The Expected Outcome

This is one of those ideas that is simple in any context other than gaming: In most situations, when you describe something happening (“Diana Thunderstone punched the bruiser in the jaw…”), there are clear consequences that you can also describe (“…and he went down like a sack of bricks.”)

In gaming, we introduce uncertainty into this equation, so that if Diana’s player rolls higher than a 10, the guy goes down like a sack of bricks, but if she rolls less than 10, he doesn’t. We introduce different layers of complication to this (Maybe she only makes a little progress towards knocking him out, or maybe she takes some damage or whatever).

But if you peel back all that machinery, it comes back to the simple idea of an expected outcome. It’s the way things are supposed to go.

For all that this is a very simple idea, it has roots spread throughout gaming, many of which come back to the question of how we decide what is a reasonable expected outcome (and by extension, who gets to decide it). This is complicated further by the fact that we deal in realms of the imagination, which means finding any kind of shared agreement on what is reasonable can be tricky. How tall is a giant? How much weight can a pegasus carry? Can painting a vampire protect them from the sun? The potential array of questions is endless, and while it is possible to answer some of them, we end up having to turn to other tricks to deal with them.

The most common trick is, of course, to fold these things into a system, so the system provides the answer. Often the system (usually including some amount of randomization) fills the gap of all the things we don’t know to allow us to come to an agreed upon answer. Analyzing every single detail of skill and position makes it very cumbersome to determine if Khadgar hits the orc, so we take that uncertainty and throw it in a box labeled “To hit roll”, and now we have an answer. Or, rather, we have reduced it to a narrow range of expected outcomes, and given ourselves the tools to select between them.

But even an example that simple still depends on a broader idea of an expected outcome. There are the “obvious” assumptions – Khadgar needs to be within reach of the Troll, he has to have his sword, he needs to not be incapacitated and so on. System addresses many of these, but they are sufficiently obvious that there is rarely much need to look anything up or otherwise step out of the action. More tenuous are things situational events – what if the orc is distracted? What if it’s knocked on its ass?

System can address these, and a well constructed system (like 5e) offers tools (like advantage & disadvantage) to quickly systematize edge cases. However, this is one of those areas where GM skill and experience plays a strong role in making the right ruling and continuing to move on. The most obvious example in almost any system is the question of when to roll the dice. I mention this casually, but the decision of when to roll and when not to roll is incredibly powerful and usually falls explicitly into the GM’s hands.

Now, this idea of an expected outcome tends to hover over any situation in play. If there are greatly divergent expectations at the table, that creates a problem. If there’s great divergence between the expectations of the players/GM and the system, that can be a deal breaker (in fact, many game designs begin from this disconnect, looking to deliver an outcome closer to their expectations).

It is super interesting to look at PBTA in this regard – it has a weird relationship with expected outcomes (as it does with difficulty), and there’s a case that you might be better off going in without expected outcomes. At the other end of the spectrum, diceless games lean very heavily on expected outcomes, usually largely dependent on the GM’s sensibilities.

To my mind, this reveals something kind of critical about GM power. When you talk about giving GM power, I think people imagine very different things, often involving dropping elephants from the sky. It gets confused all the further when you have SUPER STRICT limitation on the GM except they’re still the owner of the entire fictional world – not sure what problem that solves.

But for me, when I say I want the GM to have a lot of power – more than the designer – I am speaking directly to expected outcomes. I think that system is a poor substitute for good judgement in deciding what outcomes(or range of outcomes) would most satisfy that table at that moment, and it seems silly to not acknowledge that authority. It’s not about purple beams from the sky, it’s about responsiveness. It’s about the moment of play.

Or at least that’s the expected outcome.

7 thoughts on “The Expected Outcome

  1. Random_Phobosis

    As an experiment I once tried to redirect this power to the players by making them directly nominate both intent (outcome) and action: “I do X to make Y happen”. As a result “I punch bad guy to knock him out”, “I punch bad guy to wear him out (so knocking him out would be easier)” and “I punch bad guy to drive him off” are very distinct actions.

  2. Sandra

    This is talked a lot about in the Forge and post-Forge communities, for example Vincent’s blog.

    Look for stuff about “intent” or “IIEE”

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      It is! Though there’s some interesting splitting because the very *role* of intent raises its own array of questions (and perhaps unsurprisingly this is one of those topics that Vincent and I agree on a lot but also don’t quite align). 🙂 I think the distinction between IIEE the question of where fortune (or perhaps more aptly, resolution) falls is artificial, and I am more intrigued by integrating them more strongly. But in Vincent’s terms, I’m mostly just talking about EE today. I would probably say I’m gravitating more towards John Tweet’s model of Karma/Drama/Fortune, which requires a very different perspective (or a broader grand unified perspective, but, well, that’s true of everything). 🙂

      1. Sandra

        Yeah, this is a tangled tree of a topic 😀
        Vincent wrote: “In the game’s fiction, what must you establish before you roll, and what must you leave unestablished until you’ve rolled?” — that seems pretty spot on to your post here, right?

        I never got the “fortune in the middle”-hype myself but I think the community has mostly moved away from that discussion now, right?

        KDF is about resolution, sort of. Everway doesn’t have any clearly defined “effects”. I’m more interested in Fortune and Karma specifically; clear fictional positioning with clear outcomes.

        You write: “there’s a case that you might be better off going in without expected outcomes.” And I’m like OMG YES THIS! I emphatically do agree with that sentence. Our 5e games have gotten great by throwing intent out the window and instead focus on what do you do, exactly, and how do you do it, exactly? “I do this… what happens?”

        Sometimes you make an ability check, sometimes an encounter check (to represent time passing), sometimes both, sometimes one to prevent the other or vice versa. There are many ways to resolve situations in 5e and that causes us to have to be specific in how we approach things, to know even which rule to engage with.

  3. Jay Loucks

    You write “It is super interesting to look at PBTA in this regard”.
    What is PBTA?

    (Immediate and unlikely ideas that sprintg to mind include Port of Baltimore Transit Authority and a Peanut Butter, Tuna and Arugula sandwitch)

    1. Sandra

      PbtA is a type of roleplaying game, for example Apocalypse World or Dungeon World. PbtA stands for “Powered by the Apocalypse”.

      Dungeon World and Apocalypse World are the two clearest examples; there are many, many PbtA games but some are changed, like Dream Askew doesn’t use dice for example.


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