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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

Easy+1 or more
Difficult-1 or more

Die ResultEffortOutcome

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:

Target Number
Die RollResult

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:
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:

Qualified evaluation is mostly a check to determine whether or not a character is qualified to do a thing. Here is an example:

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:

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:

Nested mechanics usually consist of a single or series structure nested inside another mechanical device or evaluation. Here is an example.
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:

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):

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. 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.

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.

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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