A Window in the Fourth Wall

DMing involves a lot of juggling acts. You have to balance what you want versus what the players want, challenge versus frustration, character and player spotlights, and all the payoffs that keep people at your table. Different games involve different tradeoffs; a DM with a rules lawyer and a thespian in the party faces different challenges from a DM with five mix-maxers with competing builds, and only certain campaigns have to handle keeping the feel of a popular video game franchise. There’s no single piece of advice I can give on keeping everybody’s interests out of conflict, but the most helpful thing I can suggest is to keep everybody communicating. As an example, I have a story to share.

I’m a big proponent of the divide between characters and players. When I started my gaming career, this manifested as the difference between player knowledge and character knowledge; even if I know the monster who attacked the terrified merchant is a troll, my cleric might not know to bring acid to the fight. If this means the fight goes poorly and my cleric has to flee, that’s fine. It might not be the most positive play experience at the time, and I’ll wonder what my DM has planned, but, mitigating circumstances aside, in-character failure still appeals to me more than success only due to out-of-context knowledge. I’m playing a D&D character to play a D&D character, not to test my memorization of the rulebooks.

The relevance to DMing is direct but slightly different: I want my players to react using character knowledge instead of player knowledge. All my current players are really good at this, and they’s also good at knowing when to ignore it. I can think of one time in the Unnamed Monster Campaign when I presented the party with four portals, each leading to a boss monster. Four characters went in one portal and the fifth, the party contrarian, went in another. I ran both encounters simultaneously, and by the time the bulk of the party slew their lava scorpion the players all knew how badly things were going for the fifth member. Even though he had a habit of going on his own adventures and the other characters had no reason to assume anything was different from normal, they sprinted out of their fight* as soon as they were physically able, arriving just in time to save him. I was fine with that.

I also want to run games myself using in-character information. That is, I don’t want to tell my players “I’d prefer if you didn’t set fire to the baron’s house, because that would definitely kill him and he’s the final boss of this adventure.” The characters don’t have that information and I don’t want the players reacting with it in mind. Instead, I’ll retroactively make the final boss somebody else or (more often) let the baron die and use the fallout to turn the campaign in a different direction. It’s my job to adjudicate the actions the characters take, make them matter, and still keep a functioning campaign going. I argue that’s a requirement of being a DM; if you can’t handle it when players go off the rails, you’re not running a campaign so much as letting the characters star in your novel.

Again, my players are, by and large, very good. If I do say “guys, please don’t kill the baron”, they will try to find an in-character justification for taking some other action. But I try hard to keep things from coming to that. If I want the players to think an item is important, I have to make it important to the characters. If I want the players to go someplace, I have to give the characters a reason. The fourth wall remains solid, with a small window in case I desperately need it.

I found that need during a recent session. In Faith we’re using themes, a mechanic that lets a character progress in his or her occupation, worldview, or heritage and gain benefits from it separate from his or her class features. The characters in our group are of a level where they could believably advance in their themes, and during a campaign arc I added one side quest for each character. I expected the party to bungle into one of them while pursuing their own interests, as parties are wont to do, and once the first character completed their quest the others would seek out theirs in earnest.

Two and a half sessions into a four-session arc, nobody had completed their quest. One character was aware of her quest (because an NPC specifically approached her about it), but the player did not attend the next session to pursue it. Another made it almost to the end of his quest (after I found a way to work it into the main plotline), then abandoned it because he thought it was a waste of his time. The third assumed his quest was unbeatable (again, after I made it part of the main plot) and decided to try again after he was much stronger. The fourth completely missed her quest’s initiating event, regarding it as background banter with an NPC. And the last character had cleverly dodged any opportunity to start his quest even thought I expected it to be the very first thing the party did. When he finally started it and proclaimed he wouldn’t progress on it for several levels, I knew we were set up for disappointment.

I stopped the session and outright told the players I was having trouble balancing the storyteller in me with the DM in me, and the DM had won. All I had to say was that theme quests existed and I was trying to give them, and immediately everybody was on board. Due to focusing on the main quest, misunderstanding the rules for theme advancement, or forgetting themes were a thing, the players simply hadn’t been looking for them. The party spontaneously decided to take a moment away from their gods-given mission and follow up on various threads they had run into over time. Suddenly two quests were done, three more were well on their way, and everybody was much happier.

I’m not perfectly happy, of course. I still feel like I should have been able to get the players and the characters interested in the side quests in-story, and telling the players about the quests was due to my failure to deliver an interesting world. That failure isn’t absolved by the excellent results of opening the window in the fourth wall. But it is mitigated a bit, and I think we’re all better off for it. And I don’t anticipate needing to do it again, because now the players are keeping an eye out for their theme advancement quests. In later levels I can get into the more interesting approaches where a player’s theme quest makes the main quest harder, actively conflicts with it, or involves subverting the theme quest of another character, and I don’t think I’ll have to spell out each new complexity. I can go back to juggling the game and the story while knowing my players are doing part of the work, letting their characters keep an eye out for quests so I don’t have to shove them in their face. That’s the nice thing about opening a window: you can close it when you’re done.

* — Except for the barbarian, who was busy putting his pants back on, and yes, there is a story there.

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