Welcome to the Blog Carnival Host Page for November 2015!

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In the coming month it is once again Campaign Mastery’s turn to host the Blog Carnival (if you’re quick, you can still catch the tail end of the October Blog Carnival about creepy things coming to town over at Of Dice And Dragons). This time around I thought I would offer a variation on one of the themes that we’ve tackled previously. Last time around, there was a tremendous response to it, and I’m hoping that this variation (which will offer slightly broader scope) will present just as great a response.

The theme is “Surprises” and it encompasses anything and everything that might make a player who thinks he knows it all respond with “I wasn’t expecting THAT!

You could describe a creature who isn’t what he seems, or offer a clever deception of some sort, or write about a plot twist, or anything else that comes as the unexpected. Or you could take a broader approach and look at surprises in general, or what to do if your plot twist isn’t surprising. Or anything in between.

But it doesn’t stop there – the weird and the spooky are also fair game under this heading, for anyone who didn’t get enough of it over Halloween – or who gets inspired by someone else’s Halloween post. And then there’s the topic of politics, which is always full of surprises, or conspiracies.

Then there’s the mechanical approach, looking at the game mechanics of surprise, either in the abstract or specific sense. To kick-start that one, why doesn’t someone muse on whether or not Surprise penalties are, or should be, stackable? Tell you what, I’ll take care of that in just a moment (feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts on the subject)!

It’s not written anywhere that surprises have to be unpleasant. Serendipity and good fortune of all kinds are also relevant topics to this subject. Some social events like birthday parties are meant to be surprises, and gifts are always best when they surprise and delight. Doing anything more than a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day counts as well.

In fact, anything that’s unexpected is fair game.

Later in the month, for example, Campaign Mastery will be offering a little gem that I’ve been polishing for a while, discussing some of the nasty tricks that the GM can play with Portals and Gates…

And to all my readers out there, I suggest you bookmark this post and check back here regularly over the course of November to see what links have been added in the comments section. The only certainty is that it will be surprising!

Now, about that question of Stacking…

Image from FreeImages.com/mokra

Image from FreeImages.com/mokra

Does Surprise Stack?

As long-time readers will probably have noticed, I like these hosting articles to be more than simply a place for people to send links to their own Blog Carnival submissions; otherwise, until someone does so, this post actually holds no value to the reader.

I had a lot of trouble deciding how to theme this month’s carnival; I knew that the article on portals mentioned earlier was going to be part of the Carnival, but there were a number of possible themes under which that article could fall, and I wasn’t confident that I could fit both it and the Hosting Topic discussion into the same article. (NB: I’m saving the other topic ideas for future Carnivals!) Back when there were only ten sneaky twists, maybe, but the list has now grown to twenty – so many that I may split the in two, or three, or even four, even if that plays hob with my planned publishing schedule.

The deciding factor was thinking of this question, and realizing that it would make an interesting subject in its own right.

So let’s get down to brass tacks. Is Surprise Stackable? That’s such a difficult question to answer right off the bat that I’m going to start by simplifying it before looking at the theoretical and broader question. So, is Surprise stackable under the published rules of the two games that I GM regularly, Pathfindinder/D&D and the Hero System?


Obviously, there are two sections of rules that need to be examined. The first covers surprise itself, and the second covers the restrictions on stacking.

In D&D/Pathfinder, there is no such thing as Surprise per se. Instead, there are any number of conditions that can leave a character Flatfooted for a round. By imposing a game-mechanics penalty instead of providing a bonus to the opposition, the whole question of stackable bonuses is avoided. But the term itself is interesting; there is no such thing conceptually as being caught “even more flatfooted”, you either are or you aren’t, end of story. So multiple surprises taking place at the same time have no direct effect.

Things get a little more interesting when there is some ability that sometimes lets a character avoid being caught flatfooted – whether that is a saving throw or a spot check or whatever. When that’s the case (and some would argue that it should always be the case), it can be argued that what stacks is not the condition, but the chance of experiencing that condition – i.e. that multiple vectors for surprise should result in multiple checks, and failing any one of those checks is no better or worse than failing all of them; either way, you are caught flat-footed.

There’s nothing on this point that I’m aware of in the rules, so that would be a question for the GM to adjudicate. So the answer for these game systems is “No AND possibly yes, both at the same time.”

Hero System

The Hero system does give a bonus for attacking an opponent who is surprised, and leaves that condition up to the GM to decide. However, because that is a bonus to the attacker or attackers, it clearly doesn’t stack. Once again, the target either is or is not surprised; there is no such thing as being “more surprised”. Because this is a binary condition, the attacker either gets the benefit or he doesn’t.

Once again, things get a little more interesting when there is some mechanism dictated within the encounter for avoiding being surprised using abilities such as Danger Sense. These aren’t certain of preventing surprise, but they do give a chance of avoiding the condition; and again, arguably, multiple vectors of surprise should result in multiple checks, of which the character only has to fail one.

And, once again, the rules are mute on this particular situation, leaving the decision up to the GM.

What Is Surprise?

According to Wikipedia, Surprise is an “emotional state experienced as the result of an expected significant event.”

The page dedicated to the subject goes further, stating that it is “a startle response experienced by animals and humans as the result of an unexpected event. Surprise can have any valence; that is, it can be neutral/moderate, pleasant, unpleasant, positive, or negative. Surprise can occur in varying levels of intensity ranging from very-surprised, which may induce the fight-or-flight response, or little-surprise that elicits a less intense response to the stimuli.”

Now, combat bonuses shouldn’t be handed out for a state of mild astonishment, so we’re talking about the more extreme cases here. Even so, this is still surprising in light of the total absence of a mechanism in either of the game systems for a stacking of surprise effects.

In terms of how to roleplay a surprised character, I long ago came up with my own definition: “Surprise is a state of mental disorientation induced by the extremely unexpected in which instinctive reactions take the place of intellectual analysis and considered responses. If no instinctive reaction is triggered, the character remains disoriented and incapable of understanding what is taking place and what they should do about it for as long as the condition lasts. Sufficiently disorienting events may induce a state of shock which prevents emerging from the disorientation for a considerable period of time.”

There are a couple of important points to come out of this definition. The first is that surprise is a relatively transient condition but one from which people do not automatically emerge; there needs to be some sort of game mechanism to trigger the end of the state of surprise. Secondly, there are multiple degrees of surprise, from the momentary (taken in stride unless some other psychological condition is triggered) to the mild (doesn’t last very long, reacts according to training without conscious analysis) to the strong (may last for some time, character responds instinctively) to the extreme (induces a still more debilitating condition in which the character cannot even respond instinctively).

Momentary Surprise

This is what happens when you turn on the lights and unexpectedly see a spider on the wall. It can be alarming, but unless you suffer from arachnophobia, it’s not going to incapacitate you, and even then, it might not. Some impairment of judgment may occur. Those experiencing this state effectively recover in a second or two at most.

Mild Surprise

Slightly more severe is “Mild Surprise”. If you haven’t had any specific training in dealing with emergency situations or combat situations, the chance of being placed in this state is relatively high when those things occur. You are either disoriented, standing around gaping and trying to make sense of what is going on, or you react according to relevant training. What’s more, training reduces the likelihood of entering a more extreme state in favor of entering this state. Some impairment is normal, but training also mitigates this effect. The more intense this state (i.e. the closer to a condition of Strong Surprise), the longer it will last, but eventual recovery is certain. There is also a cumulative effect that is slow to dissipate and which not only makes the victim more prone to deeper states of surprise, but may cause characters to become delusional and react inappropriately to circumstances by entering this state. In World War I, this was known as “Shell Shock”; in World War II, the term was “Combat Fatigue”; more recently, the term in use became “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” or PTSD; and the current term is “Combat Stress Reaction”.

Strong Surprise

This is a state of surprise so intense that it overcomes any training and places the character in a disoriented state in which instinctive behaviors occur without conscious thought. This is fight-or-flight territory, in other words. Combat/emergency training mitigates against entering this state and usually decreases its duration somewhat. Characters do not automatically recover from this state, and it may persist for minutes or even hours, even with appropriate training. There is a cumulative effect that is slow to dissipate, as with Mild Surprise, that makes deeper states of surprise more likely to occur.

Extreme Surprise

Some events are so traumatic that the character cannot comprehend what is going on, cannot think rationally, and will not even act on instinct. You see this a lot following disasters. Extreme Surprise triggers a complete mental breakdown. Entire personalities can permanently change (unless and until the individual receives therapy), though this is rare. It can last for minutes, hours, or even – in extreme cases – days or even indefinitely. Sufferers will usually emerge from the trauma only if and when their rational minds can be “reached”, i.e. made cognitively aware of the world around them.

How Long Does Surprise Last?

There are three parts to surprise states: the impairment of cognition, the biological adrenalin response, and the psychological impact on awareness of surroundings and circumstances. These all interact and interrelate to some degree.

The impairment of cognition persists until the surprised individual constructs a new world-view in which the unexpected element or experience is integrated, accepted, and understood to have occurred. The degree of surprise determines how much of the individual’s mental capabilities are directed to attempting to process this task. Extreme surprise lasts for so long because the individual’s mind attempts to avoid revisiting the traumatic experience, and so cannot process it. This produces a catch-22 situation in which they cannot process the situation until they have processed the situation to at least some degree.

The biological adrenalin response, once started by a perceived threat or the anticipation of intense activity, persists for as long as the triggering condition continues, or until the situation becomes routine. It then lingers for a period of time that varies from one individual to another according to the body’s metabolic rate – so continued activity or exercise produces a faster normalization. Quite often, the flood of hormones and chemical triggers involved reduce awareness of pain and exhaustion, and the sudden onset of awareness of these can cause the person to “crash”, i.e. suddenly feel exhausted, lethargic, and weak as a kitten. This phenomenon can also make the body slower to react to a new adrenalin surge and less effective at doing so. These effects compound with additional periods of stress until the person rests for a sufficient time to restore their system to baseline levels. I could not find any information as to whether or not there is a relationship between this diminution of effect and PTSD “buildup”; I suspect that there may be such a connection but it would be relatively minor, because the buildup rates of the two effects are significantly different.

The main function of surprise or the startle response is to interrupt an ongoing action and reorient attention to a new, possibly significant event. There is an automatic and involuntary redirection of focus to the new stimuli. Studies show that this response happens extremely quickly, with information reaching the pons within 3 to 8 ms and the full startle reflex occurring in less than two tenths of a second.

The psychological impact is the most difficult to measure. There is no evidence that I could find suggesting that greater intellect or determination shortens or prolongs the psychological effects of surprise. However, I did find some suggestion that the psychological impacts persist until the surprised individual takes action that they perceive as effective in dealing with the surprise, or until the triggering event otherwise ends, is disrupted, or subsides. The first case is more relevant to negative surprises, such as unexpected attacks; the second relates more to positive surprises like a birthday party.

The Psychology of Surprise: Two links of relevance and interest

Two links that I came across in my research are worth pointing the reader towards.

The first, Using the Psychology of Surprise to Increase Your Conversion Rate, deals with using positive surprises as a sales and marketing technique. In a nutshell, we like pleasant surprises, and newness, and the can overcome reluctance to purchase. A pleasant surprise leads to heightened levels and incidence of customer satisfaction, it makes non-customers more curious and willing to try your product, it makes your brand more memorable, it catalyzes interest or desire into intent to purchase, and it turns satisfied customers into zealots who promote your product to others.

The same article also points out that because a surprise creates an emotional fluctuation in a person’s experience, they become more likely to do things they would not normally do or not do the things they normally would. Emotional uprisings create cognitive imbalance, and that leads some people to do things that they know they shouldn’t do when they get angry, or behave in ways that defy common sense when they become grief-stricken.

The second article is to a PDF, so clicking the link may offer to let you save it instead of opening it in your browser. It’s a three-page White Paper on the effects of surprise and deception in a military and political sense, and as much as the first article generally assumed that the surprises were positive in nature, so this assumes that they are negative and produced by hostile action. “For the victim, surprise is an event: sudden, stunning, traumatic, and humiliating. Surprise catches the victim at his weakest, exposing and exploiting failings and vulnerabilities. The after-shocks linger on in the victim’s memory, shaping and impacting future behavior. Assuming the victim recovers – as is usually the case – the event precipitates a scramble to find scapegoats, allocate blame, and reorganize ‘the system’ that failed to warn of the impending disaster.”

I recommend reading both of them.

Both of these links suggest that not only do the psychological effects persist well beyond the event itself, but that they can be reinforced with further experiences of a similar kind, though too similar a repetition leads to an adjustment in thinking and deteriorating effect. Since the basic premise of combat training is to familiarize the trainee with the conditions that will be experienced in combat and build in behaviors that are appropriate to combat conditions when cognitive impairment ensues due to surprise and/or stress, it follows that such desensitization is employed to diminish the surprise value of events, inflicting some slight psychological harm through simulation under relatively controlled conditions to “immunize” the trainee against the full shock of the real thing.

This produces more reliable, and more effective, soldiers, who are more likely to survive, at the price of a diminishment in longer-term mental health in some individuals – a tolerable trade-off when they make the difference between achieving their commander’s military objectives, or not. It is also one reason why volunteer armies are more effective per soldier than conscript armies; it takes time and effort to produce this “immunity” and no-one recruits a conscript army until they need one, usually urgently.

Can Surprise Stack?

With that research under our belts, we are at last ready to ask the question that should logically precede that of Should surprise stack in a simulated environment like an RPG, and that is, Can surprise stack?

The Psychological Argument

Disorientation or Intense focus on the trigger – and those are the only two possible responses to a threatening surprise – requires processing of the change in situation before the surprised individual can function properly. A second surprise that adds to the complexity of the situation that needs to be processed, or that yanks attention away from one perceived threat to another, can only add to the effects. The only logical answer from a psychological standpoint is “yes”.

The Physiological Argument

Glands don’t have throttles – they either flood the body with the chemical responses to a situation, or they don’t. This is an evolutionary inevitability; the glands don’t have the capacity to “know” how big a threat the organism may be facing, and this would require rational analysis of the situation. Animals that did not automatically assume a worst-case scenario under such circumstances would sooner or later underestimate the threat, and would not survive the mistake; it follows that “all or nothing”, maximum possible response, confers an evolutionary advantage. Physiologically, the only logical answer is “no”.

The Hyper-Awareness Argument

A lot of fiction – and more than one player over the years – have tried to sell me on the idea that characters in combat become “hyper-aware” of their surroundings. Once in combat, they argue, their characters could no longer be taken by surprise.

I didn’t buy it for campaigns based on the Hero System, because there is a specific game ability that confers the ability not to be surprised, and it works both in and out of combat, but it was harder to refute for D&D / Pathfinder – at least until I did the research for this article.

That research describes a tunnel-vision effect, in which even identified threats can be momentarily forgotten when the character involuntarily focuses on an unexpected threat. Someone can be just as surprised in the middle of a battle as at any other time. In fact, the very existence of different levels of surprise response invalidates the basic premise of the argument, as one source of surprise serves to escalate the effects of the other.

So this “no” argument doesn’t hold water. I’m tempted to claim that as a de-facto “yes” but that would be very poor logic on my part.

The Tactical Argument

Picture this: you are riding through a narrow pass when a large group of armed bandits emerge from cover in ambush. They take you by surprise.

Now Picture this alternative scenario: you are riding through a narrow pass when a group of armed bandits emerge from cover in ambush. Before you can recover from the surprise, a second group on the other side of the pass rise and point weapons at you, and then a third toward your rear, cutting off your retreat.

Assuming the two situations contain an equal number of attackers, do you really think that the second group don’t gain a tactical advantage in the form of heightened surprise by forcing those they are ambushing to respond to a multi-vectored threat?

Provided that the numbers in each of the smaller groups are large enough to pose a threat, I can’t see why the surprise magnitude could possibly be the same in both cases. In the first, there may be surprise, but there is a single threat to focus on; in the second, you face threats in all directions. Your situation is evidently more desperate, and likely to produce a more intense state of surprise – and that requires surprise to be stackable.

At the same time, an increase in surprise effects is about the only way to reflect the tactical advantage that the ambushers have in the second scenario. Can anyone seriously suggest that they don’t have one simply be virtue of their positioning?

That’s an unqualified “yes” in my book. The score is two “yes”, one “no”, and one rejected “no” argument.

The Tunnel-Vision Argument

When surprised, the startle response leads you to focus intently on the cause to which the startle is attributed. It could be argued that this makes you far less likely to be even aware of any other source of surprise, and that in order to do so, the second source of surprise has to first get your attention, breaking the hold of the original source of surprise. This argument therefore states that surprise can be perpetuated or even replenished but doesn’t stack.

How can this jibe with the “intensity of surprise” factor? The suggestion would be that the intensity of effects has nothing to do with being surprised multiple times, but instead has to do with degree of threat posed and scale of the discordance with perceived reality causing the surprise. Having more oranges doesn’t mean that the peel colors becomes more intense – just that you have more area of orange peel on display.

This is a far more difficult argument to refute. There is a counterargument that suggests that the only way for a second surprise to achieve this perpetuation is for it to be even more surprising – and that this inherently means that it does have to potentially induce a deeper state of surprise. But that simply gives an escape clause that means a “yes” argument might still be valid; it doesn’t necessarily invalidate this “no” line of reasoning.

So the score is now two-all in the “yes” vs “no” debate, and one sent to the showers.

Conclusion 1: Can Surprise Stack?

It has to be remembered that the rules system exist to imperfectly simulate reality and that the compromises with a more accurate simulation should only be for reasons of playability, of genre, or – very occasionally and carefully – in the service of plot. So to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter whether or not surprise effects can stack in the real world.

With the final score tied between the “yes” and “no” cases, there is an emerging suspicion that further attempts will simply confirm that we’re substituting logic for evidence, and logic is only as good as its assumptions. That means that on the basis of current knowledge available to me, augmented by a reasonable level of documentary research into the subject, a definitive answer can’t be found; so I will yield to a compromise answer of “plausibly yes”, just as Mythbusters do, and move on.

There are a number of effects that stacking of surprise can simulate more effectively than alternative game mechanics constructs. There are also more accurate ways of simulating intensity of surprise. So there are going to be cases in which the most appropriate answer is an assumption of “yes, it can, and maybe it should and maybe it shouldn’t” and others in which it is an assumed answer of “no, or if it can, reality should be compromised in this respect.”

Having moved the goal-posts so that they are touching each other, then, it is time to examine the real question:

'rabitt' by FreeImages.com/catarina pereira

‘Hey Rocky, watch me pull a Vorpal Bunny out of my hat…’
Image provided by
FreeImages.com/catarina pereira

Should Surprise Stack?

I’m already hinting at there being no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. This is hardly surprising, as there are so many cases in RPG Game Mechanics already where a compromise is necessary. Quite often, the differences between two game systems within the same genre of equal levels of playability come down to “system ‘X’ is more realistic in rules area ‘A’ while system ‘Y’ is more realistic in rules area ‘B’ because you have to choose one of the two; trying to be more realistic in both compromises playability too severely.”

But we’re not at that level yet. Just because it’s plausible that surprise effects could stack, doesn’t mean that there is no general, one-size-fits-all, answer to the question of whether or not they should stack.

The Realism Argument

Despite the way in which most participants (including me) describe it, combat in an RPG doesn’t actually describe the chances of hitting an opponent. Instead, the game mechanics describe a relative erosion of combat capability as a result of the conflict with the other party; damage represents the cumulative sum effects of exhaustion, of minor wounds and pulled muscles and nicks, and yes, of debilitating injuries received. Eventually, this leaves one combatant vulnerable to the other. The chance “to hit” is not the chance of hitting with one attack, it’s the chance that one of several attacks will diminish the combat capabilities of the opponent to a measurably significant standard – an indeterminate probability function in terms of the outcome of any one attempt to strike the foe that when statistically analyzed for an entire round’s attempts, can be stated to have an overall probability of effect. A randomness function – the die rolls – is then applied to collapse the cloud of possible outcomes into one definitive overall outcome for that round of combat.

The realism argument essentially states that permitting the effects of surprise to stack yields a far better simulation of reality viewed globally over all these attempts to inflict injury or death than not permitting them to do so. Coupled with some differentiating methodology within the game mechanics for yielding the depth of surprise resulting from any single surprising event, and appropriate rules for emerging from a state of surprise based on the intensity with which it is experienced, and rules for the accumulation of effects over time and a recovery-from-cumulative-effects mechanism, would yield a set of game mechanics in which the full gamut of possible surprise states can potentially be induced. It would feel far more realistic to participants.

Collectively, that’s a huge impost on the playability of the game. Some compromise will almost certainly be necessary. There are several degrees of compromise possible (from most realistic to most compromised):

  1. No compromise at all; or
  2. Ignore cumulative effects of repeated exposure to combat situations;
  3. …and leave depth of surprise as a narrative-based condition that the GM can impose to benefit plot, permitting existing surprise benefits to stack;
  4. …or ignore cumulative effects but permit depth of surprise and employ stacking as a modifier to the depth-of-surprise determination;
  5. …or ignore cumulative effects and stacking altogether, but impose a depth-of-surprise mechanic;
  6. …or completely ignore cumulative effects and depth of surprise, but permit existing surprise benefits to stack;
  7. …or simply leave things as they currently are within the rules system, and with no stacking permitted – a complete compromise of the realism;
  8. …or completely eliminate surprise from the game mechanics.

The realism argument boils down to: there is a better compromise than the one enshrined in most game mechanics. Whether that compromise is #6 on the list, or #5 on the list, or whatever, is a matter for individual determination within the bounds of genre, campaign, rules system, and GMing capacity. But you need to understand the whole story before you can make that determination, because its all a matter of cost-vs.-benefit.

Personally, I like #4 or #5 for most campaigns, but would use #6 for heroic-adventure campaigns like those set in the Pulp or Space Opera genre. As a player, #3 would infuriate me, and therefore I would not expect my players to be sanguine about it either; #2 still seems to compromise playability more than this one area of reality simulation warrants, and #1 and #8 are real extremes. Since the realism argument explicitly rules out #7, if you accept thus argument at all, the choice has to be between #4, #5, and #6 as “the best compromise”.

But, of course, there’s one more consideration: unless you’re designing a new game system from scratch (and hopefully all this has provided food for thought for such designers), any choice other than #7 represents imposing House Rules. Some players hate that, some GMs hate that, and some occasions (eg convention gaming) don’t really allow for that. This veto represents a compromise with a reality of an entirely different sort to “game realism” and may trump everything in this article!

On this basis, the answer to the question has to be “yes” – with the provision of a veto.

The Dramatic Argument

The purpose of an RPG is the entertainment of the participants, through the vicarious exploration of dramatic events and possibilities. The question can therefore be reframed, “Does stacking of surprise – and the introduction of other relevant rules – enhance the drama of combat?”

Unquestionably, I think the answer has to be “yes”, provided that the mechanics in question are not so onerous as to slow combat to a crawl. The potential for surprise to be individual, and to occur at any time there is an unexpected development (even deep within ongoing combat) can effectively diminish the PCs ability to react to a situation in the most effective manner theoretically possible, can lead to bad choices being made, and can introduce an additional roleplay element into combat itself. These are all good things in terms of making combat – occasionally – unexpectedly more dangerous and difficult.

That’s the danger of the Vorpal Bunny – it looks so cute and inoffensive, until…

The Heroic Argument

The other side of that argument re-frames the question to ask “is it more Heroic?”

It’s a pertinent question, but an unsatisfying one, because the answer is both “yes” and “no”.

Overcoming obstacles is Heroic, unquestionably. Placing obstacles to characters acting Heroically is not Heroic, equally unquestionably.

One could argue that the answer is “yes, provided that the conditions can be overcome”, but that in itself is inadequate; it can also be argued that having the most effective character in terms of combat prowess brought unstuck by surprise diminishes that character’s heroism but facilitates the opportunity for other characters to rise to the situation in a Heroic manner.

It can only be assumed that the more combat-effective a character is, the less likely it is that the character will be impaired by surprise on any given occasion, and the more likely it is that the character will succeed in overcoming this handicap in time to assist in saving the day; and so the occasions when the character’s heroism is diminished for the entire confrontation are exceedingly rare, and proportionate to their combat capabilities. It comes down, then, to how the GM uses surprise.

Using it for its own sake is bad, because it runs the risk of compromising a character’s participation, and hence that player’s enjoyment of the game; using it correctly transforms it into a mechanism for redistributing spotlight time in a situation in which combat prowess is capable of usurping the GM’s control over that element.

Ultimately, I think the answer is therefore another qualified “yes”. Surprise is a tool that the GM can exploit to benefit the game (when it is used correctly) and stackable surprise (plus extras) enhances the effectiveness of that tool.

The Game-play Argument

The game-play argument states that the rules are complicated enough already and this is a relatively minor part of life, not worth the additional difficulties of game administration imposed, even to the level of stacking the effects of existing surprise mechanism. But that’s an extreme position in and of itself, and is very dependent on the degree of impost represented by the additional rules.

A better way to frame the argument is to state that further compromising of playability must be balanced by the value provided by the additional rules, and that can’t be argued with. If you were to break the rules involved down into additional workload imposed on game-play, you get a virtually identical list to the one presented above, from greatest compromise to least compromise.

Once again, the question is whether or not the increase in realism and drama is worth the limited compromise with game playability, and that in turn is a function of how well-written the additional rules actually are.

I can, for example, envisage a system in which perception capabilities function as a “saving throw” against being surprised; in which the margin of failure of such a surprise is read against a table to determine the intensity of the surprise; in which multiple surprise vectors adds a penalty to that check; and in which low-intensity surprise conditions last for a fixed length of time based on character experience levels or some appropriate stat, but higher ones persist until the character makes a successful “save vs surprise” based on the intensity. Net total: One roll (that is already being made most of the time anyway), one table lookup, some combat effects from failure that are more differentiated than the ones built into the game system already but which mostly consist of statements restricting the character’s choice of actions in a relatively simple manner (e.g. “You have tunnel vision and for the next X rounds, or until it is defeated, are aware of nothing but the threat directly in front of you”), and maybe an additional saving throw on rare occasions.

That’s not a hugely complicated set of mechanics; the biggest difficulty is in either memorizing the table, or having it in front of you and accessible without delay. This is essentially a blueprint for option #4 on the list. Ignoring the modifier/penalty for multiple surprise vectors turns it into a blueprint for option #5, which would make the system slightly faster in play.

Nor is there any necessity for such a mechanic to be used on every occasion. TORG distinguished between “Standard” combat and “Dramatic” combat in which the stakes were higher, the outcomes more meaningful, and the dangers greater, and I’ve always found that to be a useful concept. In fact, I employ that routinely, and some shades in between, in determining whether or not to employ “cinematic combat” techniques instead of the full game mechanics – essentially defining the “full load” of rules as only applying to “Dramatic” combat.

Sidebar: Should surprise be scalable?

Time to lob a hand-grenade into the entire debate, I think! As characters advance in capability, the fixed penalty that results from surprise in some game systems becomes less and less meaningful, as does the risk that a character can even be surprised. In effect, simply living the adventuring life represents some equivalent of “Combat Training”. An entirely different position of compromise within the spectrum of simulations of reality results if the chances of surprise, and the dangers imposed by surprise, scale with character capability. The argument runs: characters may become more experienced at knowing what to look for, and so may be surprised less frequently, but when they are surprised, that should only make the effects more severe. Experience mitigates against the lower-intensity surprise levels, in other words, but not the higher-intensity ones.

Discussing this question in full is beyond the scope of this article, but it needed to be mentioned somewhere, as it is the elephant-in-the-room of this whole debate.

With that final nail, the gameplay argument – which attempted to argue a “no” case – ends by conceding an answer of “yes, conditionally and provisionally”.

The Sacrosanct Rules Argument

Some GMs and players feel that the published rules are sacrosanct and cannot and should not ever be violated. House Rules should consist of, at most:

  • Choices between options presented within the official rules;
  • Clarifications and rulings resolving areas in which the official rules are vague without actually changing any of them; and
  • Game Table etiquette and social interactions, such as “we take it in turns to buy the drinks or provide the food”.

I’ve discussed and debated this any number of times with different players and GMs, without reaching any final resolution beyond agreeing to disagree, that there’s room under the umbrella of RPG gaming for all philosophies. I can certainly accept and agree with an argument that the more interaction with strangers your adventure/game table is going to have – at conventions and in demonstration games – the closer the rules should be to “as published”. Beyond that, I can also accept an argument that points out that any House Rules represent an additional barrier between the game and the casual participant, and have had players choose not to join my games simply because the burden of reading and analyzing the house rules was too much for them. As with many other things, there is a compromise, and this barrier represents one of the criteria that should be used in determining where the point of compromise lies for any particular game – at any particular point in time.

The Unsurprising Conclusion

To that extent, no answer can ever possibly be universal. The point of an article like this one is not to say “you must” or “you should” do X – it’s to raise and discuss the question, examine the alternatives and the factors that should go into a decision between them, and give GMs the tools and information to make their own decisions.

The answer to the question raised – “should surprise stack?” is “yes, sometimes, conditionally.” That defines a compromised simulation of realism that is usually workable and usually appropriate. And definitely food for thought.

Do you have something to say on the subject of surprise? You can comment below, or better yet, put it into a contribution to the Blog Carnival and simply link to it below.

Or if that debate seems covered like a blanket by what I’ve written – and that was certainly my goal – the opening section offers many other possible topics to address in a carnival contribution.

I have noticed that I don’t always get backlinks to articles coming through automatically. You can enhance the likelihood of an automatic notification by linking to this page very early in your submission, instead of waiting until the end; but, on the premise that safe is better than sorry, you’re best off dropping a comment with a link to your article. So it’s over to the rest of RPG Bloggerdom…

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