November 23, 2011

Premise Concealment and the Overvaluation of Secrecy

D&D’s status as the progenitor of roleplaying as we know it has sometimes led RPGers to overvalue certain of its elements. Or rather, to adopt in their entirety bits that absolutely apply to the core activity of D&D but don’t automatically translate to all others.

For example, the baseline assumption has always been that you roll to see if you get information because that works really well in a game where you’re going down into dungeons, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. Should you fail to detect a secret door, you can always find another door to bash down instead. If you don’t find the treasure hidden in the hollow in the portico, them’s the breaks.

This assumption doesn’t carry over into a game where the core activity is solving a mystery of whatever stripe. It leads to the bottlenecks and workarounds GUMSHOE was designed to eliminate.

Secrecy in general works splendidly in D&D. In the old school days, you had the mystique of the map, which the GM has hidden in front of them, and which the players must painstakingly strive to replicate. The physical process of making the map marks the group’s collective progress in killing the monsters and taking their stuff. The world in general is a giant question mark, which you whittle away at by exploring.

This has led us to overvalue secrecy in general. One extreme manifestation comes with the campaign that withholds even its premise from the group. The GM tells you only to create modern-day, more or less ordinary characters. When you show up to play, you learn, as your characters discover their true situation, what the core activity of the game is.

If you have fun running or playing under this set-up, I’m sure not going to tell you that you’re not. However, you might want to ask yourself how much of that fun occurs due to this arrangement, and how much comes in spite of it.

First, let’s face it. Once you’ve been around the block, the surprise isn’t so surprising anymore. Your players know the premise, mostly. They’re almost invariably signing up for a survival horror game—perhaps with aliens, fellow survivors or mundane soldiers in place of the default supernatural entities. If not, you’re playing a superhero game in which they all develop powers during the first sessions. Even when players are truly surprised, the benefit lasts only for a chunk of the first session, while the costs linger for the remainder of the series.

Second, by separating the core activity from character creation, this style of play reduces collaboration and shifts the narrative burden onto the GM. The GM must keep the plot machinery constantly turning to keep his random cast of PCs engaged, rather than inviting players to suggest their own compelling, personal reasons to take part in the core activity. For a dominant GM and passive players, the withheld premise may work out fine. With one or more resistant/defensive players, you'll get turtling. When you’re lucky, active players improvise connections to the core activity on the fly, back-engineering the decisions they would have made when conceiving their characters. Otherwise they may discover that their PCs frustrate them, leading them to ditch them in favor of replacements tailored for the now-revealed campaign premise.