csroy
 member, 111 posts
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 06:17
Advice:: Black box game
I've been toying with the idea of running a black box RPG - a game where all the mechanical details are hidden from the players.

Since such a game increase the burden on the GM I'd like advice on several topics:

1. What are the benefits of running black box?
2. Is it worth the trouble?
3. What RPG system would you recommend to run such a game?
4. What steps can be made to streamline the process for the gm?
5. How would you handle chargen?
Starchaser
 member, 470 posts
 GMT+0
 Posts Monday-Friday
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 07:08
Advice:: Black box game
Im running something simular using call of cthulhu 7e in the background. I wouldn't reccommend using that system but something rules light like the window would work well.

Advantages:

1. Better immersion for players. No need to do chargen

2. The ability for you to pick stats rather than go through a more complex chargen process.

3. The ability to bend or break rules to keep game flow without the rules lawyers shoutong at you.

Disadvantages:

1. Much more work up front.

2. Harder to maintain fairness if you do bend / break rules

3. You may end up in situations where you are arguing with players over a particular scene or event's outcome.


In order for this to work well you need rtjs with as much detail as possible to match the text to a character sheet.

You could, for example ask for 4 skills a charcter is great at, 3 that they are good at, 2 that they are average at and 2 that they have passing knowledge of.

In a d100 system that might equate to 4 skills at 90, 3 at 75, 2 at 50 and 2 at 25.
evileeyore
 member, 52 posts
 GURPS GM and Player
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 07:24
Re: Advice:: Black box game
csroy:
1. What are the benefits of running black box?

I've heard "immersion" tossed about before in regards to these games, but... the ones I've plyed in, they kinda do the opposite to me.  I tend to obsess over any little bit of system detail*, and that becomes my focus rather than the game.

* The ones I've been in were more "reveal the game as we go" rather than "totally sealed black box forevers".  And they were more of a "GM is keeping a lid on the power-gaming by keeping the more problematic powers/abilities out of play", rather then "I need total immersion!"

quote:
2. Is it worth the trouble?

That's really on your end to answer.  It wouldn't be for me.  I've done ye olde "Amnesia" games before, but those are "Players know the system, just not their Characters abilities" games.  I've enjoyed running them and playing in them.

quote:
3. What RPG system would you recommend to run such a game?

Something a bit more "Chargen options slim", like OSR D&D, or some sort of 'rules lite" system.

Something that lends itself more to GM Fiat, than Player-Rules Interaction.

So definitely not FATE.  FATE is like right out.

quote:
4. What steps can be made to streamline the process for the gm?

A good set of Character Background Questions.  Ones that focus on what the Player wants teh PC to have been as well as what they want them to be.

quote:
5. How would you handle chargen?

Like I said above, lots of questions.
GreyGriffin
 member, 180 posts
 Portal Expat
 Game System Polyglot
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 07:47
Re: Advice:: Black box game
  • What are the benefits of running black box?
    If I had to play Devil's Advocate, I'd say that the added mystery is the benefit.  A lot about a setting can be inferred by the system you're using, and by concealing the gears from the players, you also engage different types of problem solving.
  • Is it worth the trouble?
    I, personally, don't think so.  The problem with running "black box" is that without any sort of mechanical context, players don't have any sense of scale or proportion.  If you were playing Black Box Exalted, the players would have absolutely no idea they could jump over buildings.  If you were playing black box Call of Cthulhu, the players would have no idea that busting in on a group of Deep Ones with guns blazing has about a zero percent chance of success.
  • What RPG system would you recommend to run such a game?
    If you had to do it, I might go far afield and recommend a system like Risus, Cypher, or Wushu.  Something light, with minimal resource management and a focus on narrative powers.  If the players can't see their own resources (Spell slots, daily/encounter style powers, healing, hit points, etc...), there is no way they can manage them, so a system like D&D is right out.
    You might also get away with a system like Fate, but it'd be hard to dole out things like Compels.
  • What steps can be made to streamline the process for the gm?
    The GM is going to have to be in it, in the thick of it.  Without the shorthand of the system to fall back on, the GM is going to have to give constant feedback.  If a character has a fair assessment of his own abilities, but the player has no way to gauge things, the GM is going to have to provide every bit of narrative context.  Does the goblin look like an easy fight?  Is that guy stronger than normal?  Can the player jump that gap?  Can he make that sniper shot?  Since the players only have an abstract sense for the competence and abilities of their characters, and have no feedback from the system other than the GM's narrative.
    That lack of fictional kinesthetics, the shorthand that the dice and their results provide you in the moment ("Oh crap, I rolled an 18 and still missed, we might be in over our heads...") means that there are absolutely no shortcuts for the GM.
  • How would you handle chargen?
    I would probably handle it purely based on narrative and concept.  Ask some basic questions about backstory, training, and relationships, and bake some mechanics out of that.  You could also do a Morrowind style interrogation, asking Facebook style quiz questions to get stats and class.


If you hadn't inferred, I think running a black box system is not a really good idea.  It's one thing to run a system where some of the mechanics are occult or even opaque, but the system provides really important feedback to players, which allows them to shape their playstyle, and give them a fuller sense of the world their characters inhabit.

This message was last edited by the user at 07:54, Wed 15 Nov.

Starchaser
 member, 471 posts
 GMT+0
 Posts Monday-Friday
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 08:01
Re: Advice:: Black box game
quote:
if you were playing black box Call of Cthulhu, the players would have no idea that busting in on a group of Deep Ones with guns blazing has about a zero percent chance of success.


I totally get your point here, but in the example of a Call of Cthulhu game, if the players were roleplaying properly and their characters had never met a deep one before they would still use guns. Yes, it would get them killed, but the point of roleplaying in COC isn't to survive - its to tell an interesting story.

I would think the game setting should be able to dictate the characters limits. Most likely the closer the setting models the real world, the easier it will be for players to guess how likely the outcome of an action will be.
csroy
 member, 112 posts
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 09:18
Re: Advice:: Black box game
Thank you for all the thought provoking replies :)

For my part I see the uncertainty as part of the game. In an open system you know how good you are, you know how much more you can take before you drop out of a fight and how much more resources you can expend.

I was thinking of a human PCs in a post apocalyptic setting where nothing is certain and known for sure. I think that in such a setting and game not knowing for sure what are your stats would provoke a more feel of the survival. You'd need to assess every situation carefully.

I always recall an Amber Dicless game I ran, where even the PCs with the highest ranks in Warfare felt it was not worth the risk and charge an unknown NPC and first probe him out carefully not to get surprised. That was the kind of feeling I want.

I do agree, that the burden falls on the GM and in the end it might miss the point. I tried a Conspiracy X game that was so black box that the players didn't even know they were playing Conspiracy X. Translating PC background into Conspiracy X stats was very very challenging.
GreyGriffin
 member, 181 posts
 Portal Expat
 Game System Polyglot
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 18:15
Re: Advice:: Black box game
csroy:
For my part I see the uncertainty as part of the game. In an open system you know how good you are, you know how much more you can take before you drop out of a fight and how much more resources you can expend.

I urge you to examine this statement more closely.

Imagine you, as a person, trying to leap over a gap.  You, as a person, have a sense of your own athletic abilities.  You know how fast you can run, how far you can jump, how confident you are in your stride.  Your brain naturally takes all of that self-knowledge into account when eyeing a gap, and gives you a good "gut check" of whether you can feel confident in jumping that gap.

A character's statistics, in a game, provide the same function.  They give a player a feel for him- or herself, and let him do the eyeing and estimation.  They tell the player how fast the character runs, how far they can jump, and how confident they should feel in their athletic abilities.

Furthermore, a person getting pummeled about the head and face has a pretty good idea if he's winning or losing a fight, and can feel the effects of fatigue, injury, and blood loss.  Functions like health levels, conditions, and hit points provide that same feedback to the player.  They know the difference between taking 3 HP and 30 HP, and how it relates to their character's feeling.

Without that feedback, without that degree of self-knowledge, a black box game can induce a feeling of extraordinary blindness and uncertainty, and not necessarily the good, horror/mystery inducing kind.

You can't assess a situation without a baseline.  You can't determine if something is a risk without knowing what constitutes a risk.  Making a decision based on virtually zero information - about your character, about the environment, or about the thematic or narrative underpinnings of the story you're trying to tell - can be a truly infuriating experience.
csroy
 member, 113 posts
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 22:30
Re: Advice:: Black box game
GreyGriffin:
csroy:
For my part I see the uncertainty as part of the game. In an open system you know how good you are, you know how much more you can take before you drop out of a fight and how much more resources you can expend.

I urge you to examine this statement more closely.

Imagine you, as a person, trying to leap over a gap.  You, as a person, have a sense of your own athletic abilities.  You know how fast you can run, how far you can jump, how confident you are in your stride.  Your brain naturally takes all of that self-knowledge into account when eyeing a gap, and gives you a good "gut check" of whether you can feel confident in jumping that gap.

A character's statistics, in a game, provide the same function.  They give a player a feel for him- or herself, and let him do the eyeing and estimation.  They tell the player how fast the character runs, how far they can jump, and how confident they should feel in their athletic abilities.

Furthermore, a person getting pummeled about the head and face has a pretty good idea if he's winning or losing a fight, and can feel the effects of fatigue, injury, and blood loss.  Functions like health levels, conditions, and hit points provide that same feedback to the player.  They know the difference between taking 3 HP and 30 HP, and how it relates to their character's feeling.

Without that feedback, without that degree of self-knowledge, a black box game can induce a feeling of extraordinary blindness and uncertainty, and not necessarily the good, horror/mystery inducing kind.

You can't assess a situation without a baseline.  You can't determine if something is a risk without knowing what constitutes a risk.  Making a decision based on virtually zero information - about your character, about the environment, or about the thematic or narrative underpinnings of the story you're trying to tell - can be a truly infuriating experience.


I think I may not explained myself clearly, when I say black box I mean the system is hidden however your PC get qualitative descriptive (Not STR 15 but strong or something of the kind).

That said, I think that most of our perception of the world is very subjective and most of us are not fully aware what we are capable off from various reasons.

Damage is the easiest, our scale for damage is pain, however there is only correlation between pain and damage. Many people report gunshot wounds as a slap followed by a burning sensation. Head wounds have a notoriety to bleed profoundly and appear far more severe than they are and as any male of our species can attest. Getting hit in our sensitive bits is very painful although the life risk is very minimal. Adrenaline, lack of pain receptors (for internal injuries) and such can cause havoc in our perception of how hurt we are.

Add to that that most HP reflect even more nebulous thing like dodging and minor injuries. It is very logical that you would not know how much HP you have.

Even assessment of our own abilities and skills is colored by our psyche. I am sure everyone knows people that act and think they are <insert ability> than they really are and the opposite as well.

Most of challenges in real life are categorize into three broad groups, I can do easily, no way I can do it and maybe.

No one knows if he has 67& or 58% chance to cross the gap. I do agree that the information the GM gives (and hence the increase burden) should include more information about what your PC is feeling regarding a task.
engine
 member, 482 posts
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 22:48
Re: Advice:: Black box game
One thing I've always worried about this kind of approach: why would anyone ever try anything exciting or adventurous in this kind of game, unless they were crazy or stupid?
Aidhogan
 member, 58 posts
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 22:49
Re: Advice:: Black box game
All I feel as a prospective player in something like that is specifically and strongly mistrusted.
engine
 member, 483 posts
Wed 15 Nov 2017
at 22:52
Re: Advice:: Black box game
In reply to Aidhogan (msg # 10):

Same here, but in the course of trying to run games in which I implicitly trust the players with mechanical and other information that their characters "wouldn't" know, is that some players don't want to be trusted with that information.