Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Stealth & Decision Making

The creature lurking in the grass is my cat, Desna. As you can see, she could manage to make her stealth check if she didn't move by pretending to be a statue or something but she's hardly blending in. White fur among the dark grass tends to do that to you.

She's also highlighting the important difference between roleplay stealth and real world (or at least LARP) stealth. You see, she has made the decision to lurk among the long grasses while sniffing about. She could have chosen to hide behind a tree or walk into the bushes (and has done so, annoyingly enough to me as she's only let out in harness and leash). Each choice she makes determines the likely success of her attempts to hide. While some element of luck and skill comes into it (such as standing really still or for the searcher to happen not to look at the right angle), most of it falls down to her decisions as a cat.

The same is not true for roleplaying characters.

While a player may make decisions within combat (regular shot, called shot, seek cover, weapon choice, at the very least) and the outcomes of those decisions are arbitrarily represented (i.e. dice and stats), the same cannot be said for stealth (or athletics, really). A player can have an epiphany in an investigation or draw on general knowledge, but there's no Aha! stealth moment.

Success and failure is entirely dice related (or point expenditure related). Beyond Stealth, Fight or Flee, there are no credible decisions involving stealth because:

1) While there are sometimes items and equipment which modify stealth, these only come up once when you pick your clothing.

2) Yes, sticking to the shadows and avoiding the squeaky floorboards are important stealth elements but they're also common sense. Thus players will be annoyed if a GM penalises them for forgetting to mention that they're not striding across the brightly lit centre of the room when they say they're sneaking.

3) The ideal hiding place is a nook or a cranny and adults generally live in adult-sized places that don't waste space on nooks and crannies that would fit them. This leaves a much shorter range of hiding places and thus the best choice of hiding place is the most obvious.

4) Few systems (if any) involve a random roll to decide which hiding places are searched and which are ignored. Instead a stealth check is required to see how well a character can lie under a bed or cower in a wardrobe.

5) Timing is irrelevant. The GM doesn't sit there envisioning the patrol paths of the NPCs or making them move across a hidden map while the player waits to choose their moment to rush out. If timing matters, it is because the GM has decided that you took too long or acted too early, largely for narrative reasons.

6) There is only one stealth skill. While some systems split it into Hide and Move Silently skills, this is more of an XP sink than a credible choice as timing is a non-issue and thus the question is never should you wait or should you move, but, when you move will you make that check? If you are better at one than the other then you will rely on that skill but you won't be making decisions around it.

Personally the only way to make a good stealth game that I can see involves the use of tactical maps and floor plans. If you hid one copy behind your GM screen and placed one on the middle of the table, then you could force people to make decisions based on where they went and what they did by moving miniatures around the map. You could therefore increase the random element of line of sight, timing and other details, providing information according to your player character's senses (and rolls) and working from that basis. If your enemy mini happened to be facing their way when they pop out from under the bed then a chase will ensue.

This would theoretically make players more cautious and more alert, simulating the same kind of tension found in a real stealth game. Of course, it could also create a strategic distancing element between player and character as the player stares at the map. Plus Maps = Extra Work.

Anyway, when I get the opportunity I'm going to try this map idea out and see how it works. Meanwhile, if you get the chance to try it out, let me know how you find the technique.

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