Dynamic adventures are more engaging than static adventures but dynamic GM tools can be problematic.
I think it is safe to say that we want things to change and adapt to the actions of the players.
Reactions provide meaning to the players’ choices and supports the collaborative or emergent storytelling approach of roleplaying games. However, reaction for the sake of a reaction is just as bad as no reaction.
Common to the discourse of running roleplaying games is discussion about being flexible and minimising the amount of preparation work we do before games using tools.
- The 7-3-1 technique described by Jason Cordova.
- The faction games as popularised by Blades in the Dark by John Harper.
Both are excellent tools that add depth to our games and support improvisation.
There are a plethora of other tools like these that help game masters run their games, but if flexibility or low prep tools are taken to an extreme and perhaps utilised by an inexperienced game master, the whole game can be undermined.
I want to focus on two tools that I see used which I believe can hinder collaborative storytelling: ‘Unlinked list of clues for mystery adventures’ and ‘Puzzles with no solutions’.
They’re very similar in their problems.
One tool suggested for game masters preparing a mystery adventure is to generate a list of clues related to the big reveal of the mystery and to pull from the list whenever the players do something that should reward them with a clue.
Similarly, planning no solution to a puzzle and accepting whatever solution the players develop can be freeing and prevent pacing issues.
These are highly flexible tools that I can see being used well by an experienced game master but they undermine player agency if used in isolation.
Providing players with meaningful choices is an important part of running roleplaying games. Chris Mcdowall breaks this down well in his blog post titled The ICI Doctrine.
This is where an experienced game master may look at the list of clues and link them together or add some level of temporal consequence to ensure the players’ choice has impact.
However, the game master should be careful to avoid a hyper dynamic mystery because this may further undermine player agency by overwhelming the players’ cognitive load and preventing them from engaging with the game.
In some cases, the system may provide a framework for consequences such as in Brindlewood Bay by Jason Cordova with the meddling move.
To mitigate this potential future, the clues could be formally linked using either:
- The Three Clue Rule by Justin Alexander.
- The linked list described in Building a Mystery by Scott Rehm.
Similarly, a solution to a puzzle should exist to ensure consequences can exist.
If the mystery or puzzle keeps changing or has no clearly defined solution, the players can do whatever and succeed which is not empowering.
Empowering players is not about helping them succeed, it is about providing them the information to do so.
Failure should always be a possibility and is always an opportunity for future adventures or complications.
Hyper dynamic GM tools do not empower players in isolation because they remove consequences from the game.