Intuition and Surprise
As your companion secures the open door, you step into the darkened room; it's empty, like so many other rooms in this section. But wait--something's wrong. Instinctively your fingers tighten on your weapon, your eyes struggling to pierce the gloom. But there's nothing there, not a form, not a light, not a shadow. Still, you're sure there's trouble here. Other than a quick signal to your companion to hold his position, you stand perfectly still, alert, waiting. Suddenly something springs from the dark corner on your right; you swing your weapon toward it, and hit it full force. The creature falls to the floor and moves no more. Your companion, coming in behind you, asks, "How did you know?"
"It was just a feeling", you reply.
Those feelings are very much a part of our adventure stories, and as game designers, referees, and players we try to include them in our games. While working on Multiverser, I was confronted with the issues of exactly what intuition is, and how it affects surprise, combat, and everything we do. Is it something extra-sensory, like precognition? Is it something magical, like fate? Or is it something quite explicable, if we understand it aright? I've concluded that it's the latter, and that if we can understand what intuition is and how it works, we can make our games flow a bit better.
Some of this material has been discussed in Multiverser, but will be approached a bit differently here. I expect that those who have read the Multiverser rules will find this an interesting expansion on the concepts there, but that those who haven't won't be lost for the lack of it. Whatever game you favor, there are moments within it when the game mechanics indicate that a character seemed to know or expect something which was unknown or unexpected, and at that point understanding intuition will be a great help.
Many people think that intuition is in some sense magical, and let me assure you that, to cite the Bishop of Aquilla, "I believe in miracles; it's my job." I'm a theology student, and the supernatural is my field. I'm also not averse to the concepts of psionics or e.s.p.; I don't know that they exist, but there is enough anecdotal evidence around to suggest that they are ideas worth investigating. But I do think that we should hesitate to supply a supernatural explanation where a natural one will suffice, and there is such a natural explanation for intuition.
I should also address the other side of the matter. I think that intuition is real. Certainly there are cases in which people have "intuitive hindsight"--those who are always saying, "I knew that was going to happen" who knew no such thing but feel in retrospect that they should have known. And it is certainly true that our hunches are wrong at least as often as they are right, but we remember when they were right. I think that we often have the feeling that something is wrong, or that someone isn't trustworthy even though we cannot explain or defend why we feel that way, and that these are legitimate and valid sensations. Sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, those gut feelings are right. But if they aren't magical or extra-sensory, and they aren't based on articulable reasons, what are they?
The answer lies in the concepts of the subliminal and the subconscious.
When I was in college, I was constantly meeting new people, fellow students. I delighted in a little game, an intuitive exercise for which I had no explanation but which was an interesting challenge. Within the first few minutes of meeting someone, I would correctly guess his (or, more frequently, her) major; I was only wrong twice, once when the person had just changed majors, and once when I forgot the school had a history department. When asked how I did it, the only answer I had was, "she seemed like a psych major". I doubt I could do it today--I don't know enough college students. But I do know when a random chat request coming in to one of my Internet communication programs is from a 13- to 15-year-old girl. There's something about the first things they say and ask, the screen names they use, the way they say things which clue me to the fact that this person is one third my age and probably not interested in any topic I might raise. It's intuition. I know something, but I can't explain how I know it.
Well, not one to accept the inability to explain something, I have an explanation. We are constantly sending out signals at a subliminal level. They are in our speech and writing patterns, our inflections, our body language, even in our dress and hygiene. Even when we make an effort to disguise those signals, we only dilute them with different and confusing signals. We can't really get rid of them, because we don't understand them, we don't know what they are, we don't recognize them when we see them.
But we do see them, and we know without exactly knowing what they mean. Psychologists delight in identifying the symptoms of physiologic changes which accompany emotional states. Most guys can't tell you that flushed cheeks and reddened lips indicate that a girl is attracted to them; but they do find girls with red lipstick and rouged cheeks more attractive. The distance that a person maintains between themselves and others is an expression of their trust or distrust. There are innumerable ways in which we send out these signals. But such signals are subliminal, falling below our awareness most of the time. We don't think, this girl is really attracted to me--look at her lips. We just react.
I'm convinced that we do the same thing with our surroundings. Here we aren't picking up uncontrolled communications, but rather are absorbing seemingly insignificant details. The particularly intuitive person reacts to something out of place, something unusual, without knowing what that is. In our introductory scenario, it could have been a sound, or a smell, or a disturbance in the shadows. Perhaps the temperature was wrong, or the air moved in an odd way, or the echo of his footsteps was uneven. Something was different, and that difference reached his senses at a subliminal level.
And that's half of what we call intuition.
The other half is a mental process, a process of reasoning below reason. You have just observed a collection of details but are unaware that you observed them.  You aren't thinking about those details, but about something else; but underneath what you are thinking, some part of your mind is processing those facts of which you aren't cognizant, piecing them together with other experience, and reaching conclusions. Those conclusions come back to us as feelings, hunches, intuitions. There is something about this guy that we don't trust. It's actually that he doesn't look at us when he speaks, and his voice inflection suggests that he's lying, but we don't know that--we only know that he gives us a bad feeling. You have a feeling that this guy likes you. It's actually because his breathing and heart rate change when he realizes you're there, and there are slight changes in his color and mannerisms, but all you know is that he seems nice and makes you feel special. It's intuition: your mind has collected information you don't know you know, and reasoned it through without letting you think about it, and returned a conclusion without giving you a clue from where it came.
(All of this is only somewhat related to the notions of intuitive reasoning and flashes of intuition. These are still based on thought below the conscious level, and involve your mind taking unrelated ideas and information and seeking ways in which they fit together. Suddenly this is like that, that goes with the other thing, and we have a new way of approaching something derived from concepts in other areas. They are still built on subconscious reasoning, but have less of a subliminal component.)
So how does this come back to gaming? Role playing games function on several levels. One of those levels is the pure mechanics, and at that level they are no different from the old Bookcase games--the dice say this happens next, and it's your move. One of those levels is the character interaction level, and here the game is much like a story or an improvised drama. But there is also a story level to the games which helps tie the character interactions and the mechanics together. In Multiverser, one of the rules is that the characters cannot refer to anything in terms of game mechanics; in the character's world, game mechanics don't exist. At the level of the mechanics, because he made his intuition roll the character isn't surprised; at the level of the characters, he's not surprised because he gets these feelings. But between these two levels is a bridge, and that bridge is the referee's ability to bring alive the reasons why the characters reach the results dictated by the mechanics. Understanding the nature of intuition can help build that bridge. When the dice say that the character doesn't trust the guide, have a reason for it, at least in your mind: the guide never looks the character in the eyes. When the ambush fails to surprise the character, have a reason for it: you could smell the sweat of the fighter hiding in the darkness, or heard a metallic tap which might have been a weapon.
And once you know what triggers these intuitive reactions, you can play a few tricks with them. A large furry body standing in the corner would change the acoustics of a stone or metallic room, altering the echo of your footsteps; but so would a hanging tapestry or large stuffed chair. In a dark room you might smell a man who did physical labor; but his bedroom might smell the same when he wasn't in it. Have you ever noticed that Sabib never looks us in the eyes? Is he hiding something, or does he consider it disrespect to look into the face of his betters?
Whenever your players are off balance and don't know what will happen next, you've got a better game; but only if they understand why they are off balance. Arbitrary nonsense strung together in disorder will not make for a good setting. If the game is filled with surprises which make sense, it will create the kind of tension and excitement which brings players back for more.
M. Joseph Young is co-author of Multiverser: The Game and The First Book of Worlds, and Vice President for Development of its publisher Valdron Inc. His hundreds of web pages, including articles in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice and at Gaming Outpost, are largely related to gaming, and he is moderator of the Multiverser and AD&D forums at the World RPG Alliance.