Tricks Up Your Sleeve

This morning on the way to work I was listening to Rothfuss’ The Wise Man Fears and there was a part that reminded me of a very common mistake made by D&D players.  In the story, our hero is a wizard who is leading a group of four others to track down some bandits, and they’ve finally discovered a potential trail to the bandits’ location.  To power his magic he needs a link to a heat source.  He is also unsure as to just how many bandits they face, what their camp may look like, etc.  So he orders two of his companions to stay at camp, much to their chagrin as they’re eager to go find the bandits and get the job done with, and takes the other two off to scout out the location.  He also takes a bit of ash from the fire pit with him to have a link back to their fire to power his magic if necessary.

He never tells any of the others about the purpose of the fire though, or anything about his over-all plan.  The two left behind rankle at being left behind, and so ultimately decide to put out the fire, hide their gear, and follow.  The three doing the tracking notice they’re being followed and lay an ambush.  Our hero tells the other two where to hide and when to attack.  “What will you be doing?” he is asked.  “Mostly staying out of the way, as you two our better equipped for this sort of thing.  But if it comes to it, I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”

All too often we as players want a similar experience in our games.  We want to pop out in the moment of need with a clever trick we’ve been saving up.  We keep these tricks up our sleeves to reveal at just the right moment, and get to be the star of the show for a couple of minutes.  Except when it doesn’t work, or goes horribly wrong, and rest of the party suffers because one guy wanted a moment in the spotlight.

In the example above, our hero makes the same mistake twice.  In the second case it’s more obvious but less of a problem since the people he’s trying to ambush turn out to be his friends.  In the first case though, because he didn’t share with his allies the usefulness of having a fire going back at camp he has lost that resource when they decided to put it out before following.  Those who have read the book may argue that it makes sense in the context of the story, but it doesn’t make the ramifications any less serious.  And in the story our hero also has the advantage of explicitly being in charge, though his subordinates ultimately defy his orders.  In D&D you usually don’t even have that, the players form some kind of strange egalitarian group.  Plans are made and executed by committee, not by a single strong leader.

My point is this: in D&D it’s actually much better if you talk to the other players about all the abilities you have, and clever ways you can think of using them.  It may be that your party members can point out the flaws in your ideas, or new variations on how to best utilize your abilities, all in the safety of pre-battle planning.  If nothing else, at least they won’t be surprised when you spider climb to the ceiling, and will know that they should get out of the way next round for the in-coming fireball.

Yes, it makes for less cases of individual heroism or resourcefulness, but it also makes for less cases of everything going completely pear shaped.  And it doesn’t completely eliminate the scenario where a single person can do something brilliant to get the party out of trouble and be the hero for a couple minutes.  These things can still happen spontaneously through improvisation at the moment.  Then at least they’re coming when the party really is up against a wall, and even if it fails, well, at least someone tried something.

1 thought on “Tricks Up Your Sleeve

  1. I think it was BJ last year who said: “NEVER SURPRISE YOUR FELLOW PLAYERS”. So, so true, and so easy to overlook. (Accustomed as we are to manipulated narrative drama.) Yet this has been known since at least Gygax’s PHB with the end section on planning adventures: “particulars [of equipment] should be given to the party… spells must be selected in co-operation with other spell-users… characters must know each other’s strengths and weaknesses…” [p. 107]

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