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September 11th, 2006

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09:20 pm - Terms for Resolution Systems
Some more general thoughts here on resolution systems. brand_of_amber has some comments from earlier about stakes. This is driven in particular from more resolution system discussion, on theRPGsite and on Story Games. I find that the terms "stakes", "task", and "conflict" are overloaded with baggage -- so I'm going to take a shot at broader alternate definitions.

Resolution Systems

So let me start more generally about resolution systems. So, in general, a resolution system is a mechanical procedure for bringing a resolution to a situation with unclear outcome in the game. At the end of invoking a resolution system, things should be more defined than prior. So, this doesn't include things like wandering monster rolls, random event roll, Whimsy Card play, or Plot Twist buying -- because they introduce situations, and tend to not resolve them.

Success Checks

Now, I'm open to suggestions for better terminology here -- but I'm going to try a classification. A subset of resolution systems is a "Success Check". This is where a character is trying to accomplish something, and you invoke a mechanic (such as a die roll or card play) to determine whether it is a success or failure. There may be other results as well, but this is the core.

Success Check mechanics include things like a generic skill roll, a combat to-hit roll, a conflict resolution roll, and so forth. As long as it scales between success and failure, then it's a success check.

Non-Success-Check mechanics might include something like Everway's Law of Fortune. There a custom tarot card is drawn, but that flavors the outcome rather than specifying success or failure. Polaris' negotiation mechanic is an edge case: it involves some elements of a Success Check (i.e. the key phrase "It Shall Not Come To Pass", which goes to a die roll), but many elements which are not part of it.


I would suggest using the term "Consequence" to indicate the central meaning of the roll in a Success Check. In other words, what happens upon success versus what happens upon failure. In the case of a to-hit roll, for example, the Consequence may be whether or not your attack hits. In the case of a spellcasting roll, the Consequence may be whether the spell takes effect.

There are many ways that the Consequence can be defined. It can be specified by the system (as in the case of the hit roll or spell roll). It may be defined by the GM. It may be defined by the GM but openly declared. It may be defined by open negotiation between the GM and the players.

Note that every Success Check by definition has Consequence. The questions are how it is determined, and when and how it is declared.

System-defined Consequence

This is common in many traditional systems, but usually does not cover the complete range of situations. Usually combat and magic rolls have clearly defined Consequence. Other rolls vary. For example, to make an NPC more friendly to you in the D20 system, you can make a Diplomacy check with a difficulty defined by their present attitude (on a named five-step scale).

Freeform Consequence

This is common for systems with player-defined skills, or most uncommon situations in any system. The group defines in some way what the check will mean.

There are some important qualifiers here. At what point in the process does the Consequence of the check get defined? Who knows it, and when is it declared? Many games don't define this. Some define that the Consequence needs to be defined, but don't specify when or a concrete procedure how.

Retries and Extended Consequence

Sometimes, the results of a roll may be tracked into the future of play. One of the most common is disallowing a retry. For example, in the D20 System, you might try a Decipher Script roll. This has no retry allowed, so you cannot decipher a given document in the future unless certain conditions occur.

This is sometimes tricky because the extended consequence is a meta-game restriction which might clash with other parts of the game.

Level of Abstraction

This means how much needs to be specified for the Success Check to be made. For example, consider the following range of results:

Very High Abstraction:
In a high-level political game focusing on the long-term fate of the nation, the player says, "I want to go to the town of Swinton and solve the unrest there." The GM says, "OK, roll your Leadership and add Perception." The player rolls dice, and upon success the problems in the town are solved.

Less Abstraction #1:
In an epic conspiracy game focusing on a nationwide conspiracy, the player says, "I want to question everyone in town, gather what everyone knows, and find the top suspects for the crime." The GM says, "OK, roll a Gather Information check." The player rolls dice, and depending on the level of success, the GM outlines the complete situation and everyone's opinions.

Less Abstraction #2:
In an investigative game, the player says, "I want to go the town's sherriff Joe and question him, and see if he's hiding anything." The GM says, "OK, roll your Interrogation skill." The player rolls dice, and depending on the level of success, the GM tells her varying amounts about what information the sherriff is hiding.

Less Abstraction #3:
In a more detailed investigative game, the player is in the midst of in-character dialogue with the sherriff when she doubts the sherriff's story about what he saw last night. She says, "I'd like to see if he seems believable about that last part." The GM says, "OK, roll Detect Lie skill." The player rolls dice, and if he succeeds then he knows whether that was a deception or not.

So, that's what I have at present. I'm trying to outline a framework and a way of talking about different resolution systems which can cover talking about them in more detail.

So in principle, I might want to talk about how Everway, D&D, Dogs in the Vineyard, Amber Diceless, and The Burning Wheel all differ from each other. But I don't want to do it by classifying them into one of two camps, but rather by contrasting different aspects of them.

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 12th, 2006 04:31 am (UTC)
I really like the sound of this a lot, and look forward to seeing more.

I think that abstraction can decrease in two separate ways: system-specified detail, and player-specified detail. I gather from writeups, for instance, that Prime Time Adventure scenes can go on for some time after resolution if players have interesting things to say.
Date:September 12th, 2006 05:54 am (UTC)
Nice. Keep talking.
[User Picture]
Date:September 12th, 2006 04:33 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a good start. I guess in your framework here, the issues I've been talking about would be:

1) Are the consequences as they relate to the player's goal known before the resolution or not?

2) How are higher-abstraction goals handled in a system that focuses on lower-abstraction?

Those aren't questions for you, they're analytical for the games you want to compare :)
[User Picture]
Date:September 12th, 2006 05:32 pm (UTC)
Good questions!

1) Are the consequences as they relate to the player's goal known before the resolution or not?

I mentioned this issue in my "Freeform Consequences" section as a brief question. Most commonly, this isn't specified by the game system. Different groups will handle it differently. With the exception of perception rolls, the consequence is usually known by the end, and the group can give feedback for future rolls.

2) How are higher-abstraction goals handled in a system that focuses on lower-abstraction?

Generally, they aren't -- and this is true of most indie games as well as traditional games. There is free play between the invocations of resolution system, during which anything can happen. So, for example, in Dogs you might defeat or even convert one sinner -- but there could be any number of further sinners in the town opposing your eventual goal of settling its problems.

However, there are often limited ranges of goals built into the system. For example, your goal in D&D could be gaining levels or associated perks, like building a keep or attracting followers. In such a case, the system gives you a defined long-term progression towards your goal, based on how you resolve encounters. In Breaking the Ice, your goal could be making a lasting relationship, in which case there is a long-term progression based on how you resolve scenes. In My Life With Master, you could be pursuing one of the five defined post-game fates. Many more modern point systems offer possible point investments like making allies, bases, achieving social status, and so forth -- though often the XP to get there isn't directly tied to resolution like it is in D&D.

There are two recent games I got which tie in long-term goals to resolution: 1001 Nights has explicit tracks for freedom and ambition, and Hero's Banner has three defined long-term goals which are progressed towards.

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