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frustration with "enigmas"

Started by Paul Czege, November 25, 2001, 01:46:00 AM

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Paul Czege

So this evening my girlfriend and I sat down to create our characters for Eloran's forthcoming Mage scenario. And maybe recent games of The Pool, Sorcerer, and Theatrix have me spoiled, because it wasn't long before my mercury had risen and I was editorializing at her across the table.

I absolutely hate traits and skills like "enigmas" in the Storyteller System. There's been a lot of recent talk about Vanilla Narrativism, the idea being that a game group can drift Narrativist by making story a priority, and by perhaps using Fortune-in-the-Middle for conflict resolution. And I totally understand the concept. But from a practical standpoint, I just can't figure how to handle traits like "enigmas" in Vanilla Narrativism.

Having become separated from his companions in the labyrinthine caves, my diminutive 3rd level pessimist finds himself in a riddle contest with an slimy, lisping, intelligent amphibian. The GM delivers the amphibian's riddle. I announce that my character is going to "give the correct answer." I roll against "enigmas" and get a couple of successes. The GM tells me the correct answer to the riddle.

Is it the character Simulationist in me who finds that whole thing sucky? Is it typical of the character Simulationist social contract that a riddle to the character should be a riddle to the player? Is it the Gamist in me that hates it? I dunno. Maybe it's neither a Gamist, Simulationist or Narrativist failure. Maybe it's a social contract failure. All I know is that it feels like a Narrative failure. It's so anti-climactic.

How does the Vanilla Narrativist group handle traits like "enigmas" (or "manipulation")? Is it something as simple as the GM handing the player the answer to the riddle on an index card and allowing him to narrate his character's response in a more dramatic fashion?

What do you think?

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans


Hello Paul,

Personally, I've always found in game puzzles and riddles to be fairly gamist constructs.  So a riddle that is posed to the character and not to the player seems rather pointless to me.  And personally, I've always thought the same for books as well.  A riddle that is posed to a character in a novel is also thus posed to the reader.  The reader is free to slip in a bookmark and not come back until they think they have the answer.  I have gotten a little carried away at this notion and have come to resent novels that pose some kind of mystery and do not give the reader a fair shot at figuring it out before the main character does.  

However, this kind of thinking has gotten me into trouble during an RPG.  One of my favorite RPGs is Chill.  In Chill all the monsters have a very specific way to kill them.  Personally, I didn't just want some successful Legend/Lore roll to be able to tell the players how to defeat the creature. I wanted the players to figure it out from my carefully prepared in game clues.  The problem with this is I had a player who's character concept basically revolved around being good at Legend/Lore, she was a sort of Giles character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  

This concept worked great once for when the creature was a Basilisk because part of my in game clues consisted of a lot of web research on REAL mythology concerning things that can turn people to stone.  So when she made her legend/lore roll I just handed over that research.  However, for other types of creatures that don't exist in real world mythology I found it difficult to come up with research of my own and so resorted to other forms of in game clues.  So, ultimately the player and I would butt heads as she tried to use Legend/Lore to gain information and I would constantly block her because I didn't want those kinds of rolls ruining what, to me, was the whole point of the game: putting the clues together to figure out how to kill the creature.  I had basically destroyed her character concept.

For a long time I had trouble reconciling this problem because the player was absolutely right.  I had discovered that "a puzzle posed to the character is a puzzle posed to player" had much deeper implications in terms of character concept and protagonism than I had originally thought.  Then I had stumbled across an idea that I've never fully put into practice and probably wouldn't work for Chill.  I believe Inspectres uses this method and the concept is outlined in Over The Edge.

The idea is for the GM to come up with some sketchy idea about something.  In the case of a Chill game some monster.  The monster should behave in some consistent manner but its weaknesses should be fairly vague.  Then when a player wants to try and use their mythology savy character have them make up a suitable legend, creature weaknesses and all.  You can then use an appropriate roll to determine what percentage of their myth is actually truth and then apply those things to the creature.

Coming back to the example of your 3rd Level Pessimist.  I maintain that the only reason that using an enigma roll to solve a riddle feels unsatisfying is because you, Paul, had nothing to do AT ALL with answering it.  And this is true if the riddle has a preplanned "correct" answer.  But what if it didn't?  Would this feel better to you?

What if the GM just slapped down three or four nonsense lines like this:

In winter I'm hotter than hell and in summer I'm colder than ice.
People who want me are lonely in spring and people who reject me know company all autumn long.

I just made that up, I don't know what the answer is.  Now, what if during the game you made up an answer that fit all the clues in that riddle.  Anything that fit the clues will do.  Now, you roll your Enigma skill to see if you are correct.  I bet that would feel more satisfying than the GM simply handing you the answer.

If you fail obviously the game is going to have to go in a different direction but a good GM will have accounted for that.

Hopefully, this was usefull.


Matt Gwinn

Well, Paul I actually have an opinion on that.
I have always been a simulationist when it comes to riddles and the like.  It's always been by contention that it is unfair to challenge a player with a riddle that may be incredibly difficult for them to solve, yet quite easy for their character to solve.

If it makes things simpler I don't forsee sending any riddles your way during the game, but there will definetly be a problem or two that your character will need to solve.

Why exactly do you feel that in a narrativist game it should be the "player" that needs to solve the riddle?  Does a gunfight in a narrativist game have anything to do with your ability to shoot a gun in real life?  Why should solving a riddle be any different?

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Paul Czege

Hey Matt, Jesse,

The more I've thought about the "enigmas" thing, the more I'm realizing there's a lot to talk about. I had an off-Forge conversation with Ron about it today, and he commented that it's not so much a GNS issue as it is that a given game group's handling of the issue will be more or less satisfying to the players depending on their individual GNS bias. And that was pretty much what I was trying to say by calling it a social contract issue. I could register for two Mage events at next year's GenCon and have one GM use the Matt-method to handle in-game puzzles and the other use the Jesse-method. And in my mind, both of those solutions are Simulationist. That's why I used the phrase "character Simulationism" in my post, describing essentially the Jesse-method, to distinguish it from the Matt-method. But both methods are somewhere along the spectrum of Simulationism, separated by shadings of how much player knowledge and skills is expected to overlap with character knowledge and skills. Jesse draws the line fairly close to the character, pretty much just outside combat, and puzzles become a game-within-the-game that the player is expected to solve. It's the player simulating the character's frustration, effort, and triumph or failure. Matt draws the line further out, ruling out game-within-the-game, relegating puzzle solving to the game's task resolution system. Another GM might draw the line even further out than Matt, and allow convince/negotiate/manipulate rolls to determine the outcome of character and NPC interactions.

But that's all along the spectrum of Simulation. The more I've thought about it, the more I'm realizing that there's certainly a more Vanilla Narrativist handling of "enigmas." And in retrospect, my idea of the GM handing the player the answer to the riddle on an index card is just a kluge attempt to preserve the drama of the situation. The real Vanilla Narrativist handling is somewhere within the distinction between task resolution and conflict resolution.

Whaddya think?

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans

Ron Edwards


There actually is no GNS issue here. The question Paul has raised is about role-playing, not about GNS perspectives. The question is, "Who knows what?" The reason it is hard to answer is that play (a "scene") is often about establishing whether someone knows something, rather than merely drawing on what they are already established (pre-play) to know.

To clarify: there is not "one Simulationist answer" to the issue at hand. It is just as simulationist to say (1) "My guy knows the answer, because I know it, and my concept of the guy is that he would know it too," as it is to say (2) "It is irrelevant what I, the player, do or don't know. I made my Lore roll, so my guy knows the answer. Cough it up."

Similarly, Narrativist play does not carry with it one, single approach to the character/player knowledge issue. Some forms of this style of play would completely disconnect the two and others would identify them.

Therefore Matt's assumption that a Simulationist would only care if the character knows it, and that a Narrativist would only care if the player knows it, is not correct.

I suggest that asking the question as Paul has asked it is very much like asking "the airlock" question, for those of you who remember that debate from GO. This means that by asking the question in a particular way, you are already specifying strict parameters of play which, in essence, only permit it to be answered a certain way.

The problem is that there is no good answer. In practice, it is annoying EITHER to know the answer, but your character fails his roll so is a moron, OR not to know the answer, but be refused a chance for your character to know it "all by himself." I suggest – since the aim here is to make play as fun as possible – that the problem has arisen because we are mistaking task resolution for conflict resolution.

For what's worth, here's my take on the matter. The scene between Bilbo and Gollum in The Hobbit is not about asking and answering riddles. It is about whether Gollum will eat the hobbit, or whether Bilbo can stall him enough to escape somehow. Thus resolution rolls in a similar game-situation would do best to stay away from the actual riddle-knowledge type of tasks, and to stick close to the grimmer battle of wits on the more fundamental level.

It all comes down to what in the world the knowledge or insight or whatever is FOR during play, relative to that character. There are several options to consider.

Option A: we could be talking about a "game within a game," much like the Fading Suns demo I played a couple of years ago. The characters happened upon a widget and puzzled over how to make it go. The GM handed the group a puzzle-model, one of those things in which you try to arrange some plastic polygons such that they form a particular shape. When we (the players) had solved that puzzle, then our characters were deemed to have figured out the widget and play proceeded.

Option B: we could simply to go EITHER with pure character-only knowledge, with player knowledge or insight being irrelevant; OR pure player-knows-best, in which case a character knows it if the player does as the player sees fit. This is the sort of thing one ought to settle before play, in my opinion.

Option C: as suggested by the Bilbo example, the riddles are treated as frosting on a much more serious or goal-oriented set of conflicts which are REALLY what the rolls are about. This option is handy because the either/or frustration of B above tends not to arise.

I have observed that Occult rolls, Investigation rolls, Forensic rolls, Streetwise rolls, Intuition rolls, and many other similar instances in many role-playing games to share a basic problem, of which Paul's question is only a single example. I think it's a serious problem, and it's related to what be called "fake role-playing."

There you are, playing Bill Blasé, Private Eye. You make your forensic roll, so the GM tells you that Lucky Louie is the guy to talk to. Or, if you don't make your forensic roll, the GM tosses Pete the Talkative Cop your way, and you get to roll your Knowledge/Cops or maybe Fast-Talk. If you make it, then you get the info about Lucky Louie from him. Of if you fail that, well, meanwhile, your intellectual friend is busting butt in the library. Sooner or later, someone's roll is going to yield Lucky Louie.

In other words (and Paul said this first, so he gets credit), these types of rolls in many role-playing games are really no different from the "Find secret doors" rolls in a dungeon crawl. The players more or less roam around in Brownian motion until they bump the notch for the secret door the right way, and when they do, a panel slides aside and they can flow through it to bump around looking for the next one.

The reason I think of this as "fake" role-playing is that nothing is really happening due to all this activity. It's a lot of rolling and role-playing various tics or twitches or speech patterns ... but that's it. Nothing's being Explored for whatever purpose (G, N, or S).

It seems to me that if we set up riddles, insights, knowledge, or ANY application of similar issues during play to serve a more role-playing oriented purpose rather than this fake one, then we have solved the problem. Any role-playing oriented purpose is fine by me. The ABC options above are all functional in their own ways.


joshua neff

Regarding the "fake roleplaying"...

GMing my Mage game, I found I got frustrated when I'd have the players roll for stuff like Research. I thought about why that was & realized that what I wanted to do was dump backstory info on them, but was making them roll for it--just another hoop for the players to jump through to get stuff I wanted to give them anyway (as part of the narrative). So I stopped asking for rolls & based it more on Karma (what's the character's score in Research or Occult or Science or whatever) & Drama (is it time for another backstory dump?). Which fit nicely with the idea of calling for Fortune only in cases of dramatic conflict.

[ This Message was edited by: joshua neff on 2001-11-25 19:45 ]

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QuoteI stopped asking for rolls & based it more on Karma (what's the character's score in Research or Occult or Science or whatever) & Drama (is it time for another backstory dump?). Which fit nicely with the idea of calling for Fortune only in cases of dramatic conflict.

This is exactly the way I'm planning to run my game.  


Matt Gwinn

Oops, Moose didn't log out.  THat last message was from me

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Blake Hutchins

What are the odds? :smile:

I just recently kibitzed with a friend who is running a DnD 3e game.  He had decided to pose a riddle to his players, and wanted to bounce some ideas off someone outside his group.  One thing we hit on right away was that he was using terms of art in his riddle -- meaning you-as-player had to have specific knowledge (in this case stonemasonry-related) to solve the riddle.  He clearly expected the players to answer the riddle themselves, without character rolls, but I suggested it would be frustrating if solving the riddle depended on players happening to know specific jargon.

I like using riddles in fantasy games because they're a great way to add flavor.  Sure, a bit trite, but fun.  Plus some players really like them.  Problem is that they're great ways to stall out a story because everyone's stumped.  I use one of two approaches:  (1) character Enigmas/Lore/Riddlery rolls obtain hints but not outright solutions, with bigger hints if I want them to solve it faster (because the story's stalling), (2) only a vague idea of what the answer might be, so that the player ideas and proposed solutions serve as a staging point to create the answer.  In Mage, Enigmas does provide a great vehicle for cryptic clues from graffiti, windblown newspapers, street signs, etc.

Research is a pain in the tail.  I tend to run the Karma thing there, unless there's a specific dramatic reason to have a roll.  Another thing I've done with White Wolf is to set a number of successes for a particular solution, and had players contribute successes from whatever avenue they pursue their solutions, such that the characters pool their successes.  Karma or Fortune there.

I'm trying to let roleplaying scenes focus on character development or a dramatic choice to steer the story.  I've participated in plenty of games where players sit around trying to solve the puzzle and getting nothing done -- and it's not a great deal of fun, either.



Clinton R. Nixon

All of the ideas presented here are quite good. I have yet another suggestion: remember the game is for the players. Look at your player base and ascertain whether they like to solve puzzles or not. If so, present it as something for them to solve.

You can also use the players' knowledge in the puzzle. The example I remember is from Peter Seckler's D&D game I was in. Most of the players (including me) were cryptoanalysts in the Army. Peter created a 5 page document in a made-up foreign script for us to decode. It took us two hours, but we were able to do it with our real-world knowledge. While this sounds like it might distract from the game, the fact that we all had the capability to solve the puzzle, and we all enjoyed solving puzzles of this nature, made it a lot of fun.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


Since this is the "Actual Play" forum...

I just ran a situation in my New Mutiny game which is, I think, similar to some of the problems posed here:  A player was to receive a Trump call (mystical communication that you can refuse if you want to).  I was pretty clear that this was something that needed to happen, that was going to get repeated as necessary until she accepted it.  I considered, and rejected, the notion of saying, "You get an insistant Trump call, repeated until you take it."

Instead, I purposefully set the scene so that she would have character-based (not at all player-based) reasons to want to refuse the call, and then I sat back and waited to see if she would refuse it.  And she thought long and hard about it, knowing, OOCly, that this was likely to be important, and eventually decided that the appropriate thing for her to do was to refuse the call.  And I repeated it.  And she refused it again.  And I repeated it again, and she finally accepted it.

Now, this strikes me as similar to some of the things that people have been talking about above:  Why go through all that (we're doing this by email, so it took several RL days to play that out) when I knew that I was going to make the call happen?

1.  Character exploration -- when the player makes these kind of judgement calls, I think she gets a better understanding of what goes on inside the PC's head.

2.  If she'd taken the call the first time, she'd know a little less.  She knows now, before even talking with the caller, that he considers the matter important enough to make himself a nuisance in order to get in touch with her.  That's useful information, both about the situation at hand, and the psychology of that NPC.

I suggest that such hidden factors can be important for other situations.  One thing people have been mentioning is research.  Here's how I think I'd run a typical Call of Cthulhu researching run:

Player:  Okay, we go to the library and research the Brunton family.

GM:  Okay, you get to the library.  It's a little better than the typical small-town stacks that you're used to -- bigger, that is.  Seems about as disorganized as you'd expect.  You figure that even a cursory search through it will take you several hours.  You want to go through it?

Player:  Yeah, this is important.

GM:  Gimme a "Library Use" roll.

Player:  Made it.

GM:  By how much?

Player: Uh...  23.

GM:  Okay, you find references to the Brunton family back a hundred and twenty years in this town.  They used to be a more prominent family -- they had an estate in the hills.  You think something bad happened to them and they had to sell it, or maybe it burned down or something.

Player:  Can I find out where the house is or what happened to it?

GM:  Maybe.  You could spend more time looking.  It's mid-afternoon, now -- you doubt you'd find anything before... nightfall.

Player:  Well, okay, I do it.  I... fail my Library Use check, dammit.

GM:  It's dinnertime, and you haven't found anything.  You can come back tomorrow, if you feel you have time.

There may, or may not, be the information that the PC seeks in the library.  It may be findable on an unmodified Library Use roll, or it may not.  There may, or may not, be something time-critical that may happen while they "waste" time in the library.  The point is that a little exploration of this can reveal interesting things about the characters -- do they soldier on after several dead-end library sessions, or do they get frustrated and try something else? -- and that the players can make important decisions -- is this the best use of their time? -- with relatively little game-time spent on the matter, and not even a lot of GM effort.  Let's see, that covers Simulationism and Gamism, and with Narrativism, you can use it as a devise to do time compression -- they spent lots of time in the library, now the climax is appropriately hectic -- or to explore notions of dooming people due to over-cautiousness ("No, let's just spend another day getting the facts before we blunder in") or impetuousness ("I'm sick of this shit!  Let's get our hands dirty!").

If there's some piece of information that's just crucial to keep the game moving, sure, maybe you should give it out quickly.  But give them the bare minimum, then let them make uncomfortable decisions about getting more details versus acting.

I don't think that any of the above is applicable to riddles or the like, though.  :smile:


Yeah, I have no problem with library use on this kinda model.  In fact I think that if done right it aids exploration by provoking characters to engage with that setting, to investigate its internal linkages and whatnot.  
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I think there is a tiny GNS-related issue here, but it's an odd one. Let's say I've established that the Mystic Order of Wildebeasts always have doors locked with magical riddles. Now, the PCs are off to meet a contact of theirs at the Mystic Order's tower. Meeting the contact is the point of the scene. The tower is a minor fortification, the riddle is going to be fairly easy.

The Narrativist doesn't care about the riddle. It's irrelevant to the story point at hand.

The Gamist would normally focus on the riddle  -it's a challenge for the players to overcome. However, in this case, it's not a worthwhile challenge. The riddle is easy, and the players can get past it without any problems. Just skip it and get onto more interesting stuff.

The Simulationist goes "ah. Bugger. I don't care about this riddle either*, but all doors belonging to the Mystic Order are guarded by riddles, so this one must be too. Um. Er. I can't be bothering coming up with the riddle. Roll enigmas."

*: it's a very unloved riddle.

Ron Edwards

Hey there,

I'm with Mike (Epoch) and Gareth (contracycle) on this one. We're really talking about means and value of Exploration in the fundamental sense, rather than GNS as such.

Certainly players' GNS orientations will figure INTO how they want to resolve the question, but the question itself is not answered (or even parsed) by invoking GNS differences.


Le Joueur

Out of habit, I originally considered composing a response based on a huge collection of quotes, drawing readers' thoughts together to show that all present seem to have the right idea, simply no fingers were on it.

But being as I'm sick, here's a shorter form.

Looking over the whole discussion I have to say that it's not a GNS question (sorry Mytholder1), it happens in nearly every type of play.  It's not a systemic resolution issue either (sorry Eloran, that's close though), so it can't really be solved using a simple technique or style of gamemastering (sorry Jesse).

Ron2 also suggests that there is some confusion between conflict resolution and scene resolution (that's close).  Personally, I see it as a consistency issue.  The problem is accentuated by a fair amount of variation in level of abstraction.  Some of the solutions given here show a natural inclination towards this kind of consistency, but veered off into unrelated specifics (sorry Joshua and Blake – it doesn't really go into a 'drama' problem either).

What's at work here could even be likened to a protagonism issue (good call Jesse – even if I hate that use of the term).  But protagonism only highlights the actual problem.  To explain what I see, I need to set some terms first.

In Scattershot, we separate task resolution into at least three degrees of abstraction3, immediate, involved, and episodic.  In the example, the "3rd level pessimist finds himself in a riddle contest with a slimy, lisping, intelligent amphibian," after some more description, it seems like this was handled as playing out a conversation.  This makes it of 'immediate' abstraction.  Everything is taking place in what passes in role-playing gaming for 'real time.'

The problem comes when the dice come out.  Making an 'enigma' roll to solve a riddle (similar to a research roll to find a clue) takes it more or less up to the 'involved' degree of abstraction; the character ponders and thinks and finally gives an answer.  That collapses a noticeable amount of time into a single roll, changing the pacing in a sudden, and apparently quite jarring, fashion.  It may also seem like protagonism is under attack because the level of abstraction seems to take control out of the player's hands.

Most role-playing gaming makes these kinds of abstraction shifts intuitively and unconsciously, heretofore based on an unspoken social contract (you almost got it, Paul).  Scattershot brings this to light, suggesting a more conscious use of these shifts in abstraction.

The situation cited by Paul is a thorny one.  Was the whole game set up to have those thoughtful riddle-posing dialogues (as suggested by Blake)?  If not, then this conversational amphibian should have not been portrayed with dialogue; without the dialogue, the roll for the solution to the riddle posed would have been as abstract as the rest of the conversation.  If it were supposed to be filled with these dialogues then the player should have to solve it using dialogue (and maybe a gamemaster clue based on a secret roll of some kind, better a DFK 'drama' choice instead) and not something as abstracting as a task resolution die roll.

This is a situation that could have been better avoided in the first place (or at least handled more consciously), if the participants practiced an explicit grasp on the shifts in abstraction and the expectations for the game.

Fang Langford

1 I am sorry Mytholder, but the issue may have been posed as a riddle problem, and that may even be a GNS issue, but I think that concentrating on that masks the real problem hidden in the example.

2 Interestingly enough, Ron brings us back to Bobby G, now calling him Lucky Louie and the process of getting there "fake role-playing."  It seems only natural to see the specter of 'what you are working on' in a problem posed by another, but I don't think that's the problem here, no offense intended.

Epoch provided a great example of why you would want to engage in "fake role-playing," but does not give much of a reason.  (I believe Ron missed this because, as the best proponent of Narrativist, his normal bias is for 'exploring story' - to use his terminology – and Epoch paints it as 'exploring character,' a more Simulationist perspective, if I am not mistaken.)  In the end Epoch practically nails it as a pacing issue.  And that's roughly what I feel too.

3 Immediate task resolution is for 'one action' events like shooting a gun or stealing a watch.  Involved task resolution is for things that require a number of actions but not an entire scene, such as tracking an animal or making a speech, where the 'reaction' is also a part played out.

Episodic task resolution solves circumstances through entire episodes or scenes that occur 'off screen,' like hunting and foraging or streetwise (and, yes, using a Narrativist-slanted Fortune-in-the-Middle style would frame such a scene right to the crucial moment).  This can be differentiated from conflict resolution because the dice rolled do not resolve the situation they only suggest the degree of success the character has attempting something that could be the solution.

[ This Message was edited by: Le Joueur on 2001-11-26 17:35 ]
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