Tag Archives: Conflict resolution

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…

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!