The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘art of rulings’

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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

Go to Part 1

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

Go to Part 1

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

Go to Part 1

Banksy - Fairground Ride

Misapplying the technique of multi-step action resolution results in a problem I refer to as rolling to failure.

Perhaps the most common example of rolling to failure is the way a lot of GMs handle stealth: They’ll have a PC roll Stealth checks every single time they move or every single time they encounter a new opponent. If the PC has a 75% chance of success on a Stealth test, after just three checks their chance of success has dropped to 42%. After five checks, it’s dropped to 23%. And the first time they fail a check, of course, their attempt at stealth is over. (And the odds get even worse if the GM runs each of these checks by having all of the PCs roll Stealth, all the NPCs roll Perception, and if even a single Perception check is higher than a single Stealth check the gig is up.)

The consequence, of course, is that the players will simply stop trying to be stealthy. And, as a result, an entire set of tactics (and the really cool stuff that can flow from those tactics) vanishes in a puff of smoke.

“Why do my players always just charge in mindlessly?”

It might be because you’re not giving them any choice.

LET IT RIDE

The solution here is to Let It Ride.

When a PC is attempting a particular endeavor, make a single check and let the result of that check ride forward: If they’re trying to ascend a cliff, make a single Climb check to determine whether or not they get to the top (even if it would take them several rounds or minutes or hours to do so). If the intention is to “sneak through the enemy base”, then you make one Stealth check for the entire op and it determines how stealthy you are for the whole thing. (And the answer may be, “Not very stealthy, so someone is probably going to spot you.” And that’s OK.)

CONTINUING THE INTERACTION: A common mistake when letting it ride is to have the GM just summarize the entire attempt. For example, a player says they want to sneak into the orcs’ camp, so the GM calls for a Stealth check, sees a success, and says, “Okay, you manage to slide past the guards patrolling the border of the camp, make your way to the chieftain’s tent, and grab the tiara.”

That’s certainly an option, of course. But what’s great about letting it ride is that a player can still make meaningful choices while their result continues to roll forward. By leaving the player in the driver’s seat, the GM might discover that they want to knock out the sentries or eavesdrop at a tent to learn the orcs’ plans.

These choices could also impact the success or failure of the endeavor. For example, if they choose a path through the camp with higher security, it’s possible that their check won’t be high enough to handle it.

FAILURE POINT: Speaking of failure, how can the GM determine at what point during an attempt failure occurs if they’re using the let it ride approach?

Where the result of the check is being sequentially compared against a series of variable challenges (like a Stealth check being compared to various sentries and guards), this can be relatively easy. (You get spotted by whichever guard first exceeds your Stealth check.)

But what about something like that Climb check for scaling a cliff? On a failed check, how far up the cliff have they gotten before they failed the check?

(As with any check, of course, you still need to determine what failure means: Does it mean you fall? That you have to catch yourself before you fall? That you get stuck? That you realize you can’t reach the top for some reason and need to make your way back down?)

In general, there are three approaches: You can make a judgment call based on whatever result you think would be most interesting. You could determine it purely randomly. (For example, you could roll percentile dice to determine how far up the cliff they’d gotten or how much of their money they lost at the casino.) Or you could use the margin of failure on the check to calculate the result (or inform your judgment call).

POINT OF UNCERTAINTY: Another technique I’ve developed when letting it ride is the point of uncertainty. At the point of uncertainty, the original test result has been put at the risk of failure, but the character has the opportunity to save the result by taking some sort of action.

The point of uncertainty may be the result of the original check actually failing. For example, while sneaking into the orcs’ camp the PC encounters a scout whose Perception score is high enough to spot them. Can they knock him out (or take some other preventative action) before he raises the alarm? (If you wanted a mechanical cue, you might determine that a small margin of failure triggers a point of uncertainty and only a large margin of failure results in an immediate catastrophe.)

However, a point of uncertainty could also be the result of some tangential action coming in and interfering with your original check in an orthogonal fashion. For example, you’ve made a riding Social check while running a con job. You’re in the middle of chatting up the mark at a fancy party when you spot a former mark across the room. If they spot you, they’ll ruin your new cover. Can you make a Stealth check to avoid being seen?

What the point of uncertainty lets you do is to add complications while the overall resolution continues pushing forward. (Watch any heist movie ever made to see why that might be useful.)

Note that you’re never making a Stealth check to maintain your Stealth check or making a Social check to maintain your Social check. If you’re sneaking around and you’ve reached the point where the only way to succeed is to try sneaking again, that doesn’t mean that your original attempt is at risk. It means your original attempt has failed.

ENDING THE RIDE: With that being said, when does one attempt actually end and a new attempt starts? Failure is certainly one way. If the PCs fail their check to sneak into the orcs’ camp, fight the orcs who spotted them, and then attempt to reassert their stealthy approach, then that’s a new attempt and they should make a new check.

In the absence of failure, the first thing the GM should look for is a change in approach. If the PCs are sneaking along, decide to ambush some orcs who failed to spot them, and get into a big melee with them, that’s also the end of their stealthy approach and if they later decide to go back to sneaking they should probably make a new check.

(Note that these are not the same thing as an interrupted attempt. If you’re climbing a mountain and you fight some yetis halfway up, that doesn’t mean that your Climb check to reach the top of the mountain has failed or that the PCs have changed their approach. It’s just been interrupted by the yeti fight. The original Climb check should ride on through.)

More rarely, the GM can also look for significant changes in circumstance. This gets pretty fuzzy, though, because it’s really easy to fall into the trap of, “Every sentry they encounter is a change in circumstance! New roll!” Which is, of course, the exact opposite of what you want to do. But in some cases a seismic event will occur and things really will change so much that it’s basically a completely different task. For example, if the PCs are sneaking through the orcs’ camp and halfway through it a huge platoon of fire giants attacks the camp, the GM might decide that “middle of a battlefield filled with fire” is sufficiently different from “sleepy orc camp at night” as to make it a completely different situation requiring a new check.

(Another technique you can use to handle changing circumstances is to just modify the original check. For example, if a PC’s cyberdeck gets hit with a nasty virus while they’re hacking a mainframe, the GM can just apply a penalty to the original check result to reflect their debilitated equipment instead of calling for a whole new check.)

Next: Has the original goal been met? If the PC was attempting to seduce Baron von Isbury and the baron has now been seduced, then that ride has come to an end. (Insert bad sexual pun about the next ride beginning here.) If they were climbing a mountain and they’ve reached the top, then they’ve successfully mounted the obstacle. (Insert bad sexual pun about mounting here… Okay, I’ll stop.)

In a similar vein, however, you can also look at whether a significant landmark or accomplishment has been achieved. This can get fuzzy, too. (“Every time you get past a sentry, you’ve accomplished something! Make a new check!”) What you want to look for are the accomplishments that can’t be trivially negated as the result of a later failure. For example, instead of having a single Climb check for the entire mountain you might have a separate Climb check for achieving each base camp: On a failed check, instead of being forced to retreat to the bottom of the mountain they can instead return to the previous base camp (making it a significant accomplishment to achieve).

Similarly, after the PCs have penetrated the outer defenses of an enemy compound and planted their remote access device on the mainframe, you might have them make another Stealth check to get back out of the complex.

MULTI-STEP vs. LET IT RIDE

You may have noticed that at this point I have now advocated for breaking a single intention into a multiple steps AND for resolving broad swaths of time with a single check. Aren’t those contradictory?

Not really. These are different tools, and they can be used in different ways to achieve different effects. But how do you know which one to use?

Well, to a certain extent, this is another one of those areas which explain why this is the Art of Rulings and not the Flowchart of Rulings. But here are a couple things to keep in mind:

First, notice that if you’re properly applying multi-step action resolution, then each vector terminates at a meaningful consequence or meaningful choice. You’ll also notice that one of the ways that a riding check can come to an end is if the PCs choose a new approach or if they’ve reached some from of landmark (i.e., there’s been a consequence). In many cases, these mechanical approaches are actually two sides of the same coin.

Second, any place where you’re rolling the same skill check repeatedly and the consequence of any failure is to effectively wipe out all of the previous successes… You should probably be defaulting to letting it ride at least 99 times out of 100.

(The exception to this are endurance checks – i.e., situations where eventually failure is assured and it’s a question of how long a character can stave off that failure. For example, how long can you stay conscious in a vacuum? How long can you keep swimming in a terrible storm? How long can you survive exposure in the middle of a blizzard?)

Finally, you usually can’t go too far wrong by boiling this down to a simple question: Which one sounds like more fun?

Addendum: Let It Ride on the Death Star

Go to Part 9

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