Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More Theory: Transparency

What I Am Working On Now
I have created a slew of "packages" of TAP abilities and am testing them against their estimated costs. It seems to correlate that the more individual pieces that go into a group the larger the deviation from the estimated cost. However, in a few cases where there are few but they are very expensive, the deviation is also big. A few are right on the money or very, very close ...

So I'm looking for trends.

Theory: Transparency
I'm using the word 'transparency' here to refer to how much of the GM's knowledge is shared with the Players (on the assumption that the Players may use that data within certain parameters in the game). Let's take a look at some possible configurations:

  1. Example of Very Low Transparency: In this case the GM rolls dice "behind a screen" and Players are not aware of things like the results of their attacks, whether their rolls are actually successful (they may roll the dice--but the GM can have hidden modifiers that the PC isn't aware of). Incoming attacks are simply described in-game and the Player won't know what the attack is until it hits (and, possibly, not even then if there are effects the character might not be aware of). Things like the Base Damage of the attack (or, in another game, the 'number of damage dice') are kept secret/rolled behind a screen so the player won't know. If there is a "book of monsters" the Players are forbidden from reading it lest they learn the stats! Success numbers for things are never declared (so if you are sneaking up on someone you will not know if you succeeded until either they notice you or you assume they didn't).
  2. Example of Medium Transparency: The GM rolls dice behind a screen but the players are aware of their own rolls and modifiers. They may be aware of the 'stats' of an opponent if they have faced it before (the GM may share that material or they may have read the book). Damage amounts and effects are declared openly once the character is hit. Success numbers may be hidden in a few cases but are generally declared up-front.
  3. Example of High Transparency: All rolls, GM and player, are on the table. Modifiers are declared before-hand. The kind of incoming attack or success numbers are all declared up front. The stats of an opponent may be presented, in full, before a fight--but even if they are not, things like amount of armor or damage of an attack and (always) type of strike can be assessed either "by sight" or "after a hit." Usually the GM will declare the numbers when working out a mechanic.
Before we go on, I want to be clear that all of these have their place and my games are a combination of them--not absolutes (I'll discuss that in a moment). Lest the Very Low example seem like a draconian abuse of GM power, I want to point out that there are a few things I admire in it. Let me be clear:
  • The Warhammer Fantasy Bestiary does something awesome: the front half is done like a medieval tome with data about each beast that might or might not be correct. The stats are then in the back. This is wicked-cool to me from a player standpoint. Firstly because it mimics real texts in an appealing manner but also because it creates an environment where a player (at least until they read the back of the book) can behave like a "real expert" on the creature from "having read the book" and have that actually work rather than having read the stats and basically really knowing everything.
  • I once ran a Champions game where (a) the players described their character's powers to me and I created them. I kept their powers-sheets hidden and did all the dice rolling behind a screen. I also (secretly) added an extra D6 Killing Attack to any weapon making them significantly more dangerous than the book suggested. This was an interesting and successful game for the players which involved them both trying in-game to figure out how their powers worked and what their limits were and out-of-game trying to determine how I'd modeled their abilities (I was scrupulous about following the rules so they were pretty sure they could work them out--and did).
So the take-away here is that any of these styles (and combinations) can work for the right game and the right group.

Our Preference: High Transparency
That said, most of our gaming is high transparency and it suits our preferences will. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that a lot of the play I do these days uses the JAGS Online Dice Roller and that presents all dice-rolls to everyone. There is no "screen" (although, when I play face-to-face I don't use a screen either). Secondly I am interested in having the players do as much of the mechanical lifting as I can: so if I say "The bad-guy hits for 8 Base Damage PEN" the player can then calculate their own Armor Save and roll it without me having to do anything.

Finally, for tactical soundness, it is beneficial to have the Players know as much of (most of) the battle-field as they can. If someone is using a Once-Per-Round attack on them I'm highly inclined to say that. I might not always say how much damage an incoming attack does--but that's usually not for purposes of deception ... it's just more talking. 

I would certainly be inclined to tell a Player if an attack was being launched that did way more damage than the norm ("Doctor Randomizer is firing a plasma beam at you--and this looks like a killer!"). Giving the Players the tools to make tactical decisions (that is: the information) is something I generally value.

I'll withhold information in a few cases--usually when I think it'll be pleasantly dramatic to do so. If the PC is sneaking up on someone I might not state whether they made their perception roll or not (in an extreme case, I might roll it in 'secret' somehow). I'd certainly give some indication of a negative modifier or a range if I wanted an attempt to be more dramatic before the attempt started ("The wall looks really slick--it could be from -2 to -4 ... you'll have to chance it") but mostly I do this with a reserve of trust built from years of playing with these people.

When I meet new people I usually just play it straight until we know each other better. When I first met Jeff and Bee (husband and wife) and their gaming-friend, when it was my turn to run a game, I did a sort of sleeper-cell secret agents game where the PCs were Fast Company operatives who lived mundane lives until activated for secret missions. They'd been trained by a secret government organization since a young age and their memories had been somewhat erased ... I considered having an episode where they would "lose their powers" (dodging bullets, super martial arts, etc.) as a result of enemy memetic warfare--and have to decide if, as they'd be told, they'd been delusional all that time ...

I decided against it since we were fairly new to each other and that plot development could be frustrating. That's the same sort of consideration I'd weigh before trying anything fishy with hidden rules creating 'drama' (I could well get the, uh, wrong kind of drama).

A Note On Dysfunctional GMing
One of the more prevalent discussions in Internet RPG-theory is around whether GM's are commonly dysfunctional in their use/abuse of power. Certainly the Low Transparency mode of play creates many situations where the GM could "cheat" by ignoring rolls or whatever. I've always found these discussions somewhat problematic (IME they are usually overly-generalizing 'all, many, or most' GM's--or opining un-scientifically on the likely ways GM's will use their power).

It's my feeling that while it's undoubtedly true that some people will have very bad experiences with 'cheating GM's' (or, depending on how the group approaches the game, just plain cheating GM's) for the most part some adult discussion will clear things up.

I have certainly seen ... and think I can often tell ... when the GM is invested in a particular outcome somewhere (and I've seen situations where the dice have led to outcomes the GM didn't want and seen GM's make calls to try to mitigate them--something I think is certainly fair). Given this basic level of human-interaction skills and (ideally) a small amount of communication ... I don't think that Low Transparency gaming is any more likely to lead to real problems than anything else.

A Recommended Best-Practice
There's a lot more complexity here than I care to try to capture in explicit detail--but at a high level, this is what I recommend for the construction of games around Transparency.
  • Provide sheets for the players that list major character names and roles even if they haven't been met yet (unless they are seriously a surprise). Although this may mean the player knows "there's a king's adviser named Sir Lawthman" before they see him, this is counterbalanced by the Players being able to keep everyone straight.
  • Allow the players to handle as much of the mechanics as possible by giving them the data necessary to do so. In JAGS this means telling them Base Damage amounts when they are hit so they can calculate damage. It means giving them modifiers so they can roll and report success or failure--it means giving them Target Numbers (for Dramas) so they can keep track of when/if they succeed.
  • Share notes and secret maps after the game (assumed: after they've 'left the dungeon' or whatever) so that (a) they can marvel at your cool-map-making skill and (b) they can look over your cool badguy and (c) they'll have a much better idea of what your perception of the situation was. NOTE: I can't ever remember having been asked for a bad-guy character sheet ... but I certainly did a bunch of Monster Write-ups for Have-Not and would be thrilled to have a player talk to me about how cool the C-Rex (Cybernetic T-Rex with .50-cals and rockets) was.
  • Roll on the Table. State what the roll is for before doing it. Don't make a habit of ignoring the dice results ... so ...
    • Do not run games that require rolls to 'find the clue' in order to advance. Try to make clue-finding either automatic or, if there is a roll, it's for "some vs. all" the clues (or based on time: a failed roll means you have to keep searching, etc.)
    • Try not to run games where combats 'must go a certain way.' In some games a Total Party Kill is an acceptable outcome and it should be possible but don't run battles where "The PCs will get captured" or "They'll face the big-bad early on but, uh, won't be able to kill him because he's so awesome--" or anything like that. Run the combats straight and be prepared to deal with it either way (if the PCs are not captured think about what that'll mean before hand).
    • Structure games that are not supposed to be heavy on the in-game mechanical challenges so that the PCs are fairly (or very) empowered in terms of abilities and information. An example is: Raiding an installation where you don't know the location of the guards or have a map vs. one where you do have a map and guard locations--in the latter you get to plan and execute the plan. In the first you have to explore and the odds of making a catastrophic error (running into guards and having them raise an alarm early on) can be quite possible even if the PCs act perfectly within their knowledge.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a bit conflicted on some elements brought up here (I've been in the hobby a long, long time, and have concluded over the years that the assumptions of nearly complete top-down control on the GM's part as a default meme aren't doing it any real good, as I've argued on a number of times), but there's really only one case I can say where low transparency is really problematic: games where any significant tactical decision making is expected from the PCs.

    The reason I say that is that a group has to have a _really_ clear sense of communication for GM narrative description to give them even close to enough information to make a decision sensibly in this situation, sans mechanical description. This strikes me as particularly problematic if you have characters who are experienced in combat (or honestly, most areas a Drama might be used in), because it likely means the player isn't getting the same degree of understanding his character is, and his decision making is going to be flawed because of it.