Monday 21 March 2022

Ok I'm going to re-write this

 In games YOU have been in, or which YOU have run, do YOU remember any particular experiences of;

- Too many options, not enough direction, decision paralysis.

- Sense of a loss of freedom, a muting of interest, feeling like you are just "going through the motions"

- Any "just right" states where the range of presented options and possibilities synergised really well and seemed to both guide and allow play.

In those situations;

- Can you describe the situation as it occurred?

- What games were they? (if it published adventures you don't have to name them if you don't want to.)

- Did you notice anything about the adventure design that made them that way?


  1. I responded to your comment on my blog before seeing this, but I believe my reply is closer to what you're looking for given this rewrite:

    That said, since it was before I saw this, I may respond later with more comments specifically addressing these questions.

    Not to toot my own horn too much, but I do stand by my comment that I employed a pretty unique design pattern in the Module for my game Maximum Recursion Depth, one that I genuinely don't believe I've seen used before, and I don't claim it's perfect by any means and I hope to improve in the next one, but I do think it tries to encode modularity and flow control in the way I described in my reply to your comment on my blog post, and at least in my own experience, has been mostly successful.

    1. I'll just add the reply here so that people are more likely to see it, but again I may have more specifics to your questions later, but in the mean time:

      I look back on a lot of my older GM notes and scenarios and they were filled with far too many antipatterns, as in, each branch in the group's decision making needed to be planned independently from any other branch. So I'd lay out several leads that the group could follow, but each was so radically divergent that I'd have been better off just having no flow control whatsoever than flow control that ultimately required overprepping or treating it like a sandbox regardless. Also, groups would often just do something altogether different anyway.

      So instead, now it's more like I have some number of leads I present and some number of ends in mind, but it's modular enough that however the group interacts with them I can kind of slot them in and out, and also, they are ideally interesting enough that it's a "the journey was more important than the destination" kind of things; the flow control isn't just blocking you from the next part of the game, it basically is the game.

      Like in the Module in my game Maximum Recursion Depth, it actually is almost a sandbox to a fault, but there are several key NPC Roles which exist on a random roll table, and I wrote one version of the over arching Poltergeist Investigation scenario based on one configuration, but with a different set of NPCs fitting those Roles, one might conceive the scenario totally different. So there are few absolutely fixed flow control gates, again arguably maybe even to a fault, but the hope is that the scenario in effect encodes a natural flow control. Finding the entrance to the Court of Hell could be that you just go to a place, GM rolls one of the random encounters, and it yields the location in some fashion or another, or it could come from engaging with the NPCs given their Roles and how they relate to the missing Poltergeist and find it that way. Basically just by engaging at all they're eventually going to get there, because it's modular; any part or combination of parts will get you there eventually, it's just a matter of how they all piece together as a whole system.

  2. I don't recall specifics, but I have definitely been in games where I had no idea what to do next and nothing was happening. The DM had a clear plan that the players need to do X in order to trigger Y, and until we figured out X on our own, we were stuck.

    These game scenarios were like a machine with exactly one switch. And the switch was both difficult and boring to find. We could attempt "anything" but it didn't matter. Only X would work. At the time I blamed the DM for believing "this game must be played correctly" over the notion of "this game should be fun to play".

    My favorite gaming situations are when it is clear what some options and consequences are, but also the players can attempt anything and still reap logical and interesting outcomes.

  3. (Too many options/decision paralysis) This isn't something I've had a problem with personally as I've always been comfortable with dice, coin flips, etc. helping to move things along.
    (Not enough direction) Several times as a GM and as a player this has happened. As a GM, when the material doesn't seem to know what it wants out of a situation it has only ever made work for me. I've gotten into the habit of evaluating material based on how long (in hours) it would take me to clear up any such problems. If it's over 4 hours, I tend not to use it. As a player, I’ve seen necessary, plot relevant information, items, even mechanics gated behind poor design so many times it’s nothing all that special.
    (What games were they) I suppose RIFTS is my example of just poor mechanics making a game nearly unplayable. D&D has been an offender over the years in this department. The “captives” option in Chapter 4 of Tomb of Annihilation is my player example. This may have been fine with better execution, but it was a disaster that the DM didn’t know how to handle. This boiled down to the base assumption that we’d fight instead of run. There are a lot of bad designs/experiences out there, so I imagine that’s enough.
    (Any “just right” states…) I would have to say Dread, both as a GM and player, has offered that “just right” in terms of mechanics that drive story and action the most for me personally. A Jenga tower seems to bring a natural anxiety to the table that band-aids any GM shortcomings and makes for a rather seamless experience. It’s the system I often recommend to people who want to GM a RPG for the first time because it has always been unbelievably smooth in the 20 odd experiences I’ve had with the game.

    1. I understand in theory why Dread is potentially good, but my experience of it has been that, unless I am more engaged in the story than an average gaming session (considerably more engaged, actually), I would rather everyone just shut up and played Jenga. It gets me to the point that, if I'm not really swept away by the story, I'll do anything at all to pull another piece, no matter how ridiculous. I'm not exactly proud of that, but it means that I have a really hard time enjoying any given session of that game despite liking the idea in theory. For me, then, CoC's SAN mechanic (and maybe Unknown Armies's madness meters) remains the better "path of inevitability" mechanic, precisely because it isn't fully a game in itself.

    2. Just curious, was this your experience GMing Dread as well?

    3. @anthony: I never GMed it, in part because it didn't appeal as a player.

    4. Thank you for the informative comment. Dread being smooth (unless you hate Dread) was not something I had heard a lot about before. Maybe having some material physical thingy on the table which everyone can see & interact with is cognitively helpful in some way?

  4. I think that my worst experiences with too much of a lack of freedom have been superhero games. They always seem to come down to reacting to whatever villains the Referee comes up with and what they do, the heroes being unable to initiate any plans of their own by the nature of the genre and its focus on maintaining the status quo against active forces attempting to change it. I think that it would take some serious subversion of the genre conventions to give the heroes any agency (the obvious idea developing from this analysis is to make a world controlled by "villainy" and have the players fight to overturn it with their own revolutionary plans*, the second obvious idea would be to subvert the idea of "heroes" and make the players the ones with criminal plans to enact).

    *This was my own plan in a recent campaign, but I failed in presenting it as well as I could have and it fell apart. If I were to try again, I think the first thing I'd do differently is exercise closer oversight of what types of characters were allowable.

    1. Thank you. With superheroes hard to tell if a feature or bug though.

    2. @pjamesstuart: That is a good question. I think that it can be reconciled with the RPG feature of player agency, though—compare, for example, the plot arcs in the Netflix Marvel series (especially Luke Cage and Daredevil), which can center on heroic characters attempting proactive and positive changes to an intolerable situation.

      As an aside to this, Call of Cthulhu rarely allows the players any significant agency. That's not impossible in stories of the sort—see Silent Legions from Kevin Crawford for example—but part of the mood in those stories can derive from the claustrophobic lack of any real, significant choices.

  5. Thank you! That was an excellent comment and informative. Also - Level 15 before you get to decide oh my god

  6. The "loss of freedom" is more common IME than the "lack of direction" problem. I have experienced the latter in a Call of Cthulhu game. All are lines of investigation led nowhere and we had no idea how to proceed.
    The former I've experienced many times. Example: in a Savage Worlds pulp adventure, the ghost ship surfaced alongside the ocean liner we were on. A rope is strung between the ships and you needed a Climbing roll to get across. I pointed out that my character could neither climb nor swim, so he was going to stay aboard the liner. But no, I had to go for the big (and ultimately pointless) climax. I predictably failed my Climbing roll, but I didn't fall in the water and drown. I just made more rolls until I succeeded (so what was the point of rolling?).
    Most games I have experienced are closer to "just right", though.

  7. I experienced lack of freedom in the worst game session I've ever played. It was a new DM and the idea was created a few hours / 1 day before the session. We were all isekai-ed into her fantasy setting she'd been building and encountered a few characters in a very sterile city before being plunged into a dream sequence without any class features/magic/equipment or information and a single unhelpful omniscient narrator ushering us through cryptic scenes that the DM thought must have made sense in her head but couldn't quite help us to figure out. It was uncomfortable and tedious. And as her friend I wasn't quite sure how to deal with it so I just quickly left after the game.

    The other main instance of loss of freedom I experienced was in 5e's Tomb of Annihilation. When you get through the 1st act of jungle hexcrawling and the 2nd act of exploring the hidden ruined city of legend you finally find the TOMB! A megadungeon that forms the whole 3rd act and the rest of the game. Unfortunately it does this by locking the PCs inside and activating a wall of force disguised as some other kind of door, and implementing magical wards that persist though the WHOLE dungeon to stop players from teleporting out or using extradimensional spaces. I felt like it was so completely unnecessary to lock us in and even more unnecessary to gimp the players, but he was a new DM and doing what the module told him so I can hardly blame him. Although being vaguely linear in overall dungeon structure a big megadungeon can still be lots of fun as you explore and interact with each level and I certainly enjoyed that campaign, I just felt stifled by never leaving the dungeon once entered and there were few social or combat encounters so much of our team felt listless in much of the dungeon since it was so trap and puzzle heavy.

    Too little direction I have rarely encountered although the team does often suffer decision paralysis in my friend's surreal horror 1950s LA noir game...simply because there are sometimes 4 to 6 investigative leads for our PI team to go after and they all sound pretty interesting since the DM didn't have a ton of impending threats or deep hooks all the time, but he has integrated more of those as we've played and debate is often fun.

    My own current science-fantasy weird jungle exploration hexcrawl had yet to hit the lack of options or information paralysis since I throw impending threats like crash landings, kidnapped allies, and mysterious goals like exploring the wizard's tower for answers on the artifact they were delivering, while still allowing for the party to go anywhere within my tiny but jam-packed hexmap. I consider my own game a sweet-spot but I am not a player so I can only hope I'm correct and gauge if my players are having fun (I think they're having a blast).