In design, the greatest tool for improving a game is iteration. There are very few games that are completely, objectively perfect, if any at all. Iteration is vital to improving upon an existing game, from the smallest parts to entirely new editions and systems; however, this concept can be equally staggering as it is interesting. It’s dangerous to go alone, take this guide and make the first steps of evolving yourself from player to designer.
When a player enters an area, more often than not their immediate response is to examine what they can approach first, and how they can interact with that stimulus to garner a positive effect. With more options, more time is taken to make a decision. Such is the simplicity of Hick’s Law, the time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increases.
Mathematically, this is often portrayed as the Hick-Hyman Law in the following formula:
T = b * log2 (n + 1)
T would represent the reaction time taken to choose among n choices appropriately. In this example, b is a constant that can be determined by empirically fitting a line to measured data, log2 is the performance of a binary search, and the +1 is to represent the uncertainty of whether or not to respond, as well as what choice to make.
For this reason, I would never place my players in a supermarket and ask them to pick out food. Without any qualifiers, the players realize that they can pick out any number of foods, regardless of cost, based on their whimsy, throughout any aisle, without a time limit. The entire session would be spent waiting for players to decide how their characters would eat.
However, if I were to add limitations to their search, the entire section would take much less time and effort. By limiting the amount of food they could buy to a set dollar amount ($15), and the amount of time they have to choose (20 minutes), the focus becomes much more apparent, and the time taken decreases drastically.
If players were to walk into a room and there are fifteen enemies, they would be overwhelmed as to where to start fighting first. This denotes that the only description of the room was “There are fifteen enemies”.
By elucidating this concept, the players are able to make a more informed decision, more quickly.
The worst way to describe this would be to tell the actual numbers. The best way to do so would be to lead with descriptions. A GM that enlightens their players to the numbers behind the screen is simply breaking immersion. For example, “Well these guys only have three hit points, so you can probably bash them quick.”
The easiest way to do so would be to describe based on size, relative description, or comparable height to the player. “Well, there are five thugs roughly your shape, five thugs a bit bigger than you, and five of the biggest thugs you’ve ever seen.”
The alternatives have now dwindled, as the player will be able to accurately discern how to approach the group based on their relevance to the proposed choices. While they are not thinking in terms of how many options do I have and they are thinking of how dangerous my options are, the alternatives represent choices the player would logically not make.
If a player were to be set in a bustling town with three taverns and six shops and fifteen unnamed buildings, all with different interesting people to meet and things to see, the options would become paralyzing. Especially considering the time limits of most sessions, the longer they wait to choose of the multitudinous options, the more stressed they become to make any decision, let alone the right one.
A GM could propose a motivation to the players to visit specific areas based on their objective tasks and motivations. If there are eighteen sites to visit, all of equal interest, the choice is bogged down. If there are eighteen sites to visit, and the player has a good idea of what they would most likely enjoy, ascertain, or gather, the choice becomes much clearer.
The idea is to give less quantity and not less quality on both approaches. Having a million places to visit and things to do rounds down to similar experiences in each to accomplish purpose of the areas, rather than experiences gained. The question to ask is which choices reflect a good decision, and how that is accomplished.
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