Grumpy Old GM Thoughts
Do you ever notice how 95% of fantasy art always shows a group of 5 adventurers standing around featureless rooms looking bored or uninterested while examining their fingernails? Me neither. I recently came across an piece about “things to say when a character makes a perception check and finds nothing” that was going around my gaming circles like it was the second coming of Gygax or something, and it really bugged me. I let it roll off my shoulders and told myself to not write an editorial complaining about it, however today I stumbled across another from the same blog full of things to say when a character doesn’t find a trap, and I just can’t stop myself from thinking “who the fuck is playing this game where nothing happens all of the time?” Not to mention all of the flashbacks of wasted time while running games with situations like these. So please, read on, and please give me your thoughts in the comments.
Time Is Valuable
I’m not sure about the precise demographics of my readership, however, regardless of whatever they may be I’m going to wager that not many of you often say to yourself “You know what I love in my RPGs? Wasting a bunch of fucking time going on about nothing“. I’ve made the mistake countless times in the past of attempting to ‘spice up’ plain explanations of “you find/see/hear/sense nothing” and of those times, whatever other little detail you give to players – they tend to latch onto with a death grip. This can cause rabbit holes of “rpg logic” where players begin burning spells to investigate further, or start attempting to put random objects inside of other random objects like they’re trapped inside The Secret of Monkey Island.
What it boils down to is just lots of slogging the game down for no reason until I ultimately have to grind the narrative to a halt and say “Guys, there’s nothing here, you’re just reading too far into it” and begin pushing forward again. Wallah, 20 minutes of valuable playtime have now whizzed by because of what? Nothing, that’s what.
Red Herrings, Stahp!
While all of the examples given in the blog aren’t all red herring material, some of them most definitely are. Red herring’s are fantastic when used properly. Properly meaning sparingly, and with precursory thought – not something on a random table of results or something you just decide to toss in for funsies. If you have a game full of these, then you have a game of nothing, I know this because I’ve ran them before. Letting your game run in a dozen different directions means you’re not running a game at all. Not only are these wasting your time, but they’re creating more work for you as the GM because after your game you need to delve into that many more cracks and crevices of your world and you now need to find explanations for all of your potential plot threads. There’s nothing wrong with world building, but you should do it on your own volition.
Why So Empty?
What game is it you’re playing that is making your players constantly feel the need to search for traps or secret curiosities that always results in so much nothing? I’m not sure, maybe the person who wrote this is really into retroclone / 1e / Sword & Sorcery / Whitebox / Gygaxian fetishist “This featureless 10×10 chamber contains 3 orcs and a small chest with 2sp, a candle, and 1d4 horse dicks inside” style of game, in which case I feel sympathy. In any other case, if you’re playing a modern RPG that doesn’t make use of meaningful and impactful die rolls, maybe consider looking elsewhere for GM’ing advice that stretches beyond a random table. Playing a game where players are constantly spamming search / detect magic / find traps and coming up with nothing feels like the equivalent of spamming refresh on your Facebook feed in case you missed something “important” (hint: you didn’t, go browse Imgur instead).
Obviously, not every result on every table in these articles is bad, and there’s never anything wrong with tossing in a tinge more flavor than “you find nothing, move along” but the subtext of the article is “sometimes a little player paranoia isn’t a bad thing” which is really what gets me. Player paranoia? Sure, that’s fun. Uncertainty? For sure! When applied purposefully and in moderation, or even within the scope of a module or campaign based around it, but it isn’t something you just use willy-nilly, at least if you want to run a campaign with relative success.
There’s a quick and simple fix for all of these things, all you have to do is make sure that you’re running a game where decisions matter. No one wants to play “moldy basement simulator” full of bland environments and pointless choices. Instead of doing any of these, simply use things that are flavorful, yet don’t elude to there being a bigger picture in place such as “You don’t find any traps or anything that looks suspicious really, though you do notice the marks on the floor indicate this door is used frequently” or “Your detect magic doesn’t bring anything to your attention, aside from the faint glow of your own staff”. You can use details that make the world more vivid, without sending your players down a rabbit hole and keep the pace moving, and full of interesting and exciting things for your players. Give it a whirl sometime.