The Alexandrian

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Battlestar Galactica - Starbuck

GM: Okay, you come up over the horizon of the station and you can see the trench up ahead. Three rebel fighters go roaring past.

Annie: I signal my co-pilots to follow my lead and drop in behind them.

GM: Sure. You fall into their 6 o’clock and hit the thrusters, zooming up behind them.

Annie: I target the lead rebel pilot and take my shot!

GM: He’s dancing around in the ray-trace of your targeting computer.

Annie: The Force is strong with this one. I pull the trigger!

GM: The walls of the canyon are really racing past you. All this amazing superstructure just whirring by in a blur.

Annie: Great. I take the shot.

GM: Suddenly that old YT freighter you’d planted the tracking device on earlier comes roaring out of deep space! It shoots! [rolls some dice] One of your co-pilots explodes!

Annie: What?!

GM: What do you do?

Annie: I… take my shot?

GM: Your other co-pilot, distracted by the appearance of the new enemy, loses control! They smash into your wing, careen wildly, smash into the wall of the canyon, and explode! Your own stabilizers have been damaged and you go hurtling out into deep space!

This kind of resolution dithering – where the players have declared their actions, but the GM isn’t allowing them to actually take and resolve those actions – is incredibly frustrating.

Sometimes the dither is caused by the GM prematurely asking the players what they want to do – after hearing the proposed action they realize that there’s additional information that they want or need to convey. (Or, if they’re improvising, details or cool ideas which popped into their head during the time that it took for the player to respond.)

Other times the dither occurs because the GM is waiting for someone to say the thing he wants them to do: Something cool is going to happen when someone tries to open the door, so any other action people propose will be put on pause until somebody in the group opens the door. (This also naturally leads to a narrower case in which only actions that would disrupt what the GM has planned are ignored – you can do anything unless it gets between them and that door.)

Another common form of dithering occurs when a GM responds to a declaration of action by discussing other options that are available. For example, I was playing in a cyberpunk game where I said I wanted to hack an electronic lock. The GM responded by pointing out that I could also kick the door down or just send my slither-bot under the door or physically pick the lock or…

Ultimately, when a player declares an action the GM needs to resolve that action and then describe the new situation: They need to move forward so that the next set of actions be cleanly declared. (The only exceptions are if the GM doesn’t feel they have enough information to resolve the action or if the declared action appears to be based on a misunderstanding of the current situation. In either case, the GM should still be seeking the necessary clarification as quickly as possible and then driving forward into the resolution.)

Resolution dithering often becomes obfuscated when the GM can jump between multiple PCs, leading to a muddle where the GM can get an action declaration from one PC, not fully resolve it, move onto the next PC, get another action they don’t fully resolve, and then repeat cyclically – kind of bouncing around the group without ever moving the action forward. This seems particularly prevalent with neophyte GMs (possibly because their lack of confidence manifests as an unwillingness to make the sort of definitive declarations required of action resolution), and the resulting quagmire can be difficult to diagnose.

GM DON’T #3.1: THE REVERSE RESOLUTION RING

What I refer to as the reverse resolution ring is a kissing cousin with resolution dithering and, for me, is even more frustrating to experience as a player.

For example, I was playing in a game of The One Ring. The GM would describe a situation – like a guard dog growling as the party drew near – and I would say something like, “Okay, I’m going to grab some of the fresh venison from the deer we killed this morning and I’ll toss it to the dog to distract it.” The GM takes note of that, but then proceeds around the table collecting action declarations from the other players.

So far, this is probably fine: Getting a collective understanding of what everyone is doing before figuring out how it would all play out together can actually be a really good technique for a GM to learn.

But where the reverse resolution ring kicks in is when a form of recency bias causes the GM to resolve the proposed actions in the opposite order from which they were declared (starting with the last person they talked to and then working their way backwards to the person who actually kicked things off). This is a problem because, at some point during those declarations, the other players will often say something like:

“Oh! That sounds good! I’ll dig some meat out of my pack, too!”

Or:

“I shoot the dog with my crossbow.”

The latter negates the original declaration by solving the problem in an alternative way. The former ends up basically stealing the original idea (even when the player saying it was just trying to support what they saw as a good solution to the problem) – the copycat gets to be the one to actually do the cool idea.

In either case, the GM is essentially stealing spotlight time. They’re punishing the player who took initiative, which is directly problematic because that’s demoralizing and unfair to the player affected, and indirectly problematic because it will eventually have a corrosive effect on the willingness of the entire table to step up. Even if it’s just a subconscious reaction, eventually you’ll end up with something that could easily be misidentified as analysis paralysis, but is actually just a hesitation to pull the trigger when it’s just as likely to end up shooting you in the head.

(It actually reminds me of something that crops up in live theatre: One actor will come up with a funny bit of business or line reading. Other actors will see it and think, “That’s hilarious!” And then they’ll end up duplicating the bit in their own scene, which can often happen earlier in the play than the original actor’s bit. These derivative bits are often not as funny and only serve to sap the riotous humor of the original – which is often built on the straight takes which are supposed to precede it. It’s the director’s responsibility to make sure that this sort of undercutting does not happen. But I digress.)

The reverse resolution ring can get truly cancerous when it turns into an endless ring: The GM goes through the ring once asking declarations, goes backwards through the ring resolving actions, and then – since they’re back at the beginning of the ring – they ask that last player, “So, what do you want to do next?” … only to then go forwards through the ring again getting everyone else’s declarations. The GM can even convince themselves that they’re “balancing” things – this guy went last, so let’s find out what he wants to do first. But that player is now systemically screwed, doomed to forever get upstaged by the rest of the group until something disrupts the current pattern.

In closing, however, I will mention the exception which proves the rule: A reverse resolution ring can be an effective technique when it’s used to model initiative. In other words, when the GM asks those with the lowest initiatives to declare their actions first and then resolves from highest initiative down. The “punishment” is now modeling the poor initiative result, and grants a strong benefit to those with a high initiative result.

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8 Responses to “GM Don’t List #3: Resolution Dithering”

  1. Wyvern says:

    “Resolution dithering often becomes obfuscated when the GM can jump between multiple PCs, leading to a muddle where the GM can get an action declaration from one PC, not fully resolve it, move onto the next PC, get another action they don’t fully resolve, and then repeat cyclically – kind of bouncing around the group without ever moving the action forward.”

    I experienced the opposite problem the last time I played D&D. There were about 6-8 players, and I think half of them had little to no experience playing RPGs. When we entered the dungeon, the GM started asking players what they wanted to do, and I waited patiently for my turn — but before I had a chance to provide any input, he was telling us to roll initiative. I don’t recall what it was that I wanted to do, but it was something that I logically should have been able to do before combat broke out. Fortunately, when I angrily objected, the GM gave me a chance to do it, but I think it created unnecessary friction.

  2. Dan Dare says:

    Related is when players, who haven’t had a turn yet, try to insert themselves between a declaration and the game masters response.

    e.g.

    P1: I’ll get the venison out and chuck it to the dog.
    GM: OK…
    P2: No I’ll shoot it first!

    If the GM isn’t careful they end up with a player induced reverse resolution ring. Even worse is when you get:

    P1: I’ll push P2 so their shot misses and then throw the venison.
    GM: The dog attacks P2 who is on the ground.

  3. gaynorvader says:

    @Dan Dare I actually don’t see your example as a problem, if the players fight amongst themselves that’s fine, so long as it’s done within the game. I actually find your last example to be a particularly good bit of RP, P2 ultimately getting punished for trying to solve everything with violence and the party suffering from their lack of leadership and unity.
    I’ve often had small fights like this break out, with players fighting over the first action or some loot, it rarely escalates and usually results in memorable experiences and better character development.

  4. Dan Dare says:

    @gaynorvader yes its cool RP, but P1 got gyped because the GM allowed P2 to usurp their initiative. That leads to resentment and the player rivalry over that can become problematic. Its easy to resolve thus:

    P1: I’ll get the venison out and chuck it to the dog.
    GM: Ok, it will take an action to get it out, so P2 what do you do?
    P2: I’ll shoot it!
    P1: Hey, I want to stop that!
    GM: Ok, make a dex save P1, you stop retrieving the venison and if you save you elbow P2, giving their shot disadvantage.

    There the GM hasn’t allowed anyone to take control and favour their own action.

  5. Nathan says:

    The only time this happens for me is when an action is actually multiple actions. “Take the shot” is a single action, but “Open the door” could be “Walk towards the door, open the door”, two separate actions (a move and a standard, you could say). If walking towards the door would create new information (for example, “you can feel a strange evil aura coming from the door”), then I’ll usually ask the player if they want to continue their action, as well as allow other players a brief moment to get a voice in. If they continue walking towards the door, no problem, it’s their choice, I just want to make sure they have all the information necessary to make the action, and that everyone has the chance to respond to new information. That said, I do consider the player who is currently making the action to have the priority- they are, after all, closest to the door.

    The other time I could see this happening is if a player interrupts narration with an action before the GM is done explaining the situation. Depending how vindictive I am, I might allow them to take their action based on incomplete information, but usually I continue talking, explain the entire situation, then ask if they still want to do the action. Again, the player that made the action gets priority, and I will resolve the action ASAP. This comes up most often with room entry, especially because I usually describe the room first, and then the creatures within it, so jumping the gun could have lethal consequences. Note that I usually say something along the lines of “Ok, but you might want to hear the rest of this, is that fine?” which is almost always followed by a “Yes”. I don’t usually have problems with this, tbqh, because I try to keep descriptions fairly short and to the point, but it happens occasionally.

    Just my 2 cents on two situations that are similar to resolution dithering. The common thread here is that I want my players to have all the information that they are entitled to when they are entitled to it, and may slow down resolution of actions just a tad bit in order to ensure that.

  6. gaynorvader says:

    @Dan Dare That read the same to me as your first example, I guess it’s all in how the DM handles it. The reason I’m one of the few 3.5e DMs with intimate knowledge of the grapple rules is because I’ve had many instances of players grappling to try and stop an impulsive player making a hash of things! 😀

    I think I just filled in the DM asking for rolls in my head, because I assume that for any mechanical resolution :)

  7. Jack V says:

    Yeah. I think this often happens when things are not exactly in turn order, but it’s not clear what order they should be in. (I mean, in games that HAVE a clear initiative order and combat mechanic for roughly what an “action” is.)

    After a combat or similar, I often expect people to break up into a couple of small groups, some people examining the loot, some people examining the room, some people examining something that came up in battle etc. But it’s easy for it to get nebulous if it’s not clearly declared who’s doing what, and for one group to get behind the others in time passed.

    Or someone finds something another pc should really be involved with, but there’s no real norm for “do we strictly rp this with the other characters only finding out if they’ve specifically been called over” or “does anyone who find it interesting just be allowed to assume they’re there as well”.

  8. C. says:

    I used to play Pathfinder with a guy who did something like this:

    GM: “OK, now that the ooze is dead, you’re free to look around the room further.”
    Alice: “I start searching the desk.”
    Bob: “I cast Mending on my armor (which was damaged in the fight).”
    Charlie: “I look for secret doors.”
    (some rolls happen, noted 10-minute spell Mending is cast, etc.)
    GM: “Alice, in the top drawer of the desk, you find a key and a note.”
    Bob (as soon as the last word is out of the GM’s mouth): “I read the note.”

    Luckily, the GM eventually noticed the problem (I remember him saying “wait, you’re not there” a few times when this happened later).

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