On Dice and Mechanics

 

So, obviously a D&D clone uses a d20 right?

We know there are certain expectations for certain types of games. Cyberpunk uses a d6/d10 system with edge case weirdness. Shadowrun uses giant pools of d6's.  Blades in the dark, old savage worlds, d6. 

But there are problems with those systems. For me; I mean, knock yourself out. 

Cyberpunk uses exploding dice which create weird dead zones in success chances. This is not a big deal. Shadowrun had this cycle of design, where huge pools always succeed -> add limits -> limits are dull ->add edge, and now you're using hero points. Which again, ok, fine.

I mean, they are fine. But I felt memories of when I enjoyed d6's. Original Shadowrun picking up a ton of dice. Song of Blades and Heroes where every choice is a tactical risk. Warhammer 40k, when saving on a 2+. 

I'm not a statistician. I had too many semesters of calculus at 6:30 in the morning in a basement to want to love number play-doh. I'm not afraid of math. But, you know, it's not particularly intuitive for me. I wasn't setting out to create some radical new design. I wanted something understandable, scalable, and most of all fun. I wanted it to work during play.

The normal process of seeing Sinless
and then opening and reading Sinless.
This system was playtested and iterated. I started with the idea of attribute 'pools' that drain during combat. When you use a die from your pool, you lose access until the next round. You also used these pools to defend. Reasonably quickly it got wonky. So we condensed the pools to four, four types of attacks, four types of defenses. Pools built from attributes.

Understandable: I ran a lot of 3e Shadowrun. I have an A4 sized page that is separated into three sections: All of the target number combat modifiers, all of the target number matrix modifiers, and all the target number magic modifiers. In tiny-teensy print. Front and back. It's in a box right now, but I'll gladly take pictures next time I run across it. 

So variable target numbers are right out. 

Gear is a huge, part of the fun is the shopping! Cyberpunk character creation is a shopping spree for gamers. It's fun!

I wanted gear to be involved in the core of play. This would be twofold: mitigating the mechanical importance of gear to the game, and involving gear in the core mechanic.

Players roll a number of dice equal to their skill plus the relevant gear feature.

Just in the realm of guns, that's some great design space. Guns with similar accuracies can vary the other features an—oh, got excited there for a second. Did you know I'm a game designer?

So let's talk about the scope of the mechanics. We don't want something that caps out. I like to run and design games that can last for 100+ sessions. I want solid feeling of advancement without it growing out of control. 

So the player gets to distribute both their expertise and money across the desired features.

They roll dice versus a static target number, more successes is more good.

About that target number though.

Stable Targets

Look, I ran Shadowrun for a decade. It was a lot of work. So I took every step possible to reduce the work on the Agonarch (the person running the game) in Sinless.

Operations are organized into tiers. Veteran runs have a target number of 4+. Professional runs have better trained opponents and more expensive  security measures with a target number of 5+, and Prime runs have military security and the highest levels of response and training for a difficulty of 6+. 

This caused more than one person pause during development. But keep in mind

we're developing a game. If you can suspend your disbelief about the uplifts, magic particle, spirits, and cybertechtronics, but "things are harder when opponent is more powerful" is the straw, then I got nothing for you.

Look at how it works for the Agonarch. It decouples length and opposition from difficulty. Players don't have to slow down to recalculate target numbers. Agonarchs can use the same statistic block and the opponent will be challenging to the players. And it works remarkable well with rolling between 1-XX d6's to accomplish a task. 

Your average uplifted bear mercenary after character creation should get 1ish successes on a prime run on a roll with 8 or 9 dice, or 4ish on a veteran run. (I did a bunch of math, but we don't need to get too far into that now).

That's for the things they do. You know the Punching guy is going to take Cybertechtronic Combat at 6, the Shooting are going to take Firearms 6, hackers will have Computer: Hacking at 6. You want them to be competent. 

But you don't get tested on only the things you do well on an operation. 

Characters improve by spending experience to boost attributes to increase pool sizes, and increase skills up to 6.

Once you reach certain kismet (experience) thresholds (10/20) they can select boons. Boons like, Raise a skill from 6 to 7. Or raise a skill from 7 to 8. Or gain pool resilience.

Oh, right, let's talk about the pools.

Going for a Swim


What I really like about Song and Blades of Heroes is that you decide your relative power and risk. Each unit has an activation threshold. You can roll between 1 to 3 dice, and if you have 2 failures on a roll your turn ends. Look at that decision tree! Do I roll three dice and activate my easy to activate unit and risk a turn end, or do I make some 1 die rolls to activate some non important units. 

So the same pools the characters use during combat to attack are the same pools they use to defend. They spend as many dice from their pools as they wish up to the limit of their skill ranking + gear. 

This is an engaging decision: how far will I extend myself? what are the relevant threats to my pools? Can we focus certain types of attacks to drain prime opponent pools? How many dice can I penalize an opponent with my actions? It creates a constant variable player controlled risk/reward mechanic in combat.

E.g. You can charge to allow you to spend Brawn pool dice to add additional distance to a double move, which allows you to neutralize their firearms advantage if you get within range of the opposition. This is the same resource that allows you to soak damage. 

There are not many modifiers, but you can get bonus and penalty dice rather than numbers, leading to contests over  battlefield resources (Cover, network access nodes, and ley lines).

The combat cadence is similar to Warhammer 40k. Attacks hit, successes are added to weapon damage, target chooses to dodge and soak. Resolution is quick.

Pool resilience are dice that never get exhausted from the pool. This tiered system of acquiring mutually exclusive rewards at these at thresholds and certain mutually exclusive choices during character creation means we avoid the GURPS problem of point based character improvement all ultimately converging at high enough power levels. 

Certain effects and tech can grant rerolls, and mechanically there's a rock/paper/scissors going on between magic/electronic/physical attacks and targets and their respective pools/vulnerabilities.

Beyond the fight 

That just creates a bunch of interesting choices in combat, but that's not all. 

The game contains a series of frameworks that provide a structure for the players to gather information and plan out a heist in whatever way they wish. 

There's a reason Leverage and Blades in the Dark use 'flashbacks' to handle jobs. That is entirely too narrative for me. The joy is sitting there watching the players plan the operation for 3 hours. I didn't want to address the problem by ignoring it.

The problem in those old games was I had to do all the work to set the parameters and scope.  Well, the frameworks do that for you. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are tool, not a directive. There is information about the target site. Players have a limited opportunity to gather information from their assets and skills, and then can use that information while they plan. The process is explicit, their use manifold, and most importantly, fun in play. 

That's not the only way frameworks are used: how to handle character infiltration before/without triggering a fight, Information about how to price contracts the players sign to do operations, how to neutrally arbitrate the players getting targeted by opponents for kidnapping or capture, an entire exciting method of resolving car chases, bricolage to upgrade the van to make a plan come together and more!

Memento Mori

Is it perfect? Almost certainly not. I'm sure someone will rapidly find Sinless's Peasant Rail Gun, but it meets all my criteria. It's fast in play, encourages tactical as well as strategic thinking, and is rich in design space and character growth and development potential. It's also pretty stable, easy for people to understand what their chances are, and the mechanic can be extended to resolve situations that aren't covered by the rules. (You got a lotta nice pools over there buddy. Shame if something would happen to those. Yeah, a real shame.)

I wasn't setting out to reinvent the wheel. I'm not claiming anything in this mechanical system is particularly novel. You get two actions and a reflex action on your turn, for crying out loud. It's pretty straightforward stuff. But it's fun as hell. 

People think it's pretty cool! 


Hack & Slash 

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On the Walmart Peeper Toucher and the arrival of Cyberpunk

 

I watched a video where a Walmart peeper toucher was chased through the store and shot with an electric gun. The body-cam showed the officer take the Walmart peeper toucher to the police station jail cell inside the Walmart.

Inside the municipal police station cell located inside Walmart ("save money, live better"), the subject refused to identify himself. He was forcibly restrained and has his face scanned, after which he was identified and charged.

I watched this body-cam footage last Tuesday.

Cyberpunk isn't about the future any more.

So how the hell do you write a cyberpunk game in the age of cyberpunk?

Cyberpunk in the age of Cyberpunk

First, I looked at the history of using 1d6 in board games, tabletop games, and wargames. I looked at the ones that worked, and took lessons from the problems of the ones that didn't. 

I then developed a simple, scalable, core mechanic that creates lots of interesting choices in play. I'll be sure to talk about that, the math, the design, and more in the coming days. But you can't make a good game if you don't have a solid foundation.

Next, I wanted to make a game I wanted to play. Chrome & Sorcery games have (and continue to have) a very traditional "Narrative Driven" Mid-90's Storytelling style. Adventures contain characters watching key players perform important actions while they follow a relatively linear and strict plot. The setting and presentation allow gamemasters to run games that tell 'stories' by funneling characters through missions.

Now, it's not that I don't like narratives. It's that I like them to be emergent, not dictated. I want to find out the story when running a game, and let dice tell stories. 

So very explicitly, Sinless is a different 'style' of game with a familiar form.

I like base builders and tactical combat, and must have spent about, I dunno 4,000 hours playing chaos wars on my Powerbook 420c. Taking over a city, building up a base, and carving out sections of a map as a tactical role-playing game works for me. 

So we developed and expanded this gameplay loop. 


Sinless is a very focused game.

The core rules contain only the information (and world-building) you need to complete and repeat this loop in the year 2090. 

You are sitting down to play a game with your friends, I wanted there to be an explicit game there.

But mr. game designer, you just made a beep-boop computer board game.

Yeah, I was here for 4e, man. I've been working and thinking about this stuff for almost 40 years now. 

The game explicitly provide players agency to affect situations while their (mechanical) resources are under threat. This is really engaging for my playtest group. It creates emergent characters, drama, motivations. 

In acquiring operations, they cannot help but be aware that if they are delivering guns somewhere, someone is going to use those guns. They are always being placed in situations where they have to decide to do something, even if that something is delivering the guns and getting paid. 

There's a whole section of the gameplay loop devoted to the consequences of the choices they make during operations. These consequences and their direct impact mean that their choices are meaningful. To the players. It affects their characters irrevocably going forward. 

I didn't leave people running games out of the loop. It has blown my mind after trying to run these things for twenty years, there isn't ever a simple and clear way to calculate mission payouts. That isn't a problem I'm going to hand someone who wants to run Sinless. The game provides all the tools GMs need to resolve situations that come up during the course of play. (Because I needed those tools, dig?)

People who run Chrome & Sorcery games want to make interesting choices about how to set up the game; not feel adrift, like they have to design a whole 'mission payout economy'.

And because players are running a brand, and engaging in liberating people from oppression while trying not to become oppressors themselves, there's a use for all that money. After all, there's a whole section of the game devoted to upgrading, attacking, subverting, building, and destroying resources in a city. 

And of course those resources tie into how powerful the brand is which ties into how powerful the characters are, which ties into how effective they can be.

In practice it has proven quite compelling.

How is this game Cyberpunk

Cyberpunk isn't retrofuturism and chrome and pink and purple neon. Those are the trappings because Cyberpunk as a genera was created in the 80's. Sinless, the word, as in the idea of people without a system identification number, is pure William Gibson. The city on the cover of the Sinless RPG is tuned to the color of a dead channel. Dead channels don't even exist anymore. I literally grew up- it doesn't matter.

Cyberpunk is about fucking late stage capitalism. It took the trends of the world, wall street, America, technologic advancement and posited, what's the worst it could get?

And, you know, corporations took that personally.

So like all cyberpunk it's about the intersection of technology and humanity and how that changes us. The same technology used to enslave us will be the same power that can set us free. And like all good science-fiction the world of Sinless mirrors the issues of our current world through a hypothetical future.

All in the context of an engaging gameplay loop.

If you'd like to know more, there's a 190 page preview on DTRPG.




Hack & Slash 

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On Sinless Released!


Get the PDF here on DTRPG: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/472142/Sinless

Print on DTRPG and Amazon coming shortly.

Sinless is an original human-written and human-illustrated cyber sorcery table-top role playing game.

Magic has reentered the world. Some humans have been changed by these magical energies gaining new powers and strange inhuman fae-like features. Humans share this world with Synths and Uplifts. Synths are synthetic AI in "living" forms and Uplifts are animals given intelligence, mobility, and opposable thumbs by cybertechtronics and biogenetics. 

Sinless takes place in 2090, a possible dystopian future, but not one without hope! Given enough time, ingenuity, and planning, characters can use their brand to help make a better world. Once they accumulate 1 billion Zuzu's (a secure crypto-currency controlled by the corporate court, based on the popularity of a posh dog) they will be recognized by the international corporate court and can found their own future, free of interference. 

What will your players sacrifice to achieve their goals?

Sinless was designed to be played in sessions lasting four to six hours by 4-6 human beings.

Sinless is a true cyberpunk game about the sacrifices necessary to end human enormity, not military industrial complex propaganda in a coat of retro-futuristic paint. 

On the OSR Christmas in July


Isn't it disappointing that only digital files are on sale at DTRPG?

So I've dropped the prices of print copies of my books!

Bestial Encounters Caused By Monstrous Inhabitation is now 19.99$ 9.99$ in PDF, 34.99$ 29.99$ in Hardcover, and 29.99$ 19.99$ in Softcover!

Artifices Deceptions & Dilemmas is now 19.99$ 9.99$ in PDF, 24.99$ 19.99$ in Hardcover and 19.99$ 14.99 in softcover

On Downtime and Demesnes is now 4.99$ in PDF, 19.99$ 14.99$ in Hardcover, and 14.99$ 12.99 in Softcover. (5e version too!)

I am moving next month, and paying rent twice is terrifying. So you get a deal! You get a deal! And You get a deal!

Look, they are great books with quality work from everyone involved, and at the price points for Christmas in July, you can get some Hardcovers on the cheap. 25$ for all the PDFS, or and under 50$ for all the books in print. If you were waiting now's the time.

The price drop on Bestial Encounters is permanent, but the others are just for this month!

On the Changing Landsacpe

 One of the following statements is true.

  • There are ten million empty houses in the United States, and only around 900,000 homeless
  • Pods of orcas are organizing and attacking fishing boats off the coast of Spain and have already sunk three vessels, and caused thousands in damages.
  • Before GPT-4 was released, it was asked to access a website with a CAPTCHA test. It contacted a person on Taskrabbit to read it for them. The person jokingly inquired "You're not a robot are you?" and Chat GPT replied "No, I’m not a robot. I have a vision impairment that makes it hard for me to see the images. That’s why I need the 2captcha service."
  • There's a thought experiment in physics that claims that the reason all electrons are exactly the same is because it's all the same electron traveling through time.
  • The Southern Baptist Church kept a secret list of over 700 clergy accused of child rape and molestation for over 20 years and did not report them or take any action to remove them from their seats of power.

I saw The Little Mermaid recently. I would never view this movie on my own. I view it as decadence, a symbol of our dying culture. We cannot do anything new. We can just make things we used to do bigger. The whole idea of live-action movies of cartoons just. . . turns my stomach—literally. When I think about it I get somatic stomach pain caused by mental illness. 

But I'm not a ten-year-old girl.

She enjoyed it. I had many thoughts. Although Melissa McCarthy is a wonderful person and actress, I felt such sadness. It wasn't Divine, you know? Such a powerful and vibrant figure, given the ultimate tribute in animation, and then. . . just forgotten. Secondly, I'm an artist and there wasn't a single human stomach in that movie, just paintings of them. I have never seen Javier Bardem turn in a performance this terrible.  

On the plus side, Awkwafina was brilliant, easily the only authentic performance in the movie. and Halle Berry is an angel, given form. She, and her voice, even without computer-enhanced audio and video, are a brilliance that, when viewed, disperses our perception of time. 

Let me say again, my daughter loved it. It was made inside a machine. It wasn't filmed on a green screen. It was painted with digital light. I thought about Roger Rabbit when watching it. That was a ten-year experiment to blend the two. Was it presentient? Did Zemeckis realize a human face, tracked and marked, integrated into an animated kaleidoscope was the future of cinema?

Look, you're no idiot. You clearly realize the gag is that all the items in the list are true. Actual factual what the shit is happening. One hundred years ago, Tesla predicted the internet, instantaneous communication and transmission of data. He lived from 1856 to 1943. 

He survived the robber barons, people who hoarded all the wealth.
He lived during a fascist takeover of a major world power
He lived through the influenza pandemic. 

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

The following things are coming, and they do not care what you think:

Life extension is possible. The only obstacles are logistics. Within 100 years, we will be able to refresh RNA, and effectively make people immortal. They have already done exactly this with mice this year in January. There is no physical reason these processes won't work on people. 

We will have the ability to uplift other animals—brain interfaces are already working,
and people are doing extensive research into non-human communication. You had better fucking believe it will be front-page news the first time a person wants to marry their uplifted pet. This isn't a question of if, just when. 

There will come a period soon, of the all-knowing. There will be a point in history before which we did not completely understand the universe and a point beyond that. We are in the before knowing. 

Top of the Line, circa 2000
All, human labor is obviated by AI. Maybe not today, but futurists that I've been reading predict that between robotics and AI, there will be no task a human can complete that a machine won't be able to complete better and more affordably within (looks at watch) 22 years. Possibly as early as 12 years. If it seems hard to believe, take yourself back to the year 2000 and tell yourself there will be over 20 million devices that every person carries on earth, more powerful than a current desktop computer that will respond to speech and be connected to the internet within 10 years. We will reach one billion AIs this year, with hundreds of billions predicted by 2030.

You are free to think what you wish, but John Henry was a steel-driving man, and Kasparov was a chess grandmaster. It is only a matter of time measured in years, not centuries or decades. Years.

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

I recently began playing Diablo IV. It's . . . well made. I do have fun when I play it. From moment to moment, it's fun. I have enjoyed my experience.

But there's this. . . whole framework around it. It's got all the most modern design principles and choices (and I should know, I'm a game designer). And what it's designed to do is to manipulate people into spending more time and money than they intend to. 

I like it very much, but it reminds me so fucking much of a casino. Nothing exists to pull me out of the experience. Everything I expect is there. Nothing will disturb your attention. Look at how easy it is to access the store and spend money. Look at how easy it is to not look at the store and just play and play and. . . . .*

It takes a lot from Path of Exile and Grim Dawn. But what it doesn't take is what makes those games fun, their intentional power spikes, secrets, and completeness. Those are games. Diablo IV is an amusement park. If you come back next year, it'll be different. That isn't to say it's not good. It's to say it isn't designed to be a game. It's designed to be a vampire that extracts your wealth and attention to profit. 

That doesn't make it not fun. It's surprisingly fun, even if it's a little rough around the rushed final itemization design. 

It does make it fucking insane. There will be no work for humans, and we are going to be able to live forever (excepting accidents until we can copy the brain (which is still iffy science).) and these people have devoted a hugely talented team of highly educated people to spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of man hours to create a 'toy' designed to extract millions and tens of millions of hours from millions of people for the profit of some small dicked asshole who's never worked an honest day in his life.

You see the opportunity cost. Seeing it makes me feel insane. Thankfully I have drugs. Because I am insane, and without the drugs I become. . . an issue for society. 

Note that I haven't made a judgment. After all, Diablo IV is a 'great work'. It's just that all our 'great works' nowadays (the MCU, gigagames, data collection for profit) are "not oriented to addressing the next hundred thousand years of human existence."

Maybe they could be is all. 

This weird era of arguments about culture wars isn't about the arguments. Like, scientifically, there is no aspect of any part of gender that is binary. There are TEN fucking karyotypes of gender chromosomes in humans, for example. Do you remember XX? XY? Ten of those.  Every conversation in public about gender is made by idiots full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It's the same for everything: abortion debate, guns, and every fucking thing on the news put to engage viewers. They are all just systems of control. And they work on you.

After all, it's your identity they are co-opting. They are trading in-group support for allowing themselves to be ideologically possessed.  It feels good to belong! It feels good to be on a team! Go Team!

I take the word of people for this. I'm unable to feel certain things. Like, I have never experienced loneliness. I have also never really experienced any sort of peer culture or pressure to conform. I just have no internal response to in-group/out-group dynamics as an adult. I don't ever inject an ego-driven concern about how behavior will be perceived. It's not that I'm not aware of it or that I can't think about it. Obviously, I think about how people will respond to my latest project or whatever. I just have no emotional impulse to belong to or avoid groups. It's one reason why everything seems insane to me. 

It isn't about the thing. Arguing about the thing makes you ideologically possessed. Rational humans are completely in agreement. Externals do not define human worth. All humans have infinite worth, arbitrarily. It's just a choice. We choose that because if we let externals define human worth, it soon becomes genocide or one of the many stops of bigotry or discrimination along the way.

We imagined and agreed it was so, so it is.

Human life can be whatever we imagine with it. All we have to do is all dream at once.

Can we dream a little bigger, please?

*The best thing about the design of Diablo IV is how the most efficient way to progress in the game is by, uh, actually progressing through the game instead of grinding. It's driving the hardcore players/content creators crazy, which is just brilliant and amusing, and I'm glad I lived through it. 

On the Creative Crocodile Conundrum

Are modern gamers objectively less creative than old-school gamers?

Here over at Monsters and Manuals, Noisms discusses some of the agency-sucking, mind-reading, poorly presented, 'Gotcha!' ideals that make up some of the 4thcore adventures.

Noisms postulated a problem that could be solved creatively in a variety of different ways. A treasure hoard is on the other side of the room, with a channel in the middle filled with crocodiles.

One of the posters responds:
"Conversely, any realistic solution to the crocodile problem is going to involve someone being fast enough or strong enough to do something at some point - it's also a skill check scenario (even if it boils down to the good old OSR dodge of the GM rolling a percentage chance - that's still a skill check, just a very arbitrary one)."

I do not think this point of view is uncommon—that the only solutions for problems are skill solutions. A short word about old-school play.

A dice roll in an old-school game is only made when the outcome of an action absolutely cannot be decided by agreement or fiat.

You don't roll to climb up to a ledge or a wall, get out of a pit, ride the horse up the mountain, tie up the prisoner, or jump off the horse; YOU DON'T NEED TO ROLL TO FEED THE CROCODILES POISONED MEAT or have your unseen servant bring the treasure over, you don't need to roll to climb over the channel, or to throw the bag across the channel or any one of a hundred different solutions.

Some actual dice rolls may be required for some of the solutions—but they will most definitely not require only strength or speed. Sure, if you cast web or sleep, the crocodiles will get a save. Sure, if you have the ranger attempt to calm the beasts, they may get a reaction roll.

A roll for discovery is different than a roll for allowing the player not to play.

I know the cliché of the young player looking at his sheet and going "There's nothing on here that lets me solve this problem" is a cliché because it occurs often, but the comment above got me thinking. It occurs a lot—personally—to me—in many of the games I ran. Players who only want to follow the main hook, players who wonder how they can tie someone up without the use rope skill, and even players who can only have relationships with NPC's if there are rules for romance. (No, not my current groups)

So are new school players just objectively less creative? Is it part of the generational issue of millennials having a fear of doing anything that's not explicitly permitted by authority sources? Why is the above sort of response so common? And really, as DM's, what can we do about their lack of creativity in problem-solving without holding their hands and giving them a half dozen ideas for solutions? Is this the same lack of creativity bemoaned by Gygax and Kuntz after the publication of classic D&D, or something different?

But thieves need to make a skill check to climb walls!

No, they don't. Anyone can climb walls. Just like anyone can hide or move around quietly. Thieves can climb unclimbable walls or normal walls unreasonably quickly. They can hide in the very shadows themselves and move so quietly that you never hear them until the knife enters your back.

Just because there is a resolution method for an action doesn't mean you need to use it—you don't make your players roll to kill unconscious opponents.

But if you don't make them roll, how will they ever fail?

The problem here is that you want the game to be a railroad. You don't want your players to decide what to do or how to solve a problem; you want to call for a skill check.

If you take off the safety rails and give them some freedom, you will be astounded at the bodies and rooms they forget to search and the actions they neglect to do. How many monsters or NPC's they leave on the ground unconscious to get up and get revenge another day.

I've got a post up about treasure generation. I put the opportunity for about 50,000 experience, 45,000 of which is treasure, to give the party the 10k total they need to reach the second level. Why is that? because they miss a full third or more of the treasure in the dungeon.

The fact is, if you don't lead them by the nose, player skill is a real thing they will need to have, and if they don't have player skill then they will fail.

The whole skill system is a crutch because it allows them to fail without feeling personally responsible, among other reasons.

Then you're just playing a guessing game! The whole session becomes about "Guess what the DM is thinking"!

If you tell the players what they need to know to solve the problem, they don't have to guess. They still have to solve the problem.

How come it's ok to use 'skill checks' for combat and not for something like talking to opponents?

Because at the table, I can't use my personal skill to swing an axe, but I can use my personal skill to convince a crocodile to let me pass.

Well, then how about I make my players lift something heavy when they want to bend bars, huh? Isn't that player skill?

Nice strawman, but as above—if we cannot agree or decide by fiat that you can't lift the gate, then a roll is required isn't it? This is a situation like "do I hit the monster" that is best decided by a die roll. Of course it's a continuum. I may know that the gate is latched closed, and no matter the level of your strength you will not be able to lift it, but you might be able to bend the bars.

If you use your skill to talk to the crocodile and there is no skill roll, then the DM just makes a decision—But you don't have any control over the DM's decisions! Without the dice to protect you, you'll just be railroaded into guessing what he's thinking all the time.

This is of course, another strawman—a misrepresentation of the actual process of play. The process of the DM making a decision comes down to discussion and agreement.

What does the party know about crocodiles in a skill light system?
The DM starts by asking if anyone is a druid or a ranger, but that's just where it begins.

Here is the important part - if anyone can come up with a reason that they would know something about crocodiles that is reasonable, then they do.

Reasonable how? By table consensus, but as always, the DM has the last word.

If your problem is that the DM can be unreasonable—let me assure you that more rules is not a solution to that problem.

How many solutions can you create to the Crocodile Conundrum problem?

Originally published 10/7/11

On Reader Mail, Table Talk & Communication


Evelyn writes in:
"In Pandemic, how the players communicate with each other influence and change the game a lot; since the main challenge of the game is to cooperate efficiently, I think communication is somehow part of the gameplay.
So I wondered how this applies to old-school gaming and how you manage table talk, player vs. character talk, and communication at the gaming table. "
How apt. This question strikes at the heart of gaming. 

Gaming is about communication. Dice, stats, rules, all fall to the wayside in tabletop role-playing games behind the essence of "What do you do?"

I was browsing G+ and saw someone reference a Reintsian dungeon crawl. It wasn't D&D or B/X - it was Jeff. [1] (You can search G+ for the term here!) When talking about D&D, it is not the way combat or skills are handled that differentiates the game, but the communication style in playing it. There is no question that communication is part of gameplay.

How I manage communication

I am a proponent of Old School play. [2] In old-school play, the player is the person tasked with making choices. The idea is that the player puts themselves in the role of explorer, not that of an actor playing a part.

I ended a game in media res last week. This week different players showed up. The old characters were gone, and the new players and their characters were there.

From Drawing & Dragons for LotFP
My priority is not creating a naturalistic environment that reeks of verisimilitude. My priority is playing a fun game with my friends.

Players always communicate as players and rarely as their characters, even when interacting with NPCs. Players discuss options as a group. As a general rule, anything they are saying takes time within the game and can be heard by people standing nearby. These are for the game purposes of encouraging focused play as a measure of player skill (planning quickly to avoid random or wandering monsters) and keeping play focused on adventure and not inter-party squabbles and rivalry (No discussing killing players or hirelings or other NPC's without consequences).

When players take action, that action occurs. Occasionally when players have engaged in 'take-back' behavior, I will nominate a rotating party leader and enforce that until players begin to take responsibility for what they say. Other games (run by a particularly notorious narcissistic blogger who does not deserve a link) allow no table talk, assuming that everything said is constantly said and done.

The communication structure in gaming is based on IIEE. (Intention (announcing the action), Initiation (starting the action), Execution (completing the action), and Effect (consequences of the action).) In my games, Intention and Initiation are conflated. Many players will attempt to state the Intention to bait the Dungeon Master for Execution.

This next part is so important.

I bypass the Intention/execution end around by using player agency. "You have options A, B, and C. Here are the consequences of each. Choose."
E.g. "You may remain where you are, or you may step out into the hallway, but you feel fairly certain that doing so will place you in view of whatever fired that arrow, or you may attempt to move back, either fleeing or hiding behind party member B for cover."
Players are responsible for acquiring information about the situation themselves. There are two ways this happens.

  1. They ask. I tell them.
  2. They ask. I tell them the cost to find out.
90% of requests fall into the first category. It is very, very difficult to convince players to ask and clarify uncertainties before taking action. I repeatedly tell them they can ask me for information during play, as well as make sure I state what options and known consequences there are so they can understand what they don't know.

Consequences

  • There is little to no character development. Characters do emerge, but the game isn't about who these people are, it is about the choices that the players make.
  • Players are informed of their options and empowered. Since they know the possible consequences before making choices, the game seems very fair to all those involved.
  • Players have a lot of control over getting to do what they want to do each week. 

Notes

There were some more questions asked in the letter.
"But I have noticed that the group table talk often short circuit some player's actions, choices, or initiatives. Like a player is tempted to explore or interact with something, and the other players chat in, and the player shies away or just does as the group suggests  even if he or she was tempted to make a different choice. "
Yes.

This is a fairly standard group dynamic. Peer culture has a huge influence on behavior. It can be situationally addressed by (politely) telling everyone to shut up and asking the player what his action is without interference from the rest of the party. In general, however, this should be considered a positive thing. You do have the power to say, "Discussion is over," and then ask for actions, free of input clockwise. Or look at other game resolution options and systems that allow choices without input from all the players.
"Sometimes, it also feels like in-game communication limitations could lead to interesting in-game situations. Like removing "on the spot" decisions."
When you design a dungeon or adventure, that is literally a truth of what you are doing. You are designing it. There is a standard mode of play, but certain situations can create an 'on the spot' decision. The key is it should be a consequence of player action. Make sure that whatever is causing the timed situation is clear (a stopwatch, a count, etc.) and driven by player choice. Then they are on the spot. Again, it should be an intended design and not simply something is done to frustrate your players. 

[1] Note that I'm not saying that system doesn't matter. Clearly, communication in Bridge is part of play, as it is in Burning Wheel.  But we are talking about D&D, which is its own broad-spectrum thing. You can design an RPG about communication as a game-play element that makes it its own game. When speaking about D&D or the base role-playing experience, it is much like talking about poker. Even through the hundreds of variations, the structure of poker and the necessary elements of communication (tells, bluffing) remain the same, even if minimized to the point of irrelevance.

[2] I've played new games, from Vampire to 4e to Dogs in the Vineyard to Microscope and more. My preference for old-school play is no statement on the validity of those other play styles. It was fun to play those other games! I imagine my assertiveness of the virtues of old-school play has caused people to assume that I'm saying something negative about those other games. When in truth, when played as designed, they can be fun! (I will admit, I want to add about 1000 caveats to that statement.) 

Originally published 9/4/12

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