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The Impossible Dream

#5: Resolution Mechanics II

by Hunter Logan
Apr 14,2003

 

Last time, I wrote about the use of Chance, Ability, and Intent in constructing resolution mechanics. I brought the article to a rather abrupt close. I feel bad to have done that, but it works out better because I want to peer more deeply into the resolution play flow. I think a resolution mechanic is more than just a resolution mechanic. It's really a mechanical process that includes at least one mechanical device and one evaluation. That mechanical process is presented as a resolution play flow. The undefined item here is the evaluation, so that's a good place to begin.

The Five Means of Evaluation

A mechanic really isn't a mechanic without a means of evaluating what happened. It occurs to me that any mechanic has five means of evaluation. This is how I conceptualize the way that players evaluate what happens after a mechanical device is used. The terms are Absolute, Unopposed, Opposed, Played, and Qualified. Here are the explanations.

Absolute evaluation is usually based on Die Result vs. Fixed Scale. The player generates a Die Result using a method such as Skill + Attribute + Die Roll. The GM may apply a modifier for difficulty or situation. For an easy job or situation where a character has the upper hand, the GM might apply a large positive modifier. For a really tough job or situations where the character is at a disadvantage, the GM might apply a large negative modifier. The GM (or player) compares the die result to the fixed scale and determines the outcome. This is a personal preference, but I think modifiers are a bad idea for this sort of mechanic. The purpose of an absolute evaluation is mostly to gauge the quality of character effort. The evaluation may also provide an outcome; but as a GM, when I asked for this sort of roll, I usually just wanted the player to impress me with a great die result. Either way, a low result here means the character was inept and failed, while a high result indicates heroic performance and great success. Here is an example

  • Device (Chance and Ability): Player rolls Skill + Attribute + Die Roll vs. Fixed Scale.
  • Evaluation (Unopposed): In this example, the GM assessed the Difficulty as a modifier. The GM compares the modified Die Result to the Fixed Scale. If the Die Result is 3 or greater, the character achieves some degree of success. Otherwise, the character fails. More important, the character's effort is clumsy or lackluster unless the player rolls 5 or better.

Modifiers
ChallengeModifier
Easy+1 or more
Average0
Difficult-1 or more

Results
Die ResultEffortOutcome
0-2PoorFail
3-4FairProgress
5-7GoodSuccess
8+HeroicBonus


Unopposed evaluation is usually based on a variable scale with a device such as Die Result vs. Target Number where the die result is Skill + Die Roll or something similar. The GM adjusts the Target Number (TN) based on difficulty or challenge. An easy task often has a low TN. A difficult task has a high TN. Here is a common example:

  • Device (Chance and Ability): Player rolls Skill + Die Roll vs. TN.
  • Evaluation (Unopposed): In this example, the GM assessed the Difficulty as a modifier The GM compares the Die Result to the Target Number. If the Die Result is equal to or greater than the TN, the character succeeds. Otherwise, the character fails.

Target Number
Die RollResult
2Easy
4Average
6Difficult
9Impossible


Results
Die RollResult
< targetFail
= or > targetSuccess

Opposed evaluation is mostly based on a comparison of effort such as PC's die result vs. opponent's die result. Here is an example:
  • Device (Chance and Ability): Player rolls Skill + Modifiers + Die Roll vs. Opponent's die result.
  • Evaluation (Opposed): The GM compares the player's die result to the opponent's die result. Here is a set of possible outcomes:
Results
PC Die ResultResult
< OpponentPC Loses
= OpponentDraw
> OpponentPC Wins


Played evaluation is mostly based on player intent. In this situation, one player (usually the GM) gets to say what happens to another player's declaration. This is often tied into ideas of diceless play. Here is an example:
  • Device (Intent): The player declares that his character is using the radio to call for artillery support.
  • Evaluation (Played): The GM considers that the request is logical. The character has a radio, expert military training, and artillery support. He decides to play along and replies that the character has successfully called for support.

Qualified evaluation is mostly a check to determine whether or not a character is qualified to do a thing. Here is an example:
  • Device (Intent): The player declares that his character will attempt to scale a sheer cliff face.
  • Evaluation (Qualified): The GM asks the player about the character's equipment and skills. The character has some climbing skill, but no equipment. The GM determines that the character can attempt the climb, but it will be both difficult and dangerous.

The Four Mechanical Structures

To discuss mechanical structures more accurately, I have identified four mechanical structures that you can employ to build a set of resolution mechanics. Each is a process represented as a resolution play flow. You may declare others as you need, but I'm starting with these four. They are Single, Series, Nested, and Countdown mechanics.

Single mechanics include one device and one evaluation. Here is an example of a single mechanic:

  • Device (Chance and Ability): The player rolls Character Skill + Die Roll vs. Target Number.
  • Evaluation (unopposed): If character's effort (Character Skill + Die Roll) is equal to or greater than the challenge (Target Number), the character is successful. If the character's effort is less than the target number, the character fails.

Series mechanics consist of two or more single structures chained together to produce a set of mechanics. This is a more complex play flow, but the series mechanic is the most common structure for event resolution for a single character. Here is an example of a series mechanic:
  • Device (Intent): The player declares the character's action.
  • Evaluation (Qualified): The GM determines the required skill. If the character lacks the skill, the character fails. If the character has the skill, the GM sets the target number and the player rolls the dice.
  • Device (Chance and Ability): The player rolls Character Skill + Die Roll vs. Target Number.
  • Evaluation (unopposed): If the character's effort (Character Attribute + Die Roll) is equal to or greater than the challenge (Target Number), the character is successful. If the character's effort is less than the target number, the character fails.

Nested mechanics usually consist of a single or series structure nested inside another mechanical device or evaluation. Here is an example.
  • Device (Intent): The player declares the character's action. In this case, the character threatens a prisoner with a wicked-looking knife in hopes that the prisoner will talk.
  • Evaluation (Qualified): The GM considers that the character can easily make good on the threat. Anyone with common sense would start talking, but the GM isn't sure this prisoner qualifies. Also, the GM doesn't really want to play his own willpower against that of the player. The GM decides to roll dice for the result.
    • Device (Chance): The GM rolls a d6 for the prisoner.
    • Evaluation (Unopposed): The GM decides that a result of 6 makes the prisoner resist. The die result was 2. The prisoner failed, meaning he will sing like a canary for the PC in hopes of avoiding the pointy end of the knife. The GM declares this.
Countdown mechanics include a device, an evaluation, and a countdown. The structure is basically a loop that serves as a shell for nested mechanics. It's extremely helpful when resolving actions for several characters. Its primary purpose is to aid in running combat. Here is an example of a countdown:

  • Device (Chance and Ability): The GM asks the players to roll initiative. The GM rolls initiative for NPCs or monsters.
  • Evaluation (Qualified): The GM determines which participant has the highest die roll. That participant is at the beginning of the countdown and goes first. In the event of a tie, the GM may use another method to break the tie.
    • Device (Intent): The player declares the character's action.
    • Evaluation (Qualified): The GM determines the required skill.
      • If the character lacks the skill, the character fails.
      • If the character has the skill, the GM sets the target number and the player rolls the dice.
    • Device (Chance and Ability): The player rolls Character Skill + Die Roll vs. Target Number.
    • Evaluation (unopposed): The GM determines the outcome.
      • If the character's effort (Character Skill + Die Roll) is equal to or greater than the challenge (Target Number), the character is successful.
      • If the character's effort is less than the target number, the character fails.
    • Continue Countdown. When the current character's action is resolved, the GM continues the countdown.
      • If the countdown has not reached 0 and the participants still have actions to resolve, the GM determines who goes next and returns to step A.
      • If the countdown reaches 0 or all actions are resolved, the countdown ends. Continue to step 4.
  • Continue Play. The countdown is complete.
An Approach to Chance and Ability

Here is an example showing a common resolution flow that uses Chance, Ability and Intent (but mostly features Chance and Ability):

  • Device (Intent). The player declares what he wants the character to do.
  • Evaluation (qualified). The character may be able to do it. The player must roll dice.
  • Device (Ability and Chance). The player rolls Skill + Die Roll for his character.
  • Evaluation (unopposed): If the die result is good enough, the character will succeed.
In the example, Intent helps the GM define the skill required for the die roll and set the target number. I think Intent is most often used in combination with qualified evaluation. At least, that's the sense I get from many games. In this example, the actual resolution mechanism is a second device, Skill + Die Roll. It's a combination of Chance and Ability.

This is the part I find interesting: Any combination of Chance and Ability can be skewed toward one or the other.
  • If Skill is small compared to the range of the die roll, then Chance is dominant.

    Example: Say the range for a skill is 0 to 8 where 0 is untrained, 4 is fully trained, and 8 is the best on the planet. Now say the die roll is 1d20. This gives an unmodified range of results from 0 to 28, but a fully trained character only has skill 4. For a fully trained character, the skill is really just a modifier. The situation is a little better for characters with more skill, but an untrained character has modifier 0. In that case, the result is pure Chance. I can slant this even further by saying, "A rolled 1 is an automatic failure and a rolled 20 is an automatic success." The only other variable is the target number. If the target numbers are small (and they probably would be for really easy jobs), then Ability may still have some meaning. Otherwise, Chance is still the dominant factor.
  • If Skill is large compared to the die roll, then Ability is dominant.

    Example: Say the range of attributes is 0 to 20 where 0 is untrained, 8 is trained, and 20 is the best on the planet. This time the die roll is 1d4. This gives a range of possible results from 1 to 24, but now the die roll is just a modifier and the range for a trained character is simply 9 to 12 without modifiers. For a trained character, Ability now represents 67% of the total range. The result is slanted far more heavily toward Ability. Without modifiers, the character can't complete any job with a target of 13 or more; and the player may not need to roll for targets ranging from 0 to 9.

Another Approach to Chance and Ability

I want to look at one last way of balancing Chance and Ability. I didn't think of it; Scott Lininger did. In his rpg, The Window he employs a single die, roll-under mechanic that accounts for increasing ability by reducing the number of sides on the die. His method uses every type of die from d4 to d30. I'm not usually a fan of using so many different dice, but what Scott has done is noteworthy. Basically, he set the default target number at 6. Depending on the situation, the GM can increase or decrease it. When the player needs to roll dice, he rolls the die that corresponds to the character's competence. If the character is really horrible at something, the player rolls a d30. If the character is truly outstanding at something, the player rolls a d4. In this way, the effect of Chance increases as Ability decreases. I think it's incredibly elegant.

An Approach to Chance and Intent

Historically, Intent has been the junior partner in resolving events. Of course, the player has always been empowered to declare what he wants his character to do or to say what he wants to happen; but wanting a thing has rarely been enough to make it so. More recently, game designers have provided more means to let the players have what they want, even if that means letting the players do some of the things traditionally left for the GM. Since players are accustomed to rolling dice in order to get their way, it seems perfectly logical to continue that trend. In the following example, Ability is still a factor in the mechanic, but Chance is the deciding factor because the player is never truly assured of victory.

  • Device (Intent): The player wants some weakling bad guys to show up so that his character can safely test out a shiny, new weapon.
  • Evaluation (Qualified): The GM sets the target at 3 or better. The player needs at least one success. The GM asks the player to roll the dice.
  • Device (Chance and Ability): The player is Counting Victories based on his character's Director attribute. That is, in this game the character has an attribute called Director that the player can use to directly affect the game world. The player rolls a d6 for each point of Director. For each result 3 or greater, the player gets a success.
  • Evaluation (Unopposed): The player rolled 3 dice with results 2, 3 and 5. This nets two successes. The player gets what he wants. If the player had failed, the GM may still have had some bad guys show up, but the GM might make them much stronger and more dangerous than the player anticipated.
An Approach to Ability and Intent

The combination of Ability and Intent is really the foundation for diceless roleplaying and usually the mechanism for giving players access to the powers of the GM. In this case, it's very easy to completely remove Chance from the equation.

  • Device (Ability and Intent): The player wants his character, a military officer, to call for fire support against an enemy position.
  • Evaluation (Qualified, Unopposed): The GM determines that the character has everything needed to accomplish the goal. Mechanically, there is nothing else to do, so the GM says, After placing two spotting rounds, you have the range.
  • Device (Ability and Intent): The player says, "I call, 'Fire for effect!'"
  • Evaluation (Qualified, Unopposed): The GM says, "A few seconds later, the target area erupts in a cloud of smoke and flame as 36 rounds of 120mm high explosive detonate on impact.

That wraps up my discussion of resolution mechanics. Next installment, I will attempt to show how everything discussed thus far can help produce the core of a game. Thanks for reading.

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