Thursday 27 July 2023

Avoiding Inapt Discussion in RPGs

Recently, I learned about the Brindlewood Bay's approach to mysteries via the Darknened Threshold podcast. It struck me that it's does something that Blades in the Dark also does, but in a completely different way:

It avoids inapt discussion about information the players don't have.

Brindlewood Bay has a Theorize move where players chew over the assembled clues and propose answers to the whodunnit. If their roll succeeds, then their theory becomes the real answer. This is the opposite choice that Blades in the Dark made, but for the same root reason. 

Blades eliminates players interminably planning out their heists, instead letting them retcon in preparations using flashback scenes.

In a traditional game where the heist target or murder mystery is predefined, players can easily spend a lot of time planning for contingencies that will never occur.. or indulging fanciful theories disconnected from the secret truth. 

"You guys are overthinking this," the GM says (or thinks, bored). True as that might be, it's unhelpful advice because the players don't know where they're on and off target, or what they've forgotten (or just plain misremembered). Their conversation is inapt. 

What's neat is the differing approaches to avoid this. Blades makes planning unnecessary by making player choices retroactively malleable. The inapt conversation doesn't need to happen.

Brindlewood, on the other hand, keeps the inapt conversation but makes it into an apt one by having reality bend to meet it. The players theorize at length, but it's not a waste, it becomes the real story. 

* * *

What's neat about holding these up together is how it reveals other design choices that could have been made, as illustrated by two made-up games: Brindlewood Dark and Blades in the Bay.

In Brindlewood Dark, players solve a murder mystery by having a few conversations with the suspects, letting a bit of action unfold, then suddenly launching into an accusation. The accused protests, then the players narrate the clues they noticed, retconning the evidence. 

The accused (or witless Lestrades also at the scene) attempt to recontextualize these clues by narrating flashbacks of their own. Eventually the players close the net or the accused shows their innocence (or at least blows up enough clues to walk). 

Meanwhile, in Blades in the Bay, the players spend 45 minutes planning the heist based up on details of defenses and risks they supposedly scouted out, researched, or paid to learn.. all made up as they discuss. The higher the danger, the bigger the score. 

They then enact their plan. As they do so, they roll for each threat to see if it is really as they understood it. If it is, then plan they made for that part just works.

If not, they're back on their heels and reacting in real time to a situation that has become unpleasantly dynamic. If they handle the chaos well, they resume the later steps of their original plan. If it blows up in their faces, they might just need to scrub the mission. 

Anyways, those are made up games, but they're two different applications of these "avoid inaptness" techniques.

Now I want to overly complicate a heist plan! Blades in the Bay sounds fun!