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! 


  1. Blades in the Bay sounds *very* intriguing. :-)

  2. Dresden Files Accelerated has rules for grand magic where the players say what they want to do and there's a procedure to decide how much cost they'll need to pay. One that's settled the cost is converted into a specific list of requirements the players have to fulfil. The magic kicks off once - and only if - they do.

    This feels adjacent to Blades in the Bay even though it does not eliminate any inapt discussions. It also puts a structure on generating a list of next steps to execute albeit for a different purpose - it lets the players achieve moments of awesome at a price (and replicates a story substructure common in multiple genres).

  3. Blades in the Bay sounds cool! It also reminds me of John Wick’s Dirty Dungeons. I like how you’ve phrased this basically around PC aptitude. The characters are never inept, they just may have inaccurate information. This allows them to continue to be competent and not waste Player time or agency but also introduces the necessary challenge of randomness.

    Anyway, here’s John Wick:

    1. Yes, I'm a fan of dirty dungeons, we tried it once a few years ago. I bashed out a dirty hex crawl procedure from that inspiration.

      Now, I like to differentiate "inapt" from "inept". Inept is lack of skill, errors, mishaps.. all of that can be great play. By "inapt" I mean completely inapplicable, it just doesn't connect to the fiction well enough to be fun.

      For example, if the play group is hoisting a mansion, and they debate at length how much preparing to do for possible guard dogs (and maybe get into whether it's realistic for a Duskvol noble of such-and-such a rank to have hunting dogs when there isn't enough vegetation to support large game animals). Then they debate how best to neutralize the dogs, and evaluate a few approaches to that (lure them into a wire cage? Poison darts? Bag of bunnies?)

      That can all be entertaining in the right quantity, but if the GM is sitting there knowing that the mansion is unoccupied in the fall season and has neither guard dogs nor loot, all this layering of hypotheticals is entirely disconnected from the game world. It's not "inept" (in fact, mastering a hypothetical situation can be a joyride of skill display), but it's "inapt". There's no built-in limit to how long this can go on. Once dogs are settled, now how about traps? Etc.

    2. "There's no built-in limit to how long this can go on."

      Of course there is, it's called the GM. Now sure, most newby/inexperienced GMs might not know how to thread this needle, or even that thread exists for this needle, but I've never played a system that didn't have a means to combat this within the system already. Skill, Knowledges, Lores, etc; rolls, checks, challenges, etc.

      Heck, even at the simplest, pre-calling for any rolls, during the planning-to-plan phase, if the Players are going after wild geese I'll tell them to split what they're talking about into three categories:

      Known Knowns: This is what the Players are 100% sure about. Often this will just involve the "problem" (challenge, puzzle, premise of the heist, mission outline, etc), but will often include information the PCs already have about their targets. And as the plan evolves, as information is gathered, this should include the PC's capacities and preparations for Known Problems and "eventualities" (Unknown, but predicted, Unknowns),

      Known Unknowns: Literally a "what we know we don't know". I've found that having the Players list out what they're pretty sure they don't know really sets forth a quick list of informational targets. This is where the planning stage should shift into "what can we learn and incorporate into our plan in time". Often the target list will be prioritized, and then executed upon, and as "clues" are uncovered, revealed, secured, etc, bits from this list should drift over to the above list (though often not formally. I'm really the only person I know who bothers to keep track after the initial "list of Knowns Unknowns" is made as a Player).

    3. The next two categories are ones I keep as a GM, and yes, I will make the first list, a brief one, because it's handy to keep in my mind as the mission unfolds:

      Unknown Knowns: What do the PC's know but don't yet realize it. Sometimes the PCs will have info and not realize it ties in. I try to keep this list in mind (but out of sight of Players) because I might be able to jostle a few clues during the mission to have 'pay-off' moments. Those little "eureka' moments where a Player 'puts it all together' and realizes things in a new light. I like these moments, it drives Player engagement deeper.

      Unknown Unknowns: This is the things the PCs do not know, and don't even know enough to know they don't know it. I actually rarely keep this list formally, at least I don't have it anywhere during play that a Player could find it, but I review it between sessions. This is honestly more of a 'campaign' thing, but it's something to think about even on small scale, single session mission plays. What do the Players have absolutely no idea about, but cold come into play, and (most importantly) how do I get that info to them seamlessly. How do I sprinkle these nuggies into the session so that the grander scheme of things slowly reveals itself? This is a hard one.

      After resolving what the Players (and their Characters) do and don't know, and they decide on ways to go 'get that info', you roll the dice. The actions resolve, the plan gets made.

      Does the Duskvol noble keep dogs? Well, now they know, know they can plan for them, or cross them off their list, or even plan for them anyway just in case their information was bunk.

      It sounds to me like the problem, with both of these games you've mentioned here, is when the plan goes off flawlessly, all there was was planning. Not play, the play happens, the interesting stuff happens, when the plans go awry.

      Inapt discussion can be fun. Have you no 'great stories' about that time your group planned and detailed and agonized over something and then the plan went off without a hitch and that thing you worried so much about never came about? Or that thing you dismissed as pointless to worry about happens ("Duskovol nobles hate hunting, they won't have dogs" and whelp, this one loves a good hunt and spends extra to house and feed dogs). Like, to me, that's as golden as the times the when the plan goes completely haywire, everything you planned for was wrong, and it's "time for Plan Whatever", which in my group means "we're making this up as we go".

    4. Personally, I'm a big fan of planning, it's one of my favorite parts of the game. Planning is highly apt when it's based on information the players gathered and leads to more engagement with the world e.g. by recognizing information gaps and acting to fill them, or putting a plan to the test.

      "Inapt" planning is the wild goose chases you refer to, I believe, when the planning either doesn't lead to action, or heaps contingencies upon misunderstandings. You've described a third way to avoid totally inapt planning discussions, which I think is actually pretty neat. You step in as facilitator and use a structured approach to sort clues into piles that then fuel player actions or become cues for you as GM.

      Now, I do think Blades deliberately goes further than avoiding inapt planning, it eliminates planning completely—it's going for a breezier pace, like heist TV shows. (Much like Sherlock adaptations talk about deduction but don't feature the deducing _process_ at all, that's all done privately in Sherlock's head and simply revealed at dramatic moments.) That's just a taste thing: if you like heists or deduction gaming to actually feature planning and theorizing, then what you've described sounds pretty useful.

  4. I haven't played Brindlewood yet so please correct me if I'm wrong here. Doesn't the "Theorise" move still involve "Inapt Discussion"?

    The players form a theory, and then roll to see if their theory is correct. So their theory could still be totally off-base. If they fail the roll, and their theory was completely wrong, wasn't that discussion just as "Inapt" as it would be in a normal mystery game?

    Personally I think these "Inapt discussions" are an important part of the mystery genre. It's normal for the detective to get things wrong. You think you've found the killer - but then your main suspect turns up dead! It turns out you were off on a wild goose chase, and now the killer has kidnapped your spouse while you were distracted! Think of House, where they always have to get it wrong twice before the end.

    So I would personally call "Inapt discussion" a staple of the genre, and it seems to me as if Brindlewood preserves that in the design.

    1. It's a good question, I probably ought to have defined "inapt" more carefully. What I'm referring to is conversation that is simply not applicable to the real™ state of affairs in the game world. Being incorrect (on its own) isn't inapt—and in many cases, plunging forward with an incorrect belief makes for interesting play.

      With Theorize, the players are proposing solutions (however convoluted and unlikely) that have a good chance of being materially correct, so it's not quite "inapt" in the same way.

  5. Great post! As a member of a group that is very prone to over-planning and trying to account for every eventuality, this post really hits home.