Friday, August 19, 2016

Do You Demand Perfect Information and Control?

Over on Brian Train's blog, he linked to a scan of an interview done with him in C3i magazine.

Interview in C3i 29

It's a good interview overall. But one part of it stuck out as applicable in all gaming - board-, card-, war-, and especially in role-playing gaming.

Emphasis is added by me:

"I like fog of war, because one of the great drawbacks of civilian wargames is that they are very nearly perfect-information exercises. Some players feel the need for a very great amount of control over their own forces, and for information about the enemy they face. Well, so did the historical counterparts whose roles they are playing, but they didn't have it, did they? One feeling I only rarely get from a wargame is that stepping-off-a-cliff, plunging-ahead-into-the-mist moment, and I would like to be able to put more of that into my games."

- Brian Train, on Page 14

You see this in games a lot - measuring distances before deciding to shoot. Asking for all of the modifiers before deciding to act. Calculating the odds before making a decision. Wanting to know the full range of possibilities for your character at all stages of play, and the odds and effects of all of them.

You also see it more perniciously in play - refusing to take risks, avoiding the unknown, being unwilling to act when information is scarce, preferring to back down and fight another day on the assumption that there will always be another day.

I think this springs from the fact that, as players, even in games with a GM, we have control of a great deal of information. We know how strong we are, to the exact point and to the pound. We know how much damage we do, and how that relates to DR. We know how much more effort we can expend. We know how many spells we've got left. We generally decide what we're doing with our paper man to the extent that we get frustrated when effects (unconsciousness, injury, magical incapacitation, morale checks, etc.) take away our total control.

Etc. Etc.

So it's easy to get paralyzed by the lack of other information. Hey, I know everything on my character sheet, and I can act based on that. But if I don't know the penalty to shoot in the dim light at that guy in the back past his buddy, I can't properly decide. If I don't know what that monster is, or where the enemy has stashed his reserves, I can't really know what to do. If I can't observe the effects of something precisely, then I have no information and I have to just guess if it's working or not. And if I say I'm doing something, my paper man just does it.

In the actual battles and wars that are being simulated by games, there wasn't perfect information. Choices were made based on assumptions and guesses and confidences. Wrong choices were made. People made decisions based on need to get something done - or get it attempted - despite the bad odds they thought they faced. Or without knowing them at all. And without being certain that their forces would actually execute what was asked.

It's an easy thing to be guilty of - assuming that perfect information is basically your right as a player, even if you do it subconsciously. You're going to know where everyone is, what the odds are, what the capabilities are, and so on. You may have moments without it, but those are perceived as not being the norm. After all, you have perfect information about what's in front of you on your sheet, and the GM has perfect information about the rest of the world.

That can lead to a quest for perfect information before you do anything . . . but a great deal of enjoyment comes from those "plunging-into-the-mist" moments. From making decisions based on imperfect information. From taking chances because you accept that the time to act is now and that you are never going to have all you really want to know.

That line really struck me - it's something I see, and something I do. And I think that approach costs some enjoyment and saps some of the fun of playing a no-real-cost game.


  1. I'll admit, I am much more interested in the opposite. If I wasn't such a lazy DM, I would run a much closer to perfect information game, where players would have full access to enemy stats etc

    But being to lazy to ever stat anything this won't happen. But I really would like to see how it goes sometike

    1. I'm curious how this would play - would it basically come out like an interactive boardgame?

  2. I've run Harpoon, the classic Cold War naval wargame, as a referee, with each side only seeing what their own sensors could detect. It's a bit of work, but a great deal of fun.

    (And there's They Come Unseen, and now Captain Sonar, which provide a less-complex version of the same sort of fun.)

    I don't entirely agree with the simulation argument, any more than I require players to solve problems (or make tactical decisions) as fast as their characters, who may well be smarter and are certainly better at fighting than them. But my main priority is "keep the game moving".

  3. I used to care but now I just guesstimate certain rolls and decide beforehand. Wild swings used to be "crazy" but now I just say the hell with it and try them a lot. I do tend to rush in, because Leeeroy Jenkins!! is more fun than sitting around trying to figure out every possibility. Sometimes this is bad -- Hjallmar died during the arachnoassassin attack--but sometimes we waste hours trying to figure all the angles. And get killed anyway, with TPKs because we use terrible tactics no matter what we find out.
    "never tell me the odds!" is more fun.

  4. I'm in favor of emulating the "fog of war". When able, I try to only give my players the barest info unless they do something to earn more, and try to emulate that in my NPCs as well.

    Probably one of the more annoying elements of my old D&D games (the longest run campaign I ever did) was the players all having copies of the Monster Manuals, making it basically useless for any kind of surprises.

    It's something I've been working on in yet another draft article, but still haven't put out...

  5. I'm interested, in some sense, in the simulation aspects, but mainly I am aware of how misunderstandings and mistakes can drive stories. Since I prefer "plotless" games (that is, games where any plot that might exist is not predetermined, but instead comes from player choices and the situation), I am very much in favor of anything the players do that might drive a potential story. Perfect information works against that by making player decisions relatively predictable. When they have to make improvised adjustments to their plans in response to unforeseen circumstances, the situation becomes more interesting from the perspective of both the players and the Referee.

  6. Thanks for the link and the quote!
    As you can guess, I feel quite strongly about this, and have designed a number of games where limited information is a big part of the play, and where the game's victory conditions change during play according to the whims (from your PPV they are whims) of higher command. Even experimented with hiding the game's "true" victory conditions from the players, though that may be a bit much to ask of someone who is using his spare time to play a game....

    1. You were very quotable, and I enjoyed the interview a lot.

      How would you conceal the victory conditions? Victory condition cards that are randomized and aren't revealed until after the game, or something of that sort?

      My brain went all the way back to play-by-mail, "After Turn 8, send in a Polaroid of the board and a list of your results and a SASE, and we'll let you know how you did!" :)

    2. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

      The idea for hidden victory conditions came from a discussion I had with Volko Ruhnke and Mark Herman when we were doing a podcast for "Guns, Dice and Butter" a while back. The idea was that not only should a player’s victory point-garnering objectives be hidden from the other player, but also his own progress towards victory; and for the ultimate effect, a player’s “real” strategy could even be hidden from himself!

      We were discussing the Vietnam War – in the early 1960s, during the “advisory period”, some officers in the US Army realized that a strategy based on pacification might have been the way to make headway against the National Liberation Front guerrillas, and said so years before the commitment of large numbers of troops in 1965. But doctrine, and the senior leadership, called for big battalions, large sweeps, and massive firepower to reduce the enemy by attrition, so that was how it was done in 1965-1968…. Later there were changes, but not necessarily because the Army knew they were doing it wrong; the point was they were “playing the game” of the Vietnam war but didn’t know, and couldn’t have known, the true victory conditions.

      My experiment with this was in a Vietnam module of a game system I haven't published yet called District Commander.
      The module featured a set of four Strategies for each side to use, each a bit different: for example, the Government Strategies were things like "control key territory", where they got no points for killing enemy units but scored well for controlling the population on the map, while the NLF could choose "destabilization" where they got more points for destroying Government paramilitary units and social infrastructure than regular units. You could ask to have your strategy changed, or sometimes it would be changed for you by Higher.

      At the beginning of the game, each player would secretly choose a Strategy at random for themselves to use, and one for the enemy that would be the “true” Strategy that would earn him Victory Points for him throughout the game. During the game, both players would record both their own Victory Points according to their current Strategy, and the enemy’s Victory Points according to his “true” Strategy (which, for simplicity, does not change during the game). When one player declared that he has sufficient Victory Points to win the scenario, play would stop and the two players reveal each other’s “true” Strategy and Victory Point level. The winner of the scenario is the one with the higher “true” Victory Point level.

      This is really more in the nature of a “thought experiment”, since players are only mildly dissuaded from doing a sloppy job by the fact that the enemy is also minding their true VP level. What is being attempted here is to show the disconnects between formal doctrine (what is thought to be needed), experience (which can be just as misleading) and what actually works. Not knowing exactly how to win, or how or whether what you are doing is helping to win, is a frustrating experience, but one that is typical of actual field commanders – on both sides – in Vietnam.

      Or so I thought.

      Es lass sich nicht lesen... "it does not permit itself to be read". To my knowledge no published game has yet implemented such meta-level “fog of war”.

    3. I'm not sure how that would work in play, but it's a very interesting approach. I suppose you could also do a "hidden agenda" approach, track your own score, and then have the end-of-game reveal of what your true agenda was. Toss all scoring out that doesn't match that. Or suffer penalties for some things (Got a point for clearing territory? Now it's a minus).

      I do like the way that pulls the political into it - most wargames are divorced from policy, and most scoring rewards at-all-costs, sufficient-for-now approaches to play. Which is odd, because war is policy, and it's vanishingly rare to have a war where you can do anything just to win the battles without regard to the consequences of doing so.

    4. I'm not sure how it would work in play either, never got a chance to try it... but as with all games, who you are playing with matters. This wouldn't work with Lizard People.

      The political? I'm all about the political! Even some of my straight-out conventional war games have political elements in them.

    5. I lived in Seattle (just to the East of your map, on the Hill overlooking I-5) during the N30 riots. Your game is pretty funny, and looks like it might be fun. Too bad you couldn't encompass the whole thing, though. We had cops and tear gas all along Broadway, there was a line of cops advancing up Pine from downtown near the Convention Center (I was there with the crowd at Bellevue and Pine, our chant was "Get off our Hill!"; we were mostly locals who just wanted the cops to stick to the riot and stop gassing our neighborhood). Still, it was more or less like the West for ACW - interesting enough, but basically a sideshow for the real action - so I understand.

    6. I remember reading about that.
      I could make the map only so big, though.
      I hope you try the game!


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