So, my two PCs found a mysterious box and have finally found a way to open it.

So, my two PCs found a mysterious box and have finally found a way to open it.

So, my two PCs found a mysterious box and have finally found a way to open it. What I’m thinking of doing is telling them “inside the box, you find two strange items” and then ask each of them in turn to describe one of the items and what it does. My thought is that I can add side effects and limitations scaling with how crazy they get with their descriptions.

Has anybody done something like this with good success? Any pitfalls I should watch out for? Am I just being a lazy GM? 😀

19 thoughts on “So, my two PCs found a mysterious box and have finally found a way to open it.”

  1. Tim Franzke​ makes a good point here. I might approach the situation something like:

    * describe the appearance of each item

    * ask the character what they think it does, and what about it made them think that (or where they heard of such an item, or when they saw something similar before, etc)

    * add embellishments, limitations, or side effects as appropriate

    * maybe ask them to spout lore or DR if they want to work out some of the details

  2. Alright, so basically keep it from the perspective of the characters.

    I’m curious, though, what are the consequences of crossing the line?  The main concern I see in the article Tim Franzke linked is that doing it in a move can make things boring, but I don’t have a good sense for why that is.  I do see how muddying the distinction between player and GM responsibilities can potentially cause some confusion (i.e. how can players know when it’s okay to stretch beyond their usual role?)

    I do like the guided questions that Aniket Schneider suggested though; I think that will be less intimidating, too, than being asked to make up everything in response to a single question and it helps guide it to be in terms of normal player agency.

  3. Dan Bryant one problem is that a player can tell you stuff that will be bad for a game and when you then need to “safe” it you are discouraging their input on the game.

    “In the box is a wand that can cast – without fail – any spell that I know of as long as I can concentrate and wish for it”

    That is not even so over the top. Now I don’t know if you are okay with a Wizard being able to cast any spell without needing to prepare them etc. But when you think “yeah it can do that BUT [limitation X]” you are shutting down the player somewhat. They told you what they wanted to have and you said “no, you can’t really get that”.

    Now imagine they find something much more powerful…

  4. I think that breaking the Line can make things boring, but really only if it leads to the Czerge Principle (that authoring both the nature of your adversity and the way you overcome said adversity is boring).

    For me, adhering to the Line is more about taste, and narrative responsibility, and, I dunno… procedural hygiene? Like, if I’m the player, it’s not my job to narrate something that my character has no knowledge of. Just like it’s not my job to narrate what the goblin’s attack looks like or just how it wounds me.

    Part of the brilliance of “ask leading questions and build on the answer” is that it’s also limited by the other principles: address the characters (not the players), be a fan of the characters, Think Dangerous, etc. It you ask “what’s in the box,” and there’s no way the characters would know, then you’re addressing the players and violating a principle. And violating that principle in that way leads to an erosion of the GMs authority to say “no, the world doesn’t work like that” or otherwise exert their authority over (and responsibility to maintain) the fictional world beyond the PCs.

    Crossing the Line can work, sure, with the right players. But it’s tricky and I wouldn’t do it lightly.

  5. Counterpoint, I break the line a lot with groups (often Con groups of people I’ve never gamed with before) and it can work out great! It just depends on if you playes a) get it and b) are interested in helping with world building. By “get it” I mean they don’t just power game; they understand that adding awesome and adversity in equal measure is desirable.

  6. I think my particular players will be pretty good about not trying to create anything too overpowered or ridiculous, but this Line concept is definitely a good thing to keep in mind.  If anything, my players have a history of making things harder on themselves. 😀

    The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of phrasing it in terms of describing the appearance, feeling, etc. and some guesses as to what they think it might do.  They gives me a good template for making them cool items that they would like to have, without constraining too much my ability to keep them reasonable for the scope of the fiction.

  7. +1 to “it depends on the players.”

    Personally, I prefer to respect “the line” wherever possible in Dungeon World games I GM, because that’s part of my interpretation of the GM principle “portray a fantastic world.” I feel like it spoils the illusion of journeying through a mysterious setting when I open a box and then create the contents, or open a door and then create what’s on the other side. Yet somehow it doesn’t spoil the illusion if I say, “I’ve heard tales that the Horn of Arethea was hidden in this dungeon!” and then the GM says, “You find a horn that matches that description in the box!” Better still if those moments are separated in time. I’m trying to rationalize a gut feeling here, so the “why” of this is a little hard to describe for me.

    I have played (non-DW) games where the players participate in the worldbuilding more directly, and it works great! It feels slightly off for me in Dungeon World specifically, but I’ll allow that that feeling may be particular to my Dungeon World experience, rather than something fundamental to the game itself. Understanding your players’ expectations and setting them appropriately is, as always, important – I think it could be very jarring if this sort of direct worldbuilding came up, unannounced, in like session 5.

  8. I recently ran the “dungeon starter” from Uncharted World´s rule book in which the PCs have to retrieve a container for a client. In case they open it the leading question was:”What does the container hold and why would you never knowingly transport it?” which gave the player enough guidance to come up with a creative answer. I feel in your example “weird” is not enough to stimulate the player. I would also rather limit the input of the player beforehand with a sharper question than afterwards by constraining the item´s effect.

  9. I feel there’s too much angst about “crossing the line”. In my campaign I have the players cross the line frequently and it hasn’t hurt the campaign, only improved it as far as I can see.

  10. Kasimir Urbanski​ the RPG Pundit says he does not like PBTA games because he says having players narrate stuff breaks immersion as in:

    Player: “I open the box. What’s inside?”

    GM: “I dunno. You tell me.”

    If the GM in this example tells the player to “cross the line” the Pundit has a point, it could break immersion, or suspension of disbelief. His point is that the players want to feel that their characters are exploring a real, self consistent world, where things are not made up on the spot.

    I am not sure that suspension of disbelief would necessarily be broken, but I do think it may, so not “crossing the line” is probably good for immersion.

  11. Aniket Schneider​​ I think The Alexandrian has a good quote of why there might be a distinction there(he was talking about creating random rooms with a roll which i think is similar)

    “They knew that their choices were irrelevant. There was nothing that could actually be discovered. They were using a game structure of exploration, but they weren’t actually exploring anything.”

    Basically saying what rumours they have heard about the dungeon is adding to the world. They could be wrong. Saying individual rooms just shows that the world is random and there is nothing to be discovered.

  12. Dan Bryant may not have wanted an rpg theory lecture when he asked this relatively simple question. 🙂 I actually think it’s a great idea Dan. It definitely pays to put some thought into how you will ask the question, but sharing the narrative/exploration is good in that it gives them a chance to have the world reflect some of their ideas as well as yours.

  13. Ray Otus Oh, I don’t mind the discussion of theory at all; I’m quite new to the hobby, so it’s good to get exposed to the different thoughts and ideas that have developed around tabletop gaming over the years.  The more I can learn from those who’ve been doing this for a lot longer than I have, the better I can make the game for my players.  I learn best by pretending I know what I’m doing, then bouncing those ideas off others to see what actually works and where I’m just talking bullshit. 🙂

  14. Cool! Good to hear that you are opening up your brain to thinking about all the stuff that will make you a better GM. Just remember that what really matters is what works at the table, for your group. This is a far more helpful and interesting theory discussion than most I have seen. Sometimes people just want to sound intelligent and many of those people rarely play or have very narrow experience sets. Which is to say a lot of people talk out of their ass. But I’m sounding pretty cynical now, so I’ll shut it. 🙂

  15. I decided to add a bit more interest by giving the situation a genie vibe; I had the box mentally offer them an item of their choosing in return for a favor in the future. My thought was that if they chose the ‘wish’ option, it would help better justify why they had this flexibility. They decided not to bite though and so now it might instead end up a quest to try to dispose of this box so that nobody evil can get their hands on it. I think this sentient box may now be part of a new front… 🙂

  16. In order not to cross the line, ask them about what do they already know about the box. Where did they found it? Who else wished for it? Why?

    Such a way, you will not cross the line, but they will give you a really good idea about what it may contain.

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