Because I am a living cliche, I’m writing this from a Starbucks. No wifi but I’ll do a little dance to get this onto my phone and then onto the blog. It’s cumbersome, but I can live with it. I’m lucky to have a Starbucks close enough to my mechanic’s that I have a place to wait until my car is ready. Anyway that’s neither here nor there.

I was thinking about Avatar: The Last Airbender the other day, and how it plays into my unified theory of skill levels. See, as much as we in RPGs like to have very finely graded levels of distinction between levels of ability, fiction tends to work in a slightly different way. Look at almost any movie or TV show and you’ll see that competence (usually expressed in terms of kung fu or other fighting skills) breaks down into broad tiers. (I’ve touched on this thought before, but it’s one I keep coming back to, for good reason.)

At the top is the Supreme Badass. Not every story has one of these, and if it does, they are more likely to be a plot device than anything else. This is reserved for Old Masters and Immortal Generals and the like – they simply are so good that they can’t lose a fair fight (that’s an important distinction BTW). If this character is a protagonist, then the story is NOT about them fighting, though it may appear to be.

Next down is the Badass. Practically speaking, he can win every fight he’s in (within the reasonable bounds of genre) and fighting is his thing. Even if everyone else can fight, this guy stands out as THE warrior. It is rare that there be more than two of these in any story (one pro and one anti).

Next down are the Ass Kickers. These folks are not quite up to the badasses level but they can see it from here. There aren’t a lot of these, but there are enough that they’re recognizable. In term sof iconography, they are usually recognizable by their distinctive look. Even if they are members of a group, their uniform will usually be distinctive in some way.

Below that are the Warriors[1]. They’re trained , and they’re better than the average mook, but they’re not scary. In fiction, these guys generally represent special forces, and are often found in groups in similar (but distinctive) uniforms, such as musketeers, royal guards, templars and so on.

Below them are the Soldiers. These are rank and file fighting guys of entirely adequate skill. They tend to be faceless combatants[2].

Below them are Civilians, who might make a good mob or even be dangerous under a skilled leader, but aren’t too dangerous.

Least of all are the Incompetents, those who are actively BAD in a fight. Cowards and comic relief tend to fall into this category.

Now, what’s interesting is that this tiering resolves a lot of conflicts by itself: for the most part the guy in the next tier up is going to win the fight handily. Circumstances (injury, inspiration and so on) might temporarily shift tiers, but only so much. If someone is a tier above you, then you might be able to fight them fairly on the best day of your life, but you couldn’t guarantee a victory unless it was, perhaps, also the worst day of their life.

RPG-heads can probably see the mechanic there. It may be possible to increase your tier by one step, but that would be the limit. However, it can almost certainly be decreased by multiple steps by appropriate circumstances (like injury).

Given that framework, the interesting fights are the ones that take place within a tier (and sometimes between characters within a tier of each other). Why is that important? Well, consider this: historically, RPGs are built around the idea of a fair fight (as established by D&D). Numerous rules (sweeping, mooks and so on) have been introduced over the years to try to make these fights work more like they do in fiction, but a disconnect has remained: most fights in fiction are pretty fast, with a handful of exceptions when dramatically appropriate. A model like this gives good guidelines for which fights can be simply breezed past, and which should be zoomed in on.[3]

More broadly this model can be applied to answer one of th emost important questions of running a game: when shouldn’t you roll? In most other situations, like the use of skills we have some familiarity with, we can usually eyeball the situation and determine that we don’t need to go to dice. Combat and other circumstances we cannot identify with so easily tend to default to the dice, and that’s not always the right choice. A simple rubric like this can really help address this.

This will absolutely not work for every game. 4E, for example, should ALWAYS go to the dice for a fight because that’s why you’re playing 4E in the first place: the fights are awesome. 4E also assumes everyone is roughly equal in terms of badassness, just with different roles. A game like this assumes discrepancies between characters.

Those discrepancies also point to the other things a system like this requires. If it’s all on a single axis, this model kind of sucks. It requires multiple axes and different ways for characters to excel. This can be a simple as the Amber DRPG’s four stats or as nuanced as any skill system you can think of.[4]

What’s frustrating is that many games fit this model descriptively, but mechanically fall short. While there aren’t a lot of steps to this ladder, they are very far apart in terms of effect – much further apart than a small number of dice might suggest. [5]

Oy, ok, car’s almost ready. This is obviously, only one edge of a larger thought, but I wanted to lay it out there so I have some context for future noodling

1 – Sometimes there is an “Elite Warriors” tier over this one if the fiction is especially fighty, or if you have multiple elite groups that need distinction, like musketeers vs. cardinal’s guards.

2- Occasionally fiction respects the power of numbers to overcome a skill difference, but in more action-oriented genres, raw numbers rarely matter. Mechanically that means one of two things: in a “realistic” genre, superior numbers result in a tier bump. In more cinematic genres, the group produces a leader (or similar figure, like “The Big Guy”) who fights at the next tier up. The net result is the same, but the difference in color is important.

3 – Another genre decision is whether you only do fights at the same tier, or if you do fights in adjacent tiers as well. There’s a philosophical question to this as well as a mechanical one – what does fighting an underdog look like? For heroes fighting an underdog is usually a sure thing but may cost time or resources, but it might feel pointless. But when heroes _are_ the underdog, they totally want a shot at the guy. How you want to handle that suggests a lot about your game.

4 – In fact, this system is a great litmus test for any skill system. If you can’t imagine these kinds of tiers within a skill, reconsider whether that skill should be on the list or if perhaps it should be rolled into another skill where you can imagine it.

5 – Fudge actually handles this decently well, but Fate less so. Aspects wreak holy havoc with this model, at least as presented in SOTC. But that’s not the only way to handle aspects.

13 thoughts on “Tiers

  1. Cam_Banks

    I’ve had similar thoughts before, especially when it comes to “I need to change the circumstances so we’re fighting on the same level.” I think there’s excitement in the dice rolling activity at that level, where victory could go to either side (so, it’s kind of 50/50), there’s potential loss if there’s a one tier difference (25/75) and no chance at all beyond that.

    I have these dice with Green, Yellow, and Red on them (they’re from a little game called Toss Up, very cheap at Wal-Mart). Each die has 3 G, 2 Y, and 1 R. It seems to me that you could resolve this thing using those.

    Say we’re on an even level, thanks to various narrative and story-based back and forth to engender this level (“So you see that even though you are Bad-Ass and I am merely an Ass-Kicker, we are here in my temple!”). This is where I want to roll these dice and get yellow faces. I ignore green faces and red faces, but maybe those could tell me something else. More yellow equals more success for me. And maybe you do the same thing, and whoever gets the most yellow is the winner.

    If we’re uneven tiered (“So here we are on the road to my temple, Bad-Ass! Damn you!”) one side is rolling for reds and one for greens. Seems pretty likely that the greens are going to dominate, but you never know.

    If we’re totally uneven (“I don’t know why I chose to face you on YOUR holy ground, Bad-Ass! I must be an idiot!”) we don’t roll at all. You just take me out.

    How many dice are rolled in order to gain G, Y, or R faces would be another element of the conflict. It would be best if this wasn’t too variable. My set of Toss Up includes 10 GYR dice, but I think I’m really living in the realm of Storyteller’s pools or ORE’s pools: capped at 10, probably at least 2 from one place (Attribute?) and 2 from another (Skill?) Problem with that, I think, is that Skill is really the tier. It would make more sense to base the number of dice on esoteric values, much as Smallville is going to: Truth, Love, etc.

    Chew, chew, chew.

  2. Alex Hunter

    The only flaw comes at the player level where (all too often) two players, not characters, often get into it regarding which of the two is “better.” Our Western Culture has enforced the concept that one must always be better than another even among equals.

    Among characters friendly rivalry is always cool. Among alpha male players, not so much. Which is why, I believe, we get so many super-granular systems where each point ends up not meaning much in the larger context but is crucial in PC is “better.”

  3. Christine

    I enjoyed this post and had to relate it to Buffy to wrap my head around the skill levels. So… Buffy would be the Badass, Willow (later seasons) would be the Ass Kicker, and the First Slayer would be the Supreme Badass, with all of the mini-slayers in the last episode becoming the warriors.

  4. Rob Donoghue

    @cam I have those dice too! And I agree that A) They demand to be used for a game and B) that’s an awesome implementation.

    @Alex That is one o the advantage of multiple axes, if you need people to be awesome in their particular sphere. That said, having two competitive PCs within the same tier is actually potentially quite fruitful, because, systematically, you’re recognizing and providing expression for that rivalry.

    @Christine Buffy provides some GREAT examples of this. Angel made and excellent Ass Kicker (upgrading to Badass in his own show), and it’s easy to map the “progression” of characters like Wesley or Xander over the course of the show.

    (And, in fact, Buffy is fighty enough that I’d probably use the “elite Warrior” tier to better show the difference between folks).

  5. Pete Darby

    I’d say the Heroquest system models this very well with the mastery system, if you’re familiar with it, so much so that it’s peculiarities (within a mastery, there’s plenty of room for fine graining, between them, it’s smackdown city) that I’ve seen it criticized for giving “unreasonable” results, most often compared with RQ III (where nearly every character was at soldier level at best, and warrior level characters were remarkable).

    Generally, this boiled down to “But we need four of us to take down someone a mastery above us, and twenty the mastery above that”

    Which is kind of the point.

  6. Jim

    Cam’s dice sound awesome.

    1. So, you have a dice pool (skill plus stat or whatever), and you’re going to roll.

    2. Classically in an RPG fight we care about initiative, attack and defense. We can generalize these to “haste, zeal and care” for noncombat actions. Or if you prefer to think of initiative as “setting the agenda,” then “haste” is more like, um, well, agenda-setting: You’re what others have to react to. (IAWA basically works like this.)

    3. Before you roll your dice, you call your priorities: “Attack-Initiative-Defense!” you cry. I call, “Defense-Attack-Initiative!”

    4. Now roll your dice. Every G is an Attack success. Every Y is an Initiative success. Every R is a Defense success.

    I roll my dice. Every G is a Defense success. Every Y is an Attack success. Every R is an Initiative success.

    5. Assuming we’re using an opposed-roll system and you and I are fighting, we now compare our Initiative successes, and then Attack vs. Defense in order of Initiative.

    How does this fit in with Rob’s tiers? Maybe not well enough! However, since every die rolled is always a success of SOME kind, the higher-rank character will have one more total success than the lower-ranked character every round, ceteris paribus.

    An alternative, simpler system with drastic tiering:

    1. You’re Rank 5 and I’m Rank 4. The combat system is “win the round,” a la Heroquest or OTE.

    2. You roll your 5 dice. Every G is bad for me; every Y is immaterial; every R is bad for you.

    3. I roll my 4 dice. Every R is bad for you. Every Y is immaterial Every Every G is bad for me.

    4. We add up the Gs to get the sucks-to-be-me factor, and the Rs for the sucks to be yous. This is the real hardass version. The colors are simple to track.

    In this version, BTW, if you have 5 and I only have 3 dice, making you +2, Ys also become bad for me. At +3, e.g. you have 5 and I have 2, my Rs are now just neutral results – only your own Rs can hurt you.

    If you want to be a little more sporting, if I’m -1 to you, then my Rs hurt you, my Ys hurt me, and my Gs are immaterial. OR, my Gs hurt you, my Ys hurt me, and my Rs are neutral. I kind of like this last one because it means that rolling against a higher-tier opponent is a high-stakes thing: He has twice the margin for error that you do.

    No doubt, though, that you guys can come up with as good and better ideas of your own.

  7. Rob Donoghue

    @pete Heroquest is one of the two systems in my mind as I think about this (the other being Amber, which is even more explicitly tiered). Even if not used literally as written, HQ’s masteries are a great, portable idea.

  8. Reverance Pavane

    RPGs are built around the idea of a fair fight

    If you are fighting fair, then really one side of the other isn’t doing their job right. As in reality, I find that if you aren’t cheating you aren’t trying hard enough.*

    You are right in that one area that RPGs are distinctly different from fiction is in fighting, but it is also the example where trying to import the narrative tools from one to the other is a severe mistake.

    If you tried to write a book with RPG style combat, them, no matter how much you make the audience identify with the protagonist, they will be bored in seconds. We expect the protagonist to survive (in most fiction anyway), so the battle becomes inconsequential to us. Just background noise trying to build to a real climax.

    RPGs have an immediacy that is lacking in fiction. There is the moment to moment risk that adds excitement and thrill to the game. [Dopamine triggers for success that are very similar to those found amongst gamblers.] Of not knowing whether your character (with whom I hope you identify with), will survive the conflict. A pale shadow of reality (without the smell, the fear, the shakes, and the moral realisation that you’ve just killed or about to have been killed).

    But when the fight is done, it becomes a narrative recap of “we fought the orcs” rather than “I leveraged his shield out of the way with mine whilst my battle axe took off his head; soaked in arterial blood I charged their leader looking like the very embodiment of vengeance.” [Unless one is boasting about it in the tavern afterwards.]

    [* One of the reasons I dislike 4th ed is their idea of play balance and fair fights. Which means you are really playing a boardgame. And one where you are almost assured of victory. One understands the reluctance for characters to suffer ignoble deaths when storytelling became the dominant paradigm in D&D, but in eliminating the risk it also eliminated the joy of having survived to that stage.]

    PS: As for ranking abilities, this was something I was working on myself in that regard. Seems to work well. One of these days I might even get time to write up more about it.

  9. John Morrow

    As you point out, regular Fudge actually produced fairly strong tiers, particularly when using the simultaneous combat option, such that a character is very unlikely to beat another character who is even one level higher in combat ability. I’ve seen this work very well in various Fudge games that I’ve played in.

    You’ll find what you are talking about in many movies and even traditional video games where the hero or heroes work their way through lesser opponents (sometimes hoards of them) until they reach a final encounter with what’s called a “boss” in video games, an opponent that is as powerful as the hero or even the entire group of heroes and where victory is uncertain. There are several benefit of this structure including that the scenario has come to an end at that point so there is little or no problem about how to continue the story or game if some or all of the heroes are killed or their opponent is not defeated.

  10. Marshall Smith

    My one serious issue with the tier concept, especially as it pertains to fighting, is that it exacerbates the “dead to rights” problem. A Bad-Ass PC might get surrounded by half a dozen Soldiers with guns. Logic, both in reality and fiction, says that even the Bad-Ass should put his hands up. But, game-logic tells the player, “Hey, I can take it. Based on average damage, I can survive 12-18 shots. I can take out at least one soldier per round. No problem.” PCs just don’t know when to surrender.

    Now, there are some obvious fixes. First, a brute squad is one tier above a brute. That’s a good rule of thumb, but only a partial solution to the issue at hand. But, the other option is similar. In the same way that you mentioned taking on someone in their own house gives them a tier bump, when you get the drop on someone else, you get a tier bump.

    Ultimately, though, there just needs to be some utility in which certain set-ups bypass the tier system (both auto-failure and auto-success), preferably by using other skills to create the set-up. I’m also of the opinion that the plucky young farmboy needs some way of killing the evil champion. This can be a matter of heart and tenacity carrying the day, or a matter of a lucky shot or divine guidance creating an impossible victory.

  11. Rob Donoghue

    @Marshall More than anything, that’s a genre question. There are plenty of genres where the mob is just going to be that many more people getting their ass kicked. By default, this model errs towards the cinematic (not necessarily full on Hong Kong action, but perhaps Zorro) but it’s pretty easy to turn that dial.

    All it really takes is a more complete list of things that can bump things up a tier, as you note. Examples include superior equipment, surprise, leadership and so on. If you want to get brutally realistic, you start defining superior numbers in terms of steps: +1 = 1 tier, +2-3 = 2 tiers and so on. Of course, that also suggests you want more ways to allow people to bump their own tier up.

    The rub is, this can work either way (with very few bumps or with finely grained bumps) but it serves VERY different purposes. Very few bumps also carries with it the assumption that everyone is doing the best they can all the time, which implicitly means out badass is not going to be surprised and surrounded by a bunch of farmers. Anyone capable of ambushing him is, de facto, good enough to be a challenge. And this is really not hard to pull off: a group of warriors is all it takes, since they get that team bump. And more, that’s appropriate: the badasses story is not about getting ganked by a bunch of farmers.

    The other approach is more tactical, albeit in a fairly simple way, and that scratches a different itch. It’s less about the role of the character in the story, and more about arranging the situation to your advantage. Equally fun, but different emphasis. (A lot of the combat systems in FATE 2 are based off this model actually.)

    Amusingly (and sometimes troublesomely) the Amber DRPG supported both these models and provided basically no guidelines regarding which one you should use. That got…messy at times.

    -Rob D.

  12. Rob Donoghue

    @Marshall One other difference – A lot depends on whether or not the style of play allows the badass to have the kind of authority over the story to say “And here is how I was prepared for these 12 guys showing up”. Even if the genre doesn’t support him fighting all those guys straight up, the system can still support a flat win if the player has the narrative authority to say “Of course I win, but let me describe a victory that makes sense within the rules of this genre. I (laid mines/have allies waiting in ambush/am not really there/what have you)”

    -Rob D.


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