You Need to Make This Fit in This Using This

There is a scene in Apollo 13 which stays with me despite the rest of the movie having basically fallen out of my brain. This scene is the one which resonates with every engineer I’ve ever spoken with about it, and more than a few generally nerdy folks as well. There’s a point where the ground engineering crew needs to fix a problem up in space, so they need to find a solution that uses only the resources the astronauts have available to them. In the scene, the guy speaking to the engineers holds up a square pipe fitting and says “You need to make this fit…” then holding up a round pipe fitting, “… in this…” then he upends a box onto the table containing all the tools on board – things the astronauts have in their pockets and so on “…using this.”

If you are of a puzzle solving bent, this is the kind of moment you dream of, but may never experience. It’s not that there’s a shortage of problems to be solved, rather, it is the limitations (and in this case, the stakes) that are rare. If the challenge had been to fit the two things together, using any tools or resources available then it might have been an interesting distraction, but it would not have been compelling.[1]

In the absence of life presenting us with these problems, a lot of people turn to games to scratch that itch, including roleplaying games. Often, when you speak to an “old school” player who pays attention to things like strict inventory lists and enjoys random encounter tables that might drop a dragon on your low level party, they often describe the game in these terms – problem solving, resource management, cleverness and so on. Characters need to survive and get things done with a limited set of resources, and the limits on the resources keep things interesting.

To put it more concretely, a player with a detailed inventory may look at it like the debris spilled on the table in Apollo 13. The challenge is whether they can solve the problems presented with those resources. If you put the same player in a game that uses a dramatic inventory system (such as, “you have everything you reasonably would have”) then they will get frustrated. Either they now have too many tools (in which case there is no challenge) or not enough (and more frustratingly, they don’t know what they don’t have).

It is easy to assume that any player looking for this experience in a game is going to be a forty-something year old neckbeard, clinging to his well loved white box D&D, but doing so is a bad idea. Partly because it’s a dick move, but more because this guy is going to show up in a lot more places than the dungeon. See, it’s not always about inventory. It might be about mechanics (powers and such), it might be about setting (NPCs, relationships and motives) or it might be about the players themselves (with clear rules about player rights, powers and responsibilities in play) but the behavior is the same.

The desire for clear frameworks (problems, scenes, stories) and discrete limits (inventory, conservation of characters, narrative rights) is a huge part of RPGs, and as much as we like to fight tooth and nail over the chrome, that underlying desire is a large part of what makes this one hobby. It’s not the only element, nor is it the sole lens through which to regard the hobby, but it’s maybe something to keep in mind the next time you roll your eyes at someone else’s play.

So am I saying that the guy with the four page inventory list and the dirty hippie indie guy with formalized language for scene framing are more similar in their anal retentiveness than they are different in their expression of it?

Damn skippy I am.

1 – One more way path leading back to my favorite broken record: Constraints breed creativity.

17 thoughts on “You Need to Make This Fit in This Using This

  1. George H

    This is totally why I game. Although I don’t like inventory lists. I think I know why — it’s because I have no clue what kinds of stuff an elf wizard, or a space cowboy, would think to bring… so when it comes to something that a space cowboy should have seen coming that I don’t have written down on my sheet, I get frustrated.

    But, I’d love to have better mechanics for that ‘preparedness’ aspect of thing than ‘you have what you need’ — especially since a classic trope of fiction is the preparation montage, where you’re shown all the gadgets but you, the audience have no idea how it is going to turn out to be useful though of course it does. You’re never shown the preparations that don’t turn out either useful or completely wrong, of course — those aren’t interesting — and those are the reason I don’t like inventory lists, too.

  2. Guy

    I want to present another way this manifests, and another place as an example.

    Video games. You have a certain amount of life, you have certain enemies, and being told that you can beat the enemy, you try until you succeed, even if you die, you keep trying, perhaps trying the same thing, or trying going from different directions first.

    Shooters, RPGs, hybrids (Mass Effect).

    That is another sort of inventory, hit-points and enemies. You don’t even need to have a list of powers you can only use X times, or inventory lists. Hit points and enemies are enough.

    The problem is the lack of “Load last save”, which caused an amusing problem in a convention game I played at once. I might need to blog of it at some point.

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @Guy This and something I’m talking about with Mark Causey also speak to an interesting complication on this – resources (narrative of literal) are not expected to be 100% utilized, and when they are, that’s undesirable.

    That is to say, if I exactly use up every item in my inventory, that’s Zork, and it’s unsatisfying because it suggests that there’s a right solution I’m trying to find, not an avenue for cleverness. These players don’t want to PUT BOWL ON ALTAR, they want to find more clever ways around the problem (something that is a good way to distinguish between good and lame dungeon puzzles).

    A comparable problem can be found in conservation of characters. This is a good idea for stories, up to a point, but if everything is always the same closed set of characters, things become unsatisfying. Similarly, broad player authority can break down if run full throttle all the time – limitations (even if self imposed) are what keep play from being “And now I talk the dragon to death”.

    Not sure what to do with this thought, except to say that it complicates the problem even further. Solutions that depend on using the limit as a seed (such as looking at an inventory list, then designing a dungeon that uses everyone on it) may create whole new problems.

  4. Haarald

    I saw the title of this article in my feed reader and thought “Apollo 13” – great article, and it expains very succinctly why dramatic inventory games can be frustrating lessons in futility when used this way.

  5. Jim

    Rob, I always say, “Scratch a Forgie, find a Gamist.” So I don’t disagree with a thing you’ve written here. My question is, can you fit the fuzzy set of “immersive,” high-mimesis, “we didn’t roll dice the whole evening!” WhiteWolf-to-ADRPG, John Snead/Bruce Baugh gamers into this same paradigm? Is there some small set of problems they’re trying to solve with a small toolkit of *sumthin*? Or does any such scheme we’d try to impose on “them” (me, sometimes) do too much violence to that quality of experience?

  6. WalkerP

    “So am I saying that the guy with the four page inventory list and the dirty hippie indie guy with formalized language for scene framing are more similar in their anal retentiveness than they are different in their expression of it?

    Damn skippy I am.”

    This is so true.

  7. Rob Donoghue

    @Jim I can, at least through a specific lens. Amber is a totally setting driven game, and players often use the characters in the family the same way that a dungeon-delver uses his inventory. Since it’s all about the prince’s a lot of play is about sliding them around the chessboard (or being slid by them).

    That same model applies easily to any investigative game, but it does get trickier for less character-centric games, but I think the idea stands. For games with a strong exploration element, players are “filling their backpack” with people and places, and they will want to bring them back into the game. The structure of that use may be a little different – their priorities might be more about building a good story or addressing an in-fiction problem than solving a puzzle, but the shape of it will be similar.

  8. Reverance Pavane

    Jury-rigging solutions to problems from a limited inventory is actually quite common amongst engineers and physicists. Although in most cases the restraint on resources is economic (either in terms of money or time [which is just another way of saying lost revenue]), rather than availability. Some of these kludges tend to become rather permanent too. [Although probably not as bad as in programming, where the quick-fix and kludge is king, where the critical resource is “time.” Good. Fast. Cheap. Choose any two. Or more probably one.]

    But the first thing you learn is that there is more than one way to solve the problem.* And that’s one of the things I love about gaming, that the players will come up with all sorts of solutions to a problem that you didn’t envisage when you designed the dilemma, whether it be physical, social, or mental. Constraining your players to only use one approach, whether it be in game or via the game mechanics, is the bad gamesmanship in this example. IMNSHO.

    Of course skills are vitally important for this sort of thing. Knowing where to stick the screwdriver into the air-conditioning controls to get the linear accelerator back on line [] is more important than the simple possession of the aforementioned screwdriver. Or in a more thematic approach, a high level of Bluff makes the possession of a holocaust cloak a viable resource for the protagonist to enter the heavily defended castle.

    The reason computer RPGs are often so limited compared to tabletop games is that is almost impossible to go “off script” (although modern games get around this by offering multiple action branches, usually dependant on the reaction history of the character). But these are the ultimate example of fit the puzzle pieces together (sometimes literally) to proceed. And there is only one way these pieces can go together, that envisaged by the designer. It is here that inventory becomes critical. But whilst enjoyable in their own right, they don’t provide me with the exhilaration that occurs when my players (or my students for that matter [role-playing with students is fun]) not only think outside the box but redefine the box. [Usually a “wrecked-tangle” in the later case, but that’s how they learn. ]

    [* I was going to say there is more than one way to skin a cat, but that’s not quite true. There is one way to skin a cat** and get a good catskin out of it instead of a ragged mess. Again, it’s knowledge which is the key.]

    [** Most small mammals, in case anyone thinks I gratuitously do such things. But it’s a nice trick when you need it.]

  9. Rob Donoghue

    @rev It’s not unreasonable to expect our gameworlds to be different because, if only because that difference is probably part of why we play.

    That said, the economic limitations point is an interesting one, but I think it ultimate reinforces the point. People are used to soft or fuzzy limitations in real-life (like budget) and the frustratiosn of those are, Ithink, a driving factor in why some people enjoy clearer problems.

  10. Deborah

    @Reverance Pavane, I thought you said some interesting things, but I’m not sure I quite agree the whole way.

    Leaving aside ‘good fast cheep pick two’ (which I tend to translate as ‘chinese horserace good / fast / cheap and grit your teeth and execute on the result), I don’t think the engineering with constraints problem is assuming a single solution. It begs for creativity: resources, not solutions, are limited. What one player sees as a need to bring out their Bluff skill, another player sees as a perfect opportunity to shove a screwdriver into the air conditioner controls. Holocaust cloak and screwdriver were both on the list of things you have; it’s what you do with them that’s about the creativity. Going off script assumes there *is* a script.

    Perhaps inappropriately, I am reminded of a Scrubs episode. Dr. Cox has set the doctors a goal: to get through a shift without losing anyone in the ICU. They *almost* make it. JUST as the shift ends, one of the patients starts to go. Dr. Cox is mad and disappointed and frustrated and his protege intern says, “Well, can’t we just fudge it?” Dr. Cox turns on him.

    What would have made that goal worth hitting was that it was difficult. The glory would have been in pulling it off within the constraints. The point was not that there was only one way to engineer a solution; the point was that there wasn’t an *easy* way to engineer a solution, whatever the hell that solution was.

    When my team boasts of war stories, it’s never begun with “no sh*t, there we were, all the money and time in the world…”. It’s always, “No sh*t, there we were, 3 am, we’re crawling between floors to get to this rack that’s suspended over the morgue, and …”

  11. Reverance Pavane

    @Deborah: Oops, I think my aside confused the basic issue. Sorry, it’s how I think.

    What I was trying to say was exactly what you have said, that creativity and lateral thinking are important in problem solving. [Whilst there are large body of solutions to most problems the ones that begin with outrageous contingencies (such as “if the guard suddenly has a heart attack”), can be safely ignored.] The resource thus does set a limit the possible solutions to the problem.

    However what I was trying to say is that the ability to effectively make use of those resources is often a function of the skill sets of the characters (or, as is often the case of the Old School games, the skill sets of the players).

    And like most maths types I automatically ignore the trivial solutions to a problem as uninteresting and unworthy of mention. Such as the problem of reaching that ledge 20′ up the wall when we have a 30′ ladder available. There is no problem in this case.

    So yes, in a discussion of this type it will always be “oh shit, there we were at 3am…”

    My comment about problem-solving was rather more directed with the design of problem, especially from the gamemaster side. Unless you go totally freeform [not in the gaming sense], the gamemaster will generally have an idea about how the players might overcome the problem, and will probably provide the tools for doing so. And tends to be a problem with those who fixate on inventory.

    In this case the frustration in the game comes about when the players can’t duplicate the thought processes of the gamemaster. After all the solution is obvious to them because they have already solved it.

    An obvious example and simple example of this is the typical “riddle” dilemma. Solve the riddle to pass through the door. [This is a hallmark of the older types of problem solving which depend on the player rather than the character] If you grokk the riddle you pass, if not, well, you’ll have unhappy players. This is bad design.
    [Sometimes it is realistic design too, but that’s a whole different problem from what we are discussing.]

    Games where puzzles that rely on a set inventory are generally of this type. Otherwise, the challenge they project is rather limited. They are player puzzles. [Or simple skill tests (such as a Heroquest extended contest to design a filter with the available parts before the air runs out. A problem, yes, but a great play experience? Trivial again.]

    As I said, the thing I enjoy most is when the players come up with an innovative solution to the problem I thought of. Something I never even considered. Even if it “spoiled” the whole problem. It’s why I prefer gaming to storytelling.

    My apologies if I’ve misunderstood you comment and inadequately explained my own. [I’m in the middle of a French translation so my English is shonky to say the least. ]

  12. Rob Donoghue

    @rev heh. This post actually began as a discussion of how to design challenges to capture some of those things, but that got tabled when my head ran off in other directions. But it’s coming.

  13. Reverance Pavane

    @Rob: The economics argument was simply an example that jury-rigging, production prototyping, and kludging is a fine old engineering tradition that continues unabated in the real world. The Apollo 13 example was, naturally, rather more difficult than one faced with most engineers today.

    The problem with problem solving in game terms is that it is either a player problem or a character problem.

    If it is a character problem then it is usually a simple skill test (although you could extend it to heighten the dramatic tension), as to whether they can solve the problem with the limited resources available to them.

    If it is a player problem then you often run into the problem that the players often have to duplicate the thinking of the gamemaster in order to solve the puzzle. [Knowing the gamemaster can be an advantage or a disadvantage, such as the time when one team in a tournament module I designed knew I designed it and so refused to do the “obvious” thing on those grounds.]
    The difficulty of the problem depends on the pieces available to the players and how they interlock.

    I personally find it much easier to root the problems in the real world (which is understood by most players), and allow the players to come up with a solution, but then I’m more of an Old School sandbox grognard (albiet with a longer beard than you describe ).

    That being said, it’s also my role to facilitate the players play, not to hinder or oppose it. So the plan may be horrendously complicated and doomed to ultimate failure, but I’m going to see that they have the best chance of succeeding that I can manage.

    Oh, and on the grounds of inventory, I love toolkits and shops ever since I stole them from Swordbearer. Actually I have an additional one, a kit. A kit allows you to perform a skill. A toolkit can be used by a craft skill to make repairs, and a shop allows you to do repairs and create things. Libraries and laboratories allow you to do research. Works well without the need for comprehensive inventory lists, and characters can invest in them to increase their effectiveness. [Skills may make minor changes, for example, a scribe’s kit is a piece of paper and an ink and brush or charcoal. A scribe’s toolkit is a calligraphy set and portable writing desk. A scribes shop makes scribe’s supplies.] Again, it feeds back to available skills.

  14. Raven Daegmorgan

    Seems to me you’re just talking about what the resources, whatever those happen to be in the game, are used to do. I mean, we are talking about games.

    Which is why players from the different types don’t mesh well in play: one is aiming to do one thing, and not seeing the resources to do that thing, while the resources to do the thing are obvious to everyone else.

    Rather like someone who really likes Monopoly asking, “But where’s the money? Why isn’t there a bank?” when everyone is playing Pictionary.

    The difference here is some indie story hippie and some traditional gamist neckbeard: one is looking to use resources to create and influence a story, and the resources reflect that. The other to overcome and deal with challenges, and their resources reflect that.

    (Well, I’m rambling a bit, and I have the feeling I’m not writing this as clearly as I am thinking it. Hopefully that made some form of sense.)

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