The Tyranny of Yes


You know what sucks in games? Failing at stuff. You know what else sucks? Being railroaded into doing stuff by a harshly linear adventure/GM and then failing at that stuff. What sucks even more is then trying over and over again as you continue to fail until finally you get the clue you need to move on.

First a word or several about my own personal GMing style. When I’m developing a campaign or a session I tend to focus on “what’s going on in this setting apart from the PCs”.  I draw up a rough timetable of what, absent the actions of the PCs, would happen. Then the players get into my sandbox and start kicking things over. I developed this approach mainly when running supers rpgs to avoid the trap of superheroes mainly being reactive, and also because unless I was very tightly railroading the action the damn players would always ruin my carefully constructed plans anyway. Now I’ll throw something relatively minor in the way of the players to kick the whole thing off and from there I tend to react to what they do and where they go. So if they decide to go to an NPCs house and toss it or search the NPCs computer to search for clues I’ll have to think about what role the NPC plays and what they may well find there. I don’t have anything written down saying they MUST go to the NPC’s house – heck I probably never conceived they might or prepared for that to happen – in order to find Clue X. This approach works well for me but requires both that I keep the entire Big Picture in my head at all times and that I’m able to improv like mad and make decisions about exactly what the PCs may find on the NPCs computer at a moment’s notice.

Robin Laws developed the GUMSHOE system (as used in Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu and Laws’ own Esoterrorists) in order to address the whole “failing at finding clues” thing but comes at it, so far as I can tell, in very much the opposite way. Which is probably why something about the system rankles me so.  I will note that I haven’t played anything using the GUMSHOE engine but I have read ToC and a couple of Actual Play reports (and listened to the most recent episode of Bill & Mel White’s Virtual Play podcast (further discussion of the podcast here), which got me thinking about this in the first place). GUMSHOE says, so far as I can tell – and folks please correct me if I’m wrong – that the GM sets up an array of clues that the PCs will find. The clues don’t necessarily have to be discovered in a specific order (thus avoiding the worst railroading) but by hook or by crook the players will be given those clues which will lead them to uncover that Old Man Jenkins is running the hauted amusement park.

And here’s what really burns my biscuit me about this, and I hadn’t been able to pinpoint it before now, is that always succeding annoys me almost as much as always failing. There’s no dramatic tension. It feels like you’re just going through the motions of the mystery and while there can be some flavor injected into playing out the scenes the actions of the PCs don’t really matter in the long run.

But then, one thing that Bill White said in the podcast clicked for me. To paraphrase, he said it’s not about solving the mystery. That’s just window dressing. In Trail of Cthulhu it’s instead about how exploring the mystery changes the investigators. It’s about, in the classic CoC tradition, going mad along the way. It’s just like every game in that sense. Nobody goes into playing D&D expecting a TPK, nobody plans to get staked in Vampire. You play the game to kill things and take their stuff, to play out teetering on the brink of losing your humanity entirely, respectively. In CoC, survival is not a given (understatement) so resolving the mystery is. I can’t speak to the other games in the GUMSHOE line but that helps me to make peace with ToC at least.

Similarly, at some point after I ran my first game of Lacuna I read somthing that pointed out the game isn’t about hunting down Hostile Personalities at all. It’s about everything else. Again, window dressing.

I’m still not a fan of Laws’ approach to solving the “fail on a skill check and the investigation grinds to a halt” problem. I much prefer the method presented in D&D 4th edition with skill challenges, but I think I’ll save that part for a future post.


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6 Responses to “The Tyranny of Yes”

  1. Mel White Says:

    Hey Chris,
    I’m so pleased that you’ve started this blog. Despite your disclaimer in the first post, it’s always interesting and educational to hear abut what other people are playing and their thoughts about it. I’m looking forward to more posts from you and your comrades.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      Thanks, Mel! Great to hear from you. This is still very much a work in progress but it’s good to have somewhere to focus my thoughts about gaming.

  2. jekessler Says:

    I look forward to seeing your take on 4E Skill challenges. They are one of the things in 4E that I really don’t feel able to wing on the fly. I’ll get into specifics in a future post of Upkeep on the Borderlands, on how I decided to approach the old Keep rumors table.

    • Christopher Tatro Says:

      I not at all sure how I’ll do at skill challenges on the fly but it’s one of the things I’m going to try to do in my current game just to push my boundaries and comfort level. I’ll be sure to post about the trainwreck that ensues. 😉

  3. Rob MacD Says:

    How to get beyond the tyranny of yes: have “no” also be fun. Easier said than done, of course, especially in an investigation game like Cthulhu.

    I think the answer to the clue-railroad problem (if it is a problem: I’ve had a lot of fun over the years in linear Call of Cthulhu games) is some kind of slow, deliberative, non-goofy version of InSpectres.

  4. Bill White Says:

    I’m glad my comments helped you make peace with the game 😉 I ran Trail of Cthulhu again this weekend at Camp Nerdly 3 and had a good time, but I realized that it has other problems (this thanks to a great conversation about it with Rob Bohl): the system for “contests” — roll until someone fails — is actually a ton of unfun. But I thought of a kind of fix. What do you think of this: Let’s say you’re being chased by a monster. That’s a contest. If you spend a point from your relevant pool (Athletics or Fleeing, in this case), you automatically succeed. But! The next round, you have to spend 2 points; on the third round, you have to spend 3, and so on. However, if you don’t spend on a given round and don’t fail, on the next round you can spend 1 again for an automatic success.

    So let’s say I’m being chased by a Deep One; I’ve got 4 Athletics and 12 Fleeing and it’s got 10 Athletics. On my first turn, I spend 1 and succeed; it spends 1 and keeps after me. On my next turn, I spend 2 and succeed; it rolls versus a target number of 4 and succeeds despite a 50% chance of failure. On the third turn, I spend 3 and succeed; it spends 1 and succeeds.

    Over the course of three rounds, then, I’ve spent 6 points with no chance of failing while the Deep One has spent 2. I can keep it up for another two turns, roll and hope on the sixth turn, and then spend one for an automatic success on the seventh. The Keeper can send a horde of Deep Ones after me, and I’ll feel good when some blow their rolls on the off turns and maybe get away if they don’t.

    I think I’ll try it this way at Dexcon.

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