No prep surprise

edited January 31 in Game Design Help
I was looking for a way to create surprises in a low prep alternating GM game. Specifically, trying to simulate this :
A protagonist walks an ancient city in the jungle. They pick a strange phenomenon, say, a skeleton with a golden priestly outfit on. This part, I've got covered. But what about the discovery ? Is it loot ? A curse waiting to happen ? Home to a virus ? or simply to an inoffensive snake ? And what if the snake IS a ghost ?

It can't be decided in advance. There are a lot of possibilities, they don't fit all in a table. Not all possibilities are equally interesting.

I can align all the answers with a resource system (get 1 loot, take 1 condition, lose 1 ration) but I lose the grain I am after. It's no longer a riddle with a snake as an interrogation mark. It's a +1/-1 waiting to fall on the table.

I need player input for the richness of its grain. So I share the burden of reveal on each of them. To prevent certainty I make the players pick a benefit/risk alternative.

I need a randomizer : it will be heads or tails, or a fudge die with a third option : add colour only. Or a yes and no but die. The equal distribution of chances regulates the questions. The protagonist makes sure the questions are within an acceptable win/loss range.

How can I improve this ? I'd like to make it seem like all the details were there since before the protagonist witnesses them. A no prep 2097 mirror of sorts.

There are ways of hiding the randomization step. Like : if the question has an even number of words, yes; else, no. Or answer no to the first question then what you would have answered to the previous question). All this is nice but keeping such keys secret from the other players is impractical.

Having players write their solutions on cards and let the protagonist player pick them (playing the players), or shuffle and pick : adds "perceived choice" and a sense of the answer preexisting the reveal. This could do the trick.

I feel I have the general idea, I need a trick to lock the devil in the box so that it triggers and springs out when the players open the box.

Comments

  • This is, of course, one of the White Whales of modern/indie game design.

    Not an easy thing to do; if you manage a good formula, you'll be expanding the possibilities of game design a great deal!
  • edited January 31
    I tried "other players write cards, player picks one" tonight, among other experiments. Curiosity ranked up. It worked best when the player didn't take part in writing any card. Picking your own card, good or bad, was a downer : you lose the surprise, of course !
    But, strangely, knowing the cards beforehand to discuss their balance wasn't a problem. I think this here is about the idea just not coming from you. It's about objectivity (rather than impartiality).
    It might be very dependent on the guinea pig of course. Do you know games that try that kind of things ?
  • Not a bad idea!

    Various GMless "murder mystery" games handle this in interesting ways, but none that suit what you're going for perfectly.
  • edited February 1
    My current favorite randomizer right now are the GameMaster's Apprentice decks from Larcenous Designs. They come in different themes (horror, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.) and each card has a crap-ton of data on them.
    image
  • edited February 1
    Thanks ! I've been browsing this type if decks, actually. But who would interpret the card ? How can I hide this interpretative step to make it look like the result is objective ?
  • edited February 1
    Heh, that's the power of the GM's screen. In my solo/GMless experience, you wait until you need to know and then phrase the question. The creative challenge comes when you get your random answer and you have to figure out how it works in the current context. Humans are great at seeing patterns and making intuitive leaps. It only takes a few seconds to know if you have a good answer or you need to draw again.

    Let's step back and grab some questions from the original post and apply them to the card image above...

    "A protagonist walks an ancient city in the jungle. They pick a strange phenomenon, say, a skeleton with a golden priestly outfit on. This part, I've got covered. But what about the discovery ? Is it loot ? A curse waiting to happen ? Home to a virus ? or simply to an inoffensive snake ? And what if the snake IS a ghost ? "

    I see a planar traveler arrives, a delicate other worldly perfume, and small change, a few coins. The skeleton is not quite human, even in this state of advanced decay there is a cloying scent of unknown flowers, the body itself (if looted) only offers some strange coins of dubious value. If the GM wanted a combat challenge, switch to the players noticing the smell before the invisible phase shifting guardian strikes.
  • The creative challenge is not a concern here, but I see how, with enough information on the card, some cues will work instantly and obviously : there's the objectivity.
    In a way, it's a random table with lots and lots of entries.
    That can do the trick ! I'll try it. Thanks a lot.
  • edited February 1
    I liked your idea of multiple choices on cards you draw, DeReel.

    You can still let the "target player" write up one of their own solutions, if you give another player the chance to modify it a little bit. To throw in some surprise.
  • edited February 2
    Both solutions are doable. As long as there is Internet connectivity, I'll use random generation and, lacking connection, I'll default to the card writing trick.
    Some players have a hard time finding ideas for the card if it's for their character. That's why I thought of excluding them from the task.
  • DBBDBB
    edited February 2
    I've been listening to some actual play and game design podcasts that make use of some interesting randomizers. In Campaign & Autonomic, the players or GM sometimes draw from a tarot-like deck, in which each card represents a different set of concepts. And in Design Doc they've been experimenting with a spinner with different symbols on it.

    Of course, these solutions rely on using the random result as an interpretive prompt rather than displaying some sort of objective outcome.

    Another suggestion that might be more concrete: Wikipedia's "Random Article" function.
  • DeReel:

    You can exclude them, or tell them:

    * Write the most obvious thing: what it seems like it is to your character.

    * If you can't even think of that, just wrote that its use or purpose is unclear.

    Then have the option to add a detail or complication.

    When you draw a card from the stack, you now have all kinds of possibilities, including "we have no idea/can't tell what it does", something unexpected, or exactly what the character thought.
  • edited February 2
    Not that they didn't have any idea, but some players tended to always think of bad things, and other of good things for their character. It seemed strange to "punish the pessimist". Impartiality coming back through the window.

    As you say, @DBB, the problem is to fold away the interpretive activity. It can be there, but not "in direct contact" with the player.
  • Is it really punishing them if it's what they want in the first place?

    In any case, with the option to add or change a detail, you don't have to worry about that - add a positive detail or twist (a "yes, but", basically) to a negative idea or interpretation and it all works out!
  • I've been obsessed and experimenting with the same subject for years, also ended up designing a deck. (sorry, It's not the latest version nor the most useful)

    Things I've learned:

    -Use players expectations as much as possible, use the mountain witch trick: ask them back their questions. "What do you think it is?" works by distracting the players making them think you know the answer. For them it's a test. However you get enough information from the answer to decide if it makes sense or not and improvise on your own. So if you say:
    Not that they didn't have any idea, but some players tended to always think of bad things, and other of good things for their character. It seemed strange to "punish the pessimist". Impartiality coming back through the window.

    As you say, @DBB, the problem is to fold away the interpretive activity. It can be there, but not "in direct contact" with the player.
    I'd say use it, but...

    -Oracle the dice. You don't know what they find? Let the die decide. Highest result means loot, a bit lower means information, less than half is a bad omen or an obstacle, lowest result is an encounter. If the players already gave you an idea for anything good or bad they could find, use the die to find out if it happens exactly as they feared or wanted, something similar with a cost, the opposite or something better/worse. This last option is usually my favorite, exagerating a bit over the players expectations never fails to get them pumped up.

    -Images and symbols work best, and the simpler they are the better. You want quick inspiration and too detailed images get in the way of that most of the time. That's whhy tarot works.

    -However there are things that tarot doesn't cover and a few of those cards end up useless and they inspire you to create situations devoid of conflict. No conflict means nothing interest happens and narration may even stall. It's nothing that picking another card can't solve, but having cards meant to create conflict or spark interest would be best. The deck mentioned above works best for that reason.

    -The less convoluted the method you use, the better. Nothing cuts worse the narration than having to switch your attention from the players to the randomizer for too long.

    -You may be better using the randomizer to create interesting twists, kicks and bangs in advance. There's still no way to beat a good prep even with the best and most advanced randomizer. However, that prep doesn't need to be extensive, just prep that encounter with a simple twist with a three line paragraph and you're set, you can modify it on the fly if needed and recicle it for later if it doesn't see use. You can have a nice list of twists and color the same way you can have a list of names ready for PCs or NPCs for any game. You can even pick them up from movies, books, videogames, etc.


  • I don't need the player moves : "hide my hand" and "slamming my card on the table for all to see the reveal" yet, so a computerized generator can be quick enough. Also, I need to discover what.. maximum 5-6 things in a session.

    I use random generators like that when I GM, but here it's for GMless. Come to think of it, I should browse the internet, grab a list of 200-300 things and I'd be done. Hope I can make it before I am 69.

    A layer of fudge dice is quick and easy, and I already use some in the game, so that would be : opposite and more, opposite, just that, just that and more. I don't want to go into resources. "Info, obstacle and cost" imply them, and that's a no go for me.

    I still have something against Tarot : it's too much and not enough. I mean : for the one who lacks imagination, not enough, and for leaving patent room for interpretation : too much.

    Btw, an older thread touched upon a similar technique.
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