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Author Topic: player-directed exploration of GM-created world  (Read 25507 times)
David Berg
Member

Posts: 612


« on: February 06, 2008, 12:35:05 AM »

I like to play ignorant characters.  I like to discover a cool imagnary place that I have no actual knowledge of.

But I don't like "following" a GM's "plot".  I'm happy to explore his world, but I wanna do it on my terms.

I have played plenty of games where the GM allowed or even encouraged me to poke at color bits and pursue what I found interesting in the world, but usually in the context of:
a) furthering his plot, or
b) providing a momentary digression which will soon be dropped, in order to return to his plot

It's been rare indeed that I've said, "Ooh, I wanna learn about THAT!" and had that interest guide the GM, so he focuses his prep on what I want to know rather than on what he already wanted to show me.  It has happened, but never because of a gamebook.

So, here's my question: does anyone know of a game that successfully makes this happen (as opposed to allowing it to happen, which many games do)?

I'm thinking of creating one.

Thanks,
-David

P.S. If I'm being too broad, and identifying a CA type would help: I'm envisioning a Sim game.
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #1 on: February 06, 2008, 05:43:45 AM »

Not as such.

Probably one of the best candidates for a setting that SHOULD facilitate this kind of thing is Blue Planet.  There is a work in which the authors have gone to significant effort to produce real and interesting information which is attractive at multiple levels, far more so than the run-of-the mill fantasy boilerplate.  But, apart from providing this material, there is little in the way of structure or procedure that actually makes exploration happen.

I have used some tricks of my own to try to find out what players would like to see, such as polling them after a session as to what they might like to explore next, and then endeavoring to produce an at-the-table game that meets these desires.  But I have also encountered some significant difficulties. First and foremost is that traipsing around the countryside going "huh, look at that" just does not strike as me as being very interesting over an extended period.  There still, I think, needs to be some kind of engaging action that requires some activity or compels interaction with the setting and its interesting details.  Secondly, that can be a very work-intensive 'design-on-demand' approach, and makes you a hostage to fortune; one unlucky blank spot or lack of ideas brings everything screeching to a halt.

So I still think there needs to be some kind of plot or GM direction, but in the service of exploration itself, rather than plot as such.  How to do that I'm not exactly sure, and I hope we can get a discussion on the possibilities rolling.
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danielsan
Member

Posts: 29


« Reply #2 on: February 07, 2008, 12:13:53 AM »

What does "CA type" mean? Otherwise, I get that you want a Sim game. But... a Sim of what, actually? Pure exploration?

But any game can be about that, right? (or at least, I assume you're talking about fantasy or sci fi games.) Most games use exp points as a reward, so just only give them by how many "hexes" they uncover or by what percentage they learned of the GM world or however you define "explore". Also, only allow characters with classes/professions that match this, like Rangers or Scouts or Cartographers or whatever. Then, if you are going to make quests, it's not to destroy the dragon but to map the forest or to find the mouth of the river, etc.

In its purest form, it reminds me of a driving game my friends and I used to play on long car trips, especially in heavy traffic. We picked a random car alongside us and just alternated asking questions and answering them. "What's his name?" "Horatio. What does he do?" "He's in sales. Does he like his job?" "Yeah, but he's been passed over for a promotion by a woman. What's her name?" etc.   


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contracycle
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Posts: 2807


« Reply #3 on: February 07, 2008, 03:10:16 AM »

All CA's have a base layer of exploration, but sim has (or can have) exploration as its point, its particular purpose, as opposed stepping up or addressing premise.

Anyway the hex idea does have potential.  There is an old game called Source Of The Nile which works in a rather similar way to that which you suggest; the basic action of play is to reveal/determine the content of unexplored hexes.  The Boardgame Geek entry for the game can be found here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/1577
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
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brainwipe
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Posts: 113

Icar Author


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« Reply #4 on: February 07, 2008, 06:06:00 AM »

I use skill trees in Icar, although they're not really feats, it works very nicely. If you want to say a certain skill depends on more than one parent then you can show that in a diagrammatic form. See http://www.icar.co.uk/files/elements35.pdf page 24 for an example of this.
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Latigo
Member

Posts: 24


« Reply #5 on: February 07, 2008, 07:18:32 AM »

Another board game to have a look at is the classic Avalon Hill "Outdoor Survival".

(If you're old enough, you might remember it as an officially recommended accessory for D&D games...)

While you're at it, have a look at the old AD&D scenario "Isle of Dread" for an idea of what can happen when you have a big map full of encounters and then let the players do as they will with it.  Nothing they *have* to do, but lots they can go do.

Best,

Pete
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John Adams
Member

Posts: 90


« Reply #6 on: February 07, 2008, 11:10:11 AM »

Dave, this strikes me as remarkably similar to what I'm trying to do in my game over in this thread, where you have been extremely helpful. You're approaching it from the Sim side, I think I've jumped over into full frontal Nar.

In a nutshell, I think you're looking for Dogs in the Vineyard without the Judgment. If your Dogs are not agents of the Elders but rather just a bunch of pretty tough guys who might be persuaded to help out, I think that could be just what you're looking for. Thematic stuff might be there, but only as a catalyst for conflicts among the NPCs and PCs. The next "Town" in this case is the part of the Setting directly in front of the PCs at the end of last session. Players would be free to wander about in the prep'd areas and do whatever they like. With tight conflict all around them there would be plenty to do. Important NPCs should express important parts of the Setting, so as you interact with them you necessarily explore Setting and as you wander through the Setting you are drawn to important NPCs.

Example from my current campaign:

- Haldren -
Cleric of Terra
Thane of the Order of Thorne
Totally loyal to the Emperor
Supports the Edict of Succession
Passed over for the important position of Chamberlain
Longtime friend of the current Chamberlain

You really can't meet this guy without asking a lot of questions about the Setting. He's tied into conflicts with several other NPCs, so you can't avoid him forever. Tie him to a PC and you make the conflicts personal. And yet, this isn't a linear GM plot. I have no idea what trigger will be pulled or where it will lead. Players can wander in any direction and they will have interesting things to see and do.

(Naturally, my campaign has holes in it. Lots of them. So this is more a goal than a description of where it is now.)

Other important points:

* Players should have strong Plot Authority (maybe just by letting them declare conflicts)
* The GM should have complete Content Authority
* Prep takes time. How much content do you expect to generate during play?
* You need to make allowances for "Game Under Construction" signs, unless you use a complete published Setting
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David Berg
Member

Posts: 612


« Reply #7 on: February 07, 2008, 11:40:15 AM »

All these suggestions sound perfectly compatible with what I'm after, but missing the point itself.  The point is not about how the GM makes his world interesting, or about whether the players can just wander around until they find something they like.  These are important too!  I like them!  But, what I'm looking for is a way for the players to actively steer what the characters explore, based on what the players find cool at that moment.

"But David," you might say, "if the GM makes a cool enough plot (e.g. based on detailed player feedback), and presents it well enough, the players are bound to latch onto its interesting bits and follow the trail, without even feeling like they're following!"

And I say, "Bullshit!"  Following is following and everyone knows it.  I'm not saying following the GM is bad!  It's just not what I'm going for here.  I want the GM to follow where the players lead.  If they never surprise the GM and choose to go somewhere and focus on something he hadn't anticipated, I'd be stunned.

Here's an example:
The PCs are hired to kill Orcs.  The mission has plenty of color and discovery.  After killing the Orcs, the PCs find a glowing stone with an unreadable inscription.  "Ooh!  Cool!"  The GM smiles as the players discuss how they want to find out what this is.  Then one of the players says, "What I really want to know is what the tattoos on that big Orc did.  Were they what made him so strong?  Could we copy them and be super-strong too?"  And everyone else is like, "Yeah!  Awesome!"  And the GM's thinking, "I just wanted to make him look scary.  What the fuck?"

What I want is for the players to be able to go learn something interesting about Orc tattooing.  Not maybe, not if the GM feels like it.  They absolutely do determine where to go and encounter an opportunity there to learn what they seek.

Assuming that's possible, do you see the appeal?  Can you envision how that might be cool in a new and different way?  Or have you played something that accomplishes this already?
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David Berg
Member

Posts: 612


« Reply #8 on: February 07, 2008, 12:09:09 PM »

* Players should have strong Plot Authority (maybe just by letting them declare conflicts)

I could see a game working where the players say "We want to go where we can learn more about Orc tattoos!" and the GM opposes this somehow, and a roll is made, and the players win, and the GM says, "Okay, you find out (how is another topic) that the place to go is Bumbleshire!"  The thing is, I don't want the players to ever lose this conflict.

* Prep takes time. How much content do you expect to generate during play?

My current best idea goes like this:
Each session begins with the PCs in a situation with something interesting to do.  They spend the session exploring that situation, and finish with it.  Then they decide what to do next, and tell the GM.  The GM goes home and preps the next session.
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John Adams
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Posts: 90


« Reply #9 on: February 07, 2008, 12:13:51 PM »

Dave, it sounds like straight-up conflict resolution to me.

Conflict: We learn all about this orc's cool tattoos.

If you win those stakes, the GM is compelled to cough up the goods. If you don't want the players to ever lose, up the cost of continuing the conflict, the longer is goes, the more it costs you. How much is this worth to you? (Or is that to Nar?)

Or the GM could just Say Yes and forget the conflict altogether if it isn't dramatic enough.

The wrinkle is in the prep/play balance you want here. Anything requiring prep must wait until next session, so it doesn't seem like a good conflict candidate, the GM would be forced to wing it. What if at the end of the session each player listed one element of the SIS they would like to see next time, and the GM had to include 3 of those elements in his prep? Then the players could make sure they hit those elements by declaring conflicts?
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David Berg
Member

Posts: 612


« Reply #10 on: February 07, 2008, 02:52:09 PM »

John,

The GM says Yes, the GM coughs up the goods, the "coughing up" process takes an entire play session.  I want rules that make this happen, not rules that might or might not.  So, no Conflict Resolution.

Your idea for element suggestions to inform prep is much closer to the mark.  I should state, though, that I would prefer to guarantee players only learning opportunities, not specific experiences.  I think suggestions to the GM of "here's what next session will be about" are cooler than "here's what next session will contain".  And by "be about", I mean the motives the player takes into that Situation, and the guarantee that those motives can be pursued.
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Alfryd
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Posts: 45


« Reply #11 on: February 07, 2008, 04:33:41 PM »

Quote
So I still think there needs to be some kind of plot or GM direction, but in the service of exploration itself, rather than plot as such.  How to do that I'm not exactly sure, and I hope we can get a discussion on the possibilities rolling.
It seems to me that the logical solution would be design your plot diagram as a graph, rather than a railroad or an open field.  It gives players enough choice that they don't feel trapped by arbitrary narrative requirements, but constrains the action enough that the GM can reasonably cope with unfolding events.

The other benefit of the graph structure is that you can perform a kind of 'dynamic caching'.  If your players are at a particular node of the graph, you'll know that you have to research and embellish the setting for any adjacent nodes.  It's more work than the railroad, but less than complete freeform exploration.  Nodes might not represent just physical locations, they could also be placeholders for major events or any other dramatic scene/setting.

You should also take care to ensure than any constraints placed on the player's exploration are for plausible reasons.  If you're treking through the barren desert as part of a trading caravan, 'you will get lost and die of thirst' is a perfectly viable explanation for why you can't wander off the beaten track.  This does not apply to a leisurely stroll through temperate wheatfields.  The barriers needn't be physical- a stubborn NPC you need to babysit or time constraints could work just as well, but there needs to be a believable reason for why the PCs wouldn't really have that option available.  'I Jump Right Off the Cliff For No Particular Reason!" is not a valid player decision.

Then, if all else fails, and the players take off in an unexpected direction, you might tie them up in a difficult, semi-random encounter long enough to eat up the remainder of the session, so that you can then brainstorm new content before meeting again.  Or, just explain the situation to them.  You may or may not wish to shepherd them onto the straight and narrow again, but, there has to be a plausible reason involved
Quote
"What I really want to know is what the tattoos on that big Orc did.  Were they what made him so strong?  Could we copy them and be super-strong too?"  And everyone else is like, "Yeah!  Awesome!"  And the GM's thinking, "I just wanted to make him look scary.  What the fuck?"

What I want is for the players to be able to go learn something interesting about Orc tattooing.  Not maybe, not if the GM feels like it.  They absolutely do determine where to go and encounter an opportunity there to learn what they seek.
Are you saying that the players have both the right to explore the world as they see fit, and the right to dictate that where they explore will actually be interesting?  I'm not sure it's entirely fair on the GM that he has to make every nook and cranny of his setting rife with mystery and intrigue if his players choose to look in basically dumb places.  I dunno.

Well, there's nothing to stop the players trying various options to learn what the significance of that orc's tattoo might be, but there's nothing to guarantee they'll find out anything fascinating.  Of course, if you invested a lot of detail in describing the Orc's tattoo, then you were probably leading the players 'on' unfairly, but a good GM is supposed to insert red herrings into the description of a scene, just to keep players on their toes.  Not everything that catches the players' eye is neccesarily of great importance.

You can just say that orcs are not terribly communicative on the subject of their body art and it's connotations.  Maybe, if you like, you could arrange a later encounter with a similar orc tribe, and the head honcho has a similar tattoo of patterns on his face and body.  Perhaps it's a status symbol.  Perhaps it's the insignia of a diabolist cult that does, in fact, boost your mental and physical attributes -at the expense of devouring your soul.
Maybe the tattoo itself will have effects along those lines.  Maybe it can be used to gain entrance to a cult hideout.  Maybe it just looked pretty and adds some interest to the player's character sheet.  The players don't have to find out right away.
Certainly, a player is free to copy the tattoo if he desires, but point out that you don't yet know it's significance, so on their heads be it if it backfires.  As long as they don't arrive at definite conclusions before the next session, you can spin some elaborate backstory to cover yourself.  Nobody said the players have to find out instantly.
Quote
My current best idea goes like this:
Each session begins with the PCs in a situation with something interesting to do.  They spend the session exploring that situation, and finish with it.  Then they decide what to do next, and tell the GM.  The GM goes home and preps the next session.
Sounds like a fine idea.  I would suggest that if you're tying the GM's hands in this fashion, you might to have some kind of resource which measures the degree of control the player or GM has over the world.  I.e, if the players compel the GM to let them wander off the beaten path a lot, the GM can accumulate 'influence points' that allow him to fudge rolls by the players during mechanical encounters.  Maybe some kind of democratic concensus mechanism is useful.  I couldn't say, I'm relatively used to GM fiat.
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David Berg
Member

Posts: 612


« Reply #12 on: February 07, 2008, 11:39:23 PM »

Alfryd,

Clearly, combining a partial version of my idea (GM prep is responsive to player interests) with what you're used to (GM preps a bunch of neat stuff with the expectations that players might take interest) will wear out the poor GM.  I think I might be able to largely ditch the type that you're used to, though, with no ill effects!

Are you saying that the players have both the right to explore the world as they see fit,

Yes, but only exploration within the limits of player-GM agreements will go smoothly.  Exploration that violates such agreements will force things like, "Well, we gotta end the session now guys, so I can prep the thing you decided to do."  Facilitating good agreements will be key, but I think it can be done!

and the right to dictate that where they explore will actually be interesting?

Yes, but only on a certain scale.  If on their way into a dungeon, the players decide to stop and examine the nearby flowers, those flowers may be boring as hell.  If they decide to search a certain building in a town, that building may be boring as hell.  But if they decide to embark on some sort of multi-step quest that'll take multiple hours of play (i.e., a session)?  Yes, it will be interesting.

My current thought is a structure like this:
Session = one Scenario
Scenario = a situation containing something the players have agreed they want to explore, complete with means for them to do so and some source of drama & tension in the attempt (e.g. obstacles)

Thus, if the players bail mid-scenario, the session is over.  They stopped caring about the thing that they told the GM would motivate them, so now they need to pick something else so the GM can go prep that.

Hopefully, this can be avoided.  It's the players' job to be honest and consistent in their interests, and the GM's job to create a Scenario that won't bore them while they're exploring it.  Providing tools to facilitate this will also be key.  Again, I think it can be done!
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #13 on: February 08, 2008, 02:45:11 AM »

What I want is for the players to be able to go learn something interesting about Orc tattooing.  Not maybe, not if the GM feels like it.  They absolutely do determine where to go and encounter an opportunity there to learn what they seek.

Assuming that's possible, do you see the appeal?  Can you envision how that might be cool in a new and different way?  Or have you played something that accomplishes this already?


Yes and no.  One of the reasons I raised BP as an example is that the material is extensive and yet is still external to the GM.  It's not the GM's creation, in some respects the GM is only acting as interpreter or communicator of these externally existing 'facts'.  Of course the same can be said of most settings, although IMO to a lesser degree.  But it is not impossible for the GM to limit their own input primarily to the adjudication of discovery and interactions with the setting.

I think that could potentially be valid and entertaining.  But I really dislike the idea of prep-on-demand, mainly because it is something I am very poor at.  Even accepting the possibility of breaking a session, which I have both done and seen done, is not very satisfactory.  I've got a job and so forth, other commitments to my time, the prospect of a game that is going to potentially oblige me to find time in any given week (for example) to create the material for next week's session is a big ask.  It feels too much like running to keep up, and if there is no larger framework by which player activity can be at least partially predicted, maintaining that level of continuous creation is a lot like having a second job.

It irks me when people talk about Sim GM's "telling their story" because I do not think that is really whats going on.  The "story" as such is not important in its own right, its only there to provide a trail of breadcrumbs so that prep can be carried out in advance along the whole trail.  But I do think that the trail of crumbs is indeed serving a valid and useful purpose.  It would be more useful to me, at least, if the players' desires to investigate orcish tattoos could at least perhaps be postponed to the next trail of crumbs, kind of, OK I'll put that on my list of stuff to address next time, but not as soon as next session.

Hence I essentially agree with Alfryd's point about prepared material being non-linear, but this presents other problems that centre on making much more material than will ever be actually called on and thus goes to waste.  This too is a huge burden to place on a GM's time and resources.  But it may become much more do-able, I think, if the scenario/trail-of-crumbs is, again, external to the GM. In this case the GM and players are to some extent co-explorers, both encountering specific interactions that neither of them predicted at the outset, and instead experiencing interactions that were envisioned by an external third party, and seeing, quite literally, "how they play out". 
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #14 on: February 08, 2008, 03:01:20 AM »

In addition:

Back in the good ol' days you could go into a game store and find a shelf-full of scenarios, and you could look at those as a group, and discuss whether or not the indicated stuff turned you on.  "Ooh look lizard men, lets get that one".  Precisely because the material was external and pre-made you could make at least some kind of informed choice about what you wanted to explore, and commit collectively to those particular games up front.  That, to me, was a perfectly workable relationship within the group, much more so than the later development of putting the burden of creation entirely on the GM's shoulders, and requiring players to buy in sight unseen.  I go into game stores these days and all I see is RULES, rules as far as the eye can see and virtually no actually playable content.

For anyone reading this who entered the hobby after these sorts of scenarios went out of fashion, you can see a list of the old D&D modules here: http://www.waynesbooks.com/DDModulesBseries.html  Look at all that stuff for just one rule-set! Bring back Keep on the Borderlands, say I.
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Impeach the bomber boys:
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
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