Friday Favourite: Gaming in Silence

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 15, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From December 5, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Gaming in Silence.

Playing D&D is a social experience. It’s often as much about getting together with your friends as it is about killing monsters. But I’ve noticed that we spend a lot of time talking about stuff that isn’t even related to the game. This has really become a big problem in public-play games at my FLGS. I’ve noticed that over the past few sessions of D&D Encounters I’ve had to ask people (with alarming frequency) to stop talking when it’s not their turn and pay attention to what the other players are doing, and that got me thinking: what if you weren’t allowed to talk during an encounter or an entire gaming session? How would things change?

To begin this kind of gaming experiment, the DM must make it clear to the players right from the outset that anything they say, anything at all, even if it’s something that their characters obviously wouldn’t say, is going to count as an utterance by their PC. Absolutely everything the player says his character says. No exceptions. Silence is going to be the key to success. Excessive noise will either force the PCs to fight something they know they have no chance of defeating (hence all the sneaking around) or it will lead to a final confrontation that is a lot more difficult because the PCs kept talking. In either scenario, the stakes should be incredibly high.

So let’s imagine a scenario where this would make sense. It needs to revolve around the PCs remaining undetected for as long as possible. Normally this is just a matter of good planning and Stealth checks, but for this to work there needs to be more going on. I’m envisioning a situation where any noise the PCs make will make their job harder. The first two setups that came to mind were an infiltration into a secure lair or fortress, or an escape from one of these places.

I like breaking in a lot more than breaking out, so let’s run with this example. The PCs have to infiltrate a section of the Underdark in order to rescue a hostage, retrieve an item, or defeat a monster that poses a significant threat to a nearby community. Sounds exist in the Underdark, so a party that attempts to move silently and doesn’t flub too many rolls shouldn’t attract undue attention. The heroes’ progress will likely be dismissed by their enemies as background noise. Until they talk. The PCs’ voices, and more importantly the common language of the surface dwellers, is completely out of place and will immediately alert anyone who overhears them. Now the stage is set.

Of course another option is to say that the PCs are in an area under a magical silence spell. I’m not wild about going this route, but it might make sense if the DM only wants to try gaming in silence for one or two encounters. I once read an adventure hook where a powerful Bard was imprisoned in the dungeon’s lowest level. A magical silence spell on the entire floor kept the Bard from using his lyrical magic to free himself or harm his jailers. It’s simple and forces the players to stay silent.

Regardless of the setup, when combat does happen tactics need to account for stealth. Obviously any fighting will make noise, but tactics like focusing fire will help drop foes quickly. If the party has been lucky enough to remain silent during their approach they could even get a surprise round which could be all they need to complete an encounter fast and quietly. After combat have the PCs make a few checks – Stealth to hide evidence of the fight and Perception or Dungeoneering to detect the approach of anything curious enough to investigate the noise. After a certain time period has passed the PCs can proceed.

The players need to realize that every time they talk there is a negative consequence. The DM should track how many times the PCs violate the no talking rule and have a sliding scale of repercussions. Personally I like the idea of a monster that can absorb sound. When the players talk the final monster becomes more powerful. Think of how much harder it will be for the PCs is if the DM kept increasing the monster’s maximum hit points every time it absorbs sound from the PCs talking. A creature that began with 200 hit points but ends up with 350 because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut will teach the players and the PCs a lesson in being quite.

One important detail to note is that powers with the Thunder key-word are by their very definition going to make a lot of noise. I don’t think it’s right to penalize PCs because the power they though was coolest happened to be a Thunder power; however, a PC that only has a couple of Thunder powers should be strongly discouraged from using them during this kind of silent gaming (at least until their cover’s blown and they’re in the final fight).

Now that we’ve got a few ideas on how to set things up let’s look at how they’d play out. Imagine how combat would work if none of the players can talk. On your turn you move your mini where you want him to go, indicate the opponent (if it’s not obvious), say the name of the power you’re using, make your rolls and resolve damage, and then explain any other effects that accompanied the power. That’s it. You don’t have to announce that you’re shifting one square. We’ll realize that’s what you did. You don’t say you’re using an action point you just take that extra action. If your actions don’t affect other characters (say you’re healing yourself, drawing a weapon or drinking a potion) then don’t say anything. Just do it and indicate when your turns over. The DM may allow “done” to be the only word that’s exempt just to keep things moving.

This really forces the players to pay attention. If you’re a defender then you have to watch for monsters that trigger your mark. Leaders need to watch their allies, pay attention to who’s bloodied and whose not, and heal when you feel like it and not when someone asks for it. You really don’t realize how much conversation happens during combat until you eliminate it all together.

Obviously this kind of play requires a lot of trust. If the players aren’t honest about what they’re doing on their turn simply because they don’t have to announce every little thing then it’s ruined for everyone. But if they get into it, I think the results will be fantastic. It might be tough at first but as a few round go by the players will get more comfortable and will really get the hang of it. I’d also bet that combat goes a lot faster.

I encourage DMs to try gaming in silence, even if it’s just for one encounter. See how things change at your gaming table and more importantly see what the players learn from the experience.

Is excessive table talk a problem in your games? Do you think gaming in silence would successfully highlight how important it is to pay attention or do you think players would just keep talking despite any negative in-game consequences? Has anyone actually tried this before? How did it go?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 DeWitt March 17, 2013 at 7:08 pm

Ok, started reading this and had a few initial reactions. First, the gaming I have been doing lately has been over internet Voice Chat, a group of us connect and play, so silent playing just wont work that way. Second how does a player tellyou a character is doing a spot check or what they are rolling for if they cna not talk OOC(Out of character)? Alright fo rmy initial reactions to what I was reading. First reaction I thought I was starting to read someones rant, granted non-game conversation can slow down, distract or prevent gaming, but if everyone is doing it, just take a breath and gaming can resume whenthe passion of the conversation slows down, or have eveyrone meet an hour early to get some of it out of their systems before game start. My second reaction was I wonder who is babysitting you? It feels like you are setting up a 12 year olds vengence session of D&D, feels immature, why can’t you just sit down with the players and work out reasonable guidelines for everyone. Third reaction I do see virtue in building challenge sessions, but for a silence session you would have to have the entire game area staged or mapped out clearly with room for placement of characters and npcs and any insundry objects for interaction, you as DM would have to keep 100% attention on everyone playing for nuances of movement that were being used to tell you what their characters were doing considerring that in additions to the basic turn based play action there is a portion that is also played non-turned based, such as at will dropping of a spell when seeing what someone else is doing or counter and reflex actions to opportunities. As I read on I saw you did address some of the not quite as silent gaming as initially inidcated, but intercharacter conversation is an intgral part of the game, unless you want your leader or healer to have to do heal checks every turn on everyone before acting, a shout out fo ra heal shoudl be appropriate since it would be character to character on the feild anyway. I really think the only one that would appreacite this play format is a DM who is frustrated with their players being distracted from his master mind setup that is is placing in higher importance then his players.

2 Zrog April 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm

In contrast to the last commenter, I thought your idea had merit. I don’t think running a WHOLE session in silence would be all that much fun, but the occasional encounter where silence (or lack thereof) actually meant something might be very interesting indeed.

3 Archivincognito January 24, 2014 at 11:13 pm

I did not read any puerility in the post. Rather, I read an almost inspired method of providing an experience and difficulty level the players might not find elsewhere.
A silent section of a scenario should be easily orchestrated, and all but the clumsiest player can manage a simple exercise in attention over a brief period. I am more interested in playing a longer session in silence as an exercise to accomplish new team tactics, heightened challenge and an appreciation for when we do return to using sound.
Hopefully the risk and dangers are high so teamwork can play a pivotal role for success, especially if it is a do or die scenario, and players would need to choke their characters’ greed or selfish tendencies at least until their own safety was assured.
Communication seems an obvious and vital skill here, both in clarity of conveying intent and context as well as attention paid as recipient of all value of the message. Then consider a team having to travel in single file through a narrow passage. Attention may be gained by taps on the shoulder/foot of the person in front of you, and they must tap the person in front of them to finally gain attention of the point man. Then, a message must be pantomimed to inform all of intent or action.
Heightened sensitivity to environmental conditions would mean a focus on things that are often taken for granted. Wading through water at anything but slow rate means splashing, many forms of armor clank, squeal and grate, spells that insist on a verbal component must give way to Silent feats, creativity or be shelved. Rage, battle cries, singing, even familiars may subject a group to being located or smooshed.
Respecting cause/effect would work wonders on door-kickers, egocentrics or those with even a glint of delusion of invincibility. All this thoughts turn a focus back to the minds of the players being attuned to a difficult task. Nothing taken for granted. This becomes a very intense session, I’d think. If the dangerous denizen is not a sonic-sucking entity, perhaps it is a more readily encountered species lurking and turns toward or nearer the group with every sound.
(Being one for nigh-impossible mission planning: Why not make it an extreme exercise for the DM too? All her communication to the party is done via dry erase marker on white-board. Room size, items spotted, etc. Might be a strong lesson in alternate scenario design)
It will all take cemented trust, enormous effort and steadfast willingness to experiment, sure, but the result could be profound! Great idea; thanks for the post.

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