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Restate the Obvious – “My common sense is tingling”

Have you ever had that weird sensation that you’re not actually playing the same game as everyone else at the table? You’ve described the scene: a noble and his retinue are in a large hall. The noble is about to engage the party in conversation, almost certainly to hand out a mission. And then the rogue chimes in with, “When he starts talking, I’m going to try to pick the noble’s pocket.” You wait for someone else at the table to point out how ridiculous that would be, but they’re all looking at you as if it’s a great idea…

What now? Throw the scene, end up with the group in jail, and maybe convince them to do the job as punishment? Risk a free-for-all as the guards rush in? Let the dice decide? Ignore the request?

Here’s another option that works for me: Take a moment and restate the situation in order to ensure that everyone at the table has the same visual image before proceeding. “OK, let’s clarify this. You’re standing in front of Lord Wassisname, and about twenty other people, most of whom are paying attention to both you and him, many of whom are armed, some of whom are guards.”

You’ve probably played the ‘telephone game’ as a kid. You know the one, where someone in a circle whispers something to the person next to them, who whispers it to the next person, until it comes back around, almost certainly altered from its original meaning. It’s the nature of verbal communication that words get misheard, or dropped entirely, and meanings get altered as we translate what we’ve heard into what we’re imagining. (If you don’t have a mental image of an arrow sticking out of a gazebo by now, you probably haven’t seen this [1] story.)

Let’s start with two assumptions:

  1. One of the main jobs of a GM is accurately communicating everything in the world to the players.
  2. Ultimately, responsibility for accurate communication lies with the speaker, not the listener.

If the players are about to do something that is obviously stupid, there’s a pretty good chance that some critical piece of information was lost or misinterpreted. In the above example, perhaps the rogue didn’t realize that “retinue” means “entourage”. GMs such as myself, who try to emulate Gygaxian prose or use archaic words should be especially vigilant, as many of our players (and sometimes even we) may not be as knowledgeable as we think about such things. (For further proof, continue reading my blog posts; I’ll eventually do something stupid based on a misinterpretation.)

The players are not entirely off the hook, either. Communication is a two-way street, and the listener needs to help carry the load by paying attention, providing feedback, seeking clarification when necessary, and making sure that her assumptions and visual image are shared with others at the table. The roles are reversed when the player is acting. She needs to make sure that the GM understands her, and he needs to pay attention, etc.

GMs: This is not a license to question your players’ actions. We’re all pretty familiar with the awe-inspiring ability of players to leave a GM (or an entire table) shocked and speechless with a single action that is simultaneously so brazen and stupid as to earn him a reputation to rival that of the French at military matters or the Japanese at wholesome and mature graphic novels. I don’t think any amount of restating the situation will (or even should) stem the tide of “you do WHAT?” moments in the game.

But what can be caught are mistakes based on simple miscommunication or unspoken assumptions. My own example is from D&D: I was playing a barbarian with a few ranks in Climb, and our party came across a cliff we had to climb down. It was about forty feet to the bottom, and the GM described it as a typical rock wall. I looked at my own experience with climbing and at my character’s stats, figured that “a typical rock wall” should be pretty easy for him, and went to climb down.

What I didn’t know is that the D&D rules consider “a typical rock wall” to be about as difficult to climb as a brick wall. I had considered it about as difficult as a modern “climbing wall” for beginners, and figured a strong character with some training should be able to handle it, no problem. I was wrong; my character fell on his first check, and took some damage (mainly to the ego; barbarians may not be able to climb, but they sure as hell can take damage). It was no big deal, and I managed to write a nice story about it, but the whole thing could have been avoided had the GM simply restated the situation. “Looking closer at it, you realize that it’s pretty much a sheer cliff; it’s nearly vertical, without a lot of hand and foot holds.”

Restating the obvious will not prevent the over-thought yet under-considered schemes of your players (and secretly, we all do love those schemes), but it will prevent mistakes based on poor assumptions or miscommunication. I consider it as that voice in your head that points out the obvious mistake in your plans, or the gut-level reaction your body has at doing something really stupid. (If you’ve ever felt that last bit of hesitation on the high-dive, or when you’re about to pull that bandage off a sensitive spot, you know what I mean.)

Some GMs like to use the generic “Are you sure you want to do that?” question as a last resort. This is handy, in that it points out that something is wrong, but it’s not specific enough to differentiate a decision based on faulty assumptions from a decision made out of sheer folly. Players will make a lot of questionable decisions in the course of a game, and many GMs may be justified in asking if they’re sure before pulling the trigger, but that’s another topic for another time. Right now, I’d rather just eliminate mistakes based on communication and assumptions.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Restate the Obvious – “My common sense is tingling”"

#1 Comment By PaPeRoTTo On May 16, 2008 @ 4:38 am


You’ve described the scene: a noble and his retinue are in a large hall. The noble is about to engage the party in conversation, almost certainly to hand out a mission. And then the rogue chimes in with, “When he starts talking, I’m going to try to pick the noble’s pocket.”

precise man, you got it exactly as it had been 😛

what i found working with my group (better.. i have found, because i recently changed group).. was an hidden smile.. if i would say “you stupid don’t do this”.. bet that they’ll do it… but a smile from a DM.. it’s like a black hole being opened in the game.. and they’ll try to understand what that smile would have meant….. before it’s too late 😛

(Edited by Telas to fix tagging)

#2 Comment By PaPeRoTTo On May 16, 2008 @ 4:40 am

ehm.. i probably made a mistake with some sort of codes.. 😛 in the brackets i meant to quote the example of the noble and the pocket 😛 and i don’t know why everything else is underlined:P

#3 Comment By LordVreeg On May 16, 2008 @ 6:16 am

I do a lot of sales management and sales training (often, the type where I get brought in after a client is pissed off..what fun), and I invariably deal with an outside salesperson telling me that they explained everything clearly to the client, and that the client is misunderstanding.

And what I have to do (daily, it seems) is explain that their job success is not based on what they say; their job success is based on what the client percieves. I could care less what what said, if the customer percieved somethign different and they did not get this, they did a crappy job.

When we GM, the same is true. What the players percieve from your communication is all that is real, especially since you are creating the whole world ithey exist in, and it is critical they are ‘in the same place’ you are. So your bit about re-establishing the scene is absolutely perfect.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 16, 2008 @ 8:55 am

The catch-phrase of the 1990s. Perception is reality.

Restated for gaming: Perception is a virtual reality.

#5 Comment By Alan De Smet On May 16, 2008 @ 9:17 am

I really, really hate GMs who either don’t realize there is a major misunderstanding about the world, or are just jerks about it.

One of the worst instances I’ve been part of was at Gen Con a number of years ago. Some VIPs are holding a dinner party or some such on a yacht. Terrorists storm the ship and take everyone hostage. We’re the SWAT team and need to go in and rescue the hostages.

We quickly brainstorm a plan: we’ll dress up in all black command gear and gear up with silenced weapons. We’ll get a black rubber raft, and quietly paddle up to the boat pull ourselves up the side and take out the terrorists with a combination of speed and surprise. The GM is paying attention, and once we’ve got the plan sorted out, we say, “Okay, that’s what we’re doing.” The GM mulls this for a moment and announces, “One of terrorists on the deck sees you and shouts an alarm!” “How did he see us?” “Well you’re wearing all black, and it’s the middle of a sunny day, so you’re pretty easy to see.” We pointed out that every single player thought it was night, that it was the foundation of our plan, so could we maybe back up a step? Nope, not happening. We blundered through, but it left us all frustrated and unhappy.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On May 16, 2008 @ 11:39 am

Good technique. This can also work when there are cultural assumptions the character knows but the player (clearly) doesn’t get. As you mentioned, it can be hard to steer a course where misunderstandings are pointed out without it looking like the GM is trying to steer player actions. Still, a little “yes, I know, and I still want to do X” is better than letting a PC plummet to their death because you had different interpretations of “deep crevasse”.

#7 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 16, 2008 @ 3:05 pm

Great article, Kurt! I have too many stories to tell about this one.

One suggestion: you should replace that lightbulb pic with a gazebo!


#8 Comment By Dave On May 16, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

Aye, definitely an important technique – I’ve lost count of the number of times a quick redescription of the scene has resulted in a “Ohhh!” (even if sometimes it’s followed with an “I’m doing it anyway”…)

More importantly, though, I’ve also lost count of the number of times I should have restated things, rather than letting ‘stupid’ PC actions just take their course.

#9 Comment By technochris81 On May 17, 2008 @ 10:55 am

good advice. i can’t tell you how many times i’ve said “are you sure you want to do that” before. some players know that means they need to take a step back and ask a few questions. some players, on the other hand, never learn. spelling it out for them may just be the answer. thanks.

#10 Comment By age On May 23, 2008 @ 2:45 am

Call me cruel, but I prefer to go with “once its said, its done.” More fun that way (for me anyway), and gets the Players paying more attention and asking for clarification (if needed) before opening their pie-holes. C’mon, its only a game….isn’t it???

#11 Comment By Burn_Boy On December 17, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

I am guilty of doing this a few times in my games, and it may seem like I’m trying to foist the blame onto my players, but when I’m describing the room to them, they usually start shouting in the middle of my description that they want to light torches or, in our crazy sorcerer’s mind, light our PCs pants with a Light spell, before I can mention that the room is filled to the brim with Orcs and they’re about to blow the fact that they’re going to lose that lovely round where they’re all flat footed. I’ve gotten better at it, mainly by mentioning the horde of baddies BEFORE the decoration and treasure in the room, but I know they’re worried that I’ll send them into a room and forget to mention the dragon staring at them, deciding that they’d be crunchy and really good with some ketchup and a dash of paprika.

#12 Comment By Piikki On June 27, 2012 @ 8:28 am

Sometimes comparing things also work. We played Runequest some fifteen years ago and my pleyrs ran into a chaos mutated bear that was HUGE in size (in RQ size adds to damage and to hit points) I described bear to them as standing almost 10 meters high. Group replied as one “I draw my sword”. I was lost for a moment. Why do they want to die? Then I decided to take them to window and pointed three story building opposite to ours and said that the bear is that size. They ran.