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As a GM, I occasionally run into situations where the players want to do something very poorly thought-out. Honest mistakes, not intentional derailing. In these situations, I often feel the urge to warn them, or ask if they're really certain what they're doing. It just feels wrong for a situation to be ruined for the players just because a one of them forgot about something. A pronounced example:

GM: The gate is closed. Two guards stand before it. "I need to see your invitations", one says.

Player: Are they armed, do they look dangerous?

GM: They're armed and armored. Each has a halberd, a helmet and a breastplate with the comital emblem. They don't look very skilled or hardy, most likely they're peasants conscripted into guard duty.

Player: I can take two peasants, CHAAARG-

GM: Uh, you do realize you actually have an invitation, right? Are you certain you want to fight?

Player: Oh yeah. I produce my invitation and present it to the guard.

...

And a less pronounced one:

GM: The compound is ahead of you, surrounded by a wire fence. The barbed wire, as your informant let you know, has been temporarily removed for maintenance work. A lone security officer is patrolling the yard, looking bored.

Player: I wait for him to look the other way, and then jump the wire fence.

GM: Are you sure? In the last session you found out the fence has sensors all over, so you'd sound an alarm.

Player: Huh, right. I guess I'll start looking for a way to disable the alarm first...

Now, is this considered bad, undue meddling on the PC's behavior? If so, is there a better way I could handle this, rather than sanity checking player actions?

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    \$\begingroup\$ [Related] What to do when a player character does something suicidal? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 27 '15 at 1:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ Depends. Does their character have a higher wisdom score than the player? \$\endgroup\$ – Sobrique Apr 27 '15 at 9:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ I thought "Are you really sure about that?" was a whole chapter of the GM's guide. \$\endgroup\$ – Adriano Varoli Piazza Apr 27 '15 at 12:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ (Serious followup question) is fun a primary goal of your campaign? How would your players react if they did said stupid thing? Would they want mulligans/backsies? Would they table.flip()? How they react and what they're after is part of being a good GM. \$\endgroup\$ – corsiKa Apr 27 '15 at 18:55

10 Answers 10

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When things like this happen, I always give my players this chance to clarify/confirm, just like you've shown in the examples. My reasoning for this is simple: the game world and what is happening there is closer and more important for the characters than it is for the players. No matter how immersive your storytelling skills and how much everyone around the table has their mind sunk into the game, it's still just a game.

The characters have 100% of their mental capacity to devote to the action they're in—more often than not, their life (or at least career) depends on it one way or another. The players simply cannot pay the same amount of attention, the pesky real world will always commandeer a significant portion of it.

Another important point is that it is much easier to remember something you've actually experienced (seen, handled, been through) than something you have just heard told to you. Again, this gives characters a better chance of being in touch with the situtation than their players.

More than once, I've said to a player: "Yup, you've forgotten this or that, but I know your character wouldn't have. So I'll tell you." This can apply to a lot of things, ranging from the examples in your question to things like "the name of the tavern where we were beaten up last time we visited this city." Even if they don't remember the name itself, they would most likely recognise the place before they blunder in.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "You've forgotten this or that, but I know your character wouldn't have. So I'll tell you." I said almost exactly that to a player in my game yesterday when he made an honest mistake due to it having been a month since we last played. \$\endgroup\$ – thatgirldm Apr 26 '15 at 20:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ In my group we often have the reverse... player says "Didn't we find out something about such-and-such last time? I can't remember the details, but my character would" \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Apr 27 '15 at 0:52
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A very good practive for running RPGs is to make sure that you always know what the players intend to accomplish with the actions they announce they want to do.

The reverse is also true: Make sure that the players are having the facts right on which they base their plans. If you think the players are acting on the basis of false assumptions or misunderstood details, have them explain to you what they want to accomplish and why they think their plan to do it would work. That way you can point out to them anything they seemed to have misheard or misunderstood, and then you should set those things right before they confirm if they really want to go through with their announced action.

If the players simply draw false conclusions from facts they understood correctly, then that's their own mistake and the game should just continue with them trying a bad plan. But when the error lies in the players mistakingly assuming that their characters are seeing something or standing next to something that isn't actually there, then they should get the correct information. Or in other words, the players need to know the things their characters would know. If the characters can see it, but the players are imagining it wrong, then explain to them their mistake. The players can only see and hear what the GM tells them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This. I would try to squeeze in previous player-found details into my descriptions, when I think about them myself. For example with yours: "The compound is ahead of you, surrounded by a wire fence. The barbed wire, as your informant let you know, has been temporarily removed for maintenance work. The only thing standing between your character and the compound is the Y meters high, sensor-rigged wire fence. A lone security officer is patrolling the yard, looking bored." \$\endgroup\$ – Eregrith Apr 27 '15 at 10:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or, if you did not expect the players to forget, put it in the story that follows. "As you ready your weapons, the invitation drops from your pockets" or "You prepare to jump, anxious not to trigger the alarm like the last time". Then give the players a chance to interrupt you. \$\endgroup\$ – Cephalopod Apr 27 '15 at 13:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ The only addition I might suggest to this answer is that if the players have a different understanding of the world than the DM does, the DM shouldn't always correct them, sometimes the DM should subtly adapt the world to match the players' understanding. If a DM's monster attacks Bob because he's in front, and the players all exclaim that Chris was in front, the DM should probably switch the monster to Chris, (and of course, make a note to be more careful about march order in the future) \$\endgroup\$ – Mooing Duck Apr 27 '15 at 16:58
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Almost always, yes. You are their interface to reality and—sometimes—even to their own character's memory. Wanting to avoid the session going drastically pear-shaped just because of an oversight is a valid reason to step in and remind the player of something they've forgotten that their character wouldn't have.

Doing it the way you suggest is perfectly fine, too. Since being okay to intervene in the first place means that it doesn't actually impinge on player agency, the specific "how" you intervene doesn't really matter much.

Except when it's not your job

There is one notable exception though: when the objective and style of play is to challenge the players' skill at interacting with and overcoming the obstacles in the world.

There are two styles of play that focus on this, and where stepping in to remind players of things they forgot would ruin the essential point of the game.

  • In an exploration-focused game of "players against the world", it is their job to remember, apply, and exploit the knowledge and items they have gained for their PC to their benefit. Remembering a key piece of information is a player's sole right and responsibility, and is a skill that is honed by their past successes and failures. (These games often feature easy and frequent character death due to player errors.) In this style, intervening to help the player is a breach of the GM's role as impartial portrayer of the world. The session's events going drastically pear-shaped due to player choice is a feature of this style of play, and doesn't merit trying to avoid.

  • The other style is where player skill at building their character and executing their tactics is the focus. In these games, it is the player's sole right and responsibility to devise and implement clever tactical approaches that maximise their ability to tromp combat and social challenges that you present. In such a game, it would be degrading the players' agency to intervene when they make tactical errors—effectively, trying to play their PC for them, and voiding the personal accomplishment of a win by partially giving it to them.

Both of these styles put a focus on player-skill challenges at a particular locus in the rules and play, and GM intervention in these areas is effectively a betrayal of the group's shared understanding of the point of play, and should be avoided.

Now, it doesn't sound like either of these is the kind of game you're running, based on the examples you chose. (Maybe I'm wrong though, and this is directly useful.) Even if it's not applicable to your group's style, it's still valuable to have the perspective that there are reasons to let players make mistakes and avoid saving them.

The take-away idea is this: installing a safety net underneath the core challenge of your game will likely be felt as a violation of the promised challenge, of playing the game for the players. Where the intervention is not handing them a direct "win" of the core challenge but is instead preventing he game from flying off on a tangent unrelated to the core point of play, then intervention is an excellent idea. In such cases it is supporting the players' pursuit of that play-point by making sure that off-point challenges don't creep in where they don't belong.

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While a player might be distracted, forgetful, or just plain dumb, that does not mean his character is as well. Especially experienced characters should have a certain level of "safe" against player neglect, especially if the situation is touching on their area of expertise.

Eriwan the Bard: "I can take two peasants, CHAAARG-"

GM: "Err... Eriwan should know that attacking those guards would not sit well with the Queen. And he also remembers those invitations you were given."

If the case isn't quite as clear-cut, a roll against appropriate skills or attributes might be called for. (For example if those invitations were given years ago, and never came up for discussion again, i.e. the character might actually have forgotten them as well.)

A similar case is if one of the other characters present should know better. Even if the player of that character does not immediately step in to avoid his comrade's blunder, give him the hint -- and let the characters solve the issue between them. Gives the other player a "character moment" as well.

Ronan the Warrior: "I can take two peasants, CHAAARG-"

GM: "Eriwan, you realize you do have invitations, and charging those guards would not sit well with the Queen."

Eriwan the Bard: "Uh, Ronan, STOP! Geez, you brute, we have invitations... here you are, good sirs, and excuse my friend here, he's been a bit stressed lately."

I use this kind of "character 'safe'" also in other situations, like when the group is planning overland journeys. Even if the player of the Ranger isn't quite up to it, his character will remember important provisions and the like.


All that being said, if a player is repeatedly or willfully neglicient, or starts relying on this "character 'safe'", I would take him aside and talk with him about his choice of profession. A Bard shouldn't be rushing guards, a Ranger shouldn't be just riding into the wilderness unprepared, and a Sage shouldn't spend all day carousing in the Royal Library cantina all day, if you get my meaning. ;-)

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I think you're doing the right thing based on the examples you've given. Realize there's several hurdles tabletop RPGs have which don't exist in other media, and leeway is necessary to clear them:

Memory

The fictional events and situations rest on the memory of the group. A common event in play is someone tries to do something ("I pick up the sword he dropped") and then someone else remembers something that makes it impossible ("Wait, didn't you say it fell off the bridge?" "Oh, yeah, rewind that.").

This is player memory, and it's good to let players know things that would be immediate apparent to the character - because the characters (fictionally) simply SEE the situation in front of them, while the player has to hold it in memory. This capacity also decreases the longer you've been playing in a session, how tired everyone is, and so on.

Communication

Sometimes, as a GM, you forget to say an important fact, or even mistate it. ("Wait, did I say 20 feet? I meant 200 feet. Sorry, tell me again what you would do instead, knowing that."). Being able to rewind or remind players of things helps overcome this issue.

As amusing as "I attack the gazebo!" stories are, in actual play it makes more sense to stop and clarify when things seem like there's a miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Play Expectations

So, there's games where doing some things are "stupid" and the same choices in a different game would be "good play". If you're not clear on what the expectations are as a group to start, you can end up with these problems in play and it makes things less fun for everyone. Is bravely charging a dragon a genre appropriate thing that is appropriate to do? Is it stupid and suicidal? Do all the players at the table know that?

This is another level at which this communication is good.

Negative Reinforcement

There's a lot of games where failure is a lesson. Checkers, Chess, many videogames. You lose, and you learn and you do better. The thing is, in these games, your option to get back into play is often very, very short - maybe seconds, or a minute at most to reset a board. And you play for short periods of time and don't require 3-5 other friends to set aside time with you for it.

In all of these games, "stupid actions" lets you learn how to make better choices later on.

In roleplaying games, however, the time it takes to get back into play, the costs and consequences of bad choices, makes it a high level of negative reinforcement early on in play, and drastically slows how fast you can learn from mistakes.

I remember trying to get people into old school D&D as a kid - when you spend 30 minutes pouring over an equipment list and lose your character to rats within 2 combat rounds, you don't think "Wow, let's do that again", you think "that was a waste of time and not fun and I can't think of how to do that better".

So, early in play you want to do more help in terms of giving players orientation and support in choices and as they gain expertise, withdraw the training wheels and let them do more and more on their own. Obviously, games with a high turnover expectation like Paranoia or D&D type games where each player gets 5-10 characters, makes it easier to do the lose-learn loop without losing players altogether.

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One thing you need to remember when running a game is that the players do not have the benefit of actually living out the experience being role-played (unless you're LARPing). They can't feel the invitation in their pocket, they don't remember personally being burned by the sensors on the gate last time they tried to climb them, so they aren't going to remember things as well as an 'actual person' would in that context.

It's fine to nudge them along if they're forgetting something, and that's because of one simple rule about RPing - conflict is only good if it improves the game. Unless you're going for a strictly simulationist game, you should guide players away from actions that will only make the game more frustrating for them, and towards actions that will make it more rewarding and enjoyable.

In both your cases, the action they were about to take would disrupt their plans and spoil the session of play - so it was a good idea to help them out.

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Perhaps have them make a check (perception to notice the alarm's tripwire, intelligence to remember the invitation, knowledge X to recall that this is a foe likely to wipe the floor with them.)

If they succeed on the check, you can give the player the warning because their character has cleverly remembered or noticed it.

If they fail, the player(s) will wonder why you asked them to make the check and try to work out what they might be missing, and might get there on their own.

Either way they get to roll a die, so a) they feel like they have some influence on the outcome, b) they genuinely had a chance to receive the warning, and c) rolling dice is fun. ;-)

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This very much depends on the specific game, game master, group, and the group's expectations. Unless the game is explicitly about the PCs getting into trouble (Paranoia especially comes to mind) or if players are new or new to the system, I caution the players for the first few sessions. If they don't pick up on it, then I let them get into trouble and consider it a learning experience.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There's at least one game that offers a “GM common sense” warning as a mechanic/merit the players can buy—Vampire: the Masquerade, I think? \$\endgroup\$ – okeefe Apr 26 '15 at 20:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ GURPS has the advantage Common Sense, too. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Apr 27 '15 at 14:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, "Common Sense" is a Merit in VtM that says the GM will warm the player before they act foolishly, and sometimes give them helpful pointers. Since I like non-competitive (out-of-character) games, and we're not trying to test players' memories, I usually treat all players as having a minor version of this Merit. \$\endgroup\$ – Jessa Apr 27 '15 at 18:12
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Personally I'd go for something mechanically based.

I.e. in the *D&D family I'd make everyone in the party try a Wisdom save (maybe starting from the character with the highest score to the lowest) and as soon as one of them makes it I'd explain what their characters seem to be missing.

Even for games where "Wisdom" is not present you can use either IQ, or a relevant skill (Tactics for a stupid plan, psychology or some communication skill if they risk to offend someone, etc.).

You don't have to be too heavy handed - just explain why someone with a bit of "wisdom" should really pause and rethink. If they insist with the original idea, let it be. Also, take in account that hopefully your players will learn that when you say... "Jane, can you please roll a Wisdom save?" they are missing something obvious and will probably correct themselves without needing the actual roll.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've made a few of these wisdom (or sometimes knowledge) checks in certain situations, but most of the time I'll just remind the players of what their characters know. It depends on how obvious the stupid thing is. If the characters could feasibly make this mistake, I'll lean more towards the check. Even then, it's important to let the players make the actual decision. The check just gives them information. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Apr 27 '15 at 23:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DCShannon - yes, that's what I meant: give them information but do not force them to change their plans if they don't want to. Also in game systems with alignment or some other "enforced" character traits (e.g. Pendragon) you might maybe push a bit harder, but the ultimate decision has always to come from the PLAYERS. \$\endgroup\$ – p.marino Apr 28 '15 at 8:33
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Your question and examples are inconsistent.

Your question is about players doing something stupid. Your examples are about players forgetting something, and thus taking an action that would be stupid if (and only if) it were taken with full knowledge of the facts.

If your player decides to take on the Tarrasque, despite having been told legends of it leveling entire cities, then he is being stupid, and you should let him die. If those legends were told to the player 3 weeks ago, then you are perfectly justified (in most groups, obviously this is personal preference) saying "your character suddenly remembers..."

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    \$\begingroup\$ This... almost seems like more of a comment than an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Apr 26 '15 at 23:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ On the other hand I think it is a reasonable (if somewhat low quality) answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Apr 27 '15 at 17:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a comment nitpicking semantics, not an answer. It might not be stupid for the players, since they've forgotten something (although one could argue that's part of doing something stupid), but they're clearly stupid actions for the characters. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Apr 27 '15 at 23:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tritium21: The last paragraph does answer the question. In fact, it (IMO) even answers it quite well, despite using much fewer words than some of the other answers. The only minor tweak I'd like to see would be an explicit note that player forgetfulness is just one of the ways in which players can end up with incomplete knowledge; for example, if the DM forgot to tell the player how dangerous the Tarrasque is, even though their character should've heard about it, that's also an (even better) reason to warn them before they try to punch it on the nose. \$\endgroup\$ – Ilmari Karonen Apr 28 '15 at 7:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ A criticism that the question is incoherent is fine in a comment but is misplaced in an answer, since choosing to write an answer indicates you feel you do understand the question as a whole, both title and body. (Also note that titles can be changed to better match the question body, so criticising a title is wasted words.) I would suggest removing the critique and writing it as a comment on the question instead. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Apr 29 '15 at 5:36

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