Puzzle-solving vs problem-solving and Golden Sky Stories

In this episode of Game Maker’s Toolkit, Mark Brown talks about puzzle-solving in video games. He draws a distinction between puzzle-solving – in which he discovers the solution – and problem-solving – in which he invents a solution. He highlights the difference between ‘the’ and ‘a’,  where puzzles have only one (or a very limited number) of solutions, whereas problems could have any number of solutions so long as the player achieves the goal.

This put into words a notion I had been trying to express about a particular tabletop rpg for a few days. That game is Golden Sky Stories. In GSS, the players play magical animals that look to help others and make friends. I have found it one of the easiest games to prep for and GM and I’ve been thinking about why that is and how it can help GMing other games.

The GM advice for creating stories is very clear, each story starts with the premise ‘someone is troubled by something’. Whether it’s a kid who’s lost their cap, or a girl who’s burnt a batch of cakes or a local spirit whose home is threatened, someone has got to be troubled by something. For me, as soon as I’ve settled that, I’m pretty much done with prep. I’m not trying to make it difficult for the players to learn what the trouble is; I’ll make it quite obvious for them, and they’ll normally have a pretty full understanding of it after the first few scenes.

So what kind of gaming sessions does this approach produce? Sessions that are focused on the players inventing solutions rather than following a trail of clues until they discover the pre-defined solution. I find it less work, more fun and far more varied.

But why can I do this in GSS, but not to all problem-solving in games? Here are my thoughts:

  • The players fundamentally understand the world – even though GSS features magical animals and spirits, its stories are set within a real world small town. This means that the players have a basic understanding of what’s around them and how things work, even if I haven’t added that detail in. If they need basic ingredients to make cakes, they know that they’ll be able to find a store in town that will sell them.
  • The players understand the basics of the problem – until they do so, they can’t suggest solutions.
  • The players have a clear toolbox – each character has particular powers that can inspire them to try different solutions.
  • The players can try multiple solutions – unlike ‘heists’ and other situations where you may only get one shot at trying out a solution, in GSS the players can typically try out several different solutions, one after the other, without penalty.
  • The game provides guidance as to the mode of the solution – GSS is a game about kindness, friendship and understanding others. While the players may try out several zany or nefarious schemes, this principle helps me to know when they have struck on a solution to the trouble that will last.
  • The challenges are mainly about people – physical challenges aren’t given much weight, instead the main challenges within the game are about understanding people. Overcoming these challenges is therefore not limited to discovering a specific key to open a specific lock, or the one specific weakness the monster has. People can be incredibly complicated, but because we are them we are able to engage with them.

So what can I take from my play of GSS for other investigative-style games? Really, just a series of questions:

  • If I’m not playing in the real world, how can I inform my players of the rules of this world?
  • How can I make it clear to my players what they can do?
  • How can I make it safe for them to try and invent solutions multiple times?
  • Does the game have a strong outline for the style of the solution?
  • How can I make my challenges about people rather than things?

Tell me your thoughts whether problem-solving in your gaming sessions are more about discovering the solution or inventing a solution, and which you prefer and why?

Epistolary Richard

Epistolary Richard is one of the co-ordinators of the London Indie RPG meetup. He’s a frequent game-runner at the meet and a variety of conventions and he hosts an annual year in review seminar for indie games at Dragonmeet.

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