Friday, July 22, 2016

Editorial: Meta-Challenges are fun, Even if They Are Not GURPS

Would you like to play a game? - Dobby
I'm not even sure if the title is accurate, and this post is a little system agnostic, and I don't even really know if it is a question that anyone is asking, but I've been thinking about certain types of meta-challenges and how there is something of an idea that incorporating them can ruin a game for numerous reasons. I don't even think the arguments are really wrong. What I do disagree with is that it is or can be bad for the game. Let me explain myself further.

The Situation

Realistically, this "problem" comes up most often in two forms, but those aren't all inclusive. The two main examples I see are:
  • Social Skills - When negotiating or making a plea or what have you, a player is often required to actually present an argument, and potentially, even role-play said argument. Some GMs give a bonus to skill or even waive a check completely if a player delivers a convincing enough argument.
  • Puzzles/Riddles - Players are encountered by a farmer with a fox, a chicken, a bag of corn, and a tiny boat that can only hold one thing, they need to figure out how to help the farmer cross a river without the chicken eating the grain or the fox eating the chicken. Instead of rolling Administration for a character to have the management skills to know the solution to the well known riddle, the players are expected to puzzle it out themselves.
The complaint that some people might have with these scenarios is that the solutions are approached from a meta-perspective, or that instead of the player succeeding or failing based on the competency and life experience of the character, it is up to the player themselves to apply elbow grease. This could be a concern because if a player is perhaps really bad at public speaking in real life, for example, this might preclude them from ever playing the "face-man" in a game that is meant to be accessible for anyone, and the analogy is often presented, "well, if one is required to skillfully explain to their captor bandits why they shouldn't be killed, then should not a player be required to actually shoot a target 200 yards out at the range to use a gun in the game as well?"
We also have the problem that if the player is completely unable to discern what walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 in the afternoon, and 3 at night, then the game is over and no progress is possible anymore because no one knows the answer.

It's OK That It Doesn't Test The Character

Sometimes, it is ok if a puzzle or negotiation doesn't actually line up 100% with what is on the character sheet, and here is my totally subjective reasoning why. See, if everything could be relegated totally to a system mechanic or the like, then GURPS would become an algorithm. If GURPS were an algorithm, then a computer could GM it better; if a computer could GM it better, then there would be no reason to play it as a tabletop, and we'd all be better off playing a video game.
However, GURPS is not an algorithm, and if we are being completely honest with ourselves, there are always tons of acceptable breaks from the game occurring all the time. If you play on grids, for example, like I do, your character might not have 360 degree vision, which in GURPS terms means your character cannot defend from attacks that approach from behind. However, at the same time, you usually have a bird's eye view of the combat, or if not, probably the ability to see everything on the map as your allies would. The effect is, your character may not know there is an enemy 4 yards, and 60 degrees left behind her, but somehow she knows that is the direction to turn when the enemy in front of her has been dealt with. Your character might spend every waking hour of free time training his merchant skill, but in real life, almost any character without crazy willpower would need some outlet to release steam every once in awhile. And I mean, the mechanics somewhat allow you to get away with these things, being able to do so much more than a regular person could ever handle because your character is a pawn that does whatever you think is best.
But this all sounds a bit irrelevant, or at best tangential to the argument I'm trying to address. The situations here address using the constraints of the system to do things that would ordinarily be humanly possible, while I'm trying to speak to what might be the converse: ignoring the rules of the system to change the impetus and vehicle of success and failure to that which only you, the player are capable of, but here is the underlying thing. We break away from expectations and possibilities whenever it gets in the way of having a good game, and this is where the relevance lies. Because the medium for playing the game is the spoken/written/typed word, we can sometimes forgo the roll of a dice when doing so makes sense because rolling dice gets in the way of having fun, in the same way we can ignore what makes sense from a character perspective when that gets in the way of having fun (or more accurately maybe, though still just as subjective, "having a good game," which doesn't necessarily always mean fun.)
So why can we play out negotiations with words and puzzles with real brain power? Because we are playing in a group of people in a hobby that usually get a kick out of using their brains or hearing people say cool stuff, or at least, having fun trying to say cool stuff.

It's OK That It is Hard

Failing is cool, and not being able to fail is a problem. Having a game that can't continue through a failure is actually probably a different problem altogether that doesn't have anything to do with the resolution mechanic in question. Imagine a lock that fails to be picked, brute forced, etc, every single ability that could bypass a lock fails. Even if we resolved all these attempts with dice, we could still reach a situation where we can't get through the locked door.
What I'm saying is that "Because the party might get stuck," is a non-argument, because the party could get stuck anywhere. If the consequence for failure isn't interesting, then the outcome right or wrong shouldn't matter, and the game should continue the most interesting possible way.
That being said, sometimes the party ramming themselves into a seemingly insurmountable dead-end is a-ok, because this is a role-playing game, and being in a difficult situation is the fodder of stuff that allows players to play their role. The determinator can keep ramming his head against the problem, while the lady with incurious can decide it's just not worth her time, and try to convince the party it's worth moving on, while the guy with pyromania and enough explosives can say, "maybe we ought to just blow the sphinx away instead of worrying about a beast that keeps losing and gaining legs." And now we have an opportunity for lateral thinking and brute forcing and coming up with solutions that no one ever thought of.
What if the quick gadgeteer says, "I'll just build a second raft to hold me and the chicken and the fox so you can take the flour by yourself?" Provided she seems trustworthy, and she can put together a raft in moments with her superpower, why would the farmer care that she solved the problem with a non-canon answer?

Giving the Guy with 0 points in Diplomacy a pass is unfair

Maybe that's true, it's not fair that anyone can be good at something without being good at something, or someone can always have guaranteed bonuses at something, so my simple solution to that problem: Always give role playing bonuses for everything. If someone says "I use broadsword-16 swing with a -5 penalty for attacking the neck" you let them do that, but if they say something cool like, I dunno, "Shana pours every ounce of her will into bleeding right arm determined to turn the tide, she takes a wild sloppy swing at the neck of whatever that thing standing in front of her is called." Maybe Shana's player deserves a +1 for role playing that well too.
I think I agree that an instant win wouldn't be fun for me, but it is all part of the social contract, and maybe some groups think that it's more fun that way, and they agree to play that way, so awesome for them to find a GM and players that think that way.

But I Paid Points For My Character To Be Good At This

I think that the solution to this problem is simple, make a relevant skill a tip for solving a puzzle or negotiation. Psychology might tell you to appeal to particular emotions, and the GM rolling for Body Language secretly while presenting might allow you to hone in on certain points. Perhaps Hobby Skill (Riddles) can allow you hints on what part of the puzzle is simile or metaphor, or maybe a reference to homonyms, or words that have different meanings. Maybe Sleight of Hand can let you cheat at a board game (I'll only let you pass this room untussled if you can defeat me in the master's game of JENGA - Sleight of Hand can make it look like you took a brick when you didn't, allowing you to skip a turn.)

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

The reason I decided to talk about this is because I started fretting over whether I could put puzzles I think would be interesting into my GURPS campaigns, so maybe my argument is a bit self serving because it says exactly what I want it to say, but I'm not about to say what I believe is wrong, but that might be a good idea to try and put my head in that space.
I originally was pretty hardline about players not earning bonuses for roleplaying social situations either, but I'm finding it's exceedingly hard for people to get into the comfort zone of trying to role play, so I says to myself, why not? And now that's how I do.

Other Reading

The following blog post have similar content with different takes, and I find them enlightening.


  1. I had some ideas, which I posted on my blog:

    Also, just as a flavor thing, I prefer that people add detail to roleplaying-focused situations and not general ones. I'm never going to give +1 to hit for that "pour all of my will into my arm" thing just because it's adding wordcount to a statement. I want to know what you're doing and the dice resolve how it works. Using flowery language to write oral fiction just lengthens the amount of time we spend until the dice hit the table, and possibly confuses me about what you are doing. Nevermind the spill over effect ("Hey, I pour all my will into my arm too, can I have a +1?") on other rolls.

    1. Excellent thought! I was just toying with the idea in my head, but that is some thoughtful illumination; it might be a bit annoying if applied in the right way. I'm gearing towards trying some more experimental things with my group to go beyond just playing Turing-Complete GURPS (EG, sticking to the rules at all costs) so I definitely appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

  2. I wrote a little on this about a year ago:

    Basically, not much in favor of them. Definitely not if they decide if a scene moves forwards or not. That said, I'm all for players and GMs running games they like, so I can't claim to be completely opposed to the practice.

    1. Thanks for the link! I really appreciate having other opinions to compare and contrast, it was an interesting read.

    2. Thanks! I can see them being super useful for some groups, but I'm quick to admit I'm something of a Walnut, so I need to hide behind my character's INT.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...