Tuesday 20 May 2014

The Information Game

RPGs are games of information and choice.

The most important point of this post is this cartoon. If you don't want to read me spend several paragraphs thinking aloud for my own benefit, skip to the end. 

Understanding RPGs as information games does bring in contrast my unease with games that have 'information gates' built into their mechanics. I play and enjoy those games. But I do think that it takes real GM skill to play a game that, by the book, is peppered with rolls that (in the hands of a bad GM at least), might deny players the information that required to make meaningful choices on behalf of their characters. Despite playing games with these kind of mechanics (WFRP, RQ etc.) I'm never sure whether I've managed to get the correct balance between information simply given, information supplied in response to player questions, and information granted by virtue of character abilities. I thought about something like this some time ago, suggesting that, despite spending a large amount of time away from D&D in favour of more 'realistic' games (and an even longer time not playing at all), my experience with the particular iteration of the 'Information Game' of D&D has baked-in the way I referee a game - I am a DM, not a Keeper.

But there is another aspect to the information game of RPGs that most 'how to play' sections miss; the fact that the information flow of the game is not one way. The GM needs to extract information from the players. I have found that players might be very good at providing statements of intent that accurately express the will of their character for the next 6 seconds/10 seconds/60 seconds (delete by edition). But they often keep their longer term goals - longer term here might mean their goals within a single encounter - obscure. Sometimes this is deliberate, when players feel they are playing against the referee, but often it is because the players have not really understood the fact that the information that they have of (encounter) situation is necessarily incomplete. The description of a situation can only by a few sentences long. This can be 'total information' in a boardgame in which there are only a limited number of options. The only information that is game relevant is that which directly impinges on the mechanics of the game. In a RPG, with 'tactical infinity' this is the merest skeleton of situation. Any information can be game relevant, depending on the imaginations of the players and the GM. Nothing can be dismissed a mere 'colour text'. Players can flesh out the information 'skeleton' by asking questions of the referee, but unless the referee knows the 'longer term' plans of the players and their characters, the referee cannot provide directly relevant information, nor can the players be assured that all the information relevant to their plans has been provided.

Along with necessarily incomplete information, the transmission of this information is almost certainly imperfect. Even in a totally railroaded game with boxed text producing perfectly homologous imaginations is not going to happen. Significantly divergent imaginations of the situation are more likely in games in which the referee generates encounters in play and improvises descriptions - i.e. a game that allows for significant player/character choice. Without players explaining the longer term plans of their characters, those plans will likely be frustrated by misunderstandings of the situation. Or the referee, not wanting to disappoint the player as his character's imaginative plan is revealed one action at a time (ending with a great reveal - 'Ta Dah!'), will shift the 'reality' of the game world to match the misunderstandings of the player. That's not a bad escape to the situation, socially, but in game terms it denies the importance of player/character choice as the 'reality' upon which they were acting had no solidity.

tl;dr: Players need to ask questions, but Referees need to question players over the intentions of their characters in order to ensure as close as possible a shared imagination of the game world.

Added bonus: NPCs with mind-reading skills (or high 'Spot Motive'/'Insight' etc. skills) can do their thing with ease!


  1. It'sd a a two way street but DM's really have to remember PCs are in an information vacuum most of the time as they aren't being bombarded with all the sensory information and relational knowledge a person would actually have if doing something crazy like going on a adventure.

    1. I agree. But I think that the DM also needs to find ways to remind the players of just how much of a 'informational vacuum' that they are in - and that a major part of the game is acquiring the information required for their own, particular, possibly unanticipated plans.

      Perhaps my situation is different from that of most DMs. Most often, the players I DM for haven't played, or haven't played since they were teenagers. All too often they presume that a brief 'picture' of the situation contains all the information relevant to their plans. But the tactical infinity of RPGs means that the DM cannot provide this entirely, even likely courses of action might be anticipated.

  2. I just picked up 'Trail of Cthulhu' on the humble bundle. It uses a 'gumshoe' system which is actually quite clever. I think that I (and probably many GMs) manage to identify and pass on critical clues (by fudging, moving the clue, or presenting in a different way) to the players to allow the game to progress.

    The gumshoe system explicitly states that a critical clue will automatically be given to the PCs as long as they have a given skill/background/whatever. No rolls. Rolling is for dramatic times where the investigation won't be stopped by a failed roll (i.e. combat, escaping from villains, etc).

    The interesting thing in an investigative game is what the players do with the clues. Will they draw the right conclusions and get to the bottom of the mystery in time? Or will they face the fully manifested (enemy) over the body of (victim).

    Realizing there is no problem with giving the clues away and in fact is necessary feels a bit liberating to me at this point.

    1. While I've not read Gumshoe, I've read a lot about Gumshoe, and its pretty much how I run games (such as B/X D&D and their variants) that do not have 'information gate skills'. I want to provide the players with sufficient information to make a meaningful decision about what to do next.

      The problem I run into is with games in which 'information gate' skills are treated equivalently to, say, combat skills. If a player could sink their skill points into 'search/notice/observe/perception/etc.', they've got reasonable grounds for expecting to be able to spot important things, not just pick up the extras. After all, if PCs have high combat skills, they can defeat monster X, if they don't, they can't. Certainly in a sandbox, it feels a bit of a swizz if every potential combat encounter is set at the level of the PCs, regardless of skills/levels/etc. (Or maybe we shouldn't feel that...*) However, if PCs have high 'information gate' skills, they get all the necessary information, and if they don't have those skills they also get everything they need.

      *I say this because if a game is a straightforward, relatively linear 'quest', when there is a mechanical challenge the PCs need to be able to reliably overcome it, else failure is down to the fall of the dice, rather than player choices. This goes whether the mechanical challenge is combat or searching for clues. In a sandbox, in which a quest or a mystery can be abandoned and the game will continue, the purely mechanical challenges need not be such slow balls. So they don't solve the series of grisly murders in Threshold/Blacksand, wherever? Well, they pick up on a different adventure hook, and when the murders start up again next Mid-Winter's Eve, they can have another crack at it.