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I have a player who always tells me whenever he goes into a dungeon or other hazardous location,

I am always checking for traps wherever I go. Assume that I am always looking around, wary and being alert for the slightest sound. Also, assume that I am searching for secret doors as well.

And also

I always recover my spent ammo [crossbow bolts]. Unless I say otherwise, I always reload my crossbow.

For the first case, I just assume that he is being alert but the player still gets upset when I ask him to make the skill check rolls. For the second case, I told him outright that I am not his automated helper.

The player also seems to mean that "Since I am actively looking/searching etc., I should either a) automatically pass without making a check or b) get a big bonus to my checks." So what happens is things like "I am going down the alleyway, being extra careful, checking all my sides", then he rolls awfully (or the opposition rolls too well) and the player complains that he should get a free pass.

I'm not the kind of GM that says "you didn't say you put on clothes so you are now wandering outside naked", but perhaps the player picked up this habit from other games.

How should a GM deal with a player's desire for this kind of "standing orders?" Is it reasonable to have them checking for everything and doing everything automatically? Does the burden need to be on me, the GM, to do so?

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16 Answers 16

up vote 72 down vote accepted

It sounds to me like an expectation problem. You should easily be able to resolve it by asking the player why they feel the need to say those things. Once you figure out why, you can do something about it. Although my suspicion is that the player is used to a GM vs Players style of gaming and thus covers all his bases because otherwise, they get picked on. Also, ask the player why they are role playing and what expectation they have from your game. If they want the GM vs Player, then maybe the game is not right?

As an side to address the two issues you mention:

  • Ultra alertness: well that's going to take time, be very stressful, and tiring. Sure, they could do this but it will take them a long time to get anywhere or do anything. After all, there are not that many secret passages in houses. The stress is likely to cause the character to fail in his searches, make mistakes, and ultimately be counter productive.
  • Arrows: Yeah, sure you can keep a cross bow loaded all the time. Guess what? You're not going to be able to fire it because it will jam or break or go off by itself. Spend arrows have to be inspected and repaired before they can be used again.

But both points to a GM vs Player mindset...

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+1 for pointing out that standing orders can have negative as well as positive effects. Real-world example: armies understand that you can be focused on speed or on security, and that any movement technique is either a middle-ground compromise or a conscious decision to favor one over the other. Moving faster will wear out your body faster; moving with heightened security will wear out your mind faster. – Erik Schmidt May 15 '13 at 17:09
+1 for the last point. Both the spring in a crossbow and the stave in a conventional wooden bow will weaken from fatigue if kept under continuous tension due to always being cocked/strung. I'd assume the same is true of the glued composites used in something like a mongol horse bow; but haven't ever read anything on the subject either way. – Dan Neely May 15 '13 at 17:42
Great answer. Also, if you are really concentrating on something particular (almost anything) it means you are not at that moment being ultra alert around you. Casting an intricate spell? You are not right thing looking around at everything else. Working a delicate lock? You aren't looking behind you. This is what lookouts are. Saying the character is generally alert and watchful makes sense, claiming to always be searching for everything means you aren't doing anything else than moving and looking. – TimothyAWiseman May 16 '13 at 2:25
The annoying thing is I never sprang a trap on them before. The player who gave me the standing order was the previous GM of the group before I took over, and everyone was new to me. Was really puzzled and a little put off till I read some of the answers here. And he was playing the party rogue! Maybe there was just a lot of assuming on both our parts. – Extrakun May 17 '13 at 20:22

Tell them the consequences of the standing order, and ask if they really want that.

For extreme and unreasonable ones, they might go like this:

You're always on high alert, always searching for secret doors? Each piece of wall and floor takes ten minutes to search, so that means your progress will be very, very slow.

Also, you will eventually have a hard time sleeping or functioning like a rational human being. I'm not sure what the rules for becoming clinically paranoid are, but I can look them up or develop something. Being that high-strung will probably adversely affect your fine-motor skills too, so eventually we'll have to start giving you to-hit penalties.

Are you sure this is what you want?

"Always" is pretty severe, so reflect that. Don't surprise them with the consequences – you're not out to punish them – but do outline how their stated intentions are probably unreasonable in-game. Think of it more as an opener for the real conversation that is brewing under these odd requests:

Maybe we should have a talk about why you feel like you need extreme guarantees to play this game happily. What are you concerned will happen if you don't establish standing orders like this?

For less extreme ones, this is an entirely reasonable way to play. Still though, describe the consequences and ask:

Okay, from now on I will always assume you've got your crossbow loaded. I'll just make you take that action automatically, so I can skip your turn after your fire, ok? It'll be up to you to tell me when you're not keeping it loaded, so don't be surprised if you forget and then the city watch arrests you or something like that.

But, you'll be good in the rare ambush then! And you've given me a nice weakness to plot around. By that I mean, and this is just to warn you out of fairness, that you should expect to have the crossbow fire at inconvenient times and you'll sometimes have to replace the string or repair the mechanisms that fail from the continuous strain.

… Are you sure that it's a good idea to have it always loaded in social situations, though? That will definitely be worth penalties during negotiations. Again, it'll be on you to tell me when you're deviating from your default of keeping it loaded.

Always recovering ammo is usually fine. As a default, after a fight I will make the rolls for ammo recovery and just tell the players what they get back. I will skip this if they charge away directly after the fight (say, when they gallop away to avoid the dragon circling overhead), or if the ammo would be unrecoverable (because the target's back was to a cliff, for example).

If they insist on always though, I'd be OK informing them ahead of time that, unless they say otherwise, I'll automatically be skipping their actions unless they say otherwise, just like the reloading example. Everybody runs away from the dragon?

Okay, so Sir Alert is scrabbling around in the brush when the dragon lands. The rest of you are just reaching the bend in the road when the dragon lands and you realise Sir Alert isn't with you.

Sir Alert, you find your last bolt just as you feel the ground shudder with the landing impact. You're kinda hidden for now, but as soon as you move the dragon's acute senses will detect you. What do you do?

You on horseback, what do you all do about this?

Basically, your player is trying to be safe from you. However, telling you ahead of time what their actions will be just means that they will be just as unsafe in situations where the new default is inappropriate as they were before. Except now, they're even less safe because they're really insistent about not being asked (i.e., warned) about times when their default isn't a good idea. Hopefully they'll realise that this is counterproductive, and you can have the conversation about why they feel like they need guarantees.

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Be careful with biting a player in this situation. It puts you on a VERY short road to hurt feelings. – Pulsehead May 15 '13 at 17:30
@Pulsehead It's true. There is a certain point where having a player leave the game unhappy is a bullet dodged though… – SevenSidedDie May 15 '13 at 17:34
The king finally garants you the audience you asked for. You enter the throne room. The whole court is assembled and awaits to hear what you have to say about the impeding undead invasion. As you always do, you immediately start to closely examine the walls of the throne room, look behind all furniture and under all carpets searching for hidden doors. The king looks confused. The princess giggles "what a weird guy". The captain of the honor guard asks you what you are doing. Your response? – Philipp May 17 '13 at 9:03
@Philipp And then your crossbow goes off and shoots someone in the leg. – doppelgreener Jul 18 '13 at 1:50
@doppelgreener Ye olde bolt in the leg meme. – NiteCyper Jul 3 at 9:43

I think I'd be okay with the bolt recovery. I see that as weapon upkeep and it's part of the game I'm just not interested in spending time on. I don't ask the fighter to oil and sharpen his sword, nor does the bard change out the strings on his lute to get new string sound.

I would not be okay with the high alert standing order. A character that paranoid would be, well, paranoid. I'd throw him red herrings constantly. This street has a patch of cobblestones that don't look like the rest. The change from the bar was all currency from $evil_empire. That horse just made eye contact with him. Etc.

In general I support standing orders or standard operating procedures in groups. I feel like it helps show off that the group has learned to work with each other by building a consistent and functional group dynamic. In particular I like establishing:

  • Default marching order
  • Night time guard duty
  • Whether to wear arms and armor in town
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lol @ "that horse just made eye contact" – jhocking May 15 '13 at 19:16
Agreed. I see no problem with allowing a player to automatically recover bolts, but a constant high alert order would wreck the fun in some way or another. – Thane Brimhall Apr 30 at 1:59
Normal bolts are not made of infinitely durable material - they are consumables. Simplifying by not being concerned about how badly they have been handling the delicate fletching is general practice - presuming a wooden shaft can be repeatedly fired, to say nothing of smashing into armor or into monster flesh and bone, but remain completely unscathed is ridiculous (not to mention always being able to go find and recover them). If you want to simplify, do so by ignoring recovery, else require very expensive enchanted for durability magical ammo. – pluckedkiwi Jul 12 at 16:58

What is the real problem

I think the problem arent the standing orders themselves. The problem is creating the necessity to issue them!

You have to ask yourself, what exactly are you trying to achieve by not allowing players to issue such standing orders?

Lets take the arrow gathering example. Do you really want the players to go through a checklist after each fight? "We have looted the corpses, gathered the arrows, blessed the ground on which bloody skeletons were slain, looked for hidden treasure, cleaned and bandaged our woulds... Whats left on the list, Steve?"

Sooo, we are doing the same thing for the 100th time, eh? Guess our characters could have learned to do that themselves, without us telling them to each time...

This is repetition, and repetition is bad, both in programming and in storytelling. Gathering arrows, replenishing your poinson supplies, selling the useless but valueable loots in the city... Or taking a piss when you feel the need to, making a fire when youre camping etc etc. All these are mundane things, absolutely not worthy of a players declaration. Such things, if need be to handle them, described by the GM, and the players should have the right to protest such a description and act differently if they wish. How bored would you be reading for the hundreth time how Aragorn hunted for food and legolas gathered his arrows? Would you like to read about every single meal the Fellowship of the Ring had on its journey? I wouldnt like that at all!

Example from my own experience

In some of the games my firend did GM, i really disliked those parts, where nothing really happened and we were left to mundane taks and doing-nothing. Declaring that "Im making a campfire" "Im keeping watch!" "Im making new ammo!" "Errr... I hone my knife!" and descibing the effects of those actions... It took considerable time and wasnt all that interesting! It could be waved off by a brief description, and with a bit of research beforehand, the description could be actually interesting! Like "You made camp and did your regular duties. Fun thing is, you ran out of dry meat, yet no one noticed - Mike always cooked badly, and he just happened to catch a few rats running around while he was cutting the carrots..."

Later the GM kept us describing taking turns at the watch during the night, just to see who will be the one making a roll for detecting the enemy sneaking in. Boring! He might have said we were sleeping and make roll to see whos watch was it when the enemy came... If anyone wasnt going to sleep through the night, he could interrupt the GM when he said "you were all sleeping".

After each fight we would describe: "I loot this guy". The GM would say "You found X". Then Someone would have to declare "I loot that guy". We would find Y. We would have to gather shell casings for our ammo to be refilled (low resource post apo setting called Neuroshima). Declaring all this and hearing the effects is boring, as its always the same, mechanical, mundane. There is no story nor roles in it, and this is supposed to be a roleplaying/storytelling game! A description would be shorter and more colorful. It may even be conducted by a player!

Its all down to INTERESTING decisions

The game of roleplaying is about doecisions. "Will I loot the corpse or gather the arrows first" is not and interesting decision. "Will I take the 5min to gather my arrows" isnt one either, unless you have a gang of hundgry orcs chasing you. "Will I sell this crap sword to the one merchant or another" is not an interesting decision. But deciding whether we stay in the city to replenish our supplies, rest etc. or do we leave immediately cause we fear that [insert anything]" is a more interesting one. Once the players decide that they stay, dont make them do chores and mundane tasks. Have the players accustomed to the notion that if you give them the storytelling when there are no big decisions to be made, they should use it to build dialogs and relations with the NPC and other players, they can do some roleplay, have some fun. That they dont have to be busy doing mundane stuff, cause youll take care of that for them.

What about the traps?

Well, we have to think about - what is the player trying to achieve? Well, he wants to reduce the redundant blabber! He does not want to explicitly state that he is alert, and he does not want to be told "you saw nothing cause you didnt look for it". So you might as well talk with him about it. "Okay Joe, your character is pretty alert. The dude always looks for excape routes once he enters a room, kind of a part of being a rogue. But thats not the same as going step by step knocking on every stone or log in the wall. So if there is anything of note in the room, Ill make a secret alertness roll for you, and if you succeed, Ill tell you to roll on your traps or whatev skill. If you fail the first roll, only a active search will let you roll on traps. Its this or going ewerywhere crawling and looking for traps...". Joe should be pretty content with that and have a feelign that you wont screw him over, cause he didnt want to declare the same action everytime, everywhere. This is the advice others had already offered here, but my point is to accentuate that it gets rid of the stupid repetition. Also, my point is not to make it sound like a "well, this rules says you cant, even tho it would be a good idea/make it harder for me to screw with you". If it sounded like that, it would help keep the misunderstanding that the MG is against the players, while his real role is to provide challenges for the players. Without challenge, theyd get bored after the first 15 minutes! But the challenge should not rely on their mistakes, rules "gotcha!"s and similar.

Dont make it a fight with the players

TLDR: I dont like the accepted answers notion to argue with the players and shut em off with " Yeah, sure you can keep a cross bow loaded all the time. Guess what? You're not going to be able to fire it because it will jam or break or go off by itself.". It said that the problem is with player expetations and I agree, but the answer didnt seem to explore this concept all so much. Do you really expect the players to always declare the same boring things just because they dont want to be spendidng their gold on new arrows even tho they could simply pick the whole ones after a fight? Do they expect to get to the interesting stuff, skipping the obvious? All in all - let them have those standing orders. Theyre nothing bad! Actually, they can be good for the story and the game itself. The players do these things to make the game more enjoyable for them, not to fight/annoy you.

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I think that is a game you shouldn't have been in. All the "bad" things you describe sound like a perfectly-acceptable way to run a gritty post-apocalyptic game, for the right group of players. But people's tastes and play styles vary, and not everyone likes gritty games about the details of survival. – SevenSidedDie May 16 '13 at 14:32
Your suggestion transfers a lot of responsibility to the GM. Later in the game I forgot a standing order that the player gave me, which was "I make sure to disguise myself whenever I go to a new place. It'll be a new disguise", and he chewed me out on it. That was when I banned all standing orders from him for a while till we can discuss it. While some standing orders are ok - such as gathering back ammos and such (it's the reload part that gets to me, because reloading takes an action in Savage World). But when it comes to your professional concerns, I see standing orders as lazy. – Extrakun May 17 '13 at 7:25
@SevenSidedDie. Well, for the looting part, it was the looting everyone apart that bugged me, insead of a "we loot them all" "you got X,Y,Z". Extrakun - As for my answer, I must admit, I didnt write it on the angle of players using standing orders to simply avoid rolling or 'cheat'. Im pretty sure now that it doesnt really apply in your case, but I think Ill leave it, at it may help other GMs, whose "standing order' problems are of a different sort :) – K.L. May 17 '13 at 9:10

I do not know under which system you are running this, and the answer may stray from the expectations you might have from your system, but still:

I find it perfectly reasonable that a player may want to always search for traps and hidden stuff in enemy territory, such as a dungeon or hostile residence. It is not reasonable that he is upset about having to roll, since the "standing orders" are just description of the preferred course of action during his infiltration, not a replacement of his search checks. In other words, the standing orders don't let him notice stuff automatically, they just ensure that he searches always.

Also, he should understand that searching stuff takes time. If he is going to do it properly enough to notice everything, he might spend several hours in just a single corridor, and by then, since it's hostile territory, he might've gotten himself into trouble.

An always loaded crossbow is a problem: it causes intense wear on the weapon, and I suggest that if he insists on doing that, you roll dice every time he is in need of the weapon, and on a failure, his weapon is damaged and unusable. If you are going to do this however, make sure to explain this in detail to him beforehand, and roll the die openly. If he is foolish enough to carry a loaded crossbow on his back or somewhere all the time, it might just shoot him during other activities. Make sure you explain this to him as well, if you are going to use that mechanic. You don't want him thinking that you are just angry for being outsmarted with the crossbow – but this is a know-your-player issue. The social consequences of this have also been explained.

During combat, using an action every turn to reload the crossbow is not a problem; that seems to be just a simplification to me. However, retrieving the arrows may be difficult. Some arrows get damaged, lost, or somehow just gone. If its' just a simplification as well, it should not be a problem, but don't let him reuse his arrows indefinitely. I actually let my players do such stuff on their own sometimes, but that requires established trust.

Overall, standing orders should be used to avoid having to repeat the same menial tasks and sentences over and over again, but not to skip around the game mechanics. Make sure both you and your player understand this.

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+1 standing orders aren't a way to outsmart the game, they're a way to stay on top of it. – LitheOhm May 16 '13 at 6:25

Your group hasn't determined the expected behavours of a professional 'hero'.

In addition to taking the same page tool discussion, you need to discuss some additional bits of your social contract. Specifically, the expectation of professionalism in your shared narrative.

If all characters are professionals, then they should be treated as professionals in the story. The implications of this should be hashed out by the players and DM in the sense of "what kind of things are professional actions?" This is not the same as standing orders, as the acknowledgement of professionalism provides that all characters act like professionals. If necessary, when feeling out the boundaries of what constitutes professional behaviour by a 'hero', you might ask for illustrations by each player of them as apprentices doing an action and them as professionals. You might also allow them to say "well, a professional would totally have done that." And by framing the discussion around professionalism instead of personalization, there's a far more objective rubric.

In terms of professional attributes abstracted by skills, it depends strongly on your game. In my Ars Magica game, I've taken a page from Gumshoe and have automatically dispensed information to players who have characters with an (in this instance) Intrigue greater than X.

A fundamental problem here is in the breakdown of trust. Framing the regaining of trust around professional standards and which characters have them, provides a way to discuss and circumscribe the narrative around an objective standard. It also relies on you not being a silent bastard. If you are entering a level where specific actions are filled with "gotchas" then signal clearly to the players that previously silent actions are now explicit, and why. By agreeing to note when you're being pedantic, you can set clear boundaries and help to rebuild trust.

You should also have a discussion, as part of the social contract, on what level of logistics tracking is desirable. In a grim n' gritty game, tracking every last bolt can be interesting. Most of the time, non-magical ammo is assumed to just "be there" unless stated otherwise. It is crucial to negotiate the level of logistics and accountancy the game entails: a game of Dark Sun will be different from the typical Ars Magica covenant and both of those worlds different from the standard 4e adventure. By gaining consensus on the level of detail of different parts of the world, the group can gain trust in each other.

You note that:

For the first case, I just assume that he is being alert but the player still does get upset when I ask him to make check rolls. For the second case, I told him upright that I am not his automated helper.

This is actually worth discussing with the player and is a direct consequence of the assumptions and impositions of the game system. The best way to explore the differences in approach is in the fourthcore adaptation to D&D 4e, where they explicitly call out the "old school" players must voice intention to the "new school" that doesn't require the player to declare "I check under the second desk drawer by pulling it all the way out and thumping it to see if there's a hidden panel in the back."

The trick is that both of these approaches are correct. They just tend not to cooperate well. Again, this is a question of objectivity and system. Explore the various cases of player-articulation versus system-intermediation with the player. It may turn out that your player is trying to play a different game. By looking at these instances, the group can gain consensus on what they find most fun, especially as a function of the professionalism discussion above. The benefits of the die-roll is that exploring a room in a dungeon doesn't take an hour. The downside is that failure is possible and can be blamed on an external source.

In all of these, this is a conflict of gaming heritage. And when discussing heritage conflicts, it's important to, as much as you can, externalize the discussion and gain consensus. Another option, of course, is to borrow a page from Fourthcore and allow both skill-based rolls and player-intention. Just make sure everyone is OK with the concomitant slowdown.

Another factor here is in the price of mistakes. When failing to search the third stone on the left for a tripwire lead to insta-death, the players tended to be... more conservative. Make sure to articulate and set boundaries on the nature of a failed skill roll. You may want to explore more or less abstract systems as the consequence of this discussion. Try not to force the system you're playing into something it isn't. If the players demand a different granularity of option from the system's mechanics, find a system that suits.

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+1 for professional custom instead of personal customization, great point. Also for discussing logistics. – LitheOhm May 16 '13 at 6:28
+1 for the great discussion of olschool vs newschool and distinction between situations where a roll is enough and when actions matter – K.L. May 16 '13 at 13:27

I'm going to contrast with some answers here.

Red Alert!

The ultra-alert "standing order" is reasonable while in the enemy's stronghold, much less so when walking through the local tavern to get a few mugs at the end of the day. In your question, you say, "This is what the player says as he infiltrates an enemy NPC's mansion." Prudence and caution is called for here. Also, when he checks into an inn for the night, checking the room for secret doors or traps would be reasonable. However, if he's doing this when walking down the road, then you need to follow the rules. Depending on system, IIRC you can travel at most half of the character's move rate while tracking or attempting to avoid find/avoid traps. If the character wants to do that, fine, but make sure that folks on the road PASS HIM and then comment as to how slow he's going. He can either reduce his "alertness" and go faster, wave the people around him, or continue to create a traffic-jam.

Reusing arrows

As others have said, this goes to weapon maintenance and is something that shouldn't be fussed over. I think a quick conversation between you two to handle exactly what happens after a battle is necessary. If the PC is already rolling the bodies looking for loose change and other treasure, then pulling out arrows should not be much of an issue. Sometimes arrows/ammunition is unrecoverable/damaged/lost. Maybe your missed shot hits the tree next to the bad guy, maybe it flies over the edge of the cliff behind the bad guy. When I DM, I tell my players that of all arrows fired, assume 1 in 4 is unusable again, unless they have the appropriate trait to be able to make/fix arrows.

How to successfully handle standing orders

Before I begin, I am not throwing any daggers at the player or DM here, just stating some observations I've seen in my playing-days...

I've seen arguments develop because a player forgets to tell a DM that they clear a firepit before building a fire (something a Ranger with Firebuilding and who has spent their entire life in the woods would know to do) because the DM then declares that they lose X significant gear to the resulting forest fire. I've also seen the "laid back" DMs get into arguments with players because the player WOULD have declared an action had they known that same action was no longer "routine" and was now "mission critical". In the forest fire example above, if the DM usually assumes the Ranger clears the debris, and now that the bad guys are searching for the PCs (and failed their tracking roll a few miles back)... a-HA! They investigate the forest fire and find the PCs running from the flames.

One campaign we played had lots of "routine" stuff that would be easily interrupted by events. For example, you are half-way through setting up camp and wandering monsters would attack. We had to specifically write down things we had a "fixed procedure" on and then we worked out with the DM how long each task on the list would take and did a poor-man's Gantt Chart for completing the check-list (task A and B must be done before doing task C, etc.). Once we started playing, we worked up a party-wide procedure that included anything we all did collectively (set/strike camp, cook dinner, how we did watches, marching order, etc.).

How to get rid of these standing orders

Unfortunately, if this guy just joined your group and was burned hard-core by a former DM on the "you didn't tell me your clothing today, so you are walking around nekkid" thing, he will have honed his reflexes to account for this scenario. Just telling him "you don't gotta do this..." is like telling a tiger that prairie grass is much more tasty than wildebeest. However, you can lead him to your preferred interaction level just by touching base with him outside of game and addressing your concerns. What things do you as a DM assume happen without a character declaration? What things does he feel would be reasonable that you should assume and (maybe) don't currently assume? He may have started doing this because of something he saw you do that you may not even realize you did, as happened to me when I DM'd. Either way, after you and he are on the same page as to expectations and assumptions, he will inevitably back-slide, and you may also get annoyed/irritated at his back-sliding, but with time he should come around.

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+1 for handling it as a person-person dilemma instead of just an in-game. – LitheOhm May 16 '13 at 6:21

For the first, it's not super duper difficult to say that it's unfair. Unless they have a feat or quality that says otherwise, they can't just "always be on high alert". They get the same chance to spot things as anyone else, unless they go to look. If they complain, simply tell them that they were too busy examining [shiny potentially deadly thing like a candlestick] to see the pressure plate.

For the second, that's more reasonable; though be sure to point out that crossbow bolts may break or snap-it's okay to assume that someone's ready for combat, but if he just wants infinite ammo from the same pool of 20 bolts, be sure to enforce penalties.

The Evil Route

This is what I do when my players abuse this sort of thing. I've literally had to deal with both of these. For the first, all you need to do is roll every time it could possibly be necessary, behind a GM screen (or out in the open), implying that it is the character's perception check. If he asks what he finds, grin evilly and say (if appropriate) "Nothing.", ignoring the fact that there may have been nothing to find in the first place. Eventually he'll stop searching everything, or descend into total paranoia if you pull it off right. For the arrows, I'm the sort of GM who will punish players for being cheap-arrows and bolts aren't meant to be reused. They'll splinter, and then break apart on firing. Increase the chance of an automatic failure/glitch when they recycle equipment (in d20 this would be modeled by making stuff automatically fail on rolls of 1-2 or even more in extreme cases, Pathfinder has good rules for this), and have it fail at crucial moments. Arrows and bolts could also lose their heads, making them ineffective.

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Sounds to me this is a simple lack of communication between the GM and the player. Talk to him, ask him what he expects. Usually things like this happen when the player is interested in something else other than mundane checks. eg: Roleplaying with npcs, fighting stuff, some even just want you to be more creative.

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I think the answers given so far cover most aspects. However, an angle that has not been mentioned is the effect that the game's genre and atmosphere would have on what 'standing orders' were allowed and generally how you'd deal with them.

For example, in an apocalyptic survival game where resources were at a premium and characters had to count every single bullet/arrow, I would approach this differently to heroic fantasy where characters were demi-gods.

The level of 'realism' is again important, and I think this partly comes down to the system/setting but also individual GM styles. I've known GMs who make players roll for every single arrow to see if it breaks, whilst others gloss over the issue entirely.

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Is the player/character trying to get free actions, or simply describing what he does when he's not doing anything else?

Any game has a certain amount of hand-waving to get past the boring parts (in the same way you don't keep the game in combat turns while you cross three days of desert). So my benchmark would be "is this something the character can be doing in their 'free time'".

(Warning: the following will be d20 centric (simply because it's easy to link to the SRD) - your game system of choice may have different mechanics).

Using your examples: "I am always searching for traps". Well, it takes a full round action to search a five-foot square for traps. So if you want to be always searching, that means you're moving 5 feet a round (and not taking any other actions). If they really want to do that, sure - but I suspect the rest of the party won't put up with that pace for long.

"Also, assume that I am searching for secret doors as well." That's another full-round action... per wall. So again - if the party is willing to deal with moving at a glacial pace, sure. (Not to mention the mountain of Search rolls, none of which are guaranteed to actually find a trap or door).

"Assume that I am always looking around me wary and being alert for the slightest sound." You get this by default via reactive Spot or Listen checks. Saying you're wary and alert doesn't give you any bonuses here. If you want to actively do either, that's a move action. (Two if you're being alert both audibly and visually).

So, I'd put it to the player thusly - if they really want to be actively searching, listening, and spotting at all times, they can - but they'll be moving incredibly slowly (in open field they're going to move 5 feet every other round!) and that's no guarantee that you're going to catch everything.

In whole, that string of "standing orders" has the smell of trying to dodge game mechanics via meta-play. (i.e. I didn't put ranks in Spot, but I said I was watching so I must automatically see things, I've been moving at a run but I said I was searching for traps..)

On the other hand,

"I always recover my spent ammo [crossbow bolts]. Unless I say otherwise, I always reload my crossbow."

This is fairly reasonable - if you're doing this out-of-combat there's almost certainly a spare moment to do this. And really, this is what standing orders should be: what weapon do you have out by default, marching order, that sorta thing.

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You can run Instincts similar to how Burning Wheel does it but to an extent I think that requires a bit more openness between the players and GM than you get in most games. The mechanics are explained here.

If you're going to run with these, a couple tips:

  • Ideally, use something like the Trait system as well, which rewards roleplaying by awarding Fate Points any time a character calls on a trait in such a way that it complicates things for the party, or is funny, or otherwise advances the story in a new and interesting way. Note that "interesting" != "positive". If a player has an Instinct that they notch an arrow into their bow at the first sign of trouble, by all means, let them RP that in non-optimal situations and give them some of your game's version of Fate if they do (for instance, maybe you could turn it into an automatic re-roll a la Mutants and Masterminds if they spend one).
  • If you're not going to use Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits, feel free to monkey's paw the crap out of those standing orders. If it really is just a time-saving mechanism, this isn't necessary, but if it's something like "I always put on a new disguise", introduce it yourself, and make sure it's introduced at the most inconvenient time possible. "Hey look, it's your old friend Grondrard from the next town over. You saved his family last week. Surely he'll give you a big discount on armor... Oh wait, he doesn't recognize you. The new disguise, sorry!"

Admittedly, I don't particularly enjoy doing the latter to players, but then I prefer to play as less of an adversary GM and as more of a facilitator. The players don't "trip me up" or "confuse my plans", I present them with situations and they respond to them (or, if I'm doing something like Burning Wheel, they present me intents and I respond to them). There is probably a time and a place for "whoops, you forgot to loot every corpse when you said you were looting corpses!", but I have yet to see it.

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Your second is what I've memorably seen called "zipper DMing" making the PC take damage because they didn't declare they put their junk away before doing their zipper up. Collecting arrows is a simple thing easy to do after every battle and can be made part of the routine just like cleaning a blade.

On the other hand "I am always looking for traps wherever I go"? Seriously? How are they always looking for traps? Ask them if they want to move slowly, searching. What actions they are taking to search for secret doors - and how suspicious they think they look taking them. And then give them some background noise in a city. Let them offer the tradeoffs - if they want bonusses they can offer you penalties instead; it's not the general assumption that PCs are clueless, walking into danger without a care in the world.

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It is unreasonable for him to think he shouldn't have to roll checks at all.

But I think it wouldn't hurt to give him a small bonus to spot/search rolls if it'll make him happy.

But there should be some sort of penalty. Maybe it causes him to tire out more quickly. If he refuses to rest, invoke the forced march or sleep deprivation rules.

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If he's going to insist on it, I suggest shorthanding it to make it easier on both of you.

There's a lot of ways to shorten repeated checks like this, but here are a few solutions for the ones you've named specifically.

Always Searching

Take 10 is the natural solution to this - assume they are, if not aware of the probability of traps, taking 10 wherever they go. They will still be sneaking around and acting quite shifty with each step, but this is a good medium for the unreasonable rogue. If they feel like they need to look less shifty or be a bit quicker, offer them Take 5 (very basic, rudimentary, over-the-shoulder checking for traps).

Retrieving Arrows/Bolts

One roll, exaclty one, to determine how many they recover. Use whatever skill you find most appropriate (search, appraise, a generic "find arrows" roll, whatever you like) and out of the number of arrows they used, determine that X number are recovered for X result (Even on a 20, I'd advise against giving them back all the ammo they used. Ammo breaks easily, they should only be able to recover a modest amount after-battle).

Crossbow Always Knocked

Misfire chance if done constantly. Simple as that. Let them know about this ahead of time.

A little preparation goes a long way towards keeping the game flowing. Get a few standards set up, and you won't even notice these 'standing orders' anymore.

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Rather than cast standing orders as showing problems in player expectations, we can constructively cast them as revealing character dispositions, so making the effort players put into devising their SOs as showing what kind of characters they are playing.

In this way, players who make the effort to formulate SOs are probably making the tactical approach of their PC clear; if the dispositions behind all a PC's SOs are coherent and fit the PC's class/kind of character, there should be no problems with SOs.

Five pairs of dispositions

Now, any adventurer might be considered to worry about things like looking out for dangers or conserving resources. But different kinds of adventurer might be concerned about these things in different ways, and a nice thing about 'standing orders' is that they express relative concerns:

always checking for trap/secret door (the Checker SO) - risk averse, patient, perceptive; perhaps as opposed to bold, reckless, and intuitive

always looking around me wary and being alert for the slightest sound (the Alert SO) - systematic, perceptive; perhaps as opposed to impulsive, intuitive

always recover my spent ammo (the Retriever SO) - thrifty, bold and intuitive; in some degree of conflict with the risk-averse Checker SO; also note the thrifty disposition tends to be associated with low-born, penny-pinching, ungenerous and the like, so I'll oppose it to classy

always reload my crossbow (the Quickdraw SO) - bold, intuitive, impulsive, aggressive; almost exactly opposed to the dispositions of the Checker SO, and might say aggressive is opposed to peaceful

We can say that there is a pretty high degree of tactical incoherence between the Checker SO and the Quickdraw SO: I've labelled the dispositions of the former as risk averse, patient, perceptive, each of which is opposed to a disposition I've described for the latter.

Dispositions and the D&D character classes

In the D&D character class archetypes, for a fighter to be cautious, relatively speaking, will different than for a rogue: the fighter type will generally worry about things like initiative and seeming leader-like; caution might be oriented towards unexpected dangers such as the ambushes a vanguard might face. We see the above conflicts among the four SOs from the question:

  • The Checker SO almost certainly is going to be bad for a military leader: paranoia is bad for morale, and so a GM might warn a fighter of the dangers of this SO. The Retriever SO might look stingy to a general - a leader will prefer to look classy rather than thrify - let alone a warrior-king, but to a mercenary, it's all part of keeping missions profitable;
  • The Alert SO will be something that some fighters will tend to have as a priority and others might say is the scout's job. It is (as noted above, and see the Some problems section) almost perfectly incompatible from the kind of dispositions seen with those of the Quickdraw SO.

The same dispositions look different for a rogue, who will tend to have such concerns as: who can see what I am up to? A rogue's caution might be oriented to such things as the traps a burglar might face or what the town guard might see. Both the Checker SO and Alert SO seem to go with the territory: you might ask the player: what sort of situations would lead your rogue to be impatient or impulsive? But the incautious Retrieving SO might look reckless to a rogue: do you really want to walk across the creaky floorboards for a 2gp quarrel? Or across the town square in daylight to retrieve the same? That's not what they taught you at the guild!

Dispositions and character growth

A thing about making dispositions explicit is that they feed into character growth: the low-level fighter who was the hesitant, penny pinching type finds herself in a leadership situation, and changes into a bolder and more generous type overnight, for entirely in-character reasons.

Some problems with SOs reconsidered

  1. Aren't players who go about listing SOs showing that there is some expectation problem in the game? (see Sardathrion's answer)
    • No, except if they are defensive about their SOs, or their SOs aren't coherent with each other or their character class. If the players and GM agree about the dispositions that lie behind each SO and character class, then I believe there will be no expectation problem of the sort Sardathrion describes;
  2. Should the GM always try to trip up the player's plans? (See Kyle's answer)
    • Be careful, since tripping players up in this way risk undermining trust (see Brian's answer) in the player-GM game contract. Of course, in some RPGs, defensiveness and GM-as-adversary might be good: e.g., Paranoia, and, sometimes, Call of Cthulhu; more commonly, there should be some telegraphing or warning that the GM will do this.
  3. Is the Alert SO bad, in particular? (See valadil's answer)
    • It will be if it is combined with SOs that have opposed dispositions, and I have the Alert SO disagreeing with the Quickdraw SO with respect to both the systematic--impulsive and perceptive--intuitive axes. The combination of the Alert SO with the Quickdraw SO is even worse, disagreeing on a third, risk-averse--bold axis
    • Among others, SevenSidedDie's answer describes some potential traps. In general, if a player insists of SOs with incoherent dispositions, then the GM should expose the pitfalls, either in discussion or by setting the PC with situations where the SOs are in tension.
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