Theory Thursday–The Logic of Discovery in RPGs (Part II)

TL;DR: My professional background makes me especially sensitive to how RPGs model the discovery of clues. I’ve struggled a bit to make sense of Fate rules but finally figured out how to make them work and today I’ll look at an example.

If you read Part I, you know that I’m pretty sensitive to how RPGs model the discovery of clues and why. But just in case you’d have decided to skip the philosophy course (and its cognitive neuroscience side-dish), I’ll repeat my massive caveat: I’m not a game designer, and I don’t necessarily have the same priorities as one. If you want tips on designing adventures centered around discoveries, you may be better off checking “classic” RPG references about Node-Based Scenarios or the Three-Clue Rule. Now, let’s sum up the philosophy bit from Part I in two sentences: 

Asking for a Notice roll? Bam!
That’s the sound of the door to genuine discovery slamming shut. 

What’s left is guided discovery, which is okay. But sometimes I’d rather the players asked for the roll themselves, without knowing what they will find. This post looks at discovery gameplay and is all about fixing intuitions. Then again, I’ll generalize it in Part III, so the discussion already hinges heavily on the Overcome and Create an Advantage mechanics from Fate Condensed, so you may want to refresh your memory first.

Discovery Gameplay

In my ongoing Fate Condensed Queer Clockpunk Fantasy campaign, my players recently began to solve a missing person mystery. The situation started as described below.

Kayden (she/her), an Up-Close-and-Personal Passionate Fighter, and Ajuji (they/them), an Insightful Engineer with a Knack for Hacking, are searching the office of Master Gizur of the Coggers & Wheelers Corporation, who disappeared a few days earlier. Gizur’s desk is a Great (+4) Chaotic Mess of a Workplace Desk , covered with Fair (+2)Scattered Papers and Sketches, and has a Good (+3) Hidden Compartment. The desk hides two clues: a key in the hidden compartment and a monogram signature (not Gizur’s) on a series of diagrams among the sketches.

For the mechanical bit, I initially envisioned the Chaotic Mess of a Workplace Desk and the Hidden Compartment as Blocks—hence the difficulty ratings—but that could evolve in-game (and it did). I did not identify the Aspects as such. Instead, I merely dropped them as part of the scene’s description—save for Hidden Compartment that I left unmentioned. Consequently, I also left unmentioned the difficulty ratings, which were only there in case I’d need to improvise something in a pinch. I like to come to improv well-prepared, though, so I had backup plans (I’ll come to what they were backups for in a minute) based on character aspects:

  • Per game lore, the Hidden Compartment provided active opposition (via a rune spell) that Ajuji had narrative permission to counter (the “Hacking” from their High Concept). That made Ajuji sensitive to the underlying magic, so I could compel their Insightful-ness to facilitate the discovery of the compartment.
  • I could compel Ajuji’s Insightful-ness (again) to zero in on the Scattered Papers and Sketches and notice the monograms on the drawings or ponder on the desk’s odd dimensions.
  • If all else failed, I could compel Kayden to lose patience—from being Passionate, or better, from her Trouble (“There’s a time for subtle, and there’s a time for me”) and turn the Chaotic Mess of a Workplace Desk to kindling, leading to the “serendipitous” discovery of the token.

Admittedly, all of the above amount to straight-on railroading. I’ve never been averse to railroading, but it’s usually my worst-case scenario, least favorite solution. Only “usually,” not “always,” because there are times where taking agency off of the players’ hands may serve a purpose. And that scene was one case where it does, at least in my opinion. You don’t have to care about it, so you can skip the fine prints.

The Fine Prints: An Aside on Railroading

Now, someone may ask: “Rather than railroading with Compels, why not ask for Overcome rolls?” After all, that’s what the PC had to do: “cut through the noise” of the environment and zero in on information (a discrepancy between the desk’s inner and outer dimensions, sketches bearing a peculiar monogram). Well, if you remember my summary of Part I, that would have slammed shut the door of genuine discovery with no narrative benefit.

But then, the same someone could ask: “Wait, aren’t railroading Compels slamming shut the door to genuine discovery the same as Overcome rolls?” That would be an interesting question: it identifies Notice Overcome rolls for what they are (railroading, all the same). But it would miss a critical difference. Overcome rolls merely forfeit genuine discovery. Compels can introduce interesting narrative complications (e.g. of Ajuji’s person-splaining or Kayden’s ill temper).

Back on tracks (only not)

I can’t resist a bad pun, hence the subtitle, but seriously, I wanted the players to discover the two clues by themselves. The backup plans were options for the case players would draw blanks when the time came to ask the “right” questions. Plan A was that the description would prompt them to pick on details and increase their range of attention (if you missed Part I: the range of questions they were “cognitively ready” to ask in the scene). Eventually, the following happened:

  1. Ajuji’s player told me that Ajuji would sit at the desk and try to find patterns in the Scattered Papers and Sketches to sort them by categories. After some back-and-forth narration, I declared that Ajuji had spotted diagrams with a peculiar monogram (no roll needed, as it made sense through narration only).
  2. Kayden’s player told me that she’d be waiting for Ajuji to be done, idly looking at the Chaotic Mess of a Workplace Desk. That was enough to call for a Notice roll—Overcome vs. the Good (+3) Hidden Compartment. Kayden succeeded, spotted the odd dimensions of the desk and revealed its existence.
  3. At that point, Ajuji tried to Create an Advantage to (possibly) discover some as-of-yet unknown weakness they could exploit in the Hidden Compartment. The roll failed, so I proposed a Success at a Cost: Ajuji had found the compartment had a Good (+3) Lock You Out skill, and would resist any attempt to open it with a +2 (the equivalent of a free invoke, see below). 

And that was it for the discovery phase. In the end, Ajuji Overcame the active opposition, opened the compartment, and found the token. The only liberty I took with the rules was (3): instead of a hidden aspect with a free invoke for the opposition, I revealed a secret skill with a +2 bonus. In retrospect, I could “revealed” (made up) a hidden Powerful Ward with a free invoke granting +2 to the Good (+3) active opposition provided by the Hidden Compartment to the same mechanical effect, but more in line with the Create an Advantage rules as written. Lesson learned.

Wrapping up: A Genuine Discovery Problem

The gameplay example is a genuine discovery problem where clues were initially unknown unknowns. The players suspected they’d find some information on the desk but were not prepared to ask questions about diagrams (let alone signature monograms) or hidden compartments. Eventually, one of the clues was genuine-discovered (the monograms) and the other guided-discovered (the token). Still, Kayden’s Notice roll was prompted by her player, bumping the Overcome option up one rank in my preference ordering (just above the Compel, see The Fine Prints). 

Now, the exciting bit is what happened at (3) because it introduces something I’ve really struggled to make sense of, namely that Fate makes it possible to discover unknowns through Create-an-Advantage actions, and they look suspiciously like unknown unknowns. In retrospect, my Bronze-Rule improv is less an alternative solution to the vanilla rule and more a symptom of my difficulties with the said rule. And honestly, that difficulty is what prompted this whole series. 

As for the treatment, it’s for Part III. So, that’s all for today, folks.

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