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What sells you on a game?

fheredin

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In principle solving a mystery too early is solving it before it ever felt like a challenge. It's a bit like a board game ending on turn one.
It's bad if you planned a mystery to fill a 4 hour session and 10 minutes in: "The butler did it. I think we're done here. Who wants to order pizza?"

I mean any GM in any system understands that these things happen, and can adjust, but that doesn't mean the "mystery" wasn't a bit of a failure. I consider it a failure when you plan for something and miss it by orders of magnitude.

Gumshoe has become something of the go to system to use as a base for investigation subsystems in other games these days.

It addresses most of the issues here by framing investigations not as matter of if you find the clues to solve the case, but what do you do with the clues you find (and depending on the variation the quality of each clue).

The explicit design goals are to avoid ever stalling investigation scenarios by having scenes that don't generate clues (since an investigation scene always generates at least one clue), make sure clues are meta-things that the players actually have so there's no question about what's a clue and what isn't, and putting more agency on the players to pick what the next scene will be based on how they're currently interpreting the clues rather than following a GM script.
So I want to touch on these because I'm working on a game with heavy fair play detective fiction elements--the decentralized worldbuilding and narrative elements mean that if it isn't fair play, it won't work at all. So I've thought about this a bit...and determined that Gumshoe's approach is in fact limited.

The best way to do detective fiction is to combine multiple mysteries with clue bombardment.

This means that the players are receiving so many clues they will almost certainly put a few of them together to produce an interesting narrative. But it also means that even if the player is the Second Coming of Sherlock Holmes and figures every single clue out as they receive it--which is unlikely; clues from one mystery are red herrings for another--that they will wind up in an opportunity cost situation. There are multiple mysteries going on and the party can only react to so many of them.

Me, personally? I don't even think to ask for checks on clues. I let the GM give the antagonist progress points for sneaking a clue into the narrative and a general guideline that there should always be between 2 and 5 unrelated mysteries running at any given time.

The icing on the cake is how this plays out from the GM's point of view. Even if you badly screw up the clues on one of the mysteries and it turns out to be way too easy or way too difficult, you still have the others to rely on. It's only getting the average difficulty of the mysteries right that matters.
 

Heavy Arms

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So I've thought about this a bit...and determined that Gumshoe's approach is in fact limited.
I'd definitely agree that base Gumshoe's implementation is limited; but that's largely by design. People that have played around with derivations of it freed it up a bit by not following the same assumptions about the narrow focus Gumshoe defaults to.

The best way to do detective fiction is to combine multiple mysteries with clue bombardment.


I would strongly disagree with this.

It's certainly an approach that can work, but it seems to cause more problems than it solves to call it the "best" way to approach detective fiction.

Detective fiction is usually either serial/procedural mysteries rather than multiple simultaneous, and even ones that take the approach of seeming to be a lot of mysteries usually intertwine them into one bigger mystery to solve.

You can certainly avoid players figuring everything out by mixing multiple mysteries with lots of clues without making it clear which is which, but that doesn't inherently create a positive play experience cycle.

This approach seems like it's really likely to leave players too confused to create a play-loop, and too likely to fail vial obstacle overload and feel disempowered by it.
 

fheredin

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Detective fiction is usually either serial/procedural mysteries rather than multiple simultaneous, and even ones that take the approach of seeming to be a lot of mysteries usually intertwine them into one bigger mystery to solve.

You can certainly avoid players figuring everything out by mixing multiple mysteries with lots of clues without making it clear which is which, but that doesn't inherently create a positive play experience cycle.

This approach seems like it's really likely to leave players too confused to create a play-loop, and too likely to fail vial obstacle overload and feel disempowered by it.
That's actually the reverse of the case. The problem isn't that it's likely to fail--it's actually an absurdly stable way to run an adventure--but the same thing that makes it stable also makes it counterintuitive for the GM. It's not a sandbox or a linear pathway, but an active plot portfolio. A mystery isn't something you "run" but an asset you are putting into play and expend to have an affect on the players. All possible outcomes serve the campaign one way or another. A plot that's solved gives the players a sense of accomplishment, one which goes unsolved adds atmosphere and dread, and one which was solved, but they didn't succeed, anyway creates frustration. If you do not have multiple mysteries, then failure or failing to succeed after solving can result in campaign crashes. The only possible crash is overbalancing too far in one of these three directions.

Overbalancing is also an easy problem to solve when you have tools to sacrifice your plot threads.

As to obstacle overload...yes, that is entirely possible. When I finally write this up I will have to include an extensive section on player psychology.
 
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Heavy Arms

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I think you're missing my point a bit.

Creating an extremely "stable" way to run adventures is easy; it just tends to result in railroading. There's nothing more stable than not letting the players do anything but select from a set of predetermined paths to a preset outcome. The issue is that this isn't fun for a RPG.

You're focusing everything on the GM side of the equation, to what appears to be the detriment of the player experience. How are players supposed to have fun with this setup just because it's stable? What enables player agency in all this? Why should the players feel accomplished if a plot is solved if mysteries are just the GM expending GM metacurrency to impact the state of the game? Why would they feel increase atmosphere or dread instead of just disengaging from the plots?

As I understand it, it all feels far too arbitrary in the name of making things easier on the GM, so the players have no real investment in what happens.
 

fheredin

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Creating an extremely "stable" way to run adventures is easy; it just tends to result in railroading. There's nothing more stable than not letting the players do anything but select from a set of predetermined paths to a preset outcome. The issue is that this isn't fun for a RPG.

You're focusing everything on the GM side of the equation, to what appears to be the detriment of the player experience. How are players supposed to have fun with this setup just because it's stable? What enables player agency in all this? Why should the players feel accomplished if a plot is solved if mysteries are just the GM expending GM metacurrency to impact the state of the game? Why would they feel increase atmosphere or dread instead of just disengaging from the plots?
From the player point of view, they're in a classic GM vs Party battle of wits. It's not literally true--they're still trying to work together to make a good story--but the GM is trying to sneak clues past the party to fill up the antagonist's progress, while the players are trying to catch onto those clues and form a plan of action in response. Put another way, the GM will try to structure events to go a certain way, but the players will oppose that and try to impose their own order. Normally, succeeding in doing that would break the plot, but because this now has multiple plots going on the GM now has better tools to react.

There is a fair chance that Magician's Choice will go on, where the players think they're implementing their own order when in fact they're following the GM's plan. While normally I don't like Magician's Choice as a design trope, this may qualify as an exception. It's a GM tool in metagame, but it's also the way the in-universe antagonist would think, so this is could be the GM roleplaying the antagonist. Regardless, for this to work, players would be automatically ignorant of the GM's plan and therefore unaffected by it.

As to railroading. Railroading is simple and relatively straightforward to fix via GM fiat. This is not necessarily the same as stable, although the two are related. The failure conditions--failing to get important plot information or failing to respond correctly--can still break the game. It's just easy to fix. The multithreaded approach's advantage is that it can productively use failure conditions, although this is not purely unique to it.
 

Heavy Arms

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From the player point of view, they're in a classic GM vs Party battle of wits.
So, the player perspective is already one most players don't want to be in? RPGs have trended away from this very quickly in their history because the GM has too much power for this to really be fun "in the wild." It works great when your the game designer running things for your friends, and you know what you want the game to do, but released to the general audience it generally brings up lots of bad GM experiences for people.

It's not literally true...
So... you want players to invest in a game that's literally manipulating them instead of trying to honestly involve them in the process of the game?

Again, how are players supposed to feel accomplished for their successes in the game in these conditions?

...but the GM is trying to sneak clues past the party to fill up the antagonist's progress, while the players are trying to catch onto those clues and form a plan of action in response. Put another way, the GM will try to structure events to go a certain way, but the players will oppose that and try to impose their own order.
So the players can never win unless the GM lets them.

The GM decides how many clues there are (and are being encouraged to throw in a ton of them), and how hard they are to find, so the players get a hit of success as they uncover the simple clues, but then a bunch of really sneaky clues go right by them and the antagonists win by getting enough progress.

The only way presented for the players to do anything of significance is on the GM's say so.

Normally, succeeding in doing that would break the plot, but because this now has multiple plots going on the GM now has better tools to react.
Seems easier to look at all of the game design stuff out there built around not pinning yourself down to a single predefined plot so strongly that it lacks the elasticity to handle players not following the GM's plans.

Multiple plot aren't really fixing the problem as much as covering it up. Instead of actually encouraging the players and GM to collaboratively work towards a fun experience, all of this still seems like it's asking the players to sit back and let the GM have all the fun.

There is a fair chance that Magician's Choice will go on, where the players think they're implementing their own order when in fact they're following the GM's plan.
I'm at a loss for how there's a chance for anything else besides the players simply not playing.

Regardless, for this to work, players would be automatically ignorant of the GM's plan and therefore unaffected by it.
How do you get the players to the table for a game that requires this? Players do read the books too.

As to railroading. Railroading is simple and relatively straightforward to fix via GM fiat.
You don't fix railroading by giving the GM more power over the story.
 

fheredin

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I'll probably spin this off into another thread soon. You raise a lot of important questions I want to answer, but it's also tangential to this thread.

So, the player perspective is already one most players don't want to be in? RPGs have trended away from this very quickly in their history because the GM has too much power for this to really be fun "in the wild." It works great when your the game designer running things for your friends, and you know what you want the game to do, but released to the general audience it generally brings up lots of bad GM experiences for people.
There's a reason that GM vs PC gameplay tends to fail, and that's the GM is poorly bound by rules while the players are tightly bound. If the interactions on both sides follow relatively tight rules, it just becomes asymmetric play. But more to the point, anyone with responsibilities maintaining the campaign can't think of their only goal as "winning." You have a responsibility to the experiences the other players are getting which is more important than that, so it's perfectly fair for players to think of their goal as beating the GM, but the GM's goal is to create an experience for the players. And in essentially every campaign, that involves roleplaying the antagonists, so there's always an element of GM vs PC gameplay in most campaigns.

The GM decides how many clues there are (and are being encouraged to throw in a ton of them), and how hard they are to find, so the players get a hit of success as they uncover the simple clues, but then a bunch of really sneaky clues go right by them and the antagonists win by getting enough progress.

The only way presented for the players to do anything of significance is on the GM's say so.
I probably poorly explained this. The entire point of giving the antagonists plot progress is a deliberate reversal of the GM and PC position. It actually makes it much harder for the GM. The GM knows what the plots are, but has no clue where the players will be and what NPC they'll talk to. Giving a clue in this context requires improvising, and is actually relatively difficult. Meanwhile, the players know in metagame that the GM will hand them clues embedded in the narration.

Take this example. The antagonist has monsters staging in the storm drain for an attack and a weapons dealer who will unwittingly peddle gunpowder cut with charcoal to gun shops so ammunition will get much less powerful and have a chance of giving the GM weapon malfunctions to spend during combat. Now the party goes about their business. If you focus on developing only one plot, the other one won't develop, so even if the players want to focus on one, you'll want to keep dropping clues for the other. How do you trickle a clue into conversation for one of these without being too obvious, especially when you know players are looking? What they don't tell you about detective fiction is that writing a good clue is actually quite difficult. It's harder to write a subtle clue than an obvious one. Usually a lot harder.

You don't fix railroading by giving the GM more power over the story.
Sorry. Bad phrasing. I meant Railroading can fail catastrophically when you hit failure conditions, but it is easy to fix with GM fiat when it does.
 

Heavy Arms

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But more to the point, anyone with responsibilities maintaining the campaign can't think of their only goal as "winning."
You're back to talking about potential GMs, not selling the concepts to potential players.

Assuming an ideal GM, how does the GM sell this game to their players? What's fun in it for them? How does this hypothetical GM get around the game concepts revolving around misdirecting the players?

The GM knows what the plots are, but has no clue where the players will be and what NPC they'll talk to. Giving a clue in this context requires improvising, and is actually relatively difficult. Meanwhile, the players know in metagame that the GM will hand them clues embedded in the narration.
I don't think you can really take it for granted that this is at all the case.

The problem goes back to "clue bombardment." I could slip a few dozen clues just describing the state of the room an NPC is in, and the NPC's general demeanor and presentation, before the PCs even talk to the NPC; esp. since I'd know how the NPC fits into everything ahead of time anyway. The players might know to be on the hunt for clues, but they have no inherent way to know what's a real clue, what's a red herring, and what's just set dressing.

So the players either have to assume everything is a clue, and then are going to get overwhelmed by the information and trying to sort it all out, or they're going to do their best to focus on what they think are the real clues, leaving me as the GM a massive hole to sneak lots of clues past them.

I think something every GM running a traditional game and trying to do a mystery scenario has dealt with at some point, is feeling like you're feeding the clues to the players on a silver platter, and watching them act like their characters are stuck in a locked dark room. The number of times players have missed clues that GMs felt were blindly obvious clues, doesn't really jive with the idea that trying to sneak clues past players is going to be hard to pull off.

And, again, to hammer this focus home:

How is this a selling point to the players? Why do players want to play a game of "spot the clues" as the GM tries to sneak them past? Just knowing that's the game isn't enough of a reason.

How do you trickle a clue into conversation for one of these without being too obvious, especially when you know players are looking?
I'm only forced to in your setup because it demands multi-threading, and non-sandbox style scenarios where an ignored plot will just sit there unchanging if the PCs don't interact with it. If the only way to drop clues is in a different mystery's scenes, then it's harder, sure, but it depends which mystery.

If the players are focused on the sewers, dropping hints about the gunpowder is a lot easier, because of the nature of the setup. They can find a witness that was killed by the monsters because of a jammed weapon - since that's something that happens without any mystery around such things - and make it more subtle/misleading by having the witness's gun by poorly taken care of despite seeming out of character for that individual. An situation of looming violence gives you lots of ways to sneak in hints about something affecting the weapons in the area.

Going in the other direction is harder simply because it's hard to subtly connect investigating bad gunpowder with an imminent violent attack.

What they don't tell you about detective fiction is that writing a good clue is actually quite difficult. It's harder to write a subtle clue than an obvious one. Usually a lot harder.
But in detective fiction the difficulty of writing subtle clues is that the genre doesn't generally do multi-threaded mysteries with clue bombardment. When there's one mystery to solve, and a very small number of clues, writing subtle clue is harder because there's more narrative spotlight on any clue. Generally the genre pays more attention to writing good ambiguous clues to setup twists over subtle clues. To go to a classic, the Murder on the Orient Express works so well because until you figure out the ending, all the clues feel like they don't ever fit right, since they always seem to be proving a theory you thought was out, and disproving one you thought was good. You don't need to sneak clues past the audience when the full context of the clues isn't evident until the end.

I meant Railroading can fail catastrophically when you hit failure conditions, but it is easy to fix with GM fiat when it does.
To a lot of us, railroading is already a failure condition.
 

fheredin

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How is this a selling point to the players? Why do players want to play a game of "spot the clues" as the GM tries to sneak them past? Just knowing that's the game isn't enough of a reason.
The short answer is that it isn't. Back end quest design is a very poor selling point, as even GMs who understand what you're going for will likely default back to old habits. This is about like trying to sell cheddar cheese to someone who's never tasted it. "Why would I eat that? It smells exactly like dirty socks."

It's not going to work well.

The specific game I have in mind to include this in has features like a LIFO stack initiative system, a heavy emphasis on strategic and tactical thought, deliberately unfinished worldbuilding, short campaigns with high replay value, and options to partially decentralize the GM role. Those are selling points. Even though I believe multithreaded mysteries are the best way to handle many campaigns, I am enough of a realist to know this will not be a common actual-play scenario. But so long as it also plays traditional campaigns well...what's the harm in supporting something different? As much as I love experimental stuff, I love system options more.

The problem goes back to "clue bombardment." I could slip a few dozen clues just describing the state of the room an NPC is in, and the NPC's general demeanor and presentation, before the PCs even talk to the NPC; esp. since I'd know how the NPC fits into everything ahead of time anyway. The players might know to be on the hunt for clues, but they have no inherent way to know what's a real clue, what's a red herring, and what's just set dressing.

So the players either have to assume everything is a clue, and then are going to get overwhelmed by the information and trying to sort it all out, or they're going to do their best to focus on what they think are the real clues, leaving me as the GM a massive hole to sneak lots of clues past them.

I think something every GM running a traditional game and trying to do a mystery scenario has dealt with at some point, is feeling like you're feeding the clues to the players on a silver platter, and watching them act like their characters are stuck in a locked dark room. The number of times players have missed clues that GMs felt were blindly obvious clues, doesn't really jive with the idea that trying to sneak clues past players is going to be hard to pull off.
You actually highlight one of the key reasons to multithread quest lines. In electronics, when you run a circuit in parallel, resistance is lower than if you run it in series because less electricity goes through each resistor. The same principle (imperfectly) applies to quest design. It doesn't matter if players fail to get a silver platter clue so long as they have another investigation thread they can jump to. There is some loss of efficiency which happens when players put a thread on the backburner to investigate another, but it isn't an automatic stop of progress like it would be for a sequential campaign.

Additionally, the entire party failing to get clues is either a symptom of the GM's clues not being clues at all or the players having poor immersion. These are important warning signs you need to alert the GM to.

But in detective fiction the difficulty of writing subtle clues is that the genre doesn't generally do multi-threaded mysteries with clue bombardment. When there's one mystery to solve, and a very small number of clues, writing subtle clue is harder because there's more narrative spotlight on any clue. Generally the genre pays more attention to writing good ambiguous clues to setup twists over subtle clues. To go to a classic, the Murder on the Orient Express works so well because until you figure out the ending, all the clues feel like they don't ever fit right, since they always seem to be proving a theory you thought was out, and disproving one you thought was good. You don't need to sneak clues past the audience when the full context of the clues isn't evident until the end.
There are some aspects of fiction which just don't translate into RPGs well, and the layered clues from traditional murder mysteries is one of them because there is such a high chance that no one will get it. I do think that this would fare better in multithreaded quest design because failure would not cause the campaign to crash. However, I do not think it will ever work "properly" in an RPG. It's just one of those things that gets lost in the medium change.

To a lot of us, railroading is already a failure condition.
If you insist. I would argue that the reasons GMs usually railroad will lead to sub-par campaigns.The railroading is just an early symptom of the problem, but railroading can be warranted to achieve some game experiences.
 
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