Back to thinking about RPG challenges. While I’ve been on this subject quite a bit lately, I want to delve into something a bit specific.
My post, Total War, relates but the other way around. There, I spoke of engaging the whole party as much as possible. Here, part of what I want to examine involves individual contributions.
Anyway, the topic is die rolls. More specifically, individual die rolls. Combat, for instance, usually has a number of die rolls, which has become my main reason for why it works so well as a challenge.
Because. If the challenge comes down to one die roll, what happens when you fail?
I’m not talking about the climactic scene at the end of an adventure where you talk to some godlike power and it either does what you want or banishes you home as losers. That’s an entirely reasonable situation to come down to a single pass/fail die roll.
What I’m talking about are things like notice rolls to perceive a necessary lead to continue moving forward with the plot. Another example – you need to get in to talk to high muckety muck to get a lead on where to find Sir Badalot so that you can smite him. This is a Diplomacy roll or an Etiquette roll or whatever. Everyone fails. … and …
Simple philosophy is that any time a roll must be made in order for plot to advance, then that roll shouldn’t exist. Two problems with that, though. The first is that it’s not always easy to catch that such rolls are present, even when writing out challenge mechanics. The second is that there should be important rolls, otherwise … no rolls are important, which defeats any system that relies on rolls, unless we bring everything back to combat or other situations that involve a multitude of rolls, again.
In terms of theory, it seems reasonable as an adventure constructor to have three ways in mind to accomplish any essential task and, of course, allow players to come up with ideas the GM hasn’t thought of.
In terms of practice, have to identify the essential tasks from the “nice to haves” and make sure each one has the sufficient number of options, something I haven’t been good about in adventures. It’s not that I don’t try to think of various ways to move the party through the plot, it’s that it’s hard as a GM to view the adventure the same way as a player, who doesn’t know what’s going on. What’s essential isn’t always obvious. Then, I do get lazy about providing more than a couple of ways to deal with something.
I feel like I put structure into adventures. But, I think it’s not the right structure. I think in terms of narratives (the GM’s view) and not decision points (the players’ views).
Okay, three ways to do anything essential. Great. What does that mean?
First of all, relating to the problem I see that I’m addressing here, just having three different rolls doesn’t solve the problem. After all, what if the party fails all three different rolls, say, Diplomacy, Intimidation, Seduction to get access, information, or assistance? Then, you end up in the same situation as the single roll. Also, suppose the party doesn’t fail all three. Suppose the party has like a 95% chance of succeeding at at least one of the three rolls. Then, they weren’t important. Failure is what makes a die roll important.
So, three rolls is less than ideal. Sure, one roll can be an “evil” roll, like rolling L: Underworld in L5R, where you do get punished for doing that instead of a normal roll (Courtier) that got failed. However, besides that still having problems, I think there are better and more satisfying ways to achieve goals.
Heroes of Rokugan modules sometimes provide what I find to be more satisfying ways to deal with challenges than just more rolls. PCs acquire Favors and Allies from mods. In my experience, they just keep accumulating, being rarely used for anything. That may not be the same for people who cash them in for off stage stuff, but I’ve never had that come up. Instead, on occasion, a mod will have a mechanic for cashing one or the other in to do something. In a number of cases, it doesn’t matter to my tables because one or more PCs can hit social TNs or whatever.
But, the idea is sound. Basically, there needs to be a mechanism for parties to have a resource that can be expended instead of making a die roll. Well, duh, many will think – that’s what money/gold/treasure is for! Can’t scare away highway robbers? Bribe them to go away.
For some genres, that makes sense. Though, that only provides a second way to deal with issues. In the Feng Shui variant game I’m running, money wouldn’t make much sense, as wealth is just flavor in the genre. I do have Contacts as a mechanic, that is basically the same idea as Allies in L5R. I could develop that more and have them be expendable resources to deal with plot moving tasks. In truth, kind of the whole point of them in the first place was to help with plot moving tasks, but I haven’t made that clear enough.
For instance, you have the POTUS as a Contact. You need to infiltrate an embassy (well, consulate). Boom! Consulate party invite.
The important thing is that there’s a cost. You can make a roll in the first place with no meaningful cost. You can avoid rolling at a cost. You can fail the roll and have a cost, ideally a greater cost than avoiding the roll all together since there should be a cost/punishment to failure to make success matter. When I craft adventures, I need to think more of the costs, especially if the PC’s aren’t going to be aware of them at the time as this is a pain to track, of using a method besides the die roll to move forward.
On another topic and one that may or may not seem related, one thing that bothers me is a die roll challenge that the whole party makes and that someone will likely succeed at, with a greater number of PCs increasing the likelihood of success.
Take a typical perception roll to see someone getting away or someone pulling a weapon or someone doctoring a drink or whatever. If the roll has a not very high difficulty, then someone among five players should consistently make it. Even worse, if the roll was necessary to make for the party, you get into the problems above if everyone fails, but people won’t fail because the difficulty wasn’t high enough that a large group would all fail it.
In Total War, I went into how I think challenges that are only relevant to part of the party are a problem. However, the flip side of that is that if everyone can overcome a challenge, then being good at something hardly matters. Using L5R again as an example, suppose a Lore: History roll with a party of five players will enable the party to understand enough of what is going on to make the right decision. The party has three INT 2’s and two INT 3’s. One of the INT 3’s has a rank in L: History. Everyone Voids for, let’s say, 3k2, 3k2, 3d10, 4k3, 5k4. If the TN is 25, it’s almost a coin flip for the highest roll, which seems bad. So, the TN is 20. That gives the first two rollers a 21% chance each, 28% for the third, 57% for the fourth, and 85% for the last. The 5k4 could fail, but one can do the math on how slim it would be for anyone, which I approximate at 3% without doing the multiplication.
Besides that the roll becomes not so meaningful when someone will succeed, you often get multiple successes. The “expert” doesn’t seem all that special when the critical die roll in the expert’s field is made by someone else as well.
I had an idea yesterday while playing our L5R home campaign to discourage the “everyone rolls” situation. Take the worst result and subtract the difference between the DC/TN/whatever the system calls the target number and that result from the highest result. Keep in mind that if the roll wasn’t that hard to begin with, there’s a definite floor to results to prevent this from being that harsh. In reality, it’s just averaging the two results. Repeat as necessary for second worst and second best and so on. Of course, L5R is very different from, say, d20. In d20, much more likely to have a less than 50% roll or have the average of two rolls be rather poor.
If that system doesn’t turn out to work in practice, then another system is to modify the best result by other people’s results. Like the Aid action in d20 that is an easy +2 to another’s roll, only everyone can do it and every roll adds or subtracts. Unfortunately for L5R, modifiers tend to be of the +5/-5 sort, which is way too large. Could be something like everyone who succeeds adds 2 and everyone who fails subtracts 2. That discourages people with 2d10, 3k2, and the like from rolling in L5R but may discourage too much those who roll 4k3 and other okay dice pools. Though, again, because L5R has a lot of explosive results, the 36 on 4k3 is still good even with several -2’s.
I laud L5R’s system quite often because I find it more fun to roll dice as a player than most other systems, it’s a system of success, it’s not too crunchy, etc. I do think it has an issue with group success being too easy, as some random 3k2 die roll explodes into the 30’s or whatever. (And, there’s the issue of contested rolls I’ve mentioned before.)
Of course, the harder a group roll becomes, the more important that there be other ways to move forward than just die rolls.