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On the "Perfect Timing Fallacy" in role-playing games

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klecser

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I've had the recent fortune of having a few Keeping Conversations with new Keepers. They always want advice, and I am normally happy to provide some, so long as the advice can actually do some good. Most advice given in the world is wrong. Not in of itself, but given with poor timing and without considering someone's improvement needs. Human experience is too varied for advice to do what it is intended to do. It isn't about "what worked for me." It is about what will work for the other person. I've been mentoring colleagues as an educator for many years, and the way we address this problem is by giving less advice and instead asking more questions that can help someone find what they need to be successful.

I do believe that there is some baseline advice that can be safely given to new Keepers.

1. MGF (Maximum Game Fun)

2. Work towards balanced involvement at the table. (Quieter people may want to stay quiet, and that's ok. But also, some people need to be invited to participate. You shut down a table hog by inviting others to be involved and using the phrase: "Great idea, I'll come back to you" for people who Bogart time.)

3. Communicate with players early and often. (topics that are off the table, are we at MGF? etc)

I think that is pretty safe advice and gives new Keepers actionable things to practice. Anybody can practice asking questions around a table so all are involved. Each of those has their own specific skills that need to develop, but it doesn't hurt to have them as axioms to aspire towards.

But what about advice that most Keepers wouldn't immediately think of? What is deeper advice that could make a big difference? I'm specifically thinking about scenario execution. This leads me to the title of this post. I also just want to give a disclaimer here that I am not a scenario designer, nor am I trying to unfairly criticize scenario designers. I don't have those skills, but at the same time, I know what I most frequently change about scenarios.

I think there is a generalized fallacy that is assumed in role-playing games that I'll call the "perfect timing fallacy." The idea is that many encounters are designed such that player characters are expected to be in the right place at exactly the right time. This classically manifests itself in a variety of ways.

Dungeons are all stocked full of monsters that, for some reason, stick to within the boundaries of their room despite their being open corridors between them. They are always awake. Investigators stumble upon a ritual exactly as it is being completed, or right before they can have an impact. The cop who saw something is on duty when the investigator's ask for them. Monsters in a room are always prepared to fight, or willing to fight.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those examples, so long as it is fun for the participants. Scenario designers frequently do a great job of proposing "alternatives outside the norm." And sometimes "the norm" is what produces MGF. And that's great.  Perfect timing is arguably critical from a narrative standpoint. It moves the narrative along when it needs to move. That isn't lost on me. Managing the ebb and flow of the story at a table is another critical skill for Keepers to develop. But what advantages can be gained by breaking with perfect timing?

I think that it is also worth considering the potential benefits of imperfect timing for investigative horror role-playing (or role-playing in general). I think Jaws is a perfect example of using imperfect timing as a narrative tool. Brodie, Quint, and Hooper spend most of the movie too late to do something. And the shark is only barely on screen for the majority of the movie. Them always being late produces a frustration that drives the narrative because it just makes them work harder to engage the threat. Now, imperfect timing works until perfect timing is needed. :) The movie has a time cap and they gotta ramp it up, so the shark shows up. And when it does show up, the payoff for the audience is huge. They had to work to get the payoff, rather than the payoff just appearing immediately for all to see.

So how does this translate as a tool for gaming? Here are some examples:

1) Curating existential dread. Fear of the unknown is one of the greatest and most primal human emotions. This is why horror movies that work are those that don't show the threat ever or until as late as possible in the narrative. In the Jaws example above, the dread is created by the heroes arriving after the shark attacks and seeing the grisly aftermath. And the shark promptly sinks back into the waves and out of actionable distance. It is often better for the Investigators to arrive late to something happening, especially if violence is involved. The pendulum can swing the other way too. Don't underestimate the power of investigators arriving early and then having no idea how to prevent or engage with an issue. Being early and being late is often far more frightening to people than being "right on time." This also has the advantage of really selling the idea that "shooting your gun" or "swinging your club" isn't going to fix this situation. Taking that off the table forces investigators to use other means to address a threat. As always, know your group and what they like.

2) Eliciting healthy struggle. If your players always arrive on time, there may not be as much brain work that they have to do to work out a situation. Speaking for myself, when I play, I love not knowing what is happening with a situation because it encourages me to turn the wheels in the head. This can be particularly useful when players arrive really early and the number of clues present in a location, right at that moment, is minimal. Or, they may stumble upon a total orgy of evidence but have no idea how it all relates to the current time at the current location! That in of itsekf can be frightening. Or, maybe they arrive early or late and what could have been a critical narrative location has now become a red herring. This last one is particularly useful when running games in which the players know the scenario and are struggling not to metagame it!

3) Keeping investigators alive in campaigns. If you play mostly one-offs at conventions, it is understood that the gloves are pretty much off for lethality. People who play CoC at Cons know that their characters aren't likely to live, even if they make a string of good decisions. There is also the "Sandy Petersen killed me" dream of a lot of gamers. But when you do campaign play, it is a completely different ball game. This is an area where communication is key. And while some players are perfectly ok with their character getting slaughtered or going insane at any turn, many players get attached to their characters. If we could criticize one aspect of early (1970s) scenario design, it is that a lot of early scenario work featured "gotcha" deaths that were nearly impossible to avoid if ran as written. That does not contribute to a positive table feel unless it is known in advance to expect that.

People often ask me how I am able to Keep (capitalization intended, he he) characters alive when playing campaigns with a reputation for lethality. The answer to that question is that players often arrive early or late to situations that would just end the narrative unnecessarily prematurely. in thinking about MGF for my group, they are very attached to their characters. I think it is incumbent upon CoC Keepers to consider that scoffing at that attitude in players isn't the most productive way to get to MGF, even if you think that "frequent character death and insanity is how CoC should work." This is less about how a game works, and more about how your table works. If you play a game the way it "should work" and your players aren't into that, then you've failed. 

You can have your cake and eat it too in campaign play. It just takes considering having characters arriving early or late to encounters that are designed to be "right on time."

These techniques are not new to horror role-playing. Many published works emphasize rigid or flexible timelines for events. The key is simply to consider the possibility that "right on time" may not be the best decision for maintaining a slow descent into madness. I'm prepared to venture that going extended periods being alive and sane is far more frightening than just dying and going insane instantaneously. Your game will vary, of course. There is a sprawling continuum of what different people find fun.

The key is to consider: How can you avoid being trapped by perfect timing as a Keeper?

 

 

 

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