Sunday 12 December 2010


Alexis recently asked an excellent question: how realistic are the "standing orders" players give DMs about the attention and discipline of their characters in the game? The example he gave was when players claim that their characters keep to a perfect fighting formation during an eight-hour hike. But this could easily be extended to other common claims:

"By default, we are always checking carefully for traps ahead of us."
"Here is our standard procedure to deal with opening a door ..."
"Just to let you know, every time we stay in an inn we post watches, sleep in our armor, and spike the door."

But in reality, how good is human attention? Not that great. Psychologists have found that vigilance and self-control are limited resources, easily depleted. The tough part, though, is making this limited resource an interesting factor in an adventure game.

Some DMs just work with the standing order. Like DMs who overlook encumbrance, they eliminate player decisions about attention as a resource, in order to simplify play. This kind of game assumes a certain amount of vigilance at all times that's a baseline for trap detection rolls, surprise checks, and other such tests of passive perception. It also requires the DM to hold the line and not let players achieve any greater vigilance even if they swear up and down they are being extra-careful. That chance to be surprised, to miss a trap or a secret door, represents the weakness of the characters' attention, just as the chance to surprise represents the weakness of their foes' attention.

Some DMs use "player skill" to simulate character vigilance. "If you do it, you have to say it." This means that player boredom substitutes for character boredom. If the ritual of verbally checking every square foot of space becomes too tedious for the player, that simulates the character slipping up. Although consistent with the Old School dogma of substituting player skill for rules, I'm not convinced that this one meets the ultimate criterion of gaming - fun - in the same way that using player skill for problem solving and social interaction would. Taken to the extreme, this method puts optimal play for survival at odds with enjoyment and spontaneity. It is really only feasible, as I see it, under a regime where the DM avoids placing meaningless "zap traps" and hidden compartments everywhere. Player skill becomes more meaningful when there are clues to when players should be alert, and demonstrated safe or boring spaces where they don't have to be alert.

Player skill also becomes more meaningful when there are in-game choices to be made. Just requiring a "say it to do it" approach to attention doesn't really work because it trades an out-of-game resource (time and interest) for an in-game resource (safety). In computer games this kind of tradeoff is known as "grinding." What in-game resources, though, can be traded for vigilance?

The classic answer is "game time." Searching high and low as you proceed eats up time in the game, and there are many ways to make time count. Ticking scenario clocks, wandering monster checks, and rival parties are just a few of the most popular. Time pressure, in fact, is one of the most effective force multipliers for the bad guys, forcing risks that a smart party would not ordinarily take.

A more intriguing possibility, but one I've never seen implemented in any gaming system, is to treat attention as the limited resource it is. Optimal play of an adventure game typically places no value on the characters being able to relax in a space they consider safe, let alone any other creature comforts. As a result, power gamers run their characters as ascetic paranoiacs, always ready for battle, always "looking carefully for traps" even in the privy of the local tavern. In reality, someone with this attitude would be at risk for some kind of stress disorder.

A rough model for a mental resource game system might involve the following:
  • Each character has 2 hours of sustained vigilance in them for any 4-hour waking period, plus or minus a half hour for each point of Wisdom bonus or penalty they have. 
  • Vigilance is consumed by attending carefully in any given direction. If advancing while scanning for both near and far dangers (i.e. traps and potential foes ahead), it is consumed at double time. Players should keep records of whether their characters are vigilant or not, and the time consumed this way.
  • Staying vigilant beyond the basic time is possible, but incurs a "debt" of negative hours - stress, if you will - which can only be recouped in an area seen as completely safe. So, if you are staying in an inn and posting watch overnight, that doesn't count because the party is not treating the area as safe. 
  • Consequences of vigilance debt can include temporary loss of Intelligence, Dexteriy and Charisma - one point per point in debt - and perhaps even random insanity-like symptoms when the negative debt reaches an amount equal to the original number of hours.
I'll leave it to the comments and maybe another post to discuss the merits and flaws of such a system, and how exactly vigilance - however ruled or defined - might interact with randomly determined surprise.


  1. oh, that is nice. it's like rough groundwork for a simulation of ptsd. well done!

  2. btw, as far as "consequences of vigilance debt", there are three broad categories of people off-duty - those who can't turn it off (hypervigilance), those who can't turn it on (can't think of the fancy word for spacey), and the others (who probably started off with wisdom bonuses).

  3. I don't think quantifying and creating a system around vigilance or attention as a resource is the way to go. I think the "classic" approach is more appropriate, such as using the rule that for every 5 turns (50 minutes) of dungeon exploration, the party must rest 1 turn (10 minutes). You could easily expand "dungeon exploration" into any activity that requires vigilance and attention.

    As long as the DM is willing to accurately track time and the concept is shared among players, they will understand that expended time gets them closer to that 1 turn downtime and the accompanying consumption of resources and chance for a random encounter or what not. So "vigilance" can be used as a resource without wrapping a system to game around the concept.

    The system will be gamed to the detriment of play. With just a cursory glance at the rules, I would have two people use up their vigilance at a time to keep watch behind and in front of the party. Rotate out every 2 hours and a party of 4 never suffers from a lack of vigilance. Any party members in excess of 4 can throw their vigilance into the pot at critical moments, such as searching for a secret door in an "empty space" in one's map, entering a known monster lair, etc.

    I just have a hard time to see the benefit of such a system...

  4. @Anthony: Yeah, on reflection I'm not sure I would use it in an actual D&D game. I really just wanted to exhaust the possibilities before my next post, on what goes on in a surprise situation. However, if I was designing a modern combat game from the ground up I might be tempted to incorporate it.

    In fact, the modern combat system I used to improv with a long time ago had a stat called "Cool" which represented resistance to mental stress and might have also been tapped to represent extended periods of vigilance.

  5. I always get a kick out of players when they give me standing orders or claim a safety valve is present in "what they always do" as players generally couldn't possibly tell you what standing orders or procedures are and an awful lot of players have their PCs gadfly all over an encounter area which makes their ability to adhere to standard procedures rather questionable.

    "What you say, changes what you said you were doing" is a good rule to go by.

  6. Twilight 2000 has a system for fatigue which might be useful to compare.