Wednesday, July 27, 2011

You say you want a resolution.... part 1

Yesterday I talked about dice.  Today, I'm going to unpack task resolution in some detail.  Specifically, I'm going to look into the nooks and crannies between intent, declaration, resolution, effect, and description.  We make a lot of assumptions about how those all fit together, and I think the differences in those assumptions are largely responsible for the differences in our gaming styles.

[Ed. note - The words just kept pouring out of me.  I'm breaking this post up into several sections of its own.  This first one will deal with intent.]
But how can you know what you want
Till you get what you want
And you see if you like it?

When beginning a task, it is actually important to have some idea in mind of what you want to have happen.  Most players, though, skip this step.  In some cases, it is simply a matter of going through the motions.  Insert dice, receive plot cookie.  In others, the player is just doing what the GM commands, and passively flowing with the adventure.  And, in far too many cases, the player just doesn't care enough to think about the task, either through boredom or lack of imagination.

If you don't have a clear vision of how you want the action to play out, it is going to be very difficult to communicate your character's actions and reactions to either success or failure.  If you fail to invest your actions with meaning and interest, it becomes harder for those reacting to you to invest their actions with meaning and interest.  The energy level of the game starts a terrible downward spiral.

On the other hand, if you can picture in your mind what your character is trying to do, your immersion is increased.  Your engagement is increased.  Your energy is increased.  And, that gets passed on to others.  Having a definite intent also makes it much easier to invent an effect based on the resolution.  You know what the motions going into the attempt are, so you can predict what the motions coming out will be.

Note that this intent is not simply a mechanical, tactical issue.  That is certainly part of the formula.  If you are trying to kill someone, or sneak past him, or talk him into something, you need to have some idea of what the rules allow you to do towards that end.  But, try not to start there.  Much like when building a good character, it is important to start with a concept first.  Look at your priorities, your options, and your strengths and weaknesses.  Figure out how your character would tackle the problem.  Think of a couple possible outcomes that would make for a good scene.  Pick an approach, and go with it.  I realize that all that sounds like a ridiculous amount of time and effort for every action.  But, if you know your character, it shouldn't take more than maybe thirty seconds.  If you know the rules, then fitting mechanics to your approach should take another thirty seconds for most actions.  Sure, this can get trickier when you are juggling a whole list of spells, feats, powers, etc.  But, that shouldn't factor in to the vast majority of your actions.  (If it is, it either speaks to a serious issue with the system, or a need for more organization on your part.)

Keep in mind, as well, that your intent is not simply a vision of your success.  It is a vision of what you are attempting.  Occasionally, you will fail.  Failure can be just as interesting as success (we'll get to that in a bit).  But no one should ever go into a task assuming that she will fail.  Your character should be assuming that she will succeed, and you should have her act appropriately.


  1. Interesting. I will comment on my system of choice and where clearer skill rules would be nice. Palladium has always been bad at clarifying when skill checks should be used. Combine this with the potentially pitiful starting skill levels, and one may assume failure at any attempt. Even worse, I've had GMs demand skill checks for the most banal of tasks, like starting a car, which resulted in failure. I'll give requiring a roll when ninjas attack, but not just to go to work (unless the PC's day job is fighting ninjas). Ok, tangential rant over.

  2. Now, this is something I pretty much agree completely with. It's interesting -- but you hit on a major issue here without (perhaps) meaning to: player investment/involvement.

    If a player is not invested in what they are doing, then what's the point? Why play D&D if you don't really want to? Actually, let me dig deeper -- why play Ea, the 4th level Tiefling Swordmage if you don't want to?

    And that involvement/investment shows in task resolution quite often -- such as the dreaded "I roll to attack" statement that makes a lot of DMs cringe.

    It is important (in my opinion) to come to the table prepared to play "like" your character. I'm not saying everyone has to be amateur actors and speak in voices and all that -- I just mean, it is important, as you point out, to approach a problem "like" your character would. That is important advice.

    A problem with some systems/DMs/Players (because I don't just blame the systems) is the whole, "if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" bit. Sometimes it is hard for players to think outside of the system, or to get a better understanding of what the numbers on their sheet actually represent. And that is an area where games/DMs could really improve in bringing new players along -- by encouraging them to open up their imagination-toolbox and get away from only approaching tasks as math and instead as an opportunity to play.

  3. @Misfit - Ah, yes, the classic "roll to start your car" issue. That prompted a host of games in the 90s to add "only call for rolls that are meaningful" to their GM advice section. I think it was also the reason D&D 3.0 added the "take 10" rule.

  4. @Rhetorical - I totally agree with you. Investment and acting with intent go hand in hand.

    I also want to agree with your comment about the hammer and the nail. But, I think we might actually see it as meaning different things. I see that as a recommendation for more complex systems, as they hand you an entire toolbox to cover every issue. I see the ultra-light rules sets as just handing you a hammer and telling you to get creative with it.

  5. I couldn't agree more. Having more than "I hit him" or "I cast fireball" or "CROWBAR THE PRINCE IN THE NUTS" makes the game more enjoyable for everybody, and it helps not only make the scene your mind's eye is watching more descriptive, but it makes the GM's job easier when the resolution is described. Giving insight towards intent just makes things... smoother.

    Of course, on the other hand, if anybody's ever been in a free-form RPG, you know that the inverse of this is as much of a hindrance as not enough (and so help me, the next player I see that takes more than two minutes or so to describe six seconds of action is going to swallow a dice bag full of poo).

  6. @Brad I don't mind a minimalist description of the action, so long as it's delivered with emotion. "I stick the bastard with my sword!" is much better than a monotone "Kill it. Just kill it." But I also add descriptives after declarations based on the dice. "You attempt to skewer the fiend, but he manages to duck your blow" or "While not the best of shots, his botched attempt at a parry positioned him for a critical hit."

    @Marshall Fair enough. I think part of the problem is a too literal reading of the rules. "Your Pilot Automobile skill is 70%, so roll that to stop at the traffic light." Sure, in real life people fail at that task all too often, it bogs down the game if everyone must roll for every mundane task. Which means I've said more than enough on a topic we agree on.

  7. Descriptions after the roll is the fifth part of the series. Don't go skipping ahead, now.