Decision identification in unstructured play

edited January 2014 in Story Games
First, some clarification on how I'm using these terms:

By "unstructured" I don't mean play without any structure, I just mean play without formal sequential structure. That is, play that isn't broken up, either by the rules or by the GM, into set units like Turns or Scenes or Tests or Encounters. I'm talking about play where player choices emerge and are made and have their outcomes as part of a free flow of conversation and narration, without being organized or broken up into units.

By "decision identification" I mean the ability of anyone at the table to notice, and everyone at the table to agree, whether a given decision is or is not "relevant". And by "relevant", I mean both consequential (the choice impacts an outcome we care about) and informed (we're not proceeding from deep ignorance of the "might as well flip a coin" variety).

So I'm talking about something that's very simple in retrospect -- this decision was relevant and deserved some play time and effort, while that decision wasn't and didn't -- but very often botched in practice.

If you've ever formed an elaborate plan for dealing with waiting hostiles, only to charge into an empty room... if you've ever argued with your buddies over whether to go left or right, then found the paths connected in a loop... if you've ever come across a random fork in the road and grinded out competing theories on the pros and cons of each path, losing track of the fact that it was all speculation... if you've ever gotten into a pattern of making every decision quickly, so as to not waste time, but then one day you charge into a direction that costs you what you wanted... these are what I'm referring to as problems of decision identification.

This field of problems has been solved in various ways for different play agendas, but I think it still has not been solved for some pretty common ones. Fiction-first challenge-based play and character-based immersive exploration are two that come to mind -- as far as I'm aware, house rules and informal best practices lead the way here, without ever having become particularly transferable to new GMs and groups. In other words, I don't know a core game text (as opposed to a module) that supports OD&D or CoC-style play and also covers decision identification.

Has anyone else observed this phenomenon? Am I describing it accurately? Do you consider it solved?

I've got some ideas about helpful principles that might be simple enough to turn into rules or easy-to-follow advice, but first I'd like to see if this post makes any sense to anyone and what y'all's thoughts are.
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Comments

  • So fiction-first challenge based play, that's like hack-and-slash D&D, right?

    In those situations, discovering that a left/right decision leads in a loop (or that one ends in a dead end) may be disappointing but it isn't meaningless. Right? Because you now know that there's no loot or monsters down there, an important piece of tactical intel.
  • Example: improv sandbox. GM and player follow each other's interests in the fiction, with the characters opening doors onto unprepared areas of the map, and the GM sprinkling the setting with eye-catching people, places and things. Play includes purposeful missions with time pressure, but it also includes opportunities to enter strange marketplaces, follow will-o-the-wisps, debate each other's religions, whittle talismans, or to reject all that and grab a new mission.

    Many groups love the unexpected, emergent, and varied quality of play that emerges from such flexibility. However, many groups also get caught up in the flow of imagining the fictional moment, which doesn't always work out for the best.
    Why did we spend so long studying the hieroglyphs?
    My character's into ancient lore. This stuff excites him more than most treasures!
    The way the GM described it, I thought it seemed important.
    I wanted to see if my plan for it would work, because if so, that would have been awesome!
    Everyone else was into it, so I tried to come up with a way to use the damn thing.
    Your guy was obsessing and I was enjoying teasing him.
    Okay, but was it worth it?
    No. I wanted to make more progress tonight.
    No. I wanted more drama and action tonight.
    No. After all that, the hieroglyphs didn't matter.
    No. After all that, we still don't even know if the hieroglyphs matter.
  • In the above situation, as a GM, I would make the hieroglyphs matter, or make it immediately apparent that they didn't matter. That could example of the type of non-transferable house-ruling that you're talking about, but I would also be very open to a playing a game in which one of the core rules was the hieroglyphs matter.

  • edited January 2014
    Example solution: the Read a Situation move from Apocalypse World.

    Depending on your play style, this move can be rolled and resolved either before or after interrogating the fiction.

    If the pre-roll conversation is very thorough, then the move doesn't add much information, but the process of asking and answering the move's specific questions does focus the group and suggest a way forward. I haven't played this way, and can only shrug cluelessly when I attempt to guess whether groups will still remember to use a procedure that doesn't "get" them anything. Maybe "here's what to worry about next" is sufficient reward, even if we already knew "which enemy is the biggest threat".

    If the pre-roll conversation is very brief, then the move is extremely useful and a successful roll gets us a lot and you can be sure we'll use it. That's what my AW group did. However, we never had any of the wacky theories, tests, character play, application of wits, or simply deciding to ignore the damn hieroglyphs, that we had in D&D or CoC. There's a huge difference between deducing "what should I be on the lookout for?" versus simply asking the GM.

    In the end, I think that adding this move to Call of Cthulhu could help with decision identification, but is not the ideal tool for that purpose. I list it in the hope that considering it can help us identify a more perfect alternative.
  • edited January 2014
    Cross-posting responses:
    • JD, that may be a solid example of a non-problematic situation. Are you having trouble remembering or conceiving one that is problematic?
    • Dirk, it looks like you and I think alike! Two of the GM rules for my game Delve are "Announce dead-ends quickly" and "When in doubt, make stuff useful". If this advice were as easy to follow in play as it is to say, I'd consider this problem solved!
  • Dave,

    This is a very, very solid question, and well-phrased.

    I don't have an answer for you yet, although I agree with both JD and Dirk, above. (As I said in the Magician's Choice thread, I think in ideal play the GM/whoever should already have a reason for including choices in the game, or find it easy to improvise one. The Apocalypse World model (and most varieties of OSR-style play), for example, deal very effectively with game-stalling problems like the dudes all poking at the hieroglyphs by introducing "off-screen badness", depleted resources, or wandering monsters, for example.

    Looking forward to seeing this discussion develop!
  • It seems like this problem partially stems from a notion that there exists some "real story" that the players are trying to figure out or correctly follow.

    When players or GM are operating under this expectation, I can identify four outcomes:

    (1) The players correctly guess what the "real story" is, and their decisions, in hind sight, seem both meaningful and clever (win!)
    (2) The players guess incorrectly or become interested in the wrong things, and their decisions seem pointless and stupid (boo)
    (3) The GM successfully uses illusionism to convince the players they've found the "right path," players decisions seem meaningful and clever (If I'm the GM, I feel like kind of a scumbag)
    (4) The players discover the GM using illusionism to make their choices appear meaningful and clever. Players feel duped.

    One solution to this problem is radical transparency, possibly coupled with an explicit rule that "THE STORY" is only exactly what happens.

    Example:

    Players are unexpectedly interested in hieroglyphs
    GM: What's so interesting about those hieroglyphs to you?
    Player: My character thinks they're related to the artifact from the tomb, blah blah blah
    GM: Cool! I hadn't thought about that! your character would totally make a connection like that. [present new, explicitly improvised opportunity]
  • Cross-posting responses:
    • JD, that may be a solid example of a non-problematic situation. Are you having trouble remembering or conceiving one that is problematic?
    No, I'm just having trouble identifying this outcome as the problem.
  • edited January 2014
    JD, cool. Please ignore it then! I don't consider it central; hopefully my other examples are better.

    Dirk, I'd say that, when this playstyle is worth supporting (as opposed to when no one's getting anything out of it, in which case, yeah, radical transparency FTW), it's because of the consensual illusion of objective reality. The notion is not that there's a real story -- as you said, the story is only exactly what happens -- but rather that there's a real world for the players to explore and contend with via their characters.

    That said, incorrectly guessing how best to traverse the fictional world can be just as frustrating as incorrectly guessing what the real story is. I think a big key to making this all work is ensuring that the effort is not mere guessing. As a GM, I'm less than perfect at assembling fun deduction challenges, thus my need to sometimes fall back on "Announce dead-ends quickly" and "When in doubt, make stuff useful".

    Paul, I think "GM should have a reason for including choice" is maybe half the battle, with "players should have a reason for treating fiction like it's a choice" as the other half. As for wandering monsters, sadly I've played some OSR sessions where we've found hieroglyphs in a monster-free zone. I'm a huge fan of "announce future badness", but I hate "the players are interested in something; I must interrupt them" as a universal GM response. There's still plenty of awareness and judgment required there.
  • I suspect that in the sort of step-on-up play @Eero_Tuovinen, for example, runs, such an occurrence is part of the challenge of resource management. If it took you 10 minutes of talking to decide what to do, then it calls for a Wandering Monster roll, yeah? And one more turn of your light sources expiring, etc. Thus, the inconsequential is rarely actually inconsequential.

    Whereas, for different sorts of CA, I'd say it comes down to a matter of prep. How do you prep for a game and how binding is that prepped material during actual play?

    Most games I find myself playing these days, any given piece of prep is to be taken as a dependable but ultimately disposable suggestion. That is, if somebody off-handedly mentioned hieroglyphics on the wall and those hieroglyphics caught somebody else's attention, those hieroglyphics are now relevant. This category also includes, I'd say, all games arranged any other way than the "one GM/many character-players" divide.

    If your prep is tightly binding - that is, it's not a legit move to just make the hieroglyphics matter - then:

    · for some games, let's say a challenge-based investigative game where not solving the case is a possible outcome, red herrings are just part of the challenge. There should be some way (either abstract/mechanical or a pointer in the fiction) that the players can discover the hieroglyphics are not a clue and stop bothering, though. Note that this is pure speculation because I don't know of any actual game designed this way.

    · some other games, including inconsequential hieroglyphics was just bad prep, and that the players are focusing on those really is a problem. From a GM point of view, you can still fix that by telling them the hieroglyphics don't matter, before it's too late. That's part of what's called "Saying what honesty demands" in AW-principles language, right? Notice that you don't necessarily have to flat out tell them… for a character-player to spend 10 or more minutes real time obsessing over a piece of interior decoration requires you the GM to be having a conversation with them about said piece of decoration: if you know it's a waste of time, do cut that conversation short!
  • The skill-system-as-conflict-resolution mechanism that you see in games like Burning Wheel is one way that some games handle this: the pressure to use the mechanics to resolve important things encourages the group to synchronize on either "what we're talking about right now is plot-meaningful to focus on, and will have mechanical and fictional consequences" or "what we're talking about right now is inconsequential color, except insofar as it might make the game a richer and deeper experience", making it harder to get the stuck-in-the-middle or out-of-synch problems.
  • edited January 2014
    As for wandering monsters, sadly I've played some OSR sessions where we've found hieroglyphs in a monster-free zone. I'm a huge fan of "announce future badness", but I hate "the players are interested in something; I must interrupt them" as a universal GM response. There's still plenty of awareness and judgment required there.
    Just to clarify my statements above, I'm not just talking about "interrupting the players" (which can easily be overdone/feel artificial), but about thinking about the whole game process from that perspective. Whether it's game design, scenario design, or play-at-the-moment, there should be some consideration given to this problem, at each of those three levels. So, for instance, resources-wasted-including-time, wandering monster checks, and aggressive scene framing/cutting are possible solutions. But so is starting in a situation/setup which puts time pressure on the characters, for example.

    In Apocalypse World, "announce off-screen badness" works really well because the setting/conceit is dangerous and volatile by default ("no status quos", etc.), this is supported by genre (everyone in the post-apocalypse is likely to be, or become, a dangerous and unpredictable psychopath) as well as by mechanics (setup for holdings and start-of-session moves all identify problems that constantly harass the PCs), nothing and no one is safe, and the MC has been instructed to create "Fronts" which may and should "advance" to create danger or problems for the PCs.

    In a relationship drama, there should be NPCs who are acting or reacting to current events and therefore likely to be up to something or to react in significant ways to choices the PCs make. And so forth.

    A raw "let's explore some stuff and resolve events according to what would be most likely to happen" is much more likely to run into this kind of problem, naturally. I don't think it can fly without some kind of solution to this (or the group being willing to waste time on a constant basis, of course).


  • I dont think there is a general answer to the question here. This is something that each group of people will have to find their preference for. Whatever group of people at the table will have to feel out what works best for them. What's taking to much time on a seemingly meaningless task to one group or even one member of a group might not be enough for another. There are mechanical options that can help certain members of a group to speed up play but if others prefer to slow it down then you are stepping on their toes.
  • I disagree, Vernon! Just because tastes differ doesn't mean that the right game bits can't possibly be useful across groups. Suppose, for example, there was some game procedure that players could use to quickly identify:
    1) here's the decision we're faced with
    2) here's how much we know about it
    3) here's what's at stake
    without interrupting the conversational flow of play. I imagine that'd be a win for a large number of different groups.

    Dan, I think Burning Wheel is a great example of a game that gets players to evaluate fiction in gameable terms. I wonder how much "earn XP just for rolling" is the key incentive, or whether players would still "see in rules" without it. I'm guessing the latter -- as much as BW cares about the fiction, my experience has always been that it's a very "rules first" game. The mechanics demand and reward you for your time and attention, and I've found that "how to play" is heavily informed by that. I'm not sure how to take BW's clarity and import it into a play style that isn't constantly calculating Obstacle numbers etc.
  • edited January 2014
    ...
    Two of the GM rules for my game Delve are "Announce dead-ends quickly" and "When in doubt, make stuff useful". If this advice were as easy to follow in play as it is to say, I'd consider this problem solved!
    I want to go back to this for a second. Maybe this is a seperate conversation, but it seems like there are rules solutions that would work for a variety of pitfalls in this type of play, if players and GMs were willing to follow the rules faithfully. There's a pretty big "free parking" problem endemic to the hobby, where players change or ignore certain rules of the game that they don't like, to the detriment of their own fun times.

    Given that, if followed, these rules would almost always improve the experience of the players, how much responsibility is on the game designer to anticipate and respond to players who don't follow the rules?

    Given that the designer wants players to have as much fun with their game as possible, how can a game motivate players to follow the rules? How can we make those rules impossible to ignore?

    There's a social / cultural problem here related to GM / player power balance: GMs are comfortable calling out players who don't follow the rules, but it would be pretty unlikely for a player to call out a GM for failing to "play to find out what happens."
    Suppose, for example, there was some game procedure that players could use to quickly identify:
    1) here's the decision we're faced with
    2) here's how much we know about it
    3) here's what's at stake
    without interrupting the conversational flow of play. I imagine that'd be a win for a large number of different groups.
    I'm not sure how this addresses the problem. It could avoid some meaningless digressions, but the root of the challenge in the "prepare for imagined foes in the next room," and "find out as much as I can about hieroglyphs in case their important" is correctly assessing the stakes.

    Could there be a procedure for assessing the stakes that weighs opportunity cost of the decision time? This is what the players are already informally doing ("Do I think these hieroglyphs are important enough to spend X amount of time on?")
  • edited January 2014
    Given that, if followed, these rules would almost always improve the experience of the players, how much responsibility is on the game designer to anticipate and respond to players who don't follow the rules?

    Given that the designer wants players to have as much fun with their game as possible, how can a game motivate players to follow the rules? How can we make those rules impossible to ignore?
    In order: Zero, it can't, and nobody can.
    There's a social / cultural problem here related to GM / player power balance: GMs are comfortable calling out players who don't follow the rules, but it would be pretty unlikely for a player to call out a GM for failing to "play to find out what happens."
    Right, in addition, while that's a cool piece of advice, it has no mechanical weight and could not be enforced even in a social environment where that kind of call-out could be made. "I was playing to find out what happened! I was thinking about what might happen just now, not pre-planning!" yells the GM, and fully, absolutely believes it.

    This is what I was trying to get at at the end of the previous thread when I said that the text of (many editions of) D&D categorically do not state or imply that the role of the DM is a strictly neutral arbiter of a rigorously simulated world, so it can't be deception when, absent discussion, a DM fails to be that. (I mean, yes, some people do assume that's what a DM should do, but they do so in the face of clearly written descriptions of what a DM does in a game of D&D.)

    That's also why I was a little off-base in my earlier reply, I was still thinking of a situation in these terms:

    * A set of GM instructions that doesn't create a singular set of criteria (principles?) for each and every decision to be assigned a particular amount of importance.
    * A group of players who don't feel they can just ask "so is this important or no?"
    * A GM whose interests and evaluation of others' interest differs from the actual collective interests of the group (assuming the group has a collective interest in the first place)

    In such circumstances, it doesn't make a lot of sense to try to determine fault or blame - the designer can rightly say "I gave you flexible tools with which to pursue your own interests", the GM can rightly say "I gave you material that I thought you'd find interesting/fascinating" and the players can rightly say "that was stupid/boring/pointless."

    In short, I think we're just talking about a matter of taste and should focus on ways for people to be able to express their tastes to each other clearly.
  • My position is that, while no RPG rule can make everyone follow it all the time, some rules get followed more than others, and there are reasons for that, grounded in usability and feedback. Simply saying "Announce dead-ends quickly" and "When in doubt, make stuff useful" doesn't invoke the same type of immediate feedback and reinforcement as "make a Test, check off a box toward Skill improvement". The game designer's responsibility, in my eyes, is to give the players the right sort of bang for their buck when it comes to following rules. On this front, GM advice is simply inferior to useful buttons you can push.

    In any game other than a GMed RPG, one way forward should be clear -- if you want someone to announce dead ends quickly, reward them for doing it with feedback that suits their aims in play. But what are a traditional GM's aims in play? They're all social -- the fiction poses no challenge or obstacle. So the only button a GM is going to want to press is one that earns consistent excitement or appreciation from the players. Sounds like a tall order to me. Not impossible, but tricky. Plus I'm still not sure that laying this responsibility on the GM is the best solution.
    Could there be a procedure for assessing the stakes that weighs opportunity cost of the decision time? This is what the players are already informally doing ("Do I think these hieroglyphs are important enough to spend X amount of time on?")
    Yes! I do this informally by reminding players of coming threats, worsening situations elsewhere, etc. The part I've found difficult is: applying this to every stake assessment. Sometimes a couple hours' of the characters' time really isn't going to cost them much.
  • My position is that, while no RPG rule can make everyone follow it all the time, some rules get followed more than others, and there are reasons for that, grounded in usability and feedback. Simply saying "Announce dead-ends quickly" and "When in doubt, make stuff useful" doesn't invoke the same type of immediate feedback and reinforcement as [...] useful buttons you can push.
    Yessir!

  • edited January 2014
    I stayed away from this thread because I didn't get it at first. You tend to use big terms that can be interpreted in a several ways, and that makes it hard to understand your point.
    ...and informed (we're not proceeding from deep ignorance of the "might as well flip a coin" variety).
    I'm having a difficulty understanding this alone. By "informed", do you mean choices like "Should I attack orc #1 or orc #2?" where the stats and positions are the same for both orcs, choices made by illusionism, and things like deciding what to wear for the day? Artificial and cosmetic choices?
    Fiction-first challenge-based play and character-based immersive exploration are ...
    Here's another example where you take a shortcut by just namedropping some terms (that you made up for this thread alone?), and it only makes your point more vague. I don't need explanation of these, but I just wanted to point this out.

    ---

    You talk about decisions, and decision are there in a game to make it interactive. I would like to stop and say that a game isn't all about decisions that matters in the game but also for the user. To make the user express itself or to bring out a sensation. In some video games, you can spend in-game cash to buy a hat to your avatar. It wont affect the game play, but it give you a chance to express who you are through your avatar. Note that this isn't immersive play.

    My questions is though: are you talking about how to avoid dead time in improvised play?
  • Also, this article could be of interest: Levels of Play
  • edited January 2014
    Sorry man, "fictional positioning", "fiction-first", "challenge-based" and "character-based immersive" are all pretty old jargon that I've found to be necessary shorthand for the internet. None of them are fantastic terms, but they seem to suffice as a rough sketch for most readers I interact with. I can't describe any of these terms in less than a paragraph, and I don't want to clutter threads like this with such paragraphs. If you do a search for any of these terms on S-G, the Forge archives, the Big Model wiki at Adept Press, or RPGnet, that might work. Or you could just start a new thread on S-G to ask.

    I am not making up terms for this thread alone. When I do that, I do take the time to define them.

    As for "informed", by that I mean the word's regular English usage -- any decision where the decision-makers (the players) have information about the odds, risks, rewards, or anything at all as pertains to the decision. Uninformed decisions are the problem case, because players who lack information, but somehow approach a decision as meaningful anyway, will grasp about for, or invent, info that isn't there. The solution would be to recognize that uninformed decisions are not meaningful. "How to achieve that recognition?" is part of the point of this thread.

    I get your point about designed decisions; I'm talking instead about emergent decisions which were not designed by anyone -- the players say, "What's over here?" and the GM ad-libs an answer adn the players go poke at it.

    As for dead time, sort of. I'm talking about how to avoid wasted time in improvised play. When I hear "dead" I think "dull". But we can waste time in very lively fashions too -- like in arguments, experiments, needless strategy, etc.
  • If you do a search for any of these terms on S-G, the Forge archives, the Big Model wiki at Adept Press, or RPGnet, that might work. Or you could just start a new thread on S-G to ask.
    When I'm using terms, I always provide links for people who doesn't know them, otherwise you will only get a discussion from a limited group of people, and that can come out as elitist.
    As for dead time, sort of. I'm talking about how to avoid wasted time in improvised play. When I hear "dead" I think "dull". But we can waste time in very lively fashions too -- like in arguments, experiments, needless strategy, etc.
    OK, so you don't want, for example, arguments within the group?
  • In the above situation, as a GM, I would make the hieroglyphs matter, or make it immediately apparent that they didn't matter. That could example of the type of non-transferable house-ruling that you're talking about, but I would also be very open to a playing a game in which one of the core rules was the hieroglyphs matter.

    Just added this to the Techniques thread as an expansion of the "Accept other players Input. Build on it." technique.
  • edited January 2014
    Rickard, I always like it when you provide links. I once actually had a big project aimed at an online glossary of RPG terms. I would link to it right now, except that the complete lack of support it received caused me to abandon it. At this point I'm burned out, which I'll happily discuss with you in whispers. Next time you want to critique my communication efforts, could you please use whispers?
  • @David_Berg

    I just want to clarify something before I put in my quite possibly irrelevant, and derailing two-cents (oh, and thanks for the definition above and for the thread; interesting stuff).

    I'm getting the sense that this discussion revolves around a perceived problem with heavy-prep games such as D&D; namely the time wasted on things the party can't possibly (or reasonably) know about their environment. And so, it gets pointed out that there are solutions in place for this (ie. wandering monsters). And therefor time isn't "wasted", it's just poorly "resourced" by the party. So, this sounds like you're trying to "patch" this kind of system for those that don't like the standard solutions. Yes? Sorta? No?

    Because I'm more in the camp that the hieroglyphics should be made to matter. But this can really get away from the prepped material. So, I was thinking more along the lines of low/no prep gaming and how to focus on whats important.

  • edited January 2014
    When I've seen the "bad decision identification" problem pop up in prepped material, the blame can usually be pointed at "bad prep" (or at least "bad presentation of what you prepped"). The problem I'm talking about is more often a feature on un-prepped material. Whether the game surrounding those problem moments is generally high-prep or generally low-prep doesn't matter to me. Does that answer your question?

    "How to focus on what's important in no-prep gaming" certainly sounds relevant to me! Keep in mind, though, that I'm aiming for a very high standard in terms of ease of use. We gamers already have plenty of advice on what's important -- I'm looking for something stickier and with more oomph.
  • Hieroglyphics shouldn't be made to matter, but they probably should matter. It's a failure on prepping and/or GMing if they exist but they don't matter.

    So the point of failure in this particular example isn't "will the GM retroactively make them matter and/or let the party waste their time?", it's "why are there hieroglyphics if they're unimportant to the game?"
  • Ha! Gotcha. I meant a specific technique in "how to make the hieroglyphics important when they didn't even exist a moment ago"; maybe some of my oomph will stick on ya. I'm going to make up my own jargon and call it Fiction As Rule (don't worry, I've already forgotten it, too)

    First, rather than say: "the hieroglyphics are interesting because they might matter" we should say: "the hieroglyphics will matter because we think that they are interesting". In other words: " Look! Hieroglyphics! Cool!" That's an established, immutable fact now. We latched on to them as worth pursuing. But matter how? And to what extent?

    Well, what are we doing? What's the Adventure? What's the goal? By definition, the hieroglyphics must matter to the goal or they are merely interesting, not meaningful. Let's start simply: save the princess from the dragon. That's the goal (stay with me, we'll address "moving the goal post" shortly). This technique is largely system agnostic but assumes some method of determining what we will call "pass/fail" for the moment (roll dice, vote, bid, pull from the Jenga tower) in relation to the task at hand (Perception check; Lore skill; De cypher; whatever is appropriate).

    If you succeed (failure dealt with shortly), you learn something meaningful about your goal. But what? How long before the Princess is devoured? Unlikely (I certainly wouldn't advocate that). Where she is? Maybe, if it tells us where the dragon lair is. How about how to kill the dragon? Aha! Writ here is the means to slay the ancient beast! It's weakness. What weakness? A missing scale? Trite. A dragon slaying sword? Triter(?). It's heart is not in its body but hid away in a glass container. Cool! (Hey, I like it. Doesn't your system have some means of establishing narrative control? Who's turn it is. Who rolled? Who holds the talking stick? Group consensus? GM fiat? System agnostic suggests the most interesting suggestion wins).

    We now know how to kill the dragon. What else must we know? That depends on the length of the adventure and what we deem to be meaningful; that is to say: what we find interesting IS meaningful to our quest. And of course finite resources! But lets address failure first.

    We can only fail forward. The hieroglyphics ARE meaningful, but on a failure they can only point us to the next meaningful encounter. Another chance to learn/win/establish something. The writing on the medallion doesn't tell us where the Well of Souls is (crap!) BUT it does tell us how to use it to find the location of the Well of Souls.

    But we can't "fail forward" endlessly, we must be fumbling towards ecstasy until we reach our climax or run out of oomph. That is to say: finite resources and the definitive end state (best band name EVER!). Have we gathered all the info we need? Do we reach the princess in time? How do we know?

    Now, I could site the usual suspects: in-game time (dragons only feed at night); out-game time (Folks, let's wrap this up by 10 PM); character death (hit points); supplies (rations, light source, last slice of pizza). All these and more can spell our failure. But they are either self-imposed limits or very specific to the challenges we have created for ourselves. And one of the questions in this thread was: what stakes matter? To say, at this point, the stakes are situation specific seems like a bit of a cop-out.

    However, the technique suggests its own self-imposed limit. How many meaningful encounters can you have before the story ends - for good or bad.

    We might say that we will have a maximum of 7 meaningful encounters in this adventure and 3 of them must result in direct progress (rather than fail forward) to reach the climax. We have 7 tries at bat and 3 of them must be homers. Or each player has two Destiny chips to indicate/establish that this is a meaningful encounter; four of them have to be successful.

    Note again that this is system agnostic. We could use D&D 4e to resolve encounters or sit down right now with nothing more than a coin and some character concepts.

    I haven't addressed the "moving goal post" yet. What if it emerges from the fiction that the adventure isn't really about saving the princess from the dragon; does that mean the info we gained on the dragon is meaningless and undermines all of this? What if there is no clear goal to start with? What if I just pulled a coin out of my pocket and said to you: "You're sitting in a tavern... oh, you're going to need these 7 pieces of napkin I just tore up. You'll see why shortly"

    But I've gone on too long in one post. I know it's not for everyone. We all have to determine for ourselves what matters.


  • edited January 2014
    I think that sounds cool on its own merits, @biffboff, but I'm more interested in answering the question "how to focus on what's important?" than in dodging it by making everything-you-notice be important.
    why are there hieroglyphics if they're unimportant to the game?
    I think there are several possible answers:
    A) Color. Now the players have a more engaging visual impression of the characters' environment.
    B) Internal logic. Something about the world of the game dictates that there should be hieroglyphs here.
    C) It is important, it's just not interactive yet. Perhaps knowing that the builders of this structure wrote in hieroglyphs rather than letters will be an important puzzle piece later. Perhaps the hieroglyphs decorate a keyhole, and later you'll find the key to unlock it.

    If the hieroglyphs serve none of the above purposes, or the group doesn't care about the one it serves, then I agree that there shouldn't be hieroglyphs.
  • Sorry, it probably got lost in the noise. But without context, as a pushable button, no detail will have any meaning in a game sense. Just a succession of dice rolls and outcomes, ad infinitum.

    First of all, let's put the hieroglyphs somewhere. In a tomb.

    dusty stone tomb, single entrance, south wall
    flaking gilded crypt, iron, locked
    raised hieroglyphs on the walls
    four empty torch sconces, two on east, two on west wall
    stone statue, east wall, man with bird head, gilded disc held above head
    painted urns, various sizes up to four feet high

    "GM and player follow each others interests in the fiction, with the characters opening doors onto unprepared areas of the map, and the GM sprinkling the setting with eye-catching people, places and things. Play includes purposeful missions with time pressure, but it also includes opportunities to enter strange marketplaces, follow will-o-the-wisps, debate each others religions, whittle talismans, or to reject all that and grab a new mission."

    You presuppose that the GM provides the details. That's cool. But the method of choosing details might have an effect on meaning. Let's not go down that rabbit hole just yet. There's also no assumption of an over-arching story. Also relevant.

    So, the party is in this tomb. Why? What brought them here? If the party has no purpose, nothing here matters. Or to quote myself:
    "Well, what are we doing? What's the Adventure? What's the goal? By definition, the hieroglyphics must matter to the goal or they are merely interesting, not meaningful. "

    Let's assume the easiest motivation: loot! And where's the loot in this tomb? Gotta be in the crypt (actually, it doesn't have to be; the joy of the GM and players as think-tank means that interesting alternatives are suggested all the time). But let's follow the path of least resistance. How do we open the tomb? The most obvious source of info is the much-talked-about hieroglyphs. Again, it could have been the statue, wall sconces, urns - probably all will be poked at to see if anything interesting pops out. But the hieroglyphs are focused on as a relevant to the task at hand. Therefor, they are meaningful, they must, absolutely must contain info on how to open the crypt or Gm/Player trust is broken. At this point you would usually engage with the mechanics of the system. As discussed, even a failure must fail forward. Perhaps the only useful thing that can be made out is the mention of a deity holding the sun up high. Statue! Now the statue must be relevant.

    At this point I would mention stakes and hit points as the most obvious choice and things in a tomb that can cause Hit point damage such as traps, animated statues, undead (in crypts or urns) - but the point is pretty simple: why are the characters here? What is their purpose? Without purpose, there is no meaning. If we can't agree on that, then we're just butting heads and I'll bow out gracefully.

  • I totally agree with decision identification being an issue. I recall one 3.5e D&D campaign where we were confronted by an especially dangerous, trapped bridge suspended over a pit with a hidden and seemingly deadly monster in it.

    Two character deaths later, I realized that we were a short walk from a mining town with huge unemployment levels. The gold in our pockets would have been sufficient to just tunnel around the challenge. Having just read a book about plundering the pyramids, I was all fired up about this and thought it would be great fun.

    The group wasn't fond of the idea, the DM least of all, and so we ended up chewing over how to get across for some time. The DM was looking more exasperated as the clock ticked on - it turns out that the traps were exhausted and the monster wasn't that tough, despite appearances. In the end, our strongest fighter just jumped into the pit and one-shotted it. It wasn't the brutal choke point it appeared to be, but a bog-standard CR-appropriate room (boo) and some unlucky rolls.

    I think problems of this sort are inherent in organic/improvised play: we see only a movie-length glimpse of the characters' lives, but we hope to achieve highlight reel quality, but without being overly contrived in getting there. Over and under-preparing are bound to happen.

    One of the things I was musing on a few months ago was mismatches between player and GM expectations about where the story "ingredients" come from (a charged situation, conflicting goals, etc.). When the GM and players each expect to do most of the providing themselves, you get a GM who wonders why the players are ignoring all of his plot hooks. When the players overestimate the GM's contribution, they start following red herrings (possibly feeling like they wasted their time) rather than initiate something they truly care about.
    Why did we spend so long studying the hieroglyphs?
    My character's into ancient lore. This stuff excites him more than most treasures!
    The way the GM described it, I thought it seemed important.
    I wanted to see if my plan for it would work, because if so, that would have been awesome!
    Everyone else was into it, so I tried to come up with a way to use the damn thing.
    Your guy was obsessing and I was enjoying teasing him.
    Okay, but was it worth it?
    No. I wanted to make more progress tonight.
    No. I wanted more drama and action tonight.
    No. After all that, the hieroglyphs didn't matter.
    No. After all that, we still don't even know if the hieroglyphs matter.
    Reading your examples, I was struck by how several of them seem to stem from the players' advocating too little for their own interests. This is one reason why I like BW beliefs (or flags in general); at least at a campaign level, they give the GM clear guidance on what the players are interested in. (Assuming the players write them well.)

    The "Read a Situation" question, "What should I be on the lookout for?" strikes me as the GM's side beliefs - the players get to ask the GM directly what he or she cares about.

    While I'm at it, "Make stuff useful" seems like the complement of player-side "Clue-following". The players show interest in something, so the GM tweaks the world to add weight to it. In clue-following, when the players sense something with some weight to it, they tweak their characters' motivations to be interested in it.

    Huh, that's interesting - I might label these two pairs of behaviors as 'explicit' and 'synergistic'. (Ignoring offers and outright rejecting offers would be the dark twins to these two, I suppose.)

    One of the factors that adds weight to decision misidentification is having high standards. I can get tied up in knots about trying to have the perfect BW session, or applying a critical eye to the choices we made while playing Fiasco. Recently, we started a Tremulus game, and from the start I decided to play.. almost lazily, just characterizing my guy and not really worrying about how it fit into the bigger picture, riffing on the events of the game, making potato salad.
  • Yeah, I'm with @biffboff : most of the games I play that avoid these problems, irrespective of the specific mechanical techniques in play, simply imbue the players with a clear sense of purpose.

    And usually something beyond mere "loot!" is helpful as a motivator, although even that is better than nothing. But something with time pressure is often a good way to keep things moving.

    Matt
  • Actually there's another choice: if you added the hieroglyphs for color and players ask about them, use them to add even more color without asking for a roll or introducing any other difficulty. Say, instead of making the hieroglyphs useful to enter the crypt, why can't these tell the players about who built the place or why? It doesn't even have to be specific information or even anything helpful for the next challenges. And it's totally plausible that the people who wrote the hieroglyphs only had in mind telling any intruder/visitor about the greatness of whoever is buried there.

    My group now is used to notice by my tone/gestures that when they ask about something meant to be color, and the answer is more color, that clues/loot/etc. for the next challenge lay elsewhere. Not asking for a roll to reveal this information gives them confirmation about the fact that there's anything else there, and I never mess with this procedure, to keep players trust. This way I have an useful tool to keep the game going, that is easily recognisable by the players and doesn't break game flow.
  • edited January 2014
    Actually there's another choice: if you added the hieroglyphs for color and players ask about them, use them to add even more color without asking for a roll or introducing any other difficulty. Say, instead of making the hieroglyphs useful to enter the crypt, why can't these tell the players about who built the place or why? It doesn't even have to be specific information or even anything helpful for the next challenges. And it's totally plausible that the people who wrote the hieroglyphs only had in mind telling any intruder/visitor about the greatness of whoever is buried there.

    My group now is used to notice by my tone/gestures that when they ask about something meant to be color, and the answer is more color, that clues/loot/etc. for the next challenge lay elsewhere. Not asking for a roll to reveal this information gives them confirmation about the fact that there's anything else there, and I never mess with this procedure, to keep players trust. This way I have an useful tool to keep the game going, that is easily recognisable by the players and doesn't break game flow.
    I like how this technique uses non-verbal (or maybe "procedural") signaling to cue players in to the specific utility of the hieroglyphics on the wall. I mean, the verbal-level conversation is structurally the same (player asks about some element in the environment, GM responds, which maps onto character examines some aspect of the environment, environment is legible) but there's an additional meta-level component that players can attend to that helps them make sense of their own play. I think this both (a) happens more often than we acknowledge (i.e., voice is for the fiction, gesture is for the mechanics), and (b) could be worth systematizing more frequently than it is (Puppetland, anyone?), particularly in immersion-focused games.

  • Yes, this is cool.

    I think I've done this myself on a number of occasions (I haven't played games without a clear sense of purpose, as Matt describes, for a while), and it works pretty well. A good technique to be conscious of!
  • But what are a traditional GM's aims in play? They're all social -- the fiction poses no challenge or obstacle. So the only button a GM is going to want to press is one that earns consistent excitement or appreciation from the players. Sounds like a tall order to me. Not impossible, but tricky. Plus I'm still not sure that laying this responsibility on the GM is the best solution.
    To my mind, there's always going to be an inherent instability in the "mutual entertainer" model of RPG play. If every participant is watching every other participant for signs of what they're interested in and is responsible for also expressing interest in that thing (sometimes genuine, sometimes faking it because that's what they think the other players need) then you've essentially got a bunch of amplifiers hooked up in a way that's especially prone to distortion and feedback (of the "screechy sound when a microphone picks up speaker output" variety). One of the things Vincent Baker has been saying lately is that in AW he wants the GM to be inserting content that's interesting to the GM not that the GM hopes will be interesting to the players. I think games with structure can do this well, especially if they hook flags into the process. For example, in Mouse Guard, it's a fun creative challenge to weave the patrol's Beliefs, Instincts, friends, enemies, etc., into a mission. When I do it I'm not necessarily thinking "player A will love this", it's more like "Ooh, seeing Belief X on character A's sheet gives me the idea to create situation M; I wonder how player A will react when they encounter it". But games with structure are specifically what you don't want, so it's tough for me to engage with the topic since I don't find structure aversive and it's tough for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who does.
  • Well I think perhaps "unstructured" is the real problem here. Maybe you don't need an indie game style scene-cutting thing, but you need something. Otherwise hours of (real) time wasted is simply going to happen, and fairly often.

    I mean, I love WarriorMonk's solution, and use something similar in my Advanced Wizards and Wizards game, but that'd probably be too meta for many technical agendas. But maybe people just need to recognize that they need to be willing to compromise?

    Matt
  • edited January 2014
    I was on the phone last night with one of my old gamer buddies, John. We were reminiscing about our long campaign games where I as GM presented worlds full of mysteries and secrets, some useful, some just color. John really wants to play again, and when I asked him what he was eager to do with his characters, he gave a long and enthusiastic list that amounted to "find stuff out". I asked him what he'd do once he found stuff out, and his answer was that he'd use his knowledge to change the world in subtle but ongoing ways. I told him these might take decades to bear fruit and might not see play, and he didn't mind at all. The fun of exploration and discovery was his biggest incentive.

    John is not, by disposition, a fact-accumulator. He doesn't value trivia that much, especially not trivia about a fictional world. The thing that makes discovery fun for him is that, in my game, it's interactive. Any knowledge John gains is basically fodder for his imagination, about what he might do with his character now, or a little later, or years down the road. Many of these he never acts on, but the assembling of puzzle pieces into cool new options for character direction always excites him. And the ones he does act on are particularly rewarding.

    The play style I've described in this thread isn't specifically about making John happy, but I think it's important that "I want to know about this just because" be respected as a legitimate thing to do with game time. Within limits! That's the key -- not zero, but not too much either. Accordingly, imbuing players with a sense of purpose is not, in itself, a solution. If the purpose dictates every decision, then John can't have his fun. If the purpose is flexible enough to allow John to poke at hieroglyphs, then maybe it's flexible enough to allow him to poke too long.

    With an eye toward finding a middle ground, here's an idea:

    Start with an ample pile of chips in the middle of the table.

    Whenever a player asks the GM a question, pass the GM a chip from the pile.

    Whenever a player proposes a course of action, pass the GM a chip from the pile.

    Whenever a player asks or proposes (as above), the GM has the option to spend X chips to escalate time pressure.

    Escalation means advancing one increment along this scale:
    No time pressure.
    Source of time pressure announced.
    Opportunity for easy escape lost.
    Small remote costs -- loss of minor resources or something else valued.
    The threat/disaster reaches you.

    The value of X is set at the beginning of the session. A value of 2-5 means the group wants a fast-paced session. A value of 6-12 means they want a more leisurely one.
  • edited January 2014
    @Fuseboy, I'm totally with you, some sort of player-GM teamwork of taking interest in each other's stuff is extremely helpful. But I also agree with @DanMaruschak that it's not super reliable, and makes a lousy last line of defense.

    I'm curious, why didn't your group want to tunnel around the challenge? That's exactly the sort of creative problem-solving that makes me want to play flexible RPGs as opposed to board games or video games. If I'd been the GM, regardless of the monster's actual threat level, I would have been quite enthused.

    ...unless there was something beyond the bridge that your group was eager to get to quickly. I can certainly remember times in my groups where we were all psyched to do a certain something, and then obstacles which delayed that something were met with much less enthusiasm than other obstacles. (This is partly why I like improv GMing -- if the players just battled through a super-satisfying fight, that's a good time to give them the loot; being beholden to a map that says, "No, there's another fight," can be less fun.)
    My group now is used to notice by my tone/gestures that when they ask about something meant to be color, and the answer is more color, that clues/loot/etc. for the next challenge lay elsewhere.
    I could see this being a useful component of a system. If "give them more color" is an explicit option, used intentionally, then it forces the GM to make a decision about the improvised content -- is it useful, or is it color? Supposing this decision is made at the right time, this sounds like a good thing to me. Too late, and it doesn't save any time-wasting. Too early, and it precludes the possibility of players inventing utility.

    I'm curious: since you've been using this technique, have your players ever surprised you by doing something like Fuseboy's tunneling?
    I think this both (a) happens more often than we acknowledge (i.e., voice is for the fiction, gesture is for the mechanics), and (b) could be worth systematizing more frequently than it is (Puppetland, anyone?), particularly in immersion-focused games.
    If it could be made sticky and button-pushy enough to engender consistent use, I would love this.
  • @David_Berg It's just a mismatch of play styles. We were playing through a Paizo adventure path, so going 'off module' seemed to give the GM some level of discomfort. The play group was largely a 'kick in the door' type party - they weren't interested much in tactics. Frankly I think they were probably more in alignment with the game than I was - my wanting to go and hire miners might have been a small sort of rebellion. (Though, in the end, our failure to cover the bases by coordinating our party roles left us with a lethal liability later on; some fear-causing undead left us in shambles, and then a single mind flayer TPK'd the party with mind control.)

    Your system looks really interesting. It makes me think of Dirty Dungeons, except instead of a prep-time activity, it's right in the heart of play.

    What does "propose a course of action" mean? Is that when a player says, "I open the chest"? Or is it when a player says, in character, "You know, we should go west to avoid the lizards."

    If three players are deciding what to do, and they each propose a course of action, does that give the GM three chips? This is pretty brilliant, because it gives the GM ammo precisely when the players are feeling that the thing they're planning for is a big deal.
  • I agree, that's a really cool idea. I wonder if there's things other than just "detail level" that such a tradeoff pool could be used for - signalling everyone "We need more of this" or "not quite so much of that"
  • edited January 2014

    I'm curious: since you've been using this technique, have your players ever surprised you by doing something like Fuseboy's tunneling?
    Just the same as usual. I guess that for players it doesn't matter much if it's a dead end, if they can have fun making graffiti on that wall, or even chip a piece from it to use it as a weapon.

    I recall a recent PF session where our GM used a lot of places carved with antimagic runes to stop magic users to circumvent a challenge. Also, it made sense for the places to have anti.magic defenses. Well, there were enough runes carved that it made useless to destroy one to lift the protection, so that was obviously a dead end. But then I had my monk pull out a crowbar from his backpack, pry out a single brick with a rune and use it later to dispell a trap portal. Our GM used the same technique, so I'd safely say that there's no actual way to stop players imagination. Which in the end, it's also a good thing if as a GM, you learn to react to it in a positive way, build on it, enlist the players to help you build the fiction and/or cast enough illusions/red herrings/good hooks to distract them.

    Edit: I'm definitely adding the time resource trick to the old school game I'm working on next. I was thinking of making light sources = time, so the longer the characters discuss/plan anything, the less light time they have. Once it's spent, darkness devours them.
  • Dave, I'd love to send you my "The Dwarven Frontier" BW one-shot, which I've run three times now. It's got a very simple set up with some monster attacks disturbing a newly-minted mining operation. One of the characters is an Adventurer with several Wises, including Tunnel-wise and Loot-wise, the use of which have read to some really fun twists. My prep is minimal enough that these interesting new directions didn't disrupt anything, but robust enough that I would've felt confident disallowing anything that would've taken the game in a really zany or otherwise inappropriate direction.

    And one of the things I love about BW is that you can tweak players' ability to make stuff worthwhile in several ways. First off, you can give the player with the most interest in that stuff the Adventurer or similar character with several Wises. Secondly, if the GM *does* have something specific in mind as an answer to a question, you don't have to allow the player to narrate the facts—it's perfectly fine to make accurate, uncomplicated correct information the result of a success. And you even do have things happen that aren't necessarily relevant to "the group's exact purpose right this second" but that can come up later if people are interested.

    Matt
  • Matt, remind me, if I find Loot and roll well on Loot-Wise, and the GM lets me narrate, what stops me from declaring that this Loot is Alzambra's Goggles of Insta-Kill and that I, being versed in Alzambrian lore, know the password to activate them?
  • David, as I understand it, the procedure for wises is:
    1. Player proposes a fact
    2. The GM vets it for suitability. If it's not too far-fetched:
    2. The GM sets an obstacle for the player to know the fact and for it to be true
    3. The player rolls (etc.)

    I wouldn't let a player find valuable treasure in this pile of loot right here unless they had "This Pile of Loot Right Here-wise". :)
  • If we borrow from Koster's Theory of Fun and ask what players are enjoying learning in forms of play like "fiction-first challenge-based play and character-based immersive exploration", I wonder if discerning the utility and potential of fictional details isn't a pretty important part. It certainly is in my experience. If that process of discernment starts to feel like a waste of time or source of frustration the problem is most likely the balance of the difficulty of interpreting importance and the feedback players get when they try to spend their time investigating the fiction.

    On one hand if identifying significance or utility is too random or difficult the experience will be unpleasant, leading to frustration behaviors. On the other, if significance or utility is too simple or automatic the entire endeavor will become boring and relegated to an automatic process - losing the organic delving into a self-consistent fictional world.

    To my mind, the solution is to look at how the GM's actions teach players to identify significance and utility, how the GM can provide clearer feedback and how the difficulty of identification can increase to keep pace with the techniques and strategies players have learned. This is much harder than borrowing the iconography of video games in quest flags and outlined objects to interact with. If part of the fun of these kinds of games is to figure out how to make something that seems interesting into something that is useful, it is a shame to throw that baby out with the bathwater.

    - Mendel
  • First, I would point out that if John is interested in the Hieroglyphics for their own sake, then there is no problem with exploring them for their own sake. If there's no problem then there is no need to apply a specific solution. But it can become a problem if
    A: the other Players are getting restless. In which case: "That 's all the Hieroglyphics say. There is no more". No problem.
    B:John continues to poke at the played-out Hieroglyphics hoping for something more. But what?

    The GM isn't a mind reader; the Players should, by default without prompting, state the intent behind their actions. What is it you hope to find? If the Player isn't giving you anything then say: "you find nothing" and move on to another Player. If this isn't a clear "in-game conversation" indicator, then perhaps you do need something more overt - pick up or put down your dice, raise an eye-brow, whatever.

    There's also an underlying assumption creeping into the topic that the GM has decided the Hieroglyphics aren't important. That's a form of prepped play. Whether the GM decided that seconds or weeks ago, it's hidden info that the Player's must now guess.

    If that's your style, cool. The Hieroglyphics are important only if you say they are. Now the shoe is on the other foot. The Player's aren't mind readers. State your intent. If the characters can interact with your setting in meaningful ways, then your setting should interact with the characters. Otherwise it is passive and mute and the Players can only fumble around hoping to guess.

    In hard-boiled OSR, dropping hints is weak-sauce. But if you want the Adventure to be where the Adventurers are (or at least nearby), have a character notice a reflection of a Hieroglyphic in the statue's gold disc; have a sprinkle of dust fall on the Urns. Tell the Players up-front that the setting will talk to you IF you listen.

    You can use it as a last resort to move things forward. You can even give it a cost; whether a token system or simply indicating that the mechanics of the game are probably going to kick in soon - pick up your dice, this might sting a little.


  • edited January 2014
    Matt & Fuse, so I guess the key technology for BW Wises in this case is a "wouldn't it be cool if" button for the players to push. You engage it because it might get you something cool, but once you engage it the Obstacle calculation system ensures that you can't just pull epic utility out of nothing.

    Supposing the GM does have secret info in mind, I suppose that's inserted immediately after the player proposes a fact, right?
    Player: "Alzambrians used orbs like this in their journeys, so there must be a way to detach and carry this thing!"
    GM: "No, actually, the orb won't move, but there is something else about it else about it you might realize. Ob 3."

    Then once the dice are rolled, I suppose it's always possible for the GM to be more or less generous -- "Wow, 10 successes? You know what, you can detach this thing." -- and then the orb-probing is over. Right?

    The tidiness here is very appealing. I'm just not sure how comfortable I am with "roll once and move on". It's a great way to avoid over-analysis, but what if another player then has a great idea? What if someone wants to try an experiment, which requires no prior knowledge? The Wise roll outcome hasn't adjusted the fiction in any way to obviate these; all we really have is a "roll once and move on" social contract, and I can't imagine that any of my hieroglyph-studiers would want to sign it.

    What would happen if players were given, say, unlimited Physics-wise rolls for an object they're looking to do something clever with? We still get the useful directive that the players must have an objective in mind in order to roll. We still get the likelihood analysis, in the form of Ob calculation. Is that enough? Or does the option to say "that didn't work; lets try something else" completely defeat the waste-saving element?
  • Mendel, nice, I like your way of putting it. I definitely don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I agree that sending clear feedback the players' way is important, but I think the GM needs to be supported in this by some formal system.

    As GM, I've gotten pretty good at doing this informally, but without some concrete button-pushing at my fingertips, even I can forget and get caught up too long in aimless play. I certainly wouldn't expect that simply telling other GMs "Try to respond like this" would help them much.

    Do you have any ideas for a formal system to determine and communicate significance and utility? Or is there a reason why you think a formal system can't be the answer?
  • Biffboff, you may be onto something there in separating the stuff the GM has already decided on from the stuff the GM hasn't already decided on. Perhaps those should be distinguished from each other, with different procedures employed for each.

    I don't know if that's possible, though, and here's why: I've actually GMed a lot where I had decided something about some setting feature, but not everything. So the conversation could go either way, depending on the players' ideas.

    In maintaining the illusion of the fictional world as a real place with its own consistent, internal causality, the conversations looked identical from the players' end -- the characters are poking at a neat object, testing and guessing and reasoning what use they might get out of it. "What the GM has already decided" isn't visible as such anywhere in the equation. I'd rather not ditch that if at all possible.

    GM-side mechanics would be great here, but again, I'm stumped on "bang for your buck" incentives.
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