I was watching a documentary the other week. (I know, it seems like I watch a lot of TV. I actually watch less than it might seem, but I’ve gotten a number of articles out of what TV I do watch.)
Anyway, the subject in this case was the investigation of the crash of a Singapore Airlines jet in which – under extremely adverse conditions – the crew had attempted to take off from a runway which was closed for maintenance, when a very telling statement was made by a Human Factors expert interviewed for the show.
He said “The human brain is always trying to convince itself that it has a complete picture of what is going on, and so … when contradictory information comes in, there is a tendency called Confirmation Bias to ignore it, and to concentrate on what you think is happening.”
My first association, on hearing these words, was with the way in which many optical illusions work, with the mind seeing part of the picture and filling in the rest of the “story”; and the second was with the way in which witness statements can be flawed, unintentionally overlooking things that don’t fit the preconception of events. And the third was with the way Confirmation Bias explained and identified a phenomenon that I have observed a number of times as a GM:
The players come up with a theory as to what is happening, which either fits all the evidence that they have gathered thus far, or explains away contradictory evidence. So convinced are they by this theory built around an incorrect picture that they ignore or reject, as attempts to mislead them, subsequent contradictory evidence that should expose the flaw in their logic.
Has this ever happened to you? I’d lay odds that it has. It has certainly happened to me several times.
When Confirmation Bias strikes your game table, your options are limited, but perhaps more far-ranging than you think – though some come with steep price-tags. In fact, I’ve identified nine possible ways of handling the situation:
- Option #1: Do Nothing
- …until new evidence is found
- …until they spot the error
- …or an NPC figures out the truth
- …until the last possible second
- …until the 13th hour
- Option #6: The Players Are Right
- Option #7: Correct the error Immediately
- Option #8: Die Roll Saviors
- Option #9: Complicate the mess
This article is going to examine those solutions, the compromises and price-tags that they carry as baggage, and the pitfalls of each.
A necessary assumption
It’s necessary to assume that the solution the GM has in mind makes sense and has no logic holes. This, unfortunately, won’t always be the case; if the players’ logic for rejecting that solution seems compelling to the GM when it gets made, he has a whole different problem to deal with: fixing the hole in his logic, and only then seeing which of the solutions offered below will be the most effective way of patching the adventure with the logic upgrade.
A matter for serious consideration
Note that most of these solutions imply that they will be consistently employed in any similar future circumstance as a matter of campaign policy. While this policy is subject to change under different circumstances, establishing one in-game approach as the default and then not employing it on some future occasion is either a great big hint to the players (if they notice) or a potential undermining of their trust in the GM’s fairness.
This choice is not one that should be made lightly; it can have ramifications and consequences that go way beyond this individual adventure or even this particular campaign.
Options #1-5: Do Nothing
This basic solution is reflective of a particular gaming philosophy, that can be stated:
The players are in control of the PCs and make the decisions for them. If the players make a mistake in interpreting a situation, the PCs make the same mistake, and both sides have to live with the consequences. This option is the price that has to be paid for giving the players total freedom to play their characters as they see fit. If they are the ones making the decisions, then they also have to take the responsibility for making those decisions the correct ones.
There will be a lot of people who agree with that fundamental philosophy, at least in general terms. Others might argue that the GM knows the game world better than the players, and that the PCs have different capabilities to those of their players, and hence this hard line needs some watering down, some softening. What’s more, the GM has a much better view of the big picture, while the players have – at best – a distorted, compromised view, as explained in Monday’s article, Layers Of Mis-translation.
Finally, it can be argued that the GM has a responsibility to the campaign to save the players from themselves because a campaign that collapses is no fun for anybody.
So far as I am concerned, these are all valid arguments to at least some extent and that is why this is such an important, even defining, decision in terms of the campaign. I always give the question thought when creating a campaign and – at the very least – drop hints as to what the policy is going to be within a campaign, if it isn’t stated explicitly. I tailor the choices employed within any given campaign to the design of that campaign. And I will occasionally vary that choice based on in-game circumstances.
But, even if the core philosophy is to let the players make their own mistakes and live with the consequences, there remain options for softening this hard line to varying degrees. That’s where the terminus variations within this general option come in.
Option #1: …until new evidence is found
The softest variation is to let them continue in their erroneous thinking until they discover a piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit, then use it (through an NPC) to cast doubt on their theory, hitting them over the head with the logic error until you break through the Confirmation Bias. This leaves them with two viable theories – the one you started with, and a variation on their flawed one with appropriate adjustments and corrections to plug the wound made in it, but no certainty as to which is correct.
This solution suffers from a very human problem: it ignores the fact that the players are people with human feelings and deliberately humiliates them to some extent whenever they make a mistake. While some players may be fine with such treatment, most will dig in their heels and resent it. There are two solutions to this related subproblem: water down the “hit them over the head” part of the proposal, risking the effectiveness of the solution to the original problem, or taking this option off the table except in unusual circumstances.
Option #2: …until they spot the error
Players can sometimes break through Confirmation Bias all on their own, especially if something that doesn’t fit is forcibly brought to their attention (a-la the “new evidence is found” sub-option) and they are left to draw their own conclusions. If you can somehow drop a hint that some NPC is deliberately trying to make them (and anyone else) think that the PCs original conclusions are the truth, the combination is sometimes enough to eventually break through the Confirmation Bias.
This is often a good solution to employ in conjunction with one of the other options, because it gives the players the opportunity to fix their mistake while still erecting a safety net of some sort. It’s big flaw is that it doesn’t always work; the players might assume that the apparent deception is in fact a deception being used to double-bluff them into thinking their solution is not the correct one. Engaging their paranoia just enough is only a hair’s-breadth line removed from going way too far. You can actually end up doing more damage to the campaign than if you had kept your mouth shut.
Option #3: …or an NPC figures out the truth
One such safety net is having an NPC figure out that the PCs have made a mistake. The question then becomes, what will they do about it? The NPC can’t just up and lecture the PCs – that’s just another way of humiliating the players using the NPC as a proxy. No, the NPC needs to make one of the PCs aware that he thinks something may have been overlooked but doesn’t want to make a fuss about it until he investigates, then have the NPC try to verify the real solution and get in over his head.
Eventually, his absence / lack of messages will alert the PCs that there was at least some merit to his concerns, or he will be badly injured in the course of his solo wanderings (same result) or whatever – something will happen to him that lends credibility to his alternate theory of what’s going on.
This is entirely fair game, establishing the philosophic principle that if the players get their sums wrong, other people will suffer, and this can include friends and allies. In other words, there is a price that they have to pay, albeit indirectly, for being wrong. (This is a lot more effective in some campaigns than others). Genre, PC personality, player personality, empathy for NPCs – there are a host of factors. But it’s definitely worth considering.
Option #4: …until the last possible second
If you’re going to make the truth a revelation because the players have blinded themselves to truth, why not go the whole hog? “The last possible second” is defined in this case as the last point at which the PCs can undertake the correct action to stop whatever is really going on. It only takes a slightly overconfident villain leaping up at that moment and exclaiming “You were so easy to deceive, until now, it is too late to stop me, Bwahahaha!” and the problems resulting from the Confirmation Bias go away.
The problem with this solution is that it requires the right mental attitudes on the part of the players, because they have to be able to figure out the solution to their problem without being fed it by the GM. If they are in a mental state that says “Yeah, you got us good, there’s nothing we can do about it anymore,” then the whole adventure, and possibly the campaign, will collapse in a heap. If they are strong-willed, determined, problem-solvers who will take that pronouncement as a challenge, then this option can work, and work brilliantly – up to the point where it becomes overused.
It’s vital that the villain’s pronouncement be the final event in the day’s play so that the players have until the start of the next game session to reevaluate the situation and come up with a plan. The GM can hint at the solution but can’t deliver it on a silver platter.
And there should always be a cost involved in last-minute desperate solutions. If there’s no pain for their characters as a result, the players will learn nothing from the error. An adventure post-mortem is definitely called for – perhaps partially in the form of a player-GM bullring, in which the causes of the mistake can be looked at from a metagame level, followed by a roleplayed partial in-character post-mortem, possibly built into the start of the next adventure – though tacking it onto the current one, and ideally onto the adventure play session which includes the climax is probably a better option.
Option #5: …until the 13th hour
Let the PCs make their mistakes until it IS too late and the villain wins. Then segue into an adventure in which the PCs undo the victory at the 13th hour. This lets the players take the frustration, anger, and humiliation that has been dumped on them by the NPC and return the favor – leaving the GM in the clear.
It’s vital, when employing this technique, that the solution be timed properly, and that afterwards it be emphasized that the PCs got lucky in that there was a way back from the abyss – they might not be so lucky the next time.
I didn’t have to use it, but for one Zenith-3 adventure I carefully prepared an outline of a solution to just such a problem in case it was needed. (I’m going to leave the details vague because I might retool it for use some other time):
- The first hour of the next session would have been consumed by the PCs escaping, convinced that there had to be a way out of the mess.
- The following 30 minutes was going to be a synopsis of three months under the heel of the victorious dictator while the PCs were on the run – not played in-game – and the cost to innocent bystanders and allies of the team.
- Finally, the conclusion to the second hour was going to be the villain making his first major mistake and the PCs realizing that he had made a mistake.
- An hour or so of planning and investigating how best to take advantage of that mistake, deciding just what their objective had to be, then one-to-two hours of putting that plan into action.
There were actually going to be two ways to take advantage of the mistake – one was more certain but left the last three months events (game time) intact, the other an alternative that was riskier but could undo everything all the way back to the 13th hour and prevent the original victory by the villain – at a price.
I would have expected the PCs to attempt both plans simultaneously – a problem of coordination of efforts, but worth the effort, giving them two simultaneous bites of the cherry.
I was then going to put the villain into a position where he could attempt to stop ONE of the two plans, and make his second mistake – he would underestimate what the time-travel option could achieve and block the contemporary-events targeting group. Upshot: the PCs find themselves back at the moment of total victory for the villain with one slim hope of stopping him.
Note that none of this was going to come easy for the PCs, this was not a deus-ex-machina, it was something they were going to have to sweat bullets to pull off. I was going to give them a chance to correct their mistake, not an easy way out, and with no guarantees of success. I also had contingency plans to extend the in-the-future segment by another game session or even two, if the players found themselves getting into it.
That’s how you structure a 13th-hour solution.
In the past, I’ve had such solutions in place for other adventures.
A possibility at one point was a KGB mole taking over the President of the US with Mind Control, and being stopped just as he begins the nuclear launch sequence after re-targeting the nukes at US targets. All but one of the missiles would be harmlessly self-destructed, that last one could be stopped by one of the PCs, depriving her of her powers at least temporarily in a “radiation accident”, but leaving the President hopelessly insane, elevating a corrupt Vice-President to the oval office, and leaving the US vulnerable to nuclear attack from the Soviet Union unless the PCs acted immediately. There is always a price to be paid for a 13-hour solution.
The biggest downside of the 13th-hour solution is that you can’t employ it all the time, and there is always a risk that the PCs will fail in their 13th-hour bid for victory. Other notable dangers are the effects of the price to be paid – it has to cause real harm to the PCs capabilities or it’s not a deterrent, but that can impact other adventures down the track. It’s often an all-or-nothing throw of the dice for the campaign. It’s wise to have a plan C in case the PCs fail.
Option #6: The Players Are Right
So far, the alternatives have all been variations on “The players are wrong and will eventually come to know it”. It’s time to cast a wider net and consider more radical solutions.
One obvious choice that I’ve used a couple of times is to rewrite the rest of the planned adventure, on the spot, in such a way that the players are right. When I like their theory better than the plans and motivations that I employed to determine the events on which their theory is based, and in particular when it opens the door to one or more future adventures that I hadn’t even considered, this is one of the first options that I consider.
The problem with this solution is that you usually have very little time to make up your mind. As Johnn Four wrote for Campaign Mastery some years back, “Say Yes, but Get There Quick.” The trick to being able to make a reasoned snap judgment is two-fold; (1) Know what is going on, according to your original plan, and how the events that the PCs have discovered fit into that sequence of events; (2) consider each element of the players’ theory as they develop and expound it, looking for both flaws and plot potential. By staying only a heartbeat behind the players, and developing pro- and anti- arguments as you go, the GM is in a position to render a quick decision while still investing considerable thought on the question.
Every fact always has three possible explanations: it’s a true fact, a mistake, or it’s a deliberate deception by someone for a reason. Employing this logic to retroactively change the status of events and “facts” uncovered by the PCs, it is always possible to construct an alternative theory as to the cause of events, and what is going on. All that needs to be done to switch from one scenario being “true” to the other is to recast the conflicting points of information as errors, incorrect assumptions, or deliberate deceptions.
That beings about a secondary problem, however; the deception has to make sense to whoever is responsible. After all, the adventure has just gone from a case of one stream of events and an interpretation of those events by the players to one stream of events plus an active deception – one set of real events has become two. It doesn’t matter how much sense the players theory makes if the hypothetical deception is so improbable or counterproductive or nonsensical that it would never occur. This is one of the most significant assessments that the GM has to make in evaluating the potential of the player’s theory, and this is what the GM should pay the maximum attention to.
You can trust the players to police the internal logic of their theories, at least to some extent. You’ve hopefully prepared the internal logic of what you originally intended to happen, in advance. So it should be possible to focus your concentration on the player’s theory and whether or not the surrounding events hold logical water. This is one of the most important criteria to employ in determining whether or not this is a viable option.
Option #7: Correct the error Immediately
One reason why the decision about Option #6 has to be made so quickly is because it is mutually exclusive to this alternative. The best time to dispel Confirmation Bias is immediately you become aware of it. “You’re trying to convince yourselves, but something just doesn’t ring true.” “There’s something you’ve overlooked.” “You’re reaching.” “Interesting speculation but it relies on too many unvalidated assumptions, so don’t lock your thinking in stone.” “Wishing won’t make it so.” “It seems over-complicated as theories go.” “That seems too simplistic an explanation.” Any of these phrases can be used to puncture the theory as a hypothetical description of reality, but only if they are delivered before players convince themselves and Confirmation Bias gets locked into place. They are all shorthand, polite GM code for “You’re talking nonsense”.
Option #8: Die Roll Saviors
Players are not their characters. The environments in which players and characters are trying to make sense of events are completely different. The same logic used to justify Option #1 can also be turned to permitting characters dice rolls to work out when the players are putting nonsense into their mouths and minds.
While I have an aesthetic dislike for this solution, it is a viable option that has to be considered, and that I have had to employ on more than one occasion. It’s especially appropriate when there is a great disparity between the intellectual capabilities or life experiences of players and characters; but it has the tremendous drawback of letting a die roll replace ROLE-play.
After all, if you’re going to let die rolls decide everything, what do you need players for?
Option #9: Complicate the mess
Douglas Adams wrote, in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Universe”, “There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.” This option is offered in the same spirit.
Essentially, it assumes that as soon as the players lock their minds in stone about what is going on, both their theory and the plot from which the GM has generated the events about which the players are theorizing become equally invalid, replaced by something even more complicated, and the first thing that the GM has to do is elevate the state of confusion.
For example, let us presuppose that a family heirloom – a diamond necklace – was broken down and sold piecemeal because the artistry of the setting was particularly bad and detracted from the overall value of the piece. Now the son who sold it off without his family’s knowledge to solve his gambling debts is stealing back the gems to reconstruct the necklace before its theft is discovered. So he steals a piece of jewelery, removes the stones from their setting, keeps the one he wants, and dumps the rest at the scene of subsequent crimes in order to confuse the authorities about what is happening.
The players figure out that the thief is stealing to obtain specific gems from each item, but are at a loss as to the significance of those gems until one of the players notices that one of the gemstones is “3 carats” and another weighs “1.4 grams” and a third is “0.027 inches in diameter” (all randomly chosen numbers) and evolves the theory that mystic numerology is involved relating to the embedded digits of pi (3.1415927), and therefore the next theft will involve a stone which contains some measurement with a value of “15” or “1.5” or something along those lines. From there, the speculation moves on to the mystic significance, an answer is contrived involving opening a portal to a hypothetical other plane of existence, and before you know it, the PCs are looking for a sorcerer and numerologist.
As soon as that happens, the GM rules (in his own mind) that both explanations are spurious and the truth is even more complicated. Back when they were part of the same necklace, a secret formula for the unlocking of great power was micro-etched by laser into the surfaces of the diamonds as a means of smuggling that research out of the hands of the foreign power who sponsored the research for use as a weapon. He got the necklace out, but was captured and has spent the last twenty years in prison. Finally, he effected an escape, but in the meantime, the jewels were broken up and sold piecemeal – his artistry in designing the setting left something to be desired. He has spent a further five years in tracking them down, and now has only two more to find.
But his M.O. is about to change. One of the gems has been re-cut, and in a rage, he is going to kill the jeweler with the victim’s own gem-cutting equipment and then steal his entire stock in order to buy what expensive equipment he needs to replicate his research that he is going to be unable to steal. And the PCs, in the act of investigating, are going to encounter the son of the jeweler, a fine red herring, who has been secretly smuggling blood diamonds to his father for re-cutting, and an uncut stone will have been given to a witness, a streetwalker, in an attempt to buy her silence; when she attempts to sell the diamond, it’s provenance will be immediately recognized and she will be detained. At which point, the deal she made with the jewel thief is off, and she will attempt to make a new deal with the authorities for her freedom. Next, the criminal needs to find a buyer for his loot; he sells some of it in a pawnshop, but is long gone by the time the connection is worked out, and makes contact with the Russian Mafia in an attempt to sell them the rest.
He makes the mistake of telling them too much, and they decide to back his research – whether he likes it or not. So the diamond robberies stop, and a new series of brazen and violent high-tech robberies by the Russian Mafia take their place. Meanwhile, from the description provided by the streetwalker, including information about accent and unfamiliarity with American slang, the PCs identify the thief and establish the provenance of the original series of stones – this builds the path to the original solution to the crimes into the new plotline. By now, the original theory of the players, to which they were becoming wedded, has been blown apart; there are too many things that it doesn’t explain. They identify and recover the last two of the original stones and discover the secret to unlocking the hidden code micro-engraved within them, and enabling them to start figuring out what’s now going on.
Meanwhile, an FBI deep-cover mole within the Russian Mafia connects some of the dots for the PCs, and they start putting together the real story. They determine that the hidden code has something to do with the angular momentum of charged spinning black holes, and are able to deduce the rest from the list of equipment stolen. By constructing an artificial microscopic black hole, with a charge, and spinning it by transfer of angular momentum while feeding it just enough high-energy fast-moving particles in a fixed directional stream with an electron gun (as used in any old-style TV set) to keep it “alive”, energy can be siphoned from the black hole by firing a second string of particles to just graze the edge of the event horizon; the particles are spun at incredible speeds, tearing them apart; some components are absorbed by the hole, but the rest leave with more velocity than they arrived with because of the transfer of angular momentum, carrying enough energy to initiate a small fission-fusion reaction in deuterium atoms, splitting apart hydrogen atoms and colliding the parts with enough force to cause them to fuse into helium, releasing heat energy which can be turned into mechanical work.
What happens from there depends on the genre. So far, the adventure could be superhero, neo-pulp, super-spies, sci-fi, or cyberpunk. The researcher, under pressure to deliver results from the Russian Mafia, is about to make a second mistake by incorrectly replicating part of the original formula, but what the outcome will be is dependent on the genre. All you can do without that information is characterizing it as a danger and an immediate threat. Naturally, this will occur just as the thief is distracted by the PCs raiding the premises in order to arrest him, then turn him states’ witness against the Russian Mafia. But whether the villain gains superpowers by his machine running amok, or it becomes a bomb on a short fuse, or it really does rip a hole into another continuum, it still provides a suitably spectacular ending to what has turned into a much bigger and more complicated adventure than the original very human and low-level story of perseverance in the face of incredible adversity that the GM had in mind.
This example was included to make a point as well as illustrating the process. The unexpected development jars the complacency that sets in as a result of Confirmation Bias, the confidence that the PCs know what’s going on, but it also makes the adventure bigger. In order to overcome the Confirmation Bias, it’s not enough to throw unexpected plot developments at the PCs, there needs to be some sort of escalation beyond what they were expecting, and that in turn needs a more over-the-top conclusion as a pay-off to the bigger build-up. Without that escalation, the players will waste time and effort trying to integrate the unexpected development into their pre-existing analysis – something that’s always possible by ruling the unexpected item as an attempted deception to throw authorities off the scent. It’s only by making the unexpected development too important for such a minor function, ie escalation, that the cracks in the Confirmation Bias can be wedged permanently open.
I know what’s really happening!
Confirmation Bias is a very real problem for the GM, one that he will encounter repeatedly, but it can be overcome. Just remember the usually-misquoted line from Shakespeare and let it be your guide: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The players may think they know what is happening, but you really do know what’s going on – even if you change your mind!