Explaining Intellectual Challenge in RPGs

Alright, #RPGChat had an interesting discussion today. We were having a discussion on time management at the table, when when Iserith said “Ask yourself, “Would this be in the Director’s Cut or on editing room floor?” If so, it doesn’t get table time. Move on.” I pointed out that RPGs are not movies, and some things can’t be glossed over, for example the planning sequence. This appeared to confuse everyone there, except Iserith him- or her- self. Everyone else was very confused by the fact the players would need a plan and why you couldn’t write it in afterwards.

Lets take an example here. Lets say we are running a spy RPG, and there is a house with McGuffin that needs to be ‘liberated’ from a strong room on the 2nd floor. Outside is a guard dog, there is a guard who makes rounds of the house all night, and 4 more guards sleeping on the ground floor. The party knows all this, and has a blueprint of the house.

Now, how does the party get it? Sneak in through the window? Which one, front or back? Front is further from the guard, but there is a chance of being seen. How will they get past the guard dog? Drugged meat? Distraction? What about the patrolling guard? How will they escape afterwards? Will they spend some time scouting tonight and risk the McGuffin being moved, or go in and risk bumping into a guard’s route they didn’t plan.

All this has to be decided by the players. I typically leave the table so that I don’t get confused by draft plans, or subconsciously change what will happen based on what they will do. That lets them plan knowing what happens next will be fair; If there is a guard by the left window it isn’t because I know that is the one they are going to break into. In this type of game the plan is essential, as I don’t have any way for them to get in to the house in mind. I just set out the problem, it is up to them to provide the solution.

If the players can change their plan retroactively, then where is the challenge? Hindsight is always 20/20 or better. “Of course we remember to arrange for an escape car” takes the challenge out of making the plan, and thus diminishes the reward you get at the end. Now, I’m not hardcore on this point; I do like rules that allow players to have common sense items in their car or on there person, particularly in modern day adventures. Also systems that have a “GM hint roll” function, to prevent frustration if the players get stuck (Call of Cthulhu’s intelligence check is often used for this at my table).  I’ll also make up details I hadn’t thought of on the fly with an eye towards making the game more interesting, rather then planning things out to the nth degree like a good stimulationist GM.

So why am I writing all this out? To show people that this modern narrative gaming trend isn’t the only way to play, that there are alternatives, and that you don’t have to put up with their snooty assumptions about what is fun. Yes, Narr games are what the cool kids are playing, with their Leverage, Apocolypse World, Smalllville, Coretex+ and FATE. These things can be fun, but there are traditional games which can be even more fun, and more satisfying for the right type of person. Knowing you overcame something with your wits and intelligence is incredibly satisfying, and isn’t a feeling a narrative game can produce, since you can always alter things to give yourself and edge. When I played Dresden Files our thief used a Fate Point to have a window in the building we were sneaking into unlocked.  That isn’t nearly as satisfying as figuring out the way in yourself, in that you just toss a chip on the table and you win. So, give it a try. Challenge yourself, taste victory by your own hand.

Until next time, stay geeky


Published in: on December 13, 2012 at 7:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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