Near vs. Far Thinking in RPGs

    • The latest Science has a psych article saying we think of distant stuff more abstractly, and vice versa.  “The brain is hierarchically organized with higher points in the cortical hierarchy representing increasingly more abstract aspects of stimuli”; activating a region makes nearby activations more likely.  This has stunning implications for our biases about the future.

      All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits.

      Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits.

Robin Hanson wasn’t thinking about roleplaying games when he wrote this, of course, but if he and the Science article are right about how minds work–and I think they are–then it has implications for how we play these games.  For one thing, it means that providing detail and concreteness isn’t just a matter of atmosphere and aesthetics, it literally changes the way we think about events in the game.

Take an example near and dear to my heart, the act of searching in-game:

Near

The GM determines there is a desk with three side drawers and a middle drawer, and taped to the underside of the middle drawer is a key.  The desk otherwise contains papers from old cases, none of them relevant, a gun in the top right-hand drawer and a bottle of rye in the bottom right hand drawer.
Player
: I search the desk.
GM
: How?
Player
: I look in all the drawers.
GM: You find a gun in the top right hand drawer, a bottle of Rye in the bottom right hand drawer, and a bunch of papers.  They seem to be old case files.
Player
: I flip through them and see if any seem relevant.
GM
: Based on a casual flip through, none seem particularly interesting.
Because the player didn’t specify any action that would have uncovered the key, it’s not discovered.

or

GM: How?
Player: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM: That will take about fifteen minutes.
Player: I’ve got time.
GM: Ok, taped to the bottom of the middle drawer you find a key.  You also find a gun in the top right-hand drawer, and a bottle of rye in the bottom right-hand drawer.  There’s also a bunch of papers, that seem to be old case files, none particularly relevant.

Not as Near

GM determines the same set-up as before.
Player
: I search the desk, looking in all the drawers.
Because the player didn’t specify actions that would uncover the key, the GM rolls the Player’s Search skill as a “save”, and gets a success.
GM: You find a gun, and a bottle of rye, plus some old case files.  On an impulse, you check under the drawers, and find a key taped to the bottom of the middle drawer.

Even Less Near

Same set up as before.
Player: I search the desk.
GM rolls vs the character’s Search Skill, and succeeds.
GM: You find a key taped to the bottom of the middle drawer, a gun in the top right-hand drawer, a bottle of rye in the bottom right-hand drawer, and some old case files.
If he had rolled a failure, the Player would still have found the gun, the files, and the booze, but not the key.

Far

The GM determines that the desk contains a gun, and a hidden key.  He doesn’t bother to think about where.
Player: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM
: You find a the gun, but nothing else of interest.

Even Farther

The GM determines that the desk contains a gun, and a key.  He doesn’t bother to think about what the desk looks like, where the items are or whether they’re hidden.
Player
: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

Really Far

The GM doesn’t bother to determine anything about the desk.
Player
: I search the desk.
GM rolls, and the character succeeds.
GM: You’ve got 1 success.  You need 2 more before you get 1 failure.

Just Plain Wrong

The GM determines the details as in the near cases.
Player: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

Also Wrong

The GM doesn’t determine any details, but does determine the desk contains a gun and a key.
Player
: I look in all the drawers, then I take them out one by one.  I check the bottoms, and I look for false bottoms, and I check the holes, reaching around if necessary.
GM rolls, and the character fails.
GM: You find nothing.

The thing about Near vs. Far is that it’s (probably) not a continuum, where you gradually lose detail and concreteness as you dial up the abstraction: at some point there is a modal shift in the kind of cognition you do.  I think that wherever possible, you want to keep things in the game world as Near as possible, so that the players remain grounded in the situation. This lets them reason about the game world, and not just about the rules.  It also provides more specific details to make the story more vivid, because it’s more like what we do when we’re faced with such situations in the real world.  Using Far abstractions is like having a scene cut to a placard that says “They search the room” and then cut back to show what they discovered.   If the GM doesn’t provide enough details that they could reason concretely (even if he backstops them with abstract game mechanics), then the players just move through a sort of fog of abstraction.  Everything their characters do seems to them to be more distant in space and time, and they’re more likely to group things mentally into larger, coarser categories, which can make it harder to keep their interest and attention since more stuff will be regarded as “the same old same old.”

Providing enough detail to make Near thinking possible in an RPG is more work for a GM, but I think it’s really important work, and pays off in making the experience much richer for everyone concerned.  When budgeting your effort in preparation, try to spend it on the details that the players will actually interact with to make the setting more concrete, and less on figuring out the broad strokes of distant event and times that shaped the game world.  A list of ten things that they can find in the desk beats 10,000 words on the lost empires of the Hyperborean Age.

3 thoughts on “Near vs. Far Thinking in RPGs

  1. r_b_bergstrom says:

    I keep thinking back on this post (which is a really good one, by the way) and coming to the conclusion that your “Not As Near” example is the type of game I most want to play in and run. It’s fairly detailed, but has a safety net that grants the ability for a player to play a character that’s nothing like them.

    I’m not going to require a player to swing a sword and base their characters performance on how well the player does it. By the same logic, I’m not going to require the player know how to search a desk in order for his character to do the same. Not if his character concept is “master thief” or “Sherlockian detective”. Sure, some players will play a better detective character, but the option to do so (at least semi-effectively) should be open to all players.

    In that regards, I find I really like the GUMSHOE system from Esoterrorists and Trail Of Cthulhu. In that system, players describe their actions and gather clues automatically based on said actions. However, they also have a limited pool of Investigative Points they can spend to shore up scenes where they feel their missing something.

    In the desk example, if I’m confident that my description of how I’ll search the desk will find everything, I can forgo spending points. But if it turns up nothing, and I thought for sure there’d be a clue in this room, I can “fish” by spending one of my very limited supply of Evidence Collection points. Same goes if I’m in a hurry, if the GM seems to be up to something, or I feel I’m just having trouble articulating my actions well.

    At the same time, the pools of points are limited enough, the player generally finds it best to be really detailed and “near” the scene.

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