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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Hidden Information, Spontaneous Information and the solo RPG experience

I often make pretty random posts which are more like a way of trying to synthesize things I'm thinking about, or reading about, in my quest for a satisfying solo RPG experience. 

A discussion at the Story Games forum regarding games with "Hidden Information" got me thinking about the opposite concept (spontaneous information/non-existent information) and their relationship to each other. Of course, I'm also interested in their relationship to solo gaming, though I didn't focus specifically on that aspect while participating in that discussion. Here is my attempt to apply some of what I got out of that to solo rpg'ing.

In regards to solo gaming, my take away from that discussion, which may be obvious to a lot of people, were:
  • solo gaming slants more heavily towards the creative act than just being a participant
  • discovery and exploration in solo games are closer in kind to the act of a sculptor "discovering" his masterpiece inside a slab of marble, than to an explorer discovering ancient ruins (for lack of a better set of analogies).
Might there be ways of making solo rpg'ing approximate the feeling of having a GM with an agenda, via the use of real hidden info? Making real hidden information is easy enough. You can just have random, or semi-random stuff created beforehand, and front-loaded. 

However, making it feel like part of a pre-planned link of events/actions/etc takes more. Pieces of pre-existing information must fit together logically; perhaps not right away, but eventually. It's that need of "making sense." That can be done with spontaneous information, but it comes from the solo gamer's creativity putting things together as they go

With a closed system containing pieces of information that fit together logically,  you could theoretically have some sort of automated way of linking them prior to starting a game and waiting to be discovered by the player. Would this feel much different from creating spontaneous info as you go? Probably not by itself in all cases, I think. If, however, there were hints created for you by the system, which foreshadow pieces of information, maybe play would be a bit closer to the feeling of discovery you get from playing with a sentient GM.

Maybe an example would elucidate this better:

Say that your character is wandering is lost in the jungle, and stumbles upon ancient ruins. 

  1. If you're playing with a sentient GM, you have two posibilities: he made it up on the spot, or he had it pre-planned that you would find these ruins.
  2. If you're playing solo, the ruins were either spontaneously created by a randomizer on the spot, or pre-generated. So far no difference. However, what if after pre-generating information with an automated process, the system dropped you a hint in the form of a rumor or a map? To me that would bring the experience closer to #1.  
  3. One other possibility is that, given no hint from a GM (automated or otherwise), upon finding ancient ruins in a jungle, you are working from a set of common assumptions (i.e. "in this setting, ancient ruins exist in remote jungles") 
For examples involving things like NPC motivations, and secret goals, I think hints would be almost mandatory-- otherwise, these may appear too abrupt when finally revealed. 

Assuming my reasoning above is mostly correct, maybe there is another take away from this, which may or may not be helpful in trying to enrich solo rpg'ing:

  • hidden info brings the experience closer to that of playing with a sentient GM as long as all the pieces fit together logically. 
    • This feeling may be enhanced by the use of hints that foreshadow possible information that may be found later on 
Even as I can see how this could be helpful, I can also see a lot of problems implementing it correctly and satisfactorily. Two of the main problems that:
  1. there is a chance the hidden information could be unsurprising to you, if you know the contents of the source. At least, a sequence of information could become repetitive if you play enough times
  2. your input as a player is unpredictable (what if you do something which doesn't fit with anything pre-generated, or interferes with it?)
I think there might be ways of ameliorating some of these concerns, like for example, making a large enough database of information to address #1, and having the hidden information be robust to changes created by player interaction (assuming that limiting player choice in any way is not desired). Some of these possible solutions, though, are tough to do. 

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