Monday, May 17, 2010

Waving the Hands and Glossing the Details

In response to my last post, Gene wrote:

My inclination is to ban "Lie Detection" and repla...from Age of Ravens Comments by Gene Ha

My inclination is to ban "Lie Detection" and replace it with "Polygraph". Which is what the real world version of "Lie To Me" does.

No one can tell absolutely if a statement is true or false, or even if the subject really believes it. What they can do is read emotional cues.

The PC investigator asks Barclay if he killed Chino. Barclay has a wincing micro-expression when asked. When he says he doesn't know, he furrows his brow on the first syllable of the sentence.

He could be wincing because he thinks he's caught, or because he had a secret gay relationship with Chino. He could be overly controlling his expression (the furrowed brow) because he knows who killed him, or simply because he suspects his gang boss and knows he'll be killed if he gives anything away.

Gene’s comments give me a decent jumping off point for my next question—about where and when we do our handwaving in rpgs. What you’re suggesting falls more into the kind of approach I like. I see two ways to handle this. If you have a check-based system for the game, you can provide the additional descriptive information to the player based on a successful check. On the other hand, you could also take a more “Gumshoe” approach, in which case when a player with the particular Human Perception talent interacts with a target, you provide the additional information or description. Or that ability could be used in a “matrix argument” for the player attempting to get more information from the target. In this case it might be framed thusly: “OK, he’s said that but I have significant investment in behavior reading—using that can I get some signals about what he’s hiding?”.

I guess one of the interesting questions here is what level the GM narrates on. Does one try to describe the facial tics and quirks and provide some insight on those or does one simply narrate the results (i.e. “from his reaction he seems worried about X” or even “he’s worried about X”). That’s a question I’m curious about: what governs our decisions about reductions in rpgs. I’d like to think it is thematically focused- i.e. I provide the kind of detail appropriate to the genre or narrative type the game is emulating. But I think there are a lot of other factors going on there: the beat of the scene, how invested the player is to the action, how relevant the moment is, other player’s impatience, player knowledge of the topic I’m detailing, etc.

I do think one of the potential sources for friction between players and the GM or even between players comes from differing expectations about handwaving. Now normally we’re conscious of the potential tension coming from some players thinking some things should or shouldn’t be played out at the table. Players sighing when one players wants to actually do the negotiation for purchasing some things or getting some information. But in this case I’m talking about an even greater micro-level: how much can be glossed over, especially in terms of skills/abilities, when players play things out. As an example, in the Exalted campaign I ran, Rob went to some trouble to describe “contextual” songs for his character's musical compositions. By referencing RW songs he tried to convey his intent. I tried to keep that in mind as I described his relative success. That was a place where I could have easily glossed over the work he'd put into that-- and in effect discount his efforts. As another older example, when I ran a street-level supers game I had a player who was notorious for switching detail frames in investigations. He'd make his Investigation or Search roll at a scene, and if that failed, he'd start describing what his character was actually doing to investigate as if that was a separate attempt. If I noticed what he was doing, I'd tell him he'd already done those actions. Some times he'd switch it around-- describing actions and then moving to the roll level to double up his chances.

In trying to figure out what level of detail or glossing we want, I can point to one specific difficulty narrating and adjudicating scenes. If I don’t know the player’s objective in the scene, I have a hard time shaping what’s happening to a positive effect. Often I end up throwing in problems or obstacles just as a matter of playing the scene out. The obstacles seem like a logical thing, but they end up getting in the way of the player’s plan. Had I known what the player had been going for in the first place, I could have glossed over that detail. Instead now we have the choice of my redacting or backstepping on what I’ve said, having the player need to make big changes in what they wanted to do, or having them decide not to take the action usually with some frustration. In this case what has happened is that I’ve accidentally said “No” to their plans without intending it—because I wasn’t sure what the player was doing. For example, the player has constructed a plan but hasn't given me any sense of what's going on and has avoided asking me questions in order to not tip their hands. If I describe the presence of something like a guard or the like, they may read that as me simply trying to trip them up.

Not giving me a heads up about one's objective in a scene now strikes me as a strange thing, but I can understand where that comes from. It comes from years of playing with GMs who would shift the stakes and situation to compensate for the players actions-- but in a negative, not a positive way. Though some might disagree, I honestly believe I work at not doing that. I'll admit that I was as guilty of that as any GM years ago, but I think I have a better and more secure handle on my approach now. But if players have played with antagonistic GMs or if the player inherently can't develop a sense of trust, then that can be a problem. Another reason for doing this may come less from paranoia and more from valuing that surprise or oneupsmanship. That may be what they enjoy as the challenge of the game and so don't like to tell the GM what their goal is or what they are doing until the moment of execution. That can be great at times, but is a more risky approach. My reaction to that may also stem from my own valuing of collective action and sharing over singular action or self-focus at the table, I'm not sure.


  1. "Does one try to describe the facial tics and quirks and provide some insight on those or does one simply narrate the results?"

    I try to narrate the results and give the players genre-appropriate information. I can't rely on myself to accurately perform facial clues and voice modulation (beyond outrageous accents), so I do not want to penalize them for missing something. I'll give them the most obvious clues on the surface, and from there they can peel away layers depending upon player interest.

  2. Note: from a guy who's only GMed once in 10 years...

    What I would give the players depends on the quality of their results (modified by powers and such).

    If they barely get a result, a bare description of body language. He's very stiff and has shifty eyes.

    An OK result, body language and some interpretation. He looks guilty and nervous, as if he knows something. Shifty eyes, overly controlled fake smile.

    A Good result, give the players a Tell: He suppresses a real smile when he talks about the murder victim.

    An excellent result: He feels your questions are completely off track. He's mocking you. He relaxes whenever you ask if Ricardo was involved.

  3. A real world example of Lie Detection came to mind. Some details may be off, but the gist is right. A few years ago I was at a big professional dinner. The day before, Alex M had shown off his cow lighter: about the size of a thumb, flames shot out of its snout. He knew I thought it was cool, so when he lost it he accused me of swiping it.

    Not being the intuitive type, I went to every table asking if anyone had seen it. Someone had found it but didn't know who it belonged to. I asked him to not return it until after the dinner was over, and it was one of those dinners where everyone hangs out and drinks for an hour after the food is gone.

    Alex M. kept trying to get me to confess. I answered all of his questions truthfully, but he knew I was holding back on something. He took this as lying. "I do not have your lighter. I did not take it. I will not give it back." This is how I see a Polygraph ability getting entangled. He got the lighter back much much later.