On Oil, Shovels and Gamer Psychology

How would you respond to someone who’s just been talking about needing to change the oil in her car telling you “On the way home, we’re going to pick up a bottle of oil and a shovel?”

No, “What does it have to do with role-playing?” isn’t the right answer. I’m getting there.

Photo by vertige

Figured out what you’d think? Good. This is one of those questions for which you can learn a lot about a person, particularly about their playstyle, from their answer.

Some people are just going to shrug. Is there something odd about buying a bottle of oil and a shovel? Not for them, really—she has her reasons, so why worry too much about it?

Others are going to ask what’s going on that requires a shovel. Clearly it’s not going to be used for the oil, but nobody plans ahead to buy a shovel unless they know they’re going to have use for one, so something must be afoot.

Then there are those who burst out “What are you going to do to that?” There’s no antecedent for the shovel, just the oil, so clearly the two of them must be related. But that’s as far as they go.

Last, you have the ones who are halfway through coming up with a way to use a shovel when changing oil (even if they don’t know very much about changing oil in general) by the time the original speaker explains to them that she needs it for replanting a kumquat tree.

The first set of people are probably the kind who are just going to follow your plot without really thinking about it. If you give them an item that seems to have nothing to do with the current storyline, they’re likely to either ignore it or just pocket it and worry about it later. (On the plus side, this means they’re probably not the kind of people who realize ahead of time that something is a plot-vital possession and attempt to shuck it before it can bring down the plot on them.)

The second kind are curious, second-guessers, but probably not particularly prone to thinking outside the box. They’re canny, and not too likely to be tripped up by the blatantly red herrings—useful when you don’t want distractions from the plot (as they aren’t going to take a completely unexpected fork because they put two and two together and got 2 square roots of 2), but potentially dangerous when you’re trying to prep for a surprise arc a couple arcs ahead, because they’ll try to find a context for that one piece that doesn’t seem to fit, and if their logical context and your never-see-it-coming plot twist line up, there goes the surprise. An added bonus is that they’re likely to start speculating about what the new element is going to lead to, particularly if they decide they want to know.

The third are somewhere between the fourth and the second. Like the Type 2s, they realize there’s something off about this new element. On the other hand, like the Type 4s, their default assumption is that it’s still going to be relevant to the current situation one way or another, likely in a rather extreme manner; they just need to wait and it will be explained. The good thing about them is that you can foreshadow more blatantly than you’d be able to with a Type 2; they’ll realize it’s foreshadowing, but that doesn’t mean they’ll figure out what you’re foreshadowing (or that if they try, they’ll figure it out correctly). The bad news is if you’re looking for people who are going to speculate ad nauseum about what’s going on, it’s less likely to be them unless they’ve got a lot of context to work from.

The fourth kind are definitely problem-solvers, but unlike Type 2 they’re less likely to be thinking about outside uses unless they’re given context saying that’s the case. Instead, they stick to the one issue—in your case the current plot arc, in this case changing the oil—and try to fit this anomalous piece of information into the existing issue. On the plus side, they’re probably not going to recognize that it’s setup for another plot immediately, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to figure it out later when they’ve had some time to think (and they’re likely to be as prone to speculation as the Type 2s tend to be). But on the other hand, their tendency to try to fit the new element into the current setup can lead to unexpected results, making them harder to plan for and to keep going in the direction you want them going in.

Do you find you and your players show the same patterns? If not, where am I leaping to conclusions? And if you’re a Type 4, what would you expect to be done with the shovel? (I figured it’d be used as a funnel.)

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