Saturday, February 16, 2013

Scooby Balance

....or "why complicated plots are a bad idea."

It's funny how a single essay can evolve into something else. Zak at PDaDwPS writes a Valentine's Day post about game balance called Balance.  His point?  Any challenge posed to a group of players is acceptable as long as the group could overcome it through cleverness and thinking.  My "NPC from another table" Barking Alien says that's all well and good, but there are plenty of GM's who disallow clever responses if it doesn't fit what they thought the solution should be in his post Counterbalance.

Which brings me to a comment I made there about Scooby Doo.  I think a lot of really creative storylines die horrible deaths on the gaming table because GM's either lock themselves into too rigid a plot, or create a plot whose narrative is so convoluted that the players miss large chunks of it and everyone ends up frustrated.

My axiom: no plot should be more complicated than a Scooby Doo episode.

Side note: this episode had the villain actually explaining how he did it,
which suggests even it was too complicated.
  Why is this the case?  Why forcibly ban the more sophisticated plots of TV shows like Lost, Flashforward, or The Event?  Simple.  It's the storytelling mechanic.

For one thing, all the players receive their information from a single person, who knows the entire story but is conveying usually by voice all that they perceive, either by sight, or sound, or whatever.  Just because the GM visualizes this in his or her head doesn't mean that the information is they communicated effectively to the players.

Second, the GM's voice is usually spoken into a room full of people, the odd player's child, several smart phones, and a host of other distractions.  I have, on more than one occasion, had to tell my group to be quiet and listen, because all too often a player will complain that they missed something because they were looking up something in the rulebook, contemplating a slice of pizza, or just not paying attention.

Third, people's brains just work differently.  Think about how often when you read a murder mystery or watch one on TV that you actually figure out what happened before the end.  Be honest.  Half the time?  Never?  That's because our own problem-solving processes are greatly influenced by the way we think and approach a situation.  That in turn is influenced by our personality and our experiences, including our technical expertise and history.  In a murder mystery, we might begin to suspect the person whom we like the least, or who looks like the murderer from another novel we read, who we think might have done it based on our own conclusions from the clues that we noticed.  Now take six players and one GM and see how well those mesh up.  They won't.

That's why you have to keep things simple, and the funny part is that the players will still pat themselves on the back for figuring things out, because intuitively they know how difficult making this all work was.

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