Here I wrote a bit on encounters in an RPG, but then I got to thinking about what just might happen even before the encounter itself. Now in most RPGs the two sides get one roll of the dice to see if they as a group are surprised. Thing is, in life that’s really not how it works. How it works is more like either you notice or don’t notice something going on, which determines first on whether you can or you can’t react to it.
As an example let’s take the party –Hiram, Janice, Mark, and Tom, named in the order they’re hiking down a trail– plus an elf hunter and a doe. As the guide you’ve got some die rolling to do to see if the party members, the hunter, and the doe catch on to what’s going on. Now you’ve first determined that elf and the doe have spotted the party, but have decided to ignore them because they have their minds on more important things. So you make two rolls for the party, first to see if they notice the elf and second to see if they spot the doe.
Hiram’s Perception is high enough to catch the elf. so you tell his player, “Hiram, you catch an elf hunter rising from the grass to your left, it looks like he’s about to throw a spear in your direction.”
Jan’s Perception is high enough for her to catch the doe about to bound away with the second roll, so you tell her player, “To your right you see a doe jerk in fright and prepare to bound away. Apparently something startled her.”
In the meantime Mark and Tom have spotted Hiram and Janice noticing something, so you tell them respectively, “Mark, you catch Janice reacting to something. Tom, you’ve caught Hiram noticing something.” And that all anybody’s really going to know.
Now I know some of you are going to say that that is mean. You get right down to it, you’re right. But you’re in a simulation of life, and at times life can be a bitch. What you can know is not going to be perfect, all you can do is to accept it and adapt to it. Let the players be confused. Let them moan and fret. Just remind them of the times in real life when they got surprised, and how just confused and confusing the situation was. As I’ve pointed out before and will again, this is not a game. Your players are in an imaginary life and things can happen in an imaginary life much as they do in the real one.
So the doe bounds away as the elf casts his spear. As they act what are the players doing? Do they take the time to observe and learn what is going on, or do they just react? Do they just assume, or are they going to use what wisdom –Metaphysical Power in DJ– they have and wait until they know what is going on? And how does the elf react? It could come down to fighting, but it doesn’t have to. That depends on your wisdom and the wisdom of your players. And you may want to have them roll against their wisdom –Metaphysical Power– to see if they do the sensible thing.
Or, they meet a band of goblins on a city street, goblins with musical instruments who give them a friendly greeting. You roll for surprise and you ask your players for their reactions. Now you can expect that some players are going to assume that they have to fight the goblins; but not all will; and you can have them check to see if they have sense enough to refrain from violence.
Keep in mind that life can be complicated, even complex, and that you can’t always jump to conclusions. Though sometimes you may have to. If one player does, let the others get on his case should he be proven wrong. Call it a bonding experience and get on with things.
So, how do you see handling surprise in an RPG?