Bad Habits in Gaming: Assuming the Players Were Stupid

This is a relatively short article, but one that touches kind of close to my heart for a couple of reasons.  I think the first point I should make is that I’m not saying to assume that you’re players ARE stupid.  Players are occasionally actively pretty dumb, but the important word is “actively.”   GMs occasionally like to assume that a player was, or might have been, passively stupid because they didn’t specifically say “By the way, my character’s not going to be an idiot today.”

So what does this mean, when I put it in context?  The easiest way to describe it is by example.  When I started playing Dungeons and Dragons, the game was in its third edition and there was a rule around spellcasting called “Casting Defensively.”  The idea is that spellcasting is difficult, and if someone is all up in your grill, you are trying to cast the spell without creating an opening for them to attack.  If you fail to cast defensively, you lose the spell, but at the time we all believed that failing to cast defensively just meant you provoked the same attack of opportunity you would take if you hadn’t even tried.  This was a mistake on our part, but it’s important because it means that the context that we had was that there was no discernible reason to not cast defensively.  If we didn’t specify that we were casting defensively every time, though, we would take an attack of opportunity, which usually came with the same or greater potential of losing your spell.

Another example, also from my early D&D days, had me playing the party rogue and doing the only thing a 3e rogue was really good for: searching for traps.  We came to a doorway and I did my job, I searched for traps, and I found no trap on the door.  Cool.
“I pick the lock.” I said, confident in my ‘Open Lock’ skill to do the job.
“Ok,” says the DM, “You unlock the door, but get hit by the trap on the lock.”
I stare, baffled, across the table.  “I rolled a thirty plus, what’s the difficulty on that trap?”
The DM says simply “The trap wasn’t on the door, it was on the lock, which you didn’t say you were searching.”
See, because I didn’t specifically say that I was searching the lock part of the door, he assumed that I just ignored it.

I’ve heard a lot of other examples that I don’t want to go into detail on because I think that some of the people I’d be using as examples read this blog.  The formula is always the same: there’s a thing that’s so obvious it should go without saying, does not consume resources, and takes at most a negligible amount of time.  You can tell when players have a GM who does this sort of thing with regularity because every time there’s the hint of danger you hear a litany come across the table that sounds something like this:

“I have my weapons drawn!”
“I’ve cast my all-day-long defensive spell already!”
“I’ve reloaded any weapons that need reloading!”
“When I rested I recovered my spells, I didn’t like, choose to not do that!”
“My eyes are NOT closed and my ears are NOT plugged, just in case you think they are!”

Ok, those last two are exaggerations, but only in severity, not in concept. If you’re at a table and you see players do this, there’s a good chance that the GM has a nasty habit of adding some fake difficulty or cheap tension by pointing out that they were at a disadvantage because of some serious BS.  I think that’s the rub, too.  The GM usually isn’t doing it because they think there’s actually a chance the player would have said “Yeah, I want to make the bad decision.”  Instead, they realize they’ve got a technicality that they can put you at a cheap disadvantage by saying “Well, you didn’t specify that during the last three hours of game time you WEREN’T an idiot! How was I supposed to know you didn’t randomly decide to be dumb?”

Maybe they think they’re being clever.  Maybe they think they’re creating a plot twist or something, but in my long time as a gamer I have never once seen the game made better by doing this.  It pisses the player off because it feels like, well, exactly what it is which is the GM grasping at straws to put him at a disadvantage for no practical reason.  It makes the game slow down because that player will probably argue with the GM.  It really always makes everything worse, or at least it has in 100% of my experience with it.

So yeah, I guess the advice here is: when you have to assume a decision was made by your players, and of the choices one was not only blatantly obvious but is also objectively the superior decision, assume they did that one.  It just saves trouble.

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