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The Strange: Strange Revelations - Bruce R. CordellA couple years ago I reviewed Weird Discoveries, a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera using an innovative scenario format featuring:

  • Two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.
  • Two page spread that has “everything you need to run the adventure”.
  • Two pages of additional details that can be used to flesh out the scenario.

The general idea being that the GM will be able to pick up one of these scenarios, rapidly familiarize themselves with it, and be able to run it with confidence in roughly the same amount of time that it takes for the players to familiarize themselves with some pregenerated characters (which are also included in the book). Basically, you lower the threshold for spending the evening playing an RPG to that of a board game: You can propose it off-the-cuff and be playing it 15 minutes later. And since I’ve been preaching the virtues of open tables and the importance of getting RPGs back to memetically viral and easily shared experience they were in the early days of D&D, that’s obviously right up my alley.

Last year, Monte Cook Games released Strange Revelations, which basically took the exact same concept and applied it to The Strange, their other major game line. I did not immediately read through it because, at the time, there was a plan in place for me to actually play in a campaign where the GM was going to use these scenarios. Those plans fell through, unfortunately, but now I’m in a position where I’m running a campaign of The Strange and I’m naturally tapping Strange Revelations as a resource for scenarios.

INSTANT ADVENTURES: THE VERDICT

Since 2015, I’ve actually spent a considerable amount of time interacting with MCG’s Instant Adventure format under a variety of use-types: Using them as one-shots, incorporating them into ongoing campaigns, running them at conventions, using them with and without prep, etc.

Unfortunately, the more time I spend with them, the less I like them.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the basic structure of the format is a limitation: It only really works with certain kinds of adventures. Unfortunately, it’s become a one-size-fits-all format for Monte Cook Games, and so they end up trying to cram every type of adventure into the format. (This is something I talk about in the Art of the Key: When you become a slave to your format instead of using the format and structure that’s appropriate for the specific content you’re creating it never ends well.)

There also seem to be some systemic problems with the specific execution of the format. These prominently include:

Keys. As discussed at length in my original review of Weird Discoveries, the Instant Adventure format uses Keys to highlight essential elements for the scenario — either some crucial item or clue without which the scenario cannot be resolved. But rather than simply include these Keys in the scenario, they are optionally coded into different scenes or locations using an icon which refers back to a table on a different page that describes what the Keys are.

The most immediate problem is that by putting literally the most crucial information on a different page, MCG fundamentally sabotages the entire concept of the central two page spread being the only thing you need to look at during play.

But the more insidious problem, as I’ve discovered, is that good scenario design is not in the generic; it is in the specific. Figuring out how information flows to the players during a mystery, for example, is a key difference between a good mystery scenario and a mediocre one. By genericizing the core elements of the scenario, the Instant Adventures format lends itself to mushy, generic scenarios that are, as a result, largely forgettable.

Bad Cartography: Inexplicably, many of the two-page spreads consist of sketchy, vague maps that have keyed content “associated” with them by having arrows pointing at semi-random locations on them. Strange Revelations is slightly better in this regard than Weird Discoveries, but it’s still frequently problematic. For example, here’s the map from one adventure paired with the graphical handout depicting what it’s supposedly mapping:

The Strange: Strange Revelations - Alien Spaceship Map

Confusing Graphical Handouts: This ties into another problem with the book. It includes 10 pages of pictorial handouts — referred to as “Show ‘Ems” — that are designed for the GM to hand to the players. I absolutely love pictorial handouts. The problem is that I would classify the majority of these as being functionally unusable. They do things like:

  • Depict things which don’t match the text of the adventure (like the spaceship above).
  • Include random characters who don’t appear in the text of the adventure. (Are they meant to be the PCs?)
  • Spoil surprises. (For example, there’s one scenario where the PCs are supposed to get attacked by bad guys after arriving onsite… except the Show ‘Em depicting the site shows the bad guys standing there waiting for the PCs. I ended up photoshopping them out in order to use the picture.)

To be fair, many of these problems have afflicted pictorial handouts since The Tomb of Horrors first pioneered the form. But I nevertheless remain disappointed every time I see these get fumbled (partly because I always get so excited at the prospect of it being done right).

GM Intrusion Misuse: For some reason, MCG’s Instant Adventures frequently describe scenario-crucial event as “GM Intrusions”. (Possibly because the format doesn’t include any other way to key this content in some cases?) The problem is that, in the Cypher System, players can use XP to negate GM Intrusions. (See The Art of GM Instrusions.) So what these scenarios basically end up saying is, “Offer your players the opportunity to spend 1 XP to NOT receive the clue they need to solve the mystery.”

Too Short: Probably the most significant problem, however, is when the struggle to cram material into the two page spread causes a scenario to come up short. Literally. There are simply too many examples of Instant Adventures that are supposed to fill an evening of gaming or a 4 hour convention slot which consist of only 3-4 brief scenes. For example, there’s a scenario in Strange Revelations which consists of:

  • Seeing a wall with a symbol spray-painted on it.
  • Talking to an NPC.
  • Talking to a second NPC.
  • Being ambushed by a single NPC.
  • A final fight vs. a single NPC.

Maybe your mileage varies. But for me, that might fill a couple hours of game play.

WHY YOU MIGHT STILL BUY IT

… if you’re a big fan of The Strange.

I’m not sure whether Strange Revelations suffers more regularly from these systemic failures than the scenarios in Weird Discoveries, or if I’ve just gotten more sensitive to these problems as a result of running face-first into them so many times. If it’s the former, I suspect it’s because Strange Revelations is so often struggling to force material that’s not really appropriate for the format into the format. Cordell does some very clever things trying to make the format work, but it’s clear that he’s got some really cool ideas for scenarios that are just being hamstrung by the necessity of making them work (or sort-of work) as Instant Adventures.

And it’s that “cool idea” factor that is why, ultimately, I found value in this book and suspect that you might find value, too: Above all else, Strange Revelations gives you 10 separate scenarios for $24.99 (or $10 in PDF). At as little as $1 per scenario, it can have a lot of rough edges and still be worth the effort sanding down the edges. At the moment it looks as if, with near certainty, I’ll be using at least 8-9 of these scenarios at my gaming table (with various amounts of tender loving care), and in my experience that’s a pretty good hit rate for a scenario anthology.

It’s just incredibly frustrating to see an idea with so much potential greatness as the Instant Adventures so consistently come up just short of achieving that greatness. It’s also frustrating to see that MCG has apparently decided to produce ALL of its scenario content in the form of Instant Adventures, which severely limits the scope of the scenario support they’re capable of offering for some absolutely fantastic games.

Bottom line for me: If Bruce R. Cordell offered another collection of 10 scenarios for The Strange, I would scarcely hesitate before dropping $10 on them.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979439

The Strange - Bruce R. Cordell

In Bruce R. Cordell’s The Strange, Earth is surrounded by a miasma of dark energy which, according to the best guess of Carter Morrison (who most prominently discovered it), is the broken remnant of an ancient interstellar transportation network created by some vast alien civilization. In its current state, the dark energy network — which Morrison dubbed the Strange and others refer to as the Chaosphere — is drawn to sentient life. Where there are large concentrations of sentient life (like, say, a planet with 7 billion people living on it), the dark matter clumps thickly.

Once gathered in sufficient quantity, the Strange will begin to manifest “recursions” or “limited worlds”. (Whether this was an original, intended function of the dark energy network or an emergent property of its current state is unclear.) Each recursion is a tiny universe, operating according to its own rules of reality. They are something like a computer simulation, but it appears that the data network of the Strange actually manifests them as a physical reality. Most recursions are “seeded” through a process referred to as “fictional leakage”: The Strange manifests the collective subconscious of humanity as physical realities within its matrix. This means that, within the recursions clustered around Earth, you can find worlds based on historical mythology, pop culture, conspiracy theories, television shows, massive multiplayer online roleplaying games, and basically any other memetic clustering of ideas.

FICTIONAL LINKAGE

Not to be confused with fictional leakage is the concept of fictional linkage. Fictional linkage occurs when the Strange’s manifestation of the collective subconscious causes multiple recursions to spontaneously interact with each other.

Perhaps the most basic (and common) form of fictional linkage is the crossover. For example, there is known to be at least one recursion based on the Marvel superheroes and several recursions based on the DC superheroes. It is not unusual at all for inapposite gates to manifest as part of the recursive reality in those limited worlds, linking them together and allowing for crossover team-up scenarios to play out.

JLA/Avengers - Kurt Busiek, George Perez

A slightly more unusual form of fictional linkage is the visitation. Take, for example, the recursion of the USS Enterprise. This recursion is actually limited almost entirely to the ship itself. (In fact, its internal architecture is, as a result of non-Euclidean geometry, mostly dominated by the major sets that were built for the TV show.) The rules of the recursion frequently generate planets for the ship to “stop” at, but in some cases the ship is actually reaching planets through fictional linkage — it arrives in “orbit” around a science fiction planet that’s actually a separate recursion.

The Enterprise is also a good example of context collision, which occurs when fictional linkage results in one or both recursions involved in the linkage having its reality shifted to Sherlock Holmes - Leonard Nimoybecome consistent with the context of the other. For example, the Enterprise might appear in “orbit” above the 221B Baker Street recursion (see pg. 253 of The Strange). For the duration of the linkage, 221B Baker Street would “become” an alien planet where the natives worship the Holy Books of Doyle. (One of them Arthur Conan, the other a book of card game rules.)

That particular context collision is likely to occur with the Enterprise because that sort of thing is part of the fictional consciousness of Star Trek (see “Piece of the Action”). But you would be unlikely to see a Star Destroyer from Star Wars appear in orbit around 221B Baker Street, because that’s not the sort of thing that happens in Star Wars. (On the other hand, you might see a pair of Jedi show up on the relatively new recursion of Pandora because that world is potentially more consistent with Star Wars-derived recursions.)

LINKAGE FALLOUT

For the residents of a recursion, a fictional linkage is often unremarkable: The inapposite gate that allows Spider-Man and Superman to meet is contextualized within the reality of their existence.

Context collisions, on the other hand, can often trigger sparks (granting full sentience and consciousness to a recursion’s resident as their worlds no longer make sense and they aren’t sure why, but are compelled to figure it out) and even quicken existing sparks.

In some cases, fictional linkages become permanent realignments with the two formerly separate recursions becoming a single recursion. The Estate has noticed that this is most common among “micro-melange” recursions; i.e., smaller recursions that are based around a melange of fictional tropes and beliefs on Earth (as opposed to mimicking a specific piece of fiction or mythology). One theory is that some of the larger “mature melange” recursions (those which have grown to become complete worlds as opposed to smaller “shard” recursions which only contain a single city or region) are actually the accretion of multiple micro-recursions which have become joined through fictional linkage.

The Strange - Monte Cook Games

  • Treasure.
  • It’s where the bad guy we’re trying to stop is hiding out.
  • It’s where the bad thing we’re trying to stop is happening.
  • It’s where the thing we need has been hidden, lost, or secured.
  • It’s between where we are and where we need to be.

Legends & Labyrinths: Dungeon Encounter - Alex Drummond

Review: Tales from the Loop

August 7th, 2017

Lately I’ve been reflecting on the “nostalgia kids” subgenre of urban fantasy / supernatural horror. It’s epitomized by Stephen King’s It and Hearts in Atlantis, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, and, of course, the recent sensation of Stranger Things.  There are a lot of different elements which make this subgenre work, most of them shared by supernatural coming of age stories in general (e.g., E.T.) — the innocence of the protagonists; their vulnerability and isolation; the supernatural elements as metaphors for both the unseen aspects of a child’s life and also the “secret lore” of the adolescent passage to adulthood; and so forth.

But I think the aspect of the “nostalgia kids” stories which makes them unique and distinct is the contrast between the nostalgia-tinged view of the past and the supernatural abnormality. Most supernatural horror movies, of course, feature a rupturing of our expectations of the real world. But the nostalgic milieu heightens the sense of “rightness” and, thus, the fundamental wrongness of the supernatural element which disrupts our image of a well-remembered yesterday.

Well-told versions of these stories operate even when the reader/viewer is not personally nostalgic for the era in question, because the narrative conveys the nostalgia itself. (This is the case for me with, say, Back to the Future and It, which are soaked in nostalgia for an era I did not personally experience. Conversely, Stranger Things and Ready Player One both conjure forth eras I personally experienced, albeit in very different ways.)

You can see this same fundamental tension between nostalgia and the disruption of memory in the artwork of Simon Stålenhag:

Simon Stålenhag - December 1994

Stålenhag conjures forth a nostaglic image of the ’80s and then disrupts that nostalgia through the presence of giant robots, rusting remnants of colossal technology, and levitating vehicles. You can see how the fantastical elements of these images are heightened by the context of the nostalgic imagery:

Simon Stålenhag - Standoff

If you simply took the image of this giant mecha, for example, it would be pretty cool. But placing it the context of the ’80s police cars lends it a very specific and particular resonance.

RECURSION ERROR

So at some point the designers of the Tales from the Loop though it would be cool to set a roleplaying game in the world created by Stålenhag’s art.

Tales from the LoopBut there’s a problem. When you take elements of Stålenhag’s art, use them to construct an alternative history of the ’80s, and then say, “this is the world your PCs think of as normal, but there will ALSO be these other elements which are totally weird and supernatural and stuff” you end up with a recursion error: The game wants you to evoke nostalgia and then disrupt it with the fantastic in order to create a very specific mood and emotional response… but then tells you to NOT feel that mood or have that emotion in response to these OTHER fantastical elements. The fundamental dynamic of the “nostalgia kids” genre is disrupted because the game is constantly undercutting the thing which the game is supposedly about.

In actual play, we found that this tended to result in Stålenhag’s elements being minimized or even eliminated during play. But isn’t the entire point of the game to be an RPG about Stålenhag’s art? (I think they might have been better served making a game about those police cars: Embrace the alternate history and make a game about law enforcement needing to deal with the complexities of mecha and robots and hovercraft in the ’80s. But I digress.)

CHARACTERS ARE COOL

What works great, on the other hand, is the character creation system. It generates really rich PCs with very game-able home lives in a surprisingly small amount of time: It is absolutely possible to sit down with a group, walk them through character creation, and have a meaty and significant first session of play all in a single evening.

At the end of character creation, your Kid will be fleshed out with a drive, anchor, problem, pride, favorite song, and significant relationships. And what makes this really work is that the mechanics make these elements immediately meaningful through gameplay. For example, the action of play will generally leave your Kid afflicted with Conditions (like Upset, Scared, Exhausted, and Injured). The only way to deal with these Conditions (before they pile up and overwhelm you) is to either have a meaningful scene of interaction with the other kids (which helps a little) OR to have a meaningful scene of interaction with the adults in your life.

This constant “touching base” with the home life of the character is really essential for the game to sing (and something we’ll be coming back to in a second).

SYSTEM IS BROKEN

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Tales from the Loop is that the system is broken. Not quite in a “this is terrible and unplayable” way but in a “this is really making for a mediocre experience” kind of way. (It’s like driving a car with a shattered windscreen: The car technically performs its function, but it’s not exactly ideal.)

The key problem is that the success rate for the core mechanic is abysmal. You Kids will generally have about a 40-50% chance of succeeding at a test, and that’s before you get hitched into the death spiral that’s the typical result of failure. (Failure generally applies a Condition; Conditions drastically reduce your chance of success.) It creates an incredibly frustrating experience. And maybe that’s intentional (you’re playing Kids), but it becomes really problematic in a game designed entirely around mystery scenarios with skill tests as the gateways for navigating those mysteries.

As an experienced GM I had a number of ways of routing around these problems, but watching a relatively new GM ram her face into the mechanics and having her scenarios grind to a painful halt over and over again was unpleasant. (And even rerouting around them is, obviously, a needlessly frustrating experience.

The system is also kind of curiously random in the narrative control it gives to the players. For example, the game features the “description on demand” technique in which the GM randomly asks a player to fill in the details of the world (because, hey, that’s like having narrative control, right?). And it mechanically does stuff like giving players the ability to create NPCs out of whole cloth with whatever skill set and background they want without the GM being able to say anything about it. But then it runs in abject TERROR at the idea of letting players decide what NPCs can be reasonably convinced of and strenuously emphasizes that the GM can veto it.

It also contrasts even more oddly with the book’s raging hard on for railroading. A frequent refrain is, “Are your players not interested in something? Remind them of their Drives AND TELL THEM TO GET WITH THE FUCKING PROGRAM.” (I might have made the subtext into text there.)

UNSTATED ASSUMPTIONS

Contributing to the systemic problems of Tales from the Loop is that the designers seem influenced by games like Apocalypse World, but don’t seem to fully understand what makes Powered by the Apocalypse games tick: They’ve got Principles and a discussion of how mystery scenarios can be constructed… but don’t seem to grok that the reason these things work in PbtA is because they’re mechanically supported RULES. After a great deal of experimentation, I’ve concluded that the game works best if you follow three “best practices” (which are, unfortunately, not clearly called out in the text):

First: Fail Forward Resolution. This makes the abysmal success rates less painful, and the game does include the Conditions mechanic which can be used as a default consequence: You’ll still achieve your goals, but you’re going to pay for it with a physical or emotional condition which you need to deal with.

Second: Narrative Resolution. Partly because this approach lends itself towards fewer checks resolving larger chunks of narrative (which reduces the number of tests and makes the whiff rate of the core mechanic less painful).

Third: Treat the suggested mystery structure as LAW. Most notably, make sure you are consistently alternating between Mystery Scenes and Everyday Life Scenes. When confronted with a mystery scenario, many gamers will dive in and not come up for air until the scenario is resolved. Although, somewhat incoherently, several of the scenarios in the book don’t lend themselves to this style of play, the Conditions mechanics will push you in this direction naturally and we consistently found it was essential to get anything remotely playable out of the system.

CORE SCENARIOS

Speaking of scenarios, I should note that the core rulebook for Tales from the Loop is chock full of scenario material. (It actually takes up a majority of the 196 page book.) This includes four traditional scenarios and a “Mystery Sandbox”.

The latter is interesting because it’s tied into the character creation system: If you use the default character creation options, the resulting PCs will be inundated with scenario hooks for the sandbox. Unfortunately, the actual design of the sandbox mostly consists of scenario ideas that the GM needs to develop into fully playable material. I think this is a misstep: The space spent on the fully-developed scenarios would have been better spent fully-developing the Mystery Sandbox so that GMs could just run it out of the box.

It doesn’t help that the fully-developed scenarios are… questionable. There’s some cool ideas in there, but their continuity, structure, and content will frequently leave you scratching your head. I think my “favorite” moment is the scenario where the Kids are out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter, they stumbled across a cabin, and the owner of the cabin basically says, “Would you guys like to take my car? Here are the keys. Make sure you don’t scratch it on your way to the next plot point!” Which is really weird.

There are a lot of these types of interactions which will leave you wondering whether the scenario authors have any actual understanding of how adults talk to children.

The setting and scenario material is not helped by the attempt, in the English language edition, to adapt the original setting (a small set of islands in Sweden) to an American alternative (a desert town in Nevada). This localization effort is carried out by placing American names in parentheses after the Swedish originals. For example:

  • Riksenergi [DARPA]
  • Gunnar Granat [Donald Dixon]
  • Nordiska Gobi [Sentinel Island]

It’s a clever idea. The result, unfortunately, is an abysmal failure. First, the parentheses aren’t consistently executed, resulting in scenarios that are only half-way converted and creating an immense amount of confusion for the GM trying to keep frequently large casts of characters consistent. Second, it turns out that just swapping names isn’t enough to re-contextualize Swedish islands to American desert.

For example, one scenario features the wreck of a Russian mining ship. That makes sense off the coast of a Swedish island. In Lake Mead, however? That demands some sort of explanation… and none is forthcoming.

CONCLUSION

My initial experiences with Tales from the Loop leaned heavily towards the negative… but there was a spark of potential in there that tantalized me and brought me back over and over again to see if I could fan that spark into something greater.

I described the recommended procedures and approach I eventually figured out above. But my overall impression kind of boils down to the core mechanic: The reroll mechanics help. The rules for Helping help. A GM making extensive use of the Extended Trouble mechanics will help. Using narrative resolution techniques helps. But you still end up with a very tenuous bubble, and you’re still running headlong into some very hard limits based on some very limited resource pools that strongly curtail the flexibility of the system.

But even using all of these recommendations, we ultimately found the system to be… meh.

What I’m left with is a game which largely shares the enigma I found in D&D 4th Edition Gamma World: Is a really kick-ass character creation system enough to save an otherwise mediocre and/or broken gaming experience?

For Gamma World, my answer was Maybe… and then I never played it again.

Tales from the Loop seems to be a better game than that, so I will answer: Some times.

And I say that in large part because we found that the strengths of the character creation in Tales from the Loop extended deeper into actual play, resulting in some very emotionally powerful play. I also suspect many will find much greater utility (and even revelatory innovation) in the game’s Mystery Sandbox than I do. (It was certainly refreshing to see such an approach headlined so prominently and centrally in an otherwise mainstream RPG.)

Style: 5
Substance: 3

FURTHER READING

Tales from the Loop: System Cheat Sheet
Tales from the Loop: Nintendo Slugs

Go to Part 1

Banksy - Dorothy in the Security State

It’s time to discuss a topic which is surprisingly contentious: Should the GM tell their players the target number of a skill test?

(Seriously. Go to any online RPG forum, ask this question, and watch the long knives come out nine times out of ten.)

My personal approach to open and hidden difficulty numbers is to consider them a tool rather than an ideology, with their use being a blend of utility and practicality. What information in the game world does the difficulty number represent and does the character have access to that information?

  1. If the difficulty number represents that the PCs can directly observe, tell the players the target number of the check. (An easy example would be the difficulty of jumping over a crevasse: The character can actually see the crevasse and make a pretty good guess about how difficult it is. Telling the player helps give them a clarity similar to their character’s vision.
  2. If the difficulty number represents something that the PCs can’t observe, keep the number hidden from them. (For example, they’re walking through a jungle and I want to see if they spot a tribesmen hiding in the canopy above them. The difficulty of the spot task is based on how good the tribesmen are at hiding. Does the PC know how good the tribesmen are at hiding? No. They don’t even know it’s tribesmen they’re trying to spot. Therefore, they don’t get the target number.)
  3. If you’re feeling tricksy, you can give the players an estimated difficulty number based on what their PC does know and only reveal the real difficulty number when they’ve realized their error. (“The guy is standing nude in the middle of the field. Should be really, really easy to hit him…” “Your shot bounces off the force field surrounding him. This might be trickier than you thought.”)

When in doubt, I will generally default to not telling the players the target number. But this default position can be flipped in some systems for reasons of practicality. For example, in Call of Cthulhu you apply difficulty to the character’s skill rating and then attempt to roll under the modified rating. I’ve found it’s generally easier to give the players the difficulty modifier and simply report their success or failure rather than getting them to report a margin of success that I can then compare to the difficulty rating. (Your mileage may vary here, obviously.)

In addition to simple practicality and efficiency in game play, my method is influenced by a couple of factors. First, there is a limited bandwidth by which the player perceive the game world compared to their characters: They are relying almost entirely on imprecise verbal descriptions, whereas their characters have access to their full panoply of sensory input. While it is true that their characters cannot necessarily measure their chance for success at a task with mathematical certainty, I find that this nevertheless achieves more associated results than characters, for example, leaping over crevasses that no sane person would attempt if they could actually see it with their own eyes. Open difficulty numbers reduce the frequency with which there is miscommunication between the GM and the players, which can help minimize the old Are you sure you want to do that? problem.

Second, there are many circumstances in which the players will be able to figure out what the target number is. (Multiple characters making attacks against a fixed armor class, for example.) In some cases this experience can be very immersive (as the characters slowly figure out just how skilled their dueling partner is before declaring that they’re not actually left-handed, for example). But that also makes it an example of how knowing a difficulty number doesn’t instantly implode the table’s immersion, and even in circumstances where difficulty numbers are initially hidden, it can often make sense to explicitly lift the veil of mechanical secrecy after a short period of time in order to facilitate the practicality of speeding up play.

RESOURCE SPEND GAMES

Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a proliferation of RPGs featuring mechanics where the players will spend points from a limited pool as part of a skill test. GUMSHOE and the Cypher System offer one common form, with points being spent from skill or attribute pools in order toTales from the Loop provide a bonus to the skill test. Tales from the Loop offers another variety, featuring a variety of resource pools which can be spent to reroll failed checks.

I’ve found that these types of systems — particularly the GUMSHOE and Cypher System variety — require some special attention when it comes to open vs. hidden difficulty numbers. Blindly spending limited resources on tasks with unclear difficulties generally doesn’t seem to work well in these types of systems: Players often get frustrated and resources are generally overspent, which can rapidly propel a session towards the hard limits of the system and really limit effective scenario design.

Which is not to say, of course, that difficulty numbers should NEVER be unknown in such games. The occasional spice of an unknown search test, for example, can be really rewarding: The player doesn’t know if there’s anything hidden in the room or how valuable it may be, so they have to make a tough choice about exactly how much effort they’re going to put into searching it. When facing a previously unknown creature, they have to make a choice about snapping off a shot or really taking the effort to aim. That’s immersive and effective.

But if the whole game is cloaked in perpetual mystery, it’s much less effective in practice. It muddies decision-making (particularly in these resource spend games) and hurts immersion.

Another way of looking at this is that there is a “threshold of knowledge” at which the GM deems it appropriate to reveal the difficulty number. This threshold, however, is basically a slider. What I’m suggesting is that for these resource spend mechanics you want to radically reduce your threshold (particularly if you normally keep it relatively high).

For these resource spend games I have also coined the term “routine check” so that I can still call for things like routine Perception tests to determine which character spots something first without having everyone burn away their resource points, uh… pointlessly.

UNCERTAIN TASKS

Traveller 2300 included an interesting resolution method that I have never seen reproduced elsewhere, but which can be trivially adapted to virtually any RPG system. For any uncertain task, in which the actual success or failure of the outcome may not be immediately clear to the character (such as gathering information, convincing someone to help you break the law, or repairing a buggy piece of equipment):

… both the player and the referee roll for success (the referee rolls secretly). If both are unsuccessful, the referee provides no truth. If one is successful and the other is unsuccessful, the referee provides some truth. If both are successful, the referee provides total truth. In all cases, the referee does not indicate whether the answer or information provided is truth, some truth, or total truth.

A result of no truth means the character is totally misled as to the success of the attempt. Completely false information is given.

A result of some truth means the character is given some idea of the success of the attempt. Some valid information is given.

A result of total truth means the character is not misled in any way as to the success of the attempt. Totally correct information is given.

Because of the hidden nature of the referee’s throw, the character cannot know for certain the nature of the information being obtained. A referee may find characters doubting total truth, accepting some of no truth, or accepting all of some truth.

Marc Miller, the leader designer for Traveller: 2300, wrote about this mechanic in “Traveller: 2300 Designer’s Notes” in Challenge Magazine #27:

Setting fuses for demolitions is an uncertain task contained in the Traveller: 2300 rules. It is classified as easy, and anyone with any skill will usually succeed. Once in a while, the referee will roll a failure while the player succeeds: somehow the fuse setting failed (although it looks OK) and the explosive won’t detonate when the proper time comes. And once in a while, the player will roll a failure (and immediately realize that he has wired the explosive wrong), he can rewire them immediately to try to fix the fault. And sometimes, the player will roll a failure and hear the referee tell him the charges have exploded – because the referee also rolled a failure.

This method is an incredibly clever way of reintroducing uncertainty into the player’s (and character’s) perceptions even when embracing the practical advantages of player rolls and open difficulty numbers. I think it deserves to be much more widely known and used.

Go to Part 13

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