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Soapbox: About the Industry

Atomic

by Sandy Antunes
Sep 05,2003

 

Atomic

by Sandy Antunes

I've never rolled to succeed at anything in my life. If I know what I'm doing, I usually succeed. It's just a question of how long it takes.

Okay, there have been situations where I've failed. And there have been a few accidents. But I haven't had that sense of 'dice rolling in the background' that seems to be the hallmark of a good game. It has, instead, had an 'organic' feel to things, with little panic and hindsight generally matching expectations.

Here are some real life challenges that didn't always go the way I want:

  • Finishing work by a deadline
  • Getting a speeding ticket
  • Crashing a car
  • Hitting a baseball
  • Walking on ice
  • Convincing security to let me in
  • Winning a fencing match

Let's look at these in gaming terms. Is it possible to reduce the role of chance in games, while maintaining a degree of plausibility in terms of Success and Fate? Right now, RPGs tend to be either:

  1. Random: You roll often for completing things
  2. Dramatic: GM fiat or player wishes determine the results.
  3. Predetermined: The player knows whether their character will succeed or not.
  4. Fated: The player succeeds due to external reasons they are not aware of.

1) Finishing work by a deadline. This is a long-term task. During the course of doing the work, it eventually becomes clear to me that I may not finish it in time. However, if I had a GM or Player, they would have had an unbiased view and known beforehand whether I would have succeed. So this is a Predetermined action.

2) Getting a speeding ticket. Clearly Predetermined: if a cop is in location A and I speed by at speed Y, I'll get the ticket. It only appears random to me. There's little skill or checking involved, and all the forces involved are mapped out clearly.

3) Crashing a car. While this seems random, it is usually a Fated action; situations beyond which I am aware lead to the crash, partially due to my own actions but also due to other factors. (It could be argued this is instead a Predetermined result, but that would require the GM to have exceptional knowledge of their world at the minute level.)

4) Hitting a baseball. At last, a bonafide Random act. Given my level of skill versus the skill of the pitcher, and the usual randomness inherent in most acts requiring physical coordination plus concentration, we can see this dice-rolling in the real world.

5) Walking on ice. Most of the time, walking on ice is no problem for me, as long as I pay attention. If I am inattentive, any slipping is probably a Predetermined act (in retrospect, the reason why I fell is obvious.) However, once or twice I have been caught by a bonafide Random act of falling, where conditions conspired to result in an unexpected tumble.

This is the sort of thing hardest to model in a game-- rolling each time is fairly annoying, yet there should always be a slight chance of accident.

6) Convincing security to let me in. This is clearly a Fated system; there's a pretty straightforward 'social engineering' method to gaining access to places. Whether it works is due to factors that the engineer isn't necessarily aware of, but that are quite real and have a tangible effect. Even after the resolution, the engineer is unlikely to understand fully why the attempt did or did not work (thus it isn't quite Predetermined.)

7) Winning a fencing match. Very tricky, this. It's largely Predetermined (in that the higher skilled person will almost always win), but there is also a Fated aspect (whether one person got enough sleep, whether one's approach happens to play into the other's weakness), and there is some degree of Randomness, particularly if our skill levels are matched.

In games, this is usually handled with a Random method that factors in all the elements that go towards Predeterminism and Fate.

This last bit, being combat, is often the main focus of most RPGs. Resolutions can include:

  1. Bimodal: All acts are quickly resolved as success or failure, with no middle ground.
  2. Graduated Success: Success or Failure can range from "succeeds perfectly" through marginal success or barely failing, to "total botch"
  3. Cumulative: Successes and Failures result from a series of checks or such, with a cumulative effect being produced in the end.

Most combat is often done at an atomic level as a single exchange, or short series of exchanges, leading to a Bimodal result (hit or not), with damage assessment adding a Graduated effect. The total sum of the atomic 'rounds' ultimately yields a Cumulative result.

It should not be surprising that Combat, so often the focus of RPGs, thus combines 3 different types of probability with 3 different methods of resolution. It also explains why combat is such a tedious, god-awful mess.

However, simplifying Combat to include just one probability and just one resolution, e.g. Amber, where combat can usually be seen as Predetermined, with a fairly Bimodal decision handed down by the GM-as-Judge. Many find this dissatisfying because something that has deep consequences for their character is handled quickly, with little recourse to alternatives.

I think there is a need for a balance between the desire for control over destiny and Cumulative results, with speed and reduction of multiple atomic resolutions. But I'm going to save Combat-specific discussions for later, and look instead at all the other interactions possible in games.

I feel that RPGs rely too much on chance, on Random methods. I think most RPGs go too 'atomic' in tasks, i.e.

You _must_ pick the lock for this chest to get inside. Failure=never opens.

A more organic solution is:

There is a locked chest. It has good stuff inside.

Here is where players can then apply what their characters are good at. Picking locks, demolitions, carpentry, brute force, removing hinges, etc.

In the children-as-PCs "Priceless" (run as tabletop and LARP, available from Rogue Publishing), skills are given as: "Good at", "Kinda can", and "Can't do". If you're Good at something, you don't need to roll. If you Can't do it, well, you have to come up with another way. If you're Kinda, it's up to the GM to decide (often with a die roll).

Having such 'absolute scale with a middle ground' really helps distinguish when the characters are acting competently and when they are knowingly going out on a limb. It makes the games tend towards the Predestined school of thought, but the middle ground adds some Randomness.

The GM (as in any game) can then apply Fated situations simply by fiat. Fiat is, I'd wager, about the only way Fated can be done in any system-- that is when you have to trust that the GM knows more about the world than anyone else.

In practice, with "Priceless", in over 20 runs the 'fear of failure' was minimized yet the players clearly felt challenged by situations. I think "problem solving" dominated over rules and stat-checking. Thus it focuses on role-play. Which in turn meant power-gamers were able to get their 'fix' by acquiring resources or through weasel-game playing (i.e. working contrary to other players for personal benefit), rather than via mechanics abuse.

Mind you, that was with pre-gens. For a character creation system that works similarly, well, email me if you want to publish it.

My friend Larry Hols, on his game design email list, suggests that all games have this "middle ground" between absolute success and failure, but that how well-defined and how broad the "middle ground" is crucially defines the game.

Often rules discussion come down to issues of "Simplicity" or "Realism" or "Granularity". I think a better way to look at rules is in how Organic they are; how much results flow naturally. A good result in an RPG should be Organic in that it is:

  • Resolved quickly, using elements internal to the game;
  • In retrospect, believable to the player;
  • Satisfying and self-complete.

    The use of elements internal to the game generally involves how seamless the underlying mechanics are, without raising issues of their complexity. Retrospective believability confirms the fact that the results are not felt to be unexplainable, even if the explanation isn't immediately forthcoming (and one could argue fulfills the 'dramatic' or storytelling aspect of the game). And being satisfying is the 'game' aspect: games should be satisfying or they aren't worth doing. Self-completeness ties up the set, for neatness' sake.

    And in retrospect, I've raised a lot of issues here that go beyond one column. I look forward to seeing people's comments, and hope to discuss the concept of Organic in future works (either here or in paid material).

    Until next month,
    Sandy

    freelance

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