Asymmetry as Game Mechanic

Last week I talked about the reasons one might conceal information from some players in a role playing game.  I also talked about reasons one might not want to do so.  It was a general overview of the topic and was quite broad.  Tonight I want to focus in on a couple of possible uses for knowledge asymmetry that are aside from the general, situations that very intentionally use this to pursue some end.  The two topics are competitive tabletop role playing games, and games that use real actual knowledge as a game mechanic, as opposed to using a number or an ability.

When on talks about competitive rpgs, we are discussing the subset of games where the players of the game are playing characters who have diametrically opposed motivations, where it is an intentional and possibly required part of the system that the characters will compete and attempt to defeat one another in order to achieve one goal or another.  For people not familiar with tabletop games, this might sound like a bit of a weird thing to call out as being special.  Most games are competitive, most games have you working against each other in order to win.  Their are a few games that break the mold, but generally the ability of a human being with which to struggle is what makes games fun and engaging.

Role Playing games typically change this situation by the use of the Dungeon Master, who plays the world around the characters, simulating opponents and allies in any given conflict.  The players are still able to try and win, to some extent, to have their characters succeed, but the DM is divorced from the normal game process and instead focuses on making the game as fun as possible, “winning”, in a meta sense, only if the game turns out to be fun and engaging for the whole group.  You might say the DM is almost playing a separate game, and the actions he or she takes in that game, are what allow the other players to play theirs.  DM role philosophizing aside, the typical rpg is a a cooperative endeavor for the players, the characters all serving as friends and allies in some sort of quest together.  Occasionally their may be inter-party conflict, but its rare and generally discouraged in order to maximize the fun for everyone.  Their are some games and some players however that enjoy the conflict of competing against another human being trying their hardest, or at least enjoy the social dynamic involved, and so occasionally, you will get games in which the characters are competitors and not allies.

As a further caveat, I think most such games still have a big element of cooperation to them.  One of the greatest strengths of rpgs is their ability to accommodate creativity and wild and crazy actions, and by allowing such things, the systems almost always involve a fair bit of subjectivity in their rulings, something that is rarely present in other competitive games, where the rules are the framework in which you oppose each other.  In rpgs, you have to compete on some level, and still work together to find good interpretations and whatnot on another.  Typically most of the subjectivity is pushed to the DM, who is theoretically neutral, and so usually their is not many problems.  Still, as games enter into more and more conflicting territories, the rules tend to get denser, less is left up to DM fiat.  No one wants their cool master plan to fail because the GM likes the other person better.

The other thing that becomes much more important in a competitive campaign is the separation of player and character knowledge.  While its frowned upon if a player breaks that divide in a cooperative game, if someone does something that screws you over in a competitive game, and effectively cheats, you are going to be understandably upset.  The surest way to mitigate that, to prevent even the possibility of someone gaining a competitive advantage from out of character knowledge is to limit that knowledge.  A player only knows something if the character does.  In tabletop games this is generally restricted to the more important bits of information, with generally superfluous info being left over to the players to deal with themselves, because generally their is a pretty steep cost in time when you are giving different information to different players.  When you are all sitting across the table to each other you usually have to either communicate through passed notes, or you have to leave the room, and have a discussion in another place before returning.

In general the reasoning behind this is the same as for the normal secrecy used to prevent out of character knowledge, just with a bit higher stakes.  Typically the adventurers will succeed in any given adventure in a cooperative game, and using the out of character knowledge to help cheapens the experience a bit, but doesn’t generally change the outcome much.  The DM has the ability to adjust the difficulty of the game, so if something happens and the OOC info creates a problem, or makes an encounter to easy, they can always just make a new challenge, or adjust the difficulty with other factors.   When it happens in a competitive setting however, when another player might lose the game because of this, or worse, have their character taken out of the story, and thus lose agency in the game, then their is a big problem.  It also just makes it a lot easier to be devious and inventive if you are working with what you have, if you have the ability to use information disparity to your advantage.  Even if everyone trusted each other not to use the info as a competitive edge, it would still influence your thinking in the encounter, and potentially prevent strategies that could have relied on that information gap.  Information asymmetry in competitive games serves to make the game more fair, allows the players to express themselves and compete with all of their skill and ability, and prevents player conflicts based on suspicions of cheating.  While I am sure their are games out their that are both competitive and information symmetric, while solving the problems mentioned above, generally the asymmetric solution works best for competitive games.

Now we can move on to games where information is part of the mechanic.  Generally what a character knows is something that is very easy to change.  As they learn new things, they get to use those things to an advantage, and act on those things.  When knowledge is too mechanically useful however, character knowledge can sometimes end up being restricted by various narrative tricks in order to make sure the players tack close to each other in terms of statistics.  The specific situation where this occurs the most frequently, is the way magic works in most games.  Or more specifically, the way learning of mechanical, combat related things works.  Generally, games have some sort of system in place to control how powerful characters are.  Maybe its levels, with each level making you stronger and stronger at being a barbarian or a wizard.  Maybe its character points, where every ability in the game is tied to a point value, and you can only have that ability after you have earned enough points.  These rules are designed to make the game predictable in terms of how effective the characters can be so that the DM can plan appropriate encounters, while also serving to keep all the players on roughly the same plane, so that one person doesn’t feel powerless or left out.  Both of these things are useful and generally should be sought, but sometimes, you can explore a situation where those things become less true, and in so doing, open the game up to different mechanics, different ways of playing the game.

The example I am going to use, is a game where the magic spells are something that the player, or their character can actually learn the steps, where their is no mysterious energy source restricting spells to those above level five, or where spells are not so incredibly complicated that it takes years of study, or a few hours killing demons before they can be understood.  If you make the magic system something where if someone figures it out, and is able to do the requisite steps, then it occurs, you open up a lot of possibilities.  It allows you to try and observe the enemy wizard and figure out how they are doing what they are doing.  It puts you in a situation where you can only do the secret death spell if you make sure and leave no witnesses you don’t want knowing how to use it.  By taking the rules that govern how to activate magic, and making them specific and concrete instead of wrapped in a game mechanic cocoon, you really open a lot of doors.

There are of course downsides.  If you don’t give the players some reason to conceal this magic from others, and anyone can do it, then you need to find a reason why everyone doesn’t use it and have shared it already.  You need to deal with the consequences if the player starts teaching these magics to everyone and their brother, as well as deal with the fact that a powerful wizard could potentially be figured out and their powerful magic taken by the players.  You need to deal with characters that were not interested in magic, and would prefer to be good with a sword being forced by utility to turn to magic instead, or with characters who designed their characters to be good at magic, but now have no special advantage over anyone else.  You also need to deal with the fact that players will almost surely share this info with each other, so everyone can end up with the same powers, and it can feel samey.  All of these are problems that can make this sort of thing an issue.  Still, they are things that can be overcome.  Adding in story reasons why sharing this information is taboo or might not be the best idea can help, as well as putting the characters into situations where they are a bit competitive, but still working together, perhaps servants of different nations trying to complete the same objective but without revealing state secrets.  I think the possible new options this sort of a system open up are worth the difficulties required to keep the game engaging and challenging, at least in some games, definitely something worth trying.

Another possible use of asymmetric information built into the structure of the game would be providing initial information to players based on their character creation choices.  If cultural and racial differences in knowledge, or even assumed knowledge could be passed on to the players, it could be really interesting, especially if their were conflicting views on something.  If one player thought one thing was true and another something else, and they both thought the other agreed with them, it could create some cool situations.  Another cool possibility is having only limited and perhaps stereotypical information about other cultures from the get go could be cool.  If the elf player doesn’t know anything about dwarves except a few rumors and stereotypes, it gives the dwarf player a chance to share stuff, or have the elf character learn things in play about the other character.  Racial prejudice and misinformation is not right for every game, but by limiting information, you can make it an interesting thing to explore, by making the experience more real for the players.  It makes it easier to empathize with and understand a situation or conflict if you have an idea what the folks in that situation are going through, and information asymmetry can help to make the game more real or more immersive, and this let new and interesting stories and characters unfold.

Anyways, I think the reasoning why and the reasons for information asymmetry in a typical rpg were worth exploring, as well as the reason why not.  Once you have that information  you can use it to explore new options in rpgs.  It opens up new vistas, and I hope I gave you some ideas and some insight into the landscape.  RPGs are a really interesting experience, bringing together all sorts of different disciplines and breaking a lot of boundary lines between games, acting, storytelling, and social interactions that I think is really powerful.  Having a better understanding of this field and finding new ways to use the basic structure of the rpg to tell new stories is something I am really interested in, and I hope I was able to convey some of my enthusiasm.  See you next week for more on RPGs.

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