Monthly Archives: February 2022

GM Cues

I’m always intrigued by the idea of mechanizing language, but I usually think about it from the player side, where certain phrases are designed to trigger mechanical effects. Things like aspects and moves, yes, but it also is a big part of games that require a lot of learning to engage – “I cast magic missile” is a sentence that is absolutely dripping with mechanical hooks. “Cast” is an action which engages mechanics. “Magic Missile” is a specific set of effects laid out in the rules. Once you understand those things, then the sentence feels natural and organic, and the volume of rules kind of fade from view. It’s a good trick, and one worth deliberately pursuing.

Last night I ended up thinking about this from the GM side. Now, the GM has somewhat different responsibilities in her language. Yes, the rules mechanics are also in play, but the GM is also the proxy for the characters sense of the world. She is their eyes and ears, so to speak, and the decisions related to how to communicate the world are incredibly important.

Specifically, because the GM cannot convey every piece of information about what’s going on, she must be able to shorthand it efficiently. Consider a scene where our bold adventurers enter a room – the GM describes it in a quick sketch (“About 30×3, with bare walls and a door on the opposite wall”) but then goes into great detail about a specific piece of furniture, let’s say a desk. The GM has just signaled to the players that the desk is important and would be interesting or useful to engage with.

Or so we hope.

This is one of those areas where the history of adventure design has worked against us. In older, more competitive games, that sort of thing would be viewed as cheating, or the GM giving hints, which was bad sportsmanship. That lead to two specific patterns that have kind of dirtied the water.

First, adventure designers and GMs started deliberately subverting this expectation by applying loving detail to things that were distractions or ultimately hazardous. This, in turn, made players very wary of anything the GM drew attention to as a probable threat, which in turn inspired GMs and Designers to make things worse. Not a great scene. Hopefully, newer players don’t have as much of this baggage, but this is one of those areas where a new player can be quickly scarred and taught not to trust the GM, so its worth being mindful of it.

Second, it lead to an idea that descriptions needed to be “neutral”, with no cues from the GM. This is not super practical because it requires that the GM either go into excruciating detail, or that the players must ask questions about every single thing until they happen to hit upon the right thing, in a weird variation on one of those computer puzzle games where you need to get the mouse on exactly the right pixel to solve the problem. Not fun for anyone.

The solution to this was to move it to the dice. Early perception skills were mostly a way to skip this process and answer the question “Do you find the cool thing?”. Obviously, the topic of perception skills has evolved a lot since then, but I hold it up as what is ultimately a pretty convoluted way to avoid a fairly simple mode of communication.

I’m not necessarily saying that you should forgo perception checks in favor of GM cues, but I’m definitely suggesting that you COULD.