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Connect the dots and get to work!

Posted By Scott Martin On August 18, 2011 @ 2:50 pm In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

Pixedragon asked about several things that often tangle together into a big knot: mysteries, clues, and the GM’s spotlight versus the player’s flashlights. It also ties into the thrashing that often develops in a Sandbox setting. Here’s what was asked:

Hiya, I have a question concerning GMing, and it’s something I’ve noticed with other GM’s and in my own game.

We tend to play rather RP-heavy games so it’s not just “Find item A at spot B and deliver it at NPC C”, but that’s where the trouble starts. Basically, it’s not as clear for the players as it is for the GM, and the GM really needs to be aware of this to make sure the sessions don’t become confusing for the players.

I’ve noticed this happened in the game a friend of mine GMs when she said; “But it’s so clear to me! I don’t understand why they don’t see they should just do that and that. Why don’t they just connect the dots and start working on it?” As I’d been talking to some of the players about this I knew they had missed several of the so-called ‘very noticeable points’, but when I tried to explain this to my friend she only got confused herself on how they had managed to miss those points because it was so clear to herself.

So how can you see (as a GM) whether your players find all the pieces of the puzzle you want them to find? I realize perfect understanding is an utopia, but I don’t think it should get to the point where the players are so confused they don’t know what to do at all.

Patrick provided a great response and linked off to some articles on the subject. Since I’ve been on both sides of the issue, I thought I’d talk about how I’ve tried to deal with it as both a player and a GM.

In plotted computer games, you often get stuck because something critical to the story hasn’t yet been witnessed or interacted with. So you wander from location to location, hoping to find the scene or interact with the bauble that would let you finally move on. It sounds a lot like that’s what your group is experiencing–which is quite frustrating given that the GM’s not locked into a program!

One thing that a good railroaded adventure (or module) has going for it is coherence. Because the players don’t have many options, the GM can spend a lot of effort working on the scenes that they know will happen. Even in a less structured game, the GM is still (usually) the arbiter of scene setting. There are at least two paths a GM can take when the game starts grinding gears.

Option One: Aggressive Scene Framing

If the players are lost in the mystery and they don’t care about solving the mystery as players, then use your GM’s discretion to move to the next exciting scene. If they have to put together clues to get to the next exciting scene, then reveal their character’s results as part of the next scene.
“After a weekend of hard study, Loretta realized that the only source of sufficient bat guano for the Villain’s fire ritual was that cave the park ranger mentioned. The next scene begins with the players in the guano slicked cave, circling fouled stalactites with the entrance a fist sized opening of brightness in the background. You hear a shuffling ahead…”

Alternately, the next exciting scene might be to provide the characters with information they already know– but in a new context, perhaps by introducing new characters, or highlighting consequences to make the next direction more obvious. This might be a better path if the players care about solving the mystery as players.
“Loretta is at the mayor’s masked ball, mingling with the city’s movers and shakers, when a woman wearing an elegant peacock mask catches her at the canapes table. ‘Madam’, she says, touching your arm diffidently, ‘you need to know that interference with the town’s revitalization will make you no friends’. The butterfly mask sparkles with a ghostly flame as she continues. ‘Interfere again and flame might clear the way for other civic improvements–with a lot less forewarning. Understand?’”

Option Two: Clear the Waters

If the clues are obvious to you as the GM–you’re sure that the players should have an understanding of the situation–then it’s important to figure out why the game is stopped. This is the best line to follow if the players dig your mystery and want to solve it as players. Several things might be holding up the game.

  • Missing Connection: If, as a player, you’re lost, there are several things you can do. One of the best mirrors real life–talk it out with the other characters. Have a (hopefully brief) scene where the PCs talk to each other, discuss their understanding, and figure out their next step. If you’re all stuck, then it’s probably time for your character to take a walk. Once she leaves the in game discussion, perhaps the GM will take the opportunity to add the information your characters are all missing–via a phone call from your contact, a chance caught newspaper article on the breeze, or a drive by with tommy guns. Talking it out as characters sometimes solves the next problem on the list too.
  • Player induced limits: Metagaming avoidance and player/character incompatibility are both player induced limits on the story. A player might not want to ‘metagame’ by using information that his character has not acquired personally–and might be the only person who remembers that his character doesn’t have the key fact that’s required for the plot to fit together! Similarly, players who are trying to portray their character accurately might have the solution (or important information), but feel that their intelligence isn’t high enough to solve the problem or make the connection. This happened to me–there was a puzzle where skeletons were numbered, but only the factorials. I didn’t think that my sheep farmer/fighter with an Int of 10 should be the one to solve it–but we ground the game to a halt until I realized that it was a player level puzzle, not character. Once I had “permission” to solve it, we funneled the in character answer to the Wizard with a high intelligence and solved it, moving on. That was a frustrating session…
  • Situational Awareness: Sandbox play often leads to a state where the PCs understand the situation, but not how to solve it. That can be because years of roleplaying experience emphasized a different type of problem solving, because they aren’t visualizing their resources, missed a detail that makes a course of action viable, or many other things. While heavy handed, talking the situation over with NPCs (who see the PCs and their influence on the world) might reveal new avenues. Or if the players keep avoiding discussions under a flag or truce, remind them that betraying the truce flag has literally never been done in the world’s history.
  • Perfection Seeking: Perhaps the players really do understand the situation, but they don’t like the choice that’s offered. Players who are used to effortless triumphs might not understand a no win situation– they might be misreading it as a Kobayashi Maru, where they have to implement a wild approach to win without sacrifice. That’s great when they can come up with something, but terrible if the fun play is stalled because they just don’t want to pay the price. Unstick the situation reiterating their choice–either by having an NPC commiserate about tough choices, having an NPC talk about the consequence of the only choice that NPC could imagine the PC making, cutting to a shot of the second hand on the explosives at 30 seconds and falling, or otherwise reemphasizing the difficult choice.

How do you and your groups handle wandering situations and missed hints? My sandbox games usually wander quite a bit more than more plotted games–for me and my group, that’s part of the expectation, though we still grit our teeth at the gear grinding. In more skilled hands, I suspect that forward progress and a steady flow of information can keep things running smoothly. How do you do that?

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Connect the dots and get to work!"

#1 Comment By lordbyte On August 18, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

There is a third option although some might balk at the idea and the one I use most. They don’t figure it out? Tough luck, in the background the machinations continue and the world changes, even though they might have no clue why.
This is my favourite way and even though you lose quite a bit of prep-work, it gives your world a lot of depth. Especially when at a later point they suddenly realise what they didn’t see at first and start putting it all together, that moment is amazing!
Just as planned *cough*.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On August 18, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

@lordbyte – That does work, particularly in an organic world–a true sandbox. For that approach, the first thing you have to understand is that there IS no plot– plot is what happens when the PCs act. If they don’t get the clue, or choose not to investigate the mystery, then there is no mystery.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On August 19, 2011 @ 8:23 am

[Factorial] I don’t see that a person who spends a good deal of their life doing arithmetic in their heads (or on their hands) wouldn’t spot factorial progressions for what they are – they just wouldn’t be able to explain clearly using math jargon. Besides, in my playbook, that is overthinking the problem.

“Player-level” puzzles are just that – puzzles for all players to work on. In my favorite game (Call of Cthulhu) the intelligence of the PCs doesn’t factor into working out a clue-string timeline (a canonical CofC challenge and one met in just about all campaigns) unless they’re stuck and need a hint, in which case they roll dice for effect and I give them a hint whose broadness is appropriate to their die-roll, the importance of the blocked issue and their “stuckness”.

GM blindsight is something I sometimes experience and I’ve become adept (as I suspect every GM must) at fix-it-on-the-fly narrative techniques. “You have a nagging feeling that there’s more to that than meets the eye”, “You are sure you’ve missed something in your search, but whatever it is is not obvious to your eye”, “You are idly running the conversation with the police chief in your mind and suddenly you become certain that he was being evasive. Yes, you are certain, thinking back on it. The only question in your mind is why you missed that when you were face-to-face with him.” That sort of thing.

The flip side of this “missed-yet-obvious-mcguffin” coin is the idle piece of color commentary you as the GM toss in to pad out the clue which the players perversely seize upon as a vital lead and begin constructing “whole cloth” out of thin air.

This happens with alarming frequency in my Delta Green game, where the paranoia runs at #11 without any help from me. I often have to gently point out that there is no physical evidence for whatever imaginary threat the players are constructing – though sometimes I let them run with it because if the idea is really good I’ll make it true and if it is only good-sounding it will be a great red herring if we have time to spare.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On August 19, 2011 @ 8:36 am

[Sandboxes] I used to like wandering around just looking at the scenery in the old White Box D&D campaign some friends began in ’75. Mapping and exploring the wilds were equal if not more fun than battling monsters and taking their stuff.

I desperately want to play (as in “not run”) a Tekumel sandbox so I can walk to the extreme west end of (that version) of the Sakbe road to see if it really does lie in ruins as rumored. Good luck on that, Steve. I doubt I’ll ever see a Tekumel game on Long Island unless I run it, in which case I know before I set out what’s going to be there. 8oP

A GM I once gamed with ran a Conan game with richly developed scenery and finescale world-building, then insisted on rushing us through it like an “Encounters” season on speed. I’m not sure why he didn’t want anyone to stand for an hour and admire the very evocative scenery he had spent years painting, or to wander around in it for a bit.

I think the key to a good sandbox design is having one or two threads that can be picked at that unravel into connected, more directed “quests” alongside simple one-two session treasure hunts.

The key to playing in a sandbox like this is knowing the threads one can drop without real consequence and those that one drops at peril of one’s health and/or sanity, or indeed the end of civilization (such as it is) as one knows it.

#5 Comment By BryanB On August 19, 2011 @ 10:51 am

I absolutely loathe player focused puzzles. I much prefer to focus puzzles at the character level. Scott’s example of the skeletons is exactly the kind of puzzle that I don’t like to see in role playing games. Not all players will be a math whiz. Even if you have a math whiz in your role playing group, is the character that they are role playing a math whiz? Focusing the puzzle on player driven solutions decreases role playing immersion and increases player meta game activity.

If I want to solve a puzzle, I will play a puzzle solving game of some sort. Pushing a player level puzzle into a role playing game is just bad design in my opinion. Character focused puzzles on the other hand are an entirely different matter.

The example that Scott gave concerning the skeletons was an excruciating exercise in pointless gear grinding. It is the wrong approach for a game master unless they want to suck the enjoyment out of a role playing session and have players wanting to crash their heads through the nearest wall. :)

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On August 19, 2011 @ 10:21 pm

@Roxysteve – Yes, for Factorials, once I realized it was a player level puzzle, it resolved easily. The main drawback was that I’d assumed it was a character focused puzzle–once I figured it out, I kicked myself at how much session we’d lost. Your GM blindsight techniques are great–like you, I’ve developed them over time. Man, it must have sucked to play in games before I got a few up and running!

@BryanB – In some games–particularly games without independent character skills or intelligence stats– I enjoy those puzzles. Some of the Grimtooth traps give you a great feeling when you overcome them… and that’s all player visualization and intellect, usually. Once you get to more structured systems, the player versus character cues need to be clear to prevent wheel spinning.

#7 Comment By Redcrow On August 20, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

If its a physical puzzle I usually give the players some time to work it out on their own, but after awhile if its apparent they aren’t getting any closer to figuring it out I just pass it off to one of their characters who is able to figure it out (usually by a simple skill/ability check).

If the players are having trouble figuring out the next step in a mystery because they are unable to fit the clues together to get a better picture I again usually pass it off to one of the characters who is able to come up with an idea and get things moving again.

These situations don’t happen very often as I’ve gotten better over the years at keeping things relatively simple and recognizing that not all the players are going to take notes even if I strongly suggest it to them and the ones that do take notes don’t always take very good ones. I always give the players first crack at it, but once the games pace begins to falter too much I would rather give things a slight nudge rather than let it all grind to a halt. YMMV.

#8 Comment By llondra On August 21, 2011 @ 9:19 am

For mystery quests, I have several ideas of what clues might be out there and where they might be, but change on the fly based on what the player actually does. This is useful when they’re just not “getting it”. The story moves forward and the players feel clever and accomplished. :) I take the same stand on puzzles when possible – sometimes it’s not and there’s always the option of a skill/ability roll to figure it out. I’m usually focused on keeping the story moving because that tends to be more fun… though if a player is hell bent to solve a puzzle himself and having fun doing so, he’s welcome to spend as much time as he’d like :D I guess I’m a really loose goose GM?

#9 Comment By BryanB On August 24, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

I know I’ve said this before, but I feel that it is incumbent upon a GM not to design their adventures in a manner that has the entire game hinge on the finding of one clue or one item. If it is that important, then there must be some other way for the characters to get there should they fail in the most likely method.

If I only had a dollar for every adventure I’ve seen that does this….


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