Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #53:

Thinking Mechanically, Part 11: Systems, Time, and Steps

by Travis S. Casey
February 14, 2003

Last time in this space, I started talking about building action resolution up into systems through iterated resolution, using counters to keep track of the state of things. If that sounds like so much gobbledegook, you might want to go back and look at a few relevant columns:

Part 3: Characters and Resolution
Part 7: Resolution Mechanics
Part 10: Systems

Iterated resolution essentially "spreads out" the resolution of an action by breaking it down into several component actions. The examples shown in the last column repeat the same thing or things over and over — but that's not the only way to break things down. An alternative is to break it up into parts which do different things.

An example is combat in the various incarnations of AD&D. A single action — attacking someone — is resolved in three discrete steps: initiative, hit resolution, and damage resolution.

Initiative. In paper RPG-speak, "initiative" refers to determining the timing of actions. This is the classic RPG combat problem, seen in many a childhood game of Cops 'n Robbers — "I shot you first!" "No you didn't!"

"Who goes first" is the basic question to answer in initiative, but other things can be important as well — e.g., "how long does this action take". Initiative can also become important when characters are trying to coordinate their actions — e.g., if Jenny is down a hole fighting a troll, but her sword has broken on its rock-like skin, and Joe is now going to throw another sword down to Jenny, then Jenny's player might want to be able to "save" actions until after she has the sword in hand, if possible.

Hit Resolution. In AD&D, this is the "to hit" roll against an opponent's armor class. Depending on the version of the game, this may also determine whether the character makes a "critical hit" or a "fumble".

Damage Resolution. Last, but definitely not least, comes the question of how much damage was done to the foe. In most version of AD&D, this is independent of exactly what was rolled in the hit resolution step, but in other versions, different dice may be rolled for damage depending on whether or not a critical hit was made.

It should be noted that these are themselves stepped among the various characters involved in a combat — generally initiative is determined for everyone to start with, and then each character goes in their turn, resolving their action for the round. How characters with multiple actions are treated varies greatly among different versions of the game.

A More Formal Breakdown: IIEE

Ron Edwards proposed, and the folks over at The Forge discussion boards have expanded on, a breakdown of different "steps" in any generic action: Intent, Initiation, Execution, and Effect.

  • Intent is just that — the intention to do something, before one actually begins to do it. For example, "I'm going to attack the troll."
  • Initiation is beginning to actually perform the action. Depending on circumstances, the initiation of attacking the troll could be to begin swinging a weapon at it, or it might involve first moving to a position where one can attack. With a ranged weapon, initiation might be when one physically starts to aim at the troll.
  • Execution is when the attempt to perform the action completes — the end of the sword swing, or when the shot has been loosed and flown to or past its target.
  • Effect is the point at which the question "what did the attempt accomplish?" is answered — when we know what happened to the troll as a result.

Comparing this briefly to my own three R's breakdown, Intent and Initiation lie outside the scope of my breakdown. Execution roughly includes Reduction and Resolution, while Effect is largely the same as my own Representation.

Misunderstandings of which part of IIEE is meant in a statement can easily lead to arguments in paper RPGs. If Player A says, "my character kills the troll," is this a statement of Intent (meaning, "my character wants to kill the troll"), Initiation (meaning, "my character starts to attack the troll"), Execution (meaning, "my character has now tried to kill the troll"), or Effect (meaning, "my character has now killed the troll")?

In a computer RPG, the system will generally interpret a command to attack a troll as either Intent or Initiation. In "real-time" games, it's generally Initiation; in turn-based games, it's generally Intent. The rest of the steps are generally folded into one — there's no way to "interrupt" an action in most computer RPGs. If one is to defend against an attack, for example, the defense must be activated in advance. In contrast, in paper RPGs, it's often allowable for a player to declare a defense at the Execution stage, or sometimes even at the Effect stage. For example, allowing a player to say, "I try to parry the hit" after an opponent has already rolled to hit, but before damage is rolled and applied, would be allowing an interruption at Execution.

Real-time games often allow interruption at Initiation — and not just in RPGs. Take, for example, combat in the game Prince of Persia. When you see an opponent beginning to move to strike, there's still time to press the button to parry, if you can react quickly enough. In a non-real-time game, similar effects can be accomplished by breaking things down into fine steps — but, of course, this can also slow the gameplay down significantly.

One trap that it's easy to fall into is to work things differently for different kinds of actions. This is most often done with combat versus other actions, with combat actions (e.g., "kill" in most muds) being considered to be Intent or Initiation, while other actions (e.g., "open lock") are considered to be Execution, and some actions (e.g., "go north") may even be treated as Effect. Players can get used to this (players can get used to almost anything, it seems) — but once they have gotten used to it, shifting things to something different than what they're expecting will tend to produce confusion at best, and often anger.

A Brief Discursion — Why Spread Out Resolution?

Both iterated and staged resolution involve "spreading out" something that could be viewed as a single action over time. Why do it at all? In particular, why do it for some things, like combat, but not for others where it might seem reasonable, such as picking a lock?

I think the question boils down to one of suspense. When the outcome of an action involves a potential for harm to the characters involved in it, "slowing down" resolution of that action can give time for suspense to build. In the same way that a movie might switch to slow-motion, or these days to "bullet time" so a moment can be extended for the audience, moving action resolution to a finer timescale "extends the moment" in a game. For me, this observation helps to form a guideline for what sorts of things to break down into extended resolution systems — if the outcome isn't in doubt, don't bother extending it. If there's no danger or other thrill involved, don't bother extending it. (But note that danger doesn't have to mean injury — in many a spy or caper movie, an action like climbing a wall or picking a lock is extended, because there's the danger of discovery.)

Extend things when you want to keep the players on the edge of their seats — and don't do it when you're just going to bore them. I think this is an easy thing to lose track of — it's easy to fall into thinking that certain actions should always be extended because they sometimes or usually involve suspense. A first-level fighter taking on a goblin may be suspenseful, but a 20th-level fighter taking on that same goblin isn't without severe extenuating circumstances.

Staged resolution can also be important when effects should logically differ depending on what stage an action fails or is interrupted at... but I'll talk about that next time. See you in 14!

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