Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #54:

Thinking Mechanically, Part 12: Where Did I Go Wrong?

by Travis S. Casey
March 3, 2003

Last time, I started into the concept of staged resolution — that is, of breaking the resolution of an action or task down into separate steps in which different things are resolved. Combat is the most common example in paper RPGs, but it's not the only one.

One important use of staged resolution can be to tell you where an attempt to do something failed. Knowing this can be useful in deciding whether more attempts should be possible, whether this attempt has done something that will make subsequent attempts easier or harder, and/or in deciding what consequences a failure might have.

One interesting example of staged resolution is in the spellcasting system of an old paper RPG called Fantasy Wargaming, by Bruce Galloway. It broke casting spells down into three stages:

  1. establishing a link
  2. a possible counterspell
  3. sending the actual spell through the link

In the first stage, the magician attempts to create an ethereal "link" to the target. This link will be the "conduit" through which the actual spell will be sent.

A failure in the first stage means very little; no link was established, you have to try again. There's very little cost associated with simply establishing a link.

In the second stage, a target who is magically aware (one with a high enough Faith attribute or enough levels in Magic) will notice the "touch" of a newly-established link, and can either call for divine intervention, or send a spell commanding the original magician to "desist" back through the already-established link. The latter is actually a special case of stage 3, and follows the rules for it, with a penalty to reflect the fact that the link is "slanted" in favor of the mage who established it.

A failure on the second stage (well, technically a success for the target of the original spell) can be very bad. Divine intervention can inflict all sorts of nasty things on the magician, but even the simple command to "desist" will force the magician to give up his/her current link and bar him/her from trying again for a little while.

In the third stage, the actual spell is sent through the established link. Once established, a link lasts for up to thirty minutes of "game time" and can be used for up to three spells. Once the time limit has expired or the link is "used up", casting more spells on the same target will require creating a new link.

Failing in the third stage means that the mana spent to power the spell is lost. Beyond that, however, a failure here isn't too significant — the magician can try again, and may not even need to create a new link to do so if the established link is still good.

One thing which could have been done in this system, but which FW failed to do, is to use it to differentiate ways to use "components" for a spell. For example, things like a lock of hair from your target or a picture of your target could be useful in stage 1, aiding in establishing the link. Countercharms could also exist in the game which would try to "hide" a target, making it harder to establish a link to it. Alternatively, one could try to build items which would try to draw links to themselves — a sort of reverse voodoo doll, built with hair, blood, and other things from the person trying to establish a defense.

A different class of countercharms could be used for stage 2 — ones which wait for a link to be established, then try to do something to the mage who established the link. The system could also be broadened by increasing the range of possible "counterspells" which can be sent back up a link to the originating mage. A bit of strategy can also come in here — casting a spell when your target is sleeping or already in the middle of a fight might prevent him/her from being able to try a counterspell effectively.

Generic Staged Resolution

That's one specific example of staged resolution (well, two now, since I used combat as an example last time). One could build separate mechanics for each type of task you might want to use staged resolution for, but that results in lots of mechanics, some of which may not be used very often — which is the kind of thing which makes for paper RPG rules which stretch to a few hundred pages. Further, using a custom-built system for each instance of staged resolution means that someone has to build each of those systems.

There are, however, a few games which have generic rules for staged resolution. One such is Torg, from West End Games. In it, there's a mechanic for "dramatic resolution" of actions.

First, the action is divided up into four stages — A, B, C, and D. What each of these stages corresponds to in game-world terms is up to the gamemaster. Cards govern dramatic resolution (and initiative, and introduce some other things on a turn-by-turn basis in play). The card for the current turn has one or more of A, B, C, and D on it. Only those stages which are on the current card can be attempted normally, and stages must be completed in order.

Some cards indicate a possible setback, complication, or critical problem. If the character fails on a turn when one of these is showing, he/she either is put back to the previous stage (setback), has further checks increased in difficulty (complication), or can no longer proceed with the task without finding a new way to do it (critical problem).

There is a mechanic for "last-ditch effort" which allows a character to try to finish the task regardless of what letters are showing on the card for the current turn, but at a substantial penalty.

Presented baldly like this, the system looks very abstract, and not at all suited to a computer RPG — but if it's viewed as a framework for creating systems, then it can fit into computer RPGs much more nicely. To lapse into computer talk for a minute here, the system defines a five-state state machine, with the states "start", "A completed", "B completed, "C completed", and "D completed". The rules define how to transition forward among the stages — the GM simply chooses the skills which can be used and the associated difficulty. The "setback" mechanism gives a way to transition backwards, while "complication" and "critical problem" actually define ways in which the state machine itself can be changed during use.

All that's really left for the user (the user of the framework, that is, which would be a game designer/implementor) to do is to set up what the user sees on the transitions — text for the game to give out in the case of a text-based game, an animation or such to play for a graphics-based game.

Staging as a Means for Cooperation

Ron Edwards' game Sorcerer provides a mechanic which can be used for staged resolution; successes on one task can "roll over" into a related task, providing extra dice to use on that task. This can be a later task by the same character — but importantly, it doesn't have to be! One character can use this mechanic to "help" another character.

For example, one character's successes on a roll to understand the runes worked into a sword could be rolled over as a bonus to another's roll to understand the enchantment on the weapon. Or one character's successes on a roll to try to distract a guard could be rolled over into another's roll to sneak past that guard.

(On the reverse side, it should be noted that if a character fails at a task, the GM has the option of "rolling over" the successes scored against the player! Thus, if someone mucks up an attempt at a distraction badly, it can make it more likely for someone sneaking past the guard to be noticed — the guard is now more alert than he/she was before!)

This mechanic requires some GM judgement, so it would be difficult to implement in a computer RPG, but a decent implementation could be very useful. Such a formal mechanism for players to cooperate would give a way to encourage character specialization and cooperation beyond the traditional "strict classes" method.

What uses do you see for staged resolution? Comments in the forum are always welcome!

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