I love big, bold statements. One of the things I will respect most about a human being is her ability to stand up and say something controversial or bat-guano crazy with a straight face. I don’t even really need to agree with him. I find the pure willingness to risk reputation and harm for the sake of an ideal compelling. I also like to lead by example, so here’s my bold statement of the day.
Information-gathering checks (Perception, Gather Info, etc) are an obsolete RPG technology. Players should not have to entrust the gaining of information to randomization.
Let’s look at the general (and admittedly simplified) history of the Perception check. The earliest games suggested that the GM make information-gathering checks on the player’s behalf in secret. This was of course to ensure that the player had as little metagame knowledge as possible to judge the quality of the gained information. Sometimes, no information was given at all until it was too late. (“Yep, you totally missed that pit trap there. Take 10 damage.”)
As time progressed, this method came under fire for its mysteriousness. What if the GM decided you don’t get to roll? What if she rolled but ignored it because she didn’t like the result? With no other witnesses besides the GM, how could you determine he was playing fairly? Shouldn’t the player have the agency to make all her own rolls? Thus the age of transparent information checks began. You could see exactly how well you rolled on that Sleuthing check and compare it to a fair, predetermined target number.
Then of course, things like this happened and lo, the masses cried foul on ‘metagaming.’
“Failing forward” – a concept by where a failing skill check is deemed “yes, but..” instead of “no” further helped these problems. (“You failed your Streetwise? OK, you overheard the rumor but the people talking caught you eavesdropping and chased you out of the bar.”) Metagaming problem solved, transparency problem solved.. it’s all good, right?
The answer to that question depends largely on whom you ask. Isn’t the possibility of failing and not getting the information part of the fun and tension?
Well.. sort of.. but not really. It falls apart if you think about for a minute.
Say you’re at a locked door and you listen. If I say “you don’t hear anything” it’s sort of a let-down. There’s no fun behind this door. Sorry. “But wait!” you think, “what if there is something there and it’s just asleep or trying to be quiet? What if there’s free loot? We should open this door!” Suddenly the door is interesting again because of your expectations. You have manufactured possible information on your own, which then drives you to move forward. The fact that you gained no information despite mechanical success provides no game fuel, but the assumptions and conjecture – the information that you think you have – does propel forward motion.
It’s true that players with high expectations and wild imaginations might not have much trouble getting around the lack of information to find motive. However, I posit that most groups of players upon passing through a hallway of quiet doors won’t bother checking them. A thing in a game (barring stuff controlled by shared narration) needs to somehow signal its existence to be meaningful. Gleaned information is the primary and most basic type of signal.
The Apocalypse World engine – games that also include DungeonWorld, Monsterhearts and the like – recognize this. The “perception” check in those games always yields information. The question becomes a matter of how much information instead. It’s an important and substantial leap forward. Still, something about it bothers me. No matter where I sit at the table – as player, spectator or MC – I’m always sad when the player only gets to ask one question, because asking one question is never as fun for anyone as asking three questions. More information equals more fun.
There are other unadressed issues, such as the at-the-table practicality of relaying the results of an information check. One player passed, the other 3 failed. The GM tells the player that passed and then everyone else overhears, but has to pretend they don’t know. It’s awkward. Also, what happens when one person’s failure prompts another to call for a roll and it’s just a matter of time until someone gets it and the failure possibility is irrelevant anyway?
For “Good, Fast, Cheap” I’ve decided to do away with the whole thing. You want to know what’s behind the door? You want to know if the NPC is lying to you? You want to find the best escape route? Just ask. I put toys out for you to play with and there’s no point hiding them from you. I want you to play with them. Go on. Have fun.
BUT – and this is like a Sir Mix-A-Lot sized but – there is a twist since I still enjoy surprising and ambushing the PCs as much as any GM out there. The twist is this: you as the player can give me the ability to retcon.
I fricking love retcons. Why? As a GM, I’m sort of impulsive and prone to a lot of weird detail without necessarily knowing what I’m doing with it. Most of my best stuff comes the day AFTER the game when I get the chance to slow down and tie together all the loose ends I left lying around that the players didn’t touch. Retcons routinely save my bacon.
On a failure of “Good”, one of my options is to retcon something you thought you knew, thus effectively causing you to “fail” earlier “perception checks” (despite that no dice were rolled). Thing is, you decide where your dice land. If you don’t want me to retcon, place a Success in Good every time you can. It’s that simple. I can do some really dastardly and obnoxious things to you, but only when you give me permission.
An example to close out:
People are dying in this hospital at an abnormal rate. The only thing you could possibly find during your investigation to trace it back to is the Attending General Surgeon. He needs to step down. He’s getting stressed out and sloppy; bad calls are being made and it’s ending lives. You confront him and make your case, rolling two successes and a failure. What’s important?
If you fail Fast, at least one more person will die while you’re talking – probably someone important.
If Cheap, you could lose the support of your colleagues (a Condition) or your own faith in medicine (an Asset)
If Good, he steps down but only after telling you about the undiagnosed infection spreading through the wing (which you didn’t notice earlier, did you?? Might not be all his fault in the end.).
What will it be, Scrub?
Want to get in on the next “Good, Fast, Cheap” playtest session? We’ve still got two seats open for Friday the 29th at 7PM EST. Come for the game, stay for the chat with Quinn, Ryven and friends at 9 PM EST afterward. Be there!