This is not the post I was originally going to write for today, but a paragraph in one of the books I am reading brought to mind the game that seemed to be everywhere just a few years ago, “Six Degrees From Kevin Bacon”, and social networking in general, and I suddenly saw applicability to RPGs. It won’t come as a surprise to long-time readers of Campaign Mastery that I like to relate to complex phenomena through Analagies; it lets me get an overall ‘take’ on the phenomenon and its relevance that otherwise awaits a “Eureka!” flash of insight.
The “Six Degrees” game is a manifestation of a theory of social networking, and states that Person A will know someone (designated person B) who knows someone (person C) who knows someone (person D) who knows someone (person E), and that one of these five people will know Kevin Bacon. The broader theory suggests that this is true of any two individuals – no matter how far apart they seem to be, a finite and remarkably small number of links can connect them. Several experiments have confirmed the hypothesis and a number of social networking sites have found ways to take advantage of it; you can find more information on the subject at this Wikipedia page.
The thought that intrigued me, the “Eureka! moment” that changed the subject of today’s discussion, is this: How does this concept manifest itself in terms of the relationships between characters in RPGs, and how can the GM take advantage of it?
One Degree Of Seperation
This is obviously a situtation in which everyone that the characters meet is directly relevant to the campaign. It doesn’t take players long to recognise it, either, which is why this is a common characteristic of new-GM campaigns – though, to be fair, experienced GMs often fall into this trap as well (and I include myself in that number). Immediately a new NPC is encountered, under this model, the players begin trying to fit them into a pigeonhole – “this character is here for this reason”.
Prior to this realisation, all my thinking had been about ways to obfuscate the relevance of an NPC character from the PCs – making them seem important to situation “A” instead of “B” – and of finding ways to connect characters (especially PCs) more immediately to the scenario’s action – in effect, shortening the degrees of seperation between PCs and the events of the Campaign, so that it feels more personal, and more important, to the characters.
While that work is not invalidated by this new perspective, it now becomes a relatively small componant of a much larger vista of possibilities.
Two Degrees Of Seperation
The first of these is possibilities emerges through the use of two degrees of seperation. Instead of everyone the PCs meet being directly relevant to events in the campaign, we’re now talking about the majority of them merely knowing someone who is directly relevant. Social networking and character interaction immediately become more important as the communications channels for reaching those relevant individuals. Suddenly, there is a new depth and sophistication to the campaign, and a far greater complexity – mathematically, the campiagn is expanded geometrically in all social respects.
I had briefly touched on this concept, without recognising it, while working on the “Contacts” rules for my superhero campaign, whose rules derive from the Hero System. The notion was implicit that who an NPC could call apon for information or action was directly relevant to the value they offered when that NPC was taken as a contact, and some efforts were made to quantify these secondary values.
More Degrees Of Seperation
In the real world, the sophistication of social networks extend many layers deeper than this, but, in an RPG, I would suggest that the best way of counting degrees of seperation should be one, two, three, many. Consider the situation in which a PC calls apon one of the contacts that I described above and asks him to use his influance over others to cause a certain action to take place; what the character is actually asking the NPC to do is to direct a third party to act apon a fourth, establishing a three-degrees-of-seperation relationship between the PC and the target of the action, regardless of how many degrees of seperation had previously seperated that third party and the target, as shown by the illustration below.
The PCs contact A, who arranges for B to act against H, a target they have virtually no relationship with, otherwise. For the sake of the example, I have deliberately placed six degrees of seperation between B and H.
This is obvously intended to achieve some goal of the PCs, indicating that there must be a relationship between them and H of no more than three degrees – either he is their enemy, or he is the enemy of someone they are directly connected with, or the consequence of the action against H will impact their real target, J (not shown) in some way.
- If H is the PCs’ enemy, that’s one degree of seperation.
- If H is the enemy of someone the PCs know, that’s two degrees of seperation.
- If J is the PC’s enemy, that’s also two degrees of seperation – PCs to J to H.
- If J is the enemy of someone the PCs know, that’s three degrees of seperation (or less, if H is that someone).
One, Two, Three, Many. That’s all that a Campaign needs.
RPG Usage with Information Dynamics
Of course, I couldn’t leave the general concept there. What if the degrees of seperation referred not to characters, but to pieces of information and the relationship between them? Could it be possible to catalogue all known information using some system of N links between them? Would this permit a faster method of indexing them, and of searching that index?
Or fields of knowledge – is this a way to map out the way they connect and relate to each other, and might such a map reveal the degree to which one contributes to an understanding of another?
In RPG terms, the first can be likened to performing an internet search to locate a website that’s relevant to the enquiry, then searching that website’s pages for mention of the subject, determining that the website doesn’t hold the answer directly (or doesn’t have the whole answer), but does have a link to a different web page either on the same site or on a different site – in other words, to good old-fashioned internet browsing? One relatively complicated task – finding a piece of needed obscure information – has been broken into smaller tasks which have a relatively quantifiable degree of difficulty. Each task must be successful in order for the next to become possible.
TORG used just such a mechanism for resolving difficult tasks (like defusing a bomb) that would otherwise be anticlimactic. Sure, there are often occasions when this would be overkill – but there are times when a straight die roll takes all the excitement out of the task – just one of several concepts in that game system that I considered brilliant ideas, and that have shaped my thinking ever since.
The second idea has also been used in RPGs before. The first example that comes to mind is the Language Chart from the Hero System, which uses the degree of relatedness between a known language and an unknown language to determine how many points it costs to learn the unknown language. It is also used, in the first degree of seperation only, by D&D 3.x, in the form of synergy bonuses. I’ve used another variation on the concept for determining the costs of “driving” certain kinds of vehicles – because while it’s trivial learning to use an automatic gearbox vehicle if you learned to drive a manual, the opposite is very definitly not true.
The concept of the relatedness of information keeps recurring in RPG systems; it is even (to stretch the applicability almost to breaking point) analagous to Roleplaying Tips’ famous “Five Room Dungeons” – five challenges to be overcome to complete the mini-scenario.
Why not use this as a tool to think about how to structure your scenarios? Clue number 1 leads to clues 2 and 3; clue 2 leads to action, but ends in a dead end; clue 3 leads to action, which yields clue 4; clue 4 leads to action, which leads to identifying the specific target or objective; and that leads to the action needed to complete the scenario. Or perhaps the chain is 1 to 2 to 3 and 4, with 3 being a dead end, and 4 leading to 5, which leads to resolution of the original problem. This sort of breakdown: introduction, progress, setback, resolution – is used in dramatic writing all the time – try analysing any self-contained episodic TV show or movie, and you will find that most of them have a basic structure modelled along these lines.
RPG Usage with Repetitious Tasks
The same principles can also be extended to cover tasks that are repetitious to the point of tedium. For example, the number of climb rolls needed to climb a cliff (either up or down) can be truly stultifying – I once had a situation in which each PC had to make thirty rolls. How much better would it be to break the total task into 3 or 4 rolls, each dealing with the descent to, and resolution of, a specific sub-problem. The reduction in the number of rolls can easily be allowed for by increasing the difficulty target to be overcome, using the product rule.
For those that don’t know it: If a character has to make three rolls with a 60% chance of success at each, then the chance of his making all three rolls is 60/100 x 60/100 x 60/100, or 21.6%. You get that number by multiplying the three chances (as decimels or fractions) together, and then multiplying by 100 to convert the result to a percentage. 0.6 x 0.6 = 0.36; 0.36 x 0.6 = 0.216; so that’s 21.6%.
All you have to do is work out what the chance of success for each PC is for ONE step, and then multiply it by itself the right number of times. As a general rule, I don’t reccomend combining more than 5 rolls at a time in this way – so those 30 rolls could have been combined quite reasonably into 6 specific tasks.
You can even build additional difficulty into one or more steps along the way, just by converting the additional difficulty into a reduced chance of success on that roll.
RPG Usage with Authority Networks & Politics
Having gotten this far, I asked myself what else can be described meaningfully in terms of degrees of seperation? The first thought that came to mind was the heirarchy of power, from the very top to the very bottom of the rung. This is a complex issue, because people can have different levels of power in different spheres of authority, and some people have leverage that permits hidden power to be exerted indirectly. There are reasons why “the halls of power” are often described as a web, or as a labyrinth!
And yet, with further musings, it became clear to me that by expanding the simple linear model of degrees of seperation to incorporate a spacial axis – in effect, taking a linear chart and making it two-dimensional – quite complex relationships of authority could be expressed graphically by two numbers: one, the distance to the ultimate authority figure (ie the degrees of seperation from the ultimate authority) and two, a number designating the nature of the power.
The more I contemplated this particular model, the more it became aparrant that complexities could be rendered quite clear using this format that other forms of representation would struggle with. Consider, for example, the example below:
This shows the lines of authority for a particular character – let’s call him Bud. It’s been simplified to only have 4 degrees of seperation, ie 5 levels of authority from top to bottom. Bud is the most powerful man in industry, a position which gives him clout at the mid-level in politics, at a junior level in religion, at a low level in Legal circles, an intermediate level in Finance, and a senior level in the civil service. However, he also has “back-door” access to a senior level of both politics and finance, and has a second route to the religion junior level through his legal connections.
It has sometimes been said that policy made at the highest level becomes instructions at the senior level, strong suggestions at the intermediate level, suggestions at the the supervisory level, and a passing consideration at the most junior level. (It has also been said in the reverse direction!).
So, if each degree of seperation represents a reduction in direct authority, and that cross-field traffic only occurs perfectly horizontally except when otherwise noted, the level of direct authority over any other individual can be determined from the chart. In his own field, Bud is number 1, with a clear line of authority all the way down to the rank and file. He is (officially) three degrees of seperation removed from the top authority he holds in the political area, six removed from his authority in religious affairs, five from the legal field, four from finances, and two from a senior level of the civil service. Each step up or down from these represents an additional degree of seperation. However, he also has a backchannel that makes him only two degrees from the top political power, and another that makes him only two removed from the top financial power. Budd is the head of the civil service union – someone who can tell even senior politicians what to do, even though he is not supposed to be able to do so.
Why is such a chart useful? Because whenever Budd wants to exert his authority, the GM can count the layers of bureacracy through which Budds power must travel; the total gives some estimate of the authority carried by the instructions Budd gives, and the length of time it takes for his influance to be felt.
The example is not necessarily the most useful means of representing the lines of authority (in fact, it almost certainly isn’t, simply because it was the first one that I thought of), but it’s enough to demonstrate the validity of the concept. By changing the labels at the bottom of the chart, more specific and useful results can be obtained; for example, what if the labels had read “Arts department”, “Physics Department”, “Gym Team”, “Medical School”, “Administration”, and “Maths Department”? Then the same diagram might represent the lines of authority posessed by the Dean of the Physics department at a university.
It is the back-door paths that are most significant. Each represents a relationship that is beyond the boundaries that come with the position itself. Perhaps the Dean is married to one of the Arts Professors, and is a drinking buddy of the Dean Of Admissions, for example, while the junior professor of the Medical School also acts as the assistant coach of the Swim Team. It doesn’t take much more effort to completely map the lines of authority within the university.
RPG Usage with Social Networks
Of course, the real power of the concept lies in Social Networking, just as it does in the real world. Who knows who?
It’s not necessary for the GM to map out the entire social network in advance; but, with the assistance of the players concerned, he should map out the degrees of seperation that interconnect the PCs. Each time an NPC enters the campaign for the first time, he can add that NPC to the social network, determining who knows who, who is allied with who, and so on.
Consider this example. The Six PCs are at the centre of the network, and the links that connect each of them to the others are shown in blue. Links between the people on the network and the Crown are shown in Red. Links between NPCs are in black. Right away, the primary villain stands revealed to the GM (at the far right), and the fact that many of his lieutenants have associations, direct or indirect, with people connected socially to half the party, as well as to the King and the King’s #2 man. It is also clear that thus far, the PCs have only had one direct contact with the enemy.
The nature of that contact suggests that they will probably assume that the villain is the King’s #2 man, and will deal with the upper 3 NPC enemies and think the problem solved. At a later point, they will come into contact with one of the other NPCs, and assume that what they face is a seperate situation to the first, and will only discover otherwise quite late in the piece.
I’ve only spent an hour or two thinking about this, and I’m quite sure that I have only scratched the surface. How else might these ideas be useful? What other complex situations can this simplify through analogy? What else can we DO with this idea? What else can we abbreviate?