GM Cues

I’m always intrigued by the idea of mechanizing language, but I usually think about it from the player side, where certain phrases are designed to trigger mechanical effects. Things like aspects and moves, yes, but it also is a big part of games that require a lot of learning to engage – “I cast magic missile” is a sentence that is absolutely dripping with mechanical hooks. “Cast” is an action which engages mechanics. “Magic Missile” is a specific set of effects laid out in the rules. Once you understand those things, then the sentence feels natural and organic, and the volume of rules kind of fade from view. It’s a good trick, and one worth deliberately pursuing.

Last night I ended up thinking about this from the GM side. Now, the GM has somewhat different responsibilities in her language. Yes, the rules mechanics are also in play, but the GM is also the proxy for the characters sense of the world. She is their eyes and ears, so to speak, and the decisions related to how to communicate the world are incredibly important.

Specifically, because the GM cannot convey every piece of information about what’s going on, she must be able to shorthand it efficiently. Consider a scene where our bold adventurers enter a room – the GM describes it in a quick sketch (“About 30×3, with bare walls and a door on the opposite wall”) but then goes into great detail about a specific piece of furniture, let’s say a desk. The GM has just signaled to the players that the desk is important and would be interesting or useful to engage with.

Or so we hope.

This is one of those areas where the history of adventure design has worked against us. In older, more competitive games, that sort of thing would be viewed as cheating, or the GM giving hints, which was bad sportsmanship. That lead to two specific patterns that have kind of dirtied the water.

First, adventure designers and GMs started deliberately subverting this expectation by applying loving detail to things that were distractions or ultimately hazardous. This, in turn, made players very wary of anything the GM drew attention to as a probable threat, which in turn inspired GMs and Designers to make things worse. Not a great scene. Hopefully, newer players don’t have as much of this baggage, but this is one of those areas where a new player can be quickly scarred and taught not to trust the GM, so its worth being mindful of it.

Second, it lead to an idea that descriptions needed to be “neutral”, with no cues from the GM. This is not super practical because it requires that the GM either go into excruciating detail, or that the players must ask questions about every single thing until they happen to hit upon the right thing, in a weird variation on one of those computer puzzle games where you need to get the mouse on exactly the right pixel to solve the problem. Not fun for anyone.

The solution to this was to move it to the dice. Early perception skills were mostly a way to skip this process and answer the question “Do you find the cool thing?”. Obviously, the topic of perception skills has evolved a lot since then, but I hold it up as what is ultimately a pretty convoluted way to avoid a fairly simple mode of communication.

I’m not necessarily saying that you should forgo perception checks in favor of GM cues, but I’m definitely suggesting that you COULD.

8 thoughts on “GM Cues

  1. Alan

    That’s a whole lot of useful history, and some good advice on how we can try to build a better future as DMs. Thank you.

  2. Chris Klug

    The more that the GM moves away from narrating every moment towards replying on dice rolls to assist in the narration task, the more the characters are empowered, which, in my mind, empowers the players.

    Maybe that’s too simplistic, but I sort of prefer that when I run games.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It is! The complication is whether that’s what players are looking for. Sometime they are. Sometimes they would be if they’ll do it was an option (and in those case, it’s important that they discover it is). But sometimes there is a mindful surrender of some of that potential empowerment in return for other emotional rewards (discovery, risk, fiero, whatever), so it definitely resists a uniform solution.

      Which is good! This is why we have people doing this stuff, not a scripts!

      1. Chris Klug

        Just last session, I employed a technique I use often. I made a characteristic check for the NPCs, where I rolled against their WIL (if they needed to be brave) or their INT (if they needed to figure something out). I use a system where they can Fumble, and both times I checked, the NPC fumbled, which lead to MUCH more interesting choices than if I had just improvised their choice.

        1. Rob Donoghue Post author

          Very familiar with that experience! It is a big part of why I returned to diced games after a lot of time spent doing diceless. Even if the GM is very empowered, the role is greatly improved when there are constraints and pressures to work against, and those cans take many forms (though dice are probably my favorite).

  3. sirien

    Hey Rob!

    I’m going through your blog to find more interesting articles to translate* – and as I’m working my way into older and older post (I’m on page 40 right now…), I find out an interesting thing – many times, you come back to some idea years later and give another perspective to it. Sadly, you usually don’t link the related article**. Like in this case, this article seems to be very much related to “Narrating from knowledge” written in 2018:

    Just a curious observation 🙂 I understand you probably don’t recall now what everything you wrote years ago – but if I’m wrong, I’d dare to suggest to you to give link to older closely related articles to the new ones.

    Thanks for all your thoughts. Please do keep writing! 🙂


    * your blog is a well of RPG wisdom – I’ve already translated more than a dozen entries and I have more than another dozen in my to-do list; I’m not asking for permission anymore – you’ve always permitted it to me as well as to all others… I’m as always attributing you properly and linking the original.

    ** for another example, in 2016 you wrote “2d6 3 out of 5” where you did discuss the idea of range of outcomes… which ties pretty well to “The size of success” you wrote 2 years later. Both of which tie closely to “Mixed successes and rolls without failures” Fred wrote about ten years ago on his now sadly lost blog.

  4. Daniel

    I hope you write more on this topic because I think this sort of thing has a long history of being handled inconsistently in rpgs but yet remains one of the most vital aspects of play.

    Most GMs probably don’t know exactly every detail about a scene, not without prompting. Sometimes they decide stuff on the fly based on player curiosity. And even if you try to plan everything out beforehand–setting up tiers of information gated behind various stats or skills and tailored to the unique perceptions of the PCs (fighter notices weapon types, wizard notices arcane stuff, rogue notices criminal entry etc.)–it’s easy to forget or be unaware of things that would be perceived if the situation had actually happened.

    If you are playing through a mystery and a player asks a question about whether some detail which you think is unrelated or insignificant is present, you have to be careful. What if you reflexively say no but then that makes them determine that the correct answer to your mystery is actually wrong. Maybe the players know facts you don’t. You would have to actually ask them questions about their questions and figure out why they asked it to determine the significance of the question. Your questions could then inadvertently reveal more information than intended.

    Whereas if the mystery had really happened, all the details would be there whether someone thought of them or not. In a video game, players would just discount the lack of detail as the result of programming limitations. But in a tabletop game, it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure the scene is accurate.

    Coming up with a solution to the problem seems quite tricky. You have to consider “passive” perception and active investigation as well as using perception as a weapon, such as lying, sneaking or wearing disguises. This requires some form of resolution system, usually involving stats, which might make one wonder why information isn’t gated by those same stats. Can you even call for resolution without revealing that there’s information they’re checking for? In a way, they succeed even when failing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *