Monday, March 4, 2013

When to Throw the Investigators a Life Vest; or, Ending the Cycle of Failure


Reading an article by Mark Morrison over on the Orient Express Writers blog the other day, I came across an interesting idea in reference to a phenomenon one encounters in investigative games like Call of Cthulhu. The phrase was "cycle of failure" and it got me thinking. We're all familiar with the "death spiral" effect common to many games, or even CoC's "sanity spiral", but the idea of the "failure spiral" is one of player mechanics rather than game mechanics. It's what happens when something goes wrong in the brain trust: a clue is missed or misinterpreted, a red herring (or even a throwaway NPC or scene) is seized upon with unwonted focus to the exclusion of the core clues, one of the players takes the lead in the investigation but then leads it in a totally wrong direction, and so forth.

This is a problem that can afflict any investigative-style game, even those like the Gumshoe system games that give core clues away for free, because it's a problem of player psychology and interaction. Things can get derailed on the smallest pretext, and then the failures of investigation that result from that initial failure begin to multipy, creating a vicious cycle of frustration - the players legitmately think they're on the right track, but they can't figure out why they're not making any progress.

I've had this come up a couple times in my current Cthulhu by Gaslight campaign. Once with a red herring that led to an hour's worth of pointless wandering through a perfectly benign (and clue-free) limestone cave complex, and then last night, where an important piece of the puzzle was missed because the group somehow got it into their heads that they needed to talk to a certain doctor and not the doctor's coachman. Due to the nature of the clue, the doctor was unaware of the coachman's value and was unable to nudge the group in the right direction, and so much spinning of wheels ensued, despite my subtle attempts to steer them back towards the coachman.

Because they're doing a playtest under a deadline, Mr. Morrison explicitly tells his group if they're entering a cycle of failure. Perfectly understandable under the circumstances, but I do wonder: what's an allowable amount of failure-cycling in a given session being run under "normal" conditions? I mean, what's a mystery without a good red herring, right? And then there's the additional complication of player autonomy. I'm a firm believer that players have a right to fall flat on their faces, particularly if it's through their own actions. But it can be tough to watch a group get sucked into that cycle, and at a certain point the question arises: is it ever okay, as a GM, to come in with a heavy hand (either via a convenient NPC or even just OOC) and steer the players back in the right direction?

I'll admit that I have resorted to allied NPCs or the ever-popular "Everyone make an Idea roll!" bailout to provide nudges in the past, particularly if it's a case of the group simply missing a single puzzle piece. This is generally welcomed by the players, or at least I've never had any complaints of railroading or robbing player agency.

I'm curious if anyone out in the readership has ever wielded a stronger hand in the manner of Mr. Morrison's playtest group, perhaps stopping everything to correct the players' course and put an end to the cycle of failure? Conversely, are there readers out there who view any type of GM intervention in a failure spiral as tantamount to quantum ogres in a sandbox? I'm all for allowing for failure as a viable option, but it's never fun when that failure comes as the result of a vicious and avoidable cycle, in my opinion.
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