Saturday, July 24, 2010

Here's Some Advanced RPG Theory For You

Ok, so anything can be made interesting in games, but not everything has to be made into an interesting mechanic. Like talking to the Sentient Mushroom Cloud can be interesting in any game, but when do you want a mechanic for handling talking to mushroom clouds? Or making toast? Or finding toast? Or any other thing in a game, whether or not it's toast-related?

I will tell you.

You know what mechanics are interesting in games?

1) The ones where you have to do things fast, and...

2) The ones where a partial result means something.

And both is the best.


-Oh look, a radio, can I fix it? Roll your radio skill. Yep. Rock.

(Not exciting.)

-Oh look, a radio, can I fix it? Roll your radio skill. 38% success. That means you can only get FM country stations and 50% of the Evil Overtyrant's Orders To The Command Fleet, but that's it.

(Kinda exciting. Especially if it's relevant later and every time you want to listen to Radio Unfree Tyrannyzone you get these garbled half-messages to interpret.)

-Oh look, a radio, can I fix it before the orphanage explodes? Roll your radio skill vs. the demolitions skill of the mutant dog children across town trying to blow up Grandma Gummy's Orphanage. 56% success! That means that you'll be able to communicate 1 word per round to the rest of the party (who are at the orphanage, but clueless about the bomb) until such time as the bomb goes off. Choose your words carefully.



This is why the combat mechanics are almost always interesting mechanics in games (not that combat's always the best part, merely that these parts of the rules are usually interestingly crunchy)--because combat is always about getting shit done fast (do unto others before they do unto you) and a partial result (taking damage, giving damage, moving the enemy into a tactically convenient position) always means something.

(In case you want to argue, what I mean about "partial results" in combat is it's not just hit or miss--even if you hit, the damage is usually only part of the damage you hope to eventually inflict. So a hit is a "partial success" until the bugbear's dead.)

That shoves the players right into the texture of the experience, between the seconds. Oh oh allllmost....ok...ok...try again...

So there you go.


  1. Mechanics may also be necessary whenever two or more people at the table have a difference of opinion over the game's fiction. Like, if someone wants to fix the radio so they can contact headquarters, but someone else wants to intercept the bad guy's messages. Or if someone wants there to be a swamp next to the mountain range, and someone else wants there to be a desert there instead.

    Game mechanics should exist to help the players (including the GM if there is one) negotiate their shared fantasy, and should always be both interesting and relevant to the task.

  2. Very insightful post, Zak. Again. You should do this for a living and keep the shagging as an interesting hobby to show to friends and family when they come around on your birthday.

    I don't agree with Tim's post at all - that way lies madness and blandness (which, in its defence, is at least an unusual combination).

  3. Zak, how do you feel about damage resistance or damage immunity effects? If a hit is part-way to felling the bugbear, does a bugbear with 3 DR cheapen the players' ability to hit it?

  4. Good thinking ... this insight in reverse was probably behind the 3rd edition D&D mechanic of take 20 (you should be able to do something you're skilled at without that much uncertainty if you have enough time).

  5. Kinda similar to Unknown Armies skill mechanic. It has weak and strong successes based on whether you roll under your skill or over your skill but under the governing stat, and stuff like that.

  6. Zak,

    Since you're on the topic of skills and RP theory, and since you're a much respected DM who sees a lot of newbie players with varying levels of comfort with absorbing rules before play, I was wondering how your new players take the allocation of skills at character generation.

    I ask because I'm finding that a certain person I'd like to introduce to the game is highly resistant to reading rulebooks, and feel like the 3.x skills list is too much to take in at once for a new player who wants to get started in a hurry without studying first. I've been brewing up some ideas to abstract the skills system into character backgrounds, but figured that you must have faced the same issue and would like your thoughts on how you would handle it, if you care to go into it.

  7. @Tim

    Who wrote a post about "when mechanics should be necessary"?

    I wrote a post about when mechanics are interesting. In the cases you cite, there should be a decision-making system, but it can be short and over fast so you can get on to the interesting stuff. IS your character left-handed or right handed? Don't make the decision interesting, just get it out of the way.


    That can be worked into the combat system. No problem.


    I roll 3.5-ish without skills or feats. That makes it almost AD&D. I give people a chance to do something their class typically would be able to do by rolling on the appropriate related ability score. (i.e. a wizard could roll on intelligence to identify a potion)

    Rogues get skills = skill points divide by 4 but no actual skill points. They get one re-roll for each rogue level on any task they have a skill for.

    Raggi's game has an interesting, easy skill system.

  8. @Nagora

    If he does that, I don't think his new blog 'pornwithdndstars' would pull in nearly as much traffic.

  9. Inspiring and definitely thoughtful read. It's kind of like the Mouse Guard RPG's approach, where failure indicates success but with a twist.

  10. So, it seems that if one wanted to develop the "ideal game", one would need to come up with a combat system that could be generalized to all sorts of noncombat tasks.

    You COULD do this with a D20-type system, if you decided that rolling a skill was like an AC roll and the degree to which the skill task was accomplished similarly to rolling damage, you might say that the CR for a broken radio is 15, it has sustained 12 points of breakage, and the PC's toolkit, which is just a screwdriver, some electrical tape, and a few bits of foil, fixes 1d4+1 "damage" per "hit", critical rules apply. Then, put together a quick table for what happens at how many repair points: at 2 points it turns on, at 5 it receives broadcasts, at 8 it broadcasts 33% of what you say, at 10 66%, and at 12 100%. However, I think this might be a little clunky; a better multi-purpose system might be one like storyteller that combines success-or-failure dice mechanics with degree-of-success mechanics.

  11. @menace
    I feel like the problem is that combat always and inherently meets the parameters outlined whereas nearly every other kind of action only matches in certain situations.

    I think it--perhaps unfortunately--more comes down to GMing and adventure design than the rules. When do you decide to "stretch out" a task? How do you communicate this change to the players? etc.

  12. This, is a good idea.
    It reminds me of the "other stuff" from JBs 1-page Boot Hill homage.
    If you're going to play a game where everyone is cowboys, or space marines, post apocolyptic autoduellers, or ice dancers or whatever, you make a short list of everyman skills, and everyone can do them no question.
    Maybe everybody picks a specialty or profession, and can do anything that makes sense under that category.
    The only time you roll is if it matters how fast or how well you do it.

  13. @Zak
    I guess my point isn't that the "partial success" be a rules option that is always on, only that when you do invoke the option, the switch should be as seamless as possible.

    One of the good breakthroughs in Wizards-era D&D is that all rolls now use a single mechanic, so if you want to allow for partial successes in this case you can do so easily—either by taking into account the margin by which the roll exceeded the target number, or by tacking on something analogous to dealing damage. It's also an aspect of classic Storyteller, where one success was good enough for government work, and additional ones could be required when you wanted to make things a little more interesting.

  14. @Menace3Society
    "One of the good breakthroughs in Wizards-era D&D is that all rolls now use a single mechanic"

    I think actually that was one of the biggest blunders in design. One size doesn't fit all, especially when the random element covers as big a range as 1-20.

    This is where I think almost all skill systems break down - trying to fit everything from library use to wrestling Old Ones into the same basic range of possible outcomes. Nowadays I much prefer modular systems which can be used, or ignored, where appropriate.

    Having said that, there is the grey area of "workaday" skills which any character can do automatically until they're under pressure. A 1e PC with the Animal Husbandry secondary skill can deliver lambs all through spring without having to bother rolling, but what about when he's kidnapped by the local Indian tribe to help with the delivery of the calf of their sacred white cow (great pay if it works, sudden termination if it goes wrong)?

    A character with Salt Water Sailor skill can work the rigging of their ship without having to make skill rolls until the storm blows up. etc. etc.

    A system that covers that sort of pressure situation without giving the normal sort of binary chance of fail/succeed would be nice to have, and "take 20 or roll normally" doesn't cut it, IMO.

  15. I totally agree with nagora, 1e and 2e had it right, only check if it really means something, not routine. And the everyman skills thing is money, yoink, lol...
    I've always ruled on a sliding scale based on the characters skill or stat, giving a range of failure to success.
    But then, I've house ruled the frak out of 2nd ed. Over the course of twenty plus years of play....