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?

Pick Your Poison

or, What is the best system to use

In the last post, I offered the two simple rules of reff’ing.   So, now you need to consider what rule system you want to use.  First of all, that’s easy!  What rule systems do you have available to you?  Then those are where you start.  “But Master,” I hear you whine, “I only have first edition AD&D, but I want to play a game like Star Wars, but with dinosaurs!”

Well, that’s OK, say I…and that is why we come to this post.  Game designers spend a lot of time trying to build a game system with an internally consistent setting.  Often, they work very hard on Game Balance issues as well.  But that does not mean you must play their rules in their setting!  True, AD&D is best suited to a high fantasy almost Tolkienian setting and appropriate stories.  The same way the Traveller rules are best suited to a high-tech, far future SF setting with starships.  But let me pass on another ref rule:

Any story can be told with any rule set!

The thing that you will need to keep in mind is that the farther away from the intended setting, usually, the more modification you will have to do.  If you are a beginning GM, I’d not recommend venturing too far away from the setting.  In fact, I’d encourage you to acquire either A) A game system with a setting much closer to what you want to run, or B) acquire one of the several generic systems, such as PEG’s Savage Worlds, Steve Jackson’s GURPS, or Chaosium’s Basic Role Playing.  However, if you can’t, or don’t wish to get a new system here are some things to think about.

Before attempting to modify a game system, you need a pretty good idea of both the normal, expected, game setting, and the setting you want to use.  With this in mind, you can see what does and doesn’t need modified.  In the hypothetical I posed above, we need to change the character races into dinosaurs, create a magic system like the force, create star ship and robot rules, even figure out what character classes are needed, which ones are not, and how we need to modify them to fit the new story line.  Is a Jedi a cleric, or magic user?  Could they be a Ranger or Paladin?  If we made them a Ranger, then they would be more fighter types, with access to some of the new FORCE, instead of MAGIC.  If we decide to create a new class all together, then we need to start considering the game balance built into the character classes.  What if we use a dwarf template to create our new scaled Bear-a-saurus…who use specially designed Laser slings…“But Master, a Dwarf is short and disdains the use of slings!”   Again I hear you thought, but this leads us to the next consideration:

Why change the rules if you can just put a new paint job on it?  In other words, Our Bear-a-saurus is stout, a little slow, but very strong.  Hey…that fits the dwarf, or maybe a Half-orc.  Well, so rename them, re-describe them, but don’t make any changes except maybe take away their infravision, and give them Hunters sight…What’s the difference, and what can you see with Hunters sight?  Well, it detects movement in low light…not much use in an underground dungeon, but in a forest, or town…LOTS of things move…The less you need to change then the better to preserve the balance built-in by the regular designers.

One more thing to consider: Special Effects!  This is something that struck me like a lightning bolt when I first read it in Masterbook: What is a laser blast?  Well it’s a beam or missile of light.  Oh, so kinda like a magic missile, but it can miss, and come in a wand, uh gun, that has charges, um…ammo in it?  How much damage does it do?  Well…a magic missile already has a damage listed.  Not enough?  Well, is it more like a lightning bolt?  Something that causes damage: a fireball or grenade or catapult or dagger or pocket pistol…does damage!  That’s it.  What does it look like?  Well, they all look different.  What about something that heals damage?  A healing spell, or health potion or first aid kid or spray skin…well, they all heal damage!

Well…this is just a taster of all of the possible considerations.  And it may be better suited for quite experienced refs, but I want people to consider the possibilities…Could you use the Shadow Run rules to tell a Deadlands game…yup   without too much change.  Could you use the Chivalry & Sorcery Rules to tell the story of a post zombie apocalypse? Sure!  Using them for their own genre is easier, and converting a generic system is the next easiest thing…but with patience and a will, it could be done