The Game of Words

…or a few thoughts about the flow of information between GM and Players in RPGs.

More than any other game, running Amber causes me to reflect on the nature of what happens at the game table, what happens between players and GMs. The thing is, without dice, without random factors, it becomes a world of subtlety in interaction. What exactly do characters know? What can they learn? After all, if you can’t just roll Sense Motive, how do you know if the guy you are talking to is lying to you? And don’t take that the wrong way… I’m actually a huge fan of the Sense Motive skill – applied with a modicum of common sense – because it provides a convenient window for players to view other NPCs through based on how good their character is at reading people.

But in Amber, it’s an interesting and unanswered question how to play the game of words… Diplomacy, Bluff, Con, Fast-Talk, whatever skill titles your game of choice uses, Amber doesn’t. And you have the potential to have characters in this game (PC and NPC) who range from actual teenagers right up to people who have been kicking around for (potentially) tens of thousands of years (Shadow Earth reckoning). And some of these mightily savvy demigods of the Court of Amber get lied to all the time and they’re terrible and seeing through BS. So how does this work for PCs?

Going to the game-rules is surprisingly unhelpful. After all, for all it’s diceless, interpretive-intuitive glory, the Amber game books are actually filled to bursting with helpful information about running the game. But talking gets overlooked. Let’s think about stats. Would it be covered under Warfare? Warfare is your strategic stat. If you were playing poker – I’d probably use Warfare to see how well you read the guy across from you. If you were fighting a duel, Warfare lets you read your opponent to try and anticipate their moves. But still, this seems unlikely that Warfare would govern interactions of the conversational variety… after all, Brand doesn’t really seem to be one who is much for Warfare and he’s a master of deceptions. So the next question would be Psyche… maybe that’s the way to judge these contests. But this also seems less than stellar, as a solution, because Psyche is more about Mental power than mental acumen or perception. Certainly, if your Psyche is high enough you can have powerful intuitions or even skim the surface thoughts of weaker minds around you… but again, Psyche isn’t really about talking or subtlety.

With that said – it seems likely that you could allow either of those two traits (or even both in some cases) to have an effect on the outcome of how PCs perceive a conversation, especially when that conversation involves lies and deceptions. And I have no problem with that solution.

But I think it has to proceed from questions. A player can ask – “I have a really high warfare, I look for clues in his behavior… do I think he’s hiding something based on my read of him?” Or, “I spent 25 years acting as a riverboat gambler in an Earth Shadow, what do I get from this guy?” Even those examples are just quick, surface kinds of examples though.

It’s difficult sometimes to speak as the GM-speaking-for-an-NPC. Players often take what you say to be gospel and then, if your NPC lied to them, get upset when it comes out that they were lying. I try to avoid giving players situations where they have absolutely no chance to realize that they might be getting lied to, but if they don’t ask questions or pursue the matter (strangely, in an “out of character” kind of a way) then they run the risk of hearing lies and not being able to do anything about those lies.

In many ways, I see navigating a conversation in a gaming context in a very similar way to the manner in which old school gamers would search a room. You ask a lot of questions, you pull stuff, you poke stuff, you open stuff, and sometimes you stick your hand in a hole in the wall looking for a lever… and sometimes you lose your hand. Ultimately, I think that – for me as GM (and really as Player too) – what roleplaying games are, at their best, is a game of questions and answers.

One of the “innovations” of games was the addition of skills to help players shape their questions and give GMs guidelines how to answer (a DC 25 knowledge check gets you this information and no more). One of the truly intriguing innovations of a lot of so-called story games is that they attempt to change the dynamic of who is asking and who is answering the questions. Both of these are good things. Both of these help out with the process and cater to a certain manner of thinking or style of getting enjoyment from gaming. Heck, I have a lot of players who would hate being given the responsibility of “answering the questions” because they hate being put on the spot. I have other players who relish these opportunities.

But in the end, we can print all these beautiful maps, have all our digital game aids, and make a million different ways to share the gaming we love, but it always comes back (for me) to the most magical words I ever heard as a kid… “What do you do?”

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