Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The IMech Problem

Carl, who has no profile, added a well-argued dilemma related to my position in the previous post.  I include part of it here for convenience (the complete would be comment #20 here):

... we still have no mechanic for charisma/intelligence/wisdom in the DMG.  I fully-support slow-witted players running super-genius mages. This is a fantasy game afterall, and every player should be allowed to indulge their fantasty [sic]. But how do we handle the problem-solving situation that's bound to arise? Do I as the DM decide that the character is smart enough to see the solution to the puzzle, even if the player cannot, and then essentially take control of their character for a moment along the lines of, "Wiznor glances at the pieces on the chessboard for only a moment before moving a single pawn and declaring, 'Checkmate. Now, tell me where the princess is being held.'

Poignant, since I was about to sit down and discuss my thoughts about influencing NPC's since writing this post.

But first, Carl, let me discuss your point.
Without any doubt, the lack of Interaction/Intelligence Mechanic (I'll call it IMech) was a drastic oversight, or at the very least showed a supreme a lack of foresight.  It is handled pathetically in the DMG (reaction/loyalty) as a very obvious afterthought that, I doubt, received any serious play-testing.  The failure to recognize that IMech needs to be as complex as combat resolution has been consistently ignored by every edition that has come out since ... arguably as fan-service to those thousands in the roleplaying camp who would see it as blasphemy should any serious effort be put towards limiting the 'essentials' of play such as puzzle solving, taunting opponents, haggling and self-panegyrics, with the associated aspects of coersion and deception.  Beyond Carl's point of puzzle-solving, there is an equal resistance against rolls that would allow players to say, "I attempt to bribe the guard - am I allowed through?"; or "I lie to the bartender - does he give me a free drink?"; and finally, "I enter the king's castle as a spy - where are the jewels kept?"
Once you have given some aspect of control over to IMech dice rolls, you can be certain that players will set about abusing it at once, pushing the envelope to make their lives easier.  Peripheral knowledge is useless in getting their characters past this crisis ... just show the way out and tell them how many monsters they have to fight.  IMech problems slow a game down, they often devolve into bookkeeping (this guy's name, his position, the location of the contact, which door to knock on, where to find him again, this password, that phrase I have to repeat exactly when we come to the gate), puzzles prove all too often too difficult to solve, or ultimately only lead to new problems (what, this is Final Fantasy?) ... geez, if I can handle all this crap I don't care about - but the DM does - with a few die rolls, please tell me what to throw.
It isn't that throwing dice is more interesting.  But it takes much, much less time.  For exactly the same result.  You have to have a particular sort of character to enjoy going around and around with a fictional being voiced by the DM, with a particular view of looking at things.  I confess I love writing dialogue - the books I write are full of it - but most people I've played with either didn't pick up on subtleties, or don't give a rat's ass. 
Suppose, for instance, I have the NPC only say, "Yep, used to go up there.  Been six years now.  Want some tea?"
If I'm lucky, a player will ask "Why?"  More often, they'll ask something completely immaterial, such as, "So what do you do now?"; or "What kind of tea is it?"; or "How far is it to the next town?"
At which point I'll answer, they'll wave goodbye and continue their way along the road and wonder just why in the fuck was I wasting their time with that guy and his stupid campfire.  They never learn about the crack in the mountain behind them, or Attila's Bridle or anything else I may have planned for a four-session romp through that dungeon.
Which puts me in the situation of either A) hitting them in the face with it by having the guy say, "Yeah, you know there's a crack that leads into the mountain up there, probably good for treasure, just telling everyone that passes today"; or B) throwing meaningless encounter after meaningless encounter until someone bites.
If you're the sort of DM that designs everything ahead of time, you have to pick option A.  You have to give the player's information they never asked for, like, "He seems to be hiding something"; or "He keeps staring up at the mountain, oh, loooook at him really stare hard"; or "He needs help to get something up the mountain and he asks you to come along."
And don't tell me the gentle reader doesn't do it.  Death Frost Doom was full of that shit, as has every other module I've ever seen.  This kind of writing drifts into fantasy fiction and wow, does it ever look like dingo's feces on the page.  You have to paint signs all over the damn place that might as well read, "THIS WAY TO MONSTER" and "TOUCH HERE TO RECEIVE EFFECT."
The question arises that, if you have to distribute the information bluntly to the players in order for them to correctly follow the clues, what difference does it make if the clues are solved by dice?
Look at the Carl's Puzzle above.  What is the purpose of the puzzle?  To get information.  Why do we want to get information?  To get to the actual rescuing.  Puzzle solving is really nothing more than research, and the process of research is, for most people, deathly dull.  Speaking for myself, I do the research to write the book, or the article, or the post, but its the actual writing that I actually like.  The research is a means to an end.
Why not simply hand a book to the players, tell them that there's something relevant in chapter five that pertains to the situation they're in, and wait for them to find it?  Here's what I'm getting at: for many players, it would be no less boring, no less interesting, no less time consuming than having to solve any other puzzle.  To speak on their behalf, they would clap their hands with joy if they could roll a die and have the damn thing out of their way.
Those in the roleplaying camp would argue that the chatter is really exciting and interesting, that's it's fun to challenge wits with the DM, and succeed in convincing the DM to give them what they want, because it's really satisfying to succeed at a battle where I prove I'm smarter than ...
Well, that only brings me back to the last post.  Really, whatever.  I feel I must point out that for all the many people in the world who love to do a particular kind of puzzle, there are many, many more who don't.  And if puzzle solving is your thing, and you're not getting it from D&D, there are plenty of other sources.
Quite a digression, but I'm in no hurry.  The whole matter with IMech is that along with being heartily discouraged by much of the gaming community, it is immensely difficult to invent.  Most inventors who have tried to sell their ideas to the gaming public have been kicked into the gutter for even the attempt.  If I want to write a post that gets little or no response, I'll advance ideas about how to do it (the post I was originally going to write today).
However, it is deeply needed; if only to give the game a new vista in which to expand.  The roleplayers have to be told to sit down and shut up for awhile, that fixing the IMech problem is the puzzle we're trying to solve that doesn't involve besting someone who knows the answer.  No one knows the answer.  That's what makes it a much more interesting puzzle.  I happen to think that it is worthwhile ... if for no other reason than that an interplay of arguments supported by dice in a sort of combat framework might support investigations into strategies and gaming concepts previously unconsidered.
I will pick up the subject of my intended charisma post in a day or two, but for now let me offer the sort of thinking process that I think we need to start with.  Rather than simplifying Carl's chessboard down to where a single pawn needs to be moved, perhaps the comparable intelligence of the players indicates how many random moves the dumber player must make before being able to actually play.  Perhaps additional experience with the game (measured by regular play) can decrease the likelihood of one's own random moves and increase the likelihood of the opponent.  Obviously, in any case, the player would need some fundamental knowledge of the game, or else all the random moves in the world wouldn't help.  But I can see how incremental changes in the mechanical aspects of the game could be influence by IMech considerations.


James C. said...

This reminds me of a certain exchange during the Bavarian campaign that I often reflect upon when designing my own challenges or puzzles..

We were well into it before we realized it was even a riddle. It turned out to be such a simple thing, too. We tried role-playing our way out of it several times even after being told we couldn't do so. In the end, with some nudging, the puzzle was solved. I'd hate to trade the sense of relief and accomplishment for a die roll... but perhaps a die rolling mechanic could be devised to to the nudging along?

Zak S said...

Caveat before I start:

A possibility here is we're just thinking of different "puzzles". To my mind, the best ones are difficult situations that DO have solutions the DM hasn't thought of and the PCs often manage to think of them. The situations you're describing in the post (I think) appear to be ones where the only answer is to discover some seeded information that the DM has hidden in some specific place.

What I was gonna say:
Personally, the idea of iMech gets into an area of not-the-game-I-wanna-play really fast for me:

As a DM, it is fun (enjoyable, interesting, whatever) to construct your world. That's why it's not only pretending-to-be-that-which-you-are-not it's also a brain exercise. It's creative. And, if I read your own statements on the subject right, it's an artform.

I feel like playing can be the same thing. While I DO see your theoretical point that an iMech might prove to be a forum for the play of strategy and tactics on the same level that it is with combat, simply putting (open-ended) problem-solving into the game as something the player (not the PC) has to figure out seems like a fine way to give the player some of that genuine forum for creativity.

Some players hate puzzles. Fine. Some adventures don't have them. My guess (and yeah, it's only a guess) is that the players who hate puzzles are largely going to be the same ones who hate having to be strategic or tactical about the choices they make to get their PC to solve the puzzles for them.

Alexis said...

Fair enough, Zak, and where I have issue with the comment would be predictable.

The bigger question begins with the phrase, "...some of that genuine forum for creativity." I don't deny that D&D can provide this; certainly for the DM if not the players. My world provides this creativity you speak of by being a sandbox campaign lacking in railroad tracks. People can be as creative as they like.

But by insisting that the game process be dependent upon the players having to be creative, because there is no other alternative to solving the problem other than being creative, your position becomes inflexible. Moreover - and I don't think for a moment that you intend this, despite your insufferable use of the word 'fine' in this context - that position encourages a snobbish attitude towards those who don't want to be creative.

That is to say, "WE are the roleplayers, WE are creative, YOU are not, therefore YOU don't play the game the way we think it should be played ..."

This is where I begin to worry. Your comment seems to suggest that while we could come up with a IMech, we really shouldn't bother since that problem has been solved already.

You're wrong about that. I'd like to you see that. I don't think roleplaying solves it, many others don't think roleplaying solves it ... and I don't think there's anything lost in the game by providing an alternative.

Artforms often thrive inside of highly regimented systems. Grammer, for instance. Why would the imposition of such a system in any way stifle creativity?

Zak S said...


Yeah, I don't mean a divide between the people-who-should-be-playing and those who shouldn't.

I mean more "adventures written for person/group A" vs "adventures written for person/group B".

Person A is put in situations where they have to solve puzzles 'cause they like that, person B isn't because they don't (or is only put in those situations when someone else is around).

Now, in your specific case, maybe this won't work--maybe the demands of verisimilitude behind the screen demand a general rule (or option) you can always apply to any PC you might have entering any adventure extrapolatable from what you have on the map. Ok.

My next question is: do we know for sure that the I-would-not-like-to-have-to-solve-puzzles-"manually" player derives any fun from watching their PC do it, either? And if not, why not just leave that bit out for this person?

In my experience they do derive satisfaction from watching some other player at the table solve the puzzle, (assuming they like each other in real life). The nonsolver goes "Ah, you're the brain, I'm the brawn, we are a team, this is good".


possibly relevant here, maybe not, but interesting anyway:

Oddbit said...

My first impulse when seeing this problem is to start working out a solution. However, if this came up in-game and I had to rule a system I think I have something.

You can roll your statistic for the 'puzzle' to attempt to discern the solution. This could be to find the winning move, discern the desire of a distraught woman or even perhaps identify whether or not your party has or will violate some unspoken moral rule in a region. However, after you roll you have established exactly what your character's knowledge is on the matter and can no longer contribute. Before this, a 'low' stat, probably determined by whether or not it is under average for a roll with modifiers, would have to roll to contribute if they can succeed, and above average and those exactly average can contribute at will.

Of coarse, this does indeed need an established rule set, likely to expand as complicated as combat with modifiers and context and possibly even various moves or approaches, but that would by my immediate call.

Alexis said...

Thank you for the link, Zak. It goes down towards those same people who tell me that I'm going down the wrong path making my world too complicated. I have to shake my head at people who make the point, effectively, "I wish that things that were really rewarding didn't have to be so hard."

Your question, Zak, " we know for sure..." is taken very seriously by me. I am completely onside. That's why I am not looking for just any system, but one which WILL be enjoyable for the players. Preferably for as many players as possible.

I'm sure we could come up with a system that solved the problem in fairly short order, but most likely that system would SUCK. All of those that I have seen did. All of those that I have had described to me sounded like they probably will. I certainly don't have the answer myself ... that's why, instead of presenting a group of tables as I usually do, saying "Here, this will work, trust me," I'm writing posts asking for modifiers and to say, I was thinking about trying this - what about that?

To which I usually get wholly unsatisfactory responses. Hey, that's the process.

You know, there are a lot of mindbogglingly popular things out there that people said, "that's too clever for most people."

Alexis said...

Sorry Oddbit, your proposal may not suck. We wrote our comments at the same time, and I hadn't read your proposal when I said most of what I heard would probably ... well, you get the idea.

Zak S said...

I am looking at this from another direction:

I'll assume design an iMech is desirable and then ask how you'd do it...

I feel as though it's fair to say the trick in designing the iMech would be to appeal to design a problem-solving mechanic that appeals to the psychology of a player who doesn't enjoy solving problems.

What about a "sub-rosa" system where the actual rolling is done secretly by the GM and the necessary information is fed to the player at a different speed depending on how well the rolls go?

That is: all the necessary clues (and eventually the info itself) will eventually get fed to the PC no matter what, but the roll determines whether it's slow or fast.

And if the player solves the problem after only a few clues, then great.

Only problem is, the chain of clues has to be as detailed as any monster encounter.

(I'm also thinking, other than the secrecy, this sounds remarkably similar to the Gumshoe System and 4e Skill Challenges.)

Oddbit said...

One of the biggest problems that requires a stat roll is a game stopping puzzle.

Therefore, don't make any puzzle they can't continue without solving in the first place. That or if you absolutely have to, stash a solution somewhere else. Guards might have a note somewhere or whatever.

You wouldn't put a monster along the critical path of the players that is immune to non-magical weapons and abilities without serious thought as to whether the players have a solution (I hope.) These considerations are important for puzzles too.

Zak S said...


Yeah, I'd just note here that when I say "slow" or "fast" I'm assuming the PCs have something else to do in the meantime (even if it is just endure rolls on the random encounter table for that hex).

Anthony said...

I hate to just drop a link in here and run, but I think this series of posts over at the Alexandrian is extremely awesome. It doesn't propose a concrete mechanic, but I think it is useful in framing this issue from a different angle:

To sum up the above link in the shortest and worst possible way, the author presents a "nodal" design for problem solving.

He has some more great links to more issues regarding problem/crime solving here:

And you can pretty much follow any link in these pages to find something germane.

Adam Thornton said...

There is a concrete mechanic for exactly this.

It's the core of Trail of Cthulhu, a very interesting Ken Hite design, that attempts to solve precisely the puzzle that:

1) Call of Cthulhu is an investigative game
2) if the investigators fail to find the clues, there is no game to be had

I haven't played it, but it seemed interesting on the page.

Carl said...

AD&D has well-defined mechanics for combat resolution. The game does this well, and in my opinion because it does this well, it is the primary focus of most D&D games, and has recieved the most attention in the systems that came after it. It is the reason most D&D games I've played in or ran are Hack-and-Slash games. Combat is clearly understood by everyone who's played the game more than a couple of times.

Unfortunately, everything else is this nebulous you-could-do-this-or-you-could-do-that kind of thing. My players hate that. Nearly every player I've had hates that. They feel like it allows me to be petty, which it does and thereby makes the resolution of any given non-combat situation subjective.

Like the Chicago Wizard, I use the ascending d6s for these kinds of things, but I would like something with the same level of detail and playability as combat. I want something that my players percieve as fair, and reflective of the abilities their character has, rather than their own.

Wickedmurph said...

I wasn't totally unhappy with the Vampire 2e version of the IMech rules. Combining primary stats with a variety of secondary stats gave me a ton of flexibility as a GM and Player. There were certainly drawbacks to it, notably that it didn't translate into a combat system terribly well, but it provided almost limitless ability to identify a task and assign difficulty.

Wickedmurph said...

Also, Alexis - did you seriously misspell grammar? I'm just being a dick here, but the irony is literally burning my insides.

Alexis said...

Done intentionally. Low, smug humour. Nice to know people actually read every word. And please note, when one of those intrinsic details behind creativity is incorrect, how much damage it causes.

An underhanded way of making my point, but details matter.

steelcaress said...

I've got erstwhile solutions to the problems you pose. While not ideal, they may spark some discussion or serve as the springboard for better ideas.

Interaction mechanics can be as simple as combat. Decide on a target number to "hit," whether it be WIS, or CHA, or something else entirely. Decide as what could be used as "hit points," such as WIS, CHA or what have you. And then figure out damage (what gets worn down and how fast). This could easily simulate everything from a debate (where one person makes a statement and the opponent does the same) to a seduction (where she pushes enough of the right buttons to get you in bed -- or to do something for her).

And for those players who like puzzles and interaction and those who do not, simply adjust the play style dynamically. For those that want to roleplay through it, give 'em the face time. Let them. Those who want the complex mechanic, give 'em that. Those who want the simple skill roll to get it out of their way, give 'em that.

The great thing about RPGs is that they're not computer games. Their systems are not set in stone (despite Gygax's comments in the early days to the contrary). Obviously, YMMV, but this is how I would handle it if my group was so wonderfully diverse.

Blaine said...

A very informative piece here and honestly, it brings up a reoccurring problem with my own long running game. It is the fact that the players don't ask the right questions or when put into a tight situation or a major debate, they fumble it badly when on the spot.

It is something I have been wrestling with myself due to running D&D for a long time and seeing the following problem arise.

The 'Good' Players... they masterfully dance through all my politics and intrigue... infact, they thrive on it and have made my game into one where it is lucky if there is a single fight in an 8 hour session. This small cadre of 2 or 3, depending on the time of year, are expert at investigating all the angles... and... sadly.. making the other 5 players fall asleep or worse, do something else till the 'RP' corps is finished working to allow them to go fight.

The rest... well... like in the post... are there for the high adventure. They want the swashbuckling and tactical side of things. They want the pretty treasures and give less than two cents about the baroness who might be behind the civil war that is brewing.

Partially, this is my problem. I'll admit that. I am a story teller and puzzle maker and even the tactical players are there for the story... they just have all admitted to me that they are just bad at the investigative and diplomatic portions of my game.

Now, if there was a mechanic that could make these research and investigations go smoother, the act of debating a rogue noble before his peers... to recreate the verbal jousting that occurs in the centers of power that drawing sword and stabbing someone just doesn't fly... it would be very much appreciated.

Perhaps I have been a bit too long winded in this response of support but I feel that it would be appreciated... even if it is a bit rambling.

I know it might be a bit of work, I know I have been trying to hammer out something similar... but perhaps making the system more akin to combat... so that there are defenses and tricks to make it interesting but still solvable with a dice roll... perhaps a few modifiers for RPing... but still allowing for the Holmes style eureka moment.

Thank you though for putting up with my long rambling.

Alexis said...

As long as the 'rambling' is on topic, Blaine ... if you can put up with mine, I can put up with yours.