Role for a roll

This is Part TWO…Go HERE for Part One!!!

Since this is part two, I am not going to rehash the basics of Roll vs Role playing.  In the first part we discussed the more social aspects, those that would seem to be more applicable to ROLE playing, so in this I am going to go over the more mechanic aspects, or those things that might be more easily resolved via ROLL playing.

Lets open the discussion with the old dungeon delvers worst fear…(No not dragons…or undead who drain life force, or creatures that ruin your armor, or…OK, maybe not worst fear), Traps!  As a ref, you can put many different kinds of traps in your dungeons, or on your alien star ship, or on your treasure cubes…whatever.  They generally fall into two broad types.  The simple stated trap, or the detailed multistage, self resetting type.  But, they both have problems:  The simple trap: when the players cross this point they will need to roll initiative against a poison dart type.  OK, you player with sharp eyes rolls well enough to notice the trigger plate/trip wire/eye beam whatever.  Yes, they can all avoid it, now that the trigger is pointed out.  But they want to disable it, so it will not bother them when they leave.  OK…what is the trigger.  Well, now you need to come up with one…you decide it’s a trigger plate.  OK…can we slide a shim under it, or short-circuit it?  um…well…there is no skill for putting shim under trigger plate…So, have them roll a Disarm Traps!  YEA!  “You coulda just rolled for it in the first place,” you grumble…

What about the trap you spend time detailing each of the actions and triggers to make even Rube Goldberg proud.  When they trip the trip wire, it frees up the trigger plate, so that when it is stepped on, the bucket of sand in the wall tips over, which works the bellows, which blows out the solid wax seal which blows down the calliope tube sending forth a hail of poison darts…”Oh, a trap!  I will roll my disable complex device skill!”  um…ok…you disable the trip wire…roll a notice trap…as you can see, they can, if they see each step, bypass your well thought out plan with a roll…that is not what you want…You wanted them to track the trip wire to the trigger plate, the trigger plate to the sand…and so on, then let them create a way to completely disable the trap, with a discussion AND a character appropriate eye…maybe the local rogue just wants to locate each of the holes and pull out the darts…or remove the wax plug…or…or…but, if you can’t design a trap worth beans, and your characters have no trap disarming skills, do they still fall in the yawning 20′ deep pit with spike and hunger rats at the bottom?

Here you see the Roll vs Role in a mechanical setting.  And it can be just as game breaking as the social issues.  This same issue can be encountered dealing with anything from horse riding to piloting a spaceship.  If you, as a ref or scenario designer, have a great idea to provide a challenge it may or may not be resolvable in either manner.  Say you need the players to slingshot around a black hole.  We will not worry about what other tools or tricks you may have used to get them there…we are just worried about that piece.  As far as your concerned, it will be a matter of building enough success on a piloting roll before too many failures are accumulated and they are spagetified…But, the player of the pilot of the ship is an astrophysicist in real life, which is why he chose a pilot…he knows his stuff.  He wants to actually calculate the trajectory for a single near pass, gaining whatever speed he needs, thus making it at worst, a one roll on mathematics…Do you let him?  In this case, I’d say yes.  The player is playing to a strength of the character (not the player) and is willing to risk the decision in an all or nothing single roll.  This meets the tension needed for the encounter, as well as forces the characters to come up with solutions that either you hadn’t thought of, or make more sense, because you are not a Sufi mystic!

Usually, as far as these kinds of challenges go, you can work either way, if the risk is maintained, but like I said in part 1, 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.  That is a good rule of thumb.  But there are caveats and rules for it as well.  The reason I recommend using a dice roll and players skill in mechanical interactions is because then, YOU don’t have to out-think another PLAYER.  If you can or not should have no bearing on the characters chances with a situation that you as ref, had no direct part in.  Even though you said there is a trap here, or a wall to climb here, or a slippery slope here, you did not build the trap, the wall, or the slope.  Natural or man-made, you can provide hints to a player:  This wall is shear and quite smooth…the room is littered with bones, and the floor has hundreds of small holes…the slope is covered in scree with a rare plant root sticking though, and that looks like a bit of a sword…These clues do not require the PLAYER to modify their characters actions, but indicates what sort of DIFFICULTY they will be facing.  All of that being said, it does kind of limit some of your options…so the Ol’ RefMentor will offer some advice to include these hindrances and still make them a challenge.  Please note, that unfortunately, a lot of these suggestions will definitely limit the use of a Disable Traps skill.  Because of that, lets start with a brief discussion of that skill and its many variations

This skill is quite common, and that is because Ref’s love traps.  Whether the skill is called Disable Device, or disarm trap, or gimmickry, or defaults to lock pick or stealth, they all allow a character to pull out his trusty screwdriver and wedge, and stop a trap from working.  I do not usually allow this skill for use on anything but the likes of box or door traps.  A small metallic box with a poison pin that pops out if the key is not used, or a door that sounds an alarm when opened type traps.  First, the character must find the trap or at least know it ts there.  Then, I will allow them to use the skill to depress the tumbler at the back that stops the pin, or slide a bit of chewing gum wrapper into the alarm sensor.  Usually allowing a failure to not disarm/bypass it requiring an improvement of skill or another roll with a penalty or whatever the system you using requires…but on a fumble, or critical fail…the trap is set off.  This keeps this skill and it has its importance.  But for large traps, then skills such as construction, or engineering or programming are used.  But…lets look at another option!

As I mentioned in the last post, Riddles don’t work.  Traps don’t really work either.  You should come up with a way to make traps that are self resolving.  What does this mean?  Well…let me give you an example, that I have actually used.  The players come into a temple in a dungeon.  But nothing tells them it is a temple.  the floor is littered with bones, there are hundreds of holes in the floor, a door at either end, one of which they came in, and two obvious recesses on the other walls.  In the center of the floor is something that looks like a ship dog wheel, but there is no outer ring…just the inner spokes.  What is it?  With the right information before they came, they might have know that a particular command word lighted the temple.  The players didn’t have that.  If they had, and they used the command word, the two doors would have sealed, and the recesses would have opened, revealing the altars and treasures within.  Since they didn’t have that, they could have just left.  They decide to inspect the recesses and see that it appears they may open…well, there is that wheel in the middle…when they turn it, the doors slam shut and uncomfortable hot water begins filling in through the floors.  once the water is about waist-high, the bones form skeletons that attack!  the skeletons are hardly hindered at all by the water resistance.  Not the case or the players…what about the dwarf and the halfling?  The water raises to about 5 feet deep and stops.  It remains until the last skeleton is defeated, breaking the magic, dropping the wheel in the middle, but now opening all doors to ensure there is no water in the room of the holys.  A fairly dangerous trap, but completely avoidable.  But, surviving the trap is a second way to get to the altars.  What happens if they pull the wheel again?  Care to guess?

What about, like CRPGs, you use the “Find the blue key to open the Blue Door” puzzle.  It can make for effective traps, because you can have them being chased, and if they get to the blue door without it, then they are trapped and must face this overpowering enemy.  Chases are great for this, and yes, the chaser can be a giant stone ball rolling down the corridor!  If the characters bypass a pool of acid (James Bond, or old school dungeon, it doesn’t matter) by walking along the narrow ledges at the side, but later are running from a giant stone ball…how do they negotiate the acid pit?  do they try to jump it, or leave the corridor by jumping through he door leading to a dark unexplored pit?  A trap should have a way for the builders to bypass it, unless they sealed themselves beyond it forever.  What about a room next to a corridor, that they can see into, and it has several levers connected to chains going into the ceiling, but the window is only wide enough to look out of…and is that a dead Gungar setting in the chair next to that lever…with a copy of PlayOrc?

Mechanical…bypass obviously or simply…a lever lifts the portcullis…now how to get to it on the other side of the gate?  the floor shifts as you walk on it, but the center point of the pivot can be found, and leapt past…Big traps are for encountering…Little traps are for skill checks!

Any questions?

She wouldn’t say THAT

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 ofRole vs Rollplaying.  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 pointsYou 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!