What is high-trust trad adventure design?

On Mastodon, I follow the rpg designer S. John Ross, who has been working in rpg publishing for decades. He is the man behind the rules-light Risus rpg system, the big list of rpg scenario plots, and a number of GURPS sourcebooks, among other things.

I noticed he sometimes talked about “HTT”, or “High-trust trad”, as opposed to “Low-trust trad”. This was intriguing. My own formative experience with rpgs back in the day was with a number of “trad” games. And what was this talk about trust?

I believed it had to do with the system itself, and asked the following question:

Are there any commercial games from the 80s/90s you would label HTT? Curious about this playstyle (and I gamed trad games in the early 90s (Warhammer, MERP, CoC, Shadowrun, RuneQuest…) but I guess they would fall under low-trust (as they are so rule-heavy).

The answer was not what I expected:

Oh no … Trad games are just Trad games; they don’t have a level of trust … any of them can be played high or low or in between. Really, only _adventures_ are clearly and easily “measurable” in terms of trust, though settings and resources can be measured with very sensitive instruments 😅

Adventure design

Where I had been thinking that “high-trust” had to do with how free the GM was to adjudicate outcomes based on how detailed the rules were, and that “low-trust” essentially was about having a rule for everything, thereby negating the need for establishing common ground between GM and players, this concept had more to do with adventures. My eyes then fell on this toot:

I stopped buying new Call of Cthulhu adventures years ago when it became apparent that the line had gone 100% Low-Trust after decades of providing the very best of both Low and High. But now that there are a lot of 3PP doing Cthulhu adventures … I torture myself wondering: are any of them HTT? Or are they all following the lead of modern “Chaosium” and keeping (Keeping) it presumptive?

I was not the only one wondering what the concepts were about, and Ross answered:

The short version: a High-Trust Trad adventure has (A) no pre-planned scenes after the table-setting at the start, and (B) centers tactically on a problem or problem-cluster the PCs can solve in countless ways, without presuming, favoring or artificially excluding any approach.
For a deeper dive hit the #AdventureDesign and #HTTRPG hashtags. 😊

In a later reply he also suggested that “In general, the industry stopped publishing [these types of adventures] 25 years ago.” I hit the hashtags, and this was also when I started to browse his blog more in depth.

Let’s take a small detour and look at the definition of a “trad” tabletop roleplaying game. On the blog, it says:

The once-standard form of tabletop RPG, where each player speaks and makes decisions largely in-character, and the Game Master shoulders the rest (including portraying and determining everything about the remainder of the gameworld, and providing the sensory input for the PCs).

Ross seems very amiable towards other forms of rpgs, he calls them his “neighbors”. At the same time he is very clear that what he is making centers around trad games.

What about preparing situations, not plots?

But isn’t this version of adventure design pointing towards a kind of free-form play that we would find in FKR for instance, or even be related to the adage “prepare situations, not plots” which seems to inform a number of gamemasters these days? I asked him about this, and the answer was:

“Situations” aren’t necessarily well-designed HTT problems. HTT also frequently employs plot.
That said, everything overlaps and bleeds. There are commonalities between Trad, OSR, and even D&D play, so everything has something in common with everything else ☺️

What seems to be pointed at here, is that “plot” is what happens in the gameworld if the characters don’t interfere. The crown is stolen. The princess is kidnapped. The mines are filled with seawater. And so on.

On the blog, I found a couple of stimulating posts delving deeper into what goes into this type of design, and the key pair of words is “presumptive” and “non-presumptive”.

In adventure design, a problem is “presumptive” if solving it has a notably finite range of approaches, an objectively optimal approach, or if it’s designed to deliberately exclude approaches. This presumption of solutions undermines Tactical Infinity (q.v.), Characterization (q.v.), or both.
Non-Presumptive: In adventure design, a problem created to avoid or minimize the limits of Presumptive (q.v.) problems. In other words, a problem designed with sufficient openness for the PCs to create and implement their own solution.
[Source 1] [Source 2]

This reminded me of how I approached the design of my introductory adventure to Different Suns, called “Mystery at Ihru”.  Incidentally, I’m making my game with the Year Zero engine by Free League, a rules engine that powers games which sometimes are referred to as “neo-trad”.

Without spoiling anything, I set up a clear problem at the start, but I intentionally did not force or tempt my players to do anything in particular, I just wanted to make sure they did something. It resulted in some of the longest sequences yet where the players just stayed and stayed in character, “jamming along” with the NPCs and — using their own creativity — came up with a solution that totally bypassed the need for “entering the baddies’ camp” which could be another way of solving the problem. And it was absolutely fine! They even apologized: “You have probably prepped for something else, but…” So I had to reassure them it was fine.

If this is high-trust, I want more of it! The “trust” that is spoken of I interpret as two-fold: 1) Trusting the players to be grown ups and creative, not necessarily having to be “led along” and drip-fed obvious “funnels” of action. 2) Trusting that the GM, with their human capacity for imagination and storytelling, is able to react and “play ball” with the players’ ideas, without everything needing to be defined beforehand.

An example high-trust adventure

Asked for an example of a Call of Cthulhu high-trust adventure, Ross pointed to “A Love in Need” in the collection Secrets from 1997. He mentioned that he most often runs it as a fantasy module! I’ve skimmed the module, and it has a strong, scripted start, and then… it’s up to the investigators what they do and how they handle the “problem”. No obvious course of action is given, because this will emerge anyway from the characters’ motivations and proclivities. The scenario just describes what will happen if the PCs do nothing, and describes potential reactions and situations involving the locations and NPCs. It seems like a short and sweet dilemma, and I will mine it for inspiration.

Anyway, this approach to adventure design is very attractive to me, and Ross’ blog is chock full of other interesting concepts and ways of thinking about design that are truly inspiring. I find this a welcome contrast to making up a bunch of random tables for encounters, which actually is a form of “low-trust” design. Both can be fun, of course.

In summary…

I’ll end with a couple of illustrations from the “AdventureDesign” toots, summarizing some key concepts. The first one shows low-trust elements to the left, shared elements in the middle, and high-trust elements to the right.

The second one includes the concept of fairness. I can see that designing for this can require more work to pull off, but again, sometimes bigger challenges yield greater satisfaction.

4 responses to “What is high-trust trad adventure design?”

  1. […] What is high-trust trad adventure design av Per Arne Kobbevik forklarer S. John Ross sitt begrep, som handlar om opne problem i senario. https://blog.indre-auge.studio/2023/01/22/what-is-high-trust-trad-adventure-design/ […]


  2. Sacha Gauthier (@sachagoat) avatar

    It often had scripted scenes, but the core of adventure was problems (with some NPCs and locations to facilitate). Not all adventures – mind you – but the best ones.


  3. Sacha Gauthier (@sachagoat) avatar

    One of my anxieties about the upcoming rerelease of The Great Pendragon Campaign is it’ll move further down towards low-trust adventure design.

    It often had scripted scenes, but the core of adventure was problems (with some NPCs and locations to facilitate). Not all adventures – mind you – but the best ones.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.