Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #51:

Thinking Mechanically, Part 9: Resolution and Representation

by Travis S. Casey
January 20, 2003

In the last couple of columns, I've talked a good bit about the numbers and formulas underlying a few different resolution systems. This time, I'd like to switch back to looking at conceptual underpinnings.

There's more than one way to skin a cat — or at least, so I'm told, being an avowed cat person. And in the same way, there's more than one way to break down game mechanics. I've already presented my own breakdown into Reduction, Resolution, and Representation in a previous column — but here's some other views which aren't original with me. (Note, though, that this is my take on them — others may disagree with how I present them.)

Karma, Drama, Fortune

In the paper RPG Everway, Jonathon Tweet talks about three different ways to resolve actions: Karma, Drama, and Fortune. Karma is resolving actions using character statistics — e.g., this character has a 10 Strength, so she can pick up a fifty pound weight with no problem. In pure Karma resolution, there is no random element.

Pure Drama resolves character actions based on what is "appropriate", without reference to any character or world statistics, and without a random element. A classic example in both pen-and-paper and online RPGs is PC-PC interaction — the two players involved decide what happens based on their own ideas about how the PCs feel about each other, the current situation, and what is said and done.

Fortune is resolution with a random element. By Tweet's formulation, this can involve reference to character statistics, so the vast majority of RPG resolution systems would come under "Fortune". It should be noted that the random element doesn't have to be a random number — in Everway, the random element is provided by a set of tarot-like cards. When the GM wishes to use Fortune in Everway, he/she draws a card and is supposed to try to interpret the significance of the card in the situation being resolved.

I've generally seen these treated as hard and fast categories — if a method involves any random element at all, it's Fortune, and otherwise it's either Karma or Drama. I prefer, though, to think of them in terms of priority — that a mechanic or system of mechanics can use all of them, emphasizing them differently.

One point that comes up often in discussions of RPG resolution is what we could call the balance between Karma and Fortune in mechanics — that is, how significant should the random factor be in determining success? That's probably not as clear as it could be, so let me give an example:

In the d20 System which underlies the latest version of D&D, skill checks are rolled as 1d20 + Attribute Bonus + Skill Level, and have to equal or exceed a target number to succeed. The Attribute Bonus usually ranges from -2 to +4. The Skill Level is limited to the character's level plus three. Thus, a low-level (say, third level) thief might have as high as a +10 total bonus on a thieving skill check. That gives a range of 11 to 30 for rolls.

By the listing in the rules, a simple lock has a difficulty of 20, an average lock 25, and a good lock 30. This character, then, can only unlock a simple lock a bit better than half the time. The same character with only minimal training in lockpicking would have a +5, and would open that same lock a bit better than a quarter of the time.

There's a great deal of randomness in this mechanic, especially with regard to low and medium-level characters. The system does work around this a bit with the "take 10" and "take 20" rules — one could even say that it patches the mechanic with those rules.

Consider how things would change if the system used a d10 instead of a d20, and used the same attribute and skill modifiers. Difficulties would have to be adjusted, of course — instead of 20, 25, 30 for simple, average, and good locks, it might be 15, 17, and 20. Our character with the +10 would be able to roll in the range 11 to 20, still having about a 50% chance of opening a simple lock. However, the character with minimal training would have a maximum roll of 15, and would only open that lock 10% of the time, instead of about 25% as before.

Reducing the role of luck in this way can significantly change players' character creation strategies — if luck is very significant, many players will take a few points in lots of skills, thinking that they might be able to get lucky when trying to use them. If the role of luck is reduced, fewer players will tend to do that — instead, players will have a greater tendency to specialize in a few things.

It might seem that Drama-based mechanics aren't likely to be used in a computer RPG — after all, what does a computer know about what's dramatic? However, if we ignore the name for a moment and just look at the definition, we'll see that anything which ignores character and world statistics can be considered to be a "Drama" mechanic. As mentioned above, most PC-to-PC interactions fall under this, even in online games. If we think of it as including anything that's determined by something outside the game world, then it includes computer RPG puzzles based on player knowledge or player skill. It also includes the class of actions at which characters are simply allowed to automatically succeed — standing up, sitting down, talking, anything else where no checks are involved. Real people in the real world do sometimes fail at these things, but representing such failures is generally agreed to be uninteresting, and against the "larger-than-life" background that most games have.

Questions of Representation

That leads us naturally to another topic — the question of representation — how the results of character's actions are portrayed in the game world. There's a tradition in paper RPGs, and in some online RPGs, of allowing for automatic success or failure through luck, and of allowing for particularly spectacular successes and failures. Collectively, we'll call these criticals (for the successes) and fumbles (for the failures).

Let's take fumbles first. How should a "fumbled" roll be represented in the game world? Well, the name "fumble" itself would seem to imply a slip-up on the part of the character — and that's how many games represent these. The character drops his/her sword, or uses the wrong end of a lockpick, or something else of that nature.

A second way to represent a "fumbled" roll is as something external to the character tripping things up. A gun jams. A bowstring breaks. The character trips in a rabbit hole that couldn't be seen. The lock turns out to be rusted shut. Note that this can involve changing the setting or scenario in limited ways — if the lock is rusted shut, then someone else shouldn't be able to give it a try and successfully pick it now — a different approach should be required. In a gamemastered game with a single group, this often isn't much of a problem — the character who was trying something is often the only one in the party who could have done it, so making it be impossible because that character can't do it isn't a significant change. In the multiplayer environment of an online RPG, though, it would be significant.

A third way is to ascribe it to more active interference from opponents — either intentional or not. The character's blow would have struck, but the orc tripped over a flagstone, and his head was no longer where the sword passed. The lock could have been opened, but a guard came across the thief before it was done, and must now be dealt with. The bowshot was fine, but the target saw something on the road and bent down to pick it up. And so on.

From a numbers point of view, the exact explanation doesn't matter a lot, but from the point of view of the players, it can matter a great deal. It's hard to imagine that you're playing a competent hero when your character keeps dropping his/her sword, or sometimes forgets which end of a lockpick is which. Its hard to picture your character as being in a larger-than-life saga when you have to worry about bowstrings breaking, guns jamming, rabbit holes, and the like. With the third way, however, the character's abilities can actually seem greater because of those failures — the failures are ascribed not to a lack of competence or to "bad luck" on the character's part, but to competence and "good luck" on the part of opponents.

The same is true of critical successes, in reverse — a critical blow because an opponent tripped or didn't know what he/she was doing doesn't have as much of a "feel good" factor for a player as one that's described as being from good luck or extraordinary competence on the part of their character.

It should be noted that this applies not only to extraordinary successes and failures, but to normal ones as well, and can be very important when players are supposed to be playing legendary characters — on the level of Arthur and his knights, Conan, or Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Conan doesn't simply miss with a blow — his opponent is good enough to block it or dodge it, or gets a lucky break. Ron Edwards' Sorcerer and Sword, a supplement for his game Sorcerer which extends it into the field of sword-and-sorcery fiction, makes this point in discussing how to describe failures, and it is to him that I am indebted for making this point about representation apparent.

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