Tuesday, August 2, 2011

You say you want a resolution.... part 4

When taking an action in an RPG, there are five stages: intent, declaration, resolution, effect, and description.  We've already covered intent, declaration, and resolution.  Now we get to the effect.

The effect is usually pretty simple, and predetermined by the system.  If you hit with an attack, you deal damage.  If you succeed with a perception check, you find something.  However, there are some nuances here that both separate one style of gaming from another, and are areas where a good GM can introduce extra layers of awesome.

Be careful what you wish for
'Cause you just might get it

I'm going to assume that everyone here is familiar with the basic effect of task resolution.  The resolution determines whether the declared action is successful or unsuccessful, and consequences ensue.

What if the effect of the resolution is not limited to a binary "succeed" or "fail"?  Many gamers instinctively narrate very high rolls as being exceptionally impressive, even when the actual results are exactly the same as a marginal success.  Suppose that very high rolls actually did produce more impressive results.  That is essentially where the concept of critical hits came from.  Some of the later rules for d20 also specified rules for skill checks in which higher rolls produced better effects, rather than simply having a DC (e.g., a Knowledge check regarding a monster might have a base 15 DC to identify it, with the character remembering one additional fact for every 5 points by which she beats the DC).

It is easy to extend this to turning a check into an opportunity to inform the action, rather than succeed at it.  Suppose that a PC is faced with a chasm that he must leap across.  To fail is to plummet to his death.  You really don't want this to be a do-or-die test.  So, start with the assumption that, no matter what the roll, the character will successfully make it across.  The point of the roll, though, is to determine how well he jumps.  If it is a very high roll, he is graceful and impressive.  So impressive, in fact, that he is able to grant a bonus to the character jumping after him.  If it is a very low roll (that would typically be a failure), there is some cost to the success.  Perhaps he came up short, and is now clinging desperately to the side of the cliff.  Perhaps he turned his ankle on landing, and takes some minor damage.  Perhaps he dropped something he was holding, and the party watches it tumble into the black abyss. 

Probably the easiest way to look at this is to view every action as having both a cost and a benefit.  Sometimes the cost is obvious, such as expending magical energy or using up ammunition.  Most often, the cost is simply time, whether that be actions in combat or minutes of prep time.  The benefits should be directly obvious from the declaration, if it is done properly.  Additional common benefits might include granting bonuses to subsequent checks (either by the PC or by allies), imposing morale penalties to enemies (or even making the mooks break and run), or granting free pieces of information (e.g., your haggling attempt was so successful, that you notice that the merchant is actually desperate to make the sale, far more so than is usual, and seems to be in some sort of danger).

Once you see the costs and benefits of an action, you can use the degree of success to ratchet them up and down as an effect.  A simple success would have the normal cost and normal benefit.  A solid hit in combat takes one action and deals normal damage.  A marginal success might have a slightly higher cost, or slightly lower benefit.  A glancing blow might only deal half damage, or leave you exposed to a counter-attack and prevent you from parrying next turn.  A simple failure would have normal cost and no appreciable benefit.  Your attack was parried, and you deal no damage.  An egregious failure might have an increased cost, or apply actual penalties.  You not only miss, you lose your balance and must spend an additional recovering.  A remarkable success might have reduced cost or extra benefits.  Your attack is so brutal that you can follow it up with a free attempt to knock your opponent off his feet.

Many gamers tend to see each action as representing a simple fork in the road.  You either succeed, and go down that path, or fail, and take the low road.  Negotiating any story becomes a decision tree, some decisions made by the players, some decisions made by the dice.  That is not the only possible way to judge effects.  Just as tabletop RPGs give players the freedom to attempt any action, limited only by their imagination, so too should the dice be free to dictate any possible result, limited only by the GM's imagination.


  1. I've like the gradient - Dr. Who had a good one, but I haven't found an elegant way to implement.

    Yes, And something unexpectedly good happens
    Yes, If you have something bad happen.
    No, But there's a consolation prize.
    No, And something unexpectedly worse happens.

  2. The Edge of Midnight mechanic (that I discussed a couple weeks back) has all of those except "No, but there's a consolation prize."

    I read a system a while back (Don't Rest Your Head? Maybe.) that had kind of a nifty mechanic. It was a dice pool sum mechanic using d6s. In addition to trying to see if the sum of the d6s beat the TN, each 1 gives you a drawback and each 6 gives you a bonus. Generally speaking, 1s and 6s cancel each other out, but they don't have to. So, if you beat the TN, you get one of the "Yes" results above. If you get more 6s than 1s, you get "Yes, And." If you get more 1s, you get "Yes, If." (Note that this is a highly simplified summary of a fuzzy memory, so it may or may not bear any resemblance to the actual game.)