[Pitfighter] SBP: is there anything better to roll for than success?

Started by David Berg, November 09, 2011, 06:31:36 AM

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David Berg

Gah, this is frustrating and hard for me to communicate.
Quote from: David Berg on November 10, 2011, 05:12:42 AM
How often the GM does this is less of a concern for me right now.
That may sound way more open than I meant it.  There's definitely a lower bound of "how often".  And that is, "often enough for this to be an ongoing mode of play".  Less often than that, I'd design for differently.
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David Berg


While CYOA could definitely fall under this umbrella, it wouldn't be my first choice as a model.  As GM, I neither want to put in the work to support player path selection really mattering, nor want to concern myself with prepping something that doesn't really matter.  I wanna focus on my story.  But that's just me...
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Frank Tarcikowski

Hi David,

I'm the last person to rule out the possibility that there could be interesting new applications of Resolution to spice up SBP. But I'll say this much: Mind the pitfalls. Look closely. Do not readily put the axe to something that seemingly "doesn't matter" before you are sure it really doesn't matter. That's also why I pointed out the huge difference between "fiction leads" and "rules lead" in the parent thread.

Personally, I have found that I actually like the way that trad games build the fiction. I did not like high points of contact and handling times, did not like how rules mastery gave you a lot of an edge, did not like large amounts of crunch or implausible results produced by Resolution. So I cut all that away and built a system that did not have any of that, but apart from that, resolved actions and conflicts just like that ol' Star Wars d6. Then I added some rules for transparency and a Reward System. That's my way and it works well for me, but of course it's not the only possible way. But it gives me a hard time with your brainstorming approach.

As far as Reveals go, sure, it's part of SBP, but I suggest that there is a huge difference between just some fun revelation providing for an "aha" moment or a surprising plot twist, and the Grand Revelation that is the whole point of a scenario or even a campaign. When I run an SBP game, the players know more or less what's going on. There is certainly some stuff they still need to figure out, but they have a good idea to start with. Or maybe there is this one thing that I deliberately mislead them about, and then start dropping clues so they eventually figure out that they've been fooled.

But this is way different from the Great Unknown where the players can play several sessions without the slightest clue what's going on and who's behind it. I don't know if that's what you've been doing in your Pitfighter games, and I do know that many players and GMs enjoy it, but again, me personally, I just hate it with passion and so I'm probably the wrong person to say anything about it. One should note that by necessity, a lot of control lies with the GM in that kind of scenario, so the P for Participation will have to work on a micro level, which is why you will often play scenes in a very detailed way and pacing will be rather slow.

About the Fruitful Void, I don't want to start rambling but I am very suspicious of a certain mindset, let's call it the Dumb Story Games Poster Mindset, that kind of goes like this: "Hey, let's look at what this is really about. It's about fishing. So, what's up with all the camping and the beer and the guitars and the friends coming along? Do you need any of these for fishing? And what about those terribly inefficient fishing poles? Just toss in this dynamite bar and you'll be done with the fishing in a minute. Anybody can do it, just light the cord, and be home for breakfast! You're welcome!"

Just be sure not to walk into that trap.

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English


My own experience, though, is that the resolution system - of the existing types anyway - steadily lose significance, to the npoint that I start to discard them.  I mean sure, it's moderately useful to know if this PC and pick this lock or whatever, but really it's either information I want them to know - cf. wandering clue type things - or it isn't, in which case I'm not going to let them anyway.

I've more or less come to the conclusion that this sort of resolution just doesn't matter very much.  Almost everything that is really significant is happening outside the action resolution system, and occurring in the GM's control of scene setting, pacing, information access and so on.  That's what the real system is - GM fiat.  By default, because it's not formally regulated by any specific techniques.  Therefore I think it is correct to approach this from the angle of trying to systemetise what the GM is doing, and setting conventional resolution aside - or at least, not being trapped within it.  System is bigger than resolution, and it is that larger system we need to construct.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Ron Edwards

This is incredibly productive.

First, in private messages, David hazarded the term "pre-plotted" to clarify to me what he was talking about, That's the confirmation I was hoping for; yeah, that's what I mean by Story Before subject to the unusual medium of role-playing. So all's good with that, name-confusion mis-messaging aside.

Second, what Gareth just wrote, and the posts flowing into it, finally explain to me why the hell so many RPG resolution examples are so loaded toward "does he notice me" and similar, and why discussing resolution often has a so-what, isolated quality. If resolution does not have a concrete, consequential role in resolving situation, then it's not really "resolution" so much as a means of adding Color. And the breakdowns we've all seen in "can I, can't I," "you can, you can't" arguments seem to me now as classic disputes over the border between Color and System. Or rather, since Color is kind of like a modifier of everything else, whether we're talking about a verb (System) or an adverb (Color).

Best, Ron

David Berg

I agree with Gareth on GM fiat being a higher-level system than mechanical resolution is.  When the players attempt something the GM either won't allow or really wants, it happens or doesn't accordingly.  The mechanical resolution system is employed when the GM's response to an attempt is, "Hmm, could be cool either way.  I'm going to switch out of storyteller mode and let some gameplay throw new elements into my story!"  I think that's one of the major differences between SBP play and just, y'know, telling a story to an audience.  So I still think mechanical resolution can be very important to SBP design.

Clearly the GM isn't going to take that "Let's see what happens!" stance for resolving situations that are important to the plot.  (Is there a valid place in SBP play for situations that aren't important to the plot?  I think there is, but maybe that's something to come back to later.)  So, yeah, if mechanics aren't employed to resolve situations, they need to earn their keep in other ways or be ditched. 

Here's a brainstorm of some such "other ways":

1) Coloring action attempts and outcomes.  The GM determines what happens, but the mechanics determine what it looks like. 

2) Resolving fictional positioning (possibly including effectiveness/resource), which feeds into subsequent situation.  The GM says you win the fight, but the dice say you lost your sword, your eye, and the deed to your land.  Now the next scenes aren't going to be about sniping and hacking and bossing around; they might be about going back for another deed and squabbling with nobles while your enemies gather strength, or about learning how to wrestle.

3) Adding context.  Adding flashbacks, cutaways, or other fictional content that adds context to the characters' actions and the GM's outcome.

4) Manipulating the medium.  Are the facts of the fiction described as if in a movie, or as if read from an ancient scroll?  Do we speak loudly or quietly, all at once or in turns?  Do we invoke key phrases or other rituals?

5) Developing character.  Beyond what the actions and cutaways show us, is there anything else the audience ought to see or know now about your guy?

Without elegant examples, I'll be the first to admit that these sound like they could get micro-manage-y, distracting, flow-breaking, and stupid.  That micromanagement is what you were talking about, right, Frank?

Here's my counterpoint.  There's this quote I remember.  I think it was about movie studios buying scripts and was in an intro to a Sandman collection, but I'm not sure.  The quote is, "You're not paying for the story, you're paying for the way the story is told."  To me, that's a big enough endeavor that there's room for players, GMs, and mechanics to all have a role.

Like, in Swords Without Master, what you can narrate is constrained by (a) the GM's situation, (b) the scene type, and (c) a die roll of "Grim or Jovial" -- and it's still super fun to describe what your character's up to.  Or in PIE, where it sounds like the players may roll even for foregone conclusions just to see whether the inevitable outcome is more based on their Character, Opposition, or Environment.

I want to talk about this more, but I also want to follow Gareth's excellent suggestion of looking at systematizing GM fiat.  I'm not sure whether two threads is the way to go or whether we can all keep things straight in this one.  I'm open to suggestions or to playing it by ear.  Please consider both topics fair game here for now.  (I had a third thing about Color, but I'm deeming that too much for this one thread, and I'll be giving it a new one.)

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Frank Tarcikowski

Hi David,

I'm not sure about micromanagement, but distracting and flow-breaking, yeah, that's what I'm cautioning against. And also, you know, that "fiction leads" vs. "rules lead" divide. Did I mention that?

I'll tackle your points one by one.

Quote1) Coloring action attempts and outcomes.  The GM determines what happens, but the mechanics determine what it looks like. 

Depending on how broadly you define "outcome", that's already happening in your typical SBP group with that trad game system. Within the "wiggling space" of the planned story, there is certainly room for the outcomes of single actions/conflicts or even scenes to be meaningfully determined by the rules, but "bottleneck" scenes will not have that space and in that case, whether I fail a roll or not becomes a matter of color, as Ron also pointed out above.

Quote2) Resolving fictional positioning (possibly including effectiveness/resource), which feeds into subsequent situation. (...)

I think your examples sound suspiciously like "real consequences" and "stakes". How about "resolving Situation insofar as it is not dictated by Story Before requirements"? For example, in my Star Wars d6 game, at one point a character even died, because the player just really had to make another attempt at taking out his nemesis, even though he had just burned his last Force Point to survive the previous attempt. The nemesis didn't have script immunity at that point, the overall outcome of the story did not depend on whether either of them lived or died. The Alliance would suffer a setback, which would set the characters up for the next adventure, just as I had scripted it. But would the laconic scout take out the nemesis with a lucky shot? Or would he die trying? We left that to the dice, and the player had to make up a new character.

Quote3) Adding context.  Adding flashbacks, cutaways, or other fictional content that adds context to the characters' actions and the GM's outcome.

Sure, why not. Just bear in mind that non-linear narration and consistency, in the improvised context of role-playing, are natural enemies.

Quote4) Manipulating the medium.  Are the facts of the fiction described as if in a movie, or as if read from an ancient scroll?  Do we speak loudly or quietly, all at once or in turns?  Do we invoke key phrases or other rituals?

I'm not sure what you are saying, here. Are you saying the rules should enable players to manipulate the medium, or are you saying the designer should manipulate the medium by designing the rules accordingly? To the latter, a whole-hearted "yes".

Quote5) Developing character.  Beyond what the actions and cutaways show us, is there anything else the audience ought to see or know now about your guy?

I'd say this is a sub-point of 1), aka Color (Character).

About systematizing GM fiat, here's some food for thought: A rule saying, "GM, you cannot do this right now" would probably make it a different game entirely. A rule saying "GM, you can do anything but then...", on the other hand, now that's an idea with potential.

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

David Berg

Argh.  Life got busy, and then another topic here grabbed my attention for the little free time I had today.  Frank, I will respond soon.  In general, what you are saying makes sense to me.

I was hoping that my brainstorm might inspire others to chime in with their own proposals!  I hope my list isn't all the options we have!
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

Hi Frank,

First, to the numbered points:

1.  Yup, trad task resolution colors outcomes.  Does it do so optimally, though?  Is pass/fail really the best kind of color?  I think PIE and Swords Without Master do more.

2.  Your clarification "insofar as it is not dictated by Story Before requirements" is exactly what I was working from re: positioning.  Your example scout death is a particularly high-consequence example. 

This strikes me as fruitful design space!  What sorts of positioning are open to resolution through play? 

Maybe "GM plot that's independent of character survival" and "character death is on the table" is an excellent option!  As GM, did you find that to be a tough way to plot?  If the GM can be flexible about time-scale, then a big part of play could be seeing how many TPKs it takes to get to the finale!  "There will be a face-off at Mount Doom, but will it be your current guy or his great-great-grandson standing there?"  That's probably not enough for rewarding play by itself, but it sounds like a good start!

3.  I was imagining "what's been played" is a constant constraint on subsequent narration, regardless of in-fiction sequence.  Have you seen that not work?  I don't have much experience with this myself.  I also don't know if it'd be fun.  I think the players would need a lot of ammo to get good bang for their buck.  You'd need more cutaway fodder and inspiration than cutaway opportunities.  For that to be the case, I imagine that, during the bulk of play, players would need to be developing something they wanted to share, but couldn't in the moment.  The first example that comes to mind is "inner thoughts", but there must be other options...

4.  I agree that the designer should design the interaction with the medium.  But that's not what I was saying.  I was saying that play could take that designed interaction and tweak it.  It's like the pacing dial in Delve, or Bringing Down the Pain in tSoY.  Something happens, either in the fiction or at the table, and then you zoom in, or zoom out, or otherwise change your orientation.  What I'm suggesting is that the field of acceptable orientation shifts may be larger than what's been explored.

Example: Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet movie.  We know before we enter the theater what the plot is, but we go to find out how an MTV aesthetic is going to be applied to it, moment by moment.  When will we go from naturalism to stylized jump cuts, 4th wall-breaking, and overbearing soundtrack?  And then when will we go back to naturalism?

5.  Yeah, probably a sub-component of the others.  Just wanted to throw it out there in case focusing on it inspired anyone.  I think character development really is a natural complement to a planned plot that is about something other than character development.  (Which maybe all GM plots ought to be?  More on that here.)

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

Gonna wait on fiction/rules-leading and systematizing GM fiat for now.  I am psyched about rules that say, "yes, but" to the GM, though!
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Jeremy S

Very interesting conversation. Just registered to join in.

An idea that comes to mind regarding resolution & system structure: take advantage of the Three-Act Structure commonly used in movies, TV, etc.

Prep & Character Creation: the GM (or maybe just the "Writer") drafts out the Story Before. This includes requirements for the cast, major plot points, maybe even a prologue.  Say you wanted a game like The Mummy with Brandon Frasier.  The "writer" could dictate:

  • All the flashback stuff about Imohtep, the City of the Dead, the pharaoh and his mistress, the mummy's curse
  • Basic plot points: the PCs will investigate the City of the Dead & awaken Imohtep; Imohtep will regenerate and appear to be unstopable; he'll carry off the female romantic lead; the other PCs will try to rescue her.
  • Character requirements. Among the PCs, there need to be the following (pick and choose; all must be chosen, but a single character could fill more than one of these): a female romantic lead with ties to Ancient Egypt; a strong male romantic lead; someone who's been the City of the Dead; a badass; a scholar of ancient Egypt; someone who knows about Imohtep and the curse.
  • Character options. Ideas for other things that character's could be or have. Someone devoted to protecting the world from Imohtep; another badass; a rogue/rascal; etc.
From there, you have your let folks make characters.  Maybe pick some core traits, resources, maybe some keys (ala TSOY or Lady Blackbird). But I think you leave a lot of blank spaces in the characters right now.

In play, adopt a three-act structure. 

The first act involves establising the characters. This would be very rules-light, I think.  Director (GM in play) presents situation, and players describe how they respond to them.  Ask questions like crazy to establish things.  "O'Connel, you're a badass and you've been to the City of the Dead.  How'd you end up there?  Oh, you were in the Foreign Legion?  Let's play that out."  In the course of play, players say what their character does and how. No rolling, but rather establishing the character's traits.  As traits are established on screen, they get written onto the character sheet as effectiveness, resources, and positioning.

The second act involves advancing the plot.  The players know there are key plot points to hit, and they get rewarded for hitting them.  They also get rewarded for portraying their characters (maybe with a Key system like in TSOY or Lady Blackbird).  So the more gleefully they advance the story, the more resources and/or effectiveness they have going in to act 3. Actual resolution rules now come into play, making use of the effectiveness, resources, and positioning established in act 1.  There can be costs and setbacks and fallout during this act, but nothing that derails the plot.  In the Mummy, this would be the parts where they: get to the City of the Dead; learn about the pharaoh's bodyguards, release Imohtep; encounter Imohtep; run for their lives; learn that he's chosen Evie as his sacrifice; learn how they can stop him; flee from him and his minions; Evie gets captured and wisked away to the City of the Dead for the final ritual.

Act three then becomes an inevitable climax. For this act, the gloves are off.  No scripted immunity, no plot points that must be hit. Just a final confrontation in which the PCs use the effectiveness, resources, and positioning they've gained in Acts 1 & 2 to confront the final challenge.  The better they did in the initial acts, the better situated they are here.  But the PCs might lose. They might win at great cost. It's this act where you learn if you've been playing a comedy, a tradgedy, or some ambiguous art piece.

Anyhow, that's an idea of how you structure things at a high level to make  character action and player decisions matter.  And there's all sorts of room in the middle for meaningful contribution in the establishing of the characters, how they go about hitting those plot points, how they change over the story, etc.

David Berg

Hi Jeremy,

I like the vision you're describing.  There are various parts of it I'd like to discuss later in other threads, but for now, the one key thing for me is what the resources, effectiveness, and positioning you describe are for.  Are you thinking success/failure of attempted actions, or something else?  Within the framework you've laid out, I could see it going that way, or not.

here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Jeremy S

Hi David,

I think it would change act-by-act, and possibly player-to-player.

Say, in act 1 you start with a boatload of currency and no codified success/fail mechanics. Success/failure would be negotiated by the fiction and GM fiat. You spend your currency to get to establish new things about your character, which might result in a success/failure on screen but which is primarily establishing effectiveness & keys for later. Maybe there's rolling involved as you do this, but it wouldn't be success/fail oriented.  I think it'd be more about color and control over the effectiveness traits you get to add.

In act 2, you've got some effectiveness traits established that *do* play into success/failure, but also narrative control. I think that'd be important to hit the plot points and character keys that generate more currency and effecitiveness for the climax in act 3.

In act 3, yeah, I think it's mostly about success/failure.  Though players with more "supporting cast" characters (ones not directly involved in the climactic struggle) might spend their currency to add more color, twists, etc.

That's all just spitballing.  My main point is that you could vary the system (including the outcomes of the resolution mechanics) based on the current act, in a way that makes player contribution meaningful yet still results in the story following the established plot.

Does that answer your question?


David Berg

"Buy character traits during play rather than before play" first struck me as kind of a separate issue... but your idea about combining that with a roll for color/control is really interesting!

So here's one thing Act 1 resolution could determine: how much of whose vision gets applied to which character.  Maybe no one has "their" character* at the beginning of Act 1, and who controls who is only determined at act's end.

This is actually kind of similar to something I've done before play.  It could be a fun thing to do while the fiction's rolling, but I worry that a bunch of as yet undefined characters would produce crappy fiction.  For it to work, I think there might need to be some chain of fictional situation -> resolve stuff about character(s) -> new fictional situation.

Hmm.  Maybe when you win authorship over a character, you resolve not only "what we learn about them now" but also "in what circumstances we'll see them next"?  If the GM pre-authors these "next up" aspects, that could be kept compatible with the Story Before.  As the players discover what the roles in the story will be, the GM discovers which characters will be filling those roles, and everyone discovers which of the story's issues intersect in each character.

This sounds pretty sweet if everyone present already has some sort of vision for the fiction through which to appreciate the evolving specificity.  Lacking that, it might not be very punchy, satisfying curiosity and nothing more.

This kind of play reminds me strongly of the "establishing" phase of a good, long, slow burn movie.  "Who's that guy?  What's his role in this movie going to be?"  At the same time as we're establishing characters, we're also establishing time and place and tone and proto-themes.  Which the GM can probably just do, but maybe it'd be fun to throw a system wrinkle in there too.

Lemme see if I can add this to the list:

6.  Resolving relationships between participants and fictional elements.  Who controls which character, etc.  (Heck, this could even include the recruiting of a 2nd GM, or a conspirator who knows a certain portion of the Story Before!  Or a player getting to introduce a subplot!  Or the GM upgrading NPCs to player-character status in the eyes of the mechanics!)

I think the rest of what this method provides is covered by the other 5 points...

Cool stuff, Jeremy!  If you're seeing potentials here that I've missed, feel free to bring 'em up.  Pardon my skipping the 3-act structure for now.  I hope to get to issues that aren't directly about resolution in a bit.

*Or characters, plural.  My high school Pitfighter game actually included 2 per player.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

David Berg

I have a thought about resolving the fiction's space of possibility.

All roleplaying inherently does this -- every time narration moves the fiction forward, some possibilities are closed and others open.  However, not all roleplaying puts big possibility shifts explicitly on the table, to be anticipated, worked toward, or dreaded (in a fun way).  Not all roleplaying uses these big shifts to alternate between different goals for different phases of play.

Swords Without Master, Danger Zone, and Jeremy's idea above all say, "At certain times, we want X range of fictional outcomes (etc.) on the table; at other times, we want Y range of fictional outcomes on the table."  So X and Y use different rules, not just about what a roll can produce, but about who rolls, and what for (that's what the "etc." above meant).

I know that in Swords Without Master, the shift is a big deal when it happens!  I anticipate the coming of a Struggle Scene, so I try to get as much out of my Questing Scene as I can while there's still time!

Within the context of SBP, where we're not playing to produce the story's destination but rather its shape and details, it strikes me that this sort of thing -- altering the fiction's space of possibility* in a way that is strongly felt going forward in play -- is particularly meaningful.

That could be a fun thing to work toward, or avoid, and to roll for!

7. Refining the possibility space for "what could happen" going forward, potentially including changes to the system for producing "what does happen".  This could create new modes of play, or simply alternate between pre-designed ones.

* within the constraints of the given destination
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