Old School D&D is about herd stupidity

This is a little story about what happened yesterday in our campaign, when the group confronted Lamentations of the Gingerbread Princess. As this is one of the best LotFP modules, you may wish the consider the following to be SPOILERS - this one's well worth playing if you are into this sort of thing at all.

So here's what the tactical situation looks like from a bird's eye perspective:

The mission target is the relief and rescue of a couple hundred hostages, plus finding a way out of a hostile fae magic pocket dimension for the party and the hostages. The hostages are held in a village on an island, with a big ivory wizard tower in the middle. The hostiles consist of a few dozen demonic teddy bears (clearly subhuman in combat abilities), five wardog-like poodles (sort of dangerous) and a dozen or so flying, archerous cupids (subhuman, but flying and shooting). The hostages seem ill-treated and mentally defeated, under constant surveillance, but basically free to move about in the village. There's a 5th level magic-user in the tower, plus all the mission-critical mcguffin stuff is in there, too. There's a single entrance to the tower, plus a balcony 30 feet high from the ground.

And here's what our party decided to do about it:

The adventuring party of seven people goes up to the single bridge leading to the island-village and requests an audience with whoever is running the place. The two teddy bears guarding the bridge request them to leave their weapons, which they decide to do, and follow them into the village. The magic-user appears at the top balcony of the tower and addresses the newcomers, welcoming them warmly into this (nefarious, horrifying) place as new residents, but refusing to come down to meet them in person for now. The party decides to attack the tower unarmed in an attempt to reach the magic-user; their plan involves breaching the doors and taking control of a hypothetical internal stairway. A sudden skirmish erupts as the adventures start breaking in, with the enemy forces converging on the adventurers as they fight their way into the tower; the party forgets to secure the stairway as they'd planned, and gets bogged down individually, each adventurer fighting several halfling-sized teddy bears; the party is wiped out, one by one.

The specific concept that motivated the party to attempt to breach the tower was that they had concluded that the magic-user in the tower was the demonic linchpin of the entire pocket dimension; if they could exorcise the devil, they could save everybody in one swoop. As it happened, the assault on the tower proved that their basic concept was faulty: the magic-user was not, in fact, vulnerable to Turn Undead, upon which the entire plan rested. The last member of the party to go down was the priest, after they realized their error.

The peculiar bit in our newest TPK was that once the party was established in the middle of the fae/demon village, with the magic-user unwilling to come down from their tower, the players actually had a long-ish strategic discourse wherein they fielded a number of ideas that would seem in hindsight to provide them with more of a chance for success. For instance, the following concepts were brought up:
* The party could wait for night and try to climb up to the tower balcony stealthily.
* The party could live in the village for a while to observe and learn more about the particulars of the place. They could perhaps foment a rebellion among the prisoners, create some weapons, and so on.
* The party could continue interacting with the magic-user, perhaps over the course of a longer time period, to gain their trust and attempt an assassination when their guard is lowered; the magic-user doesn't seem very smart, after all.
* The party could distract the frankly quite stupid teddy bears and whatnot, attract them away from the tower, and then attack the tower with a momentary tactical advantage when the majority of the village's overseers were not in the immediate vicinity.

So afterwards I'm left to ponder - what went wrong here, exactly? The party starts with at least three viable strategic approaches (stealth, diplomacy and brute force), they pick one (diplomacy, wherein they declare their presence and disarm themselves), but then decide to follow up with an ill-planned impromptu assault on the enemy in the exactly most disadvantageous time and place. All this, in a context where the players spend lengthy amounts of time discussing their options; they even voted on the immediate assault, which vote went 5-1 in favour I think.

This sort of thing is not unique at all - and if you have your own stories of herd stupidity, feel free to share. After thinking about it a bit, the way I'd formulate my thinking is that it's actually pretty difficult to produce smart decision-making in the iterative committee context that D&D offers: there's a complex strategic situation, and there's lots of chefs in the kitchen, all with their own unique ideas and preferences, and the situation is changing all the time, and you need to separate the meaningful tactical and strategic facts from a compex game world narrative. There's some effort at chairmanning the proceedings, but it's not super disciplined by any means. This is an environment in which herd stupidity has a great chance to flourish, causing specific cognitive faults in the proceedings:
* The party may come to lack strategic foresight: they make decisions moment-to-moment without considering their long-term goals.
* The party may come to lack strategic memory: they outright forget what they were supposed to be doing, and thus waste their positioning as they jump tracks.
* The party may get stuck on a singular strategic conceit to the exclusion of all else.
* The party may outright miss important strategic particulars; not because characters fail some checks, but simply because the players do not think to ask obvious questions, or ignore pertinent details as they are narrated.

Lots of things happen in old-fashioned exploratory wargamey D&D, as it's a quite varied game, but alongside tactical combat scenarios and daring guessing games this is one of the classics: a complex strategic situation where the players have great initial freedom of approach, but every move they make rapidly narrows down their choice set (solidifies the situation towards a resolution, in other words). While making smart strategic choices is an excellent skill to have here, I think that simply having some handle on the group debate dynamics would be even better: first train yourselves to act and decide things intelligently as a group, so as to avoid herd stupidity, and then perhaps there will be some room for actual strategic brilliance. But the first thing, before anything else, needs to be to get a handle so that you're not collectively dumber than you are individually.
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Comments

  • A few questions...

    Did this situation involve an "established" party, in that the same mix of real-life and fictional people had a track of successfully going on adventures together? Or were there new players and new group dynamics involved? Or was it a new party of freshly rolled-up characters for a bunch of usual players?

    Did they ever establish, or even just talk about establishing, any leadership structure for the adventuring party - in-fiction or out-of-fiction?
  • This was session #52 in this most recent iteration of the campaign; it's been going on weekly for the last year. Of the six players present three are core or former core regulars, two are casual regulars and one was indeed a first-time participant. I cannot really call five of the six players inexperienced, although the game is of course very deep and complex, and most do still have well under 50 sessions of play under their belts - I'm sure this would've looked different if we had more than one 100-session man in there.

    The characters were relatively fresh; about half first rolled for this adventure, the rest having been in play for a few sessions, but not through any major adventures yet.

    The party dynamics were pretty normal for the group: the most experienced/skilled player in the group shied from seizing leadership, preferring to let others gain experience, as has been usual for him in this campaign; the second-most experienced leader has been out of the game for a month due to life concerns (plus a grieving period for his 3rd level character who died in the spring, perhaps) and thus wasn't in position to do it either. The leadership defaulted to the third core regular, eager rpg newcomer (no prior rpg experience before this campaign) who often leads the party. Pretty much everything was routine except the participation of the new player (no trouble at all, I thought), and one player uncommonly getting drunk (celebrating a passed exam, plus being generally a bore).

    The party tends to appoint an explicit leader, but it depends on the leader how they'll go about their leadership - there's no entrenched methodology, and the leadership generally mostly means being the spokesman towards the GM, not necessarily taking, holding and wielding internal authority. I'd personally characterize the leadership traditions as pretty casual, with the understanding that most D&D adventuring crews seem to be quite casually organized. (I veer towards more structure myself when being a player, in an effort to focus and sharpen the attentions of my fellow players.)

    I'll observe that the one player who was most active about bringing up alternative courses of action, and who voted against immediate assault when the party was in the throes of herd stupidity, was the experienced old-timer. I believe that the outcome of the adventure would have been quite different had he been in charge, pretty much because he seems to have a better handle on the strategic discourse skills I discussed above; he often recognizes the pattern of events that the party is actually experiencing while it is happening, rather than just focusing on some single detail to the exclusion of everything else. The player in question has been intentionally back-benching himself in this campaign in an effort to let others play more, which means that he usually only leads the adventurers when the fictional situation suggests that he do, or nobody else i up for the task.
  • This is a problem intrinsic to the type of game you're playing. LotFP is, like D&D set up as a wargame, and rewards good wargame thinking and punishes poor tactical choices, like making a frontal assault on the tower. From that perspective, what happened in this game was perfectly predictable and gave the results you should have expected. The session should be considered a resounding success by all players because of that.

    But it sounds like that's not the perspective you're taking. You wanted the story to continue, to result in something other than TPK (which often happens simply because there's no rules about surrendering or running away).

    My suggestion? Either accept that sometimes these things happen, invent rules which support surrendering, or switch to game from a different RPG subgenre. Even then, poor tactical choices will likely still occur from time to time. It's just usually easier to escape fights in games with more narrative-based combat systems.
  • I did not intend to describe a "problem" - it was just a story, coupled with a philosophical observation about the kinds of skills you need to prosper in this game.

    And yes, the session was entirely successful as an executed process. I hope I did not imply otherwise. My intent was to philosophize about the skills and approach required for adventurer success in old school D&D. This issue is largely lateral to whether the game is being played correctly and well; you can be playing well and having fun, yet nevertheless lose all the time. I think we play pretty well as far as executing the play process goes; it's just the strategic and tactical decision-making that gets to be somewhat uneven now and then.

    If I am disappointed in the occasional (or let's say, regular) failures of our adventuring crew, it's mostly because I'd like them to have more success in their lives to brighten up the grim, grim slog that low-level play, objectively refereed, can be. The way the game goes, though, it can't really happen without the players leveling up their play and reducing the frequency of these kinds of sessions. Even reasonably correct choices often result in defeat in the game, so adventurers can ill-afford worsening the situation with their own choices.

    Regarding the more general issue of retreat as a tactical option in D&D, I have to say that most of the time it's the crew's tactics that cause total wipeouts. This time, for instance, they decided to assault an enclosed building in the middle of an enemy encampment; there's not much of a retreat in that choice, it's going to be to the knife. The last time they got wiped out it was because the party got separated while pursuing hostiles (straight into an ambush), and managed to arrive to the field of battle in drips and draps; nevertheless, each individual fraction decided to charge into the on-going melee in a mild instance of gambler's fallacy (mild because I guess the fight was sort of winnable with a bit more luck). That time the only thing preventing them from cutting their losses was a stubborn wish to turn a defeat into a triumph.
  • edited May 2017
    The characters were relatively fresh; about half first rolled for this adventure, the rest having been in play for a few sessions, but not through any major adventures yet.
    I wonder whether this was a factor which lowered their investment in their characters' success.
    I also wonder whether the whimsical theme of the scenario, with the teddy bears etc., may have lead them to underestimate the opposition.

    In other words, I'm wondering whether they underperformed tactically because they failed to do better or because they couldn't be bothered to try their best.

    "Can't be bothered to try harder" was often a factor of tension in all my attempts at tactical, stakes-are-survival games (various iterations of D&D). I later came to interpret it in the light of the Forge as a hint of CA clash.
  • That's a real phenomenon, I agree. It doesn't even need to be because players are ambiguous about the creative agenda; players can be "underperforming" for all sorts of reasons, such as exhaustion, despair or nihilism. It is particularly common for players to underperform when they are convinced that their efforts cannot have much impact in the results at this point in time: in those situations it's simply psychologically easier to just hurry up, open all the doors, reveal the horrible secrets and get it over with, whatever it is. With players who are on board with the agenda this sort of thing isn't even defeatist, it's just a player's conviction that they've done all they can, and the rest is up to luck, so let's stop fuzzing and start rolling the dice, and if luck is bad then let's make new characters and adventure some more.

    In this case, though, I don't think that the players were extremely unmotivated. The casuals were along for the ride as usual, the new guy was listening and learning, but the rest were let's say 80% keen (where 50% would be the campaign average). The factor that particularly motivated the players here was that the adventure was offering substantial rewards for success, and the party is pretty success-hungry after a long string of defeats and pointless adventures with little reward. The adventure was also deeply entangled in sandbox issues (the fate of a town that's been on board since the start), which probably made it more interesting than some, and it was much, much more eldritch than has been usual in the campaign.

    Nevertheless, if I had to guess at internal psychological reasons, then my bet would be that impatience influenced the player decision to assault immediately here; they may have wanted to have it over with in one session. I consider this normal, players are always being impatient and thus they favour quick and simple fixes. Another factor that they might have thought about is that they were so creeped by the milieu that they feared that their situation would worsen even further if they waited. Neither of these factors were explicitly discussed at the table, though.

    I take it, then, that this herd stupidity phenomenon is not familiar to you guys as something that simply happens due to a group of players managing to externalize their thought processes to the group in a way where at the end nobody is actually thinking (or if they are, the majority ignores them), and this then results in decision-making that seems clearly sub-par to an outside observer? That would be interesting, as for me this is something that surfaces pretty regularly. I've been party to similar sequences myself on the player side, and it doesn't really seem to take much for an adventuring party to fail to process their situation into a high-quality battle plan. Just have a key player visit the bathroom while a crucial decision is being made, or misemphasize one hint, and bam, the party may get stuck in an extremely counter-productive strategic stance, upon which it doubles down every chance it gets.
  • I take it, then, that this herd stupidity phenomenon is not familiar to you guys as something that simply happens due to a group of players managing to externalize their thought processes to the group in a way where at the end nobody is actually thinking (or if they are, the majority ignores them)
    This is familiar to me as an out-of-game issue, like when a group of friends are trying to decide whether to order take-away pizza or go out for burgers, whether to play a game or watch a film after dinner, and which one. When no decision is arrived at and I notice the clock is running, I usually find it so infuriating as to heavy-handedly jump in and grasp leadership, unless I'm with people I don't know quite well and I'm still studying them. If anybody else looks like they're trying to take the lead, I'll support and endorse them.

    As for that happening when playing a game, it would immediately look to me as proof there's not a lot of collective buy-in, for some reason...
  • Maybe they were bored or frustrated and wanted to get it over with. I know you think this is not the case but I wonder if you've asked them. In this post you relentlessly refer to "the party" but don't talk about your friends at the table; you casually mention this came after " a long string of defeats and pointless adventures with little reward", which sounds very demoralizing and the opposite of fun, and use the insulting phrase "herd stupidity" to refer to behavior that might just be a cry for help or an utter lack of concern for the outcome. If a GM offers me a long string of defeats and pointless adventures with little reward, I might still go through the motions for the sake of social cohesion, but I am not going to care what happens any more.
  • I guess that's possible, but it does require assuming that I either mischaracterize or misunderstand my own situation. The way I would describe the group is that we're at most mildly frustrated with defeat; enough to make the group eager for success, and actually skeptical of vague adventure hooks, but nowhere near enough to make the players throw the game. Besides, we talk about alternatives to D&D regularly, so it's not like we're stuck playing this game if we don't want to.

    The reason for why I don't talk about my friends at the table is precisely that they are my friends at the table - I don't want to discuss how this guy's depression medication is impacting his hobby participation, or how that one's girlfriend would prefer a less lethal game, or how we all treat the 11-year old nephew a bit more gingerly, or how this one guy was particularly useless due to being drunk today, or whatever. I don't feel that I need a public deconstruction of the group to discuss an emergent phenomenon of play that I've encountered time and again in D&D, with different groups; I simply do not believe that the herd stupidity thing is so much because of the specific people, as it is because of the nature of the challenge.

    Here's an interesting article about herd stupidity in a non-gaming context, perhaps it clarifies the concept a bit. It's a relatively well-established idea in the social sciences that people are not always smarter as a group than they are individually.

    I think it's really interesting that you don't have experience with this thing in D&D. I mean, your D&D crews always play smartly in strategic terms, and they only fail because of bad luck or individual foolishness, and not because they fall into a herd mentality and just go with the flow? I find that really unexpected, because I'm seeing this stuff all the time. So much so that it's one of the defining characteristics of clever, high-quality strategic play for me when a group manages to avoid it and respond intelligently to complex strategic problems.

    Let's look at another example of herd stupidity from an earlier adventure, with a different group, just to have a broader view:

    The Block Party

    A few years ago we were playing "Blocks of Quox" (a fine puzzle adventure published in Fight On!), an adventure with large, tunnel-filling, 10 feet to the side stone blocks that were moved around the dungeon with the aid of magic. I was GMing for a group of four or so adventurers.

    Two adventurers crossed a pit in the floor into a tunnel which was blocked by just such a magical cube, which they could perhaps push to have something useful happen in the dungeon. Unknown to them, beyond the cube was a room with bugbears in it. When the adventurers started pushing the stone cube, the bugbears soon reacted and started pushing back, so that the cube started moving inexorably backwards. The speed wasn't anything special and there was like twenty feet of room between the block and the pit, so it wasn't a crisis situation or anything like that.

    The way the party reacted to this situation was quite memorable, as they realized that it would be pretty bad to fall into the pit at the mouth of the tunnel, and therefore something needed to be done. The two adventurers chose to continue trying to force the cube back by sheer strength, and, to my amazement, the rest of the party hastened to help them, crossing the pit specifically so as to stop this run-away stone block. They got the entire team there to push back on that block.

    After a few strength checks it seemed like the block wasn't going to stop moving (those bugbears are pretty tough!), and the party realized that they'd need to figure out something else. Specifically, they didn't want to fall into that pit. It would be so bad to fall into the pit.

    This being a funny TPK story, of course two party members fall into the pit as they're crossing back to the safe side. They drag down the rope the characters had been using to help them cross, leaving the others to try jumping. One of the other characters went voluntarily into the pit, I think, so as to help the fallen ones out before the cube would inexorably fall on their heads. The jumpers were pressed for running space by the approaching cube, and thus failed to reach the other side, falling into the pit with the rest.

    At the end we were amazed to realize that yes, the players had managed to get the entire party killed by the combination of bad luck and a slowly moving stone block that fell on them in a pit, all because they had gotten so stuck on the idea of stopping the block that the entire party hurried to join in the effort, despite having a clear picture of the architectural situation. In hindsight nobody could explain why the party could not have just taken their time to help the two initial block-pushers cross the pit, and then let the block fall into the empty pit, thus clearing the way to whatever was behind the block (the next room with bugbears, as it happened). The party had nothing riding on that block, so why was it so important to stop it from moving in the first place? Obvious in hindsight, but somehow the real-time-ish decision-making, the 1st person perspective and the group decision-making process combined into one of the lamest TPKs ever.
  • edited May 2017
    it's actually pretty difficult to produce smart decision-making in the iterative committee context that D&D offers: there's a complex strategic situation, and there's lots of chefs in the kitchen, all with their own unique ideas and preferences, and the situation is changing all the time, and you need to separate the meaningful tactical and strategic facts from a complex game world narrative.
    . . .
    While making smart strategic choices is an excellent skill to have here, I think that simply having some handle on the group debate dynamics would be even better: first train yourselves to act and decide things intelligently as a group, so as to avoid herd stupidity, and then perhaps there will be some room for actual strategic brilliance. But the first thing, before anything else, needs to be to get a handle so that you're not collectively dumber than you are individually.
    Agreed. I made some efforts toward breaking this down for Delve. What I came up with amounted to something like:

    1) Briefly summarize current options.
    2) Which ones don't require more info? Evaluate those. If everyone's enthused about one, do that.
    3) Which ones do require more info? Which of those do we know how to pursue? Of those, is everyone enthused about the required pursuit? If so, do that.
    4) Is everyone willing to throw any more time and energy at the options we don't even know how to pursue? Really? You're all on board? Okay, let's start with the first useful step.

    Once you gather more info for (3), then you go back to the list again.

    I think the key here, as far as explaining what happened in your game, Eero, is that "enthused" is the key criteria. I think player enthusiasm is what governs what actually happens, and I think "seems likely to succeed" is only one of many factors that feed into it.

    A desperate quick-strike to Turn the linchpin of a pocket dimension sounds fun.

    I also think committee deliberations are less fun than action, so the urge to do the first fun-sounding thing that comes up is understandable. Even if your game didn't actually experience the failings that Jason mentioned, the players' suboptimal approach might be a device for avoiding those failings.

    A few more specific notes:
    * The party may come to lack strategic foresight: they make decisions moment-to-moment without considering their long-term goals.
    This sounds potentially like acting from a bad place. This is something I'd try to fix. Whenever my 4 steps above start wandering away from targeting a goal, I try to catch that and remind players of the goal. There must be a better approach, but I haven't parsed one yet...
    * The party may come to lack strategic memory: they outright forget what they were supposed to be doing, and thus waste their positioning as they jump tracks.
    I see this all the time after breaks. I wonder if some non-onerous note-taking right before breaks could solve this.
    * The party may get stuck on a singular strategic conceit to the exclusion of all else.
    By "stuck", you mean "fixated", not "stymied", correct? As long as no one's heartbroken after the fact, I have zero problem with this. If my players get fixated on something that they should know is hopeless, I'll chime in to stop that so they don't have that "would/should have known!" frustration afterward; otherwise, try it and see what happens!
    * The party may outright miss important strategic particulars; not because characters fail some checks, but simply because the players do not think to ask obvious questions, or ignore pertinent details as they are narrated.
    To me this is a vital communication issue for this play style to work at all. My GM principle for this is Assume The Characters Aren't Morons. As we all speak to communicate fiction, info will inevitably get lost. Never allow that to mean the characters have blinders on. I treat "obvious" and "previously narrated and pertinent" as perpetually free info, requiring no asking or memory.
  • * The party may get stuck on a singular strategic conceit to the exclusion of all else.
    By "stuck", you mean "fixated", not "stymied", correct? As long as no one's heartbroken after the fact, I have zero problem with this. If my players get fixated on something that they should know is hopeless, I'll chime in to stop that so they don't have that "would/should have known!" frustration afterward; otherwise, try it and see what happens!
    Yes, fixated. For example, here they got fixated on the idea that if only they could reach and deal with the magic-user in the tower, they could fix it all. (Which was not, note, even remotely true: the magic-user isn't the issue in the scenario, and killing it is no complete fix in itself. In terms of strategic decision-making they were operating on a false premise with insufficient proof for it.)

    More generally, your observations are interesting in that it seems you do quite a bit of chairmanning of party discourse as the GM. I do a huge amount myself when I'm being one of the players, but I really, really don't want to get mixed up in that when GMing, as there's no clear boundary at all in between chairmanning the adventuring committee and playing the game for the players: what remains of the game if the GM does the work of analyzing the situation, recognizing the options and predicting their consequences? When GMing, I tend to only interfere in the party proceedings to bring outside pressure (time limits, NPCs who you might not wish to hear your bickering), and to occasionally remind the players on an OOC level about good gamesmanship.
    I think the key here, as far as explaining what happened in your game, Eero, is that "enthused" is the key criteria. I think player enthusiasm is what governs what actually happens, and I think "seems likely to succeed" is only one of many factors that feed into it.
    Agreed, enthusiasm is often a major governor of what players actually do. Speaking philosophically, though, I've found that what you get enthusiastic about is, in turn, a matter of skill and experience: if you have a clear understanding of the strategic cascade in something like e.g. socially hacking a fairy society, then you'll be more enthusiastic to do it; if you don't really even realize that doing something like that would be an option, then you're much more likely to be enthusiastic about the hack'n slash approach.

    Another common D&D example: only players who are familiar with the principles of siege warfare ever suggest and enact a siege plan when their characters need to take down a keep or other fortified position. The less informed players keep seeing nails everywhere, because the only thing they have is the hammer (the "I attack them head on" strategy).

    And that's where we come back to the skill of actually governing the strategic discourse: if players were more skilled about explaining to each other what their options are, and in what way those options are entertaining and effective and otherwise worthwhile, then the group would be less unlikely to vote on essentially superficial basis. It's the same thing we get in political democracy: the only good decision-making body is an informed one, and therefore the quality of the decision-making is directly dependent on the officials who prep the decision-makers. For D&D, that's individual players prepping each other to make smart decisions; you cannot get a group to make a decision that's smarter than the smartest individual decision would be unless you spend effort in sharing knowledge and wisdom among the group. The potential is admittedly there for two heads to think better than one, but it won't work without specific techniques of committee management.

    Note the key element of the story in my original post: the group knew, collectively, that there were other possible approaches. This was not a case of players not knowing that you could play differently, or them innocently missing an opportunity; they managed to have an actual debate on their options, and to pick the seemingly worst plan in the bunch with overwhelming majority support. Is it any wonder if I think that there's something specifically wrong in the decision-making process?

    Thinking of our group in particular, the core issue seems to be precisely in the briefing process; the adventuring party probably has too much democracy and too little decision-making structure for practical purposes, in other words - the group is letting players participate in decision-making without having the expertise to make those decisions, and they don't help individuals to get up to speed, and this results in bad choices. If they had a dictator who decided what to do, I doubt that they would have first given away all of their weapons only to decide to follow-up with a frontal assault; the dictator would have stuck to a single strategy throughout. And if they had actually briefed each other - explained why attacking now is a bad idea, and why e.g. sneaking into the tower at night might be better - then it seems unlikely that they would have still stuck with the frontal assault over the other options.

    Given that the party seems to run on a pretty democratic basis, the players would probably find advantage in assigning more explicit briefing responsibilities. The way it worked in this particular case was that the players asked each other for options, and thus amassed their list of potential courses to take, which they then voted on to discover an acceptable concensus. However, no serious exploration of the alternatives was engaged in, and nobody really argued for particular solutions over others. The one player in the group who had serious misgivings about the frontal assault was particularly notable in that while he made concrete suggestions for alternatives, he never went as far as to take a firm stance and explain to the others why he preferred a more circuitous strategy. I imagine he was following his general approach of letting the other players gain leadership experience by not interfering too much.
  • More generally, your observations are interesting in that it seems you do quite a bit of chairmanning of party discourse as the GM. I do a huge amount myself when I'm being one of the players, but I really, really don't want to get mixed up in that when GMing, as there's no clear boundary at all in between chairmanning the adventuring committee and playing the game for the players: what remains of the game if the GM does the work of analyzing the situation, recognizing the options and predicting their consequences? When GMing, I tend to only interfere in the party proceedings to bring outside pressure (time limits, NPCs who you might not wish to hear your bickering), and to occasionally remind the players on an OOC level about good gamesmanship.
    I don't do any of what I'd call chairmanning; I'd call what I do "outsider troubleshooting". Because I'm the one person at the table not participating in the strategic decisions, I have the easiest time spotting bad process. It seems only decent to call it out when I see it. :smile:

    I agree that it's very important not to do "the work of analyzing the situation, recognizing the options and predicting their consequences". At the same time, I think it's important to distinguish between the skilled work of this sort, and the sort that anyone could easily do if they were actually there in the fiction instead of sitting at a table. Although I never help with the former (which work is meaningful to the players), I am always ready to assist with the latter (which isn't).
  • edited May 2017
    I've found that what you get enthusiastic about is, in turn, a matter of skill and experience: if you have a clear understanding of the strategic cascade in something like e.g. socially hacking a fairy society, then you'll be more enthusiastic to do it; if you don't really even realize that doing something like that would be an option, then you're much more likely to be enthusiastic about the hack'n slash approach.
    I think that's one of the primary factors, but I think "what would be cool and remind me of stories I like and would make me feel like a badass genius if I pulled it off" is a competing one.
    they managed to have an actual debate on their options, and to pick the seemingly worst plan in the bunch with overwhelming majority support. Is it any wonder if I think that there's something specifically wrong in the decision-making process?
    Worst? I dunno. Reminiscent of cool stories? Check. Would feel badass if successful? Check.
    you cannot get a group to make a decision that's smarter than the smartest individual decision would be unless you spend effort in sharing knowledge and wisdom among the group.
    That doesn't describe my fiction-based strategic roleplay at all. Usually we share what little wisdom we do have at the drop of a hat, but quickly reach diminishing returns. More fruitfully, I think, we inspire each other with brainstorming aloud, and eventually someone comes up with an idea that everyone decrees the best one.
    the group is letting players participate in decision-making without having the expertise to make those decisions, and they don't help individuals to get up to speed
    Maybe the knowledge differential in your groups is much greater than in mine. Maybe that's because, when I GM, I inform the players of everything their characters would know based on living in this fictional world their whole lives? I mean, if one player at my table knows how to start a fire in real life and the others don't, that can make for a fun chat, but doesn't affect the fiction at all. The characters know how to make fires, period.
  • I think I can appreciate what you mean in the abstract - I, also, pinpoint obvious things to the players, the kinds of things that their characters would not miss. I usually call this "compensating for the deficiencies in the simulation" or something similar. I may repeat myself, emphasize certain facts, ask questions to make sure the players understand what I am telling them.

    Usually that sort of thing is more relevant in spatial issues (who is where, how many doors, which way does the corridor turn) and for socio-cultural assumptions (what your character would already know about this thing, what cultural detail is this NPC signifying), though. I don't remember ever having interfered in adventuring party decision-making procedures in the interest of compensating for the deficiencies of tabletop roleplaying. To the contrary, in fact - I may ask the players to limit their speculative pondering because a character is being pressed for time, or because they are not really in position to have a complex committee meeting with their allies about their next move. Rarely has a character been in a better position to do strategic decision-making than the player is.

    Well, no, thinking about it, there is a scenario: when characters make plans over an extended downtime on a highly technical issue, with consulting NPCs to aid them, that's a situation where I put reservations aside and help the players come up with the best plans reasonably possible in a given situation. I have consulted parties extensively on matters such as siege warfare or winter travel under such pretenses.
  • edited May 2017
    Cross-posted!
    "compensating for the deficiencies in the simulation"
    Yeah! Same concept I use.
    I may ask the players to limit their speculative pondering because a character is being pressed for time, or because they are not really in position to have a complex committee meeting with their allies about their next move.
    Same here, absolutely. In this thread, I've only been talking about the leisurely planning meetings. I find the rushed ones entirely non-problematic -- "You did the best you could, you were rushed!"
    Rarely has a character been in a better position to do strategic decision-making than the player is.
    I would say that, during any leisurely planning, the character who can take in the sights and sounds of the place directly, and knows from years of experience how far an arrow can fly with accuracy or how much crap you can carry while swimming, is always in a much better position than the player. The simulation is never without its deficiencies.
    when characters make plans over an extended downtime on a highly technical issue, with consulting NPCs to aid them
    Yeah, I've occasionally done that too. I find it doesn't take away any of the players' fun at all. That might be instructive.
  • Yeah, I've occasionally done that too. I find it doesn't take away any of the players' fun at all. That might be instructive.
    Yeah, sure, but it's not like I play this game for fun, anyway, so that's not very pertinent. It's serious business, running a pulp fantasy simulator wargame [grin].
  • edited May 2017
    Hey, Eero! To be clear, I don't question the reality of herd stupidity as a socio-cognitive phenomenon. It's just that I can easily recollect superficially similar situations my analysis of which was - and still is - different.

    Your second example, the slowly moving cube, is actually spot-on in that it immediately registers as an instance of "stupidity" to me, too. What's surprising to me is that you seem to basically count that as an instance of successful (if not victorious) play, at the most basic level. If I try and imagine my D&D3 table of old encountering a TPK in similar circumstances - not too much of a stretch, really - I also imagine the follow-up discussion, blame-shifting and grieving for the dead characters would have made that the very last session for both that "campaign" and that group - next time I or somebody else would have tried to assemble everybody and roll up new characters, next to everyone in the group would have made up excuses not to show up and we'd effectively have reached a silent agreement to let the corpse of the game lie dead. We were terrible losers, apparently.

    On the other hand, I won't try and claim I have a lot of experience playing D&D as a game of smart strategic thinking - I don't! Virtually all my experiences playing D&D or very similar games have been plagued by CA clashes, expectation mismatches, flawed social dynamics or at least teenage naiveté (the only exception perhaps being a short-lived D&D4 game played with serious hardcore Forge theory enthusiasts).

    That's possibly why your story of a rushed, badly planned assault which ended in a TPK immediately registered as a CA clash to me... In my games of D&D and the like, I've seen more rushed, badly planned assault than anything else, and they were always predicated on boredom - players who didn't at all enjoy planning who decided to just push their luck and see what would happen, because such a gamble no matter how desperate at least felt like playing to them, while carefully planning their actions was just unbearably boring work.

    In another thread, I have recently mentioned a "revival" game of BECMI D&D played at a convention not many years ago. I wrote:
    I was one of three people total (DM included) who were entertained, amongst a bunch of players who were bored to hell - both touchy-feely people and swashbuckling-adventure people allied in lamenting the game's emphasis on avoidance (one's bottom line was: "The only game where, when a hint of story seems to be coming at you, you turn and run". I'm still LOLling to that).
    To elaborate on that: one player - who I know to be a board-game enthusiast and a strategy/tactics oriented, one who plays to win - had the personality and, let's say, charisma to hog some spotlight. Being also knowledgeable enough about the game, he effectively acted as party leader from minute one. He stocked up on 10ft poles and all that stuff, and I was totally on-board with that.
    In the first dungeon room we entered - definitely not a large one, but with at least three doors leading different ways - we started, he and I, to question the GM about the way doors swung, and then devise ways we could "safely" open the doors... It was my opinion, IIRC, that tying a rope to the ring-shaped door-handle would allow us to open the door from a distance, thus keeping us safer. Thus it took us a while, in real time, to choose which door to first open, and how.
    Another player (out of 5-6, IIRC) was playing a halfling and had rolled the highest HP total, plus enough starting wealth to buy metal armor and immediately get a nickname in the lines of "the walking can" or something. It was this player, for the records, who later summarized the game with that hilarious catchphrase above. Already he was hitching for action, not being quite on-board with our careful planning how to open doors, and already his character had distinguished himself during our overland approach to the dungeon, by removing his armor to scout ahead, hidden by tall grass (the rules in use giving halflings a flat 9/10 chance to hide outdoors), and successfully detecting a party of kobolds, which we then managed to avoid completely. An excellent result, in my book.
    So, when we agreed on how exactly to open that first door, and the room appeared empty and quiet from the outside, of course the halfling was our party member of choice to send in as a vanguard. Some kind of monstrous jelly or ooze started oozing down onto him from the ceiling! Luckily, he passed his save or whatever, remaining unharmed for the first fraction of a minute or so. We urged him to retreat back to the safety of our large armed party, which he did, then we shut the door and tied it with rope for good measure.
    Astonishingly, we had no losses so far - not even a single hit point - plus the tied-up door stood unassailed (the monster on the other side appeared to have lost interest in pursuit). Party-leader guy and I were enthusiastic how well things were going for us (we wouldn't have dreamed our point-halfling to survive that ooze-jelly assault) and high-fived each other on a job well-done. Then turned our attention to the remaining doors. Everybody else looked at us weird, and someone pointed out we'd been playing for, like, two hours (including char-gen of course) and we'd accomplished nothing yet. "We'll get to the loot", I think I said, "and we need to get there alive, anyway. And have a clear retreat route secured by then."
    Listening carefully at the other two doors, we heard sounds through one of them we decided were the voices and steps of distant kobolds, coming our way to investigate the noises we'd made in the ooze incident. Realizing we'd lost the element of surprise, we broke a 10ft pole into two long pieces of wood we then used to bar the door and quickly proceeded to nail it shut. The noise of course alerted the kobolds, who hastened toward us, but couldn't get through: the door held. Party-leader guy and I again high-fived each other, then turned our attention to the last door. "We have to hurry", we reasoned, "Find something valuable we can grab, then run back to the surface, before they ram through the door and get us from behind." Perhaps we started debating whether leaving an adventurer to stand guard to this room was a good plan.
    Our comrades in arms, though, looked at the clock in exasperation. It's entirely possible someone asked the DM, out of character, "How many rooms in this dungeon?" (it was a number in the high 20s).
    While the two of us debated how to best approach the third door (this one, you see, swung out, so dreadfully there would be no holding it shut on a retreat!), the halfling player let out a war-cry and kicked it open (to our gaping astonishment, but amongst the cheers of our so-far-unmentioned companions). Over the following 10 minutes, he then managed to rush through a dozen dungeon rooms, uncovering several hints as to some kind of plot, until, in an underground prison block, he encountered a terrifying flame-headed ghost. Winning surprise (or was it initiative?) the halfling even managed to land a (useless, I assume, but cathartic to him) sword-thrust onto the ghost, before being subsequently one-shotted dead by its level-draining touch.
    Thus, the halfling died a hero and was much celebrated. Then everybody left because our time was over and there were other games waiting for us. Most people attending that D&D session loudly resolved never to play "old school" again: "The only game where, when a hint of story seems to be coming at you, you turn and run". I had a good laugh to that, but truth is I did enjoy crawling through that first room (and perhaps didn't care much about the flaming ghost's backstory, at all). Classic agenda clash, wasn't it?
  • Oh yes, I see what you're saying Rafu. This sort of game is very "sharp" in its creative agenda, which means not only that it's inspirational for those who like it, but also that it's very openly frustrating to those who don't. I've had similar experiences where players have not appreciated what the game has to offer. Old school D&D when taken to an extreme of purity doesn't really do the traditional compromise thing where we pretend that all interests are satisfied and have a value.

    In my case, though, it's a home game and a well-established campaign. There are a few more casual/ignorant players who wouldn't know the difference between D&D and 7th Sea if they were put side by side, but most are fully aware about the nature of the game we're playing. That first story happened in session #52, after we had already played for several hundred hours with these same people.

    In my second anecdote, by the way, we broke up the session after the TPK and then reconvened later that same week to play some more - new characters, same dungeon, as the players wanted to conquer the Blocks of Quox. The player base at the time consisted of local high schoolers in the summer, so they had a lot of time for this, and excitement to spare. I remember asking at the time whether the players wanted to continue with D&D, and they were eager to do so despite the setback.
  • This is why lots of people embrace herd stupidity and have fun with it too.
  • Oh yes, that's totally possible too. I've occasionally tinkered with the notion of a fantasy adventure game that actively supports the sort of farce that adventure gamers so often enjoy. Sort of like Elfs, but more generic and with more dynamism in the degree of the farce.

    It now occurs to me that Dying Earth is a little bit like this. I'll need to reread that one at some point.
  • edited May 2017
    It's another game though, like D&D for people who like things to happen all the time on a faster pace. Instigators, the kind of players that can't resist ruining plans and pushing red buttons "to see what happens" are among the public of this kind of game. The rest are either herd followers who go fo the social exchange, power fantasy gamers who just want to show off how much agency their characters are capable of and players who want to immerse in being their characters. There is more as lots of player categorization lists describe and no player is just an archetype, everyone will enjoy a mix of things in different degrees and tolerate others in order to have their fun or not ruin everyone's fun.

    But if you want a game focused on the tactics, you can. You will need players more interested in this kind of play (of which yes, there are lots) and make sure everyone is on the same page about what is expected from the players. It's interesting that in this gamestyle everything is more about what the players plan and try. If they don't plan and try the wrong things, it's their fault if they get TPKed. If it happens because of bad luck, that's the game. And whatever is the result they can't blame the GM, because being impartial was her job and she did it. Here players will actually ruin their and the GM's fun if they don't go slower, acquire more information before acting and think things through.

    Still, 20 rooms is just too much for a single shot game. I'd go for the five room adventure in this case.

    Edit:

    We talked a bit about this with some other GMs last night and I think it's worth to mention miscommunication problems could be a bigger issue than we may think. At one point in the conversation one of the GMs framed an scenario as an example to a GM which normally advocates for old school. The guy is no stupid, yet it took three times for him to finally focus and get the idea of the given scenario. Not that this happens all the time with all the players (the rest of us got it fine the first time), but even a sharp person can get distracted, or maybe it's the way the GM framed the scene that gives a mistaken idea.

    Now extend that to the explanations about how the game is supposed to work and the mess expands geometrically. They even get mixed in the head of the players with previous game experiences, deeply burned in their minds because there were moments of intense emotion that helped imprint those memories. So, again, it's not like we can't learn new games or new ways of playing the same games. It's more like, at least 2 out of 9 moments of herd stupidity (maybe even more) will be unavoidable in any group, even on those trying to not turn that into their "usual" gameplay.
  • For the sake of curiousity, I'll note that we had another session tonight, and the team decided to retry the Gingerbread Princess scenario. Throwing another party in after a loss is relatively common for us, and I generally accede to it for the sake of the pedagogy whenever the fictional situation remains meaningful: the players get to try things a different way, which is useful for contrasting the outcomes and thus learning how different strategies work out.

    At the beginning of the session we did a bit of strategic exegesis on the events of the last session - talked over the stuff that we've discussed here as well. (We often do this stuff at the beginning of sessions, as the players tend to leave for home quickly at the end.) Some players already had their own analysis of what went wrong, while it came as news to others how funny the events seemed in hindsight. The armchair analysis probably played a part in motivating the players to try again.

    The second party included one member of the first party who'd escaped the pitched battle at the end and spent 14 weeks of elf-time in the outback of the fae dimension, subsisting mainly on candies and mämmi (from the great mämmi swamps he discovered during his exile). I'd been assuming him to have been a goner due to his hopeless situation, but as the players decided to put together a second party, the poor bastard got a second chance before losing all his teeth to tooth decay.

    The rest of the characters were either loners who'd gotten drawn into the hellhole by a certain fairy creature (Mistysparkles, the Clip Clopping Lord of the Dark Fae, to be specific), or members of the refugee/captive village in the process of being slowly ground down by the inhuman conditions in the village. The party was desperate to begin with, but at least they had some inkling of the dangers now - the players because they had experience from last session, the characters because two of them were old-timers who'd survived in this dimension for months.

    The players spent a considerable amount of time perfecting a fire-making technique for arsonizing gingerbread houses, in the interest of creating a distraction for the village guard devils. The plan evolved under them, though, and ultimately the arson became a minor backup element in a plan mainly reliant on stealth - they would go with the climbing thief strategy, with two characters who'd sneak into the magic-user's tower to seek the leverage they'd surely need.

    The execution lacked flair at times, but overall the plan went down without a hitch - the nights in the candy kingdom were pitch black, and it was relatively easy to go undetected, as long as one was capable of climbing the tower at all. The two thieves were the most passive/casual/inexperienced players in the crew, which meant that the other players were left advicing them in the abstract while they made the crucial choices about what the do inside the tower.

    As it happened, the 11-year old nephew of mine did something no other player in the group probably would: upon encountering a bedroom with a young girl propped upon the bed, asleep or in a drugged stupor, he promptly killed the helpless girl in her bed on the principle that she might be the secret form of the magic-user in the tower. She was not, but she certainly was the linchpin that held the whole fairy subrealm together: killing her was a quick and easy way out of the fae dimension for all living humans in there.

    This was ultimately the least kind of victory in the D&D totem pole of outcomes: the party got out alive, but with no treasures or other benefits. The new party didn't have any real rewards lined up for the rescue, and the little treasure the two thieves had collected disappeared into the aether with the fairy world. Much of the tower was left veiled in mystery. The party didn't really dare to confess to their part in saving the refugees, either, as they didn't want to spread the knowledge that one of them had slain the little girl - even if trading one life for the lives of many might be justified, the adventurers felt guilty nevertheless.

    So no big score for us this time out, either. We'll presumably continue trying next week, with new adventures (which I've pretty much got lined up already, as I didn't expect us to take a second trip to the candy land tonight).
  • Scary stuff!
  • These are great stories, Eero.

    I have seen this kind of "herd stupidity" numerous times, and especially so in in this kind of gaming idiom. I agree with your analysis of it.

    I think that a big part of it is the high potential for boredom in this gaming style - very often making *something* happen becomes a priority for the group, and suboptimal choices are made.

    However, it's also worthwhile to remember that choices in such games are not made in a vacuum. There is a deliberate context of limited information for the characters and players, and it's not hard (in that context) to become certain that you are doing something clever (e.g. trying to kill the wizard in the tower) even while you are totally misguided.

    In my opinion, this happens in part because logical leaps ("The wizard must be the linchpin!") are necessary in this style of adventuring, and in part because it's impossible to predict with great certainty how a given GM will handle a given fictional situation.

    Put those two things in superimposition, and some really wacky - and, in retrospect, stupid - choices become fairly common.

    For instance, I played a D&D game once where the party was fleeing a giant stone statue which could breathe fire. The available exit was a narrow and steep tunnel/chimney carved in the rock, which we could navigate only via a rope we had attached at the top.

    It seemed abundantly clear to me that a panicked group of individuals trying to climb a rope in a very tight space, one at a time, while an enemy behind them could simply breathe fire into the space at its leisure... was certain suicide. It was a large party, too - hard for me to imagine them making it through such a spot in a panicked hurry, as that's not how humans generally operate under such conditions. I expected anyone to try this to get roasted alive while trying to hustle one after the other through the chimney.

    So, my character, unlike the others, jumped off a bridge and hid underneath (underwater, for as long as he could).

    Much to my surprise, the GM's reading of the situation was that the climb could be made easily, and let everyone make their way through with a fairly easy roll of some sort.

    That made my character's daring gambit rather silly in retrospect, even though, from my perspective, it was the only choice which might have allowed him to survive at all. (As it turned out, I found a way to distract the monster, tricked it into destroying a couple of lizardmen in my way, and eventually made it back to the group with a single hit point remaining or something similar - a few lucky rolls later!)
  • That was one of the biggest reasons that has kept me apart from this kind of gameplay actually. It's always been a big turnoff for me to see how smart player actions end up being treated as stupid just because there was some sort of miscommunication on how the scene was framed, how the system worked, etc.

    It wasn't only nor always that players did something stupid, it was also the GM hiding information because that was part of his work as a GM (the players didn't asked the right questions, so they had no right to know that information) but doing it so well that players attention fell elsewhere and they made decisions based on incomplete information, which often ended up turning a well planned tactic into the worst idea ever.

    That's why I ended up feeling better about changing my prep and embracing the players viewpoint (the so-called herd stupidity), because you can't always have a perfectly clear communication. Yes, you can try again, rewind the game to the last play, but we had enough bad experiences with that trick (with another GM), that ended up making that practice a poor one in our book. It totally breaks immersion for us now.
  • ...subsisting mainly on candies and mämmi (from the great mämmi swamps he discovered during his exile).
    Cruel!
  • I really want to try mämmi now.
  • (WarriorMonk, that's a very fair and valid concern!)
  • Mämmi's pretty good. It's sort of like black yoghurt. The home-made variety is much more interesting than the stuff you get from stores.

    Regarding GM subjectivity and the difficulty of perfect communication between flawed human beings, I don't myself find it such a fundamental issue. This is perhaps because I perceive the striving for "truth in wargaming" as a process and not so much a foundational truth upon which the entire game rests. The GM tries their best, the group works to improve their communication, the players account for GM imperfection in their planning (as part of their fog of war, essentially), and as long as the end result is more strategic than flipping a coin, there is a game there still even if the GM sometimes fails to be perfect. Giving up on the wargame vision that D&D espouses (and that I, frankly, would like to see in more wargames) because it's not perfect seems like a false dichotomy - that D&D is not perfect according to arbitrary criteria does not mean that it necessarily has a problem that can or should be addressed.
  • edited June 2017
    Well Eero, looks that it hasn't happened consistently enough times to you to consider it a matter important enough. It has happened to me and a lot of other groups enough times and consistently to give us a different viewpoint in the subject. But I don't mean it like we're right and you're wrong. We're both right and wrong depending on which group we play with and our personal skills to handle the game, which happen to be different.

    So please, with all due respect, don't minimize our problem as unreal or uninportant, I do get that you don't have the same problems as us, I'm happy about that and I'm not telling you to change anything in your play style, specially not for the sake of avoiding problems that you don't have. But it's the same for us, as much as I respect and understand your point about old school D&D, I can't neither avoid the mentioned problem nor solve it in the same way you do, as our groups are different and our GMing skills are different.

    That said, I just wanted to state that I had this problem and I consider it a valid one. I see that Paul considers it has a bit of relevance too, that's enough for me. From time to time I like to check if I'm not just hearing voices on my mind. I don't think that this particular problem really deserves any deeper discussion though, so I'm fine to drop the subject, watch the discussion continue and maybe add something on a different aspect if I can think of it later. Thanks.
  • Sure, sure - I did not mean to say that your issue has no value; I merely described how, to me, that problem is something I accept and live with, rather than a deal-breaker. A feature of the game, if you will, or a necessary flaw (in that it's necessarily a feature of human communication and human GMing).

    It's similar to how I accept that dice are not perfect randomizers and players have to go home even when the game's not quite finished for the night yet. I'm sure that if any of these problems were so bad that they prevented me from successful play, I would be much more worried about them.
  • For what it's worth, Eero and I have gamed a bit online and discussed games a whole lot. My take on it as that Eero (and, likely, the people he plays with) has developed ways of communicating this stuff extremely well, and handling it reliably. Sure, it's not perfect, but it's pretty damn good.

    WarriorMonk, I could be imagining things here, but from what I've read of your playstyle here on Story Games, your style of play is much less transparent (you talk of "maintaining the illusion", fudging some of the rules in play, and avoiding discussing certain topics in play so as not to "ruin immersion"), so perhaps it's quite a natural consequence that this kind of play would be more difficult to achieve reliably.

    It's just a guess on my part, of course. In any case (even if it's entirely wrong), my first paragraph, above, stands: Eero's developed a lot of communication techniques (and an appropriate play culture) for this kind of play. You can see it for yourself by reading his posts on the subject here, and I can attest that it's a pretty good reflection of how he actually runs games.

    Eero, I'm curious how much of that holds when others GM games in your local scene? Is there a learning curve, people try to play another way, and so on? If so, does it ever become something to work around, or do groups simply accept different styles of play? What's the gamut of experiences like for you, when it comes to this topic? Do all Finns play in such a self-aware style, for instance? :)
  • Eero, I'm curious how much of that holds when others GM games in your local scene? Is there a learning curve, people try to play another way, and so on? If so, does it ever become something to work around, or do groups simply accept different styles of play? What's the gamut of experiences like for you, when it comes to this topic? Do all Finns play in such a self-aware style, for instance? :)
    I'll note that when you say kind things such as my having a self-aware style and good communication and so on, I'll just read that to mean "Forgite training" - it's not anything else that I know of. So the question boils down to how people pick up and retain Forgite analytics here.

    It seems that some people pick up methodological influence much more readily than others. There's a guy here in Finland who played a 100 sessions of D&D with me and went on to run a practically picture-perfect copy of my campaign in another town, for example, developing their own powerful GMing style. And there's another one who listened to a couple of lectures, participated in three or four sessions, and then went on to do his own thing (different mechanics, but still methodologically pure challenge-based OSR D&D). But then there's folks who can take those 100 sessions and then go on and try to do something similar, only to fall into generic '90s habits; this phenomenon makes me suspect that the gamers in question never perceived or understood what I was doing differently - to them it was just "good GMing". Sort of like the stories where people play a Forgite story game and then congratulate the GM for the great story [grin].

    More generally, I don't think that the local scene, or the Finnish scene in general, is that much more regimented and self-conscious, or facile in communication, than what you'd usually expect. Usually I feel more like I'm an island of order in a sea of confusion. It's probably about the same as in the Americas. Running mediocrely GMed traditional adventure games is an infinitely intriguing pastime, it seems to me. (And it is, of course, one that I fully endorse - can't grow as an artist without making art, right?)

    I have picked up a habit of labelling things early, often and authoritatively, which is of course immensely annoying to many people when I talk about something other than my own gaming. For example, I play for an hour at somebody's OSR table and then declare them "procedurally rigorous", or I call them "mid-school storytelling D&D" or whatever. This sort of analytical base behavior does clarify things a lot for everybody concerned (as long as somebody doesn't dislike a label), and has often resulted in people achieving a more purposeful playstyle as they purify whatever it is they do. I like to think that games I play in tend to be more purposeful and self-aware than average even when I'm not GMing, simply because I have so many communication behaviors that don't seem to turn off simply because I'm being a player - I still explain everything the GM does in procedural terms to the other players, for instance [grin].

    There are folks with similarly analytic approach to gaming here in Finland, but aside from the OSR folks I've trained myself, they're pretty much all Forgites - after all, the foundational ideas like "not all rpgs are the same" and "we should understand what it is that we're trying to do, and put it in words" have sort of a high correlation with some sort of Forgite past right now. Again, I imagine it's similar elsewhere as well - you'd rarely see a trad gamer or a freeformer or such with a well-developed analytical toolset. Lately I've started seeing people with a sort of hybrid background, though - like, they're otherwise trad expect they've played Apocalypse World and read enough RPG.net to pick up a sort of inquisitive, open-minded attitude. I expect that soon enough the distinctive Forgite analytical mindset melds into a general "well-versed in RPGs" skillset as cultural ideas spread and mix together in various ways.
  • That makes total sense to me, Eero.

    I've also started running into younger gamers who were introduced into the hobby with Forgite or collaborative story games, and that's all they know of gaming. That's a different breed, as well!
  • You're right Paul. I actually only fudge 1 roll out of a 1000 and I tell the players when I'm bending or breaking a rule, and they know why I did it; then I only proceed when nobody makes a fuzz out of it. But I feel so much guilt from that that I end up coming here to confess my sins by making them bigger and try to find valid excuses behind them. Mea culpa.

    I'm still struggling to learn and try how to play the game as it is. I'm coming to terms with balance as written now, though still have to read my way trough the monster creation rules and figure out exactly how to apply that to NPCs. I'm just a bit closer now I think. Thanks for the patience and guidance everyone!
  • @WarriorMonk I think my style is halfway between yours and Eero's. While I never adjust the world to accord with the players' interpretations, I do try to stay very clear on how they are seeing the world so that I can correct their perception whenever it differs from mine. I never just proceed with a player action which sounds stupid to me; I always make sure they're aware of all the factors which make it seem stupid to me first.

    "You can do that, but remember..." is a very common phrase out of my mouth.

    Hey, maybe we should add that to your list of GM techniques! Or is something like that there already?
  • edited June 2017
    Hey @Eero_Tuovinen, I had a thought about the difference in our approaches. I see two potential challenges to the players in what you've described:

    1) Can we, using the options available to our fictional characters, come up with a good solution to this tactical problem?

    2) Can we keep a handle on all the options available to our fictional characters?

    I think a lot of groups include (2) as part of the challenge of play, but many just by default.

    Personally, (1) is the challenge that I enjoy, and I dislike when (2) strongly influences or supersedes it. I would rather turn (2) from a challenge into a given so that we can tackle (1) in its purest form.

    I am guessing that you feel differently...?
  • Oh I think it's there already under some other form, I also use that phrase a lot! It's when two or more players understand the same wrong thing that this technique loses strenght. Then again you could correct all players, that doesn't really affect anything at the table. But what if their misinterpretation actually makes for an excellent twist you didn't thought of?

    I mean, players present you with a golden chance to make a memorable moment and all you have to do is build upon it and keep things going. What would you do? -I'm the kind of GM that can't resist that chance, and since the first time it happened at my table I've improved and widened my toolset of techniques to have the players make an interesting input without breaking their immersion, and then use impro, random tables and oracle the dice to build upon it, give it back to the players and keep the momentum going.

    I'm even surprised when players ask me "Did you prep all of this or just improvised it?". Even when it's kinda obvious for me that all I did was steal the players idea, the thing is that when you build upon it and connect it really well with your prep, the difference between both becomes blurry, and players can't be sure if they actually read through your plans (which does happen some times) or if it was you who made their worst fears come to happen.
  • Oh I think it's there already under some other form, I also use that phrase a lot! It's when two or more players understand the same wrong thing that this technique loses strength. Then again you could correct all players, that doesn't really affect anything at the table.
    Not sure what you mean about losing strength with multiple players. When I correct one player out loud, everyone at the table hears it. If they all had the same false impression, then clearly my initial description was at fault, and now we've fixed that.

    The players forgive me when my descriptions aren't perfect, just I forgive them when their listening isn't perfect. I haven't had a problem except when someone feels the need to blame someone else.
    But what if their misinterpretation actually makes for an excellent twist you didn't thought of?
    Oh, totally, I get that that works for you! That's why I described my approach as kinda halfway to yours. They're not the same, but they have some things in common, I think.
  • To state the obvious: taking people's ideas and running with them is great for adding to the drama, but ruinous to genuinely challenging the players and characters. I'm not even saying you can't have both in the same game. You can! But the parts of the game where the GM can adjust the facts of the setting based on player input need to be pretty strictly segregated from the tactical parts.
  • Hey @Eero_Tuovinen, I had a thought about the difference in our approaches. I see two potential challenges to the players in what you've described:

    1) Can we, using the options available to our fictional characters, come up with a good solution to this tactical problem?

    2) Can we keep a handle on all the options available to our fictional characters?

    I think a lot of groups include (2) as part of the challenge of play, but many just by default.

    Personally, (1) is the challenge that I enjoy, and I dislike when (2) strongly influences or supersedes it. I would rather turn (2) from a challenge into a given so that we can tackle (1) in its purest form.

    I am guessing that you feel differently...?
    I suppose so. I wouldn't call myself an extremist on this (it's not like I refuse to repeat myself when giving out information or anything like that), but the information theory of this sort of wargaming seems clear to me: like two thirds of the strategic challenge in D&D is about conceptualizing and enumerating your goals and options. The first challenge is to understand what you need to accomplish, the second is to invent a means to achieve your goal, and it's only the third step to make a choice between the various options at your disposal.

    I could hypothetically take a position where it's up to the GM to provide a clear and constant "decision-making matrix" for the players, with their best and most relevant options ranked out and noted for their likely consequences. This would not be dissimilar to a constantly updating "choose your own adventure" game in a way. However, what exactly would be left of the skill element in the game if the GM did this? Aren't many of the more interesting and complex challenges in D&D rather trivial if the GM does the thinking (outside the box as well as inside) on the players' behalf?

    It is true that there are challenges where the choice still remains a tricky one after thorough analysis, so I would not claim that this kind of D&D would be entirely trivial for the players. It would also have the potential to be much quicker and more streamlined; if the players only need to care about the proceedings at explicit decision-making points, then the GM can just develop the situation in between, and the players should not theoretically have any need to interrupt with their own maneuvers - after all, the GM will prompt them for a choice when a real one appears. I think this could be quite entertaining (and very unlike traditional D&D) when taken to a sufficient extreme.

    I think that the GM should not entertain on-the-spot simulation quite blindly in this kind of D&D, because it's not fair: if you simulate the scenario as you go, but you're also the person who chooses the decision-making points and conceptualizes the options, then what happens if you forget to ask them something important, or a random process causes an unexpected problem? For example, what if you forget to ask the players about packing winter clothes, and then later there's a blizzard due to a random weather model? This ideal of D&D works much better if you figure out in advance that there's going to be a blizzard during the adventure, so you can slip in the idea of maybe preparing for the weather or not into the decision-making matrix at some point - then if the adventurers all freeze to death it's their own fault, as the option of purchasing winter clothes was clearly delineated for them earlier. The players obviously cannot account for this themselves, because we've agreed upon a form of D&D where the GM prompts them for choices where applicable - at most they could find the winter clothes in an shop inventory list you give them for purchases, but if this particular item is not listed, we would not want to ask them to think outside the box like that.

    An observation about D&D where the strategic conceptualization challenge is not desired: in addition to using explicit options-listing, the GM should probably simply avoid non-standard situations. Dungeons are great for this sort of D&D precisely because the strategic options are so limited: we can go either left or right, we can either attack or retreat being the major ones. Indeed, in basic dungeoneering the GM hardly needs to do strategic analysis on the behalf of the players the way he would need to in a more open-ended scenario.
  • Not sure what you mean about losing strength with multiple players.
    I just mean that if more than one player complains, group pressure can increase to the point where the GM will have an easier time conceding into the players viewpoint, as defending her position will bring the game to a temporary halt. Not that it can't be taken, and also this is a really extreme case. It's not worth going too deep into this, it just crossed my mind when I wrote the post above.

  • edited June 2017
    The first challenge is to understand what you need to accomplish, the second is to invent a means to achieve your goal, and it's only the third step to make a choice between the various options at your disposal.
    We agree that step three is on the players.

    I think step two is on the players too; my GM assistance during this stage is only intended to make sure they have the proper tools on hand to do their inventing, with "proper" meaning "everything their characters know." Failing to come up with a good plan because you forget something that's obvious to your character is, to me, not an instance of failing at a challenge, but rather an instance of a poor challenge situation.

    Why do I think it's poor? Well, for starters, I've never seen it done explicitly -- "Hey everyone, your challenge is to remember stuff your characters would know! This is a memory-based skill game! Taking notes is allowed, but you'll have to choose wisely what to write down, because there won't be time to write it all! I talk too fast!" I've also never seen players be proud of simply remembering what's present in the fiction, as if that were some sort of accomplishment. So I don't see any upside here. I do see plenty of downside, though, as even when there's no explicit contract of "you will always have all the tools your characters would have", many players have found it muddy and frustrating when Barbarian Barnag's siege challenge becomes Player Pete's memory/interpretation challenge.

    As for step one, I'm not sure what you mean. Isn't "What we want to accomplish" simply up to player/character preference?
  • Since I have played some games in this style with both of you (Eero and David), I can comment a little on the difference in style. Perhaps that will help!

    I think your general approach to communicating decision points and discussing options with the players is pretty similar overall (and far more so than this discussion might make it sound, anyway).

    * Dave, your approach in that discussion/negotiation is focused pretty heavily on the character's perspective.

    You would generally speak a lot about what the character can see and what they know. This is where you might mention things that they can perceive, things they might know, or things they might have forgotten.

    If the player is making some suboptimal choice, you might point out these problems at this point - "You know that when X happens, there's often a danger of Y. You've seen that kind of thing happen before in these situations, like that time when you [...] a while back. That could easily be the case here if you don't things just right. Do you still want to proceed?"

    * Eero's approach is subtly different in that he is more concerned with properly communicating the resolution process, and how the action taking place might be resolved.

    He might speak of the way we are going to handle any particular plan in terms of resolving it - what factors are involved, what mechanical implication there are from your fictional choices, and what decision points the GM is seeing here.

    If the player is making some suboptimal choice, Eero might be more likely to address that simply by talking them through the process of resolution they are signing up for - "If you want to do X, we'll need to make ability checks to establish whether these and these factors are under your control. You could probably improve your chances if you could find some way of minimizing the danger of Y, though - perhaps that would turn into a +5 bonus on the appropriate ability check, or an automatic success if your methods are really foolproof."

    Overall, the gameplay isn't too different; describing the differences exaggerates them dramatically, since we're focusing on them so much. You both are pretty careful to establish all the factors with the players so that they can be well-informed when they carry through with the decision.

    That's been my impression, based on our gaming together, anyway! Feel free to correct me, of course, but that's what I've seen.

  • As for step one, I'm not sure what you mean. Isn't "What we want to accomplish" simply up to player/character preference?
    So it is, but because some things turn out more sensible or useful or desirable or simple to achieve as goals, players may still choose poorly in this regard. Because that decision-making impacts character success at such fundamental level, I find it part of the strategic decision-making in the game.

    For example, consider a character who gets lost in fairyland. What do they even want from the situation? To know that, one would need to understand the situation. What if it's a chance for great wealth, shouldn't the character take that chance? Or what if fairyland can only offer them delusion and the loss of their immortal soul? Could they gain great magics or powerful friends? Should they try? I think that seeing the possibilities and choosing to pursue them is also a strategic choice.

    As another example, consider an outright bad adventure hook: say that a 1st level beginner party decides to pursue a greatly over-leveled challenge, such as slaying a dragon terrorizing the countryside. This is probably a bad choice, because the odds of success likely do not balance out against the size of the reward (particularly if none is on offer and they're just acting on heroic instinct). A more strategically minded player realizes this and instead casts their character in an ancillary role more suited to them - perhaps they'll take on the quest to find a True Hero to slay the dragon, for example, which sounds much more like something a low-level party might accomplish.

    (This second one is actually a pretty good measure of just how sandboxy your campaign really is, I feel: if the group takes it as a given that when the GM offers a dragon-slaying they should take it, perhaps it's not much of a sandbox after all.)

    This sort of smart analysis of the possibilities, and allocation of goals, is the first step in intelligent sandbox D&D strategy, I think. After you know what you're even trying to accomplish, it's time to figure out the options you have for advancing your cause.
  • When you have a group of people discussing alternative approaches to a thing, there's a weird phenomenon that often happens in which early, rational suggestions get sidelined by later suggestions that may not be as rational. It seems that people often get so involved in responding to the latest idea, they forget completely about some of the earlier ideas that were floated. RPGs are not the only place this happens; I watched it happen in meetings many times.

  • Yes, exactly - that's the sort of practical decision-making issue that I had in mind as I posted the original post. Tackling that shit as the party leader is the first thing one needs to do to get the strategic level of play under some sort of control. Unless you do that, these kinds of open-ended D&D adventures that rely on strategic situation analysis will always be very, very dangerous.
  • I was wondering, how do you usually appoint a party leader? I mean, in every game I can remember, everyone was either reluctant to ask for that role, was considered a jerk for appointing themselves for the role or thought "it's okay, we will just follow whoever seems to have the best idea on how to proceed". It was only when the game explicitly called for giving someone the role of party leader (as in 3:16) that we had players appointed to that task.

    (it was really cool from that game to give the players directives on how to play their roles, though it didn't gave them much idea of the tactics. Not that it was too important to play the game but it could have helped)

    The thing here is that, leaders need time and practice to develop leadership skills, they need to be organized, they need to recognize a good tactic when they hear one, they need to have some charisma to be able to convince the group. If you're asking for more tactical thinking from the players and complaining how cool tactical ideas get lost in the herd stupidity, you could probably be a bit better appointing a party leader, let the players switch on the role until they find who's best for it and then it should be easier to escalate into deeper and deeper tactical thinking.

    Like having standard procedures or formations for certain usual situations so they can save actual game time, just say "usual door opening, formation B" and focus on the minutia for opening this particular door instead of wasting an hour discussing how to go about it. Dunno, what do you think about this?
  • Three methods I've seen:

    * Based on fictional elements

    In a "character stable", sandbox-style game, each adventure tends to be "organized" by one of the PCs. They find an adventure hook, convince others to go with them, plan and/or pay for the venture.

    Sometimes it might just be the only character who survived the previous attempt, or the only one who *knows* about the adventure in the first place (for instance, the one who found the treasure map!).

    In this case, the leadership role falls quite naturally to them.

    * Formalized/rule-based

    I like the idea of establishing a formal way of declaring a leader, as well, though. It might be as simple as assuming that the character who rolled the highest starting wealth is the leader of the current outfit, for instance.

    In my own dungeon crawler, you roll for social standing/background, and the character with the best outcome is the leader. You might get an expedition formed of two escaped slaves, an army deserter, a mercenary, and a noble's son trying to prove himself. The rest naturally suggests itself...

    * Social contract

    In other groups, it's not about the characters at all, but the *players*. Someone is the most veteran player, or the clearest manager of actions, someone knows the rules best, someone has been at the table the longest. We agree to allow that person to take the lead, and play our characters accordingly.
  • That sounds great! Now, would you say that actually having a party leader had any influence on the gameplay? Would you say in retrospect that a player clearly made a difference in that role, there were less moments of herd stupidity?

    In our 3:16 short run we had different players try the role, some still made bad choices, but realized it was because the players who understood what was going on didn't talk until it was too late, because they thought the leader had heard something they didn't. Having a leader at least sets a procedure for agreeing on group decisions, but perhaps you still need to encourage some discussion and sharing information, even if it looks like everyone heard and understood the same.
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