McGuffins, Secrets and Player Defined Solutions

Reynard

Legend
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.
 

John Dallman

Adventurer
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

Legend
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
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

Legend
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
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.
 

aco175

Legend
There is always a NPC around to get the pcs back on track, even if he is a dead guy with a note scrawled in blood. I like the captain obvious ones if everyone is getting bored/frustrated.

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Reynard

Legend
There is always a NPC around to get the pcs back on track, even if he is a dead guy with a note scrawled in blood. I like the captain obvious ones if everyone is getting bored/frustrated.
The exact reason to discuss this stuff is so none of us end up with bored and frustrated players. ;)
 

payn

Legend
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.
Stranger Things took a page out of Call of Cthulhu this past season and had some scooby doo like investigation going on. One thing that keeps up the pressure is events triggering as the PCs discover pieces of the puzzle. Reframing that from horror to supers shouldn't be too difficult. Neither should looking at some CoC one shots for inspiration.
 

Reynard

Legend
Stranger Things took a page out of Call of Cthulhu this past season and had some scooby doo like investigation going on. One thing that keeps up the pressure is events triggering as the PCs discover pieces of the puzzle. Reframing that from horror to supers shouldn't be too difficult. Neither should looking at some CoC one shots for inspiration.
CoC is very strongly in the first form I defined in the OP. I have played in both wonderful and terrible CoC scenarios, and the deciding factor between each is whether the GM wants you to discover the clues. I really dislike dithering in RPGs, whether it is pixel hunting, over planning, or grinding in combat.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
CoC is very strongly in the first form I defined in the OP. I have played in both wonderful and terrible CoC scenarios, and the deciding factor between each is whether the GM wants you to discover the clues. I really dislike dithering in RPGs, whether it is pixel hunting, over planning, or grinding in combat.
So, there's this article. It's pretty short, and clearly written, and I think it does a good job of explaining how a lot of games can be approached. At least, you see a good bit of these styles in a lot of posts here at ENW. I think that considering this article might help with the ideas that you're struggling with, at least in forming an idea of how you want to approach it at a high level. Honestly, for a con game with a system like SWADE, I'd heavily recommend starting with a mix of participationism and trailblazing, with a few illusionism cards up the sleeve if things bog down. SWADE doesn't have many useful supporting tools to play bass, and that mode of play isn't well suited to the constraints of a con game without strong system support.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
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.
The already mentioned three-clue rule and node-based design are what I consider the gold standard for this kind of thing.
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.
For me, it's better to have this stuff defined upfront rather than defined through play. The former can be changed, altered, bits moved, etc...while the latter has a very real risk of feeling like keep away or an anti-quantum ogre. No matter where you go or what you do, you won't find the McGuffin until the referee wants you to.
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.
In most murder mysteries you're not going to lock vital information behind a roll. Not if you want the murder mystery to actually work at least. Things like failing forward, success at cost, and simply handing players clues in a murder mystery are standard practice. It's up to the players to interpret those clues. Generally the less dice involved the better.
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?
Again, the three-clue rule and node-based design are incredible for this. The Alexandrian talks about prepping dozens of clues and scattering them across your nodes. And when the players inevitably go outside your prepped nodes, you can move one or more of your clues to that new node and help guide the players back to the main nodes. You see something similar in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master with clues. The idea is to prep the clues you might want to drop in the game, but do not decide where those clues are. You drop the clues where the players actually go. But in the original context, Return is using clues for hooks and world-building rather than mystery solving. So some adjustments might be necessary.

There's also X-Treme Dungeon Mastery, a book by Tracy Hickman. In it he also talks about node-based design, but he introduces what he calls hard and soft bumpers. Instead of the moveable clues of the Alexandrian, Hickman suggests increasingly hard bumpers to steer the players back into the "story." Say a simple obstacle, a harder obstacle, a nearly impossible obstacle, and finally an impossible obstacle. As much as I like most of the book, it's hard not to read this as railroading and illusion of choice.
 

Reynard

Legend
So, there's this article. It's pretty short, and clearly written, and I think it does a good job of explaining how a lot of games can be approached. At least, you see a good bit of these styles in a lot of posts here at ENW. I think that considering this article might help with the ideas that you're struggling with, at least in forming an idea of how you want to approach it at a high level. Honestly, for a con game with a system like SWADE, I'd heavily recommend starting with a mix of participationism and trailblazing, with a few illusionism cards up the sleeve if things bog down. SWADE doesn't have many useful supporting tools to play bass, and that mode of play isn't well suited to the constraints of a con game without strong system support.
SWADE has tons of great tools, from dramatic tasks to quick combats to all kinds of dials. It isn't a narrative or story game, for sure, but it is a pretty sleak, relatively simple, option heavy trad game that is surprisingly versatile. The only thing you really ahve to watch out for is its swinginess in combat -- which happens to be a net gain in this particular scenario.
 

Reynard

Legend
There's also X-Treme Dungeon Mastery, a book by Tracy Hickman. In it he also talks about node-based design, but he introduces what he calls hard and soft bumpers. Instead of the moveable clues of the Alexandrian, Hickman suggests increasingly hard bumpers to steer the players back into the "story." Say a simple obstacle, a harder obstacle, a nearly impossible obstacle, and finally an impossible obstacle. As much as I like most of the book, it's hard not to read this as railroading and illusion of choice.
I have never heard of that book. I will have to find a copy. Thanks.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
This is possibly the least-useful advice you're going to get--sorry--but what I've done in similar situations was A) figure out what the answer was--in this case, that'd be figuring out what (and probably where) your Maguffin is; B) figure out what information was available to the PCs--in this case, what is known about this Maguffin, what traces has it left on the world; and C) as the PCs did things, trying to learn about the situation, figure out whether (and how) what the PCs were doing would get them information, and what information. This--obviously--involves a lot of GM judgment in play, and does not involve trying to predict every PC course of action, or writing where every piece of information is; so it might not be an approach that will work for you, or for what you're trying to do.
 

I'm a huge fan of leaving blank spaces in my adventure design. It's a great way to increase player involvement, when you have a problem or challenge that has no pre-planned solution. I love it when my players surprise me with what they do to get past them. And having that bit of mystery gives that much more room for improvisation on my part, too.

My brother sometimes does a similar thing, but he frequently adds a parachute of "well if the players don't come up with anything, this is what it is." Which honestly isn't a bad idea, either.

I'd say give the MacGuffin an evocative name, like The Stonevoid Bane or somesuch, and let the PCs figure out what it actually is. Lots of people do better on improv when they at least have a starting point.
 

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