Not Everything Can Be Near

…because where would you put it?

In the previous post, I talked about Near and Far thinking in RPGs, and recommended that the GM try to make as much as possible in the game amenable to Near thinking.  As much as possible doesn’t mean everything, though; there are situations where it’s either not possible, or not desirable.

  • If the GM and the players don’t know (and can’t be expected to learn) enough details.  E.g. open-heart surgery, or starship hyperdrive repair.  In the former case it’s conceivable (barely) that in a game that’s about being a surgeon it would be worthwhile to learn enough about surgery to not only provide accurate description, but enough real choices of the sort that surgeons face to make Near thinking possible; in the latter, the details just don’t exist, and while the GM could certainly make them up and try to teach them to the players, the amount of effort involved to get the kind of free-wheeling thinking of fully grasping the problem-space as when a player thinks about searching an ordinary desk doesn’t seem like it would pay off, even in a campaign about starship engineers.
  • If the situation is about performance, not decisions.  When the task at hand is something like playing the cello, it doesn’t really matter exactly what the GM or the player knows about cellos, or even music in general, because it’s the character’s physical skill that’s called on.  Now, if you were to search a cello…  Note that this is often going to be true of the physical activity of combat.  The strategy and tactics are decisions that can be carried out by the player, the physical activity of shooting the bow or swinging the sword is all the performance of the character.
  • If it’s about the character’s skill at making certain kinds of decisions.  Even if the GM and the player both understand what’s involved enough that they could go into detail, sometimes it’s about what the character can think or understand, not the player.  It’s often the case that the character is supposed to be better at thinking about certain situations than the player (sometimes the other way around).  In these cases it’s possible to use a skill roll to backstop or supplement the decisions that the player makes, but much of the time you should just substitute Far thinking.  Even if the GM and the player both know how to play chess, actually playing out the match between the character and Death isn’t likely to be a satisfying way of resolving it.
  • For pacing reasons.  There’s only so much time in a session, so sometimes even if the characters would have time to go through all the gory details the game is better off if you hand-wave it.  You don’t want to do too much of this, though.  It’s easy to imagine that you’re getting more done in the game when you fly by everything at 30,000 feet, using Far thinking all the way, when actually you’re just leeching out all the color and vibrancy and eliminating potential decision points.   You should only use this as an excuse when spending the time in Near mode is going to freeze out the other players for too long, or you know that they find that particular activity boring to think about in detail, or it lets you get to a different and more interesting Near mode episode immediately.

4 thoughts on “Not Everything Can Be Near

  1. The right level of abstraction for different activities is a delicate issue, and I don’t have any formulas to use. Some criteria I consider when making these decisions:

    1. Pacing. Is playing this out slowing down the mood, or increasing suspense? Is only one player involved, or is everyone excitedly kibitzing?

    2. Impact. Do the steps of the process have impact in themselves, i.e., the components of the disarmed trap might be usable by the players, or is there just a Boolean outcome in the end? Of course, making the task less abstract offers more possibilities for non-Boolean outcomes.

    3. Exposition. Does running through the details of the current situation give the players more of a sense of the setting, or giving the players information about future plots? e.g., being interviewed by the city watch passing through the gates may be routine, but reveal a lot about the economy, politics, defense, etc. of the city in a painless way.

    4. Fun. Are the players having fun handling the situation in detail, or are they getting bored?

    There are probably many other considerations.


  2. I’m leaning towards the view that abstraction is the cause of, not the solution to, player boredom. If it’s not worth playing out the scene with the city watch, it’s not worth making somebody roll a Diplomacy check; not even if you offer them a choice between Diplomacy, Fast Talk, Bribery and Intimidate.

    Near vs. Far Thinking doesn’t cover whether you should make them think at all about an issue…there’s always going to be plenty of stuff in the game that gets hand-waved as not being germane. The question is once you’ve decided (or the players have decided) that they need to make decisions about a situation, what kind of information do you give them so they can make informed decisions and what kind of thinking do they have to do to come to a conclusion (and to some extent how do they convey those decisions in game)?

  3. I don’t think I buy that. There are some fairly routine decisions, where making the situation more vivid is just not worth the effort. If you’ve played out interacting with the guard a few times, and it’s getting stale, letting the players simply make a diplomacy check to figure out the appropriate bribe is fine. The point of having an abstract mechanic isn’t that it’s really fun to use; it’s to allow the group to quickly skip to the fun part.

  4. Why roll? If there’s no real decision there, just tell them they paid the usual bribe. You can even scale the amount based on the Diplomacy skill if you think it’s important to represent the players abilities, though that seems like overkill to me. But if the decision truly is routine, why are you complicating it with mechanics? What purpose do they serve there besides prolonging the boring part?

    At any rate, it’s not that I want to avoid Diplomacy checks and similar mechanics per se, it’s that I want to avoid the players thinking about it in terms of the mechanics, how to stack the bonuses, what order people should roll the dice in, and so forth. I think that kind of thinking about the abstraction instead of thinking about the game-world hurts the game, and promotes feelings of detachment (possibly excepting the kind of player who likes to play it as a war-game and wouldn’t be interested unless you let him approach it in terms of bonuses). If you want a quick roll behind the screen to see if anything unusual happens, more power to you. If you ask for a quick roll in front of the screen just so the player can feel involved and because players like to roll dice, it probably doesn’t harm anything as long as you don’t let that kind of thing dominate the session. By the time you have the players discussing how best to use the mechanics to make the dice come out in their favor, I think you may have made a mistake unless the result is a) important, and b) can’t be accomplished by having them think in terms of game-world objects instead of game-mechanical objects.

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