Thursday, August 25, 2016

Creating the Game

Continuing from the last post on problem-solving vs. decision-making, how do we move from the first to the second?  This requires a change in thinking.  We need to move away from scenarios that ask for an explanation towards those that ask for some form of accumulation.  There might be a final, game-winning requirement that serves as the goal of the game (or adventure), such as ultimately checkmating the king in chess; but until that happens, it matters how many squares we control and how many of the enemy's pieces we acquire.  The goal (achieving checkmate) is related but distinct from the strategy.

Let's consider RISK, since that's a game virtually of my readers will know.  The goal is to conquer the world; the strategy, however, is to consolidate ones' position in order to accumulate enough armies and production as to be unbeatable.  In games with more than two players, it is also to correspond with other participants in order to ensure trust and exploit opportunities, as three or more persons wait for a moment in the game when one of the players over-reaches their position or suffers heavy losses due to bad luck.  Although the goal is static, the strategy adjusts from turn to turn according to circumstances - and it is this change that makes the game interesting.

The take away is this: the goal is the least interesting part of the game.  To consider a role-playing example, the discovery that the water in the well has turned to blood is usually seen as the impetus for discovering why . . . but the why is static.  The more interesting "game" is the acquisition of water in a town where there is no well, the factionalism that results as different groups in the town fight to retain the water they possess against the frantically thirsty and the fierce looting that results as refugees from the town seek to leave and take as much as they can.  None of this 'adventuring' requires that any explanation for the blood is found - it is just interesting to be forced into a position where water is scarce among five or six thousand people, as if they had been magically teleported to a desert.

And because the answer to the problem of the blood in the well is academic, why not simply tell the players why?  The blood is discovered and instead of it being a mystery, all the townspeople know why: it is because of this horrible thing that will now descend upon the town, about which the players can be told in detail, compelling them to choose their actions according to their personal belief that they can plan for and withstand the coming event.

Let's try a different example, this time from film. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade deals with the problem of finding the Holy Grail, solving a series of mysteries that eventually leads the hero's party to the uncovering of the object, whereupon the film ends.  We can think of this as a thoroughly typical table-top adventure.  The McGuffin is learned about, searched for and eventually found, whereupon it is kept, given away or returned to its resting place, depending on the nature of the item (the order of what happens to all three items found in the Indiana Jones series, incidentally).

Suppose we start with the Holy Grail being found in the first five minutes of the film.  It is plainly, unequivocally possessed by the characters, who are not at home with the Grail on their kitchen table.  From this premise, we can assume two philosophies to which a filmmaker might turn in order to create the story:

  • One, the film can transform the Grail into a problem: a) the Grail can be lost, necessitating that the item must be recovered, as if it had never been in the player's possession; or b) the item can possess a series of severe, adverse effects, creating a reason why it must be destroyed/returned to its origin.
  • Two, the film can explore the ramifications of having eternal life and perfect health - how it might be shared, what influence it might have upon the possessor, what does it mean to live when so many others die, what social structures form as the protagonist moves from hospital to hospital, letting as many people as possible drink from the cup and so on.

Which film would we rather see?  Which provides the opportunity to explore decisions made by the characters?  Which has scope?  Which is much, much harder to write?

More to the point, which film proposes that the catalyst for events originates within the characters and which originates from outside the characters?  Which, to be blunt, is DM-oriented and which is Player-oriented?

If I am running a game and the players are solving a problem of my devising, this is a manner of forcing the game to be played on my turf.  I know the lay of the land, I know all the available options, I know every answer to what the players might try, I am running my game with narrowly confined perameters that makes the game easy to run.

If I am running a game where the players might do anything, anything at all, I'm in trouble.  I don't know what the players are going to do!  I don't know the ground, I don't know what the options might be, I am floundering for answers to what the players want to try.  I'm running my game in blue skies and when I look down, I see the ground rushing up at me in a most discouraging way.  Running a game this way is impossible.

Or so it is perceived.  I run my game this way - but to do it, I make considerable use of the players as resources as well as participants.  When I am stumped, I ask the players to make suggestions on how the choices might play out in a given situation.  I admit openly, "Wow, I don't know what effects that would cause - I'm thinking that while people might start coming from far and wide to drink of the cup, there would also be a segment of the population who would see this as a challenge to their authority.  Yes?"  Whereupon the party and I would talk, until I felt that we all had a clear idea of the probable results . . . and then I might ask the party for a few minutes or even more to think about what they've just set in motion.  The players that I have are invariably understanding; they trust me to come up with something that will change the situation and encourage further player strategies without shutting them down by making the situation into a problem.

I couldn't run this way without them, without their patience and without having the freedom to say, "Damn, I'm going to have to think about this.  Would the players prefer a side quest or could we end the session here for tonight?  Maybe this might be a good time for everyone to check out the local market or we could do an accounting session."  This latter is where the players and I deal with investments they've made, long-term plans, debating or discussing the rules, addressing small issues having to do with character details that may have been lost or forgotten and 101 other things that have been bothering the players but haven't been directly addressed because they're incidental and not pertinent to the immediate campaign.

These being the sort of things that arise when the players understand that what's going to happen in the far-flung future is up to them.

We can see why, then, that most DMs prefer the problem-solving framework and why they will argue vigorously that their players prefer it.  Part of that is the paradox of choice I talked about in the previous post - that saying to a party, "Do what you want," is like being told by our roommate to buy mustard and finding ourselves looking at 300 brands of indistinguishable yellow-paste.  Everyone has faced this and been forced to admit, "I didn't know which one you wanted, so I didn't buy any."

When a DM sees a party thus stymied, it is easy to presume that the party wants the problem-solving, railroading campaign.  I argue, however, that IF I take you to the supermarket and we talk about mustard for the length of a session, say five hours, allowing you to taste the brands as we discuss them, you'll feel quite capable of making a decision - and even say to your roommate, "I bought this one called 'Seed of the Gods.'  You must try it."

It isn't enough to throw the choice at the party.  The choice should then be discussed.  As a DM, here's what I can do.  If you want to go to sea, there are options to trade or explore, purchase a small ship and then upgrade it, fight off or deliberately pursue pirates, become a pirate yourself, help build up a port or establish a long-distance communication with a far colony, studying the party's faces for the option that seems to create interest.  If it is the last mentioned, I can name a bunch of distant places, the Sandwich or Spice Islands, Argentina, the shores of Hudson Bay or the slave coasts of Africa, to see what might arise interest, then describe how the party would be the sole lifeline between those places and the civilized world, the influence that would bring, the wealth, the fame and the knowledge that failure for them could mean the death of hundreds of people.  And if that isn't to their liking, I'll suggest something else, then something else again, giving a taste of each adventure, until the party feels confident to make a choice.

When players understand the choices they have, they want to make choices.  Players only prefer a lack of choice when the knowledge they need is distinctly lacking.

I hope this helps explain why decision-making is vastly more important in making the players immersed in the game than they can ever be with problem-solving.  When the game strategy is the player's decision, it is the player's consequence, the player's good fortune, the player's achievement. 

When the only strategy is answering the DM's question, solving the DM's problem, the player can have little to say afterwards except, "That was a very good question."

We can do better than that.


  1. Interesting. I need to think about this a bit more, but I think I can see why some of my previous campaigns, and campaigns run by friends, didn't last very long.

    I have a question for you in light of this. What place, if any, does problem solving have in the game? Or maybe that's not the question I should ask. It's pretty obvious that you leave it up to the players to do the problem/solution (the mathematical optimization of a response, the puzzle) then discuss with them the various options they have to turn that problem/solution into a decision.

    In light of that, is there any place, in your opinion, for the DM to introduce a new problem on the players once they've made a decision? Or should all the problems/solutions be devised by the players?

  2. Oh, of course I have problems that turn up in games. Problems of how much can be loaded on a wagon, problems that do surround the well water turning to blood, problems that fall under the heading of how do we kill the big horrible bad threatening the party.

    It's not that I don't employ problems, it is that I don't make the problem the adventure. The problem occurs in association with the players' motivations, so that while they are finding some new way to carry forward their agenda there's something that happens that invokes their curiosity - or it doesn't, totally up to them.

    Think of the problem as a side quest; not the adventure itself, but an influence on what is going on.

    I used to try to run problems in games, but they always ended in so much overthinking that I steadily moved away from depending on curiosity to motivate the players.

  3. Wow, this is another one of those gold posts. You've so deftly put to words how to make open-ended games work. I used to deal all the time with situations where I asked the players "What do you want to do?" in a complete and total void, and your mustard analogy just perfectly summed up their perspective for me.

    There's a very strong urge among DMs to simplify and organize everything so that the choices are easy to remember and relatively free of research, where the DM consults a table of random plot hooks and then crams them all in front of the players, each one more obviously cribbed than the last (since the DM decides to write down 100 adventure hooks in one sitting, so of course they lose all semblance of creativity).

    It seems to me in light of this post that the reality is you can't replace engaging the players in the story with tables or secret die rolls. The players as resources is so significant in D&D, moreso than any board game I've played or performance I've witnessed. Leveraging the group's emotions, questions and ideas provides that crucial storytelling bridge between DMs and players, where players feel consulted and understand the logic of the world, and the DM can tug the players' emotions and build meaningful decisions thanks to player investment.

  4. Fantastic post. I've been trying to follow your philosophy of an open-ended, player-driven world for the last two years, but something that I either missed before, or that was just really well said in this post, is, "It isn't enough to throw the choice at the party." I've always had open discussions with my players and used their ideas to bolster and improve the campaign when I get stuck or when I see they are interested in contributing in one area or another, but the idea that this discussion and teamwork is critical to the entire endeavour of leaving everything open-ended... I hadn't thought of it like that before.


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