Tuesday, February 08, 2011

When to call for a roll: Further thoughts

I've considered a few more things worth tacking on to my previous post about calling for rolls.  Hey, if I'm lucky, this could turn into an entire series of posts.

The Knowledge Dump
Many games have knowledge skills; for example, in D&D 4th edition, you have History, Religion, Arcana, Dungeoneering, and Streetwise.  It can be tempting to put game information behind these skill rolls in order to get some use out of them.  I'm inclined to think these days, however, that that is a bad idea.

Information about the game world touches on a lot of elements.  It gives depth to the setting, showing off the skills of the GM (or whoever wrote the material being used).  It provides players tools for interacting with the setting and understanding the nuances of how things work.  It can even be critical for short-term goals, such as deciphering the instructions to a puzzle in a dungeon, or discovering the location of a mission-critical goal. 

So why would putting any of that behind a skill roll be a good idea, given the chance of player failure?  If it's mission-critical stuff, then we're back to the problems in my first post on this topic.  If it isn't mission-critical, then risking the players not rolling high enough does not provide anything.  Your world will seem flatter and less interesting for the lack of information.

However, if only ancillary information is put behind knowledge skill rolls, some players may be less likely to take them, since they don't provide anything "necessary."

Success, but . . . 
The Dresden Files RPG describes this strategy as, "Success, but . . ." and I really like it.  That scenario from before, with the locked door?  Instead of interpreting failure as the players not getting through the door, the players get through the door but make so much noise that they attract a guard's attention.  I like this, as it makes failure much more interesting without letting the game grind to a stop while your players make the same roll over and over until the dice-gods relent. 

Here's an example to put it together:  Let's say your players are looking for the location of a mages' tower long lost to common knowledge.  They rightly suspect that the historical archives in the capital city will have the information they seek.  The player with the best score in History would want to go to the archives to study and find this information. 

In the past, I might have had the player roll, with a bonus to the roll for using all the reference material of the library.  This still invites the possibility of failure, unless I make the bonus so outlandish that the information was coming one way or another.  I don't think this is a very interesting way to do things.

There needs to be a way to give the information on a failed roll, but offer up a minor penalty to the players anyhow.  You could say that the research takes longer, depending on how badly the roll failed, but that can be game dependent.  In some games, the passage of extra time might not mean much to the players, nor to the GM.  Instead, let's say that failure results in needing the staff of the archives to help the players find the information they seek.  Of course, the staff of the archives doesn't work for free, so it'll cost the players some amount of gold to pay for the services.  Even better, let's say that instead of paying in gold, the players could offer to run "errands" for the archivists, retrieving specific historical texts from the locations they visit, including that mages' tower.

Failure has been made more interesting, but what about success?  If the players are getting the information either way, success needs to be more than just, "You don't get punished."  Perhaps, in finding the location of the mages' tower, the players also find some other interesting bit of information.  A treasure depot, perhaps?  Or maybe they learn about some of the defenses the mages' tower used to have, giving them a heads up on what to expect when they get there.  Maybe there are monsters in the tower now, but the excellent research gives them an advantage in combat when they fight the monsters.  In a completely different route, you could say that the player's research leads him to translate a section the archivists had been unable to interpret previously, so they pay the players for their help. 

It seems like it would be difficult to make every skill roll this dynamic and interesting; not every player action is quite so complicated, after all.  Still, as far as skill rolls are concerned, I think a little extra planning and the right frame of mind can do a lot to add to a game.

Friday, February 04, 2011

When to call for a roll

I tend to discuss RPG topics with my friends, and one of the topics that came to mind a while back has stuck with me enough that I think it's worth putting to the blog:  When do you ask your players for a roll?  It might seem simple enough, but it starts delving into the fundamental aspects of how (and why) RPGs are played.

For the uninitiated, RPGs tend to have players roll dice to determine the outcome of any event the player wants to resolve which would have an element of randomness to the outcome.  For example, you would roll to see if you hit a monster with a fireball, and then roll again to determine how much damage the fireball does to the monster if it connects.  But you might not roll if you're, say, hitting a door with an axe, since inanimate objects tend to be easier to hit.

There was something in the Dresden Files RPG books that I really liked, and I think makes for a great jumping off point.  This is the advice they give GMs when considering whether to ask their players to roll:  "1.  Consider success.  2.  Consider failure."

When you're asking someone to roll for something, there is the implication that they could fail at what they're trying to do.  For the game to be fun, both success and failure need to be interesting.  Combat seems to cover this automatically; if you succeed at a combat roll, you're that much closer to victory, and if you fail, that much closer to defeat.  But skill and knowledge checks, well, there are definitely right and wrong ways to handle those.  Here's some examples as to how that might work:

The Inevitable Victory
Let's say there is a locked door, and a character with a skill for picking locks wants to get through it.  If they succeed, great, they get to find out what's on the other side, but what if they fail?  Some GMs might just tell the player to try again, and keep that up until he gets it right.  That's boring.  Same thing if you let every other player with a lock picking skills to take a crack at it, as the odds are good that at least one person will roll high enough to make it happen.

Oh, and if they get through that door?  There needs to be something worth seeing on the other side; if it's nothing of interest to the game, then you shouldn't have had them roll to get through the lock in the first place.

The Quick Recovery
Let's take another scenario:  This time, you have the player in a treacherous situation, like avoiding a trap or accident of some kind.  The player rolls to avoid the trap but fails.  The consequence?  Let's say a small penalty, or some minor damage.  This is a fine consequence.  But let's say that you then avoid any situation where the consequence would matter . . . what was the point?  If the trap did damage to the character, but the character immediately gets to sleep it off, then there was no reason for asking him to roll to avoid the trap in the first place.

The Necessary Success
Quick story:  I ran a game in which my players spent a lot of time fighting an evil lich who had raised an army of zombies.  At the end, they met with the leaders of the combined mortal armies to push back against the lich; the idea being that they were going to ask the military leaders to lead the charge against the lich.  So I had a player roll to see if they go for it.  He failed . . . and I just let him have it, anyhow.

What was I going to do?  The game had been building to this climactic final showdown, why would I just cut it off because of a single roll?  That roll should never have been called for in the first place.

So, I think I can see a few principles for calling for rolls in an RPG:
  • Success needs to be meaningful to the player's goal
  • Failure needs to have consequences that are both felt and tested
  • The game cannot hinge on a successful roll
I'm willing to bet I could come up with a few more, but this seems like a good place to start.