OK…This is Part one!
Tried to do it in one post, but it was just too long!
One of the eternal problems that confront Ref’s, no matter how detailed or generic the rules is the case of “Role vs Roll” playing. This is the inevitable conflict of using the rules and role playing to resolve an issue or simply allowing the roll of a die to determine the outcome. This seems like an easy answer…just what works for you. Now this is my usual answer, but this is a much more nuanced issue. Sometimes it is a very clear-cut answer: I swing my sword. In a roll based outcome, your roll your dice, compare the numbers to whatever system you are using, and decide if the swing was a hit, a kill, a wound, a miss, a critical…whatever. Trying to do this in a role play choice…well…You would have to describe, or act out your attack. And the opponent, whether ref or another player would then have to describe their action, and using some esoteric comparison you would determine the outcome. I’m not even sure how that would work…The other side of this definitely not as clear-cut. And, the options available make it so much worse. This is fairly easy in CRPGs (Computer RPGs) because a player is presented with a limited set of options which have been balanced and then compared against the outcome matrix, perhaps modified by skills or items, or what ever. In this post, I want to offer some issues that fall into this discussion, some obvious, some not so, and offer a few ideas as to how to get past them. In this first part of the post, we will look at the SOCIAL aspects of this, and in the second part, we will look at the MECHANICAL aspects…and I am not talking about your gaming contract and which rule set you use!
If the social aspect is not the gaming contract, as discussed in many other posts, what is it? Consider the following classic Fantasy Story trope; the riddle….whether in the dark, or at the foot of a sphinx, or on the wall of a crystal dungeon, the players and their characters are presented with a riddle. For this discussion, lets use the classic “Walks on 4 in the morning, 2 in mid-day and 3 in the evening” Of course, almost any PLAYER knows the answer is a man. But, do their CHARACTERS know this? As a ref, you decide that to get into the treasure room, they have to answer a riddle. So…do you give them that one? Well, the players will all know that one, so the challenge is pretty low…If the treasure is a picture of aunt Minnie, then that’s fine. So, you need something tougher. You scour all your books, and the depths of the internet and find the best riddle ever…the one the makes 32 white horses look like mud-pies! So, they fight through the dungeon, you present them with the riddle…and the players all look at each other. Then, the player of the village idiot who was given a magic axe answers the question…so…your High magic programmer and your astrogation star sun navigator who understands n-dimensional physics…they were just shown up by the guy who is just about smart enough not to drown in his morning beer. “Refmentor,” I here you whine, “that completely destroys the game…the suspension of disbelief has just been shattered! How can we fix this?” Well, how bout just tell them you have a riddle for their characters. When they ask what it is, you tell them it doesn’t matter. Everyone roll for their “Solve Riddles” skill…or their mental cleverness, stat, or their intelligence…then the smart characters have a much better chance of answering it. So, what if nobody rolls well enough…You can tell them to gain a level, or rest a day, or consult sages and then come back and roll again! Viola! “Refmentor, That is no better! Are we stuck with these options?”
Shall we try another aspect of the social kind? What about this; Persuasion, seduction, intimidation…character interaction. You have one player, a mousey kid who is playing the high inquisitor and he need to find the truth behind who arranged to have the princess killed. OK…two options: Player rolls his intimidation/interrogation skill against the resistance of the prisoner, who was actually the person who arranged it. If he rolls well enough, the whole plot of your games comes to an end, as he has the traitor executed. Other side, player tries to role play: “Um…you need to tell me…or…um, I’ll do stuff. That is , um, really mean. And Painful. yeah” As ref, being the hardened murdering scum assassin arranger, you say, do your worst…the player then comes up with the most devilish tortures he can devise, which usually involve taking away his cushion, so he’ll have to set on a hard chair. Now, game over, the prisoner goes free, (because it is a particularly lawful grand inquisitor), the princess is killed and the kingdoms fall to war.
If you haven’t had some variation of this happen, you have not ref’d very long. There are other variations on this that I have touched on, primarily when talking about first person vs narrative…the jock, with no real solid understanding of the metaphysics of the Law of Similarity playing a Hexen witch, or the neurosurgeon who is playing the world-weary dock hand…How do they reliable relate info that their character understands? The Hexen will not be able to talk, at least not 1st person, about how magic works with another mage, and perhaps you as a ref will not either. And the life style and idiom that the dock worker uses in the fantasy star port are just as foreign to the Neurosurgeon. OK….lets look at some options that you as ref to help maintain the suspension of disbelief and keeps the game balance. I will warn you that these options are not as easy as the earlier presented options…but they are not that tough either. Lets discuss some ideas, as well as gaming philosophy to help you out.
Before going very deep into this part of the discussion, let me say that how you solve it, may be based a lot on your game system. In a rules light system (FUDGE, for instance) the system will have to be quite role play. In a much more rules heavy system (Chivalry & Sorcery, anyone?)the choice will likely be much more roll based, or you end up dropping rule sections that likely contributed to game balance. Of course this is not absolute, and a whole set of blogs could compare and contrast rule settings, vs realism, vs playability…etc…Let me start with this simple rule of thumb: For mechanical interactions, rely on dice and character, no player, skill. For interpersonal interactions, rely on the dice, but modify the difficulty or the result (depending on your game system) by the players input. And, since we will talk about mechanic actions in the next blog, you might see that rule again. In this post, we are just going to discuss the social interactions. Remember that YOU, as ref, control perceptions…so even though your Shakespeare trained thespian player can talk a storm, remember to limit the amount of modification that the swamp gutter rat street urchin character can benefit from…It’s called a “Ref Call” mod, and you can use them when ever you feel they are appropriate, just remember these points! You can stop reading now if you want…but the next parts give a little more philosophy…
So lets talk riddles and puzzles. The first thing you need to think about is what you want to accomplish. If you are using a riddle because it makes sense to have one, and riddles are cool…well, you’ve kinda missed the target. What about puzzles? Same. Once you have decided why you are using this encounter, you can figure out how to deal with it. In fact, a riddle is a one piece puzzle! If you want them to work out the puzzles to provide an additional challenge, then work out the physical parts. Riddles are great in print, but don’t work so well in-game. Make puzzles…but instead of thinking tetris/hidden item types, think of them more like the computer games…a door can only be opened by a specific key (physical, magical, or a word), but this key has to be found…stumbling along in a dark tomb, they find a stone glyph, bulky, but not overly heavy…what might it be used for….Oh wait…isn’t that the same set of symbols that we saw on that wall a couple hundred yards back? The classic dwarven stone door that is labeled “Speak Friend and Enter” is great on paper. But all players know it, so can go through their languages saying friend until it opens. What if the door is more literal or punctuated differently? What if they must say the word SPEAK for it to open…all great, but the idea is done to death. In a computer game, the players would be offered some options, and probably penalties for a wrong guess. So, what if there was a magical bolt from the door every time the word Friend was spoken, but not in the correct language? and what if, earlier in the game, you had given them a scroll that had the actual key: :The door states in magic mouth spell, “Speak my friend, and enter” And the name of the builders best friend was the king of the Grey Mountain Dwarves, Braner Stonearm. So, if the players state they are going to look for “my friend” then you can give them a language or smarts or perception, or whatever check to find the clue. When they speak that name in Grey Mountain dwarf, the door opens.
You can think of the answers to puzzles like clues in a mystery…the characters collect great quantities of information, but most of it is meaningless until they know what it is they are looking for. What does the hairpin at the murder scene mean? It might become important when you discover that one of your suspects has a hard time keeping pins in her hair, as she is constantly running her hands through it…
There is one other big part of social interaction: let’s talk persuasion situations. Most games have a mechanic for that, even if it’s just a charisma based roll. 1st rule…try to avoid situations where you have to use it against player characters. However, do not be afraid to enforce it when needed. You will force a fear roll on a character even when the player insists they expected it, and are not afraid, right? Sometimes you need to tell a player they are smitten with this person, whom they just met in the bowels of a tomb, it is perhaps their best friend ever. Of course the one player who made his roll sees an emaciated dried husk of a creature with Huge, Sharp…teeth….what will his new best friend say when the old friend starts stabbing their newest best friend in the face?! (Well, it may have looked like he stabbed your new buddy in the throat, but since there is no blood, and he is still asking you to protect him from your former friend, he must have just got lucky, and the sword just caught his collar…that is cloth hanging on the edge of his sword right?) Many times, your Bestest players or even you exploratory characters will be reluctant to play this out, but your profilers and story tellers will likely embrace it. This has a simple mechanic: You loose the haggle…here is the price you are offered. The character can still walk away empty-handed, but his demoralization will likely hinder any further haggling he attempts. Of course, you could also say that he is steeled and angry so gets a bonus next time…if there is anybody willing to buy…But this works both ways…An NPC can simply say…I can’t let it go at that price…Anyway…Back to the discussion.
When a player is interrogating, torturing, seducing, proselytizing or whatever, or is having it done to them (again, try to avoid that very often), find out two things from the player. How they are approaching the interaction and what they expect from it. If they are seducing the gang boss, are they just working off the cuff? do they know that he is homosexual with masochistic tendencies and do they use that in their action? Did they guess it? What if they guess he is heterosexual and a sadist, and try to use that against him? Look at how the player presents it. Remember it can be a very narrative interaction: “I try to appeal to his base homosexual tendencies to get him to take me off alone with him.” or it can be very first person: “I walk up to him, and put my hand on his arm, lean in as close as I can and whisper, I want you, big man…can we get away for a few minutes from your cronies while we enjoy ourselves?” Either way, as a ref, if you know that the player has ROLE played to or against a trait, benefit them, or penalize them when they make their ROLL! When they are torturing the prisoner, you should not really be trying to decide how effective various torture methods are and if cutting a persons eyelids off is more effective that burning their toes or having rats chew through the soft tissues…You should be finding out how EXTREME the torture is…are they making him uncomfortable and causing him pain, or are they putting his life at risk? In general, torture is fairly effective for getting answers, but unless the torturer is skilled, then they will be unlikely to determine whether the answer is true, or just something to get them to stop. If your game has a torture mechanic, keep these in mind. If not, this becomes a persuasion type exchange. If the player succeeds in persuasion then the degree of success is how likely the information is useful. If the player’s character is being tortured, find out how hard they are going to resist. Are they willing to die to protect the information? Are they unwilling to protect it very well, but will try to lie? Keep these in mind when ROLLing the outcome.
This should give you a good understanding of the social aspects of the ROLE vs ROLL playing system and hopefully you can find ways to incorporate it. Next, the mechanical side, which works a bit differently!