Abstraction, scale, stunting

I run an AD&D 1e game for some close friends and family, none of whom had ever roleplayed before. (Now they’ve been at it for year, and have reached level 3, so I guess they aren’t quite “brand new” to the hobby, but they still have trouble with the actual rules.) I’m currently running T1 Village of Hommlet. One of the characters, Whiff, had climbed atop the exterior wall of the moathouse, which looks like this:

His player, Arbor, wanted him to jog along the crenelations and check out the perimeter of the old fort. A good plan.

As the party was separated, I rolled random encounter checks for both groups (the main body of the party, and Whiff) simultaneously. Whiff had the misfortune of encountering a giant tick at 30 feet with surprise. I decided that the tick must be on the wall as well, and in front of Whiff, or else no encounter would even happen. (Whiff was much faster than the tick, and Arbor knew the tick had no treasure, so they wouldn’t have even had to make any tactical choice: they would have just said, “Ok, I keep going and ignore the tick”. In which case, why did I bother rolling?) So Whiff had to kill the tick, get over or around it, or turn back and flee from it.

The tick moved on its one segment of surprise, not even reaching Whiff. Whiff won the next initiative round. Another player, Dean, urged Arbor to kick the tick off the rooftop. “Ok,” I said, “Make a normal attack roll, and if you hit, then instead of doing damage you kick the tick off the roof.”

Dean was shocked. “What do you mean? Can’t he just do it?”

I explained that I didn’t think he could. The tick had an AC of 3 (if I recall correctly) and 15 HP. One combat round is a full minute long. In that time, you’re already trying everything you can to hurt the tick, including kicking it. Its low AC and high HP are abstractions telling us in general how hard it is to defeat it, not just how thick its skin is and how many “meat points” it has. But, if a character wants to give up their chance of damaging an enemy, and focus all their efforts on one particular action (“stunting”), they can. But it’s not automatic. The game already tells us how hard it is to defeat the tick, with its AC and HP. Stunting bypasses the HP, but not the AC – that’s double-dipping.

He was not really convinced, but he went along with it. We haven’t talked about it since.

I think there are plenty of different reasonable reactions a different referee could have had here. I even think “Ok, you kick it off!” is a reasonable reaction, as long as it’s applied consistently. (But this would be pretty punishing if it were applied consistently – I doubt the players would want to be kicked off of ledges willy-nilly themselves.)

I was struck, in this example, by the depth of the misunderstanding here. We’d been picturing the relationship between the rules and the in-game actions totally differently. I still don’t think Dean has come over to my side.

I’m curious how you would have handled this misunderstanding/disagreement, when such things have arisen in your games, how you might have explained my point of view (as you understand it) differently, and all the rest.

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It’s not clear to me what Dean’s counterargument was. You mentioned he didn’t agree, but you didn’t say how.

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Good question! He thought a character should simply be able to kick a tick off a wall. How hard could it be?

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Mh … I mean, is this maybe a misunderstanding that a giant tick is a definite monster in this game, and that humongous creepy crawlies are not at all fun and games?

Did the player know what a giant tick was before? How did the giant tick get introduced? How did it turn from stats on paper to shared fiction? It looks to me like the problem might have been there.

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In my experience, this is the most common cause of this kind of disagreement. Given how small normal ticks are, a “giant tick” could be anything between the size of a boot and an elephant.

It happened also to me and everytime I had the presence of mind to help realign what everyone had in mind for the scene, things smoothed over. Maybe the discussion dragged on for a while because some disagreement survived, but at least we are discussing the same scene.

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I think it’s still hard to know for sure what the disconnect might be without hearing Dean’s reasoning. Two possibilities come to mind for me (but it could be something completely different for Dean, so take this with a grain of salt or consider this speaking more generally to the issue):

One, as mentioned by @Froggy and @thekernelinyellow, this could be a case of a misapprehension of the specific physical attributes and spatial relationship of the parties involved. I.e., “It’s just a tick!” “No - it’s a big tick! Plus, ticks are hardy little guys who can really get a grip on things, so it isn’t as easy as all that.”

Two, a misunderstanding around which procedures might be used in a case like that. I.e., “Why does he have to roll to hit? He doesn’t want to damage the tick, he just wants to kick him off the edge.” In this case, is it understood that we will be using elaborations on the “usual” combat rules to handle these kinds of stunting situations, and, if so, how are those elaborations brought up and assented to by the group.

I’ve played a little bit of (my own variation on) AD&D 1e over the last year, and I found we often had to slow down and work our way through some cases, just so we all stayed on the same page about what about this specific case was leading us to follow these procedures. Partly this is due to AD&D 1e having a lots of potential levers to pull, at any given time, for many different situations, without it always being clear which way would be the best way forward. But partly this is just the nature of the activity: even in a game where this might be procedurally more straightforward — say, Tunnels & Trolls — you’d still be in a position of having to explain your thinking about why kicking the tick would be, say, a 1st level saving throw and not an automatic success.

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@pigdog, it might be interesting to have Dean give his take here, if he’s open to that. We’ve had some good success on La Locanda with stuff like this—inviting multiple people to give an account of their perspective of a session.

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Good questions and points, all! I don’t think Dean would make an account or write up his experiences, but I’ll ask him if he remembers this the next time we talk. (It wasn’t a big event, just something that stuck in my mind, and which I thought was probably relatable.)

I strongly agree with @Jon_H 's delineation of causes, and I think in this case it’s cause number 2. I had introduced giant ticks before, and one had nearly killed a character the previous session. Dean didn’t think Arbor should engage with it just because he knew how dangerous it was.

On the other hand, maybe he had a different, less holistic conception of “danger levels” for monsters. Under that conception, no matter how many HD a monster might have, if it’s short then it can be kicked. Hard to know without asking him!

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I want to propose a different track for possible evaluation, which is how you perform your response to the players’ idea.

“I wanna kick this thing off the roof!”

A: (cool, calm, collected) “I see. Well make your attack roll just as you would with any of your previous attacks, just the same way as everyone does on their turn. Do what everyone else does, and make an attack roll.”

B: (flabbergasted, cackling) “Ahaha!! Holy shit, really? HAHAHA, oh my god. Excellent, did you all hear that? Okay okay okay. Ummm…let’s say…it’s an attack roll to see if you connect…then we’ll see what happens!”

C: (shocked, aghast) “Oh my god…you’re gonna…” (flips through book dispiritedly) Muttering: “…gonna just…kick it off the roof…” (exclaims) “DAMMIT! This was going to be a huge fight! He’s just gonna kick it…” (mumbling) “I guess go ahead and make the attack roll…I can’t frickin believe it!!!”

I propose that B and C will result in more satisfaction on the part of a player than A. When someone proposes something unusual or an edge case, what they want (in addition to wanting to kick the monster off the roof) is some recognition of their creativity and cleverness. And even if you want to channel the adjudication of that back into the system (a very natural and even laudable goal), recognizing their cleverness through outsized emotional response on your part feels really good and heightens the energy around the table. In the case of B it’s cheering them on, in the case of C it’s a more competitive atmosphere. But A…the cool, competent, collected response has the subtext that “you didn’t really do anything special here; I can always just make you do what I want because I decide how to enforce the system.” It doesn’t feel great!

So my question is less about the reasoning and more about the performance. How did you seem to react?

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Sorry, JD, I think you’re mistaken here.

We’re really talking about the misunderstanding regarding the reality of (a) the actionable fictional details and (b) what mechanics are applicable to resolution in this specific instance.

You’re moving the goalpost from “how did they get to this misunderstanding here” to “how to influence players to accept your rulings”—I really don’t think that’s a productive discussion.

Additionally, I’ve seen hypothetical examples and “what would happen if you did this” degrade the quality of discussion very quickly, as it moves from actually occurred play to impossible to verify hypothetical future play.

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Since there was no explanation of the other person’s position, I wanted to raise the possibility that it wasn’t based on actionable fictional details, but rather on presentation. Misunderstandings are not always based on what is happening in the fiction or on what mechanics do. Sometimes they are based on how people feel about what they’re told.

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If you want to take it from a more constructive angle, maybe you can relay your own experiences where you ran into similar problems.

At this point speculating without more information from @pigdog is unwise.

That’s why I ended with a question rather than a statement, to try to get more information.

As for previous experiences, I can definitely say that a lot of my D&D experiences got a lot more lively when I played up elements of the system emotionally. There’s a strong element of gambling in D&D (especially outside the magic system), and just as (when gambling) it’s more fun if there are onlookers cheering you on or rivals cursing your luck, hyping up the table became a normal part of my D&D practice. Even in D&D games that don’t have a strong competitive element due to being more easygoing, playing up GM responses “just” for laughs still had the same effect. Once people are smiling and having fun they’re more receptive to statements that might be unexpected.

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I think I get a little bit better what you were trying to say, now. I do agree the element of cheering and cursing and other table talk is very important in establishing mutual validation about what we’re doing.

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Hi pigdog, glad to see you here.

I stress here that describing a situation in an adventure/challenge roleplaying scenario is like an onion.

  • The referee provide an overview.
  • The player asks questions to have a sharper picture of the actionable elements’ relations. They zoom on the parts they desire to understand.

It’s a referee responsibility to provide a clear context and further explanation to the player. However, it’s the player responsibility to ask questions as well and not give for granted any information. The game works and it’s satisfactory in classic D&D if this happens. My perspective reading your report is that you gave for granted the size by just assuming than quoting the monster name from the Monster Manual was enough to supply all the information needed. Dean didn’t care to ask further information instead of clarify the creature’s size.

If misunderstanding arises, the best solution is rewinding what happened before the choice in my experience.

You can avoid in the future the problem by asking in turn questions like “Are you aware that…”, “If you…. Are you sure?”, and so forth. Before adjudicating by common sense or procedures a situation, be sure that all the parts are informed enough so that they don’t perceive the result as unfair.

If I’ve misunderstood something, correct me and provide further context to help me reading what happen fairly.

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I’d like to know the other player 's view, but I can propose they saw this moment as free fiction because it “felt” free (jogging, alone, above) and they were engaging with that feeling They may have preformed ideas such that combat would be played in group. Like there are two modes: story yes and mode, and tactical combat mode.

This is a really interesting misunderstanding. I’ve definitely seen a variety of such disconnects (and been involved in them), and they’re often really really dumbfounding/surprising. “You think WHAT?”

Definitely a good opportunity to slow down the game and think through the details of what’s happening. Develop a vivid shared imagination of the scene (and this could involve some of the “ooh and ahhh” JD is talking about, perhaps, but that’s not the important part), until you see it together.

I also like to remind people that a refereed game with regular opportunities for rulings is a good candidate for building up precedents over time. We need a certain level of familiarity with how a referee functions to trust the game and its process, and to do that it’s useful to think of each ruling as setting a precedent.

This is kind of like the idea of precedent law in legal matters: we can and should be able to look at prior rulings to get a legitimate idea of how future situations are handled. If we cannot, the game becomes unmoored and nothing is clear - e.g. if the referee’s calls appear to be haphazard and arbitrary, no player can ever have a sense of what strategy is better than another.

Sometimes it can be as simple as saying, “ok, let’s imagine the situation was reversed. How would we handle it?” In this case, it might be a monster trying to kick the PC off the wall (instead of the other way around). We might much more easily agree that it could certainly work, but combat is uncertain enough that there might be a saving throw or some other kind of roll for the PC to avoid such a fate. Then we can return to the current situation and see how applying this principle consistently helps us resolve the situation.’

@DavidBerg’s comics (over here) try to deal with some of these challenges and help us get through them. Sharing your imagination of the scene, any relevant touchpoints (“this seems like the time when we saw…”), and your reasoning for making the decisions you’re making, as player or referee, is really helpful. (“So, I’m imagining it like this: […]” “Oh, no, I thought the wall was much higher!” “Ah, now I see what you mean.” / “Giant ticks are low to the ground and very stable, based on this stat block/illustration/the size of the tunnel it came from, so I think that…” / Or whatever else.)

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“I doubt the players would want to be kicked off of ledges willy-nilly themselves,” is my go-to logic for a “fictional causality first” game. In such games, I tend to find abstractions like AC and HP more confusing than helpful, unless they’re defined in very clear (and usually simple) terms. It sounds like this game might be something else, though! “The game already tells us how hard it is to defeat the tick, with its AC and HP. Stunting bypasses the HP, but not the AC – that’s double-dipping,” is a logic that looks to the mechanics to inform the fiction.

As a player, I can work with either version, but I’d want to know very clearly which we’re using, A or B!

A) If envisioning the fiction leads us to conclude that punting the tick is easy, then we punt the tick with no roll, but must be very careful never to put ourselves in that same fictional situation, because if we do then we too may be punted without a roll.

B) Armor Class tells us something meaningful regardless of the fiction as otherwise described. If we want to refer to our vision of the fiction, that vision must include what the AC tells us, such as that a monster is not so easily kicked off a wall. When the situation is reversed, our own AC scores will also tell us how easily we might be kicked off a wall.

And of course there’s a third option:

B2) The AC score will factor in, but based on how we apply situational bonuses, the fictional specifics might utterly drown it out (-15) or barely impact it (-1). If the game provides objective measures for such bonuses, then we’ll have to reconcile our vision of this specific incident with the game’s arbitration of this general type of incident.

That’s my assessment. What follows next is my personal taste:

If I’m playing a game where the people at the table care whether I can or can’t or maybe can kick a monster off a wall based on the fictional positioning of being up on a wall, then:

  1. Pure mechanical abstraction, while fair, is never actually satisfying.
  2. A highly subjective combo of mechanics and judgment is sometimes satisfying, but sometimes not, and sometimes seems unfair. It can also be hard to communicate. (This is B above.)
  3. If the table can quickly reach agreement on what’s plausible (and then, if multiple outcomes are plausible, use a simple method to resolve which outcome actually occurs), that’s ideal. (This is A above.)

I am also happy to play a game where my ability to punt a monster has little or nothing to do with the fictional positioning of being up on a wall! In that case, it can be pure mechanics, or story logic, or karma points, or part of a script, or a coin flip, or whatever suits the kind of game we’re playing. But if we want to keep caring about that wall, I’ll usually prefer option 3/A.

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To not stall the game on “considerations” I like to narrate our arguments on whether the tick falls or not.
It’s just a change of form: a ping-pong where each side gives an argument. Then when a side can’t come up with a “dynamic” (show don’t tell) argument, they lose (sometimes a second chance is given if the gap is not clear). I thought about ordering arguments by magnitude, in sets, but it always feels too heavy to implement (like, bringing down the pain). Open to feedback if this technique doesn’t work for you.

I would use the mechanical language to make the difficulty explicit.
It is generally hard to get a tick off of whatever they holding to, and it is a very low creature with the center of mass close to the ground, so it will be quite a challenge to kick it off. It has an AC 18, and an attack roll against that sounds reasonable. Any disagreements? Still want to try to kick it down?
(If necessary, continue with … and this gives you about 3/5 chance of actually succeeding.)

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