9/19/2022

Flavors of Presumption

It’s time for another dip into the RPG Lexicon, where I explore the terms I use (for the concepts I need) to design RPG stuff.  If you’re new to this peculiar series, you can check the tags for the whole caboodle, or start with the Invisible Rulebooks.

Today’s term gets us deeper into the heart of design: presumptive. In order to design a scenario for the kinds of RPGs I love, the designer (whether the GM homebrewing or the pro seeking to publish) must master the art of non-presumptive problems. They are the construction material that allows the design to stand. They are the stuff of adventure.

But while “non-presumptive” is North on my compass, it’s a term that depends on “presumptive.” So, in problem design, what makes a problem a presumptive problem, a presumptive challenge, a presumptive obstacle? What does such a thing presume?

A presumptive problem presumes the approach the PCs will (in some cases must) take. Any problem with a finite range of viable approaches is, to some degree, presumptive. The most common “flavors” of presumption are:

The Dongle-Slot

When there’s just one, and only one, exactly one solution, I call that a Dongle-Slot problem, to honor the action-movie cliché of the special USB thumb-drive (or far-future equivalent) that, when slotted into the right port, averts the nuclear disaster. We could just as easily call it a push-button problem or a dozen other names, but the term “Dongle-Slot” feels more closely akin to “Porn Logic” (which it is), and it makes me giggle, which is how the science works around here.

Dongle-Slots are the epitome of finite, but they can take infinite forms, from the passageway that can only be traversed by destroying the Statue Guardian to the Fair Folk who will only lift a finger to help if you join in their special Vernal Equinox Dance to the evil ritual summoning that can only be disturbed with a splash of the correct blood from the correct priest at the correct hour after said priest was correctly murdered, there are uncountable ways to present a lock that cannot be picked, broken, or circumvented, and that has but One True Key.

When an adventure design subverts a Dongle-Slot by making it a reward rather than a problem, I call that a Dongle-Slot Surprise, but that’s a subject for another day!

The Exclusionary

A few times a year, GM or designer friends of mine will brag that they’ve designed a problem that “can’t be solved with combat.” This is the most common expression of the Exclusionary: a problem designed to prevent or discourage an approach, and it’s basically a Reverse Dongle-Slot. You can do anything for love … but you can’t do that.

While “can’t be solved with combat” is the most ordinary expression of the Exclusionary, it’s important to stress that violence (or reducing it) isn’t the issue. The limits are the issue … the desire to diminish Tactical Infinity into something less tactical, not infinite, or both. Doesn’t matter if you’re excluding violence, excluding trickery, excluding the mage’s favorite spell, or excluding that thing your specific PCs like to do with the sack of potatoes and a leprechaun in a cage, going out of your way to prevent an approach is what makes this presumptive.

Speaking of exclusion, more broadly: I don’t consider presumptive problems taboo. Sometimes, you just want to put a magnetic storm in the upper atmosphere so the crew of the Enterprise can’t use the transporter. I get that. I do that. Around here, the design goal isn’t to avoid presumptive elements, but rather to recognize them, to keep them at the non-critical edges of a design: they are parsley, not steak. Plus, again, “presumptive” is a spectrum: most problems you’ll design will be to some degree presumptive. The goal is to reduce that, to break out of the lazy habits that get us there … not to eliminate it in puristic terms.

The Optimal

One of the slippery ways a problem can be presumptive is when the range of approaches is theoretically wide open … but there is one approach (or a forcibly tiny set) that is objectively optimal. This can undermine Tactical Roleplaying, because when one approach is optimal, it becomes kind of stupid not to do the optimal thing … and when it’s kind of stupid not to do the optimal thing, that chokes out the potential for characterization, keeping it in the shallows, because “is this PC kind of stupid YES or NO?” is about as shallow as it gets.

So lets say a designer has the “passageway that can only be traversed by destroying the Statue Guardian” in their adventure design, and wants to keep it, but fix it, to make it less of a creative chokepoint … But also just desperately wants the PCs to destroy the Statue Guardian. So, instead of really doing the work to make the problem more creative, the GM just notes that, technically, the stone around the corridor can be bored through with the right magic or equipment, and also, technically, there’s another path that would take the PCs 30 miles out of their way, and, technically, the Statue Guardian can be rendered inert by a spell the PCs don’t have, but they could abandon the quest for a few days to go acquire it. This kind of design can get really technical.

That’s an extreme example to illustrate the point, but the Optimal is truly the subtlest of presumptive flavors. It’s worth your while to develop your senses to spot them and improve them (and not just with technicalities). Ironically, the tools of the Optimal can even be used to dismantle it, and we’ll get into that in a later entry.

The Videogame Choice

This one gets bandied about under many names: the Big Choice, the Moral (sometimes Ethical or other) Dilemma, the Quandary, the Trolley Problem. In tabletop RPGs, it's when the design just gives up on creative problems where PC priorities will emerge organically through the solutions they create … instead, we just shove a microphone in their face and demand they pick a side. Another way to knock characterization into the shallows.

I use the term “Videogame Choice” for a several reasons, but mostly to highlight that this is the kind of gameplay that can work really incredibly well in videogames, where a canned narrative can create a truly knotted, even gut-wrenchingly difficult choice (the ending of Life is Strange, virtually everything in the Walking Dead series, much of the Dragon Age games, and on and on).

Saints Row IV Boils It Right Down

But the reason they work so well in videogames is that, since videogames must be programmed, they thrive on the finite, even when sometimes managing an illusion of something more. When we’re playing a face-to-face RPG with a living, creative Game Master … we can, and should, expect much more than just a moment of selection. Videogame Choices can be very dramatic, but they are just giving up and shoving the mic, and as GMs we can not only do better, we can do better by many orders of magnitude.

Note that Videogame Choices include not only literal questions posed to the PCs, but any situation where there’s a clear A-B or A-B-C type choice: there’s just enough of the plague cure for Village A or Village B and the PCs must decide where to deliver it, etc. In fact, we could call it ...

The Menu

In truth, the Videogame Choice is a subset of the Menu, the umbrella term for any problem that boils down to selecting from a set of prepared somethings, instead of creating and implementing personal solutions.

A Menu doesn’t always try to be BIG or emotionally weighty, and menus can exist at many layers of RPG design. Sometimes, they’re provided as a consolation prize for other kinds of presumption: "yes, the only optimal approach is to fight the bandits, but you have over 200 spells and 30 pole arms to choose from!" And again, with emphasis: it’s not about the fight. It’s about the presumption.

And sometimes, the menu can be so large that it feels like a kind of freedom, if not any kind creation. And sometimes, the interplay between choices can result in emergent solutions that do feel like creation, at least a little. And sometimes that really is a suitable consolation prize. But if we leverage the potential of the Game Master sitting right there … we can do much, much better, if we want to.

Closing Notes

As with many of the most important conceptual tools in RPG design, the idea of the “presumptive problem” is slippery, mushy, spectral, and sometimes highly subjective. We can get lost if we forget that ideals are stars to sail by, not destinations. But if we never even look up, we begin lost, and our designs suffer.

Where we hit our stride is seeing those stars as whole constellations. By its lonesome, the ability to spot and repair a presumptive element is trivial … but when we marry it to other ideals like Tactical Roleplaying, Characterized Roleplaying, sidestepping Porn Logic, and exploring the upper ends of the Invisible Rulebooks, it becomes an essential part of our toolkit.

My own ideal is what I call the half-dozen rule: I should be able to rattle off a half-dozen viable approaches to any critical problem without breaking a sweat ... then, after breaking a sweat, I should be able to rattle off a half-dozen more, and state with honest confidence that if I kept on sweat-breaking, I could keep on rattling, to infinity ... or at least to the limits of my ability to describe approaches.

And sometimes I sail very near that star, but even when I can't, I'm always sailing by it.