I am often painfully aware of my own failings as a GM - moments in the game where I push things in the wrong direction. But there's rarely anything to do about it in the middle of the game, there's too much to keep an eye on. Those moments often haunt me for quite a while after the game however.
Flash to Sunday's D&D game. One of the players couldn't show up so instead of being a player in the planned ongoing Pathfinder game/campaign I was unexpectedly the DM of a 4E session. I'm always ready to run a game on a whim, because I really enjoy it and because I'm not a person who usually does much prep anyway, so that was cool.
It's very early into this campaign (this was only the 3rd session, I think, with long breaks in between) so we haven't yet hit that spot in D&D where the characters become embroiled in the world to a degree where they start having specific goals and agendas. Their motivation amounts to nothing more than "we're mercenaries looking for work".
So the two PCs present are in this town in Icewind Dale, which I described but vaguely. Since there seems to be no action anywhere, one of the players says "I roll Streetwise to find out if there's anything going on.". He aces the roll, far above the regular DC for their level.
And I can come up with nothing.
If this was an old-school game I'd probably have a random rumor table and I'd roll on that and there would be no Streetwise roll. I have some (AW style) fronts noted down and I give him some info about those, but it's not really working right. Anyway, the game moves on.
Afterwards it bothered me so much that I went to re-read the Streetwise skill rules. I'm not someone who checks up on rules, especially during a game, so this was unusual. In short, the Streetwise skill says this:
"When in a settlement—a village, a town, or a city—make a Streetwise check to find out what’s going on, who the movers and shakers are, where to get what you need (and how to get there), and where not to go."
My problem during the game was that the roll was divorced from any fictional goings on. If I had prep or a bought adventure with an actual plot, then I could have fed the player that info. It would have been a game thing. Which goes on to show how much adventure prep is an implied part of the D&D (4e) mechanics. But I'm rolling with an improv sandbox and it killed me. I mean, it's ok, it happens, sometimes you just lack inspiration.
But even so, I expected the rules to actually show me where I strayed as a GM. Not so. The rules seemed to imply that this was the normal procedure. "When in a settlement, make a check to find out what's going on."
For me, in that moment, this severely lacked two elements:
*How exactly are you finding out what's going on?
*What are you interested in (that's going on)?
If you describe your character talking to some local, then I can convey the necessary information through that local. If you ask concrete questions, then I can give concrete answers (or try to answer honestly to the best of my/their ability). If you're looking for someone that knows where the secret entrance to the temple is, then by all means roll a Streetwise to find him. If you're talking to the locals about the troubles that they have, then by all means roll to find out info about those troubles.
But if there's just a roll and a "what's going on?" question, as a GM I am lost, because in that moment I'm operating as a no-prep improv sandbox GM. What's going on is that this is a town where people catch fish and saw wood, the women are cooking, the children are playing, the wind is blowing...What's going on? I don't know what's going on. Y'know, normal stuff.
So now I'm suddenly aware of how much that skill is mechanically structured to work like "Find the DM's next plot point." and that moment of play haunts me as a failure, because:
-the PCs don't have any concrete motivation, no Beliefs or Keys, no tangible goals (and thus can't be proactive in the world, but can only hop onto my dangling plot hooks)
-I have things happening in the world, but they aren't structured as plots or plot hooks, they just are
-I don't have a prepared adventure from which I can feed info to the players
When asking "what's going on?" the players are really asking "what should we do next?" or "where's the next encounter?" or "what do you have prepared that we can interact with?". As a GM, I feel responsible for the game and I feel responsible for allowing that combination of elements to come together and create that less-than-satisfactory moment of play.
I guess I could have saved it if my brain worked faster, or if I was a better DM. I could have gone with something like: "What's going on? Well, you ask around and you learn that these guys are going to have an election soon, and there are two candidates and there have been some scuffles. They show you where the local tavern and store are and eyeing your equipment, an old guy says [funny voice]I see you're adventurers, eh? Don't try climbing into the Gray Caves, now, we lose people up there every year.[/funny voice]" (what's going on, where to find what you need, where not to go) That's what I would have done ideally. What a good improv DM should do ideally. I could have also asked more questions. I could have said "give me a moment to think about that". Or any number of things. But under the pressure of a game in progress the moment just deflated and I still feel bad about it.
I need to get me some more lists and random tables.