Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How Much Should Players Know?

I was musing to myself while mowing the yard yesterday, in addition to how much of a pain home ownership can be, about how role-playing sourcebooks are put together, to whom they are targeted, and how I, as a game designer, can create the most utility in my products for the widest possible scope of gamers. So, here I am bringing these thoughts to you, instead of speaking aloud to my yard equipment. Let's start with how we can make game supplements useful to Game Masters, without spoiling the good stuff for the players. Read on for more.

Something for everyone

There are two vastly different consumers of gaming products from the design perspective. First is the Game Master, who needs all of the pertinent information available on every person, monster, city, historical object, and piece of adventure fodder that might be included in a game. That is why the GM is using the supplement to begin with, after all. It helps to have detailed information already at hand to use as the basis for a game, especially for today's busy role-players trying to fit in a regular game between school, work, church, spouse, kids, and other obligations. It's rare for a GM to have the time to build something totally from scratch, so he or she pulls down a book from the shelf and uses, at least in part, some pre-generated adventure hook or scenario.

So, a Game Master needs to know the details. If a monster has a weakness, it must be printed there in the description. If a key NPC has special powers, those need to be included in the writeup. If it's a pre-generated adventure scenario, the various twists, turns, surprises, and upshots must all be laid out. New worlds need maps. New weapons need damage ratings. All of these piles of gaming stats need to be detailed for the Game Master to be able to use them.

This leads to an age-old problem. We all share books within our gaming group, thumb through things at the bookstore, and dig around for good gaming fodder on the Internet. I love an enthusiastic set of players, but my heart always sinks a little bit when one of my players walks into a session carrying the very manual containing that night's adventure, key monster, or special surprise. I trust my guys and gals to be able to play through it and not bring their out-of-character knowledge into the game, but I also want to offer something special to my players, not just their characters. In the moment that I pull back the curtain for some dramatic reveal, I want to see surprise, shock, fear, and all of those delicious and exciting emotions from the people sitting around the table. It's tough to do that when players are so easily exposed to the various tricks of the Game Master trade.

So, why not write for the players instead of for the Game Master? That's not a good option, because it requires leaving out all of the crunchy stuff that GMs need as a part of their complete gaming breakfast, like how many Hit Points the monster has, and where the secret passages are located in the forbidden tomb.

This leads to a third option. Why not provide material for both the Game Master and, quite separately, for the players? You see this done fairly often in book series that are delineated between being GM Manuals or Player Manuals. It's a good solution, but it really requires a lot of extra purchases by any given gaming group, which may actually be the point from the perspective of some publishers.

Many games shove the GM-specific information off into a corner, sidebar, or on the back page of the writeup. While this does keep players from accidentally stumbling over some potential spoiler, it doesn't do the Game Master any great favors, as it makes him or her constantly flip from one section to another to put the story together.

Lots of problems, but at least from my end, I think I've settled on a solution.

PDFs to the rescue

Electronic publishing provides us once again with its greatest asset: it provides us with options. By publishing with PDFs, either stand-alone or as a supplement to a traditional book with ink and pages and dog-ears, a game designer can provide two different products with great ease, making one for GM consumption, and one for players.

More than being a simple case of chopping out stat blocks and spoilers and then providing that whittled-down version to players, game designers can provide players with usable, in-game, in-character resources. While the Game Master's writeup on the vicious "Spider of Doom" details the origins of the creature, as well as information such as its habitat, strengths, weaknesses, resilience, and special abilities, complete with stat blocks and informative technical dialog, a separate PDF is provided to characters. This version doesn't contain any stats at all, but is written in the form of a police report, newspaper article, blog posting, or other in-character information that the Game Master can simply hand to the players and allow their characters to glean from it whatever information they can. When they read about the Spider of Doom's encounter with the National Guard, they won't read that it has a high Armor Class, but take away in-context information from the after-action report: "Third squad was then ordered to engage the creature using small arms, which were ineffective."

Isn't that better? As a player, wouldn't you rather have your character come across that report in a file while researching a previous encounter with this beast from beyond the veil, rather than read it in a categorized text box full of numbers and die codes?


As cool as it would be for every creature in the Monster Manual to have an extra page of color spread specifically designated for player consumption, that isn't likely to happen. It's also probably unlikely that every World Book will have a companion supplement written exclusively for players and their characters, free from GM-only information.

I feel like electronic files are the way to go with this. If the original product is a PDF, then it's easy enough. Simply include the in-character bits with the master file and the GM can print and distribute as he or she sees fit. In addition to that, plus as a supplement to any hard copy tomes that are produced, the publisher can simply provide the character versions of the writeup as free downloads, thereby driving traffic to the publisher or creator's website, and serving as a preview to the bigger and more complete version available for a nominal fee.


What do you think? Best idea ever, or the worst? Somewhere in the middle?

In any case, I think you can count on this from me as I continue to add product to my catalog and expand my terrible empire of RPG works. Maybe I'll even write up the Spider of Doom.


A.L. said...

I think you have an interesting idea, and one that could be useful, fun, and a very awesome product that I would happily support if only for the clearly "well beyond par" effort that goes into it.

That being said, I don't think it necessarily solves your problem. See, gamers are consumers, and gamer groups generally like to consume the same things. If your players are shelling out the $40 for the same book you are pulling things from, there is a very good chance they're also going to shell it out for the PDFs, meaning they also would have the master copy. The only real solutions I see to this are the following.

1) Ask your players to not read certain things. Yeah, we all know some people will do this anyhow, especially since you asked them not to, but I generally believe in trusting my players. If I go "Ok, who has seen this movie?" and everyone goes no, and I want to pull something from it, I then go "Ok, please don't watch it until Session 6." I did this with X-Men Origins Wolverine for a hero game (he was falling into the teleporter trap and I wanted to hit him with it without him seeing it in movie) and it worked well. But ultimately it came down to, I trusted my player not to do it, and he trusted me to have a good reason for doing so.

2) Take all you want, but make sure you change some key details. This one is probably the best, I mean, if you are looking for something truly special for your PCs then odds are you need to customize the content anyhow. Book stuff is good, in fact it is great, but to make it /really/ special it needs to be tailored to them. So customize it, this way even if they know what is going on something is different. Suddenly they can't trust anything they thought they knew about the creature because you've changed it. This also works great to catch the people who were (accidentally or on purpose) letting slip their OOC knowledge, as they go for a weakness that is no longer there.

Like I said, I like your idea (and this is turning into a blog post, not a response. Sorry), and I think it is a good one. It certainly helps with keeping lines from being blurred with people willing to play along, and gives the GM a humongous tool to make their games better (Free police reports and news paper articles for an adventure? Where do I sign up?).

However, I think my base view on gaming, that surprises are not necessarily needed on an OOC level for a good IC game means I have a different view on this. I can see making it special by putting them in the know, or giving them enough information they think they are in the know.

So long story short. I love the idea, I'd love to be a part of it as a consumer or otherwise. I don't necessarily think it would solve the problem. It would however make it easier for a GM to keep things separated for the players, and thus make everything easier on the old IC/OOC divide. So great idea I guess :D

JEY said...

well, agree with A.L. in most parts...

I'd like to add, that segregating master material from player material have one fundamental problem:
how I divide masters from players?
I played tonight, and I'm going to narrate tomorrow.
as a master, you usually like to read various books, to have lots of choices, oportunities and ideas for qhen you design your adventure...

so, it's not that players, intending or not, read what they shouldn't, but some players are masters also, and SHOULD read.

but the aidea of doing stuff "only for player's" I guess its realy good. It would be usefull not to players read in their "between games" time, but during play, to help DM describing stuff.

just ideas, as you said

goodbye and good dices!

VBWyrde said...

I like the fact that you're contending with the problem. It's been a problem for years. And there's no really good solution, other than for GMs to create their own stuff that is unpublished. Of course that's a big pain in the butt for GMs, and is a drag for game designers, so it's not a great solution - although it is probably the best, technically speaking.

I think the solution is in the direction you're pointing, but I don't think the solution you're proposing quite solves the problem. Players will read whatever they can to gain an edge for their Characters. You can choose to trust them, but since it is in their interest to do so, it's a bad setup.

There may be solutions in the direction of digital information, but I don't think that simply dividing the PDF into two categories of readership is going to work out. Players have too much incentive to read the GM bits, and I find it hard to imagine that if they are purchasing the GM Guides now they won't also purchase the GM PDFs later. They want to know the monster stats. It's too much to their advantage to suppose they simply won't if they have that inclination already.

Jason Richards said...

Everyone raises great points, the key to which are all more or less that this doesn't SOLVE the problem. You're right, of course. I think that all you can really do is to separate the GM/Player materials (when it comes to monsters and adventures and such, I mean) so that a player can't just stumble into it as they're reading their new book. My current line of thinking manages this without the unfortunate consequence of adding cost to the player group's hobby for additional player-only materials.

To address something that JEY said that is very true, many people do both play and GM. However, I think if you're talking about PDFs, then you most likely have a GM going out and getting specific materials just for running the one game, as opposed to having large volumes with lots of different monsters/adventures/characters in them. Basically, my assumption was that in this case there would be very little overlap between the GM/player positions within a given campaign.

Jason Richards said...

One more thing that I didn't mention, but would absolutely solve much of the problems between Game Masters and players having access to the same information. What if a GM could purchase game supplements that were not available to the public?

For example, a GM is in need of a boss monster and a dungeon. With no time to do the hard work, he employs a game designer to draw up a dungeon and design the main encounter at the end. The rest he can fill in on his own.

It would be more expensive, naturally, but maybe it's worth $40 or $50 to have a professionally-designed dungeon, with maps, and a very memorable encounter at the end, especially if the dungeon could get the GM through a couple of sessions.

These "exclusive" supplements wouldn't even need to be totally unique. It could be sold more than once, but the designer would just make an effort not to sell it to multiple people in the same gaming group, or at least would only sell it to others once it had been used by the original GM that commissioned it.

People commission character art all the time, right? Why not custom characters or adventures?

A.L. said...

As I said above, I really like the original idea and think it has a lot of merit. Especially if you can trust your players to just not read it, ask them to stay way from it, or whatever. It is totally an avenue that someone should pursue.

As for the other one, I also like it. I think the idea of custom dungeon design could potentially be a big and fun service. Getting alternative takes on things, or just building special NPCs for a specific system (think your completed characters, but with fully rules and stats). I'm not sure who would buy it, but it is totally something that could be a cool service to offer.

I think if you did do the commissioned dungeons/adventures that reselling it should be part of the deal. If it is say $40 for a map, a story, and some NPCs (say something that'd take 1-3 people who were good at what they did a couple hours of work for a decent product, then maybe charge like an extra ten to twenty dollars for it to be truly exclusive, otherwise it can be published in like 2-3 months as a module from the original vendor.

I think it'd be very niche, but it does sound very interesting too.

Jason Marker said...

When I did my first rule design stuff for Rogue Trader, one of my rules actually requires the GM to make rolls and keep them secret from the players. It adds jeopardy, and makes the characters work harder.

Shini said...

You could be like me and not let the gamers see the book. My gamers still haven't read Madhaven because I don't want it to give anything away.

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