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McGuffins, Secrets and Player Defined Solutions

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Last night while unable to sleep, I started to think about the best method for adventures that revolve around specific or particular "answers" to situations in play. In this case it relates to a "The Boys" style game I am putting together, where the PCs aren't powerful enough to defeat the super bad guys, and will need some McGuffin or trick to get it done. But this could also be about murder mysteries or other "key information" based adventure design.

Here's the primary question I keep coming back to: is it better to a) define the McGuffin and all the associated details, including the clues that will lead the PCs to the answer, or b) simply know there IS a McGuffin but let the players tell you what it is by their actions. In the former case, a few failed skill rolls or the PCs running off on a tangent could really bog the game game down. The GM has to work extra hard to make sure they are communicating things to the players in ways that lead them to the conclusions the GM intends, and has to be able to redirect or adapt if the PCs run after a red herring. In the latter case, the GM is free from those constraints but must focus on pacing and coherence without making the entire exercise seem artificial and essentially running down the clock until the timer goes off for the big showdown.

Note: I am coming at this from a largely trad RPG standpoint for the purposes of this discussion. That isn't to say we can't talk about more narrative game tools to incorporate, but I want to avoid the largely unhelpful (in this context) "Just use Pbta/FitD/Storygame1171" line of argument.

So, if you have a murder mystery or a McGuffin hunt or some other highly specific information or action key adventure, what do you do to guide play to the goal? What methods do you use to support the PCs getting where they need to go? Do you ever let them decide, and if so do you explicitly do so or do you pick a thread they were pulling on?
 

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kenada

Legend
Supporter
For traditional adventure design, I’m a fan of the three clue rule and node-based design. If the PCs follow an unexpected lead, I would see where it goes, but I wouldn’t necessarily make it a correct one. It’s more like I would reconcile it with the existing facts in a way that made sense.

The closest I come to letting them decide (again, assuming traditional adventure design) is leaving certain solutions open-ended. For example, I had a magic-user trapped in a pocket dimension of her own making, and the only way to gain access was to “be part of her story”. I had no particular idea what the solution to that problem would be. It ended up that they found her diary and wrote themselves into it.
 

The way I do it is to have only a general idea of a plotline, and when the players have interesting ideas, incorporate some of them. Not all of them. But when the players "realise" that they're in a worse situation than they thought, I tend to use those ideas.
 

HaroldTheHobbit

Adventurer
My standard MO in all trad systems is to define the McGuffin(s) and have rough ideas for clues and paths. Then in actual play I adapt to the players actions, whims and fancys, which usually leads to me scraping most of the original clues and paths, and reworking and adapting the McGuffin. But I still have original ideas to riff on and keep the campaign moving.

Imho, the clash between my original ideas and the players bizarre conspiracy concoctions and mad conclusions makes for a red-hot creative crucible, and riffing off that is the most fun part of GMing for me :)
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
I guess A. I'm not entirely sure what B means in a trad game?
My standard MO in all trad systems is to define the McGuffin(s) and have rough ideas for clues and paths. Then in actual play I adapt to the players actions, whims and fancys, which usually leads to me scraping most of the original clues and paths, and reworking and adapting the McGuffin. But I still have original ideas to riff on and keep the campaign moving.
This is how it usually goes for me. Note I have moved away from Mcguffin hunts because they are just too common and played out for my taste. I dont have antagonist sit back and wait either. If one of their underlings or actions of the PCs garner attention, they will become proactive. Adapting the adventure is always expected. So, having an initial plan is great, but don't make it so detailed that it has no room to breath as the game comes to life.
The GM has to work extra hard to make sure they are communicating things to the players in ways that lead them to the conclusions the GM intends, and has to be able to redirect or adapt if the PCs run after a red herring. In the latter case, the GM is free from those constraints but must focus on pacing and coherence without making the entire exercise seem artificial and essentially running down the clock until the timer goes off for the big showdown.
I think red herrings are fine, but its best to dead end them sooner than later. I had a GM that would let entire sessions go by with the PCs so far off the trail the entire time. Eventually, he would lose patience and just warp everybody to the right trail. I will give the players clues from the characters. "Your initial sense lead you on this path, but now it just doesn't feel right" that or they catch up to an NPC that flatly convinces them to start over or look elsewhere.

A note about The Boys in particular, the McGuffin always fails. The writers of this show are content playing a reset every season game with the viewers. You are Charlie Brown and they are Lucy. On one hand, this can feel like a giant waste of time for gamers, on the other it leaves the possibility for adaptation in organic ways. For example, the big bad is still alive but no longer a threat because of blackmail or some other means of leverage. Maybe, the big bad finds they were manipulated (thanks to PCs) and turns coat to aid them. The important part is to understand the pitfall here, writing a story is not always the same as writing an RPG adventure. They share many of the same traits, but results are not always satisfactory for players as they might be for a reader.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I'm not sure that's an either/or - it can be an "and".

When I plan, I have thoughts on solutions and stuff so that I can place clues and foreshadow. But that doesn't mean that the players can't come up with great ideas that also work.

For instance, in a D&D 5th level game I'm running they fund out that the Evil Duke(tm) had invited/contracted with an Oinoloth to enter his body, granting him effectively powerful warlock abilities. The party couldn't just go directly after the duke in combat, he was legitimately in place and they work for the currently disposed real ruler of the Imperium who does not want to start a tradition of regicide. So the party did some research and found out a number of ways to push the Oinoloth out of the body, which would be the proof they needed to then deal with the duke.

One of the ways was an exorcism on hallowed ground. Basically a number of successful religion checks while chanting the exorcism. Thinking about luring him to one of the churches and a fight where some are spending actions trying to do the exorcism. But one of the things going on was the Duke was throwing an Olympiad as part of his bread and circuses. And the party had a fantastic bard. So they disguised her, got her to sing the opening song and Ode to the Gods when the gods are invoked over the games at the hallowed shrine. Which she changed so the refrain was the exorcism chant, with a programmed illusion showing the words to everyone in big letters. Never expected, but sure that's a wonderful solution the players instigated. When they came up with it I had to think if it was an actual shrine and if it was hallowed, but it was easy to say yet to it to let them have their great plan.

I do a "Schrödinger's Plots" - until something has actually hit the table, it's not "true". I don't retcon things, but if "set of facts B" fits everything that has hit the table, that I can change from "set of facts A" if need be. And hitting the table is the defining point, not writing it in my notes.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
A note about The Boys in particular, the McGuffin always fails. The writers of this show are content playing a reset every season game with the viewers. You are Charlie Brown and they are Lucy. On one hand, this can feel like a giant waste of time for gamers, on the other it leaves the possibility for adaptation in organic ways. For example, the big bad is still alive but no longer a threat because of blackmail or some other means of leverage. Maybe, the big bad finds they were manipulated (thanks to PCs) and turns coat to aid them. The important part is to understand the pitfall here, writing a story is not always the same as writing an RPG adventure. They share many of the same traits, but results are not always satisfactory for players as they might be for a reader.
A note on this: this is for a con game, so that element is not really a concern.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I think red herrings are fine, but its best to dead end them sooner than later. I had a GM that would let entire sessions go by with the PCs so far off the trail the entire time. Eventually, he would lose patience and just warp everybody to the right trail.
I agree with this so strongly. Way back when I was in a Champion's game, and there was a fairly massive world event going on that was across all of the GM's different games. Anyway, the group I was with tried to stop one particular piece, and ended up on a seven session red herring hunt. Literally the group left the game when the GM revealed that. It wasn't the first issue with the GM, but it was absolutely the last straw.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
A note on this: this is for a con game, so that element is not really a concern.
Oh for a con game I would certainly make the McGuffin work as advertised. I also would dead end red herrings fast. There is an art to making a con time slot work.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Oh for a con game I would certainly make the McGuffin work as advertised. I also would dead end red herrings fast. There is an art to making a con time slot work.
Yeah. I have run many, many con games. I do mini "con-campaigns" ranging from 3 to 6 slots (episodic so folks that only play 1 can still enjoy their experience).

Anyway, this thread is larger than that con game question, but the idea of wanting to make sure "mystery" methodology works for shorter (one shot, limited campaign) games is important, too. In this case, though, I am leaning toward the PCs knowing what the McGuffin is at the outset and having to figure out how to get it, then how to use it to kill Ser Brightburn in the 4 hours alotted.
 

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