This is (still) the fifth of these Ask-The-GMs that I’m tackling without recourse to my usual allies and fellow-GMs.
Traps and puzzles are always a tricky problem for the GM. All too often they focus attention on one particular character and leave the rest sitting around doing nothing, possibly for what feels like an extraordinary length of time – especially if the player of that character milks his spotlight for all it’s worth.
The question to be considered here is about a particular GM, a particular set of players, and a particular type of trap encounter. But it draws attention to a bigger issue, the intersection of knowledge of three different parties to the situation – the PC, the Player, and the GM, and a general principle of the way that they interact at the game table.
“How do [you] incorporate music [into] your campaign? I have been very interested in this idea for quite some time now, I have thought about using different styles and songs to convey ideas, feelings and moods. Everyone in my DnD group (including me) is either a musician or a music fanatic (no joke, we once had a conversation entirely about what [each] different race’s music would sound like). Would it be a little too much to put musical puzzles in the game for them to figure out? I need your help, you did a great job with a previous question about art and I have incorporated that into my own campaign.” (edited for clarity)
The previous Ask_The-GMs answered all of the above except the question about musical traps, and I was going to squeeze the specific answer in at the tail end of that, then refer back to it in a separate article looking at the bigger picture somewhere further down the track. But I ran out of time and decided at the last minute to put the rest of my eggs into this ATGMs basket.
The Intersection Of Knowledge
A player is not his character, and vice-versa, no matter how close the identification – unless the GM has had players create “themselves as characters” which is way beyond the scope of the current discussion.
The character knows things that the player doesn’t – he might know some of the history of the Game World because it hasn’t yet been revealed, he has the experiences that come from living in that environment day-to-day, he may have skills that the player does not, such as Riding, and he may have knowledge that the player can never know first-hand because its’ entirely fictitious.
And you can swap character for player in the above statement (and perhaps change some of the specific examples) and the statement will be every bit as true. There might be some knowledges in common, if you don’t look too closely, but there are going to be distinct and pronounced differences.
The divisions blur a little if we permit knowledge of a simulated activity to be equivalent to the real thing. A player might not know how to ride, but he knows how the game system simulates riding – so the overlap between the two grows.
The Player-Character intersection
That overlap is very important. The greater the intersection between the two, the more easily the player can connect with the character and “step into the character’s shoes”. There is in fact a fairly obvious hierarchy in terms of the contribution to the overlap: Real World Experience, Theoretical Expertise, A little research, Game Knowledge. Common Knowledge, Ignorance.
- Real World Experience permits a player to be specific and detailed about his actions in such a way that he can provide color and verisimilitude to his character’s actions.
- Theoretical Expertise means that the player knows a lot about the subject, may even have a professional qualification of relevance – but hasn’t actually performed whatever the subject is in real life. He can get the technical details right – what a belly-strap is for when saddling a horse, for example – but can only pretend to know what it feels like to be riding at full gallop.
- A player who has done a little research will not have all the technical knowledge but will have the basics. He may also have a fair share of misinformation (the web is notorious for it, more so than is often warranted) but there will be gaps in his knowledge.
- Game Knowledge falls somewhere in between Common Knowledge and actual study of the subject, however superficial. If the game system is very good, or the player has a wide breadth of experience from multiple game systems, this may amount to research by proxy; if neither of these is true, it’s only a little better than what the guy next door knows on the subject (and may be a lot worse, depending on the neighbors!)
- Common Knowledge indicates that the player has done no research, and is simply relying on the experiences soaked up from years of television and the like. Substantial gaps will be the rule, not the exception, and even sounding putting credible words in the character’s mouth can be a challenge.
- And ignorance, of course, means that the player knows nothing, and perhaps can know nothing. If a starship is propelled by “the inversion of quantum locked dimensional vector fields” the player has no hope because such things are technobabble and usually meaning-free in any realistic sense. But they sound good, unless you try looking at them too closely – say, by asking specific questions – which is when it all falls apart.
Every given combination of player and character will have a mixture of several if not all of these, when the totality of knowledge of the two is considered. When you add it all up, it’s virtually impossible for there to be a 100% overlap.
A tool that is often useful when discussing correlations of this type is one of the earliest that school students are taught to use, the abstract Venn Diagram.
The diagram to the left illustrates what we have just discussed. The more knowledge the player has that can be applied to what the character supposedly knows, the greater the overlap. The wider the gulf between theory and in-the-field experience, the smaller. The abstractly we define the equivalence of different forms of knowledge, the greater it is.
This becomes significant when we consider what sort of problems a GM can be expected to pitch in the direction of that PC (as opposed to another, who presumably has a different skill-and-knowledge set). I’ll come back to that later, I want to get the theoretical underpinnings of all this in front of readers first.
If the overlap is large, the player can step into the characters’ shoes (provided personalities are compatible) easily, and is well-suited to running that particular character. If the overlap is tiny, the player has a great deal of difficulty doing so.
These overlaps are not foxed and constant; they change over time. The player does a bit of homework, the GM reveals a bit more campaign background, the character learns a new skill – the changes can be small and progressive over time, or even quite dramatic. Like the player, a character can be taken out of his comfort zone.
One of the things that GMs love to do is take characters out of their comfort zone by posing roleplaying challenges and situations for the character to solve. Players don’t mind that very much, in fact it can be a lot of fun – especially if the player is at one of the two extremes when it comes to the field in question.
There’s a lot more to the whole situation, of course; this is a very broad and abstract description of something that can be very messily complicated. For example, Ian Mackinder (who has written a two-part article here at Campaign Mastery and half of one more, and contributed comments to a number beyond that, and who is one of my long-time players) doesn’t play detective characters if he can help it. That’s because he is no good at them, at least in his own estimation. That doesn’t mean that he’s ignorant on the subject; aside from exposure to a number of relevant TV shows in varying degree, he is a fan of Sherlock Holmes. So there are additional factors involved. The general statement is good enough for the purposes of this article, however!
The Three-way intersection
Let’s introduce a third party to the conversation – the GM.
In terms of his shared knowledge with the player, this can be greater or smaller depending on the degree of commonality in their social experiences, life experiences, education, and professional lives. It’s fair to say that some shared cultural experiences will typically exist – without that, communications between the two would be problematic. The mere fact that they are playing the same game argues strongly that there would be at least some overlap.
In terms of the GM’s knowledge overlap with the PC, the situation is going to be very similar to that of the player. The GM will know more of the world, but the player and PC may have commonalities of expertise not shared by the GM, or not to the same degree.
There will, therefore, be some overlap between each of these “individuals”, and even some areas in which all three might have expertise – to varying degrees, a complication that the general diagram you can see conveniently ignores.
I’ve labeled each of the areas of overlap, first to call attention to them, and secondly, because they might be useful in later discussions when we get into practical applications of all this theory.
Four Realistic situations
To start the transition from theory to practice, let’s look at four more-realistic situations. These attempt to quantify the quantity and quality of expertise and the degree of shared knowledge overall that results.
The first numbered diagram (right) illustrates something close to the theoretical ideal, at least at first glance.
Closer examination dispels that impression.
The intersection between green and red is the smallest, that between red and blue is only a little larger, and that between green and blue is much larger. The area of intersection between all three is very small.
There are six different ways to interpret this, depending on the significance of the colors:
- GM Blue, Player Red, PC Green – The player doesn’t know as much about the character’s specialties and areas of expertise as the GM does. Not an uncommon situation, but the player is not as well-suited to this character as he might be.
- GM Blue, PC Red, Player Green – The GM and character have a little more in common than the Player and PC, which is not all that surprising given who they are. The player and GM have a great deal of common ground. This is possibly the most common situation.
- GM Red, Player Blue, PC Green – the player has created a character that fits in well with his own experience and knowledge, but the GM will have trouble refereeing the character because of the small overlap. I’ve encountered this situation on many occasions; it’s not ideal, but a bit of boning up can get you through it – most of the time.
- GM Red, PC Blue, Player Green – That bit of self-education has an interesting effect. Not only would it slightly increase the commonality of experience between GM and Player, but it would greatly increase the overlap between GM and PC, overcoming a lot of the problem – and this interpretation of the diagram illustrates the results, in relative terms.
- GM Green, Player Blue, PC Red – the player will struggle with the character almost as much as the GM will. There are ways around this, but they aren’t easy. Either the character changes, or both the player and GM study up, or both. This character, as things stand, is a poor choice.
- GM Green, PC Blue, Player Red – the last of the possible interpretations is also a reasonably common situation, especially with a relatively inexperienced player; the character that the GM has helped create is one in which the GM can provide the player with additional expertise on the character’s subjects of interest as necessary, but the character has also been chosen to be one that the player can handle fairly comfortably a lot of the time. What’s interesting is that the common ground between player and GM is the smallest of them all – as though one were native to a foreign country, or a very different part of the same country, or a completely different segment of society.
The observant may notice that the red disk is slightly larger than the others, and the green slightly smaller. This can be interpreted as breadth of experience, which – in the PCs case – is usually directly relative to his INT score, at least in broad terms. In this case, all three are reasonably equal; with the second diagram, that is distinctly no longer the case. Here the green is considerably larger, and the blue, considerably smaller. This would often be the case when the GM (red) is helping a new player (blue) with a super-intelligent or high-level PC (green).
There are other combinations/interpretations that make sense, too, such as an inexperienced GM with an experienced player.
What’s most significant here is the degree of overlap between blue and red; it’s almost total. If either of these represents the PC and the other the character, the two are a particularly well-suited combination.
It’s also noteworthy that the three-area overlap is also a lot larger, and probably close to 40% of the blue area. IF the blue is the character, this would be a fairly easy one to GM regardless of which of the other colors represented which individual.
In diagram three, the red is the biggest, and there is even more overlap between all three data-sets. Blue is almost-completely contained within the red, but there is more than 50% commonality between red and green as well. If red were to represent the GM, green the player, and blue the PC, this would represent something that’s pretty close to perfect – from the GM’s point of view. If red is the PC, it’s also noteworthy that between them, the player and PC have almost 40% of the character covered – depending on the minimum standard of knowledge needed to qualify for inclusion on the diagram, that could be significant – in other words, if the chart only shows the real-world experience of the real-world people, it has a very different significance than if game-experience is enough to qualify.
Given that most GMs will have considerable shared cultural experiences with their players, there are many interpretations in which this is the most accurate representation of the real world of them all.
The final diagram shows red larger than blue, and green larger than red. All three are almost completely overlapping. As a result, there’s actually relatively little to differentiate interpretations regardless of which color represents who.
This can be a dangerous combination in real life if other players at the table do not share the same degree of overlap; it means that the player and the GM can sidetrack themselves into discussion of minutia in several subjects (boring the pants off the others), and that they might tend to gang up on those who don’t share their enthusiasm for any given subject.
The realistic cases as analysis tool
These same diagrams can be interpreted with completely different labels, and be illuminating to the GM. For example, let’s say that there are three PCs, and this illustrates the extent to which they differ in expertise, or commonality of motivation, or ambitions. Or perhaps one of the two is an NPC, one a PC, and the other represents problems or challenges to be faced. The degree of overlap defines the likely strength of the relationship and how useful an alliance would be in dealing with mutual problems.
Here’s how to use them as an analysis tool: decide on what the different circles will represent (but not which one represents which factor). Determine which of the three factors should be represented by the largest circle, and which by the smallest. Then try each of the four to determine which one best represents the situation – either as it is, or as they perceive it to be. Look at the commonalities that result and the three-way overlap, and interpret the results in the same manner as I have above.
Confluences Of Knowledge
If you look closely at these diagrams, you will find that they are exactly the same as the first four – only the colors are different. That’s very deliberate.
If the first four represent a general situation, such as the general level of shared expertise, these four can then be used to represent the commonality of a particular subject. It doesn’t matter which set of graphs best represents the overall situation, when you get down to specifics, any of the four can be the correct representation.
If the exact same diagrams were used for both, confusion can easily result. By deliberately designating one as general and the other as specific to some part of the general situation, Any trait or specific can thus be analyzed, both in general terms, and in specific ones, pinpointing strengths and weaknesses. This is a tool that will eventually be used to discuss the question raised – and which this article is intended to answer!
Two Undesirable Situations
But first, let’s consider two more situations – ones that represent trouble, unless something is done about them.
In the first, there is a void, a hole. There is no three-way overlap, and even the overlaps between individual areas is smaller than in case 1. If we return to the GM-player-PC triangle (because it’s relevant to the specifics of the question being answered), this is a situation in which the player and GM have areas of mutual interest, and areas of commonality with the character, but none of these areas of mutual understanding overlap.
This sort of thing happens in real life all the time in various ways. My sister and I have some areas of overlap in our musical tastes; I have a friend with whom I also share some musical likes. The two areas in common are very, very, different. I happen to dislike the few things I am aware of that they both like. Any two of us can chat quite happily about the specific areas of mutual interest, but there is no common ground connecting all three of us, at least in this specific area.
This poses a real problem when extrapolated out into a general applicability and applied to the PC-Player-GM triangle. Not only will the GM have lots of trouble refereeing the player’s choices of actions, but the player will have real difficulty in understanding the basis of the GM’s decisions regarding his character.
It’s not likely to happen, in the general sense, but it can easily happen in the specific. The player and the character might both understand leather-working (which the GM doesn’t, except in the most general of terms), but the GM is familiar with the structure and design of leather armor, which the character knows about and the player doesn’t. Both the player and GM might know something about the dying of leather, though, a related subtopic about which the character knows nothing. When you consider the general subject to be “leather”, this is the diagram that results. Any challenge or puzzle posed by the GM based on his overlap with the character is both legitimate and a problem for the player.
Here’s another real-world example: I can count on one hand the number of Pulp novels (excluding “modern pulp” like Clive Cussler) that I have ever read, and have room left over for the number of Pulp movies that I’ve ever watched – if I count movies and their sequels as one. If not, I need my other hand. I could barely and only vaguely even define the genre when I started co-GMing it. What I did know was how to write and run a good campaign. If one circle represents everything that you need to know about how to run a good Pulp campaign, and the others represent my co-GM and I, respectively, then – at the time – our expertise would look like Diagram 9. He supplied the genre knowledge and I supplied the modern-standard campaign-creation chops that took his original ideas and have the campaign still running strongly, every month. We’ve learned from each other since, of course, and collaborated on various articles on the subject, so that the campaign itself now occupies a three-way overlap between us, filling in the ‘notches’ in the circles, but, when we started, there was a lot of discussion needed about how we were going to make it work.
The other situation is one which is even more problematic. This represents no connection whatsoever between two of the three parties. It’s like GMing a mage in D&D with a player who knows the magic system and a GM who doesn’t. The player, in that example, is the circle in the middle. Another circumstance which this would represent would be two people with virtually nothing in common except the character in the GM’s campaign.
Unless some connection between the two isolated circles is established, and quickly, the whole relationship is unstable and prone to fall apart.
Again, this is a situation that I have encountered in real life. A guest player in an early superhero campaign session who stopped a bank robbery by incinerating the bad guys, then robbed the bank himself (reasoning that the deceased would take the blame). She felt entitled to do so because she was running the character and it was appropriate for the anti-hero character that she had created; I didn’t think it was heroic, or era-appropriate (very black-and-white, morally). That was only the start of our disagreements about just about everything; she preferred canned modules, I wrote my own adventures; she liked the official rules with no deviations, I liked to house-rule as I deemed necessary; I was D&D, she was Empire Of The Petal Throne. She felt a sense of privilege and entitlement, and I felt they had to be earned. She was strongly racially- and ethnically-biased and socially class-conscious; I was egalitarian in outlook. We literally didn’t see eye-to-eye on anything. She was gone at the end of the session, and didn’t come back.
Situations Of Interest: The General Chart
So, let’s turn our attention to practical applications of all this theory. Assume that the diagrams represent the strength of common interest between a PC, the Player of that PC, and the GM in one particular type of adventure. This then turns the general diagrams (1-4) into a toll for choosing between adventure types. Any adventure in which either player or character are strongly engaged will work fine; where there is poor intersection, you either need to add a sub-element, a subtext or subplot, that will engage both player and character to compensate for the weakness of the association with the proposed main plot. This enables you to take an adventure idea, classify it as to its nature, and then assess the suitability of each PC for participation – and identify additional adventure elements necessary to make the adventure suitable for the whole group.
You can further employ this in campaign planning by ensuring that each adventure in succession is of strong appeal/relevance to a different PC, giving each their share of spotlight time. Adventure sequences can be further refined by ensuring that no two successive adventures are lacking in appeal to the same character, or to the same player.
A lot of GMs do this sort of thing by instinct, and occasionally get caught short. In combination with other tools and techniques, such as ensuring that each character gets some sort of ‘moment’ in the spotlight in the course of an adventure with a simple checklist and inserting difficulties and plot points as necessary, you can ensure that your campaign maintains a strong level of appeal to everyone.
All previous tools for examination of this problem have relied on a simple yes/no; this is the first tool I have seen or created that permits a more qualitative assessment, even if that is only a relative measure and not an absolute.
In Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow, I rated adventures based on a number of criteria – level of fantasy, level of “cosmic”, level of action, emotional content, and the overall mood or tone (upbeat or downbeat), and showed how I used those ratings to create variety, rhythms, and contrasts within the Zenith-3 campaign. But there was no tool for assessing the resulting adventures in terms of the PCs and Players and what additional content needed to be incorporated – I simply employed the “checklist” approach and, while everyone had something to do at some point in a given adventure, I had to employ instinct in determining how strongly to focus on those subplots. For the first time, an assessment of the relative overlap results in an indication of how strongly the other parts of the adventure need to be emphasized to evenly distribute screen time over the entire party. To do this, two of the circles represent different PCs, one is used constantly as the reference standard and the other is changed – test PC1, then PC2, and so on, measuring the overlap between appeal-of-adventure-type of each with the content of the proposed adventure.
For example, if the main adventure is about 12 scenes long, and each PC gets a one-scene subplot as standard in addition, that’s a total of 17 if there are 5 PCs. If one PC is only going to connect with the main adventure half as strongly as the others, or one player, then the adventure is worth only 1/2 of 12 scenes “value” to them – 6, instead of 12. More to the point, since each character should be engaged equally in the main plot (in an ideal world), such characters get only (6/5)+1=2.2 scenes in the spotlight, while the other four get (12/5)+1=3.4 worth. To get that disengaged player/PC combination back up to equality, their subplot needs to be bigger – 1.2 scenes worth bigger, or about two-and-a-quarter times as big as everyone else’s.
If the engagement level for one of the other PCs was only 1/3, as estimated by comparing overlap sizes? One-third of 12 is 4, so that character would only get 4/5ths of “a scene”, plus the standard subplot, instead of 3.4 scenes – a difference of 1.6. So, instead of a subplot being “one scene long”, they need one that’s 2.6 long – about two-and-a-half, as a rule of thumb.
Let’s further suggest that we then analyze the appeal of the adventure to the players, and find that the player of the character with the 1/3 engagement is also very weakly connected to the main adventure. That means, according to the guideline I laid out above, that the subplot should appeal strongly to the character AND to the player. If the planned subplot only ticks one of those boxes, the simplest solution might be to insert a second subplot that does fulfill the second criterion, taking it out of the additional 1.6 subplot “scene units” required.
How long is a “scene unit?” How long is a piece of string? In some adventures, one scene could take 5 minutes and another five hours. If you look really closely, though, you will find that most of those 5-minute scenes are actually one longer scene that keeps getting interrupted just to rotate the spotlight.
Here’s the way I think of it: An adventure is generally broken up into 3, 4, or 5 acts. Subplots either occur in a prologue or interweave amongst these acts. Similarly, each day’s play can be divided into 3, 4, or 5 “blocks” of play. Each additional 5 hours of play after the first adds +1 to the number of “blocks” for the day. Using this, you can determine how many “blocks” of play are in the adventure – and each such “block” is what I have been using as a “Scene unit”.
Early in the adventure, there will be more “blocks” in a day; at the end, there will be few. I also like to end each day’s play on a cliffhanger or a moment of decision. That means that the first “block” is always the resolution of that cliffhanger or the implementation and consequences of that decision. The adventure itself needs an overall conclusion (and a beginning, but I’ll get to that). The conclusion needs to be overcoming the final reversal, difficulty, or challenge – and so the preceding block needs to present the PCs with that problem. Working backwards like this and integrating the starting and ending points of each day’s play permits the working out of how many blocks you need per day, and even how many hours (on average) each will represent.
But I don’t like using real time units for the purpose; it’s too easy to fall into the trap of padding or rushing in order to meet an arbitrary time schedule. A more abstract measure representing one Nth of the adventure, more or less, is a more useful scale.
Specific Subjects Of Commonality
I haven’t forgotten that the subject of the day is “Musical Traps”! But these same analytic tools can be used to dig deeply into the question.
In terms of a puzzle based on any sort of specific knowledge, there are four possible Player-PC-GM configurations that come to mind. The GM aspect matters because he is the one posing the problem, the Player aspect matters because he has to solve the problem, and the PC matters because, within he context of the game world, he is the one that is supposed to solve the problem.
All four have strong overlaps between two of the participants – these are shown as constant – while the third is changing position relative to the others in each configuration.
In A, we have strong overlap between all three. In B, one of the three has only weak intersection with the other two. In C, there is no overlap between the red disk and the strongly-coupled pair. D is the most unusual in that the total overlap between blue and green is also overlapped by red.
These could symbolize the player’s interest in, or knowledge of, the specific subject; the broadly-defined subject matter of the problem being posed by the GM; and the character’s knowledge or skill in the subject. Which is which – well, that would depend o the exact situation.
Since the only independent variable is the red disk, let’s interpret each of these based on the different possible identities of that red disk:
- Red = Broad Problem, Pattern A – All three participants know the subject. So long as the problem falls within any overlapping area, it will be fine. If it does not, the result may as well be Pattern C, below.
- Red = Broad Problem, Pattern B – The overlaps with the red disk are much smaller, and that means that the overall scope of the problem is constrained. In fact, it’s about half the size of A, if not less. While the occasional problem of this type may be fine if supported by the context, they should be the exception and not the rule.
- Red = Broad Problem, Pattern C – While both player and character have expertise in the field, the GM does not. While he could copy a problem from some other source, he is relatively helpless to assess how difficult it would be to solve. Despite the synergy between player and character, the GM lacks the expertise to create much campaign value from the subject. He needs to educate himself until Pattern B, or better yet, Pattern A are achieved.
- Red = Broad Problem, Pattern D – Everything that both the player and the character know on the subject, the GM also knows. There are also some things that each of the participants know but that knowledge is not shared. Anything in yellow has to be solved by die roll; anything else in the overlapped area can be solved by the player.
- Red = Player, Patterns A, B & C – This happens all the time. The GM poses what seems to him to be an easy problem., forgetting that the player is just a well-read armchair expert. A is when the GM gets it right and the player has the required knowledge most of the time; B is when the player struggles and needs a clue or hint supplied by the GM after a die roll; C is when the GM has unknowingly aimed straight at one of the gaps in the player’s knowledge. Pattern D defines what happens when the Player and GM are both armchair experts in the subject who are working almost completely from the same source, and defining the character’s knowledge as the sum of what they know on the subject. This also happens more often than many GMs would like to admit, but it works – most of the time.
- Red = PC, Pattern A – The most common situation is illustrated by Red=PC knowledge. Both player and GM know enough of the subject to get by, because the skill is fairly rudimentary or common. Pattern A shows that there are some aspects of the subject that one of the two haven’t mastered, but the other has, and some aspects of it that neither understand, but that the PC supposedly does, but the central core of the subject is well understood.
- Red = PC, Pattern B – Pattern B shows that while the player and GM have the same understanding and knowledge level in the subject, the PC is supposedly an expert. This is often the case with invented technologies in games like Star Trek, but it can also be the case for Magic in games like D&D. A large part of the time, problems have to be solved by a die roll to determine if the character knows the answer (even if the player and GM don’t).
- Red = PC, Pattern C – There are often skills that the character has about which the player and GM are both identically ignorant. I’ve seen entire skill definitions accidentally get left out of the main rules; that’s fine when you can make a reasonable guess as to the subject matter (“Materials Science”), but falls over fast if you haven’t a clue (“String Dynamics”, “Temporal Diversity”). Okay, in a sci-fi game you might be able to hazard a guess as to the first – though it seems a little specific to be listed as a separate skill if it really is just a specialty within String Theory, and has to have relevance and nuances that neither can even guess at, purely to justify it’s conclusion. Accidentally-misnamed skills can have the same effect – I once saw a game in which there was a skill, “Lorp”. It turned out that this was supposed to be “Lore”, and represented knowledge of the contents of an oral history from a period without literacy – an oral history that included certain ‘truths’ that modern science had ridiculed and stuffed in a draw of nonsense. But I defy anyone to get that out of “Lorp” – especially in a game that is short on explanations.
- Red = PC, Pattern D – Finally, we have a situation in which the knowledge of the character is whatever BOTH the GM and player know about the subject, plus a small degree of extrapolation from that.
Musical Puzzles (for Masteh Casteh’s group)
Now let’s look at the specific question I’ve been asked, and match the circumstances to one of those patterns to see what it tells us.
“Everyone in my DnD group (including me) is either a musician or a music fanatic (no joke, we once had a conversation entirely about what [each] different race’s music would sound like). Would it be a little too much to put musical puzzles in the game for them to figure out?”
This tells me nothing about the knowledge in the subject of any of the PCs – and that tells me right away that Red=PC, because it’s the one that varies. Blue and Green are the Player and GM and both have considerable knowledge of the subject. Pattern A applies if the character faced with such a puzzle also had a reasonably high skill level in the subject; Pattern B if they have a low-to=moderate level of expertise in the subject; and Pattern C if they have no skill in the subject, and are (functionally) tone-deaf (because simply being reared in a given culture should give a very general introduction to the music of that culture, just as most people today could name at least one top-40 artist – any top-40 artist there has ever been – but won’t understand the esoterica of microphone placement in a recording studio.
I would have no hesitation in deploying music-based puzzles and traps if Pattern A applies to the character or even any member of the party who were expected to solve the problem. In fact, simply to draw on that shared knowledge, I would mandate that at least one PC have an appropriate skill, just to ensure that Pattern A applies!
If pattern C applies to everyone, I would still deploy them, but as analogies for some other form of puzzle in which the character is supposed to be skilled but the player is not. For example, you may have a puzzle based on the symbology of magic in D&D, a subject that neither the players nor the GM know anything about; what I as GM would do is decide how hard the problem was supposed to be and then issue a musical puzzle of equivalent difficulty. Solve the musical puzzle, and your character is deemed to have solved the ‘symbology of magic’ puzzle, even though every real person involved is totally ignorant of the subject. This keeps play dynamic and more than just die rolls instead of bogged down in esoterica.
Pattern B is somewhere in-between, and I would answer the question that way. If the puzzle;e is a very simple one, for example turning a C Major chord into a C Minor chord then I would let the players try to solve a puzzle that is the equivalent to them, given their state of knowledge, of the difficulty their character (with his relatively low level of knowledge) would face in solving the puzzle. If it was a more complex puzzle that you had in mind, then I would save it and use it in the “analogy” (Pattern C) manner.
Musical Puzzles in general
As I said in the answer to the first half of the question (in Part 1 of “The Hollow Echo”,
“It first has to said that MC’s group is relatively unusual in its makeup, and what might work for them might not work for everyone.”
While most of us have a very general musical knowledge – for example, most people would know the term “C major” has something to do with music – that’s about as far as we can go. Does that mean that musical puzzles should be off the table?
But it means that they need to change in nature. Identifying a piece of music from a couple of bars, or perhaps played backwards, and other game-show style ideas targeting the layperson still work perfectly – so long as they are appropriate in context eg as the lock preventing entrance to the castle or keep of someone with a keen interest in music.
What was a very simple puzzle – transforming C Major into C Minor – is suddenly a very big deal. Each of those chords is composed of three notes – only one of which has to be changed in order to achieve the desired solution. Adjust the wrong one of the three, or the right one by the wrong amount, and you might be lucky enough to get an entirely different note, but it won’t be a C Minor – and will probably be just a horrible noise.
If the PCs were to be confronted with a more serious musical challenge, there are only two solutions: solve it with die rolls (an anticlimax most of the time) or use something else that the players can solve as an analogue. In other words, the Pattern C treatment from Masteh Casteh’s group – with the shoe on entirely the other foot.
But those aren’t the only solutions that might apply – there is one other that’s worth looking into, before I wrap up this article.
Bringing In A Fourth Party
I’m not an armaments expert. I know very little on the subject. Whenever specific questions about weaponry come up, I either look something up in a sourcebook or on the web, or I turn to my co-GM, who is something of a lay expert on the subject. Beyond that, “It looks cool” or “it sounds good even if it makes no sense in real life” would be my guiding principles.
If Blair were a player in one of my campaigns (and he is), I would have no hesitation in letting one of the other PCs be a firearms expert, regardless of the player’s level of knowledge of the subject; I would simply simulate the character’s understanding of the subject by letting Blair assist in solving the riddle. That might be a 0.1 share of the “scene block” for that adventure that goes to Blair instead of the player, but it turns solitary challenges into group activities, and most of the time, that’s a good thing.
Similarly, I don’t hesitate to tap some esoteric knowledge of one of my players when a problem comes up if I don’t have the answer to hand, and haven’t had time to properly prep for it with some specific research. It humanizes the GM if – every now and then – he can stop pretending to be the expert in everything and admit ignorance – though most of the time I use the research technique that I outlined in Lightning Research: Maximum Answers in Minimum Time to have an answer at my fingertips, provided I have enough notice of the problem!
Never fail to appreciate the possibilities of bringing in a ‘ringer’; make them work to your advantage.
GMing the PlPC Complex
This isn’t the first time that Ask-the-GMs has looked at puzzles in games. In Ask The GMs: Puzzles In Your Games, I leveraged metagaming to offer the following advice:
“My advice: Since it’s the players who have to solve the puzzles, and not their characters, aim your puzzles at the players.”
Today’s article doesn’t conflict with that advice (read the article if you want more specifics on the technique); it simply broadens the logical underpinnings of the subject and offers some new planning tools to understanding the complexities of Player-PC-GM interactions, and finding a solution that works to a given challenge.
Music is a rich element of much of our shared culture. Just about everyone can talk about music to just about anyone else, regardless of their cultural framework, provided they have a language in common; but more than that, some aspects of musical experiences transcend the language barrier.
You can derive enjoyment from listening to a piece of music that strikes an emotional resonance of some kind without being able to understand word one of the lyrics. That doesn’t mean that nuance and context magically communicate themselves; they don’t, and you are obviously getting less than the full experience; but, at the same time, you are forced to read more into what you are actually hearing, so appreciation of a foreign-language song in which the vocals are just another instrument can – in some ways – be even more pure as a musical experience.
At its’ heart, a lot of music is about rhythm, and timing, and harmony, and collaborations of sounds. There is a very strong association between many of those elements and an RPG. Neglecting musical puzzles is like ignoring a chapter of the rules – the experience that results is fundamentally incomplete.
There is always a place for musical challenges and puzzles and traps in a game. Only the specifics of what, where, how, why, and who are going to change. And the same can be said of puzzles based on any other skill or expertise that you can name. Even being genre inappropriate is not the trump of doom – who’s to say that there isn’t some analogous relationship between high-energy particle physics and the workings of spellcraft in a fantasy game? Especially once we’re through adding layers of metaphor and abstraction and representation and simulation.
The more of a player’s knowledge base and skillset that you can apply to the process of interacting with the game, the more that player will feel part of the game. The more of those things belonging to a character that you can engage with in an in-game context, the more the character will seem to be part of the world that they live in. Those are two very powerful principles around which to build your game.