The importance to RPGing of *engaging* situations

JAMUMU

actually dracula
I can't remember which game it was that advised the GM to "prep situations, not scenarios", but cleaving to that advice has definitely improved my GMing. System matters, of course. I have the same "situation area" written up for D&D and for Burning Wheel. The optimum problem-solving solution for D&D involves a lot more direct violence than the BW version, though in both versions information gathering and social factioneering can lead to non-violent (for the players) solutions.

Often when my players have a handle on any given situation they take a long time deciding what levers to pull and which buttons to push to achieve a desired outcome. Sometimes the actual playing out of that final stage often becomes secondary to the discovery and planning portions, meaning they want it resolved narratively. As variety is the spice of life I'll let that happen now and again.
 

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One last set of thoughts before I go MIA for a few days. Just a few examples of the Blades in the Dark game I mentioned above to flesh out the point:

At any given point, there is a constellation of Threats in play that manifest mechanically and within the shared imagined space in the following ways:

1) Setting or Faction or Rival Clocks. These are some combination of "extra-Score Clocks" that have emerged as a direct product of either (a) action resolution Complications during a Score (that can't be fully Resisted) or (b) a Devil's Bargain(s) or (c) Volatile tags (these are "auto-Complications" for some dangerous thing like a Ritual or Alchemical). A Setting Clock might emerge (d) as a byproduct major collateral fallout of a Score + a Fortune Roll that comes up as a 6. The final way these things emerge is (e) during Downtime as adversaries and allies both have dramatic needs and the means (Downtime Activities and Assets and Allies) to put into action those needs.

2) Players (f) choosing Rivals and our conversation during the Score yields us bringing them into play. This is, in effect, a player-authored kicker in a roundabout way.

The thing about a version of Blades in the Dark that employs neither the game's GMing Principles nor the game's Players' Best Practices nor the game's Advancement scheme which rewards dangerous, volatile, reckless play and the associated sucking up of the hardship that comes with it? That conceptual game? That game surely has a "solve" for each of (a) through (f) above. There is an optimal answer to the problem-solution space for each instantiation of those things during play of the game.

But Blades in the Dark is not that game (precisely because of the GMing Principles, the Players' Best Practices and the nature of Advancement). Each of that (a) through (f) above has an complex matrix of decision-space for the players where they are weighing simultaneous optimal arrangements that are at tension with each other...and there is also a layer of speculation and randomization (particularly when it comes to Resistance Rolls and the potential gamble of incurring devastating Stress to mitigate Consequences):

* Do I want to pursue this dangerous, volatile course to mark an xp in Playbook, Insight, Prowess, or Resolve?

* Do I want to pursue this dangerous, volatile course because that is the point of playing in the first place...AND my PC can deal (both mechanically with the robust toolkit for "dealing" and within the fiction itself...these are badass scoundrels with blood-soaked pasts!)?!

* Do I want to Resist this Consequence or turn down this Devil's Bargain because any of (i) I can't take the potential fallout, (ii) I don't love the course the potential fallout charts (thematically/premise-wise), (iii) there are just too many spinning plates in the air right now. BUT...can I even afford to Resist here...will I Trauma out of the scene (and hit one tick of my macro Clock to retire my PC)? Action resolution wise, can I afford to turn down this Devil's Bargain...like do I desperately need an extra die here? Can I think of an alternative Devil's Bargain or can someone else at the table?

* Do we really want this smoke? These guys are 2 Tiers higher than us with lots of dangerous Allies! But you know what...they did x and y...will we actually just sit idly by and let them do x...or y? Is that the kind of Crew we are? Is that the kind of Scoundrel I am? EFF THESE GUYS, WE WANT THIS SMOKE (or, let's just pay them off or find some other way to lower our profile...we want nothing to do with this trouble...for now).


This sort of stuff goes round and round and round and round and round in any given session of Blades in the Dark I GM. Its not here or there. Its not once or twice. Its perpetual. And that is by design.

So...yeah, there is a "solve" for every conceptual move in the hypothetical Blades in the Dark game above. But that ain't the actual game conceived-of...designed...-and-played. That game has omnidirectional push-pull and at-tension incentive structures that deeply complicates the reality of the constellation of "Threats on the Board" and the matrix of any given player and Crew's decision-space. An optimal "solve" there would require a seriously robustly parameterized model and a LOT of computing power!
 
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SaltheartRPG

Villager
I think a lot of engaging play depends on the how the table is set. Is a game runner open to hearing any kind of proposed action/interaction and making it work within the ruleset? This is the old debate of rules v. rulings. Does your game system have a rule for everything from successfully sitting in a chair, to attempting to fast walk (I am being facetious)? Or, does the game system provide the room for game runners and players to negotiate any course of action, letting some dice/skill/ability combo mechanic be the final arbiter?

Finally, have you placed your players on the ole' railroad with but one 'correct' way to solve a problem or situation, thus killing improvisation and fun?

Any system can be placed in the fun category, although some are better for it. There must be some formula that reveals "engagement" level that is negatively related to rule and scenario rigidity.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
Probably the most reliable way to make situations compelling is to make them clearly speak to something the players have shown their PCs care about. This is also more likely to support exciting resolution, because whatever it is that happens, some PC's situation will be changed in a way that matters. Something will be gained or lost, a friend made or betrayed, a goal advanced or set back, etc.
With the caveat that I am replying prior to reading all posts thus far in the thread, and accepting the premises ad arguendo, this proposal got me thinking about some ways I have seen a situation become compelling.
  • As you note, clearly speak to something the players have shown their PCs care about. That can be as to the situation itself (the content of the situation) and as to the foreseeable outcomes of the situation (the envisioned consequences), and connected with that, what got them here; which all in turn point to nesting or framing. It goes without saying that "speak to" is doing a lot of work here.
  • Another factor that I have seen to be compelling is a mystery players become intrigued by. In this case, they might not know whether that mystery connects with anything they care about... rather they come to care about the mystery itself. A new itch they want to scratch, might be another way to put this. I mention this, because "have shown" perhaps puts things unnecessarily into the past tense. It is as good if players find that their PCs care about the somethings in question.
  • Expanding on itches to scratch, wrongs to right can powerfully compel players, and those can occur in-situ. Especially slights or other wrongs against the player-characters. Revenge is one of the more powerful motivators. I mention this because again, I think it shows the possibility of the compelling thing being found in the situation, rather than before it (without ruling out that possibility.) And generally speaks to emotional engagement.
One could make a longer list. My rough intent here is to suggest that we can have a construction in which the caring about is not established in the contents of the situation, but before it, and we can have constructions in which the caring about is established in the contents of the situation. One difficulty is of course that the boundaries of "situation" are undefined, so we have a vagueness that might lead to talking at cross-purposes. Possibly, we should think of nested or framed situations and it cannot be adequately explained how a situation in isolation will be compelling*.


*This obviously touches on meaning, and everything (or a great deal) of what can be said about meaning may apply here.
 
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clearstream

(He, Him)
The essence has always seemed to me that the situation must not be simply a set-piece or static narration: it must be capable of being engaged-with and unravelled. Crucially, it must be possible for the players to form actions (intentionally) that will engage-with and unravel.

Players must be able to see how what they do will matter (and go on to matter.) I think that implies that the meaning in the situation cannot subsist solely in facts about the situation itself, but must subsist in virtue of the relationship of those facts with facts about the players / their imagined characters. This may be trivial conclusion, but it is also instructive.

This is an "and" to speaking to something players have shown or can entertain that their characters will care about
 
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Pedantic

Legend
This could be a minor and a major point of difference in our views.

Minor: I don't disagree that resolution systems can be better or worse, for various reasons, but I don't think that - in a RPG, compared to (say) a boardgame - the resolution system itself can do the work of holding interest.
I don't really classify TTRPGs as a fundamentally different activity than board games, possibly because I pretty much play them both with the same people.

Fundamentally, I think TTRPGs are separated by 2 unique features. Unbounded playtime, and undefined (or player defined) victory conditions. Instead of trying to acquire the most victory points before turn 8, or deplete the enemy's threat deck, players get to pick goals, like finding just what is hidden in that ancient ruin, or rescuing the kidnapped barkeep. Then, informed by the success or failure in regards to that condition (or proactively, as new information becomes available) they can select new goals to pursue, in a theoretically endless manner. And much like in other games, you can subdivide and pursue different strategies to achieve your goals.

I think you can separate, and try to drive the appeal of those two layers independently. My character wants something, and I will try to get that thing as efficiently and effectively as possible.
 

Pedantic

Legend
So...yeah, there is a "solve" for every conceptual move in the hypothetical Blades in the Dark game above. But that ain't the actual game conceived-of...designed...-and-played. That game has omnidirectional push-pull and at-tension incentive structures that deeply complicates the reality of the constellation of "Threats on the Board" and the matrix of any given player and Crew's decision-space. An optimal "solve" there would require a seriously robustly parameterized model and a LOT of computing power!
This is my single biggest frustration whenever I've tried to play Blades. The game does not want players to ever make good decisions. Every system is calculated to make your situation slightly worse, and then look askance at you of whenever you find some way to mitigate the bleeding.

I actually hate this kind of parasitic design in board games too, I struggle to get into games like Warchest or Undaunted, where you're generally starting from the highest peak of strength you'll ever have and every action thereafter will decrease it. Those are universally agreed to be solid designs, so that's very much a me thing, bit the problem compounds in a TTRPG where I can't know when the game will end. Adversity is interesting to overcome, I certainly want obstacles and challenges, but I don't want to fight with the basic resolution mechanics of the game to play well.

I'd much prefer that struggle exist independent of the player taking action.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
This is my single biggest frustration whenever I've tried to play Blades. The game does not want players to ever make good decisions. Every system is calculated to make your situation slightly worse, and then look askance at you of whenever you find some way to mitigate the bleeding.

I actually hate this kind of parasitic design in board games too, I struggle to get into games like Warchest or Undaunted, where you're generally starting from the highest peak of strength you'll ever have and every action thereafter will decrease it. Those are universally agreed to be solid designs, so that's very much a me thing, bit the problem compounds in a TTRPG where I can't know when the game will end. Adversity is interesting to overcome, I certainly want obstacles and challenges, but I don't want to fight with the basic resolution mechanics of the game to play well.

I'd much prefer that struggle exist independent of the player taking action.
Our crew has gone from tier 0 weak to tier IV weak. We’re a major player in Duskvol now. I’m having trouble reconciling the idea that every system is calculated to make our situation slightly worse with the fact that we are rapidly approaching a point where we could subvert or take over the government after having started as basically nobodies. That seems like the opposite of worse except for the fact we do have a lot of alliances and enemies and obligations and trauma we’ve picked up along the way, but that also seems emblematic of our actions having consequences and our play generating things that matter to us (since these outcomes all followed from our pursuit of things important to or interesting to us). Are you speaking at a lower level than that?

Like, how in a score, you’re going to be facing consequences and having to decide how you want to handle them. Do you take them (the clocks, the heat, the harm, etc)? Do you resist and risk stress and trauma? These are decisions you have to make as you work towards your goals, and it inevitably involves expending resources (gear, stress, etc) as part of getting there. I see that as similar to a game like Pathfinder where you have to deal with things like traps (make a saving throw) and monsters (try not to take too much damage in combat) along the way to your goal. Those are both a form of attrition model, though BitD arguably works more completely (there is no way to really avoid it while newer versions of Pathfinder and its peers tend not to enforce the model very strongly if at all). Another difference with BitD is it gives players more control over how they resist a consequence instead of relying on luck alone to mitigate it (and hence the reason why games have evolved away from save or die/suck effects or to make them more gradual with multiple failures required for the full effect).

Am I off base or at least somewhat close? You say it’s you, so I’m not arguing with that. I’m just trying to understand a different viewpoint.
 

This is my single biggest frustration whenever I've tried to play Blades. The game does not want players to ever make good decisions. Every system is calculated to make your situation slightly worse, and then look askance at you of whenever you find some way to mitigate the bleeding.

I actually hate this kind of parasitic design in board games too...

See I would frame this quite differently.

* The game demands players not only make strategic and tactical decisions that are net "positive gamestate-forward", but the game demands those same decisions be integrated with "Advancement-forward" and "dramatic need-forward" (both the individual Scoundrel the player is playing but the Crew at large) and "bold and compelling play-forward." Put another way BIG GAME LAYER + INTEGRATED BIG PROTAGONISM rather than just BIG, DISCRETE GAME LAYER.

That is an imminently more difficult decision-space (and maps profoundly more closely to the way actual, flawed-yet-capable, living creatures in a complex biome and social strata work) than "solve each obstacle optimally, no theme/premise/dramatic need or at-tension incentive structure strings attached."

* As such, I don't call that parasitic design. I call that brilliantly complex and integrated systemization of a premise for play. Particularly so given how capable and robust the PCs are (through the myriad means/resources at the disposal of the PCs and the layered decision-space).

EDIT - All of the above being said, the element of "Spinning Plates" or “Walls Closing In” of Blades in the Dark (and kindred games) can be "bug" rather than "feature" for some players. I've talked to at least one whose cognitive state is just fundamentally wired to be triggered by all of those plates perpetually in the air. This isn’t a game about aligning every incentive structure perfectly in the same direction so there is no tension between them and no tradeoffs, so risk profiles and conflict can be reduced to zero, so consequences can be defanged entirely. So that absolutely is "a thing."
 
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Probably the most reliable way to make situations compelling is to make them clearly speak to something the players have shown their PCs care about. This is also more likely to support exciting resolution, because whatever it is that happens, some PC's situation will be changed in a way that matters. Something will be gained or lost, a friend made or betrayed, a goal advanced or set back, etc.

For me, the bolded text doesn't differentiate sufficiently between games where the players choose what to care about and those where the GM tells them what they must care about.

However, I agree with your central premise that 'players caring' is the fuel which powers engaging situation. Letting the players create settings, situations and characters which they're excited about has been the most reliable method I've found of achieving that. Scripted 'adventures' which players then 'create characters' to hit the GMs 'story beats' have been - by some considerable distance - the poorest.
 

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