Saturday, January 28, 2012

Choice and Chance

In the process of trying to assemble a set of game rules for my home game, I’ve drawn extensively from published materials and the efforts of fellow members of my gaming groups. In doing so, a couple of elements have emerged as being significant enough that I’ve chosen to adopt them as tent poles for my efforts. It’s pretty clear that whether it’s choosing to enter a cave or travel further along the trail, favor weapon skills or master magic, playing an RPG is about choice. Making choices gives the players a sense of ownership and involvement. Too many choices and the game becomes bewildering, too few and it becomes boring. As game master, it’s my responsibility to give my players enough choices to make the game fun.

Players also need to have a fair chance at succeeding when they undertake actions in the game (or some kind of baseline reference to judge when they’re attempting something with a minute chance of success.) Playing a game is about making choices and taking risks. Consequences of risk, whether positive or negative, should result. What is a “fair” chance is, in my opinion, somewhat up to the player. Player choices should be able to influence the chance of success (in some cases significantly) but never truly guarantee it if the action attempted has some significance to the ongoing story. In my experiences with 4e D&D, too often the chance of failure was vanishingly small. Players came to expect success, and would often forego actions that did not have near-guaranteed successes as a clear result. In doing so, they removed some of the choices available in the game, and thus lessened the fun.

Choice of Skills
Classes, in most RPGs, are templates of skill choices. Combat-oriented players choose fighter classes, magic-oriented players choose caster classes, and stealth-oriented players choose rogue classes. It’s a time-tested model, and one that works for the majority of RPG players. So, why tinker with success? What I’ve chosen to do is divide a set of skills into three categories: Combat, Lore, and Agility. Given a budget of points to allocate, players choose skills from the various categories. The basic consequence of the choices are that there will be some skills at which the player is more proficient, and others where they must rely more on chance to accomplish tasks in the game. In addition to that I’ve tied the overall investment in categories to the character’s defenses. For example, a character with a heavy investment in Lore-related skills would have a greater Will defense. An Agility-oriented character would have a better Reflex defense. And investing in the Combat skills of Block and Heavy Armor (or, the Agility skill of Light Armor) impacts the Armor Class defense. Choice of skills has consequences. The connections also encourage players to invest in a variety of skill categories instead of maximizing only one. The consequences of maximizing are that neglected defenses mean character vulnerabilities. Of course the player is free to choose to accept the risk of such vulnerabilities…

Chance of Success
There are many factors influencing the chance of success in an RPG. 4e D&D used a level-based system of difficulties that, for the most part, scaled with the characters as they advanced. I’ve chosen to leave difficulties static, but use a slightly wider range of difficulty to define situations for my players. As they play the game, they’ll get a better feel for relative difficulties. I’m also using most standard 4e modifiers, so that players who choose to examine the scene, or describe actions intended to improve their character’s chances will benefit from this form of smart play. By using a set scale of difficulties and a cap on skill advancement, the game should have manageable math, and relative balance from low to high levels of experience.

So, what is a reasonable chance for success? An easy task in 4e D&D is defined as a “reasonable challenge for an untrained character” and the difficulty is set at 8 on a d20. This gives a character a 65% chance to succeed. Since we’re playing a story-game about heroic characters, it seems as if this is a good baseline. At the other end of the spectrum we have an epic task, something that should be undertaken only by a highly-trained character. In 4e D&D a hard task is defined as one at which an expert PC might expect to succeed at “two out of three” times. So, the 65% success rate seems like a good top-end limit. Given the roll of 8 or better on a d20 reflects this, the number we need to generate for an epic-level task difficulty should be x + 8, where x is equal to the maximum amount of training the player could achieve with any given skill. If there are 20 training-increments per skill, then the target difficulty for an epic-level task would be 28. Of course, by the time a character has achieved maximum proficiency in a skill they’ve probably acquired a number of items and/or advantages that would give them a better chance at achieving such a roll. Quantifying these elements and taking them into account will increase the target difficulty. I’m not going to go into specifics here, but I’m working on that part of the equation as part of my rules development.

In addition to reasonable chances for success, I’m considering the chance of failure and the consequences. Should a highly-trained expert fail? How often? In d20-based games the tradition of criticals and fumbles has arisen to take dramatic die rolls into account. The excitement of rolling a natural 20 and the disappointment of rolling a natural 1 has become part of the game for many players. What are the game-mechanical implications of these rolls? In most d20 play groups a roll of 1 is an automatic failure. I’d be inclined to continue that tradition for the excitement it adds to the act of rolling the die. A 20 or a 1 on a d20 reflect the heroic aspect of the game, and can lend additional significance to moments in the game.

Simple, Yet Nuanced
It is a simple thing to have a list of skills and to have players choose the ones they care to develop. And it should be relatively simple to outline easy, moderate, and hard tasks within each of the skills. Investing in skills will unlock additional capabilities within those skills, thus adding functionality to the character as it develops. As skills develop, the character may undertake increasingly difficult skill challenges with reasonable expectations of success. As players play they’ll develop an understanding of the factors that influence the difficulty of a skill challenge, and make play decisions that maximize their chances.

I’d be interested in your opinions on class-free roleplaying. Would such a system interest you, or would you prefer to have template classes to kickstart your character creation? And how do you feel about skills, and rolling dice to test those skills?


  1. So how many skills do you have in your games?

  2. I prefer class-free games. Everything already seems to fall into the general categories of wizard, fighter, and thief, or variations thereof. I like maximum freedom to make my character as individual as possible. And I have no problem with skill checks. I prefer them to combat as long as I feel comfortable enough to try the ones I want without having to form a committee first. They can be fun, depending on who you’re playing with of course. It all comes down to the players.

    I wasn’t aware that the majority of games today are still class-based, but that’s probably because I’ve been researched points-based systems for my own purposes. I only know D&D, Pathfinder and Star Wars as class-based (the latter two being of Wizards origins).

  3. @wrathofzombie: My current iteration, which is skill-centric, class-free, and includes a lot of the weapon and combat capabilities as "skills" has over 60. It's based on Randy's Lords of Chaos rules. I love the flexibility, and it plays well for his groups. But, my groups are more casual, so I'm whittling the list down to around 29.

    @ana: Classes or skill-group templates seem to be pretty common. Maintaining game balance while giving players free rein in their character-design choices is a challenge. You're bound to have at least one player who spots a way to abuse the system and exploits it ruthlessly. This can pretty quickly make the game less enjoyable for others at the table (in my experience.) When there's no risk or potential for negative consequences, immersion takes a hit.

  4. @Keith: How do points-based systems allow players to exploit more than class-based systems? Admittedly, I have not encountered that much yet because most of the players I interact with are actually bigger role-players than anything else and we in WoD are actually tied to a membership class rather than a character class. But I've read complaints about abuse occuring in both systems. In fact, the only person that ever made me raise my eyebrows was at a class-based game. And it takes a lot for me to notice these things.

    Can you give an example of how that would work? Isn't that more a function of the player rather than the system?

  5. Correction....I should say Camarilla Club members rather than WoD members. My mistake!

  6. I think a lot of it comes down to preference. D&D has classes. If it didn't, it wouldn't be D&D. People that don't like classes but still like fantasy can always play Gurps or Savage Worlds or a host of other systems out there.

    My Hero game has a bit of a min/maxer, but he's a nice guy. His character can: fly, read minds, telekinetic-ally pick up things and throw up a force field. Our GM nerfs him by having his stamina drain when he uses his powers. If he uses them to much, he's out of luck doing much of anything for a round or 3.

    The key in our Hero group is that our GM approves everything (because there is little you CAN'T do with Hero if you have the points). And I will add that Hero is the WORST and most complicated gaming system in the world. It is a train wreck of complications. I have fun. But I don't pretend to understand much of it...


  7. @ana: I think most all systems are open to abuse. The more elaborate the system (e.g., Savage Worlds = avg, 4e D&D = elaborate, HERO = ridiculously elaborate), the more likely it seems that abuse will occur. In general, I think the types of gamers that are drawn to elaborate systems are more interested in playing the system than in playing the game, if that makes sense. Different strokes for different folks.

    I'm trying to develop a rather simple system that includes a mechanic to deter over-optimization. That is, if you over-emphasize one aspect of your offensive capabilities, your off-focus defensive capabilities will leave you vulnerable. I don't want to punish players for making focused characters, just curb abuse.

    @Patrick: I'm just getting started in a HERO game. I learned enough to create a character outline and then handed it over to the GM to finish. The system isn't my cup of tea but I like Dave's campaigns, so I'll play along as best I can.

  8. I'll be curious to hear about your Heroes experience if you don't mind. I haven't heard a single good thing about the system so far, even from people whom I thought were experts on it. I tried to create a character to join Patrick's game, but realized that a) I'm not into superheroes and b) the system was not worth the effort considering I'm still learning rules for about 6 to 8 different games. In other words, it didn't click. It's unfortunate because it's the only close tabletop opportunity I've had for a while, but I'd be interested in hearing if your GM can work with it successfully. It would be nice to hear a success story about Heroes and how he managed it!

    (This is what happens when comments now come straight to my email! :o)