The Murky Mirror

In the comments of my last post Delta shared a link to the Angry GM’s blog where he describes a system called “The Murky Mirror“. I think some of the ideas expressed in that post are quite interesting, but unfortunately the delivery is both long-winded and incredibly abrasive. It’s not the kind of thing where I’d be happy just sharing a link with my players, so I’m going to attempt to repost the concept here in my own heavily edited way. So without further ado, I present the Murky Mirror, as told by the Angry Polite GM.

The Murky Mirror

We assume the players and characters are reflections of each other in a murky mirror. They aren’t perfect reflections, but they are generally synchronized in time and meaning. What the players are doing is generally interpreted to be what the characters are doing, and what the players are saying is generally interpreted as what the characters are saying, as seen through the lens of the imaginary fantasy world in which the game takes place.

For example, if a player says “my character refuses to help because he thinks the orcs are all savages because he saw them murder his parents,” we assume that in game their character said something like “scum like you butchered my parents and I’d rather have every one of my fingers broken then lift one of them to help a monster like you.” If the players spend ten minutes talking about the latest episode of a current TV show, then we assume their characters are discussing a traveling theatrical group they saw at the last town. If during combat a player says “we all need to protect Gertrude, she’s the only one that can heal us”, we assume the character said something reasonably similar and if the enemies speak the same language, then it is certainly reasonable for them to react by focusing their attacks on Gertrude.

While time may pass at different rates at the table vs. in the game world, we can also assume a somewhat murky connection between the two. If a player spends a long time considering their next move during combat, the DM may warn the player that their turn will be skipped if they don’t make a quick decision. If they characters have ridden their cart into town and are debating where to go first, then the DM may have the town guard yell at them to stop blocking traffic and move along.

There is no back-tracking, there is no “that was out-of-character”. If a player says or does something at the table, it is reflected in the game world, at least in a reasonable facsimile for the fiction of the game. The DM may at their discretion ask for confirmation of actions, including speech. When a player says “Should we check for traps? Eh, screw it, I kick down the door,” we are not surprised when the DM asks “are you sure?” Likewise, if a player says “This NPC seems shifty, I don’t think we should trust him” the DM can ask “Are you sure you want to say you don’t trust this NPC out loud?” Both instances are purely at the DM’s discretion, and players should not assume in either case that they can take back any action at their liberty.

There’s a lot in the original page about why this is a good idea and the results of how it impacts the game. I was going to try and summarize those as well, but then I realized I wasn’t sure if I agreed entirely with the author, or at least didn’t yet have the evidence to support those claims. So for now I’m just leaving up there the base mechanics of how it’s supposed to work. I will likely experiment with using this at an upcoming game. In fact posting it here was meant as a way to generate the text I could share with my players. I imagine there will be a future post where I will share my results, and compare them with the expectations the Angry GM set forth in his original post.

This post is also grist for the mill of my upcoming Wandering DMs chat with Dan on the topic of “Character and Player Separation”. We’ll be discussing the topic in depth tomorrow, Sunday, at 1 PM Eastern. Watch the discussion on Twitch or YouTube and share your own thoughts in the chat!

EDIT: Watch the Wandering DMs discuss Player vs. Character here!

5 thoughts on “The Murky Mirror

  1. I look forward to the next Wandering DMs installment (sorry, I haven’t yet had a chance to comment on the last two…I enjoyed both).

    As I commented in your previous post, I’ve never fully implemented the “murky mirror” technique, but I heartily agree with all the points Angry DM makes regarding the attempt to separate player from character. Which is why I find most of your approaches to the “greedy thief” to be non-starters for me:

    – It is perfectly reasonable that a party of adventurers would want a thief…even a “greedy” thief…in their party, in order to make use of the character’s skills. A D&D party is like a Mission Impossible team where every person has their own specialty.

    – That being said, it is totally UNREASONABLE for the party to put up with said thief, greedy or otherwise, stealing from, backstabbing, or perpetrating any other shenanigans on the party itself. The thief is hired/elected for her skills, and the use of those skills IN AID OF the party and the party’s goals. Would a party tolerate a wizard launching a fireball into a melee that would obviously kill members of their own party (especially ones the wizard had disagreements with?)? Would the party tolerate the character who speaks “lizard man,” making a deal with the local tribe that offers the other PCs as a banquet in exchange for safe passage and a bag of treasure? Of course not.

    – In the past, I’ve allowed players to play asshat characters “in-character;” in the past, I have been the asshat (and claimed that I was only acting “in character”). It’s all bullshit. D&D is not about playing in-character; D&D is about the experiential rush of playing in the moment. Player cooperation is necessary for survival and thus facilitating play and experiencing that rush. Trying to facilitate impersonation (i.e. “in character play”) UNDERMINES this. Players should be worried about the dark, scary dungeon they’re exploring, not the backstory-generated motivation of their characters (whether asshats or not).

    It’s taken me many years to come to these conclusions; as said, I used to try doing the separation of character and player thing. Maybe I had a blindspot about it because I’ve been trained as an actor (and so am used to portraying characters different from myself); maybe I had a blindspot about it because I’ve spent so much time in the DM’s chair (and thus had to play NPCs of both “helpful” and “asshat” nature with impartiality). Regardless, I’ve come around in my thinking: no asshattery is allowed by players at the table. The “murky mirror” technique would seem to be a viable tool to use in facilitating this.

    1. D&D is not about playing in-character; D&D is about the experiential rush of playing in the moment. Player cooperation is necessary for survival and thus facilitating play and experiencing that rush.

      In general I agree with this, though I do think that while character play may not be central to the game that doesn’t mean it’s not present at all. I also think all this applies specifically to D&D, and not roleplaying games in general. There is a wide range of styles and tones when it comes to playing D&D, but I do think that “a cooperative group working towards their mutual benefit” is a reasonable expectation of any D&D game.

      Now, games like Cthulhu or Fiasco I think focus much more on the character play and inter-party friction. The very premise of Paranoia out-right subverts the “cooperative group” focus. These games I think can be just as fun as D&D, so what’s the difference?

      Off the cuff, I’d say that those games are much more up front about their goals. I always begin my Cthulhu games with the preamble “It is my goal to ensure each and every one of you dies or goes insane before the end of the session.” I say that because it’s part of my spiel when using Insanity Cards, and I recognize that some GMs don’t run their Cthulhu turned up to 11 like I do.

      Perhaps D&D, being a general fantasy game, is a bit less clear in expressing a central focus, and thus requires us to be more deliberately up front about our goals before we start to play?

      1. Sorry for the late reply: for some reason my subscription to follow-up comments didn’t “take.”

        Yes, I agree that the “experiential” part of D&D is kind of specific to D&D, and not necessarily other RPGs. In recent years, I’ve begun to think that there may be some real distinctions between what D&D is (as a game) compared to other things we lump in the same “RPG” category…like perhaps the term RPG is a little too broad and vague to define these games that are played in the realm of imagination. Certainly there are some HUGE differences between D&D, Vampire the Masquerade, and Fiasco. And it’s not just about which are more “up front” with regard to their goals…it’s the goals themselves. Steve Jackson’s Toon (like Paranoia) bears ZERO resemblance to D&D in terms of goals of play.

        But discussing this line of thought is really off-topic for this post (maybe something I’ll write about it on my own blog). Just trying to pull it back to the subject at hand: I’d say that even within games that are more “character oriented” like CoC (by the way, I would NOT say that’s the case, but just for the sake of argument), I think that it would be ill-conceived to allow someone to play a “sneaky git” just because it’s “in character” unless the game is explicitly about inter-party conflict. I mean, part of the fun of a game like Fiasco is figuring out ways to screw each other (and yourself) in amusing fashion, and one could certainly run a CoC game with defined goals of “survive even (or specifically) at the cost of your companions,” with successful conflict being hailed as “fun” by one and all.

        We play competitive games with our friends all the time, without too many hard feelings, so long as everyone goes in to the game with the idea that THIS is what the game is about (be it Chess, Monopoly, Diplomacy, MtG, whatever). However, RPGs with GMs, unless explicitly stated as being otherwise, come with an INHERENT SOCIAL COMPACT of PLAYERS (cooperatively) VS. GM. Regardless of how fair and impartial a GM may be, it is still the GM’s responsibility (in most RPGs) to generate conflict, challenge, drama, etc. and the players’ expectation to react to it. When players begin to act as instruments of conflict themselves (within the party) without explicit or express permission, they are breaking that inherent social contract, regardless of their justification for doing so (“playing in character,” etc.).

        Far from being a “general fantasy game,” I’d say D&D as originally written is a very specific type of fantasy game. I do agree that (especially in its early days) it was very unclear with expressing its central focus, and over the decades this has caused it to morph into a lot of different things…to the point that it’s probably STILL unclear about its focus (I’m guessing here, because it’s been a while since I’ve read the 5E books, but I’m assuming the latest edition has some BS text about how you can use the system for many different styles of game, despite being only really good at ONE particular style).

        *ahem* I realize that may not be an opinion will ever reach, um, consensus from the community, but…you know, to each their own, I guess.

        1. Yeah, what is the actual focus or theme of D&D? I feel like that’s the real meat of this discussion. Like you, I’m sure that 5e presents itself as being much broader than it probably should be. I have similar thoughts on a system like Savage Worlds. SW presents itself as being uber-generic and appropriate for any style of roleplay. In practice, I think it’s at its best when playing high-action pulpy style games, and really not great for something with a gritty feel. The mechanics just push it in that direction and while you can customize it in any direction you want, it can take considerable effort.

          For example, to run my horror games in SW I ended up ditching soak rolls, the shaken status, most edges and hindrances, and benes, which makes some folks wonder “is this still even Savage Worlds?” Likewise I’ve been told “you can run 5e in an old school style”, which I do actually agree with, but I also think takes a lot of work to identify and modify the systems that fight that style. You can do it, but at some point you have to ask yourself “why not just play a system that was built for the style I’m after?”

  2. For using the murky mirror specifically as a way of heading off issues with greedy characters, I think there are two ideal cases:

    1. The players all make characters who get along and aren’t trying to get one over on each other (side note: it’s worth bearing in mind that Angry GM refuses to allow evil PCs for D&D and more or less requires them to be cooperative), so there’s no issue because the players don’t want to take responsibility for reflecting those types of characters.

    2. The players go in with the understanding that backstabbing behavior could end up with them getting killed by the other PCs without causing any hard feelings.

    I find the murky mirror concept is mostly useful for increasing immersion and cutting back on ambiguity over whether something is being said IC vs. OOC. Issues of internal strife between characters and/or players are better dealt with by taking a break from the game to make sure everyone’s on board with the former and to diffuse the latter.

    Side note 2 to avoid also commenting on the previous post: Your intuition that Angry GM’s attitude would be “good riddance to that player” is correct, at least based on Rehm’s other posts talking about how GMs can always find new players if they’re unhappy with their current ones (which I disagree with both philosophically and from experience, but I digress).

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