Support for Situation Generation

Support for Situation GenerationOver the last couple of weeks I’ve been recuperating from having a laparoscopic cholecystectomy (surgery to remove one’s gallbladder) and that’s given me a bit of free time to mull over some roleplaying stuff again.

Not to mention the fact that the operation worked a treat and, though I’ve been feeling a bit tender, I’m finally getting back to my old self. The restricted diet, discomfort and painful, sleepless nights from the last six months are a thing of the past and I’m not missing my gallbladder, even slightly. Yay!

Anyway, a discussion with Bill White over at Consensus Games has led to the following thoughts, which seemed worth posting about here.

Cycle of Situation Generation and Resolution

In practice, a roleplaying game consists of a series of imaginary situations/scenes, each of which players are expected to react to and resolve (in some fashion) before moving on to the next.

Hence games are a repeating cycle of:
Cycle of Situation Generation and ResolutionPretty much without exception, RPGs provide extensive support to Situation Resolution, through mechanics that determine success or failure of imagined actions and/or arbitrate conflicts. However, aside from pre-scripted adventure modules and guidelines such as “threaten PC beliefs”, it’s largely down to the participants (typically the GM)  to come up with interesting situations which advance the fiction.

This is usually done through a combination of preparation and improvisation, both of which have their problems; either railroading or the GMs version of writer’s block.
Preparation vs ImprovisationSo, given that Situation Generation and Situation Resolution are both fundamental to play, why is all the mechanical support focused on Situation Resolution? And do effective ways to support Situation Generation actually exist?

I have some thoughts on why Situation Resolution gets all the attention but I think I’ll save those for another post as I want to focus on the second question, “Do effective ways to support Situation Generation exist?”

Well, certainly for me, I’ve realised that a major appeal of Bill White’s oracular approach to RPGs is that the techniques he employs do in fact support situation generation during play. In these games the participants aren’t asked to decide “what happens next?” they’re asked to interpret the cards, which is easier somehow. Switching the focus to reading the cards prompts the imagination, encourages collaboration  and works surprisingly well considering there’s no overall ‘architect’ guiding the story. As Bill himself says:

People’s minds naturally want to impute meaning to patterns: random noise plus human perception equals deep significance.

Another approach, which has been employed in some games, is to mechanize aspects of GM play to the point where opposition to the PCs can be played to the hilt (within the limits of the rules) e.g. something like, if a PC blows a certain roll the GM is entitled to threaten the PC’s relationships or property, or to place them at a disadvantage but cannot actual do them any physical harm.

With this technique the players and GM “advocate” for their respective characters and situations are generated as a consequence of the conflicts arising between them. Once again there is a subtle shift of focus as the GM is being asked not “What happens next?” but “What’s your next move?”

For the time being these are the only techniques I have in mind but I’m wondering if there are others? And, if so, how effective they are? I’ll be giving it some more thought and will probably expand on this post at a later time.

Certainly I’ll be continuing to look out for oracular mechanics since, as anyone reading this blog will know, they are of great interest to me.

Anyway, any thoughts or comments are most welcome. Thanks for dropping by.


8 thoughts on “Support for Situation Generation

  1. Tommi

    Random generators occupy a nice spot between impro and preparation.

    Here’s an idea that I have not yet developed much further: Assume GM and players as usual. Players play characters that have skills (from a pre-defined list, say). Some of those skills are used to create situations; succeeding at a roll means that the players gets to pretty much create the scene (add desired amount of controls here), while failure means that the GM gets to add a related but maybe more hostile scene.

    Now that I think of it: Consider two versions of the above. In first one, negotiation is a skill used in scenes; in the other, it is used to create them. One makes negotiation a potentially central feature of the game while the other keeps it useful but with a more supportive role.

  2. Bruce Post author

    Hi Tommi

    Interesting idea. Spreading around scene generation authority is certainly another way of tackling this. I guess it focuses more on making everyone responsible for advancing the fiction rather than addressing moments during play when the narrative stalls because nobody can come up with what happens next, which is what I’m currently more concerned with. But it has potential.

    As always, thanks for your input my friend. It’s always good to hear from you.

  3. Pingback: Skills: tool for setting scenes « Cogito, ergo ludo.

  4. Josh W

    This has been my approach from the start; I’ve said before on the forge that mechanics serve 3 main purposes:

    peacemakers between different ideas of what should happen,

    inspiration and giving something to work off,

    and providing restrictions so players(+GM) _have_ to create rather than just doing the same thing over and over.

    Now while doing that they should probably be responsive to what has already happened, have opportunity for mental engagement in the resolution process, and express a different sense of place.

    While your doing all that, if it’s not too much trouble, there’s the whole suit of automatic flagging of pacing and interest, and ways of narrowing down on situations themes and dilemmas the players are into.

    That last part is about making the game a communication of not just what people want to create, but how they want to create it too.

    Tommi, one of the ways I thought of to mix skills into scene setting is to balance the skills by using the skills mix to decide what kind of scenes occur, sort of like pdq, but with skills being able to be expressed at different levels of detail, giving clues on how to play out those scenes to the GM.

    If you mix that with some of the weirder inspiration methods, I suspect you can get a quite cool challenge-based scenario generator. Still needs work mind.

  5. Bruce Post author

    Hi Josh

    Thanks for commenting. That’s certainly a comprehensive summation of what mechanics should be doing. You’ve obviously given this a lot of thought.

    Could you perhaps elaborate on/give an example of mechanics that “provide restrictions so players (+GM) have to create rather than just doing the same thing over and over”? I think I get what you mean by this but wanted to be sure.

    Also, you suggest that you’ve discussed the purposes of mechanics elsewhere (e.g. you mention the Forge)? If so, are there any relevant threads I should check out? I’d be interested to read what was said in them.



    Tommi has posted some more thoughts on his “situation creation skills” idea over at his Cogito, ergo ludo blog. Interesting stuff.

  6. Tommi

    Hello Josh.

    Tommi, one of the ways I thought of to mix skills into scene setting is to balance the skills by using the skills mix to decide what kind of scenes occur, sort of like pdq, but with skills being able to be expressed at different levels of detail, giving clues on how to play out those scenes to the GM.

    Skills at different levels sounds like an interesting idea; an example of two would make it more concrete and show the possibilities.

    Bruce, thanks for mentioning my humble little blog.

  7. Pingback: Two months of links « Cogito, ergo ludo.

  8. Josh W

    Just noticed the response!

    The classic way I’ve seen restrictions for creativity used is to allow specific “spoilers” in the rules or fiction, where the GM has an interest in challenging players and so pulls out a silver bullet for their first tactic, forcing them to improvise, and the players do the same back. Or players do it to each other.

    Another way to do it is just to swap game systems frequently, in such a way that the old method just doesn’t fit this time. Weird settings/mechanical focuses really do that job well, providing they give some help to players who feel a bit swamped in strangeness.

    I can’t think of the thread I mentioned that in first but I will look it up, I think I just dropped it in to little response because people weren’t in a very theoretical mood!

    Looking back at the situation/resolution, it strikes me that in some games both boxes can be doing the whole aggro-control (from mtg) “threats combined with answers” thing if player action is not merely to compensate for or resolve a situation but to actually push it over into a new direction. I’ve heard stories of players getting empowered in D&D games via some quirk of events that puts them in the situation role, giving out problems to solve, with “the world” responding. Some GMs get thrown off there as all their tools are for proactive situation generation not reactive problem solving. What they don’t realise is that they are suddenly acting in the role they gave to their players. I wonder whether you can compare “empowered players” to reactive players and see different mechanics in their differing approaches to how scenes are set, such as journey plan vs ambush.
    Interestingly if you have players “fighting the railroad” then the pattern is almost exactly reversed; with the players constantly providing differing actions that the GM must get back into the same plot!

    Tommi, a classic example in my mind is profession hunter vs craft trap + hide + knowledge nature vs even “survival rolls”. You know if a player doesn’t want to play something out at that resolution if they go for survival rather than the above, or you should, except players in D&D 3.5 will often go for the broad skills just to save up their points!


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