Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Flow of Information

The issue of Perception and how it grants PCs information in TTRPGs has been a popular topic in the blogosphere lately.  It's also one that I've struggled with personally.

To start with, most players consider Perception to be the most powerful/useful skill in D&D 4E.  I know I would train it with virtually all of my characters.  But then a funny thing happened; I started reading and researching more narrative-centric RPGs with their fail-forward philosophies and what-not, and my character ideas began to deliberately ditch Perception.  For one thing it's often not an "active" skill, but rather one that the GM calls upon PCs to roll, and second things can simply get more interesting (albeit more difficult as well) if you fail a Perception check.  I'd rather have to claw my way out of a tight spot that I could have avoided if it was memorable as opposed to getting some piece of information that basically tells me what's up.

Unfortunately this doesn't always work in practice.  In the Pathfinder campaign that I'm currently playing in there was a lot of "roll Perception" results as we were exploring a dungeon.  Failure came with its typical problems; players knew something was up and then either got no information, or got a surprise scythe-blade trap to the back.  But success was equally boring.  "Rogue, you find another trap there."  "I roll Disable Device."  "Ok, you disabled the trap."  Lather, rinse, repeat.  I'm glad the Rogue got to be useful (he certainly hasn't been in combat), but it still wasn't very exciting.

A while ago there was an article on Thought Crime that explored this very issue.

Dungeon World

Since a lot of the blog articles reference Dungeon World, we'll step back for a second and examine how Perception is handled in that system.  One of the Basic Moves in Dungeon World is "Discern Realities."  You roll (2D6) +Wis and on a 10+ you can ask 3 questions, and one question on a 7-9 (the "partial success" ubiquitous in Dungeon World rolls).  The list of questions is as follows:

  • What happened here recently?
  • What is about to happen?
  • What should I be on the lookout for?
  • What here is useful or valuable to me?
  • Who's really in control here?
  • What here is not what it appears to be?
By reading the list of questions it should be apparent that Perception is a very player-driven process.  It's also worth mentioning that a Move in Dungeon World can only be triggered by the fiction as described by that player.  The player says what he's doing, and the GM may say "sound's like you're trying to Discern Realities; roll + Wis."  Or the player can specify that, but it won't work unless his description of the PCs actions also match up with the Move's trigger.  For Discern Realities, you have to "closely observe your target," and it's also called out that you "can't just stick your head in the doorway," but rather you have to closely examine the surroundings; pick things up, get up close and personal, etc.  A really helpful clarifying statement from the book:  "Discern Realities isn't just about noticing a detail, it's about figuring out the bigger picture."

That's a key difference with the classic Perception check - the GM isn't just going to tell the player "you find a trap," but rather they're answering a player's specific question.  The detail of "there are traps here" might still be included, but the specifics will vary depending on what question was asked.  Furthermore, if the player succeeds they will learn something even if the GM didn't plan for anything; by asking the question they are injecting a fact into the narrative based on the GMs response.  As a further carrot for the PCs, when acting on the answers they get a +1 forward (bonus to a future action).

This sounds cool and all (I haven't actually played Dungeon World yet), but rolling a 6 or less is still a null result, and the player doesn't get to ask any questions.  It's easy enough to incorporate a "fail forward" philosophy, which leads back to another blog post.

Query-Based Perception Hack

Yesterday there was a heavily Dungeon-World inspired article over at Mystic Theurge about Query-Based Perception.  The hack draws questions from several *World games and applies them to several different systems, including 13th Age.  In some ways this sub-system is more interesting than Dungeon World's.  It doesn't offer the "ask 3 questions" option, but it does let PCs ask a question regardless of whether they pass or fail, and either way they'll gain a +2 bonus to any actions while acting on the information.  On a failure, the information is wrong (or incomplete), but interesting results are sure to ensue when players risk acting on misinformation to get the +2 bonus.  It's a clever way to inject fail-forward into the system.

Clues and Mysteries

Thought Crime posted an interesting sub-system that might serve investigative style games quite well.  Ephemera are like temporary Backgrounds in 13th Age, and one such type is the "Clue."  Clues can be earned through a Perception or other investigation-related check much like the above system (or Discern Realities in Dungeon World), but they can also be gained from Icon rolls or as loot.  Though it's only orthogonally related to the Perception issue, I LOVE the idea of handing out Clues as loot, since they come with a built-in mechanism to entice players to play with the information (the ephemera bonus, which stacks with Backgrounds).  A later post outlines how a GM can structure an adventure around these mechanics with an example mystery.


We're getting a little further from straight Perception here, but that's ok because Perception is only one facet of the bigger issue - how the GM doles out information to the players.  I've been eyeing a third-party supplement for Pathfinder for a while now; it incorporates the GUMSHOE system (which is the system that games such as Trail of Cthulu and Ashen Stars uses), and is called Lorefinder.  As I understand it, the way that GUMSHOE/Lorefinder works is that simply having an investigative skill is enough to give you some basic information in a situation that relates to that skill.  Your proficiency in an Investigative skill (which works differently from your standard skills like Climb, etc.) grants you a number of points that you can use per session rather than a modifier to a d20 roll.  You can use one or more of these points from the pool to gain additional information beyond the baseline.  The basic information will usually be just enough to get by without grinding the plot to a halt, while the "extra" information will obviously be more useful.  The GM will just give the PC the information, no roll required.  But the PC will have to decide when to spend those limited points, because some information will obviously be more useful than other.

What to Take Away from all of these Systems?

Clearly a case can be made for facilitating the flow of information between GM and PCs that minimizes both the tedium and roadblocks of straight Perception or investigative skill rolls.  Query-based Perception (including that used by the *World games) allows players to steer the details a bit by framing the information they obtain in the form of specific questions.  This works best when combined with a fail-forward philosophy, and a bonus when acting on the information further promotes player engagement and can lead to interesting consequences if the information is wrong or incomplete.  Expanding the idea of such bonuses (or "ephemera") to investigation in general, temporary Backgrounds (13th Age style) in the form of Clues provide a tangible reward above and beyond the information itself, as well as possibly being used as a limited resource ("spending" clues to move toward solving the mystery).  Lorefinder (and GUMSHOE in general) also does a great job of giving players a limited-use investigative resource, and is perhaps the most well-known system for handing out relevant information.

Have I used any of this in my own games?  Not directly, no (aside from general "fail-forward").  But I can see the promise, and I wish something like this were in place for the Pathfinder game I'm playing in.  Having spent much of the last few hours reading up on these various options, I'm not even sure if everything has really sunk in yet.  Using everything would be redundant and, more importantly, overly complex, and I'm not quite sure what would suit my needs best.  If my curiosity gets the best of me and I end up purchasing Lorefinder, I may have more to say on the subject.

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