Saturday, September 10, 2011

Fixing the Quantum Ogre

I've been working through Sine Nomine's Labyrinth Lord setting, Red Tide, and how it presents an unorthodox approach to structuring a sandbox.  In Red Tide, it's suggested the DM builds some prebuilt content to deploy in the sandbox when the group moves into a new area.  It's compelling to me because it purports to provide a way of cheating the sandbox triangle (in the absence of unlimited prep time, there are trade offs between detail and scope).

The problem, of course, is whether dropping prebuilt stuff in front of the players is foul play?  The discussion - here at my place - The Shell Game in the Sandbox - and over at Hack & Slash - How an Illusion Can Ruin Your Game - has focused a lot on a slippery concept we refer to as "agency" - do the players have freedom of choice, and are their choices meaningful?

The problem I keep coming back to, when determining whether the DM is running a game that supports player agency, is that player agency is subjective.  On the player's side of the screen, they don't know if the DM is being a malefactor; their ability to judge is based on the information they have and whether the world is behaving within expectations.

There is a more objective standard that can be applied to the problem of agency, and it's similar to the definition of railroading - is the DM predetermining the game's outcomes?  It's an objective measure when viewed from the DM's perspective.  We can say with certainty that when the DM is predetermining the outcomes, player choice is rendered meaningless because the DM is railroading, even if the players don't know it.

So using the railroad language gives a simple test to determine whether using the Quantum Ogre is a bad thing, and if there are circumstances when it's okay to employ it.  I'll start by revisiting the shell game.

The Shell Game
The shell game goes like this - the party is looking for a MacGuffin in the woods - it could be in woods A, B and C.  No matter what woods the players enter, the DM puts the MacGuffin into the last wood.  We'd all agree this DM is being a bad actor.  It's harder to frame an argument that he's not supporting player agency.  But objectively, the DM has predetermined the outcome; playing  hide the MacGuffin is a railroad.

The Quantum Ogre
The problem of the quantum ogre is this:  assuming the party has no additional information, there may or may not be an ogre in the woods.  Once again, he's not necessarily violating agency from the player's perspective when the ogre is dropped in front of them; the player choice was to enter the woods and search for the MacGuffin, and it's a reasonable expectation there could be an ogre in there.  From their viewpoint, there's no difference between these scenarios: walking into the woods and running into a scripted ogre they failed to learn about; a randomly generated ogre via an encounter table; or the ogre the DM dropped on them through sheer fiat.

But when the DM *always* places his ogre encounter in front of the players, he's predetermining an outcome and perpetrating a railroad.  We can always identify the bad behavior from the DM's side of the screen, even if the current state of player knowledge doesn't allow them to see it.

In Defense of Dice
Over on Hack & Slash, I pointed out that there are numerous ways to stock a dungeon or wilderness area - a spectrum that extends from pre-stocking everything (no variable encounters), to mixing pre-stocked with random, to purely random, to purely improvised.

It's part of the agreed foundation of the game (the social contract, as the cool kids say) that certain game results will be determined by dice.  Dice are a neutral arbiter; it's why never fudging the dice is such a powerful maxim.  Dice protect the DM from himself.  The dice also provide an answer to the problem of the quantum ogre.

I know this seems really self-evident - it's why we've used random encounters in this hobby for so long.  They're inherited wisdom.  The random encounter probabilities provide a way for the DM to introduce a degree of variation in the game results at the table, in a matter agreed upon by all participants, while limiting the DM from pushing predetermined outcomes (ie, there's a thin line between improvisation, making shit up, and outright elimination of player choice).

In the case of the DM's cool ogre encounter, incorporating the ogre encounter for a result on a random encounter table is a way to seed the encounter in the  setting at run-time fairly, by relying on the dice as neutral arbiters.  The side benefit is that this typically ends up being a better table experience than a scripted game.  It's also the reason I encourage reaction rolls and morale rolls to help determine how NPCs respond to player actions; the DM is within his rights to mandate NPC reactions, but keeping the door open for an unexpected result via the dice ensures that predetermined outcomes are avoided.


  1. Ok, the issue here is this statement.

    the player choice was to enter the woods and search for the MacGuffin

    This is the point of contention I think. In this actual slice of game there can be no test of agency, because the players aren't exerting any choice.

    I mean they are deciding to go in 'a woods', but they gathered no information beforehand, making it an essentially meaningless choice on their part. A arbitrary choice by the players made at random removes their agency by definition. At this point, the DM can do anything he wishes without removing their agency because they already gave it away.

    The problem is not even when the DM plans to put the ogre encounter in front of the players! There is nothing wrong with this. In a game where the players can go anywhere, improv is necessary and not necessarily abhorrent.

    The problem comes when the players attempt to gather information, and then the DM becomes evasive, blocking their attempts because he is vested in his encounter. This leads to the known bad case of the McGuffin always in the last wood.

  2. Anytime the DM decides in advance on a certain outcome regardless of choice, he is a malefactor. The amount of investment and care the players exercise in the decision isn't relevant to determining whether the DM is perpetrating a railroad. If the group invests heavily in a decision to go one way or another, and the DM springs the ogre on them as a premade choice, that's a railroad. If the group shows up, flips a coin to decide which path they choose, and the DM would stick the ogre on them either way, it's also a railroad.

    I do understand that the coin flipping group shouldn't have expectations regarding their fate because of their carefree decision, but the railroad standard is very easy to implement: don't predetermine any outcomes, and it won't matter if the players make careful or random choices. They'll be guaranteed agency.

    It does the raise the problem of improv, but the game has that fairly well covered by providing a system for guiding the injection of variable content at run time - random encounter probabilities and random tables using a neutral arbiter, the dice.

  3. "Dice protect the DM from himself"

    That is probably the most profound statement on sandbox I have read in a very long time.

  4. Red Tide's sandbox advice on having prebuilts isn't really contradictory to an aversion to railroading, from my perspective. To me, it's actually a more a matter of implementing player choice rather than constraining it.

    The PCs enter a rough border town and decide they need to get the local ruler's cooperation in rooting out a bandit clan that plundered a village they were trying to protect. This choice was not obvious to the GM- he had no especial reason to believe that he was going to need to flesh out this specific town's rulership, so he didn't bother to do so between sessions. What does he do?

    In this situation, I can't see a meaningful difference in railroad potential between straight improv and pulling a premade court out of your campaign folder and shimming it in. If I had consciously decided before the session that the only feasible PC action would be to seek out this town ruler and get help from them, then yes, I'd be constraining their choices. But I don't think it's any magician's push just to have a big bag of spare parts you prepped for just-in-time world construction.

  5. @Sine Nomine: I agree with your position, it just took some brain cell usage for me to get there too. Having a reserve of pre-made content is no more or less prone to the rail road than anything else the DM might build; it's in how you use it at the table.

    I've enjoyed the sandbox techniques in Red Tide, they are quite a bit different than "conventional wisdom", and I'm putting some notes together about them for a post this week (precursor to a review). It got me to go and check out Stars Without Number as well.

  6. Just to chime in, I also agree with the sandbox techniques. I have a 'planned encounter' random encounter in my sandbox.