What gets reified

A passing thought about gaming theory: it seems that whatever gets specified in a game, no matter how vaguely, becomes incredibly important and becomes the ground on which all else hangs.

As an example, I’ve had a situation where I told the players that an NPC has given them a look that could be interpreted as perhaps snarky, perhaps disapproving, or perhaps just stifling a yawn. The players almost immediately fixated on this NPC as someone to be investigated, and very possibly as a major baddie. Maybe the NPC really was just suppressing a yawn, but the players quickly fixate on that look as something of Major Importance.

Another example: I once ran a scenario that started with one PC merely overhearing an NPC mention their name in the marketplace. PC paranoia being what it is, this quickly became the crux of the entire scenario; the PCs all became intensely suspicious of the NPC who’d dropped the name, and it proceeded from there. To be fair, I’d planned the scenario that way — it wouldn’t have worked if the PCs hadn’t become suspicious of that NPC — but I still find it interesting that this particular kind of information-fixation is so reliably present in gaming.

Yet another example: Many times when I pull out miniatures for combat, I’m wary because I know that whatever I don’t draw on the map will get completely forgotten by the players. I’ve had situations where I told the players that there was a particular topology to the battleground (a ridge here, a gully here), but the players would forget it unless I actually took a piece of paper and folded it to resemble the lay of the land. It seems that whatever gets specified and illustrated in miniatures gaming will become incredibly important, and what isn’t specified will get forgotten. This effect sometimes makes me wary of using miniatures, because I know that as much as they will illuminate the situation, they may also obscure what’s going on by not reflecting the totality.

When the players fixate on some seemingly minor detail like this, it gets me wondering. Do I not specify enough? Should I be providing the players with more information on a constant basis, to build up their overall sense of what’s going on and thus to allow me to submerge the red herrings and important pieces of information in a sea of chatter? Or is this just something inherent in gaming — that whatever we bring out in play is automatically assumed to be the most important details of what’s going on, and therefore whatever gets mentioned must be The Core of Truth?


What gets reified — 2 Comments

  1. I would just accept it as an inevitability when you have a world that’s been expressly created for the entertainment of a small group of people that are sitting right in front of you. They are the center of that particular universe, and being so important imparts a certain degree of paranoia.

    • Such a good point! I’ve always liked Philip K. Dick’s definition of paranoia, which is basically that it’s a form of megalomania — “thinking that you’re so important that everyone and everything else would be plotting against you”. That definition is, for a lot of PCs, completely apt!

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