Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Make a Perception Check

I think the readability series I wrote over a year ago is still one of my favourite pieces on the site. I think the connectedness has an advantage over the more reactive, "here's what I'm thinking this week" writing I tend to do. So it's time to roll out another, this time about "perception." The connections may be a little more tenuous than the readability series, but I'm hoping to keep the focus on how different methods of constructing elements of a game (or even wholly different forms of games) can significantly affect how players act.

Out of the gate we're going to talk about one of the fundamental actions in tabletop RPGs: "Make a Perception check."

For those unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, a Perception check is the mechanical representation of your character's senses. Different systems have different parlance, but the basic action is nearly universal in some form or another. It determines whether or not you sense something intentionally concealed or merely notice small details. Most systems allow eagle-eyed characters to improve their sensory skills. And therein lies the complication.

Tabletop RPGs almost always involve a group of players. The GM will ask for a Perception check and then every player rolls. But in the vast majority of situations, only a single player needs to succeed. The result is conveyed to the group as a whole, no matter how much effort is made to rein in metagaming. This dampens that limelight moment for the keen-eyed player. And it feels very game-y when the group always sees with the best set of eyes. Possible alternatives, like passing notes to those that succeed their check, can work but are logistically infeasible to be frequent.

This also ties into the other major issue with Perception mechanics in tabletop games, namely that Perception checks without interesting outcomes for both success and failure are probably not worth having. Asking for a Perception check and then responding with "You don't see anything" immediately sets the players to sniffing out what they missed. In the worst case, they'll begin scouring every square foot of an area, probably ignoring whatever situation was previously demanding their attention. Making checks for the players in secret is a possibility, but it somewhat robs them of their ability to make interesting decisions. Or at least know the consequences of prior decisions made, like whether or not they chose to improve their Perception skill.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that Perception mechanics are strongest when they have immediate, readable outcomes. If everyone in the group is rolling, the consequences should apply for everyone. E.g. failing a check means being surprised by the ambush and losing a turn. Calling for individual Perception checks is almost far more interesting (does the character walking ahead of everyone else notice the old rotting floorboards before he steps on them?) when there are immediate outcomes. I haven't really pushed on this methodology enough to say if it has any unfortunate consequences (like always making the most Perceptive character take point), but I'm going to be more rigorous about it in the next game I run and see what happens.

Digital games often reverse the presentation of player information, with very little perceptual information being shared between players. Naturally this only applies to networked multiplayer games, as local multiplayer games naturally share their information, since everyone is looking at the same screen.

Any avatar-based game will naturally facilitate each player having a different perception of the game world. Usually the degree of sharing is driven by function, e.g. can I see my teammates' position on a map, know their statistics, etc. The perceptive skills of each player are symmetrical and their ability to share information is limited to meta-game tools (i.e. text and voice chat).

A few games have really experimented with the idea of offering different perceptive abilities. Chromehounds, a mech combat game released in 2006, featured a fascinating commander role. The commander player had a very lightly armoured mech with limited combat abilities. However, their perception abilities outstripped every other player. They could see further, have better radio control, affect the minimap, etc.

Other games have attempted the same, notably the commander role in the Battlefield series and more recently, in Sony's MAG. Savage, released in 2003, took a somewhat different tack and attempted to blend RTS and FPS gameplay. One player was given RTS-like control of the base, build tree, etc. while the rest of the players served as soliders on the ground. In actuality, I'd say none of these were as successful as Chromehounds in creating a role where differences in perception abilities are meaningful and rewarding. I think they largely fall down because the games are simply too big.

It seems the thinking behind commander roles in games like Battlefield is to simulate real-world coordinated military action. However, they lack what makes a commander on a real battlefield work- a chain of command. With games like MAG supporting 128 players per team, you're guaranteed to be playing primarily with strangers. Strangers who have no interest or incentive to listen to the commander. Without actual threat to life, or even just court martial, coordinating 127 strangers is basically impossible.

Chromehounds supported only 6 players per team, meaning there was a good chance you'd be playing with five friends. Even if you weren't, convincing five people to work together is possible where having over 100 do so is unthinkable. Given that co-op gameplay (along with motion controls, seemingly) are what's vogue these days, I'd love to see further exploration of the path Chromehounds started. A pure co-op experience where significant differences in perceptive abilities were built into gameplay from the ground up could be striking. Left 4 Dead demonstrated expertly that players, even strangers, will work together well if the mechanics ask them to.

And of course, this is only in a cooperative context. The interplay between shared information and hidden information is at the core of a great many competitive games (everything from texas hold 'em on up). That's a whole other post (or series even) that I may not delve into. But it's clear there's a lot of space to experiment with just what players can see without even needing to dive into what the players can do.

Now what happens when what I see informs what you do? I'd hazard it would be something very interesting indeed.

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Blogger WorldMaker said...

Great post, Nels. This is certainly a topic I've tended to noodle around in my own blog posts from time to time. I think particularly with graphic MMOs there is a lot of room to explore things like perception that often don't happen.

I think there is a predilection to "real world" modeling that sometimes hampers multiplayer games from really pushing the envelope here. What if I see a monster and you see a windmill? Such a simple Quixote setup would be neat in a Lovecraftian setting. (I've been hoping that The Secret World might do things like this, but I haven't heard anything of the sort.)

Certainly some of the tricks that many MMOs freely use in instances could be used more in shared spaces, if there is a willingness to impact the perception of players.

June 23, 2010 at 12:57 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

Haha, exactly! A modern Quixote would be fantastic. There was a tabletop RPG setting WotC did about 5 years ago called d20 Modern. It has spur with a "monsters just behind our world" with this feed. That fact that games haven't done, at all, as far as I'm aware blows my mind.

Eternal Darkness is probably the closest we've gotten yet. It would be great if The Secret World does something like this, even if it's just in their Innsmouth-but-not area. Here's hoping.

June 24, 2010 at 5:33 PM  
Blogger Codicier said...

Just wondering what your thoughts are on the use of 'stealth', 'Fog of War'and 'detection' mechanics, it seems to me its the most common perception check type mechanic i can think of in video games.
Stealth in RTS's has always been interesting to me because it works both ways it decreases the amount of information a opponent has on you, and by allowing you to scout unopposed it increases the amount of information you have.
The "what I see informs what you do" idea probably comes into play with stealth in competitive play in RTS's but also in MMORPG's.
It's also seemed traditionally very difficult mechanic to implement in tabletop and boradgames. The only example i can think of as a really good example is the old Gamesworkshop Space Hulk boardgame, and even then it only really worked because it fitted the asymmetrical nature of the gameplay.

June 26, 2010 at 6:07 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Codicier Yeah, the systems of discovering hidden information in RTSs is something I find interesting and engaging. The importance of scouting, countering, etc. adds a really satisfying layer of competition.

I don't really like the "invisible until damage is taken" design of stealth in most MMOs. It feels easy and kind of hollow. One of the best use of asymmetric perception was the multiplayer in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory. The different perceptive abilities granted to the spies vs. mercenaries created great dynamics.

I'd love to see more games reach for that, either in a competitive or cooperative context.

June 27, 2010 at 2:55 PM  

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