Mechanic transparency

How do you model a character’s personality?

Here’s Jack. He’s 40% Reckless, 0% Drunk and 60% values Order over Anarchy.

That’s as good model as any. Now, a model is something we can challenge. Why not offer Jack a glass of good bourbon and see what happens?

That’s not a challenge for the player. The player can have a dozen reasons for any action, like something in the text reminded him of something and he thought it’s a good idea to do. That’s a test for the model.

Immersion vs. Clarity

You are now 20% Drunk and 60% Anarchist. More bourbon?

Does the player need to know the whole model? Would we hide the mechanics or show just a part of it?

Take gamebooks; they offer the player full clarity. The gamebook culture states there should be no hidden mechanics whatsoever. The player sees every check even before it’s calculated.

In tabletop RPGs the players know every change on their character sheet but they don’t know how it’s used. Even when rolling a die, the GM can say nothing about why the success threshold is at 12 and not 10+ and how it’s tied to the character sheet.

But the transparency also breaks immersion. What would you choose if you knew that every shot of bourbon silently affects the Reckless stat?

This is the Clarity I’m talking about. If the game is clear on its mechanics, the player knows if any choice is setting the character personality, or checking it to steer the narrative, or both. There are ways to do it indirectly, using the rules of “The flashbacks will set your character and the present day scenes are testing it” sort, but it’s the same effect.

And the player who has that information can exploit it.

Playing outside the game

When the player knows what’s happening, he has an idea about the author’s intentions and assumptions. He can anticipate the checks. In tabletop RPGs that’s meta-gaming, the character and party optimization. If the party needs to cut a tree, it sends a Warrior to do lumbering, not a Necromancer (though that would be fun to watch).

A “minimaxer” is a character that has some stats ridiculously high at the expense of everything else (the stats, the story, character coherence - everything goes into the maxing). It’s a simple strategy that can be very effective, so it’s popular. Some people don’t care about story that much, they just play to win.

Thou wilt choose a balanced character OR SUFFER MY WRATH A certain GM on my Ghostbuster Swordmaster Witcher Warlock Ravenloft hero

Computer games make metagaming easy. The player can always hit the “RESTART” button. The computer game has to be predictable, from the tutorial and the character refining until the finish line. A game that employs hidden rules and a lot of randomized outcome is very confusing. It’s like where the player does everything right but fails nevertheless because RNG said so and the only option is to play again, repeating everything exactly the same way.

Here’s a thought: metagaming is fun. It tickles the competitive bone, the desire to beat the game. The player can actively search for the optimal path and compile a strategy wiki and have a great time doing so. (It helps when the game hints at that if the character will have 20% Drunk and between 30% and 50% Reckless on Week 2 and he visits The Labyrinth before Week 4, something cool might happen)

Choose what to expose

So, how many bolts and gears to show? Should the game tell about both the cause and effect, only the effect or nothing at all?

The list of variables can grow with every scene, and your take on clear and casual vs. obscure and hardcore also weighs in. Where to place it in UI so it won’t draw the attention away from the actual game?

Personally, I favor the “show nothing” point. If I do show the machinery behind the story, it has to be relevant to what’s happening right now. Take Jack: are his views on Order over Anarchy relevant right now if he’s, say, jumping with a parachute? (That’s where the Drunk and Reckless stats would shine, by the way) Should I hide that stat for a while, then?

On the other hand, tabletop RPGs are perfectly fine with presenting the full character sheet on several pages and not like it prevents someone from playing and having fun.

So, what can you say about this problem and how to understand it?