Sunday, 20 August 2017

Resolution: Awesome or Tangible

A few years ago I was nattering on about how Dungeon World's decision to have no quantitative difficulty had implications to its natural play style. The discussion was interesting, and Jeremy Strandberg was nudging me toward an understanding that's taken a while to fully crystallize.

I'm going to caricature two different sources of 'drama' in two different play styles. I like them both, but as building blocks of play, they seem to produce very different play experiences. Whenever I've had a lot of one of them, I yearn for a bit of the other.

Awesome Action

The party is wandering through a large, many-chambered cavern. They enter a large chamber split by a chasm - it's wide, but not so wide that jumping across seems impossible.

"I leap across!"

In an instant action game, this is a perfectly good play decision. The GM has made an offer (in the improv sense), and there's a wonderful back and forth to be had when the players and GM are riffing on each other's contributions.

Here's a resolution procedure from Blades in the Dark:

Here's a similar one from Dungeon World:

The key thing I want to focus on is the way the consequences of the action (especially the bad ones) are decided after the player rolls.

By and large, it's not going to be too terrible for the character. It can't be so easy that the GM feels the player is getting away with something, but it shouldn't generally be lethal. The point of play is for awesome stuff to happen (and pretty soon), so the outcome should be a setup for something interesting. Let's put you in a tight spot to see what heroic move you make next! e.g. How are you going to do this without your sword?

In general, death is off the table because the character is the player's vehicle for contributing to (and participating in) the awesomeness. Why take that away?

Unconsciousness is okay - it's bad, but from a game play perspective it's a bit like a time out. Better to be hanging upside-down from the strap of your backpack, with coins falling out of your pockets!

Tangible Obstacles

By contrast, have a look at the climbing rules from Moldvay edition of Basic D&D:

Here, the consequences are set ahead of time (not up to the GM), and they're not inherently interesting. There's no "dangling from the cliff edge while the goblin advances on you", you just fall and take terrible harm. For low-level characters, it's almost certainly lethal. (Even a level 4 thief only has ~10 hit points, not enough to survive an average 30' fall.)

Climbing up is probably not worth it - after all, the death would be meaningless, and that's rarely satisfying.  So rather than scamper up like a heroic lemming, the players reluctantly turn back.

The natural chimney has now just become a tangible obstacle.

This is frustrating. The players want to explore, but they can't. There's probably decent adventure up there, but it's inaccessible. Who would design a game or adventure this way on purpose?

In a sense, I think this frustration is the root of tangibility. A big part of a world feeling real is that it sometimes clings to its own self-consistent logic, refusing to conveniently bend to the needs of a good story, apt poignancy or instant drama. It just sits there, heavy and stubborn, forcing you to adapt to it.

Later, however, the situation has changed.  Maybe the PCs are fleeing the horror they awoke in room 19.  Maybe the mapper has a solid hunch that chimney gets them to a spot where they might be able to circle around to the jewelled ledge they noticed in the next chamber.

Either way, the chimney is now back in play - the stakes are higher, and when the players accept the risk of death it's no longer meaningless but a poignant underscoring of the seriousness, a testament to their commitment to their insane plan.  The latent drama of the Chimney of Meaningless Death now emerges.

"Oh shit, we're really gonna do this."

How This Relates to Mechanics

As I said at the start, I started off thinking about this in terms of DW's lack of quantitative difficulty, but I've changed my thinking on this. All you need is tangibility, which can come from a few places:

1. The players know the consequences without asking. The GM said it's a 100' climb, so the thief character immediately knows she has a 13% chance of falling from 50' up.

I experienced this feeling a lot while playing Torchbearer, because the players had a detailed understanding of how they were doing. For instance:

2. Consequences are established during play. For example:

PC: How high up is the chimney?
GM: It's at least 100' high, and very steep. Falling is going to kill you.

..or alternatively:

PC: I climb the chimney.
GM: If you call, you're going to die. Are you sure? [as per DW's say the consequences and ask]

The lack of difficulty modifiers doesn't make this impossible, but mechanics that encourage deferring the consequences until after the dice have rolled discourage it.

3. Players make mechanical inferences

Somewhere nearby, maybe, are mechanical inferences that come from quantified difficulty modifiers. Like when a Burning Wheel GM tells you it's an Ob 4 climb. They haven't told you what happens if you fall (or even if falling is a consequence), but you know from your skill rating that you're likely to miss by one, and missing by two or more on a vertical climb has got to be about as bad a consequence as possible, which has got to be a lethal fall, doesn't it?

(For those paying attention, this is me acknowledging that quantitative difficulty modifiers don't necessarily produce crisp tangibility on their own.)

In Summary

I've got more to say about this, in particular about how this plays out differently at different scales (moment to moment, the session, the campaign), but to summarize the effects of these resolution styles:

Instant action:

1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates a vivid environment
2. The players respond by embracing danger
3. Poignancy emerges from the moment, an awesome adventure is a co-creation
4. The design challenge is for resolution to help the GM introduce exciting outcomes in response to what the players do

Tangible Obstacles:

1. The GM (and/or the rules) creates an environment with hard edges
2. Players respond by balancing risk/reward, and by inventing solutions
3. Poignancy emerges over the long term
4. The design challenge is to help players understand the reality of the situation efficiently, so they can get on with responding to it in the knowledge that their planning effort is worth it