Thursday, November 12, 2009

Action Cards Changes (Part One)

Ok, so I've been thinking about some of the revisions I want to possibly do to the Action Cards system. I'm pretty happy with the game right now, so I don't want to change the core concepts or anything, but I do want to consider how to streamline the game a little and how to break out approaches to optional modules. I've got a couple of significant changes in mind-- but mostly some tweaking. Eventually-- as I said some months ago, I want to write up a nice formal version of the rules, complete with enough detail and information for someone else to run the game if they wanted to.

So far Action Cards has seen several versions: the original quick system for a fantasy Three Musketeers game, the City of Ocean game, Libri Vidicos, Changeling the Lost and now the Third Continent Fantasy campaign that I haven't decided on a name for. In the course of that I've made a number of changes. Some of the things I've built have been intended to help simulate a particular genre.

One of the things I haven't yet written up is a set of guidelines for how to actually GM Action Cards-- that's probably my next big hurdle. To start my discussion about changes, I want to talk about a distinction with Action Cards I really want to make in any GM section I end up writing. This is pretty rough, and some of it repeats from earlier post on these topics.

Resolution Types
In my posts breaking down game structures in general and HQ in particular, I talked about the various forms of resolution at the table- some subtle and some obvious. In a revision to AC, I want to stress that there are two ways for players to affect the course of the game, in terms of tests-- that is declaring they want to do something and have something happen. There's Negotiated Resolution and Tested Resolution. Tested resolution is, obviously, the default mode for most games-- declare an action, make a roll, add factors from character sheet/circumstance and have the GM assess success. AC has this as well in the form of the card draws-- action is declared, the card draw is made and skills are applied for redraws if necessary.

However, there's still room for negotiation, even in that kind of resolution-- if it is a special card, the player has an opportunity to make an argument about what happens. If the card has edges on it, they have the chance to explain how those edges apply to the action at hand. And it can also be that the negotiation may come from the GM's side-- if the player can't make an argument from the special card in a timely fashion, or the GM draws his own special card or so on.

Negotiated resolutions, on the other hand, involve the player interacting without making a card draw resolution. The GM is the arbiter of when the risk or challenge of a situation demands the move to tested resolution-- with the idea being, as Robin Laws suggests-- that failure would be dramatically significant, appropriate and or dramatic. Here the drama of the narrative aids in making that choice.

Negotiated resolutions involve the player making an argument about why they should be successful about something they're trying to do. They state their goal, their method and then present support for why they should be successful at that. What serves as support for an argument? The situation- if the player has worked to set things up- so we'll call all of that the rp side of things, background, equipment, but obviously abilities. I want those things written on the character sheet to serve both a mechanical purpose and also have the potential to serve as support in an argument. I'll come back to impact of narrow skills on this in a bit.

What I want to stress in this is that equal weight (at least) needs to rest on negotiated tests. The perception needs to be eliminated that falling back to those is a GM “gimme” or not really part of the game. Instead we should see that as a strong part of the game play-- in the same way that Gumshoe has a system for resolution without rolling. And we should stress that sometimes negotiated arguments don't work-- if the situation is a stretch, if the argument seems weak. At that point the GM has the option to say no or to move to tested resolution. Generally where there's an organized opposition, tested resolution makes more sense, but where there's an impersonal force or circumstances, then negotiated ought to work. Negotiated also works best where the players are working to set something up as support for future activities.

Some examples--

The group is trying to climb up a mountain. What does the mountain mean? Is it intended to be a real physical obstacle, possibly preventing passage or causing injury to the group? If so, then we're talking about tested resolution. “OK, everybody make Physical Pulls for climbing up the mountain. You've got the right equipment for doing it, so you just need an OK result.”

On the other hand is it a set piece just to illustrate the scene- in which case you may just move to negotiated resolution. “OK, you've got a modest climb ahead of you. What does everybody have skill-wise for this?” Players answer. “OK, Raythe and Ori both have experience as hunters, plus Raythe has the Climb skill, so they can get you guys up the mountain with no problem.

Or let's take a variation on that same situation, where the question is one of time concerns pressing on the group-- you could do that as a tested resolution to assess their speed. Or you could follow a different negotiated route. “OK, you've got a modest climb ahead of you, but you want to get up quickly. What does everybody have skill-wise for this?” Players answer. “OK, Raythe and Ori both have experience as hunters, plus Raythe has the Climb skill. They'll be able to get everyone else up decently, but they are slowed by having to make sure of everyone's status, you move on at a modest pace.”

Or if you're perhaps putting the mountain there to make a point about everyone's different levels of abilities, then you can mix it up. “OK, you've got a modest climb ahead of you, but you want to get up quickly. What does everybody have skill-wise for this?” Players answer. “OK, Raythe and Ori both have experience as hunters, plus Raythe has the Climb skill. They'll be able to manage this without a pull. The rest of you make straight physical pulls and let's see what happens.”

But as I suggested in an earlier post, negotiated resolutions can be more or less formal. For a formal example, consider a group of PCs going into a formal court situation. Cerise suggests that she will try to set up some contacts among the people they group does know (method) in order to provide some support and resources if their interactions at court go badly (goal). She presents her strongest key pieces of support in favor of the argument. A) The whole group will circle out to do this, which means they can talk to a fairly large group, even focusing only on people they have close ties to; B) She has Networking and Asset Management as abilities so organizing this won't be difficult; C) on a personal level she, like many members of the party, has Charming and Diplomacy.

At that point the GM can decide in their favor, have Cerise make a pull to test success, or have the group make individual pulls. What kind of resolution occurs here ought to be determined by the following two things.

1.Did the player present good support, without making a reach? If yes, then move to question 2, if not go to tested resolution.
2.Is failure in this scene dramatically interesting or demonstrates some stakes at hand? If yes, then maybe a test ought to be pulled.

Negotiated resolution has a strong place in interactions with NPCs obviously. If a player doesn't want to go through a full exchange with an NPC, they can state their case as an argument. For example: Beletan wants to convince Prof. Morgandine to teach him some normally restricted magics (goal) and he wants to do that through charm and demonstration of competency (method). Beletan states that he's been working with Prof. Morgandine for some time, he has the diplomacy ability, and he has built up significant levels in a variety of magical areas- including banish which ought to allay any concerns he might have. That makes good sense-- and depending on the reward outcome Beletan wanted from this, I'd probably accept the argument.

Another example I've given before is how negotiations fit especially with character with social or diplomatic skills. Often those kinds of skills get lost in the shuffle-- players forget to bring them up or feel embarrassed that they have to fall back to those if face to face table conversations don't go well. Players ought to be willing to bring those skills to bear before engaging in conversation, or even at crucial points in the dialogue itself. Mind you one of the things that this does do is force the players to kind of state up front what their goals are with the conversation.

For example, Valmont states that he wants to plant the rumor in the mind of Nisa Ocalan about a particular incident. She has some serious skills and pull, so Valmont wants to play if carefully. Before talking with her in character at the table, Steve (Valmont's player) states: going into this I want to play it cool, but over the course of the conversation subtly suggest that the recent incident ought to be blamed on House Malbrect. (So we have a stated goal, and an implied method of subtle implication). I have the rumor-mongering keyword from my Spy set, I have Diplomacy as a skill, and I've spent some time asking gathering information on her beforehand.

Now there are a couple of ways to this to play out-- we'll of course do the face to face interaction, Steve's conversation with the GM. But that argument will serve as a filter for how I read what Steve says. None of us necessarily have the skills of our characters, but here I take that into account-- keeping in my that what here's saying is actually coded to a particular effect. Unless he makes a faux pas in the discussion, I'm probably going to have that result occur. What he's said has gone into the black box of the argument and come out translated on the other side. On the other hand, if I am going to make tests during the conversation-- then I have to take into account the argument he's made beforehand and add that in as bonuses and bumps.

I've given players with advanced social skills a couple of other negotiated methods they can put to use as well. For example, they have the room to take pauses of breaks in the conversation to gather their thoughts without penalty. The other option is for social take-backs-- a quick rewind if they've stated something inelegantly or gotten a particularly bad reaction. Both of those can be used to help model the suave character.

I seem to be writing this with a kind of rigid mechanical language, but I don't want to give that impression. Instead what I want to have in a revision of AC is a strong emphasis on the variety of resolution methods available, especially those which value interactivity. Rolling the dice and winning can be satisfying, but at least as satisfying ought to be the ability to make a case based on your character's actions and buys and have it go off successfully.

More on the actual specific changes for the game in the next post.


  1. First, it seems that instead of handling long events as multiple draws it's better to focus in on a crucial event that occurs during the long march and play it through. For instance, instead of handling foraging as a set of abstract rolls, handle it with one acted out sequence. They see a berry patch, but it's on a cliff side and there's a wild bee hive nearby. And it's starting to rain. If they handle it well, the vignette represents a whole set of foragings that went well.

    I'm gonna throw something out there just to start a discussion. Inspired by Tarot card spreads, Silent Death damage tracks, Candyland, etc.

    The GM takes a blank sheet of paper and creates a Candyland/Monopoly style track on it. On each square he writes the name of a challenge, a PC, and the skill he'll have to make a draw for.

    For instance, Fording the Yellow River, Jackie Chan, Boating for one square. Every PC lays down their draw on the square and looks at the results. It's up to the Players to come up with a story of what happens based on these draws. If they hesitate or argue too much or just suck, the GM is free to create story for any square and hand it back to them.

    After that's settled, the GM may actually want to play out the events in some of the squares.

    The model is laying out and interpreting Tarot cards, then living through the events predicted.

  2. I agree with the series of draw theory-- Laws in HQ certainly stresses the idea that extended contests should be reserved not only for complicated situations, but more importantly for situations with dramatic weight. The single incident to represent the whole (especially of journeys) it think is important-- choosing the scene that best encapsluates the experience and helps move the plot forward. That's what makes a good movie-- one which can choose those moments-- providing establishing shots which have later relevance.

    Your other idea reminds me, at least in part, of the Chris Engle board game matrix games-- where there is a board, a set of incident choices, but the whole structure falls to the players to design the story and establish the plot.

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