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

TL;DR: Feedback from Part I & II stressed the importance of guided discovery, so I focused this post on its mechanics and you should care for who prompted that change; but still, you can jump right to it.

After Part I dealt with conceptual distinctions about discoveries, and Part II, with examples in Fate, there are two things left to dealt with: a “minimal model” for GM-prompted discovery actions (“guided discovery”) and practical guidelines to implement genuine discovery in games. In this post, I’ll deal with the first.

The advice is somewhat Fate-specific. But Fate uses English vernacular terminology, so you can extrapolate from this post a method applicable in any TTRPGs. Simply insert a mental “blip” when I use the expressions “in Fate…” and forget about capitalized game terms. With that said, this post is divided into 10 parts.

  1. Some gloss over the feedback I received from Parts I & II—feel free to skip it, but please read the quotes, for due credit.
  2. Minimal Model of Discovery of “guided discovery” building upon the abovementioned feedback.

I conclude on the pros of guided discovery and why I left genuine discovery for later.

Discovery as Skill (The Skippable Gloss-Over)

I received a lot of feedback from the first two posts. There were two lengthy discussion threads on the Fate Tabletop RPG and Fari Discord servers. All the comments were valuable, and I’m going to be somewhat unfair and merely extend a blanket credit to participants to these threads.

Now, analyzing discovery processes is more than my day job. It’s a life pursuit. About forty years ago, I read Sherlock Holmes’ story Silver Blaze for the first time. I was fascinated and immediately convinced that skill, not luck, led Holmes to a solution. Fast forward four decades later, I finally got a good model for discovery skills. If you doubt they are skills, just follow the link, and read the introduction until the end of the second quote block (and maybe the two sentences after that, which explain what Conan Doyle did).

So—and I apologize in advance if I sound like a bit of an asshole here—I can’t really say that I learned anything new about discovery from the discussions. I learned a lot about how people understand discovery, though. And two comments, in particular, made me think twice.

Discovery Actions as… an Action?

The first comment came on the Fari Discord server. It was important—although the content referred to ultimately missed the mark. But it’s not by much, and it’s well worth spending some time with.

Have you considered the Discover action from the Fate Codex?

@AmazingRando (Randy Dean Oest, Amazing Rando Design, curator of Fate SRD)

That’s a fair point. Discover as a fifth action was nowhere in either Part I or Part II, although it’s been around for a while. Years ago, I read and bookmarked Ryan Macklin’s original post on the Discovery action. (Also worth mentioning, I love Macklin’s ideas on passive discovery as a basis for genuine discovery.) I’ve used Macklin’s write up once or twice but my players did not like it and we dropped it eventually. I could not link it in Part I or II because my link is down—but maybe you have a live one.

I’ve never used the Fate Codex version, and did not mention it because I find the Discovery action as written therein utterly useless for my purposes. Everything it does is letting the PC ask questions based on their skills. But that can be handled without a roll. And I always prefer a solution that eschews dice rolls. But that’s not my primary concern.

I wrote: “I find the Discovery action… utterly useless for my purposes,” not “the Discovery action… is utterly useless.” So it’s a matter of preference, and you may not share it. It’s a preference based on my expertise and my goals—neither of which you have to share. With this caveat, I don’t use it because the Discovery action won’t help with genuine discoveryas defined in Part I. Here’s why.

  • For a player to ask for a Discovery action for their PC, the question must be in their range of attention (see Part I for a definition). And so, they are asking about a known unknown.
  • If the GM prompts a Discovery action for a PC, they put the question in the player’s range of attention. And so, they make the topic of the question a known unknown.

Still, there’s value in zeroing in on questions, and I’ll do just that in the “minimal model” section. But I just don’t think it’s worth adding an action. Also, I like the “Four Actions with Four Outcomes” economy, and the “Five actions with Four Outcomes” does not sound the same. Again, a preference, but this one, purely esthetic.

Narrowing down possibilities

In the conclusion of Part II, I wrote that: “Fate makes it possible to discover unknowns through Create-an-Advantage actions, and they look suspiciously like unknown unknowns.” In my mind, it was clear that the suspicion, while warranted, was incorrect. But it could be read the other way around. And that prompted the second remark, posted on the Fate Tabletop RPG Discord.

I’m having trouble following your example’s setup, though that might just be my brain lacking enough RAM. Forgive me if I’m confused. So Create an Advantage has players looking for weaknesses. Wouldn’t that be a known unknown then? They know there may or may not be a weakness, and are rolling to narrow down known possibilities.

@Kaiju Cuddlebug (they/them) [My emphasis]

My first reaction was rushing to apologize to Kaiju Cuddlebug for causing confusion. And my second was to feel like a belittling asshole. See, the boldfaced sentence is a one-word substitution away from something I could have written in an academic article. The substitution would be “asking” for “rolling” because I usually write about information-seeking by questioning and not about role-playing games with dice-based randomization.

For some reason, I thought I had to dumb down the exposition. Let’s pretend it never happened. I’ll raise the bar at the end of the next section and paraphrase Kaiju Cuddlebug’s comment in reparation.

A Minimal Model of (Guided) Discovery

In Fate, two actions can model the discovery of clues: Overcome, and Create an Advantage (links to Fate Condensed, more explicit on that topic than Core)Follow the link if you need a refresher, but that’s not necessary. First, the rules do not provide explicit grounds to determine which action best suits a particular case. Second, none of what I say presupposes knowledge of the rules.

Indeed, we can consider these two Fate actions as generic action categories. If we do so, they establish a crude-yet-simple division of labor. First off, you can look at them as answering different questions:

  • Question 1: Is there some information in the scene the PCs could use to their advantage?
  • Question 2: Is there some advantage the PCs could get from some information available in the scene?

Based on the division of labor, there is a simple procedure for choosing which action to ask the players. Assuming a scene where the GM knows that the answer to Question 2 is “yes” the procedure is as follows:

  • Step 1: Do the PCs know the answer to Question 1? If “no” go to Step 2a. If “yes”, go to Step 2b.
  • Step 2a: Prompt PCs to Overcome environmental noise, distraction, etc., with any skill that makes them likely to recognize the information as “actionable.”
    • On a Success or better, PCs get an answer to Question 1: “There is an information that you could use to your advantage, and the information is [narrative description].”
  • Step 2b: Prompt PCs to Create an Advantage with any skill that makes them likely to turn “actionable” information into an actual course of action with, as a result, a positional or notional advantage.
    • On a success, they get an answer to Question 2: “The information you can use to your advantage is [narrative description], and the advantage is [Aspect].”

And now to Kaiju Cuddlebug’s remark. Sometimes, the GM can eschew Step 2a, because the PCs are skilled enough to identify the information they could use to their advantage and act upon it in one fell swoop. They narrow down known possibilities (branches of an alternative) to whatever actionable consequences each possibility (branch) has. 

Remember Sherlock Holmes asking about the dog in Silver Blaze (from Part I)? Well, Holmes’ Investigate skill allows him (probably thanks to free invokes on a few other Aspects reflecting earlier conclusions) to infer that “The Midnight Visitor Must Have Been Someone The Dog Knew Well.” It’s worth an Aspect because Holmes can convince Inspector Gregory that the police hold the wrong suspect. No need to Overcome first. And if Holmes had learned that the dog had barked, he would have drawn the conclusion that “The Midnight Visitor Must Have Been Someone The Dog Didn’t Know Well” also worth an Aspect (it would have reduced the range of potential suspects to interrogate and help choose questions to ask them).

Wrapping Up: Player vs. Character Skill

My initial plan was to wrap this series with both guided and genuine discovery. Then I realized that my professional history amounted to tunnel vision. I half-expected that, so it was a known unknown. Genuine discovery fosters creative mental processes and the right state of mind at a game table. But it emphasizes player skills over character skills

As a player, I hated when my GM would ask me to to solve a problem I have no idea how to solve, just because my character should know. And I don’t do unto others what I don’t want others to do unto me. And so, as a GM, I use prompts to inform a player that their character has noticed something the character is ready to ask questions about, even if the player isn’t. 

Now, I think there’s a way to have your cake and eat it too. Imagine a GM who manages to describe a scene in such a way that a player asks them, “Is there something that [PC’s name] [would notice/could use]?” From there, prompting a roll is just one option. Another is to keep describing until the player picks up and realizes that their character has something to ask about.

Players may not be capable of asking the right in-game question (the one the PC would ask). But they are often capable of asking the right metagame question (the one about questions their PC would ask). Sometimes, they increase their metagame range of attention by themselves, without prompt. And that’s the genuine discovery that matters.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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