Friday, July 29, 2011

You say you want a resolution.... part 3

When taking an action in an RPG, there are five stages: intent, declaration, resolution, effect, and description.  We've already covered intent and declaration, so today is resolution.

There are a dozen ways to slice and dice types of actions and types of resolutions.  If the action is either obviously going to succeed, or failure is not interesting, the resolution should simply be the GM saying, "OK, it works."  If there is no way the action can succeed (e.g., the character attempts to leap across a forty foot gap with normal human abilities), the GM is well within his rights to give the player a dirty look and say, "Come on, play seriously."  But most of the tasks in an RPG fall in the big grey area between, in which both success and failure can lead to interesting stories, and it is not clear which path our hero will go down.

You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes...

Every RPG comes with a core mechanic for resolving actions.  Most of them use dice.  Some of them use other randomizers, such as cards (or, in the case of Dread, a Jenga tower).  Diceless RPGs generally use some kind of currency in which the player can "buy" a success now, at the risk of possibly not being able to buy a success later (or some other trade-off).  In story games, it frequently comes down to who has narrative control of the scene, and each game has a different way of passing that control around.

The point of the resolution is to bring together all of the various elements of the scene and determine from those whether or not the character is successful.  You can separate those elements into some broad categories: environment, character ability, player ability, opponent ability, story concerns, and pure dumb luck.
  • Environment encompasses all the things external to the character that might affect the action.  In crudest terms, it includes such things as lighting, whether the floor is slippery, and the incessant chittering of the rats in the walls.  For certain actions, though, it can also include factors such as whether your true love is watching you, the orders from your superior, and your phobia of chickens being triggered by the duchess' feather boa.
  • Character ability is all the things on the character sheet that feed into the action.  For most systems, that will be your stat and skill.  Some advantages or disadvantages may come into play, as well as "bennie" mechanics such as action points or fate points.  It also includes items you bring to bear, wounds you have suffered, and fluff concerns like having had a bad experience with dogs.  In pretty much every RPG, this area is thoroughly covered.
  • Player ability mostly represents the skill the player brings to the game, in terms of tactics (for combat situations), charisma (for social situations), logic, knowledge of the game system, and, more often than we'd care to admit, pure cussedness.  For a player, the ideal solution is to be able to argue the GM away from "make a roll" and into "ok, it works."  More often, you are working to maximize your bonuses and minimize your penalties.  Note also that player ability covers cheating.
  • Opponent ability is essentially the same as character ability, but represents all the attributes of the person (or thing) the character is working against.  This could be the armor class of a combatant, the stubbornness of a haggling merchant, the obscurity of a secret door, or the intricacy of an arcane working.  In most cases, the GM boils all of this down into a single target number based on the desired difficulty, with only passing regard for all the individual factors involved.  In some cases, most obviously in the case of defense in combat, the rules will specify how those factors interact.
  • Story concerns are not always at the top of everyone's list.  However, in many systems, and even in many games using other systems, whether or not the action is important to the story matters in how it is resolved.  That may be a simple matter of whether or not "bennies" or other bonuses come into play.  It is one of the main factors in determining whether an action actually needs formal resolution.  I also have to admit that I find systems that don't honor story concerns to be extremely frustrating.
  • Pure dumb luck should always be a factor, IMNSHO.  It's just more fun that way.
Add up all of the various factors across the board, and you generally end up with a relatively simply bonus to the attempt, and target number to hit.  The resolution stage is now just a matter of rolling the dice (or whatever) and following the instructions of the system's core mechanic to figure out if you were successful.  Voila!

There are two of the factors above that require being called out a little more specifically, because they strongly influence gaming style.  Different gamers put very different emphasis on player ability, and it's not always related to that player's ability (i.e., it's not always the more competent players voting for more focus on player ability).  Different gamers also are interested in very different levels of interaction with the story.

Captaincy is 90% luck and 10% skill. But don't try it without that 10%.
Richie Benaud

One of the hallmarks of the OSR movement is the emphasis on player skill.  If an RPG is a game, then success should be measured by how well one plays the game.  Part of the point is matching wits with the GM and overcoming his obstacles with ingenuity and daring rather than bonuses and counting squares on a battle mat.  Of course, strangely enough, the story game movement is also strongly in favor of player skill.  It is simply that, in that case, player skill is measured by how well you craft the story around the characters, rather than how well you outwit the challenges.

Personally, I prefer to downplay player skill at the individual action level.  First, I believe that if you are playing a role, then your success or failure should be determined by the qualities inherent in the role.  Second, I believe that emphasizing player skill leads to players working to manipulate the system and/or GM rather than working to make the game as a whole better.  Again, these are my opinion, and not presented as facts.

Of course, it is impossible to eliminate player ability.  At the most basic level, it includes the rules mastery necessary to understand and apply the elements of the character sheet.  It also involves the perception of the various factors at work, the weighing of such factors to determine a strong course of action, and the appreciation of ways to adjust those factors.  And, player ability will often make a tremendous difference one level up from the individual action, when plotting out strategies for successfully navigating a scene.  A level up from that, when determining what general arc to take through an adventure, should be almost entirely driven by player skill, with little to no impact from the character's assets or defects.

The computer can't tell you the emotional story.
Frank Zappa

Bending the results of an action to fit the story is definitely a matter of taste.  Some gamers see it as terribly unrealistic, as those of us in real life don't get to cheat fate.  Some gamers see it as terribly obvious, since a role playing game is all about telling, or at least discovering, the story of the characters.  Allowing the blind roll of the dice to screw up the character arc is just a recipe for dissatisfaction.

As you might have guessed from some of my previous posts, I strongly lean towards the latter interpretation.  I am interested in acting out our own personal novel or movie.  As such, I want to feel the story beats and get the satisfying climax.  However, I'm not actually interested in most story games.  I'm not sitting down to an RPG looking to write collaborative fiction.  If I want to do that, I'll just chuck the system and go free-form.  What I want, as a player, is to inhabit the role I've chosen and experience the world through his eyes, in much the same way that a good book lets you experience the world through the protagonist's eyes.  But, unlike in a book, I want to control all the choices made, and see where they lead.

One of the most common arguments against letting the story drive the action is that it kills the tension.  PCs, by their vary nature, would have to be granted some sort of plot immunity if the story is king.  When you know the PC can't die, indeed ultimately can't lose, there's no actual threat any more.  Personally, I find this attitude bizarre, as these same people enjoy comic books and TV shows in which you know that everything's not only going to turn out alright in the end, but will mostly end with everything in exactly the same state it was at the beginning of the story arc.  If you can feel a thrill when Spiderman or Captain Kirk is in danger, why can't you feel that same thrill when your PC is in danger?

I feel myself building to a long rant on this subject, so I will cut myself off. I'll just end by saying that, in any conflict, some actions are going to be more important than others.  That importance is wholly derived from story concerns.  Treating critical actions with the same mechanics as trivial ones is unlikely to create a satisfying experience.  You will score a spectacular critical hit on a random guard, but totally fail to knock the remote control out of the mastermind's hand, dooming us all.


  1. Your last paragraph took me by surprise, it seems to counter the feeling of the rest of the post. That said, more and more I agree with it. I've proposed using unspent XP to up efforts like West End's SW games used Character Points.

    Still that requires that the players save some experience for this purpose. Maybe giving the players an allowance of XP before the game that they can't advance with until the end of the game and then adding or subtracting whatever their actual XP earnings were at the end of the game. Complicated but could be fun.

  2. Plot immunity is one that baffles me. How can there be immersive experience if the players know the PCs will live and succeed. While I never set out to kill the PCs, some NPCs certainly will. I also believe in letting the PCs fail and die based on their choices and actions (but far less so based on dice). To do otherwise limits player agency by removing possible outcomes.

    Lastly, possibly the most intense session I've been in involved my wife's PC sacrificing herself for the good of the group. The villains presented us with a dilemma, chose one PC or NPC to die or the group gets slaughtered. After much arguing, my wife's PC made the choice and was killed. We survived, that PC is in a good afterlife, and the villains responsible were taken down. But at the time, wow.

  3. Misfit KotLD:

    "How can there be immersive experience if they players know the PCs will live and succeed?" you ask. <a href=">My take is too long for a comment.</a> The short version, though, is: 1, you get a group that has a strong suspension of disbelief, or 2, you threaten things that aren't their lives. Oh, and 3, you leave open the options of death by heroic sacrifice or sheer stupidity.

    Re the post: I agree with the critical action/trivial action point, though I'm not quite sure how to implement it; the closest I've seen is having various game-currency boosts that the players can use or hoard as necessary, or just avoiding rolls if the skill/skill difference is overwhelming enough.

  4. @Emmett - As you might be able to tell from the tone, the last paragraph was a bit rushed. It might well have a tone I did not intend. How do you see it running counter to the rest of the post?

    I've actually run into a few problems over the years with the "unspent XP can be spent as plot points" mechanic. The biggest is that it actually ends up encouraging very conservative play. If you can arrange to beat the bad guy without spending the plot point, you get more XP. For a lot of the games that use the mechanic (7th Sea being the one I have the most experience with), it ends up actually discouraging the kind of over-the-top, devil-may-care actions that are typical of the genre.

    One possible alternative is to create some sort of Fate or Luck stat. Allow the players to sink XP into it. The important difference is that the points from that stat refresh every session/adventure/whatever. Make it both expensive and powerful. You can easily end up with a dynamic similar to the Buffy RPG, in which you can choose to either be extremely effective through character actions (e.g., high skills, super powers) or extremely effective through player action (by spending those points to manipulate the plot). An ideal party would have at least one person on each side (Buffy having the powers, Xander having the plot manipulation).

  5. @Misfit - Again I ask, how can you enjoy Star Trek (or similar show) when you know that everyone will survive and succeed? Part of the drama is willfully ignoring that fact. Part of it is simply enjoying the tension between the characters and their opposition regardless of the outcome.

    I also want to again stress that I'm not taking death off the table altogether. The example of your wife's sacrifice is exactly the kind of death that should be in the game. But would it have made a good story if she'd died because she caught filth fever from a rat? I don't think so.

  6. @Ravyn - The plot point currency is the only method I've ever played with. There are a number of games that involve negotiation of the scene and shared narrative control that find other ways to handle it. Dogs in the Vineyard and Burning Wheel are a couple popular examples that handle it in different ways.

  7. The difference is participation. When I watch Star Trek, I am getting taken for a ride. When I game, I at least share in the driving. I already know, whether I'm reading a book or watching a movie that someone else determines the outcome, I am just watching (unless the audience must chant that it believes in faeries). Gaming at least has an illusion or notion of player agency and participation (we can discuss railroading here too). I've seen GMs who do not handle PC surprises well because of a lack of improvisational skill. This is important because the PCs will do something the GM has not planned for, quite possibly because he/she never dreamed of that possible action. It's an agency thing, accomodating PC actions and letting them affect the plot (whether or not the GM expected the new direction). I probably did take to the extreme in my initial argument as it's about a lot more than PC death. You are right, dying from the plague is anti-climactic and outside the realm of usual PC fates. There's a lot of gray area and room for negotiation in a particular group as well. If you're GMing Star Trek, at least cover the tracks and make it look like I'm in on the authorship of this story.

  8. We may have to agree to disagree at this point. I'm just still not seeing the connection between PC agency and PC death.

    How does knowing you might die from any wrong decision give you a better sense of ownership of the story? How does a house rule that you go unconscious at zero hit points but do not die at -10 put you on a railroad? The stakes in combat are still high (possibly even higher, since I've seen far more gamers throw a fit about being captured than being killed). But it becomes much easier for the players and GM to negotiate when and how the characters leave the story.

  9. Death was an example. I apologize if I didn't make that clear. I refer to the idea of plot immunity, of which not dying is a part, the most extreme part.

    But that's where I lose your analogy of watching Star Trek. We go in knowing Kirk will get in a tight spot but escape unscathed. I'd rather it not be as certain where the PCs are concerned.

  10. Misfit: Ah, gotcha. I'm not sure about Marshall, but I'm used to arguing with someone who seems to think that death is the only risk that makes one's heart race (making it somewhat annoying for me, as the character I was playing in his game at the time was rather meh about dying, per se, but worried about things that you'd want players to fall victim to, like damage to the people and country she had a duty to, loss of identity, or any of the numerous consequences that could come from being captured and not having a proper escape plan). Hence the post I linked (which should be working now; the server's back up). I don't like building characters, and know what a pain in the neck building character dynamics can be, so I'd much prefer a game in which one of us might lose a hand and another carry taints from inimical supernatural beings or have to fight her way back up through some nasty post-captivity trauma, and someone else just keeps losing their favorite NPCs, but nobody's likely to die unless they did something unforgivably stupid or elected to sacrifice their lives. So... immunity from the complete removal of the character from the board unless it's very clearly called for. Lack of immunity to Just About Everything Else.

    (Besides, character damages are interesting!)

    Marshall: I'm rather partial to Exalted's spend-a-willpower-for-one-success and virtue channels--one is basically "I want to ensure I don't botch this one", and the other is "If I can justify that it plays to one of my virtues, I kick in one Willpower and roll that Virtue in dice on top of everything else, doing this up to [Virtue Rating] times per story. It's irregular, but hey, I've always been a sucker for mechanics that require me to think about my justifications.

  11. @Misfit - Which is, I think, where we move from Star Trek to more modern shows like Buffy and BSG. Character death there is a Major Event(TM), but you also don't assume that characters will escape unscathed. Characters get scathed all the time. I will agree that outright plot immunity is just silly, since 80% of an RPG is plot. A player who wants that probably really wants to be a GM, and a GM who grants that is probably just scared to do anything that might make the players not like him.

    Also, what Ravyn said.

    @Ravyn - I think that Exalted's virtue channels were an awesome innovation, but they now look kind of clunky next to FATE's Aspects. That said, I definitely love any mechanics that allow me to specify, "THIS is important to my character" and have it mean something.

  12. Ravyn, I much prefer the school of thought "it won't kill you, but it's amazing what you can live through."

    I've also seen a GM who loved to kill the PCs' loved ones. I won't say never kill their loved ones, but only do so infrequently. Otherwise you're left with Last Action Hero revenge. "He was my favorite second cousin!"

  13. Making a practice of killing loved ones also rapidly reinforces the stereotype of the loner orphan badass. "People who get too close to me have a tendency to end up dead. I can't afford to make friends."

  14. Yeah, which gets very annoying fast when in a group setting. "Where's Bob?" "The Lone Wolf (TM) is riding alone, again." I much prefer my PCs growing attachments, not pushing away the ones not buried yet.