Encouraging players to forego information

edited March 2006 in Story Games
It seems to me information is a special resource that shapes a players possible impact upon the SIS/story in ways quite different to other constraints (mechanical values, or enforced turn-taking). I can't quite work out whether more information produces more choices, or reduces the possibilities - I suspect this depends a lot on the game you are all playing - but it seems a special case either way, with a special kind of value. So under what circumstances will players forgo information?

I was first struck my this issue when I watched Quatermass and the Pit, where the professor interrupts the librarian telling him about the fiendish history of their dig site in order to return to the dig site again without the full facts. Similarly, Buffy going off half-cocked and getting in the weeds because the critical info is only just being discovered by a pale Willow. Now, these are characters. But I think that players also, especially if they enjoy certain kinds of sim play, would like to be put into these situations. Yet my experience, say from Cthulhu, is that if you're in a town with a library you damn well try and spent 60 hours in the library til there's nothing left to learn. I'm interested in ways to shift this.

1. One obvious way is to use force: you're in the library when the beast strikes again.
2. Another way is to punish over-research. I think this could be an interesting avenue if the cost or stakes are known; my experience of it is more along the lines of ok, you spent all the time in the library, and now four more people are dead including your manservant. And your blunderbuss is gone.
3. One nar way is to do 1 but present a choice - you hear a scream from the village below but you've only learned one of the beast's weaknesses. Do you risk yourselves for the innocent?

I'm sure there are many more. I am particularly interested in a more simmy approach. I guess you could just reward good roleplaying' (playing out being the impulsive one) or 'keeping genre' (in buffy we always have a fracas without knowing all the facts), but I want more. It seems to me many players may both want mystery and to be proactive, but this balance only works if the GM is hot or the scenario is crafted the right way. Are there mechanics that ensure that you don't need to be a hot GM to provide choices and still keep people in the dark? How would you reward them to 'stay blind'?

As I'm writing this, I can see one way - every time a player would uncover a fact that you think is crucial, you ask them if they want the information or are willing to trade it for some kind of reward (hero point, bonus, neckrub). That way, the mystery can be preserved but players aren't being deprotagonisted. This could be some kind of adjunct to a No-Myth style of play: there is some myth abounding, but the ways you can get to it are manifold, and some of the ways might turn out to be dead ends, if you're willing to take goodies instead.

Thoughts and ideas? Glares and frowns? Clown shoes and cream pies?
[edit: I'm certain that there are many ways this has been done already that haven't occurred to me, and I'm sure your game has done it too. This is cool - bring it on. For the purposes of this thread, I do not want to forego information.]


  • Open communication might help - "You can go on reading and buff up, but it'll also be lots of fun if you just stumble into the Milk Vampire's trap."

    That said, I like the idea of providing some solid-coded choices at every stage in an investigative game, as you propose. If the choices more or less even out, it becomes an exercise inthe players deciding what kind of experience they want to have, which is cool.
  • edited March 2006
    Players generally try to get as much information as possible because they expect there to be a "right" answer and many different "wrong" answers and expect the information to tell them which is which.

    If you want players to run off and do things that aren't research, you need to make it clear that there is no "the answer". If there is no "the answer", then there is no "the information". There is only information, and more information, which may be entertaining to explore or to manipulate into creating your answer, but the research is only entertaining as long as the exploration and manipulation is entertaining. Once it's no longer fun, the players move on.
  • I too worry about the tendency to play roleplaying games in a video-game style, making sure to take every potentially useful item from a room, taking the time to check every corner of every location, talking to every NPC who may potentially be useful, all of which just aren't things that normal people or characters in books/movies/TV tend to do.

    I think the best ways to go about restraining this sort of behavoir is not reward/punishment cycles but getting players to be more aware of how the choices they make affects the tone of the game. Making in-genre choices is an important part of being a good player, I think. People tend to do this kind of thing because they are nervous or scared that they'll miss something and be punished for it later on. Once they realize that spending 60 hours in the library does not make the story better (in fact, it probably makes it worse) hopefully they'll be less inclined to do that. This is just a social-contract-level approach.

    The other way is just not giving the players the opportunity to spend 60 hours in the library or make other other-of-genre choices. Smacking their ideas down is not the best way to be supportive of player creativity, so I'd go with our old friend Constraint, limiting the options they have to choose from instead of nixing choices they've already made. Why is spending 60 hours in the library even a viable option?
  • People tend to do this kind of thing because they are nervous or scared that they'll miss something and be punished for it later on. Once they realize that spending 60 hours in the library does not make the story better (in fact, it probably makes it worse) hopefully they'll be less inclined to do that.

    This is an important point, here -- if spending 60 hours in the library is going to hurt your game, you need to make sure that spending 60 hours in the library is not going to make the players more effective and successful. There's a reason they're doing this; you need to remove the reason (and then loudly call attention to the fact that you removed the reason).
  • Also, I think this ties into the "skills" thread.

    It seems to me that a player who chooses to make their character spend 60 hours in the library lacks storytelling skills. They think they're playing it safe by preparing thoroughly but, in fact, they're making a boring story.

    A more skilled player would go and seek out the beast or burn the library or...basically...take risks.

    Which, reading this thread back, is basically what Jonathon said.

  • I'm not really sure why, Graham, Jon, "do the thing that is more interesting" (i.e. SPRING INTO ACTION) shouldn't be system-incentivised. It seems like you'd be failing to use a tool that is already in your hands.

  • You know why players in CoC will spend 60 hours in the library? Or the criminal archives? Or whatever?

    Because that is how you win CoC.

    How many CoC adventures hinge around only being able to win if you have some arcane bit of knowledge, or if you know the secret name, the location of the hidden room from the architectural drawings, or whatever? Heck, I even have memories of one CoC adventure saying something to the effect of "if the PCs come here without first having been to both the library and the museum then their characters deserve to die."

    When faced with that as their training in how to play an RPG, players will of course go to the library and the museum first. ALL THE TIME.

    Getting rid of that isn't always easy. Josh's suggestions about not having a "the answer" and not letting the library help are good (as always). I'd also add a stick to the carrot, and set up a few situations (clearly communicated!) where going to the library hurts. Not just "there is no answer" and "wouldn't it be fun to go beard the vampire in her den" but "there is no answer at the library and right now the vampire is making spawn, every hour that passes there will be another spawn to face. Sure you don't want to go now?"

    That's not exactly a balanced solution, and I wouldn't do it all the time – but the first few times it can be miraculous for getting past blocks.
  • edited March 2006
    I get that there are social contract and hard mechanical ways to take information gathering out of the picture.
    But what about when you want library time^ to be useful and provide genuine information, but you want to be able to sometimes cap the information without deprotagonising the player?

    *Cool, dave has managed to find out that the intruders are smaller than human.
    *Good stuff, lauren has found out their secret weakness!
    *A Huh. Smart stuff, Dora. I didn't expect you to go that route to find things out. Would you take a scooby snack for it? Cool, so your character leaves to get a drink and the draft from outside flips the tome past the critical page!
    *B Remember guys, you've used up your information-gather score. All further knowledge you get will give me GM points, that I can spend beefing up the numbers of the enemy [nb this is kind of like Brand's suggestion]. But as the Gauge of the Unknown is still positive, you know there may be valuable stuff out there to increase your options.
    Or A2 and B2 - using some kind of social/soft technique for obviating or discouraging further knowledge. Unfortunately my hard head can't express these in an eloquent fashion. But I'm sure it's there.

    ^I'm using this as shorthand for finding out stuff, including methods that are not utterly dull. Time in the library includes shaking down informants, praying to the gods, entering the net and anything that provides the player with more information than before.
  • Hey, I rather like that Gauge of the Unknown idea!

    Alex, are you going after a game scenario where there is a correct answer, and the path to victory is pre-established prior to the beginning of roleplay?
  • As a player, it seems tough to decide between giving the GM benny points and taking the information when I don't know what the information is. So offhand this isn't a gamble which appeals to me.

    This may seem a bit simplistic, but if you want to cut off information, why not just have a defined completion? i.e. You've gotten all the information you're going to get out of this library. I don't think that's deprotagonizing.

    I think a stumbling block often comes when the GM makes the library research a slow scene, trying to make the players go through some token rolls or struggle to get the clues. I prefer it if there is at most a single roll (or no roll), and the GM simply gives everything that we're going to get. Examples include D20's "Take 20" mechanic or Burning Wheel's "Let It Ride" mechanic.
  • One problematic thing about "information" that feeds into this, is that its effects are mechanically difficult for the players to understand. They have no idea whether the next 'bit' is going to be merely part of the clue trail or a vital fact without which their characters are mechanically unable to affect the enemy.

    By comparison, if you give each piece of information an understandable effect upon future conflict (say, bonus dice gained from Lore checks in Sorcerer), the players can evaluate how much use further study might be (we can go on making Lore checks all night, but each time the opposing difficulty goes up by one). This gives them something to compare against the other mechanical effects they are threatened by.
  • The use of informaton, and how the characters react to it are genre and mode expectations that should be established in the onset/social contract of the game. One can maintain that by using various etchniques of pacing, escalation adn te like.

    CoC has as its base assumption that library use is part of play. Its the type of characters your playing. Buffy has instead a fairly clear style that says the opposite. I find that to get either to work is n more difficult than establishing with the group exactly what you want and reinforce it with the appropriate scene escalations.
  • Thinking associatively from Jere's comment about Buffy:

    One of the things that seems to define library research in the shows is that there is a cycle of conflict->library research->conflict which runs on the fact that research stalls at a certain moment without more input from the field. (Well, that and ironic cross-cutting seems to imply that you can't find things out until someone is getting beaten up for lack of that knowledge.)

    In any case, you could simulate this with increasing difficulty in the library (or simply a stop on further progress), which gets reset by getting out there and finding something. Makes a nice cycle which forces the players between the two activities. Which is more or less what, say, CoC does with clue trails--only this way you avoid attempts to end run the situation by reading the whole of the town's newspaper archive.
  • Josh - for the time being, yes, games where information is set-up pre-game to be introduced in-game. I should say that I don't have a specific design in mind here, I just think that information in games is an interesting issue.
    It seems to me that many of the current crop of indie games obviate this issue by creating reality on the fly (e.g. Uni), or deliberately making the situation as transparent as possible (e.g., Dogs) or both (BtI) so nothing is hidden from anyone.(Exceptions could be games like Conspiracy of Shadows or A|State, but I'm not familiar with them.) And I get that information-seeking can be a symptom of a problematic game. But it could be an aspect of a very fun game; that it is not approached as such suggests that our techniques could be better. Frex, I like Piers idea of the reset button for a diminishing returns situation. Very neat!
  • I should specify a few things.
    I am thinking of creating games where information gathering is at a premium, and shouldn't be discouraged in itself. I know I began by talking about foregoing information but I meant it in the context of otherwise healthy information gathering. As such, I'll rephrase the question slightly: what techniques exist to balance/support games which involve information gathering as a player activity?

    Secondly, I should stress that I am interested in information qua information, something that expands or constrains possibilities by interacting with the player's imagination, not as a modifier to other mechanics. So a trade-off on Lore bonus dice is all very well but doesn't really mesh with what I'm on about; similarly, the Gauge of the Unknown would have to be tracking number of facts, possibly modified by a subjective rating of the worth of the facts, rather than a direct value.
    Finally, a focus on information gathering (and techniques to balance it better) does not dictate all information flowing from the GM. Players could have a bunch of secrets (or, to keep to the Lump Prunk, a bunch of hidden plans to introduce into the fiction) and the game could involve trying to acquire this information in order to manipulate the SIS in different ways.

    I'll give an example using an embryonic game. I'll call it Duellists for now.
    In Duellists, characters are mighty, grudgebearing and quite sensitive champions prowling around taking offence at each other and vowing revenge. Revenge typically happens through a duel. Players get to develop strengths, weaknesses, a hamartia/fatal flaw, develop special move combos, henchmen, magic trinkets etc. They also develop routes of information gathering: snitches, library skills, court etiquette etc. These routes can provide info about the enemy, which has no direct mechanical advantage (e.g. +2 to initiative) except through the lens of the players imagination and connection to the SIS (he's a Moongatherer, so I arrange for the battle on a cloudy night to get +2 to initiative).

    This, I think, is an example of a game where information gathering comes front/centre, but it might be nice to introduce mechanics to limit/bottom out the amount that can be known. Maybe the game hums when there is a little unknown.
    Say your rival has rolled well enough to reveal your Strike/handspring/flame-on/immolate combo, and you really want that to be kept in the dark for the showdown - for tactical or theatric reasons.
    You could pay him off with bennies.
    Have allocated a punishment to that fact: 'ok, you can find this out, but I've tagged it with henchmen #2 and #3, so you may have to take a beating.
    The rules could have already specified that only 3 facts can be found out prior to a duel, and so no go.
    The system could be tweaked so realistically, players rarely get to this level of intimate knowledge about their rivals - and if this is an exception, then so be it.
    The rules could allow for signal degradation, so you go 'have it, but I'm jumbling the order of actions/introducing a false one' to make the information less reliable. This could be a literal degradation, like only letting them hear the information through a closed door, in a whisper, or on a crackly phone (this is edging into larp territory, perhaps, but it's still the communication of information)
    You could invoke a rule of dramatic delay, so the information is only relayed to the other player mid-duel ('is he invoking elementals? Hang on...maybe that's what Delilah meant by his hot body!')
  • edited March 2006
    (Crossposted, deleted.)
  • To play devil's advocate for a sec:

    Jonathan Walton wrote, "I too worry about the tendency to play roleplaying games in a video-game style, making sure to take every potentially useful item from a room, taking the time to check every corner of every location, talking to every NPC who may potentially be useful, all of which just aren't things that normal people or characters in books/movies/TV tend to do."

    Yeah, but it's something that real investigators do, especially if they're police detectives with a reasonable amount of backup from their department, or solo researchers (journalists, historians, anthrologists) with a reasonable amount of time. In the real world, "look at everything, talk to everybody" actually works a lot of the time, IF you're trained in the procedures to do it systematically, cull through all the crap data to find the good stuff, and pull patterns out of noise.

    Which doesn't matter if you're "simulating" TV and movies, but does matter if you're simulating real life. The tricks would be
    a) to simulate slow, boring activities in a non-boring way. ("Okay, your department's forensics lab is a +6? Roll 1d20. Okay, six weeks later, you find...")
    b) to simulate pressure to cut it short in a realistic way. ("Okay, you haven't talked to everybody who saw the shooting, but an attractive middle-class white girl has been kidnapped and the department's pulling everybody off this case except you and the kid there.")
  • This question does very much revolve around what kind of play you want to encourage, which Alex has just defined (the post starting with "I should specify a few things...."). It is not so much about forgoing information in order to foward a sense of narrative pacing as it is to cut out the bad and boring research bits in favor of the good and entertaining research bits.

    Alex, would it be accurate to rephrase the question, "How do you make research engaging, which includes stopping it when it's no longer engaging?"
  • Josh - that's exactly it.
  • Sydney, I think, has the right answer in a). Give over all of the boring information without playing through it.
  • But again, where
    a) research needn't literally mean library work but any process of accessing information for you as a player that you didn't have before, including fun stuff like shaking down informants.
    b) information really is information - not a +2 to your character's lore, but a new fact that has credibility in the SIS, including facts about other characters or even formalised other-player intentions.
  • Here's a slightly oddball suggestion, Alex. Put all of the facts that the players can get at on 3x5 cards. Lay them out, face-down, when GMing. When the players get that bit of information, hand it over. That way the players can see how much information is out there -- although it may just encourage them to get all of them before ever proceeding. Hm.

    See, I think you have some conflicting goals, here. Or actually, more likely not quite fully-realized goals. You simultaneously want (a) information to be useful and (b) revealing only some of the prepared information because (c) the information-gathering isn't engaging on the gut-narrative level. I think you need to get rid of one of these three -- either ditch useful prepared information (which you've said you don't want to do), make the full set of information explicit (as I suggested in the first paragraph here), or retool your info-gathering mechanics so that they are just as interesting as acting on that information (by, for instance, using a universal resolution system that applies to both research and combat).
  • I've mislead somewhere, as c) isn't what I'm after at all. I want information gathering to be extremely engaging on the gut level, even a primary part of what the game is about. I want to know if there are techniques out there/to be developed that can manage this so it doesn't have to dominate the game.

    Take the example I whipped up above, Duellists. It's basically a D&D type gamist game with lots of thought into character build and tactical fighty stuff. It would also have a component of searchy/findy/intimidatey stuff that should hopefully be awfully fun in its own right, and impacts upon the later fighty stuff. (This investigative component could use a similar resolution system, or a separate but equally fun one.) I'm curious to what kinds of tools players could have to limit, discourage or punish discovery of some secrets, because that player really wants to keep the secret, not because the act of discovery itself has become boring.

    I've kept GMs deliberately out of the example, as it brings connotation of force/railroading. But you could substitute GM for one of the roles in the example with no probs.

    To this end, I think your suggestion of cards makes a lot of sense. It should serve to make investigating more fun, as you know that there are facts out there, tantalising and face down in front of you. You could select cards you want to achieve (perhaps under headings, like suspects, victim's history, etc) and compete to get them.

    The reason I like this is that if there were limits on info - say, the GM doesn't want all aspects of the victim's history revealed until the denouement - this could be gamed into the system. For example, you can only unveil a maximum of 2 facts from each column. This would provide a fairly transparent system in which information enters the SIS in not wholly predictable ways but allows some constraint.

    I recognise that I've made the purpose of this thread a bit of a moving target. Sorry! I'm just trying to get my head around the way in which information is a special currency in games, and any ways to play with this in a functional manner.
  • If someone can be rewarded for an activity, they will do it, repeatedly, as long as they continue to be rewarded for it.

    If knowledge helps, people will get as much as possible.

  • I think it's lopsided to think of this only in terms of players wanting information and finding ways to get them out of the library. I GMed a lot of CoC and a lot of CoC-like games with "clue train" style adventures back in the day, and I often found the problem was that getting them all the reams of information I wanted them to have. With mystery-style games where a big portion of play is discovering some kind of secret backstory (how to defeat the Cthulhoid monster, yes, but also all that detailed pseudo-history of who summoned the monster in the first place and why its scary and all that) my problem was always finding ways to get information to players, not finding ways to choke them off.

  • Alex, you misread me. I'm not saying that you don't want the research to be engaging; I'm saying that you want it to be engaging and presently it's not (ie, you run out of fun). One 'fix' is to make the researching as engaging as the combat.
  • Maybe one way to handle it is to switch the mechanic around.

    "Here's this piece of information. Roll dice. Whoever wins gets to describe how the group finds it out."
  • edited March 2006

    Josh, I definitely want research as engaging as combat, and in fact in my examples and in my head I've been assuming that issue away, and looking at the next issue. This is as Ben succintly puts,
    If someone can be rewarded for an activity, they will do it, repeatedly, as long as they continue to be rewarded for it.
    - to the point where other rewarding components, such as mystery, tactical secret weapons etc, may suffer.

    So assuming for a given game
    a) research should be fun
    b) research is fun
    c) some mystery is also fun
    I want to explore some of the ways in which b and c can be reconciled. I'm getting lots of ideas from other people and it's making my brain whir and click, so I'm happy, but I wanted to be clear what I'm getting at.

    How to actually achieve b) is an interesting question in itself, and if you or anyone has more advice on this I'd be happy to hear it.

    Fred, that's cool. And another route is to compete for information, but only one player gets to access it. Which makes me think of something that is done all the time with information, selective distribution - where the GM gives one player a secret note ("you recognise the guy as a spy"). Has anyone seen this done more formally? As in:

    "Here are 4 vital clues about the corruption you are investigation. Each take one. Feel free to share...or not."

    There are obvious pitfalls however, as it may encourage players to turtle up and hoard information, or faction up into cliques. But this only hurts the game if it doesn't fit the game, right? I mean, Mafia and Werewolf are all about misinformation, cliquery and keeping your mouth shut at the right time. And a game of Duellists would also thrive on shaky alliances and bartering for crucial information.

  • Exactly right.

    The longest-running Amber game that I ran THRIVED on secret notes.

    Most of the DnD games I have run would have been ruined by them.
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