Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Doesn't Work

I put out a call for challenge requests and got some interesting ones, but what struck me that that many of them were most interesting for why they don't work, so I'm going to be doing counter-examples today. These are all things you might want to do in a game, but they're not necessarily good candidates for the combative model of challenges.

1. Convincing a judge that the defendant is innocent
I admit I'd be leery of trying this on in play because it's very hard to draw in the whole group. Legal arguments support tag teaming very poorly. However, you could make a larger challenge out of the investigation AND the case, especially if you were willing to go all Law & Order on it. That is to say, the investigation actions could diminish the SP of the prosecution's case to the point where the lawyer's arguments can do enough damage to the case to finish it off.

The problem with this is that it's difficult to create any real sense of urgency to this. There's potentially big stakes (especially if the player's are arguing their own case) but it's difficult to come up with ways for the investigators and lawyers to be threatened. Instead, you'd need to do something like put this on a timeline, allowing only a limited number of rounds. Mechanically, this works fine, but it overlooks one key element: If players are doing an investigation, then it's probably because they _like_ investigation, so doing it entirely as abstract rolls probably removes some of their enjoyment of figuring it out.

So while I wouldn't make a challenge out of it, I might steal a bit from the model to mix with an idea from Gumshoe, and put clues behind small challenges that generally don't fight back. That is to say, players will always be able to find the clues, so long as they look for them. If the philosophy of this approach is uncomfortable, then there's no need to use it. It's just an idea for using clues to get to other things, rather than playing to get to clues.

2. Indiana Jones Escaping from the Rolling Boulder

Fred actually did this one very effectively in play. Putting the boulder on the map and simply moving it forward was more than enough of a threat to represent the idea.

3. Research something in a library

Research is pretty boring stuff under the best of circumstances, but unless the books are jumping off the shelves to attack the players, there's not much back and forth to it. You're pretty much just marking time to get the job done. Curiously, this is one of the tasks that a vanilla skill challenge can handle quickly and discretely, provided you think letting your players fail at research isn't super lame. Which it is, if it's plot-driving.

Of course, if the books ARE attacking the characters, then you may have the most awesome library ever.

4. Survive a Plague

This is an interesting one for a couple of reasons (setting aside existing disease rules, which are actually pretty good). First and foremost, are you _really_ going to let your characters die from the plague? I mean, I guess you might if you've got some crazed ideas about realism, but would that really make a fun game for anybody?

Second, it's very passive. Unless you want to roll a lot of hand-washing and water-boiling actions, then this is not going to be a lot of fun or particularly interesting.

Both of these suggest that this might be a great _backdrop_ to something else (dealing with a dungeon while fighting off a disease is one of those ideas that's good on paper, but has been lame in every published implementation I've scene). Alternately, it might be a good problem at a larger scale (protect a town from the depredations of plague) , but on a personal level, it's just not engaging enough.

So why talk about what doesn't work? Because I think that's important to understanding a tool. See, here's the thing: I _could_ use the combative challenge to model any of those things, and when I was younger, I had a sort of geeky machismo which would want to do so just to illustrate that this particular tool "can do anything!". That was a little silly, because I wasn't smart enough to distinguish between something you can do and something that's not worth doing.

The purpose of this idea is not to create some sort of super-catchall replacement that keeps you from ever having to use another tool. It's to add another tool to your bag, one that handles a different kind of situation. Yes, you might use this method and stop using skill challenges (or vice versa), but as a GM, you'll be better prepared for play if you could use either, and can pick the tool that best fits the situation (or better yet, steal parts from both or either tool as needed).

This is one of those things that books and rules can only help so much with. They can help tell a GM how to use EVERYTHING, or how to use one thing really well, but the reality of play is going to take you somewhere between those points, and learning what not to use is a critical skill in navigating those waters.


  1. The post is just in time. I was going the way "Screw SC, screw skill checks. Everything has defenses and SP". I may reconsider some of the ideas now.

  2. All through out reading this I kept thinking to myself that I really need to turn this guy on to fate, he would love it. And then reminding myself who this is.

  3. But when you're doing research most of the sources ARE attacking you: they're trying to convince you that their version is true... run out of SP, you come away with the wrong answer.

  4. @StoneyB You make an excellent point - I was thinking more poking through a library, but in a game of tenure and academia, the combat model would be spot on.

  5. I've spent time considering some of these challenges for various games and resolution systems and I think that as you state them they're rather passive. That's probably why they don't work. However, I think a few tweaks make them more viable in game play.

    Convincing a judge that a defendant is innocent is iffy. I don't know if the judge really has much investment in the case, since he/she's theoretically impartial. However, make this a challenge between 2 lawyers (or teams of lawyers) and there can be some intense social combat. Maneuvering the other group into compromising positions, appealing to the emotions of the jury (if there is one), and hammering witnesses can work, I think. And it also opens up several different skills for use.

    I agree that the boulder is better done with a mini and normal movement rules, with maybe a few utility powers thrown in. It's probably not something I'd do as a skill challenge, but instead as a pseudo-combat challenge.

    With research in a library, we're probably not talking about going in for some casual reading. There's probably an outside clock running. Why are you researching? If it's just to find out more about the upcoming dungeon, go the GUMSHOE route and just give 'em the info. But trying to find the weakness of the monster killing more villagers every night? Or looking for how to end the curse that's plunged the world in eternal winter (starvation comes quickly when you're not prepared)? You've got to find a clue fast. It can easily be coupled with the combat challenge as well. The more you know about the curse, the easier it will be to break it in combat (SPs deplete the HPs).

    Finally, I don't see the fun in surviving a plague. But finding the cure? Before it kills your whole crew? And you succumb to it as well? Well, that's 1/3 of all Star Trek episodes right there. Ticking timer built in. Heck, throw in the fact that the plague turns people in to zombies or berserkers, and you've got your tie in for SPs and HPs. How exactly do you administer the cure unless you beat down the patients?

    So while I think that the challenges can end up pretty lame, I also think that they could be cool if staged in a more active way.

  6. @Seth You have caught the very heart of it. Each of these ideas is a good _seed_ that you could build something awesome from. The trick is drawing out that potential, something you have ably demonstrated.

  7. @Rob I think that StoneyB meant something more abstract than that -- from what I understand, characters do not engage the library or its books -- the character's knowledge engages the information itself.

    For example. Starting knowledge: X is "round" -- is it a perfect circle or an oval? Let's research! The books "attack" with competing theories -- X isn't circular or oval, it's in fact square! If the character loses this challenge, he ends up with less acurate information than the one he started with. (Or: "meme fight!")

    As for the legal challenge, making it some kind of social combat between two lawyers might be fun. If there's a jury, "attacking" its sensibilities might not do SP damage, but instead grants one use of a limited damage expression. The investigation part might be done as a regular challenge, the outcome of its rolls granting bonus or penalties to attacks/defenses during trial. (Investigation would thus act as support.)

    (BTW, first part of translation already up: How good is your Portuguese? ;)

  8. @remo Ah, yes, I can see that angle. It might be a little hard to make it a group model, but if you're trying to find the truth in a sea of falsehood, then yes, it could absolutely be combative.

    (And while my Portuguese is non-existant, Google's is passable. Looks great!)


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