The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘art of rulings’

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Banksy - Dorothy in the Security State

It’s time to discuss a topic which is surprisingly contentious: Should the GM tell their players the target number of a skill test?

(Seriously. Go to any online RPG forum, ask this question, and watch the long knives come out nine times out of ten.)

My personal approach to open and hidden difficulty numbers is to consider them a tool rather than an ideology, with their use being a blend of utility and practicality. What information in the game world does the difficulty number represent and does the character have access to that information?

  1. If the difficulty number represents something that the PCs can directly observe, tell the players the target number of the check. (An easy example would be the difficulty of jumping over a crevasse: The character can actually see the crevasse and make a pretty good guess about how difficult it is. Telling the player helps give them a clarity similar to their character’s vision.)
  2. If the difficulty number represents something that the PCs can’t observe, keep the number hidden from them. (For example, they’re walking through a jungle and I want to know if they spot a tribesmen hiding in the canopy above them. The difficulty of the spot task is based on how good the tribesmen are at hiding. Does the PC know how good the tribesmen are at hiding? No. They don’t even know it’s tribesmen they’re trying to spot. Therefore, they don’t get the target number.)
  3. If you’re feeling tricksy, you can give the players an estimated difficulty number based on what their PC does know and only reveal the real difficulty number when they’ve realized their error. (“The guy is standing nude in the middle of the field. Should be really, really easy to hit him…” “Your shot bounces off the force field surrounding him. This might be trickier than you thought.”)

When in doubt, I will generally default to not telling the players the target number. But this default position can be flipped in some systems for reasons of practicality. For example, in Call of Cthulhu you apply difficulty to the character’s skill rating and then attempt to roll under the modified rating. I’ve found it’s generally easier to give the players the difficulty modifier and simply report their success or failure rather than getting them to report a margin of success that I can then compare to the difficulty rating. (Your mileage may vary here, obviously.)

In addition to simple practicality and efficiency in game play, my method is influenced by a couple of factors. First, there is a limited bandwidth by which the player perceive the game world compared to their characters: They are relying almost entirely on imprecise verbal descriptions, whereas their characters have access to their full panoply of sensory input. While it is true that their characters cannot necessarily measure their chance for success at a task with mathematical certainty, I find that this nevertheless achieves more associated results than characters, for example, leaping over crevasses that no sane person would attempt if they could actually see it with their own eyes. Open difficulty numbers reduce the frequency with which there is miscommunication between the GM and the players, which can help minimize the old Are you sure you want to do that? problem.

Second, there are many circumstances in which the players will be able to figure out what the target number is. (Multiple characters making attacks against a fixed armor class, for example.) In some cases this experience can be very immersive (as the characters slowly figure out just how skilled their dueling partner is before declaring that they’re not actually left-handed, for example). But that also makes it an example of how knowing a difficulty number doesn’t instantly implode the table’s immersion, and even in circumstances where difficulty numbers are initially hidden, it can often make sense to explicitly lift the veil of mechanical secrecy after a short period of time in order to facilitate the practicality of speeding up play.

RESOURCE SPEND GAMES

Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a proliferation of RPGs featuring mechanics where the players will spend points from a limited pool as part of a skill test. GUMSHOE and the Cypher System offer one common form, with points being spent from skill or attribute pools in order toTales from the Loop provide a bonus to the skill test. Tales from the Loop offers another variety, featuring a variety of resource pools which can be spent to reroll failed checks.

I’ve found that these types of systems — particularly the GUMSHOE and Cypher System variety — require some special attention when it comes to open vs. hidden difficulty numbers. Blindly spending limited resources on tasks with unclear difficulties generally doesn’t seem to work well in these types of systems: Players often get frustrated and resources are generally overspent, which can rapidly propel a session towards the hard limits of the system and really limit effective scenario design.

Which is not to say, of course, that difficulty numbers should NEVER be unknown in such games. The occasional spice of an unknown search test, for example, can be really rewarding: The player doesn’t know if there’s anything hidden in the room or how valuable it may be, so they have to make a tough choice about exactly how much effort they’re going to put into searching it. When facing a previously unknown creature, they have to make a choice about snapping off a shot or really taking the effort to aim. That’s immersive and effective.

But if the whole game is cloaked in perpetual mystery, it’s much less effective in practice. It muddies decision-making (particularly in these resource spend games) and hurts immersion.

Another way of looking at this is that there is a “threshold of knowledge” at which the GM deems it appropriate to reveal the difficulty number. This threshold, however, is basically a slider. What I’m suggesting is that for these resource spend mechanics you want to radically reduce your threshold (particularly if you normally keep it relatively high).

For these resource spend games I have also coined the term “routine check” so that I can still call for things like routine Perception tests to determine which character spots something first without having everyone burn away their resource points, uh… pointlessly.

UNCERTAIN TASKS

Traveller 2300 included an interesting resolution method that I have never seen reproduced elsewhere, but which can be trivially adapted to virtually any RPG system. For any uncertain task, in which the actual success or failure of the outcome may not be immediately clear to the character (such as gathering information, convincing someone to help you break the law, or repairing a buggy piece of equipment):

… both the player and the referee roll for success (the referee rolls secretly). If both are unsuccessful, the referee provides no truth. If one is successful and the other is unsuccessful, the referee provides some truth. If both are successful, the referee provides total truth. In all cases, the referee does not indicate whether the answer or information provided is truth, some truth, or total truth.

A result of no truth means the character is totally misled as to the success of the attempt. Completely false information is given.

A result of some truth means the character is given some idea of the success of the attempt. Some valid information is given.

A result of total truth means the character is not misled in any way as to the success of the attempt. Totally correct information is given.

Because of the hidden nature of the referee’s throw, the character cannot know for certain the nature of the information being obtained. A referee may find characters doubting total truth, accepting some of no truth, or accepting all of some truth.

Marc Miller, the leader designer for Traveller: 2300, wrote about this mechanic in “Traveller: 2300 Designer’s Notes” in Challenge Magazine #27:

Setting fuses for demolitions is an uncertain task contained in the Traveller: 2300 rules. It is classified as easy, and anyone with any skill will usually succeed. Once in a while, the referee will roll a failure while the player succeeds: somehow the fuse setting failed (although it looks OK) and the explosive won’t detonate when the proper time comes. And once in a while, the player will roll a failure (and immediately realize that he has wired the explosive wrong), he can rewire them immediately to try to fix the fault. And sometimes, the player will roll a failure and hear the referee tell him the charges have exploded – because the referee also rolled a failure.

This method is an incredibly clever way of reintroducing uncertainty into the player’s (and character’s) perceptions even when embracing the practical advantages of player rolls and open difficulty numbers. I think it deserves to be much more widely known and used.

Go to Part 13

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As a result of long tradition, most mechanical resolution in roleplaying games takes the form of action resolution. There is, however, an alternative paradigm that you may find useful: narrative resolution.

The classic example for distinguishing between the two involves the PCs trying to find hidden documents in an office with a locked safe. With action resolution, the mechanics determine whether or not they can crack the safe. With narrative resolution, the mechanics determine whether or not they find the documents. (The distinction, it should be noted, doesn’t necessarily require a different set of mechanics: Either attempt can boil down, mechanically speaking, to the exact same Lockpicking check. The difference is in how you set up the stakes for the test and in how you interpret the results of the test.)

With action resolution, the player declares “I want to do Y” with the expectation or hope that it will result in X being accomplished.

With narrative resolution, the player declares “I would like to accomplish X by doing Y”.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

With narrative resolution, being able to say “this is how I would like to solve this problem” allows players to control their spotlight and it allows the GM to take a more general approach to prep. (The GM knows that there is incriminating evidence to be found in the club. The players decide whether they want to get it by sneaking into the office and cracking the safe, seducing the lounge singer, interrogating the club owner, or putting the place under surveillance.)

On the other hand, action resolution typically allows for a more simulationist experience of the game world (which, in its verisimilitude, can be more immersive for many). And it also allows for a more diverse array of possible outcomes (which can prevent the game from becoming predictable). (For example, the PCs succeed at opening the safe, but instead of finding the incriminating evidence of a criminal enterprise they find the mob’s blackmail photos of JFK schtupping Marilyn Monroe. Now what do they do?)

USING NARRATIVE RESOLUTION

Unsurprisingly, narrative resolution is often conducive to (and associated with) storytelling games and RPGs with a dramatist focus. But this isn’t necessarily the case: Remember that undetermined external factors are usually factored into mechanical resolution. There’s no reason that one of those undetermined external factors can’t be whether or not the documents the PCs are looking for are in the safe. The GM is simply saying, “I don’t know whether or not there’s incriminating documents in there; let’s ask the game mechanics and find out together.” (This may require a radical shift in your thinking — it’s literally a different paradigm for interpreting mechanical results — but it’s no less valid.)

Oddly, narrative resolution often combines well with failing forward. I say oddly because it seems counterintuitive that a system predicated on determining whether or not your goal succeeds would pair well with a technique predicated on assuming that your goal fails (albeit with complications). But I think it works because, first, narrative resolution is focused on the goal, and that focus makes it more natural for failing forward (which also focuses on the goal) to come into play. Narrative resolution also tends to lend itself well to larger chunks of resolution, which opens up a lot more breathing space for the sorts of interesting complications which really make failing forward worthwhile.

COMMON CONFUSIONS

When trying to grok the distinction between narrative resolution and action resolution, there are a couple common ways that I’ve seen people get confused.

First, it’s not unusual for those being introduced to the concept of narrative resolution to frame a mechanical resolution in such a way that the desired goal of the PCs is identical to the action resolution and then claim that there is in, fact, no difference between the two.

For example, you might set up a scenario where the player says, “I want to sneak over and grab the guard’s keys.” The action is to sneak over and grab the keys; the desired outcome is to sneak over and grab the keys. So, what’s the difference? Well, in this case, there is none. The two techniques resemble a Venn diagram in this regard.

Action Resolution / Narrative Resolution - Venn Diagram
Second, it’s oddly not unusual for those trying to explain the concept of narrative resolution to claim that traditional combat mechanics are a form of narrative resolution mechanic. The argument is that “make that person dead” is the desired narrative outcome and, therefore, the combat mechanics provide a narrative resolution of that outcome.

This is actually just the same error from a different angle, though. “HP 0 = DEAD” isn’t a narrative resolution mechanic. It’s just telling you whether or not you’ve killed somebody (just like an attack roll tells you whether or not you’ve hit someone with your sword). By setting the narrative goal to be “kill that guy”, you once again superficially make the action resolution look like narrative resolution.

What would a narrative resolution mechanic look like? Well, it would be “HP 0 = you accomplished whatever you goal was”. Was it to escape? Was it to convince the princess that you’re a better swordsman? Was it to impress your master? Was it to kill somebody?

A FEW FINAL ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This concept – including the classic safecracking example – was pioneered by D. Vincent Baker using the terms “task resolution” and “conflict resolution”. Those terms have become relatively popularized and many of my readers may be wondering why I’ve chosen to swap them out for the terms “action resolution” and “narrative resolution”.

Basically, having participated in several dozen discussions about this topic over the last decade or so, I have found that the terms “task resolution” and “conflict resolution” are a source of deep and consistent confusion.

First, the common definition and usage of the term “task” is frequently goal-oriented: You are assigned a task and then determine how you are going to accomplish that task. This seems to heavily contribute to the first point of confusion described above (where people can’t distinguish what the difference is supposed to be between the task-oriented and goal-oriented resolution methods).

Second, the term “conflict resolution” only makes sense within a very specific and adversarial understanding of the interaction between the GM and the players. If you look at the lump sum of Baker’s thoughts back in 2004 (when he was struggling with and exploring the implications of this relationship), it makes a lot of sense why he chose the term “conflict”. But outside of that specific context, it tends to lend itself to the second point of confusion discussed above. I’ve also seen it frequently lead people astray who then believe that “conflict resolution” only applies if an NPC is opposing the PC (either directly or indirectly).

I don’t really consider it likely that my revised terminology will have widespread adoption at this point, but that’s not my primary concern: My primary concern is to attempt to clearly communicate a useful set of concepts to those reading this essay.

Go to Part 12

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Death on a Clock - BanksyNow that we’ve discussed the totality of making a ruling from beginning to end, I want to discuss a handful of advanced techniques – various tips and tricks I’ve picked up or created over the years.

We’ll start with fortune positioning. As we’ll discuss in detail in a moment, this is a really valuable concept revolving around the point at which you roll dice (the fortune) during the process of resolving an action, and what happens before and after you roll those dice. Before we begin, however, I need to briefly discuss the history of this terminology to clear up some difficulties.

The basic principles of fortune positioning were first laid out by Ron Edwards, who coined the terms fortune in the middle and fortune at the end to describe unexamined practices that had been hanging around the hobby for decades. They were useful terms and they caught on. A few years later, however, Ron Edwards decided to redefine the terms because he’d decided that it didn’t actually have anything to do with mechanics (despite the use of mechanics being in the damn name). Around this same time period, he also decided that fortune at the beginning didn’t exist (which, as we’ll see, is also wrong). The result was a complete muddle, but since Edwards had coined the terms his nonsense follow-up held a great deal of sway. People tried to solve the problems Edwards had created with various patches (you’ll see people using terms like “with teeth” if you go poking around), but this just sort of added to the confusion and debasing of the terminology.

With the terms being thoroughly mucked up, therefore, I had to make a decision about whether I should abandon them entirely (and try to come up with new terms to cover the same territory) or just clarify that people should ignore the later nonsense. After considerable thought, I decided that the concept of “fortune positioning” was too intuitively obvious to discard, so I’m sticking with it (and you get this preamble explaining why).

Final note here: Any time I talk about “fortune” or “rolling the dice”, that’s shorthand for any sort of action resolution. These concepts are generally most applicable to mechanical resolution (whether that involves rolling dice or not), but they have some applicability even on the spectrum of GM fiat.

FORTUNE AT THE END

Fortune at the end seems to be what most GMs and groups default to. (I’m not sure if that’s because it’s actually clearer and conceptually simpler, or if it’s just a legacy of D&D’s wargame-derived mechanics and familiarity makes it seem more natural.) With fortune at the end you:

  • Establish method.
  • Check the fortune.
  • Describe the result.

You say, “I want to shoot the blade runner!” (Establish intention.) You make an attack roll. (Check the fortune.) And the mechanical result tells you whether the intention succeeded or failed. (You either hit the target or you miss them, which means you can now describe that end result.)

FORTUNE AT THE BEGINNING

Fortune at the beginning is a technique in which you ask the mechanics what happens and then you use the mechanical result to decide what you attempt. To put it another way, fortune at the beginning means putting the mechanical resolution between the statement of intention and the statement of method.

  • Indicate intention.
  • Check the fortune.
  • Determine method.
  • Describe the result.

Whereas fortune at the end has a player activate character expertise to determine whether or not the method they’ve proposed succeeds, fortune at the beginning has the player activate character expertise to tell them what method the character would use to achieve a general intention.

This can be useful when playing out a social situation: You state your intention (“I want to convince the Duke to give us troops”), then make your Diplomacy check, and then use the outcome of the Diplomacy check to inform how you roleplay the scene.

Fortune at the beginning is often used in personality mechanics: You make a madness check or you make a check to see if you can resist temptation, and if you can’t that determines how you play the next action (whether it’s running away screaming or turning away from Madame Shadow’s insistent kisses).

I also often see player do things like making an Intelligence check to see whether or not their character is smart enough to think of the idea they just had. (And if they fail, they won’t share it.)

FORTUNE IN THE MIDDLE

Fortune in the middle means that your first action check determines the initial momentum of the attempt, but then the player/character has another choice that can affect the ultimate outcome. So you might make a check to resolve a social encounter, discover that you’ve made a bad first impression, and then have an opportunity to recover from that. (Or just shoot the guy in the head. “It was a boring conversation any way.”)

Basically, fortune in the middle creates an additional decision point in the middle of resolution:

  • Establish method.
  • Check the fortune.
  • Make a secondary decision.
  • Check secondary fortune.
  • Describe the result.

Sometimes this decision point is actually baked into the mechanics. The use of Fate Points is a simple and common example. Apocalypse World uses a number of “moves” which are resolved with a 2d6 roll in which there is a failure range, a success range, and Apocalypse World - D. Vincent Baker(between the two) a range in which the PC has to make a secondary decision between consequences and/or partial successes.

Speaking of partial successes, a GM can often resolve a partial success by asking for a fortune in the middle response. They can also be used in other situations: For example, after a successful Dodge roll the GM might ask, “Do you want to duck through the door on your right or behind the wooden crate on your left?”

The resolution of the secondary decision may not require another action check; i.e., whether you duck through the door or behind the wooden crate success is automatic (the GM is defaulting to yes). Alternatively, the options could easily require additional mechanical resolution (and choosing between the form of mechanical resolution could be the primary difference between choices). It’s also possible that only some of the choices would require additional mechanical checks (you need to make a Strength check to bash through the closed door, but you can duck behind the crates automatically).

And, of course, the GM doesn’t have to be the one to come up with the options. “Okay, you succeeded on your Dodge roll. Where do you want to seek cover from the hail of machine gun fire?”

MULTI-STAGE RESOLUTION

The principles of fortune in the middle resolution can be extended to include multiple decision points, opening up the potential for a variety of multi-stage resolution methods.

In my experience, this is a poorly explored region of mechanical design. Probably the most prominent example are the skill challenges from 4th Edition D&D, and those were absolutely terrible to the point where the designers had to completely rewrite the mechanics multiple times within mere weeks of the game being released… and still didn’t fix it.

Dice pool systems have fared a little better because the ability to count a variable number of successes in each dice pool allows for a simple complex skill check mechanic (continue making checks until you’ve achieved X number of successes).

But much like Apocalypse World and other games have begun making specific mechanics which exploit fortune in the middle resolution principles, I think there’s a real potential for more specific multi-stage resolution mechanics (particularly if you start allowing for decision points by those opposing the character or characters carrying out the multi-stage resolution).

But I digress.

What distinguishes multi-stage resolution from simply being a series of discrete actions? Because there’s a single intention and each stage of resolution carries you towards discovering the ultimate outcome of that intention, either through a variety of methods or by the progression of a single method through discrete steps.

USING FORTUNE POSITIONING

Over the years I’ve seen a surprising amount of one-true-wayism when it comes to fortune positioning. This makes little sense to me: The ideal fortune positioning varies by both type of action and the situation in which the action is taken. And even people who aren’t familiar with the terminology will often freely flow from one to the next depending purely on the instinct of the moment

Fortune at the end has simplicity to its advantage: You ask a question of the system, the system provides a yes-no answer.

Fortune at the beginning allows the mechanics to provide you with an improv seed that you can then flesh out accordingly. (This makes it particularly good for determining the outcome of larger actions: The more specific the action the more awkward it can become to resolve with fortune at the beginning. For example, if your mechanics resolve a single attack, fortune at the beginning generally isn’t useful. If they’re resolving an entire fight – or, say, a jousting pass – then they become more useful.)

Fortune in the middle is more complicated, but allows for a richer interplay between the player and the mechanic along with a greater range of potential outcome. It can also focus your attention on the action being resolved, signaling that this particular action is more significant than others.

Each of these has its place. And, as I implied before, trying to rigidly define that place is not always the best answer. (Maybe this time you roll the dice to see how your negotiations with the Duke will proceed before roleplaying it, but next time you’ve got a “surefire” idea for how to seduce the Duchess.) But they’re incredibly useful tools for expanding and varying the experience at the game table, and if you find that your rulings are generally limited to only a single fortuning position, you may find it useful to practice using others until you become comfortable and familiar with them (whether that involves playing games with explicit fortune positioning in their mechanics or simply challenging yourself to explore a particular type of fortune positioning for the next few sessions).

Go to Part 11

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Red Carpet - Banksy

We’ve reached the end of the road: The dice have been rolled. The mechanics have determined success or failure.

Now the GM needs to describe that outcome. (They need to complete the fiction-mechanics cycle by bringing the result back into the fiction.)

If the result is a success, this usually means answering two key questions:

  • How does the intention succeed?
  • Are there any complications (i.e., unintended side effects)?

If the result is a failure, the questions are:

  • How does the action fail?
  • What are the consequences of failure?

The process we talked about in Fictional Cleromancy sort of naturally elides into this: As you’re thinking about graduated results, you’re thinking about what the potential outcomes of the action can be. You can usually just carry these thoughts forward through the mechanical resolution.

The actual narration of what’s happening in the game world is, of course, more art than science. But when it comes to describing outcome, there are a few general principles that you can keep in mind.

INTERNAL vs. EXTERNAL FACTORS

First, consider the question of why the outcome happened. What were the determining factors?

Bear in mind that both internal and external factors can influence the outcome of a skill check. (The distinction here is between failing to crack the safe because you’re simply not skilled enough and failing to crack the safe because your lockpick was defective and snapped off.) A lot of GMs default exclusively to the former (the character made a skill check; the check was a failure; therefore it was the character’s fault), but it’s arguably more effective to remember that the randomness of the dice models the entire situation, not just variance in the character’s ability: Sometimes you fail a Steath check because a guard comes around the corner at exactly the wrong time. You fail a Jump check because the ground is unexpectedly slippery. And so forth.

Another way of thinking about this is that, in any given skill check, there are myriad factors that determine its ultimate success and failure. Some of these factors – generally the ones we care about the most – are known. (For example, in D&D we’re always interested in whether a character’s armor will protect them from an attack, so their AC is always factored into the attack roll.) A lot of factors, however, aren’t important enough or consistent enough for us to want to specifically track them, so we use a random number generator to account for all the different factors that could impact the success or failure of any given action (and then trust to the GM to adjudicate the result accordingly).

For example, let’s say that the PC goes to a library and makes a Research test in order to find a particular piece of information. The test fails. The GM decides that it’s because the library doesn’t own a copy of the book that would contain the information.

Some people struggle with this because, if the book wasn’t present in the library, then the PC shouldn’t have had any chance at success on their Research test. This is a fundamental misunderstanding, however: Nobody at the table knows that the book isn’t there until the fictional cleromancy of the random number generator (combined with the GM’s ruling of what that outcome means) gives them that information. The library’s ownership of the necessary book is just one of a multitude of different external factors that could result in failure. (Other external factors might include whether the book has been checked out; if the book has been shelved incorrectly; has the book been damaged; does the book exist at all; and so forth.) The point is that we don’t care about any of these external factors enough to track it or model it mechanically, and so they all get abstractly bundled into the random number generator.

And, because all of these factors are bundled into the random number generator, it’s the GM’s responsibility to creatively unbundle them as they describe the outcomes of action resolution.

But what if we DO care about whether or not the specific book we want is available in this specific library? Well, in that case the GM would specifically determine that – through a listing of all the books in the library; or a list of all the places where that book exists; or maybe through a random percentile check – and then, like the armor bonus to AC, directly factor it into the success or failure of the Research test. (For example, if the GM knows that only one copy of the book survives anywhere in the world and they know that copy isn’t in this library, the Research test would automatically fail.) But when you make an external factor like this explicit, it’s no longer part of the abstract factors being modeled by the random die roll.

(It should be fairly obvious, of course, that no matter how many factors you make explicit there will always be factors you haven’t accounted for when you’re making a skill check. If there weren’t, in fact, you wouldn’t be making the skill check: You’d simply be defaulting to yes or saying no. Saying that the outcome of the action is random is inherently saying that there are factors that may or may not affect the outcome.)

FACTORS INFLUENCING OUTCOME

The ways in which characters can succeed or fail are as varied and limitless as the panoply of actions they can attempt in the first place. With that being said, there are some general principles you can keep in mind when describing outcomes.

SKILL: The most obvious of potential factors. Sometimes you have the best game of your life and sometimes you screw up and fall on your face. A lot of things can impact success or failure, but sometimes you succeed because you’re just that good (or fail because you’re just not good enough).

KNOWLEDGE: Is the character familiar with this particular model of safe? Do they recognize the patterns in a game of chess? Sometimes having just the right piece of information makes the difference between success and failure.

POWER: Sometimes people succeed because they just put more power into the attempt, or fail because they didn’t. A guard raises his sword to parry the barbarian’s blow, but her mighty thews sweep it aside and crush the guard’s skull.

FINESSE: And sometimes actions succeed because of the precision with which they are performed.

ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS: Slippery floors. Frigid weather. Jammed locks. Floors that buckle under foot. Piles of fetid garbage that get in the way of your swinging sword.

TIME REQUIRED: How much time does it take to complete the action? High margins of success might indicate that the action took less time for the character to perform. A failure might result from something taking too long.

LUCK: Sometimes the biggest reason a character succeeds is because they’ve gotten lucky. The giant’s sword was going to take their head off, but it deflected off a falling piece of rubble. They were about to slide off a cliff to certain doom, but they grabbed a piece of scrub brush and miraculously its roots held.

THE TARGET: Whether the target is an object or a person actively opposing the character, they can obviously have an impact on the success or failure of an action. These are the locks that are devilishly difficult or the gullible guard who easily falls for your lie.

BYSTANDERS: In addition to the character directly targeted by an action, it’s possible for other characters to either interfere or assist in the attempt (whether wittingly or unwittingly).

TOOLS: You’re only as good as your tools. Lockpicks break, elven blades slide through seams in armor, inferior IC makes a system vulnerable, and luck charms crafted by your beloved can give the edge in a mystic duel.

These obviously don’t represent the totality of factors that can affect outcome, but hopefully they’ll provide a little inspiration.

(Way back in 1999 I wrote Dice of Destiny for Pyramid Magazine which mechanized this process by assigning qualities similar to these factors to individual dice in a dice pool system. If you find yourself struggling to diversify your outcome descriptions, you might want to check it out.)

MAKING FAILURE INTERESTING

Something else to remember is that the gatekeeper of mechanical resolution is that failure should be interesting, meaningful, or both. In other words, it should have consequences.

This can be one advantage of using external factors in explaining failure: If the character’s research at the library reveals that the book they need only exists in one place, for example, their next action will be to figure out how to get access to it.

What this means, in practice, is that failure generally should NOT cause a return to the status quo. This doesn’t necessarily mean failing forward, but it’s usually best if the outcome of an action – regardless of success or failure – should in some way change the situation. FATE refers to this as “blaming the circumstances”, and the advantage is that the new situation creates new options (which prevent the situation from stagnating or becoming a dead end).

(All of this also applies to success, but as I’ve mentioned previously this generally takes care of itself: Success implies that the character is one step closer to achieving their goals.  A stated intention can almost always be summarized as “I want to change the current situation” and, therefore, the success of that intention automatically carries with it a change in the current situation.)

KEEP IT PITHY

Vivid descriptions are great, but try to get the ball back to your players ASAP.

A necessary corollary of making the outcome of an action interesting by giving it consequences is that you will have created a situation which (ideally) demands a fresh response from the PCs. Once you’ve established that new context, give the players the opportunity to make that response.

PLAYER DESCRIPTION

Instead of narrating the outcome themselves, a GM can instead prompt a player to provide the description. (Often this is the player attempting the action, although it can also be outsourced to other players at the table.)

For example, the GM might say, “You’re spotted as you try to sneak onto the mansion’s grounds. Who spots you?” Or, “You make a loud noise as you climb in through the roof. What’s the noise and how are you responsible?”

(Providing specific improvisation prompts like this – instead of simply asking a generic, “How do you fail?” – is generally more effective because it focuses the player’s response. You’re less likely to get a blank look if you ask a player to finish painting a picture instead of just handing them an empty canvass.)

Using the technique in this form grants the player a limited degree of narrative control. As such, it tends to work great in storytelling games (where it becomes part of a wider tapestry of methods for sharing narrative control). When used in a roleplaying game, on the other hand, I’ve generally found it problematic: It doesn’t really give the players any narrative autonomy (since they can only take narrative control when the GM gives it to them), but periodically forces them into a potentially disruptive and undesired authorial stance.

(In other words, if you want players to have that kind of narrative control, you’re probably better off playing a game that’s designed to do that.)

But that’s not the be-all or end-all of the technique. Instead of having the player get into an authorial stance and describe how the external world affects their character’s intention, you can instead have the mechanical result serve as an improv seed that informs how they play out the scene.

This can be particularly useful for social scenes: Instead of playing out an entire seduction attempt and then rolling to see if it succeeds, for example, you can make a Seduction attempt and then roleplay the scene based on the mechanical result.

This, however, begins to transition us into a discussion of fortune positioning, which is what we’ll covering in the next installment of the Art of Rulings.

Go to Part 10

Star Wars - A New Hope

Han Solo: We’re caught in a tractor beam. It’s pulling us in.
Luke: There’s gotta be something you can do.
Han Solo: There’s nothing I can do about it, kid. I’m full power. I’m gonna have to shut down. But they’re not going to get me without a fight.
Obi-Wan: You can’t win. But there are alternatives to fighting.

The group decides to make a Stealth check to hide from the Imperials. Han Solo makes a check for the group, with a bonus from the smuggling compartments on the Falcon. Stormtroopers search the ship, but their Perception check fails compared to the Stealth check. An Imperial lieutenant checks the ships logs, but the Stealth check rolls forward and his Computer Use check fails compared to it (so the logs show that the ship was abandoned shortly after takeoff).

Darth Vader issues an order for a scanning crew. Before they arrive, the PCs emerge from the smuggling compartments. They lose that bonus from their Stealth result, but the result itself continues to roll forward and allows them to ambush the scanning crew when it comes onboard. The PCs decide to take their uniforms (giving them a disguise bonus to their Stealth result).

Star Wars - A New Hope

At this point, however, there’s a point of uncertainty: The operators in the control booth try to contact TK-421 over the radio. The PCs decide to make a Bluff check to convince him that their radio is malfunctioning. The check is a success and it even convinces the operator to open the control booth.

Now there’s a brief interruption while Chewie and Han take out the control booth operators and then R2-D2 hacks the Imperial network to learn the location of the tractor beam.

Obi-Wan splits off from the rest of the party to deactivate the tractor beam. Han’s Stealth check continues to ride forward, but Obi-Wan is off by himself so the GM asks him to make a separate Stealth check (which will also ride forward).

Continuing his hack, R2-D2 discovers that Princess Leia is held in the detention block and is scheduled for execution. Luke convinces Han to help him rescue Leia, but they decide to increase their chance of reaching the detention block undetected by continuing their pretense of being stormtroopers with Chewbacca as a prisoner. Since this is the same disguise that they used earlier, the result of their Disguise check also rides forward and continues granting them a bonus to their Stealth result.

Star Wars - A New Hope

The result easily lets them move through the halls of the Death Star. The GM tries to add a complication by having someone board an elevator with them, but Han waves him off by suggesting that their prisoner is too dangerous.

The PCs arrive in the prison block. The GM makes a Perception check (or possibly two) for the guard on duty: Their Stealth check holds up, but their Disguise check isn’t good enough. He’s suspicious. This is another point of uncertainty, but this time they blow their Bluff check (“Prisoner transfer from cell block 1138.”) and he’s going to check their story.

Combat! Laser fire everywhere!

But that triggers a new point of uncertainty: They’ve set off alarms and someone is calling to see what the problem is. Han tries another Bluff check… and blows it again. The Stealth check stops rolling: “We’re going to have company!”

Luke opens the cell door. Princess Leia wakes up, makes a Perception check against the riding Disguise check, and succeeds. “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

Luke rips off his helmet. And, at that point, the Disguise check also stops rolling forward. (The PCs are changing their approach.)

R2-D2’s Hack check and Obi-Wan’s Stealth check, on the other hand, are still rolling along merrily.

Star Wars - A New Hope - R2-D2

The Art of Rulings: Let it Ride

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