retention’ spring that holds the bolt in place while cocked and loaded.

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