The Fragile Foundation of Skills

This is a rant.  I’m circling an idea, and if you read this, you get to watch.

There’s a truism that gets rolled out from time to time when talking about old school D&D vs newer iterations (and more generally, old vs new games) and that is this: “No one fell off a horse before there was a riding skill.”

Now, the sentiment behind this is couched int he idea of letting the player describe what they are doing, such as riding a horse, unless there’s a good reason otherwise.  In this mode of thinking, the introduction of the skill has created a barrier to play, and is an unwelcome addition to something that exists primarily in the imagination.  Extrapolated, this can be applied to a lot of rules, including things like feats and powers, because without the rules, players were free to do these things anyway, using the descriptive tools at thier disposal.

Now, I admit I’m skeptical of this argument as a whole. It’s not that older games did not allow for this range of action, but there are procedural and presentation differences that tend to get skimmed past in the discussion.  However, I think it’s a great argument for something other than what it’s used for.  See, the problem is not that skill systems intrinsically suck, it’s just that most skill system _implementations_ suck. And I blame the dice.

See, our first thought in terms of what skills mean in an RPG is a value that we roll to succeed or fail.  Can you climb that wall? Can you pick that lock?  Roll the dice and find out.  Because that’s how we handled attacking things, we just extrapolated it into skills.   Because combat was based on a pass-fail (hit/miss) model, skills were built the same way, so the riding skill introduced an option for failure where none had existed before.  That’s an implementation failure, and one we’ve carried with us.

The problem is,  this model sucks so badly that we’ve had to spend years evolving ways to make failure on these rolls is interesting and keeps things moving forward which is a lot of work to solve something that maybe should not have been a problem in the first place.  So I find myself wondering – If we were truly building from scratch, what would a skill really be?

First and foremost, it would be an **opportunity** to act.   Skills determine who does what.  In both real life and fiction, when presented with a challenge, you will more often than not fave a fairly binary question of whether or not this is something that you have the skills for or do not.  In real life, you can drive a car or you can’t. In fiction, either someone knows demolitions or they don’t.  Rather than providing guidance on how we roll the dice, they could provide guidance on _when_ we roll the dice (and one answer would be ‘much less often’).

Now, obviously, there’s some sophistication to this.  Skills are not purely binary, and you need to reflect both very low and very high skills appropriately, but that’s not too great a challenge.  Low skill invites more randomization and crappy successes, no problem.  High skills just require a solid understanding of what the tiering of skills means, but it still can come out in what dice aren’t rolled – effectively, lower tier skill may mean more things you’re “unskilled” at.[1]

Second, when they’re in play, skills are usually one of two axes – it is rarely an interesting question to ask “Will she succeed?” but it is often quite rewarding to ask “Will she succeed (before time runs out | before the guards arrive | in catching the idol without stopping the protective chant| | etc.)?”[2]  This question at least re-introduces a role for uncertainty, but it depends on a different understanding of skills, and it tends to easily fall apart as soon as the GM starts calling for skill rolls without making sure the other Axis is in place.

The third point brings us back to horses, and answers the question of why use skills at all. To me, that one is simple – it’s a strong tool for character differentiator.  Just like the crew in a caper heist, when characters have a thing that they do, that’s an important characteristic.  If one guy is the rider, then he needs some way to be awesome at it, because that’s his thing.[3] It is valuabel to have the game recognize that coolness.

Lastly, if done from scratch, I don’t think skills would be beholden to the mathematical logic of combat which demands that we use a system that _allows_ you to really suck badly at a skill for a long time.  It’s not fun, not dramatic, and not satisfying to anyone (but by god, it’s consistent with combat!).

I dunno. I doubt we can ever really do a full skill system from scratch.  I think the mindpool is already pretty infected, and I haven’t even touched on the dangerous areas like skill granularity, combat skills or the line between skills and powers.   But I think it’s worth thinking about if only to help try to catch our assumptions about how we intuit that skills _should_ work, because if we can bust that, we can make some interesting stuff.

1 – It’s also a genre consideration.  In many genres, certain skills are universal (everyone can fight, everyone knows how to kick a pocket and so on) and those establish a baseline.  In that case, a character is noteworthy for either excelling in that arena, or having less-than-baseline capability. This consideration should totally have been applied to the riding skill – it would have saved us years of headaches.

2 – It’s a little telling that I had to think hard to come up with a qualifier other than “before”.  Makes me onder if the simplest change to any skill system is to do what we do with research in SOTC – the roll is nto to see if you succeed, the roll is to see how long it take syou to succeed.

3 – The cheap way to do this is to make everyoen else suck at it.  This is roughly akin to writng a character as smart by making everyone around them stupid.  It is a TERRIBLE trick, and best never used ever.

32 thoughts on “The Fragile Foundation of Skills

  1. Paul Weimer

    I’ve come around to the view that unless the potential for failure (or failing forward) is interesting, making a skill check is pointless.

    The Pelgrane Press people use it for investigations in their game, Amber characters are assumed to be competent at a lot of mundane skills with handwavium, et cetera.

    Or, to put it another way, “Say yes or roll the dice”.

    I do like your distinction–can they succeed *in time*. I see the caper heist Leverage thinking there, Rob.

  2. Mike Holmes

    You have the right of it, Rob, in that the question is not if skills are a bad idea or not, but simply what is the best implementation of a given mechanic. The logical conclusion of arguments like the one about falling off a horse is that we should all play freeform all the time. Any claim that one knows the “right” place for resolution to be included in a system (especially if they claim it’s only combat), is simply a statement of preference.

    And, yeah, skills are quite a lot about positioning. Think about Amber, where you have characters who are the best in the world at X, second best, third best, etc, based on the bidding. That’s less about the resolution than it is about being able to say “My guy is the fightiest there is!”

    1. Jeremy Morgan

      I agree with the freeform to a point, but I’d say instead that the “right” place for resolution inclusion is a system depends entirely on the intent of the system. The ‘right place’ to resolve is the place that enforces the style of play the designer is intending.

      My opinion, YMMV, etc.

    2. Mike Holmes

      That’s exactly what I was saying, Jeremy. Being a system wonk, I would hardly push freeform. The point about freeform is that if they say that a resolution system is bad for skills, then how do they justify it for combat? There’s no a priori reason that a resolution system has to be used for anything, so… yes. It’s simply a matter of what the system is supposed to promote. Anyone who says that you’re wrong to put in skills (even a traditional skill system), is simply stating a preference about what they like to resolve mechanically, and what they don’t.

      Not sure if that’s any more clear.

  3. Professor Coldheart

    It’s a little telling that I had to think hard to come up with a qualifier other than “before”.

    This is something I’ve started to make more explicit when kit-bashing systems – if the characters aren’t pressed for time, or expending limited resources, or building something fragile (e.g., a stealthy approach), there’s no point to rolling. And I still struggle with remembering to keep things tense.

  4. D Collins

    The traditional skills system helps make good gaming stories better. Case in point, last year at a 0D&D event, the players were on their way to an Elven village and had become lost and disoriented in mixed forest. Towards dusk, to get a bearing, the party thief decided he wanted show off his obvious superiority at climbing, and went to climb one of the larger trees to possibly eyeball the Elven village, or another familiar landmark nearby.

    GM (me): “Make your climb Check, with your bonuses, you’ll get a good view of the surrounding countryside rolling with a 92% chance of success.”

    Player laughing and talking with the others as he climbs says “I got this!”, and rolls the dice. …a collective groan goes up at the table.

    Player: “93.”

    GM:”Roll 3d6, if you get less than your Dex (13)… you manage to get a hand on a branch and stop your fall after losing your footing on a particularly knotty branch in the twilight.”

    Player rolls the dice. Another collective groan goes up at the table…

    Player: …15

    GM: “You fell. You did say you were climbing one of the taller trees, right? To get the best view?”

    Player: “yes”

    GM: “Most of the taller treest around here are 60′ to 70′ tall. Tell you what, roll me 1d6x10 plus 1d10 to see how many feet you fall, then I’ll announce the results of your mishap.”

    Player rolls dice, yet another collective groan goes up at the table… he announces: “54”

    GM: Okay… (secretly rolls falling damage, determines 5th lvl thief lives, with just 4 hp to spare).

    GM: “You want the good news or the bad news first?”

    Player: “Bad News.”

    GM: “You are unconscious. The good news is you haven’t broken any bones…”

    Party Clerics(there were 2 in the party): “We rush to examine him, and give him aid, using our Cure light wounds spells, if necessary.”

    GM: “Yes, after examining him, your proffessional judgement and experience deems it necessary that you’ll need to heal him as well, in just case an unexpected fight or encounter occurs in the next few days.”

    GM: “After the healing spells are cast, he opens his eyes, just looks confused for a moment, and then remembers everything…”

    This is the same character who, in the same session, failed his first CON roll while drinking ale with a group of Dwarves right at the time he was hitting on a particularly attractive lady dwarf.

    After he had passed out. The other players stole his sword and boots and left him right were he had fell on the log by the campfire. They concealed his gear on the party pack animals, and let him wake up. It took extra two hours before they broke camp the next morning, and not before the Thief learned how to scry with a Crystal ball he had found earlier, and threatened the party Wizard with a fate worse than death, not once but twice…

    How do you fix the skills system to keep that kind of goodness in the game?

  5. Mike Holmes

    Most games encode the concept of ensuring that there’s some reason to roll if you’re going to roll in some way, though often it’s very vague. Things like “You don’t roll to have the character walk across the room.” Going with overly obvious examples doesn’t really give an idea of when it’s time to roll, and when not.

    Above, Paul invokes the paraphrased version of “The Lumpley Principle” from DitV. But to lay it out in full terms once more, roll dice when some participant in the game feels that it might be interesting for the characters to fail. What makes something interesting for a given group, or even given individuals, will vary, and may not always be completely transparent. But there’s a dead simple method a GM can use to determine if a roll is called for if they’re uncertain (if you’re certain, well call for the roll). Ask the players if they think it would be interesting if their character might fail.

    Note that this assumes that success is always the default, which isn’t true. Failure is actually the assumption in some cases, and the rules will often have a similarly vague comment about handling these cases. “If the character is a human who can’t fly, and the character tries to fly, they fail.” But sometimes an action is on the verge of ridiculous… but might be cool to have it potentially succeed with an amazing roll or something.The same tool applies in cases where you’re not sure if you should roll… ask the players if they think it would be fun to give it a try. In fact often times players will attempt things that are beyond the reach of their character because they actually WANT the system to come into play and for their character to obtain the “negative” (from the character’s perspective) system results of failing. Many good systems promote just this sort of thing.

    So… should we roll to see if the character falls off his horse? Well depends on the situation… and if you’re not sure… ask the player.

    And yes, there are ways to encode this sort of thing into the mechanics of the game, too, if that’s your thing. But you can “fix” any skill-based game with this one simple technique.

  6. Kit

    For what it’s worth, this is what we did in Becoming Heroes. Traits can be many things, including skills, but the question is never whether you succeed or fail at them—you describe using them, you’re awesome, done. The question (and it’s a deferred one), is whether that helps you win in the end.

  7. Christian Hollnbuchner

    First off, I must admit I only read about the first half of the blog. I’ll have to try and read the rest some other time. Anyway, you already said some interresting things in that first few paragraphs.

    First off, I agree skill systems derived from combat mechanics are, to a degree, problematic. Still I rather like the idea of using only one rule mechanic to resolve either. I’d just rather use the opposite approach and handle combat as just another application of skills. How is riding a horse a skill and swinging a sword not anyway?

    And you said it, skills should give characters the opportunity to act. It should not restrict them, but it should not force them to act either. And the system should be flexible to a degree (if the system isn’t some times the GM has to be). One character may not have learned to ride, but maybe he is generally very good at handling animals …

  8. Evan

    Rob, you continue to be the most thoughtful, as well as proviking, philosopher of RPG design. If I disagree with you about one thing, it is that we are so socialized as a RPG consumer market, that we cannot escape the gravity of the skill trap you have identified. I think the success (even if “partial” perhaps in escaping the skills=combat mechanic) of GUMSHOE shows that rather radical surgery on a system can be successful. GUMSHOE may caution that it still has to be incremental, but I think innovative change can come.

    As you have aptly pointed out, game system shapes the experience of play as much, if not more, than “plot” in an adventure. The question, I think, is not only whether skill systems can be seen as being in some ways broken, but also, what experiences from systems do we want in different play environments?

    I have a long history with Chaosium’s good old Basic Role Playing system, which in the 1980’s seemed like a revelation when stacked up against AD&D. Freedom from the shackles of class and level semmed pretty awesome then. Of course, you trade one set of shackles for another. Different games systems are different choices, superior or inferior based on what you want and how you apply them, but not from some kind of intrinsic worth.

    BRP, however, is almost totally the kind of broken system you rail against, since it makes combat and skill resolution pretty much the same. Success (special success/critical) and failure (fumble). I recognize the issues, yet I would still play Call of Cthulhu (should I find the time), and probably other iterations (I’m certainly curious about RuneQuest 6).

    But I agree that, in most cases, the idea of some other kind of continuum is much more interesting. One of the horrid meta-game issues with BRP in it’s earliest forms was the fact that since everyone could do everything, and had to get a success on a role to get a skill check to get better at a skill from experience, everyone ends up wanting to listen at the door, try to pick the lock, try to detect traps, etc. It could really become silly. It also took the edge off of characters being special/specialized. In the end, characters still diverged to a good deal based on player choice, but you still would get folks with a greater degree of jack of all trades than other systems. Overall, I am very fond of the system, but it is perhaps most defined by being different than AD&D, without having a specific design plan of what it is (rather than what it’s not).

    By contrast, in some ways, I have most recently had experiences with running Marvel Heroic Role Playing. It has a unified mechanic for resolution even greater than BRP for doing stuff. I’d say that it does a great job for doing what it is designed to to, which is to create the feeling of being in a comic book. The unified resolution system works great in context, and it provides a place for being skilled, rather than having a skill system. I love the way the overall system works, but perhaps it simply sidesteps the issue with “skill systems” that you are concerned about, as it doesn’t actually have a skill system in favor of a universal resolution mechanic into which being “skilled” may play.

    So, from that range of experience of something like 30 years in the hobby, I agree with your concern, and I believe that new ideas can come forward, but I’m short on answers myself.

    Somehow, I think I’ll see the start of those ideas discussed here, however.

    Thanks as always for deep thoughts.

  9. Cam_Banks

    Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (and Cortex Plus games in general) do, as Evan has said, kind of dodge this whole issue by making them just one contributing factor in whether you succeed at your intended effort. I suppose that’s still kind of “pass/fail” though.

  10. Greg Sanders

    I like your proposed system, but I’m not sure how well it handles conflict.

    I tend to think that if you want robust forms of non-violent conflict, be it against NPCs or fellow party members, you need to have a unified resolution system that has compatible underlying math whether you’re throwing a punch or just stealing the artifact from their back pocket.

    That said, I think any number of more indirect conflicts might be more like races against time and each other and thus could be handled fine by your system.

    In short, I think that “skills” might be an unhelpful grouping. Your system would probably work great against anything with a set DC. However, even if skill-like, checks that are inherently opposed should in my view probably stick with whatever combat system your game is using.

    As a side note, one of the more interesting Monte Cook experiments mentioned publicly for D&D next was an attempt to move from skill checks to levels of expertise that would work in many ways like the system you describe. Unfortunately, I don’t think that was strongly enough differentiated from the status quo so I think it got mistaken for being basically passive skills and didn’t survive long enough to make the open play tests.

  11. One Geek in Gradschool

    One thing that occurs to me is that one way out of making sure things are interesting is where all rollls are conflicts between characters. This allows for other sorts of questions than “before…” as well. The question isn’t “Do I hack the system or not?” It’s “Do I hack the system or does the sysop run a trace.” Here’s another one. Luke is rolling to swing across the inexplicable chasm in the Death Star interior carrying Leia. His Athletics is opposed by the Stormtroopers Blaster trait. If they win they shoot him or something before he gets across. Hell maybe he gets across, but now he or Leia is wounded. So if the question is “Do I crack the safe before the guards get here?” the opposition is actually the guards. (using the safe as equipment?)

  12. sirvalence

    I’m thinking off the top of my head here, please forgive me…

    Let’s assume for a moment that what we mean by a skill is an ability that anyone can learn: otherwise it’s a power. I then suggest that there’s no such thing as an “untrained” skill that can’t be attempted unless you already know the skill (it seems logical to me that such a skill could never be learned at all). Some skills are harder than others, of course, but there’s a chance that I might succeed at brain surgery if I (and the patient) get lucky, or if I do enough research before I get started. And I think that other axis might be what’s always missing: how long will it take?

    In the real world I’m starting to see that “skill” really means “pattern recognition and response.” An untrained person has to think through every situation, but a skilled person quickly recognizes familiar situations and responds with near-automatic actions, and is therefore much faster than someone who is unskilled. (Think of the process of learning a new videogame.) They also don’t have to experiment because they already know what will work. So maybe the result of a skill check should not be success or failure, but perhaps the length of time required to meet the character’s goal.

    Of course, many times that length of time will be impractically long: my brain surgery patient will die before I learn what I need to know. And there probably needs to be some consideration for mistakes that ruin the whole attempt. But I think that time is the key.

    1. Jeremy Morgan

      I think defining a skill as an ability anyone can learn could work, depending on the system/genre, but I don’t think I’d be comfortable with the implications of that definition. There are people with abilities (skills, powers) that require some level of innate talent to be competent. This definition would have problems with those types of abilities IMO.

  13. Nick Pilon

    While I agree with the central premise here, I don’t think Rob goes quite far enough. Sure, skill systems derived from combat systems are problematic because misses – failed rolls – are usually boring, and it takes a lot of effort to circumvent that boredom. But I don’t think the mind-virus here is “skill systems should inherit from combat systems!” I think the mind-virus is “missing is a valid outcome of a die roll.” Just look at the “whiff factor” in combat systems. Most modern games are good enough at tuning their math that it doesn’t come up too often, but we’ve all had that session of grinding through seemingly endless rounds where everyone (or almost everyone) misses.

    I think a good starting rule of thumb for the aspiring (or extant!) designer is that every single roll must change the game/fiction-state in some way, succeed or fail.

  14. Lisa Padol

    So, apart from “don’t roll the dice if a particular result is undesirable on the meta level”, what do we have? Do we need more than that?

    One reason I kind of tune out people who say it’s always bad to fudge a die roll is that I try to follow the above rule — and sometimes, after the dice hit the table — generally in the open in my group — we realize that none of us want the result we see. So, we throw it out. That roll has showed us that our mistake was to make that particular roll.

    Jonathan Tween once suggested that certain roles are Kirk-liness rolls, explaining that one doesn’t usually see Captain Kirk try to break away from someone taking him prisoner and fail. He suggested reinterpreting failure as the equivalent of Kirk not trying to break away because he realizes that this isn’t the right time. So, yes, the character fails to escape, but doesn’t get shot out of hand. I’ve used this one on occasion.

    Stake setting can be useful as well. This ties into the “can you do X in time?” If I’m playing the world’s greatest lover, and my character’s goal is to succeed as a lover, odds are “Don’t roll” is the correct call. If the goal is to get information out of someone in the throes of passion, or to distract a person from something (an assassin, a burglar, getting to the council meeting on time), then one can still be the world’s greatest love and fail in terms of the actual goal.

    None of what I’ve said is new, of course.

    1. Jeremy Morgan

      THIS! Stake setting is an important part of it and can tie directly to character motivation by asking “How badly does your character want to succeed and what will they sacrifice to get it?”

    2. Mike Holmes

      I wouldn’t call that fudging, Lisa. That’s applying the rule you cite retroactively. Fudging is doing this same thing, but secretly. Which has the problem that it’s unilateral. If you do it as you suggest, it’s done in the open, then the decision is open to the scrutiny of the group, and folks may protest if they disagree with the decision in question. Fudging gives the illusion that the mechanics are working great to create a story, when in fact it should be the GM and/or players who should be getting credit for making things work right in these cases. Fudging is done in games where the system doesn’t work well at all, to prevent it from becoming obvious that the system isn’t working well at all.

      As for stakes… this is a good technique to use with players who are scared about what the results of a conflict might be. But when the GM has the trust of the players, explicit stake-setting can deflate the tension of a conflict. For instance, if a conflict is duel, and you state that the stakes do not include death, but only the hand of the fair maiden… then you have eliminated the tension of the possibility of death. We don’t have to experience death as an outcome of the conflict to maintain that life-or-death tension, just the possibility of it.

      So if you have players that demand stakes, try to move them beyond those at some point.

    3. Jeremy Morgan

      I think we may be using the term ‘stakes’ differently. When I use that term, I mean the players involved in the conflict set the stakes and this ties directly to their motivations. In this case (player-set stakes), I don’t think you want players moving past them.

      Now, in the case of GM-set stakes, I think you MAY want to move them past it, but that will depend on a lot of things: the GM, the players, the system, the tone/type of the game. I certainly don’t want to make a blanket statement in this case (GM-set stakes).

    4. Mike Holmes

      First, there are two stakes in every conflict, the stakes of what happens if the PC wins, and the stakes of what happens if they lose. I’m more on board with the player being somewhat explicit about what they want from success. But I’m with Fred Hicks in saying that it’s best to try to obtain the player’s “intent” rather than explicit stakes. Explicit stake-setting for success is simply being overly careful, and you can see the “motivations” you mention in simply determining player intent. And this then leaves the GM more free to interpret an interesting form of success, than if the player nails it down in crystal clear form up front.

      Even moreso are the stakes of failure to which I was referring above. What is the player willing to accept as the price of failure? Yes, this could be “how far am I willing to go?” But as my duel example indicates, if the player says “not to death” that takes some of the tension out of things. The GM can infer this player desire, and simply rule that the character does not die at the time of resolution, without that having been determined up front.

      This way, when the player rolls the failure, there’s that moment of dread wondering if the character will die (or some other horrible fate). And then a moment of rejoicing when the GM instead gives an even more interesting negative result that moves the story forward in a way that the player will enjoy.

      Does this risk the GM making a mistake and either missing the player’s intent on success, or messing up their character on failure? Yes, it does, and such failures in people’s play-past are why people like explicit stake setting so much. But there’s a simple technique that you can use to make this all go away. If you’re not absolutely dead sure that the outcome you are going to propose is going to go over perfectly well, if you have any doubt at all, simply offer the resolution you think is going to work as a proposal.

      “I’m thinking that your character is going to suffer a tremendous loss of face here… sound right?” And then the player smiles, and nods, and you know you got it right. If they suddenly frown, then you simply come up with something else. If nothing you come up with seems to work, THEN ask the player what they think fits the resolution in question. This works for both success and failure stakes.

  15. Reverance Pavane

    Most skills use in role-playing games is actually an exercise in quantum mechanics, believe it or not. But this, I mean, in most games you are actually taking a normalised probability distribution and extracting a discrete quality from it (usually a binary success/failure metric) by collapsing the state (in terms of Schrodinger’s imaginary feline, opening the box).

    You could actually go whole hog and write mechanics using the bra-ket notation originally proposed by Dirac. This could be convenient dealing with the superposition of statistical states, such as |pick lock> + |guards arrive> (assuming you were bored enough and your players were familiar with the techniques and manipulations involved to cope with it).

    Now why is this important?

    Well, just like in QM, the “collapsed discrete result” [ ie ““] is not the whole story nor even the fundamental expression of the skill in lockpicking. What we are more interested in the ket of lock-picking which is a statistical distribution.

    Now to bring it back into role-playing, take the example of the 1HD fighter in D&D that needs a 13+ to hit a target and do 1d8 damage with their longsword. When we roll the dice we are determining a discrete result. Either the fighter hits (and does 1d8 damage) or the fighter misses (and does 0). The dice roll determines how we collapse the wavefunction representing the skill to provide us with a discrete result. It is a purely mechanical selection method, independent of the actual skill (the superposition of the d20 roll and the fighter’s skill is what determines the discrete result of success or failure).

    But now consider 10 of those fighters in Swords & Spells (the tabletop wargaming Supplement V of original D&D). Here we are using the statistics directly, without “collapsing the wavefunction,” so our 10 men do 18 points of damage to their opponents. [Essentially 4 of them hit doing average damage.]

    And remember that the same result holds for 1 fighter over 10 rounds of battle. They will do 18 points of damage. This can provide a more useful measure of the time taken for a skill to take effect.

    The later is actually a more accurate depiction of the effects of the fighters’ skills. [Over the long run, or with enough individuals, the first method should statistically approach that of the second, but in the short term, or with few individuals, it won’t reflect the actual skills of the fighters.]

    Of course, the second method doesn’t give the dopamine high that comes from gambling addiction when we do roll the die.

  16. Lisa Padol

    I think one of the things I think about stake setting is that it’s a way to avoid the X->Y problem. (Do I need to define that, or does everyone already know that one?)

    1. Mike Holmes

      I’ll bite… I don’t recall that terminology, Lisa. What’s the X->Y problem?

      The problems that I’m familiar with are the ones I’ve stated up above. Missing player intent on success stakes, and “deprotagonizing” a character with negative failure stakes, that make the player no longer interested in their character. Is the problem you cite related to these, Lisa, or something else entirely?

    2. Lisa Padol

      The XY problem is when you want to do X, but you think that you have to do Y in order to get X, so you ask “How do I do Y?” You don’t even mention X, so no one knows that you’re really interested in X.

      This comes up in programming, and a lot of people often then either give the person asking the question detailed advice that is utterly useless or ask, baffled, “Why would you _want_ to do Y?” Once they manage to get the person to explain that the goal is to do X, everything gets easier.

      So, let’s say I’m trying to seduce the princess. Is that really my end goal? It might be. But, if I am seducing the princess in order to distract her, my goal isn’t seduction. It’s distraction. If I’m supposed to be really good at seduction, and there’s no particular reason the princess should be good as resisting my charms, it’s not useful to get to hung up on the seduction roll as a seduction roll. The key question is: Have I successfully distracted the princess?

      The deprotagonizing issue is, I think, important, but separate. If my supposedly excellent seductress constantly fails to seduce, well, anyone, then yes, that could be a problem. It’s just a different problem.

    3. Mike Holmes

      OK, the X->Y problem is the intent problem then, or one version of it.

      But to be clear, what Fred points out is that there’s a difference between general intent and specifics of the outcome. Yes, if you set stakes, you will have determined intent in the process. But you can determine intent without setting stakes.

      This may be a terminological issue. For some people “setting stakes” may mean exactly what I’m talking about here. But for others it is distinctly another, more potent, thing. Let me use the princess example to explain.

      With what I’m describing as determining intent only, and think of as not setting stakes, we figure out that the player wants to distract the princess so that she doesn’t notice the crown jewels being taken. But when the resolution is complete, the GM does not have to narrate the princess being distracted per se. He just has to narrate something that satisfies the player’s intent. So when the character succeeds, he decides to narrate instead that the princess is not distracted by the seduction, and still notes the jewels being taken. But she has fallen so hard for the character that she decides that she will not only allow the jewels to be stolen, but asks if the PC will take her along, away from the palace.

      What I’m describing as explicit stake setting means that if the player says that the princess will be distracted, if the character succeeds, this is what the GM MUST narrate. This limits the GM’s ability to be creative in interpreting the outcomes of contests.

      If you understand the player’s intent, you can ensure that they get a satisfactory result, and yet maintain suspense before rolling the dice. If we have set the stakes, and know exactly what is going to happen before we roll (Result A for success, Result B for failure), then you lose that suspense. Success does not have to mean “Result A happens,” but can instead mean “Narrate something that meets my general intent.”

      What I’m proposing takes some trust. There are some people who hold on dearly to stake-setting, because in previous games not only was their intent missed, but the GM did so in an abusive manner. It is commonplace for GM’s to interpret intent in ways that are designed either to drive their pre-planned plot forward, or, worse, to make the PC look foolish.

      With explicit stake-setting, a player can rest easy that the results of contests will do none of the above negative things. But with a GM who is really trying to meet player intent, you can avoid these problems, and still have that element of suspense in not knowing exactly what the GM is going to narrate as the result of a conflict.

      I’ll post a second post on deprotagonization below…

    4. Mike Holmes

      The deprotagonization issue is not necessarily caused by constant failure. It’s caused by failures being defined in specific ways that cast a light on the character that the player doesn’t like.

      So in the seduction example, where the GM understands that the intent is for the princess to be distracted, the GM has lots of options in how to describe the failure. If they describe it as the character doing great in seducing the princess, but her unluckily happening to look out the window at just the right moment to see the approaching army, that’s great. But if the GM narrates the failure as the character being a bumbling fool, such that the princess is not distracted at all, and even becomes suspicious which causes her to note the incoming army, that might make the player feel that their character is now less interesting.

      Note that this can even happen on success. If the character succeeds in seducing the very young princess, the GM might narrate the player character as taking the princess to bed. Which might not fit at all with the player’s vision of what their character would do.

      Again, people like explicit stake setting in part because it avoids this ever happening. But as I’ve said, there’s another equally good way to ensure that the player is satisfied with a narrated result, even if it’s created entirely by the GM after the resolution. And that’s for the GM to simply ask if the result is satisfactory. Give the player veto power over narrated resolutions. If the character fails, that doesn’t mean that the player can change that result, the character must still fail. But the player may simply demand that the character fail in such a way that does not harm the player’s perception of the character (or even enhances it).

      I’m sure that for some people the GM creativity aspects, and suspense element of what I’m advocating (or any other advantages) may not be particularly worth much, in which case they should stick with explicit stake setting. Not everyone who likes these things does so because of a lack of trust or previously abusive GMs or the like. And it IS a bit more effort on the GM’s part to accomplish these things well.

      But for those who are willing to put in that effort, and who want the returns I mention, I think that stopping with intent determination can be superior to setting stakes.

  17. Anonymous

    But there are time were a pass/fail is the only choice for a GM. While I agree it’s stupid to use drive skill to get to point B, I think trying to avoid a crash falls into a pass/fail mode.

    I really do like this article, and thanks to games like Marvel Heroic and Gumshoe, it has lead to this type of thinking.

    Your article really help me out because I would have never thought of timme.


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