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On tactics and surprise

January 29, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments
There have been a lot of changes to Fallen London over the past year… several new areas have been added to the map, you can build a railway going westward to Wales/Hell. I guess I’m lucky to have caught it during its renaissance, 10 years after first release.

I’ve been playing Fallen London for a year now, and I’m definitely in the “late game.” That doesn’t mean I’m exhausting the content (good god, there’s a lot of content) but I have reached one edge of it – I’m building a railway to hell and exploring new material as it’s published – and that’s a new experience, because other players have not yet compiled a wiki of the options, which means I can’t optimize my path. (Fallen London, like Pokemon, is complex enough to support a third-party market in intelligence – players helping other players to navigate the dizzying web of options.) So for almost the first time I find myself in strictly narrative, rather than tactical, space: I have to make decisions based on what seems right to me at the time, not based on what’s profitable or necessarily desirable.

And that’s a deep, fundamental shift in user experience and design incentives. Many of the choices I have to make look decidedly tactical. What style of railway stations should I build? Which is to say, what faction in London am I trying to flatter? Who should I listen to when deciding how to strike deals with a (characteristically weird) kaiju? For the first time, I have to think – and decide how to think – toward success on an interaction-by-interaction basis, rather than researching long sequences of interactions that have already been signposted to choose a strategic pathway through them.

“Big deal” say all the old School roleplayers. “Choose, die, learn. The risk is the reward.” Except that’s not necessarily the sort of game Fallen London is – or, rather, Fallen London plus Wiki is a different game from Fallen London as originally written, and both games are perfectly functional but they work on somewhat different expectations.

Right now, the biggest element of difference I’m experiencing is a shift in my literary expectations. I have to think about what sort of story Fallen London is. Is it a work of serial fiction on the classic model, pioneered by Richardson’s Pamela – a parade of surprises a.k.a. “soap opera logic?” The long-lost sister is actually an evil imposter! Just when the rich land-speculator is about to steal the family farm, he gets shot! Apparently by the dead father, who faked his own death! If so, maybe I will be rewarded for always taking the most outlandish option. Or maybe (more likely) there are no rewards for thinking, because surprise denies planning.

I’d be a little surprised if that were actually true of Fallen London, because it’s not very game like. Denying planning means denying tactical thinking. Imagine if chess pieces suddenly shuffled their abilities halfway through a game and didn’t tell you. And meaningful interaction depends heavily on meaningful planning, anticipation of outcomes. But it’s also true that Fallen London does trade in surprises, at least in the writing. Maybe it occupies a sort of middle ground, like classic murder mysteries. And maybe it’s vulnerable to the same kinds of pitfalls murder mysteries often face, when they fail to tread the line between the reader’s conflicting desires on one hand of wanting to play along with the detective, interpreting the breadcrumb trail of clues logically, and on the other hand wanting to be astonished, marveling at how they failed to see the twist coming.

So, suddenly I have to judge what kind of fiction Fallen London has always been, in order to assess how much I should try to anticipate the consequences of my choices. Is it better to try to build a solid railway institution or go outlandish, confident that I’ll be rewarded with outlandish results?

And that’s made me realise that this question is a huge part of the invisible rulebook for any roleplaying campaign. “Unfair, arbitrary” dungeon puzzles get hated on for killing characters, but grief over character loss is masking a deeper betrayal: the real problem with them is that they’re narrative surprises foisted on players who are expecting a tactical challenge. They cancel the tactical work the players were doing. Meanwhile Call of Cthulhu is always in danger of being a sheep in wolf’s clothing: while HPL’s stories were decidedly “literature of surprise,” Petersen’s game starts from a position of genre familiarity; the published adventures usually deliver a firmly tactical (even formulaic) RPG experience. CoC illustrates fairly neatly a principle I use a lot in my games, of getting the players to learn the “grammar” of the world they’ve entered through a sequence of explorations, which yield initially surprising but consistent results (it turns out the mechanical monsters are all piloted by former adventurers, the monsters will hot stray far from the lair) so they can start thinking tactically about how to use that grammar (confront the monsters with their former loved ones, stay just outside the perimeter, try to force a break in loyalty to whatever is controlling the monsters from the lair). But when CoC gets too tactical, when the grammar is too well understood, its premise suffers.

Now, all of these forms – soap, story, tactical game, even magic tricks and jokes – rely on the same basic mechanism involving anticipation and revelation (which looks rather like a variant of the old gambler’s dopamine release cycle). As the participant/reader/player is reading/playing/watching these narrative forms, they are engaged in building their own version of the narrative in their head. They are constructing expectations, anticipating outcomes. And then the story/trick/interaction closes the anticipation gap one way or another with a definite result, showing the participant that their anticipation was right or wrong, or should have been right if they had just interpreted the information differently. The basic form of the Ancient Romance (the structure behind pretty much all soaps) sets up an anticipation – star-crossed lovers are meant to be together and will be happy ever after if they can get together – and then throws a series of obstacles in their path: surprises to be overcome, sub-anticipations to resolve, which can indefinitely delay the resolution of the overarching anticipation. Pleasure – or frustration – depends on whether the consumer accepts the sub-resolutions offered along the way.

In the literature of surprise, the trick is to get the consumer to accept the thing offered as superior to the thing they were anticipating. Soaps are about pulling this off in minor ways a couple of times an episode and in a major way at least once per season.

In tactical games, the trick for the player is to observe, recognize and neutralize all the obstacles in order to force the resolution to match their anticipation. Overcoming very difficult obstacles works like being rewarded with a surprise: the tactical player surprises themself by closing off the counter-anticipation of losing.

As usual, it turns out creative works frequently mix these different modes up, shift between one kind of logic and another, take brief holidays etc. etc. BUT every time they do this with players (far more than with mere spectators), they ought to give some warning that it’s happening, so the players can adjust their style and expectations.

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