Category Archives: Mechanics

Discussion of game mechanics and their implications for play

Torchbearer Excel Utility

Recently, I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Burning Wheel’s “Torchbearer” RPG.

It’s an intriguing, gritty reimagining of the classic D&D dungeon crawl. The characters are down-at-heel adventures, the sort of desperate individuals who would seek their fortune delving in dark and dangerous holes. But adventuring takes its toll, you can only carry so much, and sometimes it’s tough to decide between the extra rations and the gilded cup you’ve just found. Exhaustion strikes, fear sets in, and before long – if you’re not true to yourself and who you are – you’ll be worn down by the constant grind.

If you make it out, well, those townsfolk saw you coming, that treasure is enough to get you back on your feet and maybe buy you a fancy new sword, but before long your only recourse is to get back out there and dungeon crawl some more.

Torchbearer is a very clever, mechanically complex game. It’s blatant about the need for players to develop system mastery, and it has numerous inter-linked mechanics that are at times more reminiscent of a Euro boardgame than a traditional RPG.

Anyway, as is my wont, I looked at all those juicy mechanics and thought “what they really need is an Excel spreadsheet”. So here it is. It started as an Excel version of the default Torchbearer character sheet, then I added an alternative character sheet, then a character generator, and more, and more!

So if you’re a fan of Torchbearer, I hope this is useful.


And if you’re not, I strongly recommend taking a look. It may not be your thing (hell, I haven’t played it yet, so it might not be MY thing!) but it’s certainly the most interesting and damned clever RPG I’ve read in a long while.

D&D4e Dungeon Bash Board Game – Playtest

After much planning, prepping and spreadsheet making, I ran a quick play test of my card-based D&D4e dungeon crawl concept. This is quite a long post, as I go into the design decisions I made and then the results of the test.

If you’ve got the stamina, read on!

Part 1: Dungeon Bash Board Game Design

Because of the way D&D4e is designed, each class is made up of a number of possible “Builds”, with each deck of Power Cards usually supporting 2 different builds. I embraced this and made each build into a distinct sub-class with its own specific power sets, e.g. Druid (Guardian) and Druid (Predator). For Fighters, I picked up a copy of the Martial Power deck, which supported two new sub-classes from that supplement: Battlerager Fighter and Tempest Fighter. However, it also had a number of specific powers relating to Spear/Polearms and others for Shields, so I used those to create a third sub-class: Hoplite.

Apart from the card-play rules, below, the other significant change I wanted to bring in was introducing a 13th Age Escalation die, to stop combat getting bogged down.

Character creation

Each character is made by selecting:

  • 2 sub-classes
  • Race – the usual D&D races, with a bit of editing to balance abilities out
  • Characteristic array – either [4,1,1,0,0,-1], [3,2,1,1,0,0] or [2,2,2,2,0,0]. Characteristics are rated solely in terms of their bonus value, not traditional D&D score. My character generation spreadsheet automatically allocates values to the priority attributes for the chosen sub-classes, but no reason why a player couldn’t over-ride that if they chose.
  • Feat – each character chooses 1 Feat, except humans who have 2.

One design choice I made was to cut back the number of Racial Abilities and Feats. The trouble with these is that in effect they create “rules exceptions” – the define ways that a particular character operates differently to the core game. My aim for this game was to make it faster-paced than the original D&D4e and the last thing I want is players constantly having to check a long list of abilities to see which, if any, apply in any given situation. I kept abilities that simply affect another number that can be hard-coded into the character sheet (e.g. Weapon Focus; Improved Initiative). For the same reason, I also removed gaining Feats as characters level up – the range of powers available means characters will have plenty to do without introducing new exceptions.

Game Play

The idea is that game play will be exactly like D&D, up until the point combat starts. That’s when the usual declaration of actions is taken up by card play.

  1. Each character has a hand of 4 cards
  2. Characters act in Initiative order (fixed value, no 1d20 roll)
  3. Characters get 3 actions:
  1. Standard – play a Standard Action card or discard any card to take a default Standard Action (e.g. basic Attack)
  2. Move – play a Move Action card or discard any card to take a default Move action
  3. Minor – play a Minor Action card or just declare a basic minor action (no discard required)
    1. Resolve actions
    2. Tidy up your cards:
  4. If you played a Daily action, it goes back in the box.
  5. If you played an Encounter action, it goes in your Discard pile
  6. If you played an At-Will action, it either goes in your Discard or you can choose to pick it back up
    1. Refill hand back up to 4 cards

The aim of discarding to Move is to burn through the deck more quickly and increase the chance of lots of interesting powers coming up and of discarded cards coming back around.

My original thought was that At-Will cards are discarded just like Encounter cards, but the trouble is some At-Will abilities are fundamental to particular classes (e.g. Druid (Predator) shape-changing into an animal), so discarding them would cripple those characters.

Part 2: Play Test

I used the very first encounter from the D&D4e Dungeon Delve sourcebook, a fairly simple encounter with a bunch of kobolds on a 10×10 map. The kobolds were set up as designed, with the PCs all entering from one corner of the map. The PCs were represented by:

Half-Elf Sorcerer/Rogue
Half-Orc Barbarian/Warden
Dwarf Druid/Invoker
Human Warlord/Paladin

The aim of the play test was to see how the combat card play worked, although checking the usability of the character sheets was also a desirable outcome.

It took about 7 rounds (I didn’t keep count) for the 4 PCs to dispatch the Kobolds. The Barbarian PC took a beating, but the Paladin fortunately drew his Lay on Hands card in the second round, so was able to bring him back from the brink. Other than that, it was all very straightforward, with the plethora of Encounter powers played meaning the PCs were at no risk of being out-classed.

Lessons Learned

From this simple test, I learned a huge amount about how to take this endeavour forward to completion:

  1. Card-play – generally worked well. Discarding to move was a tiny bit clunky, but I think it’s a necessary evil just to ensure the decks get well-used. Allowing player to keep hold of an At-Will power after it was played is consistent with original D&D4 rules, but severely reduces deck-cycling. Perhaps once played they remain face up in front of the player, effectively increasing hand size?
  2. Hand-size – four cards may be too few. Of the 4 characters we ran, over around 7 combat rounds, 3 times hands came up with no attack powers in of any kind. If making a basic attack is the optimal play, that’s not using the powers to their best advantage.
  3. Encounter design – this is critical. I used an off-the-shelf encounter, and it was boring. The setting was too small (every ranged power was automatically in range because of the size of the map) and there was a major choke-point which rendered dynamic movement virtually impossible.
  4. Monster design – this is also critical. Minions are fun in that they allow you to have large numbers of creatures that are killed in a single blow, but it’s anticlimactic to use a big power and find that you might just as well have done a basic attack. With more powers available, fewer monsters with more HPs are by far more interesting as opponents.
  5. Initiative – I decided to make Initiative scores fixed, removing the d20 roll. This worked fine. Only reduces one roll, but it’s one less number to keep track of.
  6. Weapons – stumbled across a design problem in my character sheet. Weapons have Proficiency Bonuses, and the character sheet combines that with the relevant stat to give a compound To Hit score. However, some powers use Weapons with a different characteristic, a value that the character sheet then doesn’t provide. Also, weapon-based attacks hit more often than magical powers, because they gain +2 or +3 from the weapon itself. This means that against Minions, who perish in a single blow, making a basic weapon attack is often the optimal choice over a more interesting but less accurate power.
  7. Missing is boring – there is nothing more dispiriting than playing a big power only to have it fail. Not only is it dispiriting, it’s boring. And non-weapon powers miss a lot, roughly 50/50. I’d rather powers hit more often but opponents have the Hit Points to suck them up. So Defences need to come down and/or accuracy needs to increase. I’ll probably remove Weapon proficiency bonuses and either give all characteristics a bump of +2 or +3, reduce defences by a similar amount, or perhaps widen the characteristic arrays (e.g. 6,5,3,1,1,0). Of them all, I think I prefer reducing the Defences, so the characters don’t look out of kilter if a player has D&D4 experience. This may imbalance the Powers, as it may be that Weapon-based power cards do less damage than non-Weapon-based to reflect the different accuracy: if so, I can increase weapon damage slightly to compensate.
  8. Escalation die – in this scenario, I didn’t use it. I’m not sure it’s actually needed if the encounter design is done right.
  9. Minor actions – only came up when there was a specific power that used a Minor action. I think they probably do need to remain though. Perhaps also need to discard when these are used, both for consistency and to maximise deck cycling.
  10. Monsters – bit boring really, they had nothing to do but stand still and slug it out. Either monsters or PCs need to have some objective to encourage dynamic play. Did think that monsters could be semi-automated using a deck of cards, but this would require a deck (albeit not a big one) per creature type and that would be a lot of extra work.
  11. Rolling damage – in a board game model, this may be an extraneous step. Fixed damage would certainly speed things up by maybe 10 seconds per successful attack.

Next Steps & Further Thoughts

A bigger piece of work is to re-evaluate the under-lying game design philosophy. What do I want this game to be? If it’s a slightly faster version of D&D4, then that aim is pretty much accomplished.

However, if I want to create a dynamic dungeon crawl game that is “powered by” D&D4e, then there’s actually a lot of additional work to do. Parts of game play are a bit clunky and there is a lot of clutter on the character sheets that either didn’t get used or was over-looked. Fundamentally, it is not very accessible for anyone without prior experience of D&D4e.

The powers should really sing out, and to do that I think I need to do even more to strip back extraneous elements.

  • Class abilities should be converted into Powers or removed – I think 1 signature power on the character sheet is probably fine, but much more than that becomes unwieldy.
  • Skills should become binary abilities with no skill value – you have it, or you don’t – and should probably have an associated Power card so its combat-use is clear (if applicable – e.g. Bluff).

However, this will lead to even more cards in the players’ deck, which means the issue of deck-cycling comes back up. The decision of “burn this card, but it’ll come up later” is very different to “burn this card, and it won’t come up again”. Part of the solution is to make combat last for more rounds, but it will probably take a minimum of 15 rounds for the deck to recycle unless more than 2 cards are discarded every turn, and this means PCs will be taking more damage. Theoretically there will be more healing powers out there, but the randomness of the deck creates a potentially vulnerability.

One thought on this is to tweak the Action economy somewhat.

  • Every character has 3 actions: Attack, a Move and another.
  • Each turn you play 3 cards, which you then reveal or discard each as necessary. E.g. if you have an Interrupt power, you need to put it face down and leave it there. Or you might flip over an Attack action, discard another for a Move, and leave the third face down to potentially discard to take an Opportunity Attack later on.
  • At the start of your turn, any cards remaining go on the discard pile.

This would really get the cards cycling round, because every round you’d always be getting rid of 3 cards. Which fundamentally is the whole reason I came up with this hair-brained scheme to begin with – D&D4 powers are fun, and I want to play with them ALL!

And next time I should definitely take some photos…


D&D5 – Mucking about with Proficiency

One of the simplifications that lies at the heart of D&D5 is the Proficiency mechanic: one central value, derived from Character Level, added to your die roll. Whether you’re hitting stuff with a pointy stick or trying to remember the name of that ancient carbunculous statue: roll 1d20 and add Proficiency.

So obviously, that’s RIPE for complication!

So here’s a few proposals on how you can muck about with Proficiency, adding complexity and individuality without breaking the game (too badly!)


Proficiency: the five core functions

To begin with, let’s split Proficiency into its main functions:

  • Skill rolls
  • Saving throws
  • Spell-casting rolls
  • Combat (and here I’d suggest further diversifying into Melee Combat and Ranged Combat)

Every character will now have five separate values to represent their relative skill in different areas. So, as a Barbarian you may favour Melee Combat, Saves and Skills; as a Wizard you’ll want to focus as much on Spell-casting; a Bard may go with a more even spread.

Now for deriving and increasing these values. Here’s a few ideas:

Method 1: Simple Level Proficiency

All values start at +2. You get +1 to one Proficiency value of your choice at Level 1 and every level thereafter. You can’t add more than Level / 3 to any one value (rounded up to 1 for L2, with an absolute maximum of +8).

This allows a generalist character to have +6 in all five areas by L20, or a specialist to have a spread of +8/+8/+8/+3/+3.

A simple progression and easy to manage, but leads to over-powered specialists.

Method 1A: Capped Maximum

All values start at +2. You get +1 to one Proficiency value of your choice at Level 1 and every level thereafter. The highest value must be within 2 points of the lowest value.

This reduces the ability of a Specialist to run ahead, with a maximum spread of +7/+7/+7/+5/+5 at L20.  However, it does allow someone to have +4 to one ability at 2nd level. Almost certainly not game breaking, but does stretch the underlying assumptions of the mechanics a little.

Method 2: Points-buy

Each level you get a number of Proficiency Points equal to the new Level (i.e. at 3rd level, you get 3 points). Increasing Proficiency values costs as follows:

Value +3 +4 +5 +6 +7 +8
Cost 2 8 15 25 50 100

You can only increase 1 value per level. This allows for the following progressions:

  • Generalist:  focusing equally on all Proficiency values, you get +1 to one Proficiency value every level (except 18th). At 10th level you have +4/+4/+4/+4/+3 and end up with +6/+6/+6/+5/+5 at 20th level.
  • Ultra-specialist: focus on a single Proficiency, you hit +6/+2/+2/+2/+2 at 10th level and +8/+2 etc. at 20th level. Good luck with those Saving Throws…
  • Dual specialist: 10th level is +5/+5/+2 and 20th level is +7/+7/+2.
  • Priority 3: +5/+4/+4/+3/+2 at 10th, +7/+6/+6/+4/+2 at 20th
  • Focus 4: +4/+4/+4/+4/+2 at 10th, +6/+6/+6/+6/+4 at 20th

More granular, more choice, but complex book-keeping. And in reality, would anyone not go for something akin to Priority 3 or Focus 4? Might be better just defining some possible progressions at Level 1 and having players pick them.

Method 3: Class-based Proficiency

If you’re going to define Proficiency up front, why not just set it by class a la D&D3.x?

Firstly, change the default assumption back to 4 Proficiency types, dropping the split between Melee and Ranged combat. Set four core progressions:

  • Strong: +3 at 4th level and further +1 every 4 levels, until +7 at 20th
  • Standard: as per usual
  • Moderate: +1 at 1st level, +2 at 2nd level and +1 every 4 levels until +6 at 17th
  • Weak: +0 at 1st level, +1 at 2nd level and +1 every 5 levels until +4 at 17th

Then allocate classes one of two possible arrays:

  • Specialist class: Strong, Standard, Moderate, Weak
  • Generalist class: Standard, Standard, Moderate, Moderate

E.g. A Fighter would be Strong Attack, Standard Save, Moderate Skill, Weak Magic. A Bard could be Standard Magic, Standard Skill, Moderate Attack, Moderate Save.

Method 4: Simple Proficiency, revisited

Start with spread of +2/+2/+1/+1/+1. Maximum value of any Proficiency is 3 + Level /5 (rounded-down). Add one point to one Proficiency value as Method 1. At 5th level, a specialist could be +4/+3/+2/+1/+1. But by 20th level it’s evened out at +7/+6/+6/+6/+1.

Why put this last, rather than as Method 1B? Well, because if I were to implement one of these ideas, this is the one I’d go with. Balances customisability with simplicity. What’s not to like?!

Power Ranks – combining absolute and variable resolution mechanics

Time to throw a log of contemplation into the cold dead ashes of this blog burner.

Earlier this week, I read another excellent blog entry by always thought-provoking Rob Donoghue, one of the creators of Fate, around resolution mechanic based on TV tropes. Read it here:

The idea of rigid tiers of ability is something I’ve considered myself on many occasions, and it is one that pops up from time to time in RPGs. For example, Jonathan Tweet’s Everway. The actual model described by Rob, with near-automatic success over lower ranks, a small chance of beating a higher rank, and more nuanced conflict resolution within ranks pretty much describes Robin D. Laws HeroQuest / Hero Wars system to a tee.

This got me thinking a little about Superhero games. Building mechanics that allow you to reflect Awesome Man’s planet-moving abilities alongside Sneaky Man’s street-level gumption and then bring them together in satisfying game play is notoriously difficult. However, it strikes me that retrofitting a rank-based model into existing superhero games could go a long way towards solving this issue. There are numerous ways this could be done, but as food for thought, I’ll set one out below.


Rank Concept

Every character, power and ability is given a rank. These range from 0 to 5:

  1. Incapable. This character simply doesn’t have this ability in a way that can be used game-mechanically (e.g. physical strength for a 3 year old child)
  2. Normal human
  3. Above normal human (street-level hero or villain)
  4. Super-human
  5. Powerful super-human
  6. Cosmic super-being

Every character has a core rank. This is the default for every stat, skill, ability and power they have. However, you can also increase or decrease abilities on an individual basis.

  • An ability of a higher rank always beats an ability of a lower rank
  • An ability of a lower rank can only affect an ability of a higher rank if there is some kind of advantageous or aggravating factor (e.g. overwhelming odds, team work, a critical hit mechanic, exploiting a stated weakness)

To illustrate this by example:
Superman is a Rank 5 hero. It is impossible for any attack from a Rank 3 to hurt them (whether they just don’t hit, or they bounce off his Uber-tough skin, or whatever).

Batman is a Rank 5 hero* with Rank 3 physical strength. Although he can mix it with the big leagues, his physical attacks are impotent against many bad guys so he needs to find other solutions.

Wolverine is a Rank 4 hero with Rank 5 Claws. Those things can cut through anything.

*or could be. Other builds are available!

Ranks plus Conflict Resolution

The impact this has on the conflict resolution mechanics can potentially be quite dramatic. Points-buy systems typically give tough Heroes high levels of invulnerability or defences to reflect the fact they aren’t easily hurt. They then need to give equivalent high levels of damage to reflect the opponents that can sometimes hurt them. You then end up in a situation where any Villain that is a challenge to Superman will kill Batman in a single blow.

However, with a rank system you don’t need to do this. Instead of giving Superman a 25d6 punch attack, you can give him a Rank 5 8d6 punch attack. With that punch, he can damage any opponent he fights. But he won’t insta-kill a street-level thug just because he’s forgotten about the pulling-your-punch mechanics. Similarly, you can build a Captain USA character who looks like he’s just a normal human, but because he’s a Rank 4 hero, he can dodge bullets and duke it out with super-powered foes without needing to break in-game scaling mechanics.

Similarly, Batman has rank 4 Intimidate. Against ordinary bad guys, he doesn’t even need to roll. Against average super-villains, he uses his (high) skill. Against Justice League-level baddies he just glowers moodily.

To work at its very best, you need to separate out Combat mechanics from Non-combat mechanics. For example, Strength should reflect the ability to exert force on the game world but NOT reflect damage. This is a fundamental requirement to ensure scaling for things like Lifting doesn’t break scaling for Combat. It’s something I used to hate, because it broke my simulationist view of the real world, but the reality is we’re not simulating real world, we’re simulating comic book world and to my knowledge Superdude hasn’t punched anyone’s head off to date. As I recall, Silver Age Sentinels and related tri-stat games did just this.

Finally, a beneficial side-effect of this is that it can increase how much you are able to play in the game mechanical sweet spot. Hero System, for example, with its buckets of dice approach, offers quite different game play when the typical attack does 4d6 damage to when it does 15d6 damage (not least, because more dice reduces the likelihood of rolling extreme values). Using ranks, you can pitch the game at the level your group most enjoys whilst still allowing for apparently vast differences in powers and abilities.


Playing with the concept

The other fun thing about the Rank concept is it offers different ways you can play with it to make it work for your game.

For example, instead of linking it to hard-and-fast power levels, you can just use it as a relative scale. Rank 6 means you are the best at that in your campaign universe. Regardless of any other PC or NPC, you are the best. Want to be Usain Bolt? There ya go.

Another, related, way to use it is for niche protection. According to the canon, Superman has a genius-level intellect, yet in the Justice League he invariably plays second-fiddle to Batman – this is because Bruce invested points in Rank 5 intellect, giving himself niche protection as “the clever one”.

One option is to introduce rank auctions as part of a collaborative character generation, for a bit of competitive tension in the creation of the PCs. Not suitable for every group, or indeed every game, but forces you to ask yourself just how much are you willing to give up to be the best warrior in the kingdom?

Finally, for those characters like Batman who seem able to effortless scale up and down as befits the story, you can do away with multiple character versions or complex power-builds. Simply vary the character rank based on the story you want to tell and nothing else needs to change. (“Today, we’re playing a Rank 3 scenario”). Or create a power that allows a character to more easily raise his Rank: you don’t need a mob of Batmen to duke it out with Superman, you just need to remember that he can knows your weaknesses and he always has a plan…

D&D Deck Building Dungeon Bash Boardgame

When Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition was published, as a fan of game mechanics, I thought it was a work of beauty. OK, it wasn’t D&D as I knew it, but with so many fun crunchy things inside, I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I loved the way each Class had multiple unique powers. I loved the options they gave the players, the way the mechanics integrated and complemented one another, how they gave different classes a distinct role and feel. However, my first play experience soon put things into context, as my group found combat was slow and the exciting choices hinted at by the range of powers lost their sheen after the third encounter. My group plays infrequently, jumps system regularly, and it’s not unusual to never play a game twice. So we waved farewell to D&D4 and never went back.

I stand by this decision. I don’t regret it, except for one thing… all those lovely untouched powers, sitting there, waiting, calling to me… On the one hand, I’m disappointed that I only scratched the surface of the powers. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be prepared to put in the time commitment to do any more. But what if there’s another way?

Deck Building
Get your hands on the D&D4 power decks that were published. Several sets. Or make your own. Create D&D4th edition characters. Then give every character at least 2 classes. Maybe 3.

  • Give every character all of the 1st level powers of those classes. Give them as cards, in a deck.
  • Allow each player to draw a hand of 3 or 4 cards.
  • Every time you’re in combat, you can draw a card and play a card. If you don’t play a card, I guess you can probably draw 2. Dunno. Maybe.
  • If you play an At Will power, it goes into a discard pile that forms the new deck once it’s exhausted.
  • If you play an Encounter power, it goes into a different discard pile that is shuffled in once the encounter finishes.
  • If you play a Daily power, you could have a third discard pile, but I actually think it would be more fun to treat it as an encounter power, but you don’t get to draw a new card. Or maybe you have to discard another card to fuel it. Or both. Or something.

Dungeon Bash Boardgame
Nominate a DM. Create a 10 encounter dungeon. Start at 1st level. Finish with the 10th level Big Bad Boss Encounter. Create a bit of story and a few puzzles to link them together. Drop the characters in, kick down doors, kill things and take their stuff.

After each encounter, give every character a heal and level them up. Keep things moving quickly, see how far you can get in one night. Strong on dice-rolling. Weak on story. And using deck-building to mitigate some of the issues of encounter speed and analysis paralysis.

Hey presto. D&D4 as a deck-building dungeon bash pure combat board game.

For a one-off, more complex, version of a typical dungeon-bash board game, this actually sounds rather fun to me. Normally, following an idea like this, my inclination would be to get into some really detailed analysis. Check whether every class and every power would work properly with this. Plan it, write it, think about it, rewrite it. On this occasion, I think I’d rather just play it and see what happens. After all, it’s not like we’d ever do it twice.

NB: Ok, it’s not really very deck-buildy. I just like the alliteration. The rapid levelling and adding more cards as a result after each encounter does give it a sort of deck-building element. But I accept, it’s no Dominion.

Skill Contests

Many RPGs are fundamentally skill-driven, using successes in character talents to adjudicate action, create uncertainty and drive the story forward. On occasions, the story might develop in such a way that a skill takes centre stage – can the hero defuse the bomb before the City is levelled? Can he repair the damaged controls before tdisarm a bombhe light aeroplane plunges into Mont Blanc?

For fighting, we have combat systems. For social interaction, we now have a number of social combat systems such as those offered by Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel and Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice & Fire. But for extended skill contests, the RPG world is decidedly under-resourced. You have options like extended checks (multiple successes to complete), but this is often nothing more than rolling a single skill lots of times. Dull, dull, dull. It lacks the interesting element of good combat-type systems, which is that of tactical choices.

Going back to the Infiniverse of the 90s
Probably the best system I’ve seen is West End Games classic system Torg (recently spotted resurfacing on Bundle of Holding to the delight of fans like me).

Torg breaks dramatic skill tests into up to 4 stages: A, B, C, D, which represent 4 specific steps that have to completed in order to achieve the task (e.g. A: Open the outer casing; B: Analyse the circuits; C: Disarm the booby-trap; D: Cut the fuse wire). Torg drama deckTorg’s custom initiative cards then set the pace for completing the task. Each round, the initiative card will list some combination of those 4 letters or state “Complication”. Each round, the player has a real tactical choice to make:

  • Is there more than 1 letter that I need? In which case, should I try to complete multiple elements while I can, or play safe and just go for a single success?
  • Are there no letters that I need? Should I make a check to gain a bonus to my next attempt, or try to complete a letter than isn’t there? (at substantial penalty)
  • How much time is left? Should I just go for it and hope I succeed? (“Just cut the red wire!”)
  • If it’s a Complication, you need to succeed at a roll, or something bad happens (“Oh no, my pliers fell down the lava-filled chasm!”) – lose a step, increase the difficulty of future steps, or require the character to switch to a new skill.

The cards also count as the timer, with the GM deciding how many card flips are available before the consequence of failing the task comes about. Communicating the reducing time to the players is tricky, but essential to build the sense of impending doom (and sometimes you can just be open about it – a little bit of transparency can sometimes add more tension not less!)

Problems with Torg’s Dramatic Skill Resolution
This is a relatively easy system to port across to other RPGs, although it works best with games that allow multiple actions in a single round – without that a key element of tactical choice is removed. One issue is the reliance on the initiative cards to generate the A, B, C, D results. A possible fix is to roll 4 different coloured dice at the start of each round, with every die that is above a certain value meaning that task can be attempted. If none of the dice reach the Threshold, it’s a Complication. This actually adds more flexibility than the Torg cards, as you as GM could control the rate at which certain tasks are possible – ramp up the tension by making that key D stage only crop up 20% of the time.

Another downside is that it can be sometimes difficult to fit the narrative to the game mechanics. The best way to resolve this is to make sure a specific task is ascribed to each letter, and then improvise why certain things aren’t possible, especially if the scene is ripe with environmental or other hazards (as should be the case for a dramatic skill check). Why can I not analyse the circuits this turn, but I could disarm the trap or cut the fuse? Well, you try to concentrate on the circuit layout but are distracted by a nearby explosion or roaring T-Rex.

A new approach – Skill Combat!
There’s another possible approach to spice up Skill Contests that as far as I’m aware no game has yet embraced. To go with Physical Combat and Social Combat, we have Skill Combat!

Each round, you try to cause damage to the task’s Difficulty Points. This is largely the same as how many RPGs treat extended skill checks at the moment – you roll against difficulty and have to accumulate a certain number of successes. You could go with fixed skill damage, or inflict the difference between the Target Number and your result. For class-based games such as D&D, I’d be inclined to go further and give each class a Skill Damage die to reflect differing ability (so a Rogue does d10 skill damage, a Fighter or Wizard only d6). Otherwise this is a relatively straight-forward idea.

However, this is the new bit. As with any combat, the task also tries to cause damage to you in return. If the game has an existing mechanic to represent narrative defeat – such as Fate or HeroWars – use that. For something like D&D you could add a new characteristic for skill hit points (e.g. “Composure”), along with another characteristic (e.g. “Cool”) that represents your Skill Armour Class. Each round as you attack the Task, the Task attacks back, trying to hit your Cool and undermine your Composure. The amount of damage done by the Task is probably a little abstracted, based on the overall stress of the situation: it’s not about how much time is left, it’s about how much pressure the PC perceives themselves to be under. Again, in a d20-style game, it’s pretty easy to come up with suitable values.

If the Difficulty Points reach zero, you succeed against the odds. If your Composure reaches zero, you run away screaming, throw your hands up in the air claiming it’s just too damn hard, or whplane mountainsatever. In effect, this gives you a dual timer track – will the hero repair the aeroplane controls, will the plane crash, or will the hero reach breaking point and run for a parachute in a (futile) attempt to save herself?

Because this system introduces the dual nature of attacking and being attacked, it opens up the opportunity for slightly crunchy tactical options. This changes extended skill contests by adding a critical missing element – player choice. It’s no longer just roll your skill. Do you decide to Taking Care (reduce your chance of success, but minimises your risk of losing Composure)? Do you tackle the task Recklessly (reducing your skill, but boosting the Difficulty damage you inflict)?

Conclusion of sorts
Of the two options I describe here, I think there is more utility in expanding the Torg system to other games. But I think there could be some mileage in developing a Skill Combat system as an interesting counter-point to the usual way of doing things. Consider the gauntlet thrown down

Skills as Resources – the Genius of GUMSHOE

The GUMSHOE system, as designed by Robin D. Laws and used in a number of RPGs, Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues being but two, has been widely praised for turning the standard approach of how role-playing game systems dealt with the issue of clues and information on its head.

Traditional RPGs doled out clues and information to the players only if characters completed a successful action of some kind – did you notice the single blonde hair in the victim’s hand, did you find the relevant newspaper clipping in the library, do you know anything about ancient Aztec murder rituals? On the plus side, this gave players a sense of positive achievement if they managed to find a clue; on the flip side, a failed roll could stall the adventure and bring the entire story crashing to a halt. So GUMSHOE does what many GMs ended up doing anyway: if you have the necessary investigative skill, you get the clue. No roll necessary. You just get it. Simple and, in hindsight, so obvious.

But that’s not the genius of GUMSHOE. Well, ok, maybe it is. But it’s not the genius I want to talk about today.

Ingredients for dramatic tension
One of the challenges in RPGs is creating dramatic tension in an adventure. Certain types of scenes have dramatic tension in spades, typically those governed by detailed conflict resolution mechanics – such as combat. In large part, it’s because these scenes have six in-built mechanical elements:

  • Objective – the players must have some firm goal that they’re looking to achieve.
  • Challenge – a clear obstacle between the players and the objective.
  • Risk – the scene presents some sort of negative consequence for failure.
  • Reward – the scene presents some sort of positive consequence for success.
  • Choices – the players have to decide how best to overcome the challenge.
  • Resources – the players have limited resources that inform what Choices they can exercise.

The best, most dramatic or dramatic scenes have all six of these elements. For example, a good combat scene in an D&D-esque fantasy game might have:

  • Objective – the heroes want to save a Princess, locked up in a far-away tower.
  • Challenge – the tower is being guarded by a Dragon.
  • Risk – the dragon will eat you. Or maybe eat the Princess. Or both.
  • Reward – if you kill the dragon, rather than just avoid it, you get its huge pile of treasure.
  • Choices – you have potions, spells, different types of weapons and a range of combat maneuvers that you can exercise to take down this hideous monster.
  • Resources – you have a limited number of potions and spells. In addition, you have a finite number of Hit Points and when they have gone, you’re dead.

This example has all of the mechanical ingredients to be a great dramatic scene. To become the finished article, it probably needs one other thing, which is to be interesting, but it’s got all of the basics.

The Dramatic Rock
Other scenes frequently lack one of more of these ingredients, and the more of these that are missing, the more it is difficult to capture an appropriate level of drama. A classic one of these is the simple binary obstacle.

Take a rock in the path. You can move it, or you can go back and find another route, which will waste time. You have an objective. The rock is the challenge. The risk is losing time. There’s no clear reward. You may have multiple ways of dealing with the rock but nothing to stop you potentially trying all of them, so there’s limited decision-making. Resources may be used, but that depends on what Choices you exercise. In the absence of real pressure, its unlikely to be an issue.

In D&D, we could ask the players to make Strength rolls for their characters. They succeed or they fail. They could use a potion of Bull’s Strength, but it’s unlikely that any party would do so. So it becomes a straight roll. Succeed. Fail. Basically, it’s a rubbish obstacle. Unless your aim is just to annoy your players, you should just narrate your way through and let them get onto the next really dramatic challenge… which, knowing D&D, is probably another fight.

Resources require Decisions, so if all Skills are Resources…
However, this is another area where GUMSHOE really cleverly changes how we think about simple binary obstacles. In GUMSHOE, each skill has a numerical rating. If you want to use that skill, you have to spend one or more points, reducing its numerical rating in return for getting a bonus on your die roll. So having a high skill level doesn’t mean you’re always better at something, it means you have more opportunity to choose to be better at something. But once it’s gone it’s gone. All of a sudden, we’re embuing every single skill roll with the elements of Choice and Resources.

In GUMSHOE, we still have that rock. My character has the Athletics skill. I could spend some points to improve their chance of success, but how many should I spend? Spending 1 doesn’t improve chances that much, so I might have just wasted it. How important is this rock anyway? If I fail, is there someone else in the party who might be able to succeed after me? I only have 2 Athletics points left, what if I need some later on?

With GUMSHOE’s resource-based skills, every single skill-use is embued with inherent dramatic tension. It’s only modest, not over-whelming. It’s unlikely to lead to analysis-paralysis. But it does mean that the players are constantly thinking about what is important to them, trying to think ahead to future challenges, trying to juggle their choices and balance the limited resources available to them. Just as with how GUMSHOE handles clues, it’s a really simple mechanic that has a huge impact on game play.

Other RPGs have suggested bringing tension into simple obstacles through the use of complications. This is basically a way of ensuring that even simple tests have a heightened Risk and/or Reward. So it’s not a question of whether you can move the rock – of course you can, given enough time. It’s a question of whether you can move the rock before the mob of ravenous ghouls descends upon you and feasts on your weak, scrawny, unable-to-shift-a-rock-fast-enough bodies. Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel puts this concept at the core of its conflict resolution mechanics, requiring that every action is framed in terms of not what you do but what you want to achieve: you don’t say “I try to move the rock”, you say “I move the rock before the ravenous ghouls can get to us”, placing the onus on the player to set up the consequences for failure.

So if you really want to make simple skill checks dramatic and exciting, go the full whammy. Combine the use of consequences with GUMSHOE’s inherent Choices/Resources aspect. Now you have the tools at your finger tips to turn every non-combat obstacle into a dramatic challenge that tests, excites and challenges your players.

NB: Just realised I should add a citation to the end of this. Main inspiration for this was listening to discussion on obstacles in RPGs in Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff podcast, episode 103. If you haven’t listened to it before, there’s no time like the present!