Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Breaking Down Systems

Continuing on from what I started to talk about in yesterday's post. I mentioned about the different parts which make up a character (stats, skills, powers and equipment). Before I get to talking about HeroQuest and game conversion (which honestly is the whole point of this thing). I still want to look at some of the other ways we can break down how a system functions.

So I think it is worth thinking about where the rubber meets the road in terms of mechanics and games. I'd say things break down into three groups: modifiers, inherent and restricted things. Those are hugely imprecise and vague terms, but that's what I'm going to run with now. Inherent represent those things skills and stats which all players have. Generally in a game with characteristics all players have the same set (though it would be amusing to see one where they didn't). They also have some skills or things they can do out of the gate without training- like running. GURPS, of course, has a complex and formal set of these things where an untrained person can try to perform a skill, but at a default or reduced number if they don't actually have any training in it. D20 likewise has skills that you can't make a roll on unless you have a rank representing training, but everything else you can use your stat bonus as a base to make an attempt. HERO System has Everyman skills.

On the other hand, restricted things represent everything that you have no default in. You gain these through leveling up, through expending points, or at initial character creation. This can be as simple as I can pilot and airplane, to I can cast firebolts. Most of what defines a character as a character comes from this stuff. Usually it is heavily tied to the chrome of the system. And often there are structures in place that highly regulate what kinds of restricted items you can have for your character: class paths, limits on points, favored abilities, etc. Modifiers, OOH, just affect the other two things. They don't provide anything new-- like a sword, which has damage specs and other factors, but is simply an improvement on punching someone. A number of GURPS advantages serve the same purpose-- for example, "Voice" just gives a bonus to other skills.

Anyway, I think that's a way of looking at the mechanics aspects for a low-granularity viewpoint. You probably break those out, much, much more fully. But how do those things come into play. Generally they affect break points, where the situation could go one way or the other. And I think there are several different kinds of break points in a game which represent how the decision to go one way or the other happens. Some breaks are subtle, while some are more obvious shifts in the course of the game and narrative.

* Choice through Evaluation (GM)
* Choice through Negotiation (Player to GM)
* Choice through Test (Player & GM)

By choice through evaluation, I mean cases where the GM has to make a decision about what's happening on the fly. Most of the time that will be driven by story and meta-concerns. For example, where a particular character is at that moment, what kinds of stories or incidents players like, whether or not a particular player has gotten enough table time, what kind of mood people seem to be in. But sometimes it will be driven by character sheet information. For example, a character with Dangerous Beauty is more likely to get certain kinds of approaches. A character armed to the teeth might get unwanted attention. Or a character with a high level of inherent power might be passively traced. I can't recall exactly the game right now, but one system I read had “Bad Stuff” for characters in it-- essentially if a character wanted to buy something beyond their normal costs, they could take the difference as bad stuff. Then if something awful had to happen to the party, it would land on them by default. In any case, these kinds of breaks- where the story shifts in one direction or another are internal to the GM and can be modified by what a character has bought for their player. They're probably not worrying about too much as they really represent the backroom decisions on the GM's part.

But let's consider where the player and the GM start to interact. But first I have to say something about a real shift in the way games have been written in the last twenty years. At least for the way we play, game design has finally started to catch up to what we've been doing for a long time. Just about every game system now suggests that players shouldn't have to make an active roll on something unless it is important-- that those moments should stand out. If the action is commonplace or easy for them based on their skill or even not important to the plot, rollings usually not necessary (with exceptions). That's a far cry from early games like Rolemaster which had rolls for everything and encourages constant roll, roll, roll until you die. Even more mechanics heavy games like d20 and its horrible, awful, unending spawn of versions, usually has that advice and/or has a mechanic for players to pass by certain things (like the Take '10' rule).

But what often happens at the game table these days is Negotiation, or mechanics-free resolution. I spoke some months back about the idea of the Matrix arguments and how they could be used as a tool for resolving longer or more involved actions outside of the game table. Essentially, that works by stating: I want to do X, I want to do it by method Y, and I have these three Z things in my favor to support me in trying that. But we get those kinds of arguments and statements at the table all of the time now. The easiest things is something like “I want to Climb this wall, which should be easy because my Climb skill is 20.” But it can be more complicated, “I want to see who everyone seems to be talking to in the room, I've got the talent Party Savant, a skill in Human Perception, and I know most of the guests already.” Here the player presents supporting statements about what they're doing beyond the basic skill they'd usually be called on to test. A GM, given that supporting evidence can move to the end result, accepting that the argument has been proven: that the PC can find the person everyone is talking to.

But it can be more literal-- any conversation between a PC and an NPC at the table is a kind of negotiation. This goes back to my point about dealing with NPCs-- in any piece of dialogue, both parties should want something. What that is may not be necessarily understood by the other person (or may be misunderstood). The most basic level may be simply trying to get to know the person or building up the relationship. But often it is about getting information or soliciting aid. We have certain mechanical supplements to those moments as well. Someone might state a piece of dialogue and then mention “...and I have Cute as an advantage.” out of character. That's an argument for what they've said being taken a certain way. Or for another example, Will's character in the Changeling game has an ability which grants him a bump to social interactions of a certain kind. He can mention that effect before engaging in conversation, making an argument that the NPCs reaction should lean more positively. Dialogue can more back and forth between negotiated and tested, for example if a player hits a stopping point they can request a roll on something like Diplomacy or Human Perception for example to buy a clue. Or as a GM, I might also ask for a roll in order to see if I ought to supply additional OOC info to help them out.

Sidebar: Some of the way in which we handle situations in our games currently is a form of negotiation on a meta-level. I describe the scene and the elements in it, but I don't flesh everything out. Players know now that they have some leeway to describe things. That used to be in the form of “Is there a chandelier I can swing across the room from?”-- now they say “There's a chandelier and I'm going to swing across the room from it.” That simple change dramatically changes the way the players look at the scene, and I rarely have to say “Yes, but...” or even “No...” to those things since most players understand the limits of the genre.

The Action Cards system is entirely built around this kind of negotiation. Players have cards with abstract results-- Crawling from the Wreckage (where the action happens but something, literal or metaphorical, breaks), Deadlock (where nothing moves forward or changes), and their various unique cards. They have room to negotiate what happens in those cases. I really like that system-- except for one thing. Players sometimes have a hard time when I step in to put in my own GM negotiation on those effects. I try to give them time, but if I've got something in mind and they've paused, I do move the scene forward to my liking. Sometimes, where something really strong has popped up for me, I'll jump in right away. I try not to do that too often as a GM, but it happens. Some players are flexible about that, but I have to be careful as other players dislike it. I can see their reaction to the perceived loss of autonomy. My argument would be that those moments are the trade off for the general freedom the characters have in nearly all other situations.

Test resolutions involve the GM or the player stating an action and then having the player and possibly the GM roll to see if that action succeeds or fails- possibly determining a degree of success or failure from the roll. I think it is important to consider the difference between a test and a contest. A test is simply to see if you can do something, like a roll in GURPS to see if you manage to play your flute. A contest is a roll against something else (see different words, with “con” the prefix meaning against or something like that...). The contest may be against another rolled opponent or can simply be against a difficulty. Of course here for rolls I'm talking about any kind of randomized system (dice, cards, or whatnot). But generally we consider difficulty levels as simple contests, rather than lumping them in with opposed ones, which usually involve an active force. The resolution system shapes this-- a roll under system (like Hero, Call of Cthulhu, GURPS) has you rolling under whatever you've got written on your sheet. Now that can be modified by circumstances such that even rolling under what's written on your sheet can fail. However the real secret is that in the heat of the game, the last thing the GM wants to do is tell you that you've rolled under what's on your sheet, but you've still actually failed. That's why a roll up system (Unisystem, Cyberpunk, d20, Storyteller), where you roll and try to get a higher total systems, usually has more failures. That's purely an anecdotal observation, but I bet that GM's have an easier time stating a high difficulty required than asking players to take a penalty to their roll. It is all about stealing power from the players-- purely a narrative construct.

Contests may be simple things-- like did I manage to knock my enemy down or did I win initiative. They can be more complicated. An extended contest usually refers to one which takes several rolls to complete. But a contest may be more complicated-- a fight is usually a big, complicated and compound contest-- with trolls on a variety of skills and systems and all kinds of mechanics coming into play before final resolution. Even a simple attack will often have an attacker roll and defender roll-- with various factors impacting that, and then you move to damage resolution, criticals, resolving effects, all of which may have their own test or contest. So, lots of different ways to see those actions...

Hit my 2K limit- Tomorrow, continuing to talk about Test resolutions, converting games, L5R and HeroQuest 2e.


  1. I really like the thinking. It seems that the creation of terms for these concepts would help keep things clear.

    Using the term "modifier" is clever, especially when applied to objects like weapons.

    Inherent might be clearer if you used the term from yesterday's post: "inherent general ability". I would shorten it to general ability instead of inherent.

    Restricted abilities is good.

    I like your use of "break point" and "break" over the term choice. A die roll doesn't seem like a choice.

    Years ago, I came up with a way to describe RPGs to my non-gaming friends. Say you want to describe going to a museum to a friend who's never been there. Tell him he's at the museum and ask what he's going to do. After each action, describe the results ("They stop you and ask you to check your shoulder bag."). It made me realize how much unnecessary crap is included in most games, but I never really pursued the concept the way you, Robin Laws, and the FUDGE folks have.

    Starting reading Heroquest in my spare time. Design goals are reminiscent of FUDGE in the first few pages, but the emphasis on narrative structure is very new. Exciting stuff.

  2. Gene said, "It made me realize how much unnecessary crap is included in most games."

    That reminded me of an idea going around the RPG blogosphere a while back: RPGS are (paraphrasing here) "4 hours of play for 20 minutes of fun". The idea, as I understand it, is "Get to the fun!"

    I think our group defies that stereotype. There are enough crunchy bits for players who like them, and enough narrative interaction for the players who enjoy that, too.

    It's a struggle for me when I run, but I keep that stereotype in mind so I can try to avoid the "anti-fun" whenever possible.

  3. A great of my thinking is, of course, influenced by what Laws has been doing. He's been looking at places where there are different kinds of change sin the dramatic narrative- notably breaking Hamlet down by those various beats over several posts on his blog.

    The thing I'm learning about the get to the fun part, however, is that different players have very different definitions of what constitutes fun. Beyond the obvious, I just want a fight or I just want plots that revolve around whores stuff, there are some interesting other definitions. Some people define fun by a measure of control, either autonomy over their character or actual control at the table. We're lucky in the LV game in that everyone's definition of what constitutes fun is listening to each other's scenes. I honestly believe that's the most crucial element to being a good player-- interest and excitement about what the other players at the table are doing.

  4. (This is in reference to both this post and the last one.)

    I think there's a lot of little revolutions in RPG thinking once you stop and consider that Laws put forward that any test should be contributing to drama or the story or satisfaction.

    There are whole slews of skills that are purchased 'defensively' -- to keep the GM from having an excuse to cut off avenues to the players. What becomes the purpose of the old standby 'Perception' or 'Awareness' or whatever you call it? Shoot--what about any kind of out-of-combat Healing skills? That's simply prevention of enforced downtime.

    If we look at them as 'negotiation' skills, they have a place...but that makes them even more passive in a lot of ways then the roll-roll-roll mode. Are these things that ought to go the way of the dodo?

    Everyone has perception--but it's shaped by their abilities and interests as to whether they assign meaning to what they witness or can react fast enough to use the information.

    Why not make perception checks just a variation on other abilities based on what the GM is 'evaluating' for? The GM wants to test if a character can get a read on a duel opponent--make the test on the dueling skill with small penalty, or some such. Trying to figure out if the group catches a clue?--give the check to the person who has the most pertinent ability that would assign the appropriate meaning to the clue. It's for the dramatic stuff, right? I hope we're not rolling to see that there's a dead body on the floor--something that anyone would see pretty quick.

    I guess what I'm talking about are abilities that are only dramatic if they fail or exist purely to keep the GM from calling up unfun mechanics like healing downtime. You can try to pump them up and make them 'fun', but I think that's gonna exhaust everyone pretty soon.

    Maybe I'm Gumshoe-ing things that didn't ought to be Gumshoe-ed, but when was the last time that a excellent perception roll changed the course of the game--or even a session? When was the last time that an out-of-combat healer affected anything beyond getting a formerly-beat-up comrade ready for action the next session..which would have probably happened anyway, albeit with a minor penalty?

    Can we do without the 'GM-defensive' skills?

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