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Troy’s Crock Pot: GM “tells” and other ingredients

We gnomes often make it a point to say that it’s important to know your players’ tendencies, to riff off their “suggestions,” know when to hit them with the spotlight or even exploit their weaknesses.

Mrs. Annabelle Bransford (Jodie Foster) plays with her earlobe, one of her “tells” that prove her undoing at the poker table, in the 1994 film “Maverick.” (Warner Bros. publicity photo)

But it works the other way, too. GMs have their own tendencies, poker “tells” as Mel Gibson likes to remind Jodie Foster in “Maverick,” and I got reminded of my own recently.

I set up one of my “go to” dungeon crawl situations: facing locked doors on opposite sides of a hallway. The PCs listen at both keyholes. One conversation will be enticing, the other less so. One encounter will be an appropriate challenge to the party’s level, the other will be stronger, almost overpowering.

I mix up the combination, but invariably, I make the overpowering encounter the enticing one. I mean, it’s more fun if you bait the hook, right?

So, after running through this routine, I can sense that most of the players are eager to nibble at the hook. But the party’s leader pauses, looks me in the eye – and smiles. Apparently I failed my bluff check, because he tells the others they’ll tackle the other door first.

Yeah, he read my “tell.”

But the gaming gods were looking after me. As the party’s leader opened the other door, he fumbled his toss of the thunderstone into the room – and flash-banged his own party.

And what was supposed to be a routine encounter – became the overwhelming one.

I guess they should have taken the other door …

There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world

The entrance to a pothole on Skyros, Greece, taken by the photographer 5telios. This and other underground images can be found at the blog, subterraineandesign. (Photo under Creative Commons license)

Looking for a doorway to a dungeon? Wish you could show your players what that first glimpse into the dark places beneath the earth looks like?

Scrolling through just a few pages of the blog Subterranean Design should reveal a treasure trove of dungeon images that can serve as inspiration to fuel those first few steps of your own game.

And it starts right here [3]:

The mad doctor’s mirror

All it took was to set Pandora running some of Scott Joplin playing syncopated piano to get everyone at the table in the spirit of my Fantasy Ragtime game.

One session in, and I’m finding that I’m re-skinning monsters to fit. The setting is Eberron, but with the sensibilities and analogous personalities of the Ragtime era. It also has healthy portions of steampunk (and its close cousin, dieselpunk) thrown in for good measure.

I used an ogre to stand for an unfortunate soul afflicted with the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde formula. (And for those of you scoring at home, Jekyll is pronounced: GEE-kul). This one went down pretty easy. I’ll have to substitute with some beefier monsters as Hydes in the future.

Then I used a sea hag for a mad doctor. That went much better. Sea hags are great mad doctors, especially when they’re wearing their mad doctor headband with mirror, which casts the hag’s evil eye effect.

I’ve nerfed the device a little bit, but should the PCs want to snag the good doctor’s mirror for their own bag o’ tricks, here’s my take on it (as well as some variants) as a wondrous item for the d20 3.5/Pathfinder rules:

Mad Doctor’s Mirror (headband of fear)

Aura: moderate necromancy; CL 5th; Slot head; Weight 1 lb
Description: This item is indistinguishable in appearance from a normal doctor’s mirror, used to reflect light into the ears, nose and throat of a patient. Once per day, this device can direct a fear spell at a single target on the command of the wearer.
Construction: craft wondrous item, fear; Cost 8,000 gp.
Variants: Lesser and greater variants of the headband exist. Unlike the one above, all have three uses per day: Least, cause fear, CL 3rd, cost 2,000 gp; Lesser, scare, CL 3rd, cost 4,000 gp; Greater, fear, CL 5th, cost 13,333 gp.
12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: GM “tells” and other ingredients"

#1 Comment By RocksFallBlog On March 14, 2012 @ 7:36 am

Oh, the part about “tells” is so true. My players have started to pick up on some of my less subtle tricks. In particular, I often have a hard time convincing my players that Illusions are real because “they can see the twinkle in my eye” when I describe them.

#2 Comment By Razjah On March 14, 2012 @ 7:55 am

I haven’t had this problem yet. I’m at college and for the past few years my gaming group shifts around every semester. I haven’t had a stable enough group for people to pick up on my habits, which I’m lucky for… I think.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On March 14, 2012 @ 9:12 am

I use fake tells to “play” the players. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.

I *have* found that sometimes, especially in very difficult challenges, the mood in the room can become an “us vs him” one, in which case I greet every NPC failure with exasperation and ironic “great, perfect” statements. If the mood goes that way, the players start “winning” until it lifts (even if the player characters are not doing all that well).

No-one says the role-playing has to stay on their side of the screen.

And I have an endless supply of NPCs and a library of published material from which to lift plots. T’ain’t nuthin’ to lose a few bad guys too many or have a conspiracy come down around the villain’s ears too early in the game.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On March 14, 2012 @ 10:06 am

[4] – Yeah, some illusions are like that… the desscription demands a twinkle. BTW, I stopped by your blogsite, there’s some nifty Pathfinder monsters and steam era posts there. I recommend everyone check out Rocks Fall Everyone Dies.
[4] – True statement: No one says the role-playing has to stay on their side of the screen.

#5 Comment By AsenRG On March 14, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

Heh, I really enjoyed reading this! When I read it, I’m reminded of some GMs that think they can mislead their players and never get caught.
They probably believe they haven’t got “tells”, either.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On March 14, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

[5] – Yep, whenever a GM writes something like “the players will never know the difference,” all I can think of is: “Yes, they can.”

#7 Comment By Necrognomicon On March 14, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

This is actually a big pet peeve of mine. Players changing their actions due to GM tells is pure metagaming, and I’ll call players on it regardless of which side of the screen I’m on.

It’s not like Troy is actually standing in the hallway looking shifty while the party is listening at the doors…

#8 Comment By RocksFallBlog On March 14, 2012 @ 2:41 pm

[6] – Thanks! I only recently started blogging again and I’m trying to get back into the community.

#9 Comment By AsenRG On March 14, 2012 @ 3:11 pm

I guess we’re thinking of the same people, then!

#10 Comment By Razjah On March 14, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

[8] – I have done similar things as a player. I think changing actions because of GM actions would only create a spiral of increasing metagame decisions. Not something I want to be a part of.

#11 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On March 14, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

[8] – I see your point. Though I wouldn’t frame it as *blatant* megagaming. Truth be told, there is some *mutual* metagaming going on here. When I purposefully create the “facing doors” scenario and bait a hook in this fashion, I am, in essence “metagaming” the scenario, too. Anytime you are in an “illusion of choice” situation, there is something of that going on.

It’s all in good fun. It’s part of the social experience of enjoying one another’s company. After all, the PCs will be exploring both rooms (should they survive).

However, having an NPC in the corridor “looking shifty” would be good fun and add something to the “facing doors” scenario. Maybe I’ll try that next time and see if it makes a difference!

#12 Comment By drummy On March 17, 2012 @ 9:55 am

Interesting article on the intersection between gaming and metagaming. As a GM, I try not to tip my hand, but on at least one occasion a player has said to me, “You look really excited! I’m running the other way!” We all laughed at the comment, but it does suggest that we’re all “acting” together and are open to interpretation — even if the players are trying hard not to “cheat” by reading my cues.

That said, I always tell my group, “Remember, my job is to do my best to kill you and do my best to save you.” Given the paradox of GM’ing, they’re never quite sure which road leads to death and which to salvation.

And that’s just the way I like it!