Four and a half years ago I decided to start a blog about games in general and roleplaying games in particular. Probably time for a second post - although it may get interrupted because (I kid you not) I'm sitting in a cafe and a pigeon has just flown in.
An important element of any game is feedback. A player needs to be able to see the impact their actions or choices are having on the ongoing game. For simple board games this is straightforward - a player makes a move and the board changes. The player can then evaluate whether this has put them in a more advantageous position or not. Without this feedback the player does not feel in control of the game, engagement drops and frustration mounts.
A more complex game has to be careful to keep the player informed. The moves available can become too varied or complicated to remember or the effect they have can be too subtle to notice. As evaluating the game becomes harder, it can start to seem like the player's actions are not bringing about any real change in the proceedings which is no fun.
There are inherent problems with feedback in roleplaying games when they are not simple dungeon crawls. Unlike board games, a player is not given a finite list of actions as defined by the rules - it is up to an individual to think up their own actions and the rules exist to help realise them. An action which seems obvious to one player may be something another would never consider doing. Similarly, analysing the changing game board (the battlefield, the social situation, whatever) it can be very hard to see what is changing - especially since this information is often being actively concealed by the opposition.
This is well and good for a "reality" simulator, but a roleplaying game needs to be more than that. It needs to be fun. There are many, many essays around the internet saying that the GM should not be an entertainer, but an arbitor. The idea is that the GM is responsible for fairness and potential, and the players are responsible for realising that potential - in a very real sense, it is the duty of the players to bring their own fun. There is an awful lot of merit in this argument (worth a post in future quite possibly) but there is definitely scope within this for modifying a game to the group's playing style so they get the feedback they need to make things fun.
Enough theory. What does this mean in practice?
Combat situations are fairly easy. An enemy recoils from blow which hurt, bleeds when they are injured and act increasingly desperately when they are going to die. The battlefield can be analysed by a clever player by looking at position, numbers and abilities of the remaining combatants. Progress is measured by the bad mens falling downs.
Social situations are much more tricky - especially in a campaign with a prolonged series of social encounters leading to a final result. The point of an investigator or diplomat character is to unearth information that the opponents are trying to keep hidden and if that is too effective it can generate a lot of frustration. On the other hand, if that information is handed over on a plate then where is the sense of accomplishment?
I'm not a fan of calling for Sense Motive (or equivalent) checks during conversation as it is the vocal equivalent of saying "you're in a prison, there is A FEATHER ON THE FLOOR". It draws attention to the plot item which is the thing the NPC is trying to conceal and puts the GM in control of the entire exchange, with the player rolling the dice. I'd much rather have a player say "wait, that doesn't add up - is he lying?" or "is there more to what he is saying than what is on the surface?" which then triggers the Sense Motive. That way the initial deduction comes from the player - they have made a decision which is affecting the game and then the skill of the character comes into play.
That said, it is important to remember that there is a sliding scale between "player do the work" and "player roll the dice" and this is where the point around modifying a game for a group's play style comes in. I've been running social situations for quite some time and getting the balance wrong more often than not so it's time for a change. The idea is to put more weight on the skill of the PC. I'm going to break longer conversations into chunks with the player specifying an objective in each bit. At the end of each bit I'll call for a Sense Motive check and depending on the result, give them a summary of any double-speak or hidden meanings that occurred. This can then help the player choose which direction to take the next part of the conversation and ensure that nothing the character should have noticed gets missed but should give enough space between the moment it is mentioned and the moment it is revealed via the game mechanics to stop too much meta-conversation taking place. I suppose it models the character's subconscious, where something goes into their mind and annoys them until it pops back up with some kind of evaluation. If the player notices something mid flow and calls for their own Sense Motive then all the better.
Anyway, the point is that summaries such as "he seems much happier than when you first met him" and "his repeated mentioning of the blue flowers suggests he is more interested in them then he's letting on" should help give the player more information which will help them evaluate the changing situation. Using this approach will also help pave over the cracks in my (less than) amazing acting talents and give me an escape route for conveying information that I forgot during the too and fro of dialogue. I just need to be careful to avoid the situation where "it doesn't matter what I say in this conversation because the summary will tell me what I need" but so far, my fear of that situation has caused me to create a different problem.
As a side benefit, this approach will also give me the opportunity to break up long conversations in which only a single player is participating and allow me to switch focus of the session to another character which will help with the engagement of the others.
Anyway, learning. That's what we're here for, right?