Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Invisible Gorrilla and Games -- Mystery Stories

In 1999, Daniel Simons did an experiment involving a person in a gorilla suit and people in different colored clothes passing a basketball to one another. The experiment was designed to see how we look at things and demonstrate how our perceptions can fail us. The basic finding of the experiment is that we fail to observe a lot of things that are going on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing out on so much. Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris have written a book called The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. Two of the things the book focuses on are how are intuitions often mislead us and how our perceptions aren't as keen as we believe them to be.

"What does this have to do with games," you ask? Nothing and everything.

How many times have you been running a roleplaying game session in which you have laid clues for the players to discover which will help them to solve a mystery of some sort?

Sometimes the clues are embedded in your verbal descriptions of scenes and events, and sometimes they are placed on a battle mat for the players to find. The clues might even have been incorporated into dialogue role played out.

Of these times, how often have the players completely missed the clue due to focusing on other objects in your presentation?

Sometimes this can lead adventures into fun new directions. If the player's become convinced that the 12 year-old witness you were acting out in dialogue is so creepy that he must be a shapeshifted Goblin in disguise and the real reason the children of Vandomeer have been disappearing, it might be better to follow the player's lead and ignore the fact that you had placed several clues that it was the kind Cleric of Pelor who had been driven to despair after the death of his daughter and was looking for parts to construct a replacement. In a case like this, there is no reason to shoehorn the players into your planned story even though they missed your -- to you -- obvious clues. A good GM knows that the goal of play is to satisfy your player's desires and making their wild guesses into fact is a great way to achieve this goal.

Sadly, improper leaps to conclusions aren't the typical result of missed clues. The most common result is that the mystery grinds to a halt as the players "keep searching." In a game like D&D, or any other system where skill rolls determine the results of actions, this can amount to players "rolling again and again" or "taking 20" at each 5 foot square of a room with you having to notify them of what they did or didn't find. In a game that is looser and more "acted out," you have to decide whether to keep repeating the clues you have already shared or make up newer -- more obvious -- clues to give the players. Giving the players too obvious a clue after they failed to understand the initial clues can lead to some serious dissatisfaction by the players. They'll feel foolish for missing the initial clues, and railroaded by your new ultra-obvious clue.

Robin Laws' Gumshoe system tries to address these problems by having an underlying gaming assumption that the players will find the necessary clues automatically and lets them "spend points" in order to get more information from the clues. The system doesn't guarantee that the players will "solve" the mystery that you presented to them, it only means that they will actually find the clue, but it does increase the likelihood that their speculations might lead the adventure into another direction from what you originally planned.

In real life, it can be tragic when some real clue is missed or misinterpreted. In a roleplaying game missing a clue can bring a game to a boring halt, but misinterpreting a clue might lead to a better story. In real life, our intuitions deceive us and lead us into foolish actions, but in games our deceptive intuitions can lead us into entertaining experiences.

Sometimes you can exploit the deceptive intuitions of your players to assist you in constructing your adventures.

Do you have any stories where mysteries have bogged down or where deceptive intuitions have led to great adventures?
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