Monday, September 20, 2010

Are We Having Fun Yet?: The Mirror of Life Trapping.

After the last session of my game, it occurred to me that there were a few things that had happened that I don't think I could have pulled off in my other gaming groups. I am going to see if I can phrase this without giving away any of the things my party did not figure out, as they could still do some stuff in this room. But nu.

Lemme 'splain.

Basically, in one of the rooms there is a mirror of life trapping which, in order for there to be any real intrest or immediacy to the adventure, requires that one of the PCs fall into it, whereupon they are stuck in a small black room with no doors, and only one window-- to the room where they just were, where they can see and hear their party members, but cannot interact with them. Generally, they can't do anything now but wait until the party rescues them. This could potentially go very badly as more members of the party get trapped, which, after the first one, releases one random creature that had been previously trapped in the mirror.

If you are a gamer like my usual team, you are probably thinking, "Oh man, if that happened to my pc, I'd be so pissed off! I might walk out of the session. Sitting there trapped with nothing to do is not my idea of a good time. That would hugely suck. I feel so lame."

And you'd have a valid point. I have gotten hugely upset myself in the AE game upon falling unconcious, when, since I was all but out of spells, waking me up while the combat was going on would have been a serious waste of party time. That's right, I'm sitting there with nothing to do because, the way combat is structured, to do so would be sapping valuable rounds in which damage could be done, because there's no way to heal and do damage on a single turn, and AE doesn't really (as far as I know) have dedicated healers, unless, say, you went hardcore mage on nothing but the Positive Energy Template. But I digress. Being locked out of the action is no fun, and I can't deny that.

Nonethless, the players I have run through this have all really liked it (in the interest of full disclosure, the second time, I trapped a player who was going to be missing the session), and I am going through this here in part to try to suss out why, and also to justify why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. Anyway, here's the skinny on what justifications I can think of for why this might not just innately suck:

1) the puzzle /is/ avoidable.

The first two times, run in 2e and in 3.5e, you had a dex check to avoid looking in the mirror, and a will save if you did look. When I ran it just now in 4e, I had skill checks to avoid looking (with a bonus after the first party member got trapped, since they knew what it did), and the mirror made a +10 vs. Will attack (yes, against 1st level characters-- not looking is supposed to be the best way to avoid this) if you did look into it. After the first person got trapped, most of the party had no trouble keeping their eyes averted-- the Rogue kept covering it and uncovering it as they tried to get the Avenger out, flubbed one roll, and wound up getting caught also. Fortunately, by that time, they had figured out the keywords, and had no trouble getting the Avenger out. The Rogue... well, that's another story.

That said, if the whole party manages to avoid looking, you're fine. Also, when the party enters the room, I made a random roll to determine which of the 3 mirrors in the room (a heavily modified Mirror of Mental Prowess and a non-4e style Mirror of Opposition) is uncovered; the other two have cloths covering them. Which is a mixed blessing, as poking at the covered mirror may well get you trapped, when you don't know what's under there. But there are ways, such as utilizing the mirror of Mental Prowess, to figure out what is going on with the mirror and even solve the puzzle of it without a party member getting trapped-- if say, the party decides they want to free the other things that are trapped in the mirror.

Which brings us to...

2) There are multiple ways to solve the puzzle.

The first two times I ran this, the players solved it pretty much the same way, which was not even close to the way the 4e party solved it. Using the mirror of Mental Prowess (which worked kind of like an Infocom game in that you had to phrase things in very specific ways to get the results you wanted, but asking enough questions or even regular conversation where the mirror could 'hear' would eventually get you clues to help you out), the party figured out the passcodes to the Lifetrapping Mirror, and only wound up acidentally freeing one thing that was trapped beforehand-- and that one was friendly. There was another way they could have done it-- finding some other living thing (or the creature they'd released, an Orium Dragon Wyrmling) and forcing it to look in the mirror in hopes of releasing the party members randomly, and that option got discussed. Also, if they'd come up with something really neat, I'd probably have let that work. Actually-- well, here.

Because of a number of factors, one of which was that the Rogue was the one who had solved the puzzle of getting the passcodes in the first place, and had tricked the mirror of Mental Prowess into believing she was its master, I allowed the Rogue to make a skill check from inside the mirror to free herself. Doing so was narratively the right choice-- it served the drama of the scene, as for reasons of her own, the rogue bluffed the party into believing that they had actually freed her. One person made their insight roll and is now suspicious, which adds interest to the role play. On the other hand, I can't really claim that this choice was anything but DM Fiat, which topic ought to be another post entirely. But my thought, basically, is that in this case the players trust me enough to realise that if I see them not having fun with this, I am going to do my damdest to make sure they start having fun again as soon as possible. Also--(very tiny invocation of) rule of cool, which in this case is more, Rule-Of-Your-DM-Is-a-Narrativist. Which is yet another future post topic.

That said, I am curious about opinions as to whether this kind of thing is really too risky to run much-- I mean, overdoing the, "oh no, now you're trapped in something and have to be rescued" is no good, but on the other hand, dangers that aren't death seem like a kind of neat thing. Does it fall into the realm of, "This is Not Okay, and you should only do this if you want at least one PC to have a miserable session," "Naw, this puzzle is cool! Do it moar!" or "Well... run right, I guess this might be okay sometimes in moderation," as far as things that might actually ruin a game.

I suppose that part of the reason that I am wondering is because this is not a question I'd even ask myself in 3.x or earlier. I'd say, to any player that whined about it, "don't lawyer me, suck it up and deal. "Having played more 4e-- and just more, with more power-type gamers-- I worry about mechanics screwing things up a lot more, as I like the players knowing how the world works and how to use the tools they have to fix problems-- hence, my love of skill challenges. I've been very fortunate in having players that enjoyed 'stuck in a box' rp-- and man, the poor Avenger has been running foul of every trap in the dungeon, coz she doesn't like to check things out before she messes with them. Whoops. Anyway, I can't help worrying if this sort of puzzle is actually a Douchebag DM Trick(tm) that's squeaked by because I have players who have the patience for it and don't know better, or if it's really all right, and I've provided enough outs.

Anyway, tis something I am thinking about right now.

Also, I will add that this is something you should NEVER do in say, a LARP. Taking agency away from characters when they do not have the option to, you know, go get a snack or go to the bathroom or make snarky commentary around the table, and they have to be in character is a recipe for lameness all around. Also, your resources are very limited, so back up plans to salvage the situation are probably going to look even dumber. But LARP mechanics and Tabletop mechanics are two very, very different things. Well, obviously.

Yes, this is a reference to something that happened at Eclipse this weekend, though not to me. Still, it was a thing which reminded me that I wanted to make this post in the first place.

B's Game tomorrow, gaming schedule-wise. Delicious 12th level assassin antics.

Fun for all.