The Right Tool For the Job

A passing comment on twitter got me thinking about a White Collar hack for Leverage. It’s doable, but chewing on it lead to me hurting my teeth on a familiar nut, one which also is worrying me a little bit in the context of the system I’ve been developing.

I’m going to use Cortex+ to illustrate this issue, but it is far from the only game where it’s an issue. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it’s an issue with many games, but it’s most evident in games which support very flexible labels for dice pools (such as cliche’s in Risus, descriptors in over the Edge, term in PDQ and Assets & Complications in Cortex+).

The problem is this: the systems have no real support for the idea of the right tool for the job.

What does that mean? In fiction (and in life) one of the best ways to solve a problem is to find the right tool for the job. If you need to drive a screw, you get a screwdriver. If you need to drive off Frankenstein’s monster, you get a torch. In many cases, the real skill in an activity comes in knowing how to choose the right tools, then applying them properly.

Games poorly support this. There may be a threshold of applicability (that is, “Can I use this die in this roll?”) but beyond that, all dice are created equal. If I need to make perfect croissants, it’s more important to have a skilled baker than a good kitchen, but if I have “Kitchen d8” and “Baker d8” then they’re equally valuable.

Now, not to say this doesn’t work at all. A lot of narrative logic is perfectly fine determining what the best tool for the job was after things have been resolved. And some of this gets subsumed in the creation of dice – if you have a d8 Kitchen, there is presumably some reason why that kitchen matters, so it’s no big deal, right?


Ok, so it makes me a little crazy for two reasons, one selfish and one a little more well thought out.

For the selfish one, I really like problem-solving. Figuring out the right tool for the job is like solving a puzzle, and in fact it’s basically the mechanic that many games (like text adventures) use for resolution. You _can’t_ solve the problem unless you use the right tool.

I don’t actually want anything that restrictive, but I really like the idea of finding a clever application of a tool and being rewarded for it. Similarly, I like the idea of rewarding greater planning, though to knowledge within the game. Taken to a crunchy level, it’s a similar desire to one that desires that tactics be rewarded in a conflict.

Anyway, that’s my personal fun, but it’s not the only issue.

The other issue is one of player choice. When dice (or bonuses or the like) are fungible – that is, can be used interchangeably – it becomes very hard to introduce situations where the player is forced to make a hard choice with mechanical consequences.

Consider, for example, the offer of help from a mob boss. It comes with certain strings attached, which would normally be enough to reject it outright, but the task is really hard and really important. Do you take his help?

Well, if his help is an extra d10, you probably don’t. Mechanically, there are other ways for you to get that d10 (or near enough) that the price is almost certainly not worth it.

Now, this is admittedly an area where Cortex+ (and Leverage in particular) is a problematic example because it’s built on a foundation of competence. With success as the norm, you’ll be hard pressed to ever really _need_ a particular bonus so badly that you’d be willing to eat bitter for it. However, my own design has a similar success-based focus, so it’s perhaps doubly informative.

This also speaks to why the interpretive solution (GM handing out bonuses to reflect this stuff) can be unsatisfying. The problem is that bonuses are – generally speaking – just as generic and easy to get as anything else.

Fate Nerds: This problem comes up with aspects a lot too, with aspects that are appropriate to the character but not the situation (or vice versa). Having your father’s sword as an aspect is a great all-purpose bonus-generator when you get in swordfights, but if used that way, it offers no distinction between using it on a random thug and using it on your father’s killer.

And, argh, I think that may be it. That split between “appropriate to the character” and “Appropriate to the situation” is the heart of the problem. The vast majority of game mechanics are appropriate to the character and some are appropriate to the situation, but there is almost no recognition of the synergy between the two.

And thinking about it, I can see why. It’s a bookeeping challenge. The only really practical way to mechanize it is to do things in paired elements, one on the actor and one on the target. When you see this sort of thing in action (Such as attacks with a fire keyword and a creature with a fire vulnerability) it’s effective, but it hinges on a lot of extra data. Could you really have a game where the bonuses are based on the interaction between two elements rather than their inherent nature?

I dunno. This one has actually thrown me for a loop – I feel like I started picking at a thread and an entire sweater has come apart in my hands. I feel like I’ve got a better grasp on the problem no, but am no closer to a solution.

18 thoughts on “The Right Tool For the Job

  1. Arashi

    I think a hack for fate would be if an aspect is appropriate for the situation OR the character, spend a fate point, get the bonus; if it is both then no fate point is needed (or a free tag if a continual +2 is too powerful, as it probably is).

  2. Evan

    The only mechanic that I can think sort of fits your desire to have the “right tool” for the right task as a part of the mechanics as well as the flavor for the game is GUMSHOE’s investigative skills. Even there, though, for something like Trail of Cthulhu, the mechanic is centered around something like the right tool being most cost effective and other tools just being more expensive. It also takes the single arena where it wants to have those mechanical interactions out of the general skill system and makes it all its own thing (indeed, the focus of the system). That seems to have been relatively successful, in a narrow application. However, as a general approach, it is hard to see how it could work. Also, it produces the dichotomy of the general skill system having basically broad skill categories, and then the specialized system having exhaustive minutia focused GURPS like lists of skills to produce that right tool, close enough tool, and not really the tool, but you can get a screw out with a hammer if you hit things hard enough kind of effect.

    It is interesting, but I don’t know if I would trade flexibility for the satisfaction of those “right tool” moments.

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @arashi That option is the one that is most strongly present in my consideration at the moment.

    @Evan Hmm, good thought comparing it to Gumshoe. Must consider that.

  4. Arashi

    Something I randomly thought of is that if you brought in the Scopes from Diaspora, you get an additional +1 for each additional scope the aspect is applicable to, all for the same 1 fate cost.

    So if your father’s sword was applicable to character, the scene, and the campaign a single fate point would grant you a +4 (+2+1+1).

  5. T.W.Wombat

    If you’re going to have the concept of the right tool for the job, why not reward it by punting the whole system of identical bonuses and give a one-time auto-success?

    I’m thinking of the “my father’s sword” situation here. If the situation arises where the son with the sword can get a little revenge, another bonus seems pedantic. But I could see shocking the enemy into defenselessness with, “You killed my father. Prepare to die.” That initial shock won’t last, but I think it should be enough for one solid hit.

    Auto-successes are powerful things and they should be fairly rare currency, but it feels right to reward the players for doing homework and going the extra mile to get the right tools in place. When the random factors align and the right tool for the job clicks with the scene, I’d take the action out of the mundane world of mechanics and back into an awesome narrative.

  6. Kit

    I’ve been thinking about the urge to generic systems in RPGs a lot lately, and the alternative approaches you see in some games (I’m thinking, particularly, about Apocalypse World). What you say here hits close to those thoughts. I’ll be brewing on it, and if I can get some time to think and write about it at Gen Con, I’ll be posting about it. But thanks, this post is perfect fuel for my current thoughts.

  7. Reverance Pavane

    With the situation with the mob boss, haven’t you already considered this with your system by enabling results to be boosted by taking a play penalty?

    And in most games, isn’t the difficulty of a test affected by the tools you have available. A well equipped kitchen will make it easier to use the baker skill as opposed to using a camp fire. If you don’t have the correct tools it may well be impossible, although a skilled individual might be able to come up with a viable alternative (griddle cakes anyone).

    I think part of the problem is that you are looking at the dice as entirely fungible, whereas they are not. In other words as a baker d8 and kitchen d8 rather than baker d8 and kitchen d8. If the label is not appropriate then it can’t be used, or it can be used for a limited effect. If the label is particularly appropriate then it can be used for increased effect.

    This was often a problem in games like Runequest where you had a set skill printed on the character sheet, so people had a tendency to just roll 1d100 against the value written down and almost never adjusted the ability score for the situation. The written value was sancrosanct. I got around that by throwing other dice types, such as d60 (an average difficulty).

    Perhaps, in Leverage, instead of awarding a separate asset or complication, you might consider a raise or lower of the appropriate die type. So a baker d8 with a good kitchen gets bumped up to being a baker d10.

    [Although it’s not Leverage, I admit it always feels more natural for me to limit the skill ability by the tool available in these situations. So a baker d8 would be able to use a kitchen d10 with no worries, but would be restricted to an effective skill of baker d6 if forced to use a normal household kitchen d6. This includes tools like language use. Perhaps combine the two ideas, so a d8 or better kitchen is required to boost baker d8 skill.]

  8. Nick Pilon

    I think this is an interesting train of thought, but one that needs to go even farther.

    Let’s look at it simply, in the case of a far more typical system than FATE or Cortex+. You’ve got a bunch of skills on your sheet, things your character can do. But whether or not you can use skill in a situation is entirely decided by the GM (and maybe other players) based on narrative applicability. Can you use Persuasion to win a gunfight? Maybe, if the GM thinks its reasonable that you talk down the angry mobster rather than just shooting him.

    This means that the challenge the way most games seem to be run these days is finding ways to structure the narrative to justify applying your character’s best (or least bad) mechanics to the situation. Some GMs are going to be pickier about that than others, and I think some level of pickiness there is important.

    It’s worth noting that this is very distinct from the “retro”, Gygax-esque method of game-running, where there typically is only one right solution to a problem, and you’ve got to find it. And frequently that solution will be something that exists purely in the narrative, with no mechanical interaction whatsoever.

    But if I get you right, you’re saying that you’d like to see some level of enforceable mechanics for narrative applicability?

  9. Craig

    Smallville does have a bit of this with the Limits: in the case of going up against Frankenstein’s monster, that d6 torch bought as a useful detail becomes a 3d6 useful detail because of the Limit assigned to the Reanimated Corpse Heritage. Perhaps (at least as far as Cortex+ goes) that could be expanded upon?

    I also like the idea of the automatic success in some situations. Perhaps in a system a “No and/No but/Yes but/Yes and” continuum, these “ideal tools” could shift the result, or set a minimum level?

  10. Marshall Smith

    I’m with Arashi, in that I immediately thought of scoped aspects. I was also thinking of typed bonuses from d20.

    The fundamental forces against the kind of approach you are looking for fall into a couple categories. One, it’s extra complication, and often for insufficient gain. Two, it’s seen as fodder for munchkins, as it’s often a way to maximize your efforts. Or, alternatively, it’s seen as punishing the players, since lacking the item restricts the possible chance of success. Three, it’s seen as leading to “pixel bitching,” as the GM sets up the scenario to be hard enough that the players have no choice but to figure out which color key he wants them to find. (I’m saying item here, but it can obviously be any resource.)

    Personally, I’m a fan of the scoped aspect approach. But, it requires that the dice mechanic be such that cumulative bonuses are possible. In R&K, you can have the perfect tool grant bonus dice. In your system, I’m not so sure how that would work.

  11. Codrus

    The problems are most evident when aspects (or similar mechanics) are simply played for the bonus.

    To keep aspects from just being a bonus, I ask a few questions for any invocation. I actually do this as a player, but I’d use similar criteria as a GM:

    * Is this an interesting use of the Aspect?
    * Has the player already invoked this aspect a lot recently?
    * What does it mean to the character that they chose to use this aspect instead of another aspect?
    * How does using that aspect change the outcome qualitatively — that is, in ways that stretch beyond the simple quantitative bonus. Using “anger fuels my spells” is a little different than “I must protect my brother”.

    I think as a FATE GM I’m more restrictive than other GMs I’ve played with. I want invokes to be interesting and cool and to have variety at the table.

    The obvious metagame problem is that if aspects have effects beyond the +2, players won’t invoke aspects that don’t directly harm them. In other words, why pick “influenced by the dark side of the force” when I can just pick “jedi padawan”? A very story-oriented player might choose the former aspect, but the system can’t rely on that. 🙂

    Some thoughts on how I’d handle that:
    1. When the player picks an aspect to invoke, the GM might offer up the fate point to compel it or a RELATED aspect instead. If the player accepts the offer, they get the +2 bonus without spending a fate point.

    For example, the player says “I invoke my Jedi Padawn aspect”, the GM might say “You are pretty angry right now…perhaps the dark side is manifesting as well…” If the player accepts it, they basically get the same qualitative benefit, but the net cost to the player is zero — they get the positive benefits, but the GM is going to adjust the actual result.

    As a GM, I really like the idea of fishing for related aspects or problems when a player invokes a particular aspect, particularly when the player is invoking a stack of aspects to go for the kill.

    In standard FATE, the player is expected to buy off compels, but in this case, I probably wouldn’t force it on the player except in rare circumstances.

    2. Give players the control over when they use something that gives them a mixed result. For that to work, the net result has to benefit the player in some way (better result, less fate points spent, more fate points earned, etc.).

    The Jediville rules for force users had a fairly elegant approach to this for dark side usage. It gave player a plot point, increased the result based on the character’s fear and anger results, and introduced a negative effect that didn’t necessarily take effect right away (in the form of trouble dice). The net result was good enough that it was enticing…. 🙂

    For FATE, I’m definitely considering the possibility of “free invokes that complicate the results” as a standard rule. It probably requires some limitations to keep it effective: How often can the player do it? How much more does the GM need to pay attention to those invokes? But I generally prefer the idea of putting some of the control over compels back in the hands of the players.

    3. Aspects that are appropriate to the scene are worth more. (This suggestion was made by an earlier commenter as well). If a player plays an aspect that isn’t appropriate at all, question it to see if they have a good reason, rather than blindly accepting the invocation. On the other hand, if the player plays an aspect that is awesomely cool and perfectly appropriate to the situation, call that out at the table, and throw in an extra +1 or +2. (S7S: Good form!) Using this strategy makes sure players know that you are paying attention to the aspects they invoke, so they might fish for more interesting invokes,

  12. Rob Donoghue

    God, more good comments than I can address. Not a bad problem to have!

    @Nick, the one problem with that approach is that the clever player can justify _anything_. It’s a different sort of metagame.

    @Rev You’re right, but the reason people just go to the roll is because it makes for smooth flow. One of my worry about any solution is that the introduction of friction may prove a bad tradeoff.

    @Codrus You’ve actually hit upon the another key issue with aspects, though this one is more a question than a problem. Conceptually, aspects can be descriptive (in which case there are lots of them, used all the time or Significant (in which case there are fewer of them, but when they matter they REALLY MATTER). Neither approach is better, but definitely worth thinking about how each one impacts this question.

  13. Marshall Smith

    Drifting off-topic a bit, I really like the idea of adding a self-compel to an invocation instead of paying the FP. It’s cool, it adds extra layers of flavor to a scene, and it strongly encourages the use of double-edged Aspects.

  14. Mathias Jack

    Breaking it down as simply as possible…

    A mechanic might have one facet of the following:
    cost (resources), quality (power), quantity (efficiency, ie, target, area, durability, etc)

    When above occurs normally? Only one facet is gained by the mechanic.

    Perhaps when the tool is right for the job, when the mechanic fits the situation, the mechanic may gain another facet, ie, become cheaper to use, gain a greater bonus, effect greater area, etc.

    Of course, this is how I’ve been trying to wrap my head around some system for a game since 2000 or so. Your post reminded me of the issue of I’ve wrestled with constantly. Your blog is always great fodder for thought.

    Mathias Jack

  15. 77im

    GURPS handles this in a somewhat roundabout way. It has an extremely large and specific skill list, and skills can “default” to similar skills at a specific penalty.

    For example, Baker might default to Kitchen at -2. So if the GM or module author decides that Baker is the appropriate skill, but no one in the group has it, you can try rolling Kitchen but with a -2 penalty.

    Some games (notably early d20 system) also have the reverse, a synergy bonus between skills. For example, if you are baking croissants, and have enough ranks of Knowledge (France), you can get a +2 bonus to your Baker check. The description of the Baker skill will list these synergies.

    The upshot is that the GM or module author can specify what is exactly the right tool for the job (“appropriate to situation”) and the PC can use their most relevant skill (“appropriate to character”). Then the system can mediate by imposing a penalty, which is a nice middle ground between using skills interchangeably and being screwed because you don’t have the exact right skill. The GM isn’t burdened with having to improvise the penalty, although if he does need to to, he has a gigantic set if examples to use as guidelines.

    The obvious downside is the same as all large, detailed rules systems, namely they are a PITA to write and hard to remember/use in play. I’m not looking to start some unproductive rules light vs. rules heavy debate, just thought it was an interesting approach to the “appropriate to character” vs. “appropriate to situation” dilemma. It still doesn’t handle truly unique situations (“my father’s sword”).

  16. George Austin

    I’m a little late to the party, but here’s something for the “further reading” pile from some neat diceless games.

    I like how Mr. Taylor’s Mortal Coil addresses the right tool issue when it comes to fungible traits. The character using the more specific/appropriate trait applicable to the situation gets a bonus. A “fencer” will get the advantage of “brawler” in a duel, but it’ll be the other way around in a bar fight, and a “warrior” will have the edge over both on a battlefield. All three are free to apply their traits in each situation, and it not too hard to adjudicate.

    Related in spirit, though not exactly the problem at hand, Ms. Moran’s Nobilis 3rd Edition has a subsystem to the mundane actions rules called Edge that deals with actually having the right tools: gadgets, weapons, vehicles. Of course, miracles make even the disparity of bringing “a knife to a global thermonuclear annihilation fight” fade away.


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