Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Exclusive Rolls (and Roles)

Consider this long-standing piece of gaming wisdom: only call for a roll when it actually matters to the game. This answers to certain obvious stupidities, like making people roll to walk across the room, but it plays out in a lot more subtle ways. For example, the killer app of the Gumshoe system addresses this issue when dealing with clues in a mystery. Since you need to find clues to move things forward, don't call for a roll, just let people find them. It's a neat trick, though like most such tricks I think the lesson is more useful than the mechanic itself.[1]

The line between what obviously should be rolled for and what should not can get pretty fuzzy and is shaped by GM and player expectations. One game may only expect a roll when something would be considered difficult, while another game might only call for rolls when dramatically appropriate. This is all well and good, and there's a lot to explore in this space, but one thing I rarely see addressed is the question of who is rolling.

This struck me while I was flipping through Cold City this morning[2]. There's an example there of picking a lock, which is used to illustrate the question of when you should or should not call for a roll. CC handles this very clearly - if the lock needs to be picked to move the story forward then don't roll - but the example twigged something in my mind. If I had picked something like lockpick or burglar as my concept, I would feel pretty ripped off if other people got to pick those locks without a roll for the sake of drama.

I would feel like my choices are being devalued. I am the lockpicking guy, and if I'm there I should be picking the lock. Even more importantly, if I'm not there, then my absence should matter. Couched in dramatic terms, my absence should make that lock dramatically important because it is not about the lock, it's about me.

This is rarely a problem in systems that call for a roll based on difficulty - in that case the lack of skill will make itself known quickly, and the value of the skill is illustrated - but in any other game, this is something to watch for. On the simplest level, this is a matter of looking for the skills that only one character has taken, and remembering to flag any incidence of that skill as potentially dramatic, especially in the absence of the character, In their presence, you're welcome to forgo rolls so long as it's understood that the reason they can forgo rolls is because the character is awesome.

It also might call for a bit more of a nuanced understanding of the system. For example, if you're playing storyteller and one person has 5 dots in a skill, even if others have 1 or 2 dots, then that skill is still probably their bailiwick, at least in their own mind. Similarly, things like specialties or merits/advantages might be flags of things the character has a stake in.[3]

The bottom line is that it's totally cool to not call for a roll for something that is not going to be fun or interesting, but you need to keep the specifics of your characters in mind when you make those decisions. The decision of when you do and don't call for a roll is a quiet but powerful way to show respect for their role, or to just as easily disrespect it entirely.

1 - The lesson, that you should not let information fail to reach the characters when its needed, is easily ported to other games that call it out less explicitly. it's a great example of a rule teaching a technique.

2 - Cold City is awesome, and I'm totally not criticizing it here, it's just what got me thinking.

3 - Contacts are a great and often problematic illustration of this. Since GMs and published adventures usually have specific NPCs written up to give characters information, thought is rarely given to what contacts the characters do or do not have. That ends up sucking for the guy who actually bought some contacts, because if Joe NPC is always going to show up in accordance with the game's needs, those contacts are effectively flagged as secondary. Not to say every NPC in the game has to flow through the character with contacts, but things need to tilt that way, even if it means rewriting or re-using the occasional NPC.


  1. I think the reminder of niche irrelevancy is an important one. I know the "GM fiat" complaint gets bandied about a lot by people who believe a system must exist for everything you do in a game, but to my mind this has less to do with a tyrant GM and more to do with actually allowing players to be awesome in their character's expert area.

    Traditionally this was also the problem with riggers and deckers in Shadowrun. I know there were many occasions when I just said "OK, so you break through the encryptions, yadda yadda" and my decker player said "why did I bother sinking points into those skills?" That was an object lesson for me to find ways to let conflict, of any kind, be handled in fairly equivalent ways. Combat shouldn't get the most gamespace if the players aren't all playing combat monkeys.

  2. This is one of the other things that Gumshoe does well, though. Picking a lock may be doable automatically with a skill spend... for the character who has points to spend. That is, the Lockpicking Guy can automatically pick the lock that some other character might not be able to. Character turf is a major part that system's game balance — showcase scenes are its specialty.

    As for information reaching the players: YES. This is a systemless piece of narrative advice that cannot be told or heard enough. I'm thinking here of every DM (lots of them) that has told me, "You can't tell," when I ask for more detail or clarification on what my character can *see.*

    The GM is the sole arbiter of sensory data making it from the game world to the players. But the players need reliable information if they're to engage and participate with the fiction. I strive to be generous with information, calling for die rolls only to gain bonus insights or deep background — so failure = plenty of information and success = tons of it.

  3. For Bullseye, I coined the phrase: "Roll in service of the goal." This was an effort to have the narrator focus on the purpose of the roll for exactly these kinds of situations. I guess I combined the two concerns as well, employing a "significant indeterminancy" test. The situation should be relevant to the story and uncertain as to outcome to call for a check.

  4. I'm tempted to turn this into a model, where characters have skills (things to be rolled, always, and employed), and what I'm wanting to call "freedoms". Freedoms would be the things you cheaply buy (or simply gain as a side-effect of a high-ranked skill) for your character that are the only (or primary) way that you can handwave-bypass stuff necessary to moving forward.

    So, lockpicking: it's a skill, and it's a freedom. You could be low-ranked in lockpicking but have the freedom of lockpicking, meaning you can easily bypass locks which the story wants you to bypass, but you have a tough time working your way through the locks that have dramatic or challenge significance.

    The GM is then encouraged to build stories where the connective tissue is based on those freedoms -- but only offer the handwave to the characters who possess the freedoms. If I know my PCs have the freedoms of lockpicking, combat, and investigation, then I can use lockpicking, combat, and investigation as the connective stuff between elements of the plot -- but I can only offer the handwave to the guys who have the freedoms. If my Fighting Dude isn't around for a fight, his less combat effective brethren will have to have a real go of it (and, perhaps desirably, if he shows up halfway through the fight, that ends it -- because he can just push on through to a win with his Combat freedom).

    This is all half-formed, but now it gnaws at me.

  5. Heh. Fred, you will dig my next post on this then. I was looking through Savage Worlds and saw the "boating" skill and laughed. It seems to me that some skills (genre dependent) should really just be binary and possibly exclusive. You don't buy boating like other skills, instead you're either the boating guy or you're not.

    This gets interesting when you mesh it with the idea of shared skills, a la Leverage, but that's a longer explanation.

  6. Yeah, exactly. The idea that some stuff will reduce to "simple freedoms", and get left off of the skill list entirely, is a pretty attractive one.

    There'd also be conditional freedoms -- the ones that folks get to enjoy only if someone who has paid for it isn't around; and maybe which won't be available if the bad guy has "upgraded" a particular challenge to expert-only status.

    Lots to play around with in this space.

  7. "You're the boating guy or you're not."

    That says it all.

    I have some hazy unformed miasma of a system in my brain that says, "All skills can be binary! And nobody can have the same skills! Everybody's a specialist, but nobody treads on anybody else's feet!"

    And then I think about pie, or kittens, and it's gone. Whoooof.

    -- c.

  8. @Chuck -- Yeah, that's what I'm kind of groping towards with this 'freedoms' thing. At its simplest, you could just run an essentially diceless game where everyone just stats themselves with freedoms, but I like the idea of a continuum where skills are the fallback when a freedom isn't available to apply. And, for that matter, the GM's option to say "no, this is a wildcard scene, so we're actually going to roll things out -- freedoms don't apply" because, in a way, that's saying "here's the drama and uncertainty".

  9. In Fate I would call this a stunt. If you want to be lock-pick-guy then you take a stunt that buys Freedom:Lock pick.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.