Premature Imagination

If one spends any time at all reading RPG fora, I think one comes away with the sense that like spies, roleplayers, when discussing systems and mechanics, can often be, “a bunch of bitchy little girls.”

Admit it. You know that it’s true.

It goes without saying that some systems are inherently flawed, incomplete, unwieldy, or too complicated to play before earning an advanced degree in theoretical mathematics. You will be relieved to know that not only do I believe this goes without saying, and so intend to say nothing about these games, this entry is not about such things. We can both wonder later about how a topic about which I intended to say nothing, amounted to an entire paragraph all by itself. I digress.

What this entry is about is the less-talked about, but no less present, problem of Premature Imagination (implication intended) which plagues many a male-dominated game table around the world, and dampens fun in much the same way as that other problem some men have.

Picture this, an encounter has heated up to the point where combat is necessary. Weapons are drawn, boasts are made, game-play gets derailed due to a movie quote, more boasts are made, things get back underway, too much fluid intake leads to a quick run to the bathroom, more boasts are made, and finally the group settles down to ‘kill some things.’ Someone gets it in their head that due to the description of the scene they should be able to strike a definitive blow to the head of one of the foes and that the results of this action will be devastating. The dice are rolled, and damage is assessed: minimum damage. Dissatisfaction saunters in, shoulders its way to a place at the table, takes the best seat, and puts its fat feet up. Dissatisfaction is a jerk.

Where did things go wrong? Guys love to have things devolve into combat. Guys love to boast about the terrible things they are going to do to some imaginary thing in an imaginary place and time (real guys, anyway). Guys love going to the… ok, that part of the scenario is more necessity than enjoyment. Anyway – what should have been fun, stopped being fun somewhere along the way. The reason tends to be – in my experience at least – that people forget that in the game, no matter what game it is, the mechanics determine the outcome of the encounter NOT their imagination. In some cases this is a simple Y/N result for success, or it is open to more interpretation, such as in damage determination, but in any case, we are intended to relinquish the reigns of imagination to that mechanic in order to structure the imagination to follow. Many often don’t, leading to premature imagination of the result, and the dashed hopes and limp climax of an unexpected and unwelcome resolution to the encounter. [Yes, there was a discount on metaphors this morning, and I bought a truckload of discontinued ones.]

It could just be my perception of events, but it seems to me that early in the evolution of gaming, when things were run with more charts, and fewer actual rules (and therefore a greater need to interpret results) that this problem happened less often. I am quite open to the idea that this is just the haze of memory playing tricks on me, so feel free to correct me if I am in error. Still, it seems to me that the growth of the artistic side of the industry, and the expansion of flavour text and attitude in the presentation of material has had a certain effect on player expectation of performance. This can be seen very clearly in games like those offered by WW, where the mechanics employed in at least the first, and second editions, and to a certain extent in revised  (I got off their splat-bus when nWoD was announced), had rolls to hit, rolls to do damage, and rolls to resist damage not really being seen as a part of the resolution process by the players, but as a gradual alteration of, or interference with, what should have happened. The players had already imagined the outcome, and the dice were telling them, “No. Sorry. That isn’t what happens, THIS happens instead.” There are myriad ways around the curious results one could obtain using the Storyteller system in the oWoD, but instead of availing oneself of them, when in the grip of premature imagination, one tends to just feel cheated.

What can be done? You already know. The answer, amusingly enough, is ‘Don’t Do It.’ Think about baseball… no, not like that – I mean think about baseball in the sense that it really is  not over until it’s over. Hold off on deciding the outcome until the last die (or whatever) is read. Then apply that prodigious and masterfully developed imagination to making the results come to life in the game. While this might require more effort in some systems than others, it really is less effort than the opposite, which is to work against the system, or just sitting around the table bitching (like a little girl) about how you didn’t get what you wanted.

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3 Responses to “Premature Imagination”
  1. Runeslinger says:

    A question on RPG Stack Exchange about this problem as it manifests in the Savage Worlds system was raised in order to seek solutions. I was pleased to have this answer chosen as being of merit and include it here as a way to provide greater clarity for the post (above) where I first expressed the concept of Premature Imagination:

    The Question:
    In Savage World there is a problem of Whiff (I miss) and Ping (I hit but bounce off the armour).

    We have had several long combat encounters where the PC and NPC have basically done almost nothing for nearly 20 rounds.

    Is there a way to either make this more interesting or fix the rules to reduce the it?

    My Response:

    I tend to look at the resolution to this problem more from a stand-point of visualization than system. In a slightly off-color blog post last year I called it, ‘Premature Imagination.’ The key point of that entry was to say that a major failing in approach that can lead to increasing dissatisfaction with, and growing focus on, the problem of whiff & ping is that players and GMs can come to forget that the outcome of the dice determines only results, not the events of the scene, or the way it is imagined and described.

    I recognize that the question asks for a way to mitigate the effect of whiff&ping in Savage Worlds, and that the advice to seek out the Combat Survival Guide is a very sound first step, as is the advice from The Geek Life Project about discussing threat leveling in encounters. However, I think that premature imagination also plays a significant role in that it colors the expected outcome for both GMs and players and tends to make it devolve into a sort of tunnel vision where all the vagaries of chance and change that combat could be, is instead boiled down to hits and misses and amounts of damage.

    I approach dealing with the situation by changing the focus of the GM and the players from basing their expectations on the basic function of the die roll, to basing them on the descriptions we invoke in response to them. This is a small thing, but it can have a profound effect. By removing the concept of I swing and miss, and I hit, but did no damage and replacing them with What do these die rolls represent this turn? combat expands into a much more dynamic and opportunity-laden experience that can sometimes even be resolved narratively rather than only by applying damage.

    Focusing on what people are attempting, narratively, and then applying the die roll to the attempt, rather than the expected outcome, turns the focus from failure, to a more fluid and ongoing interplay of offense and defense. This in turn helps the players and GM define hooks, openings, weaknesses, opportunities, errors, mistakes, etc in those attacks and defenses which can be turned into bonuses and penalties that can then be applied mechanically to overcome the systemic problems of being able to hit, but not damage, or not being able to hit at all; harnessing the overall creativity and imagination of the group.

    If an encounter description shifts from the Player stating that they shoot the mook in the face, to “I line my revolver up on the man’s head and pull the trigger!” and then prepare the dice for an aimed shot, they have shifted the focus from what they want to happen to what the character is doing to achieve it. If a miss is rolled, the scene is already partially described. It is not a cold and meaningless “I roll to hit and I miss” but rather a vivid image of the character aiming his smoke wagon at a gangster in the midst of a raid. What happened to interfere with the shot? That is where the focus needs to be to avoid the annoyance generated by Whiff. That is also where the answers to generating the much-needed modifiers to mitigate the problem will be found as the players and GM make their way through detailing the scene. Who knows? The GM might even have the villain capitulate [if that is a desired effect] now that the scene is made so graphically clear. Ping works the same way – What prevented a significant wound? What needs to change to ensure victory? A good example from film is in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy is fighting the enormous guard in the mines. He has no trouble hitting… ;) Things don’t improve until he shifts his tactics to incorporate scene elements such as ore… and a huge crushing machine.

    The end result is, once the players and GM have a grip on not being limited to what the function of the die roll is (hit/miss) and return it to facilitating the imagination of the scene by adding complications and results to attempted action (not verifying or preventing completed actions such as “I blow his head off”) the resulting descriptions can be harvested to provide the group with the modifiers and conditional/situational information necessary to resolve the systemic problem.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. [...] to the point discussed in my post called Premature Imagination in which things like whiff and ping are made worse by expectations which differ from what is really [...]

  2. [...] expectations, until an intervention of some sort is necessary. Last year, I wrote an entry called Premature Imagination which explores the same error, but only as it applies to action resolution. This entry will look at [...]

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