Sunday, 27 September 2015

Risk, Heuristics and the Mesh Dream core mechanic

The basic mission statement for the Mesh Dream core mechanic is:

`If you are willing to accept the consequences, you will achieve your goal’.


It works like this:
  1. the GM summarises the current situation in such a way that it issues a challenge to the players.
  2. The Players make a statement of intent to respond to this challenge. What is it that they want?
  3. The GM measures this statement and the capabilities of the characters against the Scope of the challenge and decides if they are greater, equal or lesser than the challenge. They will achieve their statement in 1, 2 or 3 Steps. Each Step is an action or cohesive sequence that will contribute to achieving their goal.
  4. STEP 1.  The GM briefly summarises the situation and the objective for the first Step (as supplied by the players above).
  5. The GM asks the players to supply 3 risks. `Give me three things that could go wrong?'
  6. The Players use a dice mechanic (more about this in another post!) to generate a number; 0, 1, 2 or 3. This is the number of consequences that will be activated if the players proceed to complete the Step. Character resources can be applied to reduce the likelihood of consequences.
  7. If the resolution mechanic indicates consequences, the Players must choose them from the list of 3 risks that they provided above. In some cases the GM will get to choose one or more consequence.  If the players do not want to accept the consequences they can choose to fail the Step and exit the challenge, avoiding up to 2 consequences from this Step.
  8. The GM and players integrate the action to date into the fiction.
  9. Either return to item 4 to start the next Step in the Challenge or if this is the final Step, proceed with the fiction.

Example
  1. Wine/Dark and Yellowlegs are clambering down a split conduit when suddenly a Renovator looms into view. Booming and humming to itself it extends a crane sized spar and starts stapling the conduit to the wall, extending downwards in a zip-like motion. The characters are 1000 metres from the shadowed floor below.
  2. Wine/Dark and Yellowlegs want to get down to the floor before the Renovator staples them to the wall. This fits with their overall goal to find the human enclave that is rumoured to exist across the floor beyond a jagged range of power converters.
  3. The GM decides that they are equal to the task and assigns 2 steps to the Challenge. The first step will get them most of the way to the ground and the second step will get them across the floor and beyond the enormous bulk of the Renovator.
  4. The GM Explains that to achieve the first step the Characters must rapidly descend the split conduit to stay ahead of the massive chattering head of the Renovator's stapler as it zips down towards them.
  5. What could go wrong? The Players decide that the risks are: One of them could be injured in the descent, One of them could drop a valued item, Their descent could attract the attention of the Renovator.
  6. The Players use the dice mechanic and it returns 2 consequences.
  7. At this point the Players could choose to exit the Challenge by exchanging the 2 consequences for failure of their goal. They know that if they choose this option they are going to get stapled to the wall so they decide to accept the consequences. They decide that Yellowlegs drops his Apex Key and they draw the attention of the Renovator.
  8. The GM describes that as they scramble and slide down the frayed conduit it increasingly shakes and vibrates as the Renovator’s staple head hammers down the line towards them. Suddenly Yellowlegs slips and his Apex Key tumbles away, arcing down and down until it ricochets off the Renovator’s superstructure with a distant clang. A sensor boom extends out to investigate and even as they continue their descent it locks onto their movement.
  9. The GM returns to item #4 to resolve Step 2 and complete the Challenge.

Risk and Heuristics

The Mesh Dream core mechanic requires that players make four separate kinds of decisions:

  • What to do when faced by a Challenge? (item #2)
  • 3 risks? (item #5)
  • Use character resources within the dice mechanic to reduce the likelihood of consequences ? (item #6)
  • Accept consequences or exit the Challenge and proceed with the story?

All of these choices need a decision making framework so that we can enjoy the game, maintain the correct balance between tension and boredom and hopefully promote a flow state. To do this we have heuristics.

Heuristics are mental short-cuts that we use to ease the cognitive load when making a decision and it seems that the more cognitive load we experience, the more likely we are to use them. A key to heuristics is that they hold an important role in how we assess and rate risks. This is important because the key Player decisions in Mesh Dream involve risk assessment and these decisions flow in an order that magnifies the cognitive load of the value judgements.

It all starts fairly gently with the players deciding how to respond to a challenging situation. This is common to all games and it sets the tone of the types of decisions that lie ahead. It is important because this is where the Affect Heuristic starts to influence decision making. The GM has an important role here by setting the emotional tone in item #1 of the process.
With the emotional tone of the Challenge set (or at least influenced) by the GM and a goal set by the Players, they must address the first Step by choosing 3 risks. The risks that they choose are a value judgement that is a useful tool for the GM to use in the ongoing game. Some players will learn to be strategic and choose risks that have minimal impact on or even promote their agenda and others will choose risks that reinforce their vision of the role of their character in the story. These are all valid. As play proceeds and the Players experience a series of Challenges the Availability Heuristic will increasingly influence these value judgements. This is useful for the GM because it implies that things that are easily recalled tend to score higher value than things that are harder to recall. By reinforcing specific points (such as `No-one survives an encounter with a Renovator!’) the GM can moderate value judgements via the Availability Heuristic.
The final two decisions; applying resources within the dice mechanic and choosing whether to accept consequences in order to win the Challenge or exit without consequence both access the Effort Heuristic and the Escalation of Commitment Heuristic.
The Effort Heuristic states that endeavours that require more effort are generally valued higher than those that do not. My goal has value because I am risking all these consequences to achieve it. If my goal has value it is worth spending character resources to achieve it. I am highly aware of the risks I take (Availability Heuristic) because I must choose them each time I act.
The Escalation of Commitment Heuristic implies that ongoing or increased investment in an endeavour is justified by prior investment even if that cost exceeds the relative benefit. The Mesh Dream core mechanic states that players will win if they accept the consequences. As play proceeds through a series of Challenges the Players will begin to accumulate more consequences and will experience an interesting tension between their inherent value judgement and the evident price of winning. This divide is a measure of the Change that they have caused (inflicted?) and the price of Choice.

Why does this matter? 

Back a year ago (wow!) I blogged the four pillars of Mesh Dream. It is a game about Choice and Change, Patterns and Rebellion. A year of thinking, writing and not blogging about it and I think that I can summarise it as a game about the Mystery of Freedom. The structures of the game are intended to guide the player on a journey that will set them to thinking about the value of their judgements, the structures that limit them and the steps to break beyond them.