The GM Should Be In On The Caper

by mshrm

You know those old caper movies, like Ocean’s 11, where the protagonists are pulling off some complicated scheme? Seems like you always get to see the planning, but not all of the planning. There’s a point where the plan seems to go off the rails and everything’s going wrong, except it turns out that The Man With The Plan had it covered all along; the cop turns out to be an impostor, or they swapped the real MacGuffin for a fake three scenes ago. The audience gets to see the moves being made, but doesn’t understand what’s going on until all the pieces fall into place.

Sometimes you’ll get players who will try to do the same thing in a game. They’ll treat the GM as the audience. Metaphorically speaking, they’ll pick up charcoal for cooking in one town, then they’ll mug an alchemist for some sulfur two adventures later in an entirely different town, then they’ll dig up some saltpeter, and then tell the GM that they’re mixing up gunpowder.

This never works.

The case at hand is, of course, Jed’s scroll of Continual Sunlight and how it didn’t work out as planned. The spell had an energy cost of 18, and the scroll was the self-powering sort, so it cost $900. The expectation was that it would fill the “Pit of Darkness” with the full brilliance of the noonday sun. (I confirmed with Jed’s player, he did get confused by the spell description and thought it overrode the usual rules for range modifiers on Area spells.) It actually did about a third of that… and Jed should have expected that.

Jed, the character, understands the rules for range modifiers on spells. He understands them the way we understand “red means stop, green means go”.  He understands them like professional baseball players understand the difference between a strike and a home run. He understands them like accountants understand double-entry bookkeeping. They’re part of his business. Jed, the character, would have looked at that hole and just known, without taking any measurements, that planting a Continual Sunlight spell at the bottom would have required crazy-high skill. He would have known that it would take a (much!) higher class of scroll than the one he picked up. He would have expected what he got, for the price he paid.

I knew Jed had picked up the scroll, but we hadn’t discussed exactly what his plan was for it. I even knew that the plan was to use it in the Pit. The key thing that we hadn’t discussed was the way the spell description interacted with the general rules.

The time before, we did it right. Last time around, Jed’s player came to me with a plan to use scrolls and potions to set up an Invisible Wizard’s Eye with a bunch of enhancements. He was going to go out to the dungeon during downtime, taking Alric along as a bodyguard, and use the Eye to map the dungeon at his leisure. He ran it past me because he was wondering about leaving town off-schedule. When I understood what he was after, I checked the numbers, and we concluded that if he ever tried it, it would cost hundreds of dollars -er, copper pieces, that is, hundreds of copper for every minute he wanted to maintain the spells. This is a thing that Jed would just know, that isn’t necessarily obvious to any player. Or the GM, for that matter. He decided to save his money, for now… but now he knows what it’ll take to accomplish his goal.

It could be, maybe, the players are reluctant to share their schemes for fear I’ll go back and prep the dungeon to handle that approach…. as if they’re somehow warning the inhabitants of the dungeon. Not so. On the one hand, I’m suppressing my knowledge when I act as the monsters, just like the players are acting on what their characters know. On the other, the whole idea of the Old School Dungeon Crawl is to take my hand out of the dungeon. I’ve long since determined what’s in every room, how it feels about things, and what its plan is, if things come around poking it with sharp sticks. (Well, ok, not every room, but at least the ones that they’ll be seeing any time soon.) I’m not going to go back and give the secret, hidden goblin tribe a contingency plan in case of Invisible Wizard’s Eye, if nothing else, just because it would be too much work. 😉