This article was written in 1999 and originally published in Pyramid Magazine.
All roleplaying systems have a method of resolving action. Most use dice to check against a numerical value in one fashion or another to determine the success or failure of those actions. Few systems, however, provide any framework for interpreting those successes and failures.
This lack is surprising. The roleplaying experience relies entirely on the ability of the Game Master and players to communicate the reality of a fictional world and the characters therein as believably as possible. The real world, and the vast majority of worlds of fiction, do not exist in a binary fashion – when Conan swings his sword he does not “hit” or “miss”, he “swings his mighty blade and with thews of steel crushes the skull of his hapless captor” or “brings his sword about in a massive sweep, narrowly missing his hastily retreating opponent”.
Yet, beyond some mumbling of how a “higher margin of success means the character has had a greater success than if he had succeeded by a slimmer margin” roleplaying systems on the whole do not provide any intuitive clues for the GM to describe the outcome of a resolved action to his players.
This article attempts to rectify this lack by providing a meta-system – a system which can be applied to many different systems. In this case, any system which uses more than a single die for action resolution. It is not an attempt to “lock” GMs or players into an unalterable scheme of description, however. The system is designed to provide more than the crudest outlines of exactly how success was achieved, but it attempts to supplement, not usurp, the creativity of the play group.
Before looking into what this new system consists of, let us first look at what is provided by the action resolution systems typically found in most current games.
Any action resolution mechanic must provide, at a minimum, two degrees: A success and a failure for any action attempted under its auspices. Many of these systems, whether they acknowledge it or not, also contain a simple evaluation of how “well” or “badly” the success or failure of the action was. This takes the form of a “margin of success” or a “margin of failure”. In short, the greater the difference between the number you wanted to roll and the number you did roll the better the success or the worse the failure. If, for example, you needed to roll at least a 10 on 3d6 to succeed and you roll a 16, the GM would conclude that your character easily succeeded at what he was attempting to do. On the other hand, if you rolled exactly a 10, he might make your success much more slim – instead of clearing the canyon with room to spare, the character’s foot hits right on the edge and he teeters for a moment on the edge of balance before, finally, stumbling forward.
And this is where the vast majority of resolution systems stop – which is good in itself, but incredibly limiting. The GM is left with a vast void to fill in describing the outcome of actions. When confronted with a system which doesn’t even possess a margin of success, the GM is left with the arduous task of attempting to reconstruct a Picasso painting from a black and white sketch – and even with a margin of success you’ve barely established a grayscale.
What’s missing? In short, the GM knows that you succeeded or failed – and the margin by which you did so – but why did you succeed or fail? What form did that success or failure take? If you succeeded exceptionally, why? If you failed marginally, why? Should a marginal failure ever be catastrophic? Marginal success be akin to slight failure?
The system proposed in this article fixes these problems by giving the GM a wider grasp of what effects led to the success or failure of the PC. Beyond the simple margin of success involved, implementing this system will tell the GM a great deal of information on any number of topics on which he wishes to seek more guidance: How much time was required to accomplish the action? Was it bad luck or a lack of skill that caused a failure? Even a simple hit location system is provided for games without them – without adding a single die roll!
The only proviso to this system is that the resolution mechanic of the system in question must use more than one die. A GM using a percentile system should use 2d10 for percentile dice (instead of a single d100). A GM using a single die system will not be able to use the system found in this article without modification to his resolution mechanic. GMs whose resolution mechanic uses different types of dice (a d20 and a d6 together, for example) may also need to make a few modifications to the system in this article before it functions smoothly.
In short, each die roll is assigned a different quality. To keep track of the different dice, each die should be a different color or have some other form of easy identification mark. Making the decisions after rolling about which die represents which quality doesn’t help the GM at all.
After assigning desired qualities to the dice of his resolution mechanic, the GM then analyzes each roll. The die which is “best” (for success) or “worst” (for failure) had the most influence on the outcome.
For example, if the die which has been assigned the quality of “Time Required” is rolled with the best result, then the action took very little time. If, on the other hand, it was a comparatively poor result, then the action took more time. Quickly might be “an hour” for fixing a car, of course, and a long amount of time might only amount to a couple of minutes instead of a few seconds when picking a lock.
The GM should never feel bound to the results of the dice in describing what happened, nor should the players attempt to point to this system and “force” desired outcomes. The system is designed to be a guideline to feed the creative impulses, not a straitjacket to strangle them with.