#RPGaDay2021 – Day 26 – THEORY

For this, the 26th day of #RPGaDay2021, I am choosing to do the prompt, ‘theory’. The four prompts today are Theory, Play, Origin, and Renew. I have things that I could share about each of them, particularly origin, but the mood to respond to Theory is upon me now and now is the time to respond.

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Theory

There are so many things that fall under the umbrella of a prompt like theory that I have neither the time nor the interest in listing them, but I imagine we will see more than a few of the options today. For my part, I want to take a look at a particular part of a particular game and how its rules and procedures can be interpreted from two different perspectives to yield two different results.

Over the past few years, I have spent quite a bit of time with Star Trek Adventures. This game is notable for a number of reasons, but today the one I will choose is the section – Chapter Six, Subsection Four – which handles the Scientific Method.

Over the course of three campaigns, this set of rules did not see as much use as I had hoped it would when I pitched it to each group, but that had a lot more to do with the nature of the episodes I ended up framing for the players rather than the approaches of the players to those episodes. That said, these rules got used in long-hand and short-hand form, explicitly and implicitly, quite a bit, and certainly a lot more than things like rules for combat.

If there is anything that draws me to a Star Trek game in general and Star Trek Adventures in particular, it is the varied ways that what amounts to a mystery may be presented and in return be approached for a solution.

In brief, STA lays out the Scientific Method in steps that involve character collaboration and the use of dice. The first step is the collection of information (Observation). The second step sees the group brainstorming possibilities and selecting a few for specific research (Hypothesize), and the final step is where the dice come back into play to determine if the group can figure out which of their hypotheses will be of use and how long it will take to reach a workable theory to apply to whatever problem the ship is facing (Testing).

As written, these rules allow for failure at interesting points. The crew might not acquire the information they need in order to form useful hypotheses. They might run into problems in the testing phase which slow them down so much that they are forced to handle their problems in other ways or on a more reactive footing, or that they end up unable to address them before it is too late.

Where they do not allow for failure is in the hypothesis phase. This is very clever and keeps the game moving in what can become a very abstract part of play. If the group cannot form a single hypothesis that is relevant to the problem, the GM gets to take a point of Threat and inform the group that they need to go back to the observation step. That way, players are able to act and interact with each other, the environment, and the dice and can do so with the context of what ideas are definitely not fruitful routes of investigation.

As written, these rules require the GM to have an understanding of the problem facing the characters and to be able to match the hypotheses the players concoct to that understanding. This is referred to as “the right way” to reach the working theory. This has nothing to do with how the players approach gathering information, or what they do with the information. This relates to preparation, either for improvisation or for presentation.

Another way to approach this is to bypass the rule of the GM having a right way to reach the working theory. In this alteration of the rules, the GM would pay attention to the hypotheses but then just choose one that strikes them as the best by whatever criteria they choose to assign.

If we were to theorize about the outcomes of these two approaches we can, I think, quickly reach the assessment that the rules as written allow the players to experience the doubt of an investigation in progress, the challenge of sorting through clues and research data, and the thrill of small and large successes along the way toward the solution, while allowing the GM the thrill of seeing the investigation make sense to the players and seeing them devise their unique solution to the problem. In contrast, by removing the step of a prepared ‘objective truth’ about the reality of the problem facing the characters, the players may or may not experience any of that. They might not be able to notice any difference at all, or they might find that the experience is somehow lacking in resistance or challenge.

What is interesting to consider is why that variation exists in the second method, and why the rules may have been written to support the first.

The answers to these questions might not be what we might think at first – like theorizing itself~

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