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

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

Previous topic - Next topic

David Berg

I think that's a good segue to talk about rules-leading vs fiction-leading play as it applies to SBP resolution options.  After all, what's a character going to do that changes the rules of playing the game? 

I'm much more familiar with such changes being imposed by players acting from outside the fiction, as critics of it.  "I judge that this point in our narrative is a good time to initiate, or invoke the mechanic that initiates, Endgame Mode!"

This seems like a valid way to play.  Maybe some SBP GMs will love critical feedback on their plots! 

Personally, though, I'm with Frank on this one.  As a GM, I want to create an experience, and as a player I'd much rather live the GM's story than critique it.

Are the resolution approaches I'm suggesting in this thread a bad match for the experiential style of play, working only for the critical?

My first thought is that it depends on whether the resolution method is (a) triggered by fictional actions, and (b) continuing the fiction that preceded it. 

  • If resolution meets both of those criteria, then we can go right on imagining stuff and enjoying the experience.

  • If it fails condition (b), we're going to experience a sort of "jump cut", which bothers some players more than others.

  • If it fails condition (a), that's where we might start feeling like we're playing the Let's Make A Story boardgame.

I'm not sure of any of that.  It's just a working theory to get me to this example:

We're using a resolution rule where: player announces intent and action, rolls a d20, GM announces intent's success or failure, die determines whether character looks good or bad in the process.  But!  If you roll a 20 on the d20, then we shift from Discovery Phase to Fate Phase.  Now the rule says: player announces intent and action, rolls a d20, GM announces intent's success or failure, die determines whether character is injured or empowered in the process.  Enough injury kills them, removing them from the story, while enough empowerment makes them a major figure in the setting and likely the GM's plot.

So, let's say I'm in Discovery Phase, and my character goes to leap from a rooftop onto the badguys' moving truck.  The GM wants to show me more about the badguys, so he decides I will indeed land on the truck.  My character's boss watches him jump, and I roll the d20 to see if the leap will look bold and deft or insane and lucky.  I roll a 20!  Well, shit.  Now it's not about whether I look good in my truck assault.  Now it's about whether I survive it.  The GM says, "As you fall toward the truck, you a hear a villain say, 'Time for the heavy ordnance,' and there's a click and a loud hum." 

This sounds pretty easy and harmless to me.  Is there anything I'm missing here?
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Anders Gabrielsson

I've been meaning to post about Smallville for a while now, but I keep getting behind on reading the discussions and the linked threads. I think I'm reasonably well caught up now, though. However, I'm also down with a cold so this might be a bit incoherent in places.

The reason I think Smallville is of interest in this discussion is that it accomplishes one of the goals quite well: giving the players meaningful things to do even when they can't steer or strongly affect the plot. (I should note that while Smallville isn't set up to do only Story Before, I think it can do it quite well.) It does this by having the players and characters be interested in different things. While the characters may be highly interested in solving or progressing the plot, the players are mainly interested in getting the characters into trouble, particularly by having them be at odds with each other.

To take an example, I recently played in a Smallville game set in the great opera in Castle Falkenstein Vienna. There was a murder plot going on with all kinds of mysterious events, and while the characters (or some of them at least) were quite interested in finding out what was going on, or at least make sure it didn't blow back on them, the players were much more focused on a love triangle and the musical director's plan to replace the orchestra with musical automatons.

It also helps that as a player in Smallville you often want your character to fail at things (because that gives you Stress, which is one of the two sources of the equivalent of experience points) and be mistaken about people (because that is the other main source of xp-equivalent).

Taking the previously discussed scenario with the escaping robbers, doing that scene in Smallville wouldn't be particularly controversial since the players a) know that they will get the story whether they succeed or fail at stopping the robbers, so failing to stop them won't deprive them of anything regarding the plot, and b) their main interest isn't in controlling or discovering the plot but in pitting their characters against each other in interesting ways. While Smallville characters might be performing the exact same actions as the characters doing the same scene in a different system, the game mechanics aren't very interested in those things but more in how they are using their actions to affect their relationships with the other characters.

To take a hypothetical example, if you were doing that scene using d20 Modern a daring detective might roll Jump to move from a racing car to the robbers' truck, while in Smallville he might be rolling Love (because he's showing off for Jane, his romantic interest) plus his relationship with someone he suspects is also interested in Jane, and the player isn't rolling to see if he successfully jumps to the other vehicle but to see if he does it with enough flair to catch Jane's eye.

In relation to the discussion about WHAT you do vs. HOW you do it, Smallville is much more on the HOW side with regards to the plot, but also WHY you do it.

David Berg

Good call, Smallville's an excellent example to look at here!

The relationships between player characters make for a perfect example of what I meant by #2: resolving fictional positioning.  Those relationships (1) are easy to link to whatever's going on in the fiction at the moment, (2) they're always there, (3) they foster interaction between players, (4) they provide orientation and motivation moving forward, and (5) it's easy to make a GM plot that doesn't depend on them going any particular way.  Fantastic!

On the other hand, Smallville's combo of requirements and rewards really highlights the relationship stuff, to the point where I wonder if a GM plot would fade to relative insignificance (which would defeat much of the point of playing SBP).  What's your experience been with this?  I've only played 2 one-shots.

Also, are the evolving relationships unsatisfying if they don't follow a good dramatic arc that concludes when the game does?  If it's just sort of a meandering, "now I like you more, now I like you less", I could see how that could fade to insignificance.

The way Smallville connects positioning changes with task resolution also seems worth looking at, though I have nothing useful to say on that now.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Anders Gabrielsson

My experiences with Smallville are still fairly limited but I'll tell you what I've got so far.

1) The Third Wave

This was a fairly straight-forward game of teen supers, lasting two episodes over four or five sessions of three to four hours each. (That's excluding character/setting generation, which was another full session.) At this point we didn't really get the system so the players made characters who mostly got along and were on the same side, with all the big conflicts being with the NPCs. The group was me as GM and three of the core players from our main group.

This was intended as a test run and with the issues we had discovered we decided not to push it forward.

2) Tortona

For this game we added another player from the main group. It lasted one episode over three sessions. The setting was a small city state in northern Italy during the late Renaissance/early Enlightenment, with a little bit of magic and a little bit of da Vinci-type supertech (though none of that showed up much in the game). The characters all belonged to the circle closest to the prince - his uncle, his younger son, his mother-in-law and his spymaster - and while they were a lot more adverserial with strong wills and conflicting interests they were still mostly cooperating. Part of that was because the plot I had put together involved a group of republican revolutionaries whom everyone but the younger son opposed, and while he was sympathetic to their cause he was strongly opposed to their methods in this case.

This was another test game, and while I think we had the start of something solid the new player felt the game system was harsh on her light asperger's - having to constantly try to figure out what the other players and other player characters were after so she could position herself right in the conflicts was a heavy load for her.

3) The Great Opera

This game was run by another player from our main group for me, two of the ones who had been part of the previous two games, and one other, and it lasted for about six sessions which was how long it took for the GM's plot to run its course. It was set in the Great Opera in Castle Falkenstein Vienna, and the GM's plot centered around a murder mystery. As a player I was pushing hard to put myself "out there" in the sense of getting into conflicts, getting into trouble and looking for emotional triggers for myself as a player, though with limited success. I think some of the reasons were that the GM and one player were new to the system so there was quite a lot of rules talk (and those of us who were new to the game were still not sure about everything), and at least two of the others were playing much more defensively.

The GM remarked at the end of the game that she had expected us to be more interested in the murder plot. In the games I ran I felt the players were interested in the plots, but then I'm not sure how much we were playing the game as intended so I don't know how representative those are.


I think it's quite possible to run a fairly tight SBP game using Smallville, provided the GM uses the right techniques. Aggressive scene framing (which is what the book recommends) in particular will let the GM put (some of) the characters into situations where the players get to experience the plot, while the game mechanics will encourage them to get into conflicts with each other so that they have meaningful actions to take. I should also note that because of how the conflicts are set up, it's always possible for the GM to prevent the PC:s from killing or otherwise incapacitating an important NPC (and the same is true for the players regarding their PC:s).

I think having an arc planned out for your character, or at least a theme to the type of emotional changes you want them to go through, is a very good idea, since it will let the other players (including the GM) know how to get you into conflicts, though I also think you have to be open to other opportunities.

(We're still struggling a bit with the game because it's so different to what we're used to. The GM-player, player-player and player-character relationships are quite different to the games we typically play, and I think it has highlighted some Creative Agenda issues that haven't been very relevant before, as well as some related social contract questions, but that's for some other thread some other time. I know there are some things with how the game is set up that hasn't worked very well for us and I was working on some changes to get around that, but now I think it's more due to issues with the player group rather than the rules themselves. However, I don't want to threadjack so please ignore this as other than a caveat for the previous.)

Anders Gabrielsson

I forgot to mention one thing that makes Smallville interesting in this context: it puts weight on things that are internal to the characters more than on their capabilities. When you're playing a game like that it matters less if you can't affect the plot because you can focus on how the plot affects you.

David Berg

I can't really infer anything from those accounts about how well the relationships and the GM plots get along.  This, though:

Quote from: Anders Gabrielsson on December 01, 2011, 02:19:56 PM
I forgot to mention one thing that makes Smallville interesting in this context: it puts weight on things that are internal to the characters more than on their capabilities. When you're playing a game like that it matters less if you can't affect the plot because you can focus on how the plot affects you.  (Emphasis mine. -D.B.)

That is a great way to tie this all back to the beginning of this thread. 

My brainstorming here has mostly been about general types of resolution outcomes.  I think the question now is, how can these be used to support SBP play specifically?  How do they help players contribute their own unique reflections and twists on the fiction and GM plot to date?

Given that resolution mechanics, among other functions, tell us what to pay attention to, and when, I think that's where we'll find our answers.


First, a quick observation on how resolution mechanics elicit a given type of contribution:

We can be reminded to contribute stuff we might otherwise forget.  (Cyberpunk 2020: Next to the Perception score I'm about to roll, I see that the score factors in my Low Light Eye Implants.)

We can be required to contribute stuff we might not naturally bother with.  (Swords Without Master: You can't narrate at all without first rolling to establish whether the tone of your narration will be Grim or Jovial.)
We can be rewarded for contributing stuff we might otherwise value.  (Smallville: Address your relationship with the highest attached die, and you gt to roll that die toward success in your action.)

On the Fruitful Void front, the objective here is to supplement narrative contributions rather than supplant them.  Grim/Jovial can act as a creative constraint and springboard.  You don't get to decide for yourself whether the event is grim or jovial, which is a sort of loss, but you have plenty of other things to decide and relate, and working the established to into those other things can be a fun challenge.


I think Anders' point about "internal to the characters" is a nice match for the "reflection and twist" I've been talking about.  I actually think we can extend that from "what do the characters think about all this now?" to "what do the players think?"  Of the techniques I mentioned in my second post, I think all of them fall under this umbrella.  Processing, theorizing, and curiosity can all be expressed in or out of character.  Emotional response is more in-character, and fishing is more out of character, but I don't see any hard lines.

Let me demonstrate all this with an example of a requirement:

You jump for the truck!  The GM will decide whether you make it or not.  Before they can decide, however, you must roll accordingly on the Reflection Table:

Character's current state: 1d10
Story tone: 1d10+10
Relevance of earlier events: 1d10+20
Anticipation of future events: 1d10+30

And then each entry on the Reflection Table has some game/plot-relevant focus for the resulting narration.  Like, if I roll "27 - paranoia", I think of an earlier event that makes my character anxious, and I connect that to my current truck-jumping via whatever links I prefer -- mood, motivation, flashback, etc.

The GM then incorporates all this narration into their decision of whether the action succeeds or fails, and how, and why, and what else is revealed in the process.  Maybe something is recorded that affects the GM's prep for next session.

That was an inelegant example, but hopefully it illustrates various possibilities.

Here's a simpler option:

Tell the GM one question you'd like to ask them, and how your current action relates to that.  If the GM is psyched about your question, you succeed.  If the GM isn't interested in your question, you fail.


Part of the question "is there anything better to roll for than success?" is, "is there any time that's better to roll than when a character tries to do something?"

"Character tries something" has all sorts of utility as a mechanics trigger, but in SBP specifically, I think the utility comes down to "a situation that arises in the fiction that we can easily recognize".  I suspect that anything that meets that criteria should be actionable, and I think we have some fun options.

(You could do "a situation that arises at the table that we can easily recognize" too, but that risks rules-leading boardgamey territory as mentioned earlier.)


During char-gen, you pick 3 adjectives that define your character.  Then, you (perhaps with the help of the whole group) classify 3 situations that will ideally show those qualities to an audience.  Those are the situations in which you engage your character-focused mechanics.

From my vague memory of Die Hard, John McClane is Heckled, Ornery, and Tough, and these are shown in situations of Unpleasant Duty, Social Conflict, and Violence.  So you'd roll whenever your McClane character enters one of those situations.

If you had 4 player characters, that's 12 situations, which might sound like a challenge to recognize at first, but hey, remembering 7 in Apocalypse World isn't hard, so I'm optimistic.

So that's a trigger for resolution of character-based stuff.  Let's look over my full list of what sorts of things one might resolve.  I'll see if I can provide an appropriate trigger example for each:

1) Coloring events.  Game or group defines what sorts of events deserve additional exploration of color.  "Whenever you enter a new location", "Whenever anyone dies", "Whenever magic is used", etc.

2) Resolving fictional positioning.  Whenever a character stands to gain, lose, or change.  Probably whittled down to the types of gain/loss/change relevant to the particular type of plot.

3) Adding context.  Not sure.  Whenever something random happens?  Whenever someone (in or out of character) asks "Why?"

4) Manipulating the medium.  This one is challenging to tie to the fiction.  The Romeo and Juliet formula tied style of presentation to tone of fictional content -- crazy jump cut camera-voguing for action scenes, naturalism for quiet reflective scenes.  You'd probably have to tie moods to events associated with them.  Example: roll the "medium change" dice when there's an Intimate Moment, a Desperate Gambit, or Death is On the Line.

5) Developing character.  Covered above.

6) Relating participants to fictional elements.  Any time a new element is introduced.  Any time an old element takes on new relevance.  Might wanna whittle down "elements" into types, like Person, Place, Object.

7) Refining possibility space.  This is a natural fit for crisis points, when conflicts of interest cannot build any further, and something has to give.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


I'm a little concerned that this is heading generally in a direction that IMO goes rather to far in eliminating player input to situation.  I don't really want to shift player decision and character action so far away from what is going on.  It may be true that I want to be able, as GM, to specify that the truck gets away, but I don't think that means, say, that I want to shift the question of whether a character can gun down one of the goons defending it away from a putative "shoot people" score and onto a "why I want to shoot people" score.

One of my interests in all of this is to approach a kind of historical simulation.  I'd be interested in exploring historical situations in a way that allows players to live the experience in much the way that the people there at the time did.  This means that they do really need to be able to act in ways that bear directly on the situation.  I'm not averse to some of the shift into a characters perceptions and internal processes and so on, but I don't want to eliminate the directly situational concerns.  The players have to have buy in to the thing that matter in the situation.

"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

David Berg

I'm with you.  I don't want to minimize "what is going on right now" either.  Do you think what I've been exploring here will do that?

I have two thoughts on that:

1) Is it really that different?

In a typical task resolution system, I get to decide "I will attempt to jump onto the truck", which is already significant in that it's dictating a direction for the fiction different from if I had done something else.  Further, I get some say over whether that attempt succeeds, in the form of spending resources, calling on my character's strengths, describing positioning in order to lobby for situational bonuses, etc.  However, all this influence I have is fed into a whirlwind of social and systemic interpretation -- do you actually get to roll for that, does this bonus actually apply here, oops you rolled badly, etc.

In what I'm proposing, the significance of choosing to attempt action is unchanged, and the influence over success is still present but muddy.  It's just a different kind of muddy.

Trying to show the GM all the cool ways I'll interface with their plot if they let me catch the truck doesn't strike me as any less meaningful than trying to show the GM why my position on the staircase qualifies as a Height Advantage.

2) I've tried having no influence over success in small doses, and liked it

When I run Delve, there are encounters with knowns and unknowns.  Sometimes the players do a lot of planning, sometimes they do very little.  But there's always some moment where the players will just try something, without knowing much about it.  I'd say these moments are characterized by fear, anticipation, and extreme attention to the GM's feedback as it's delivered.  As long as I'm not a dick, it's super fun, and well-suited to SBP.

What do you think?  Am I missing your point?
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Callan S.

Are you sure that's an example of no influence? In a 4E recent lair assault game, the players made this big plan to cross a chasm of lava to get to the door on the other side. They formulate the plan, get across - fake door.

Sounds like there is no influence, except they went this way after a T intersection. So they could have gone the other way.

Anders Gabrielsson

Er, sorry, I was probably doing far too much talking about the games I were in and far too little answering your question. I'll think some more and have another (shorter) go at it, if you're still interested.


Quote from: David Berg on December 09, 2011, 03:30:33 AM
I'm with you.  I don't want to minimize "what is going on right now" either.  Do you think what I've been exploring here will do that?

What I wish to flag up is that recent discussion has shifted into a framework that essentially sets the system that governs character actions and concerns at right angles to the concerns that govern plot, to stop them coming into conflict.  What I'm getting at is that I think for some purposes at least, they do need to coincide.  Frex, I may be that I need and want the players to worry about things like whether high ground gives them an advantage, because the plot is going to put them in a position where the high ground makes a plot point work.  If the system is directing them away from that as a concern, and towards things like how stylishly they perform or how things impact their psychological state, then the significance of the high ground factor won't carry over, and the (my) goal of a sort of experiential simulation will be defeated.

As before, I don't want to rule out the use of those orthogonal methods by any means, I just wanted to mention that I think there will be some cases where the coincidence needs to be preserved.

"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

David Berg

Well, if we want experiential simulation (which I like too), we need the high ground to matter in the system, definitely.  But I don't think that system needs to be mechanical.  If the GM is the means of resolving success/failure, then as long as the GM agrees with you that high ground matters, you're set, right?

I really dislike the attitude that we can only trust each other to treat the fiction as a serious causal entity if we "prove" how everything matters by chopping it up into visible mechanical quantities.  That seems particularly unnecessary in SBP, where players have signed up to say that, at least sometimes, force is okay.  Am I being unrealistic here?
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development


Hmmm.  Not at all sure about that.  Take for example the case of something like Honour in LOT5R.  For any kind of perception or mindset that is different to ours, I think it needs to be mechanically expressed or it gets washed out by our default expectations.  In LOT5R the Honour mechanic does a repectable job of mitigating the "wandering bandits" pattern of many fantasy games, because there is a metric of success and right behaviour other than accumulating GP.  As another example, the idea that "money doesn't weigh anything" is quite common in default fantasy games, which has quite far reaching ramifications.  If money has mass, then you need a place to store it, and you priobably need flunkies to guard it, who have to be reliable, and all this requires social interactions which are usually absent.

So I do think these things need to be visibly and concretely expressed in ther system, thery need to be there and imposing thermselves on the sorts of actions that players can take.  I think the setting must "teach itself", and if the goal is to to construct a context which is to p[rmpt the players to think as thoise people would have thought in a historical context, then a big part of the job IMO is figuring out which mechanics work to represent that.

"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

David Berg

I agree with you that mechanics may be needed to drive home how the characters' mindset differs from the players, but that doesn't inherently have anything to do with success/failure, does it?  I would think that honor would be exactly the kind of thing my proposed approaches ought to draw attention to.  It could be a character-development issue (list item #5), or, as in your example, setting-based fictional positioning (list item #2).

And if honor does help determine success/failure, well, the players will learn that pretty damn quick regardless of whether it's tracked by mechanics or just by the GM, right?  "Our honorable foes keep beating us when they act with honor, and our dishonorable foes keep beating us when they act with dishonor; maybe we'd better pick one and act accordingly!"
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development