Note: Often the term “Game Theory” is used by gamers to refer to the GNS (Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism) Theory or the RPG Theory of The Forge web site. This article deals with the science of Game Theory developed in the 1940s. For more information on GNS Theory please check out The Forge.
You are planning your next gaming session and need something that will evoke role playing from your players and suspense from the scene. You do not want to railroad your players into a contrived situation, but you do want the party to face a good solid challenge with risks and potential rewards. So you decide that in the next session you are going to have the party cut a cake, help settle two traveler’s lost luggage concerns, and then go hunting for a stag unless someone would prefer to eat rabbit.
Believe it or not, all of these situations are covered in detail by Game Theory to help explain complex situations like how the United States decided upon individual state boundaries or what the global economy is going to do. The cake cutting exercise is used to study perceived fair value and is often referenced to help predict how resources will be divided amongst different groups with different values. The traveler’s dilemma is used to understand how people may or may not cooperate as well as how they will stray from rational choices in order to profit more from a situation. And the stag hunt is used to demonstrate how sometimes your decision is not right or wrong until it has been validated or dismissed by someone else’ decision.
I will not go heavily into the math behind these games. I am far from being an expert on the matter, but the more that I read about Game Theory and the games that others have designed in studying it the more I find myself putting these games into my own adventures and scenarios.
For example, with the cake cutting game the secret is to have many resources in the same area that are valued in different ways by different groups. In a fantasy setting this could be a wooded valley with a large stream and some natural caves. Elves might want to claim the valley as part of their homeland because the woods are ancient and some of the trees might be suitable habitats for their families, a human kingdom might claim the valley because it wants the stream to help irrigate farmer’s crops with, and a clan of dwarves claims the valley because they suspect that the caves may have rich iron ore veins within them.
Now how hard is it to have these three groups on the brink of war because they all are unwilling to negotiate with each other for fear of losing that which they value the most? What if the adventure is that the PCs must somehow “cut the cake” in a way that keeps all three groups happy? What if a fourth party that wants a war to erupt causes problems for the PCs? You need only to set the pieces in place upon the board and the let players’ decisions do the rest.
And that is the beauty of Game Theory games – they are all about decisions. You can create wonderful moments for role playing and strategy around them. All it takes is a little imagination and tweaking of these games to fit most settings and systems.
So check out Game Theory and some of the games designed using it. You might find that putting the theory into practice takes your own game to a whole new level.
That is my opinion on the matter. What is yours? Do you have an idea as to how a Game Theory game can be converted into an RPG adventure scenario? Be sure to share your own tips and tricks with the Gnome Stew community by leaving a comment below. Remember that the GM is a player too, so always make sure that you get your share of the fun at the table!