communicating with fiction -- acting challenge or rules abstraction?

edited June 2013 in Actual Play
Here's a question I'd like to answer: is it possible to combine (a) the rewards for skillfully communicating via character play, with (b) the clarity of manipulating stats and dice?

Here's why I'm asking: despite all the risks of "just roleplay it out" and "guess what the GM's thinking", I like getting places in games through character portrayal, as a player or a GM. Dear GM, by all means, challenge me to give your hostile NPC a reason to spill the beans. If I succeed, go me! Dear players, absolutely, dig for what my NPC knows! I'd like to hint at it, and lead you towards it, and give it up if you earn it, and if I can pull that off, it feels awesome!

Rolling well on a Persuasion test is nice too, but in my book, it doesn't really compare. Is that just me? I don't think so. I think the thrill that comes from succeeding through your own skills is pretty universal. The question in RPGs, though, is: how do we craft good skill challenges about make-believe?

Every old-fashioned game-stalling physics debate shows the difficulties of looking to the fiction for what's at stake, what's possible, what would work, and whether any given action portrayed by the player and undertaken by the character is "good enough". It's no wonder that some games let the dice decide what happens, while others advise groups to figure it out for themselves. We probably all know some games with good social conflict mechanics, where we make fun choices about what to attempt, and we get to portray the attempt and outcome all we like, so it's easy to not mind that it's the dice and the character stats, not us, determining the attempt's level of success.

Easy, that is, until you get into the habit of doing it the other way. Of earning it. In two and a half years of playing Delve with my buddies, the pure roleplay of the social conflicts was one of the highlights, and I miss it. The four of us aren't necessarily actors you'd pay to see on a stage, but we're all capable of getting "inside" the fiction and acting in character. So when I have a shady, useful, dangerous, deceitful wizard approach the player characters, and they hint and haggle and probe, it's quite a rush. Will I entice them to give this guy more access to their knowledge and power? Will they spot my "tells" of his angle, and concoct some offer I don't think he'd refuse?

In Delve, the principle is that GM and players work together insofar as they can while staying true to the fiction (as established through play or GM prep). So I know that my shady wizard is smart and suspicious, and I can't violate that by having him fall for some transparent line from the players. Beyond that, though, I'm doing what I can to get the player characters something they'll value from this interaction. The players are doing the same. I drop clues, they seize on them and try various conversational tactics. I act out some smirking and avoiding eye contact; they act out some indignation and menace. And usually, at some point, they'll hit upon something this NPC wizard can't resist. Sometimes it's something I had in mind from the beginning, and I'll congratulate them, "Yup, nice, you figured it out." More often, it's something I'd never thought of, and I'll congratulate them differently, "Whoa! Really? Brilliant!"

There are other times when the NPC will totally sucker the player characters, and I'll get to enjoy leading them into more danger. Or hostilities will arise and the NPC will depart in fear or with threats. Sometimes the players simply fail at the challenge; other times, they decide something else is more important than winning. This can end up in regret ("We never should have trusted that wizard! What were we thinking?"), or the exact opposite ("I'm glad we didn't ally with that with that shady bastard, regardless of what he could have given us!"). Sometimes it felt like losing, and my buddies weren't thrilled about losing, but once the pattern was established, and they won more than they lost, and felt like they'd earned their fates, we had some great times.

I could go on for pages about the techniques I used as GM to make it clear to the players that this wasn't some lame "read Dave's mind" guessing game that might be a waste of time, but in the end I am hesitant to recommend that direction. It isn't quick, and perhaps I'm using GM skills that may be non-universal and hard to acquire quickly. What I'd rather do is hand Delve over to other groups with some rules that make all this clear. Something where a player can try an approach, and spot whether it's working, and why, and thus learn through practice.

But is that possible? Can any rule give a player kudos for correctly reading the GM's portrayal of an NPC? Can any rule tell a player why their demonstration of anger wasn't enough to make this NPC cave in?

Comments

  • First of all it depends on whether there is a win condition at all. Either the GM needs to have assigned a win condition, or the players have set their own win condition, in regard to the NPC. If the GM hasn't set one, and the players don't set one, nothing much will go on with the NPC in that regard.

    Next, having an actual set of sentences that if spoken will get to the win condition, written down by the GM. The closer the players get towards saying those sentences, the better. Sure, another method might prove fruitful, but this is exactly the sort of thing you can show the players 'See, this (or something like it) would have worked! While the whole demonstration of anger thing just wasn't working either way'

    That's all I can think of for now.
  • edited June 2013
    And usually, at some point, they'll hit upon something this NPC wizard can't resist. Sometimes it's something I had in mind from the beginning, and I'll congratulate them, "Yup, nice, you figured it out." More often, it's something I'd never thought of, and I'll congratulate them differently, "Whoa! Really? Brilliant!"

    There are other times when the NPC will totally sucker the player characters, and I'll get to enjoy leading them into more danger. Or hostilities will arise and the NPC will depart in fear or with threats.

    /.../

    I could go on for pages about the techniques I used as GM to make it clear to the players that this wasn't some lame "read Dave's mind" guessing game that might be a waste of time, but in the end I am hesitant to recommend that direction. It isn't quick, and perhaps I'm using GM skills that may be non-universal and hard to acquire quickly. What I'd rather do is hand Delve over to other groups with some rules that make all this clear. Something where a player can try an approach, and spot whether it's working, and why, and thus learn through practice.

    But is that possible? Can any rule give a player kudos for correctly reading the GM's portrayal of an NPC? Can any rule tell a player why their demonstration of anger wasn't enough to make this NPC cave in?
    I know the feeling, but I wonder if it's not different kind of things that you're talking about. I've currently reading through books about improvisation and drama, and one book told me that each scene should lead to either a decision, a revelation or an escalation. It said scene, so it never occurred to me that this can be applied on a dialogue as well. The first thing you mentioned with dropping clues is basically a cue to the players that you want the dialogue to be a revelation, but in cases where you trick the players, it's probably instead an escalation of the story (not conflict) where you build up for a revelation or a decision later on.

    I wouldn't think in rules, but in structures (which rules are) and how those structures should tell the group how to drop social cues to form the conversation. A structure that probably also has a game of bluff built into it. These thoughts of mine are not much to build on, but to answer your question: yeah, you can probably build a system around these kind of things, but it will probably demand that you think in a different way when it comes to how to handle a game system.
  • edited June 2013
    Thanks, Callan, let me think about that:

    So let's say the win condition is "wizard tells PCs the magical uses of the gems they've acquired". They don't know for certain that he has that info, but it's their most urgent question and falls squarely in his realm of expertise. Does that suffice for what you had in mind?

    So the GM writes down what will get the wizard to tell about the gems:
    1) "We'd like to join your brotherhood if you can prove you know something useful. If you do, we'll meet them wherever you want as soon as we finish our current mission."
    2) "We'll show you right now how to use those crystals if you teach us something equally useful."
    3) "I am going to kill you on the count of 3 unless you tell us how to use these gems. One. Two. Thr-" (with sword raised)
    4) "We've decoded Rodokandris's book and will be reading all of its secrets soon enough. We've already discovered (anything true)."

    Then in play, I portray the wizard as physically weak, eyeing his crystals, skittish when his old mentor Rodokandris is mentioned, and still trying to get the PCs to join his brotherhood.

    Let's test 3 ways this could go:

    1) The players show him the crystals, he shows them the gems, and I show the players Sentence # 2 and say "good job". If they felt like they'd cleverly invented a solution, they now know they didn't, which might feel slightly less awesome. But other than that, all is well.

    2) The players latch onto the fact that he's scared of his mentor, but decide to play on that fear by claiming that Rodokandris is coming, and then offering to protect the wizard if he helps them. They do a really good job, making only claims that the wizard can't disprove, and I as GM deem that he's convinced. I then show them Sentence # 4 to prove that the wizard did indeed have some worries related to Rodokandris, and Sentence # 3 to prove that he can be threatened. Thus I judged "threat" + "Rodokandris" was good. Hmm. My first thought is that this seems functional. Might have time/flow/OOC knowledge issues, but that's probably off topic.

    3) The players don't want to join the brotherhood, they ignore the crystal-eyeballing as color, and they can't think of how to act on the weakness and mentor skittishness. They become passive, responding to what the wizard wants out of them. They wind up resisting the temptations he offers. It occurs to me to offer the promise of gem knowledge as a lure. Unsure that they've failed yet, I don't. The interaction winds down, the wizard leaves to go on his way. Now that I know they've failed, maybe I say "I could have helped you with those gems if you'd been willing to deal, but you've used up my patience for now." Or maybe I don't, lest that might re-launch the conversation. Important? Anyway, at the end, I then show the players all 4 sentences. They could respond, "Oops, we weren't clever this time; hopefully we'll do better next time!" Or they could respond, "How the hell were we supposed to take notice when you mentioned him looking at his crystals? How could we have known we could trick him by saying the book would render him redundant, or that we could scare him with a sword?" If I get the former response, great! If I get the latter, then these rules aren't good enough. Hmm. Which way would it go? Hard for me so say.

    Final note: nothing in this system says anything about the players' acting performance. It rewards perception and good tactics, but any "Wow, well said, very convincing!" feedback is still left entirely to GM subjectivity and initiative. Maybe there's nothing to be done about that, but either way, worth noting.
  • edited June 2013
    Rickard, I'm trying to mine your comments for inspiration, and the first thing that comes to me is to have Revelation Encounter steps, like:
    1. Establish revelation topic (magic item use),
    2. Signal your strengths and weaknesses, what you can offer and what you want (knows of gems, fears mentor, wants crystal info, etc.),
    3. Make offers and counter-offers (crystals for gems, etc.).
    4. If step 3 does not produce a Revelation, the GM must then offer a tough choice (starting a Decision Encounter) or a new danger (starting an Escalation Encounter).

    Does this solve any problems? I'm not sure...
  • So let's say the win condition is "wizard tells PCs the magical uses of the gems they've acquired". They don't know for certain that he has that info
    It doesn't work very well - if they don't know he has the info, it should be 'Wizard, if he knows anything about it, tells the PC's the magical uses of the gems they've aquired'. That way they can win at getting him to spill what beans he knows - which might be saying that he knows naught. That's still winning the condition, though. I'm not sure it's at all a good idea to state a win condition is that the wizard gives info, then when they win, to not give info.

    With #3, when the challenge is over (whether that's win or lose) needs to be defined. Once it's passed, there is no relaunch option for the conversation. They lost.
    "How the hell were we supposed to take notice when you mentioned him looking at his crystals? How could we have known we could trick him by saying the book would render him redundant, or that we could scare him with a sword?" If I get the former response, great! If I get the latter, then these rules aren't good enough.
    Sorry, this is just a player being a bad loser. At best they can argue that the difficulty level of the game spiked. If this is about challenge, then they can ask for a lower level of difficulty in future. That's valid.

    Charitably, I'd actually suspect it's an example of someone who wants to do perfect genre emultion and who was looking to the GM for cues as to how to forfil the scene (the genre having it that they would get the gem info) and now feels that the GM has actually broken the (unspoken) social contract on delivering cues to the players that the players can follow.

    Someone who's into challenge does not feel losing == social contract violation (indeed, it's a type of validation of the contract)

    Someone who's there to play out a genre in great detail will feel they are being told they did something wrong ('I lost? What?'), when to them it's the GM who gave crap cues. SC violation.

    It depends on which your aiming for - challenge or genre emulation? I guess maybe you could try some sort of gear shift system between them to do both a bit. But it gets complicated.
  • Interesting stuff going on in this conversation. David, what you're describing sounds like a form of gaming I enjoy sometimes. A couple reactions in no particular order:

    There are wins and losses and even reward cycles going on here.

    On the player side:
    Playing to the GM or just plain guessing or even portraying your character in a way the GM is down with jumps past any mechanical challenge/dice throw. This is a win, generally.

    Likely, it's also a reward for long term play, even if no one intended it. The more you play with the same GM and the more they have a shared concept of your character, and you of their NPCs, and of the GM's general style of play, the more likely you are to succeed in this approach.

    If the roleplaying just isn't working ( or the guessing at clues and what they mean) or it is just taking a really long time, you probably have back up of some kind of roll mechanic. this is a minor player loss, but then jumps over to the mechanical part of play, so you might at least get a minor win here. If you're a player who digs all of the clever character mechanical building, so might still consider a win on a roll to be a decent reward of sorts.

    If you fail both, well, you kinda do fail. It's a loss, but the game goes on. If you lose on both methods, and then the GM spoonfeeds you stuff later, it's a big loss.

    On the GM side:
    Basically, the stuff is kinda parallel. we don't talk much about GM challenges of play an their Wins/Losses, but I think most GMs feel them in this style of play.

    If players engage with your content and attempt to roleplay their way to success, you get at least a minor Win. You provided something they find challenging and interesting enough to interact with by roleplay.

    If they can't get through it with roleplay, a minor Loss for you. Either you aren't portraying things in a way they'll understand or run with or it's just plain too obscure in terms of clues. this might even indicate some problems on gelling in the group on expectations or those areas of "shared imaginary space". It might even constitute a Major Loss for you.

    If it gets really circular and no one seems to know what to do, it might be time to go to dice roll mechanics. This could be a Non-Loss/Non-Win for you, or maybe just a minor loss. If they've tried interaction but don't quite get it, and call for a roll, not such a big deal.


    If they don't call for a roll and you must to keep things moving along, that's a minor loss. If they skip the roleplay at any but the most basic level, then call for a roll: Ouch! Major loss for you! They don't consider your content interesting enough to bother with on the player level. Make a sad face where no one can see, and continue.

    Again, a willingness to engage through roleplay can be a reward in terms of long term play, at least on an emotional rewarding level. It's almost inevitable that you, as GM, will make up future content to challenge regular players ( and their characters) and even stuff that will work with their playstyles, personalities, and fictional character capabilities, even if you don't start with that intent.
  • edited June 2013
    This is something my gaming group struggles with at times (because, I think, some of them are so used to playing D&D as if "the roll's the thing"). When it does work for us, though, I find that it's because I as the GM go in planning less and adapting with players' actions more. Two approaches work best for me.

    Approach #1: Make up broader motivations rather than specific conversation points.

    In scenes where my players are trying to get information from people, they have a bad habit of skulking around creepily, offering really complex, threatening, and frankly unbelievable lies, then asking a series of really blunt, direct questions. It's a brute-force method of information-gathering that can potentially work in a group of murderous fantasy-world adventurers, but not in games where you deal with realistic human beings who get suspicious of such behavior. Finally, my group was stunned when a new player showed up without all that previous gaming baggage. She quickly befriended an NPC with a single, totally believable lie ("I'm new here!") and totally mundane questions ("Do people here hang out together after work?"). This got her an "in" with the NPC that made it easier to actually question her later.

    In this case, I had no idea how they were going to get in there and get the information they needed from this NPC. I just planned an NPC with a few simple ideas about her personality and motivations. I knew she was friendly, but lonely, and bored with her job. There are a LOT of ways to get what players want out of someone with a few simple motivations, and it's relatively easy to telegraph stuff like that with offhand comments or simple investigation. (This character was so easy to engage with that they didn't even need to mine too deeply, of course.)

    Approach #2: Let PCs make up the answers to their own questions.

    In something like Apocalypse World, where I'm really taking "play to find out what happens" to heart, I put even more power in the PCs' hands. If they ask about something that hadn't occurred to me, if it's at all interesting, then they just created the thing they're about to "discover." To adapt the wizard example above: If they came into Dremmer's tent, I'll barf forth some stuff about the weird engine pieces he's got lying around, a throne that looks like it's made out of bike parts, and something that looks like a jar with an unidentifiable mammalian fetus in it. If I've thought to do so, maybe I'll have some idea of specific things they could engage him on (joining his gang, protecting him from his old boss, how to make those old engine parts work). If they don't engage him on one of those things, though, but suddenly latch onto something in the tent that I never planned to be important, that's probably okay too. Suddenly, one of the PCs suspects that the weird jar means something to Dremmer, and grabs it, trying to hold it hostage. I'll probably just run with it, maybe even make it an even worse idea. ("Holy shit, you just kidnapped Dremmer's mom! Nobody touches Dremmer's mom!" "But it's a fetus, how could–" "Dremmer's pissed. What do you do?")

    For me, I guess it mostly depends on how much control I want to put in PCs' hands. Personally, though, when I go in only with a specific list of "things the PCs need to discover or mention in order to get what they want from this person," both sides often get kind of frustrated.
  • Great post, Dave.

    In my experience, this kind of play can be really, really fun - and some gamers consider dealing with precisely this sort of challenge to be synonymous with "roleplaying" (i.e. this is it!).

    However, as you point out, it's susceptible to a great number of pitfalls. Some potential problems also occur on the GM's side: when randomness or Fortune mechanics (or whatever other source of outside information/unexpected outcomes) aren't engaged, games can sometimes grow stale and/or predictable. I've felt that, as a GM in this style of play, sometimes the game just becomes stuck in a sort of rut, with NPCs reacting predictably a certain way (because it's the GM's best or preferred style of roleplay) and the players playing in a certain way (because it's a good combination of "what works against this particular GM's style" and "this is in-character for My Guy"), repeat ad nauseam.

    I think there may be some room for some interesting combined/halfway solutions. For example, what if roleplaying your way through a certain challenge gives you greater benefits than just rolling the dice, but rolling (or otherwise engaging a mechanical system) always remains an option. Depending on how the game works, it might be best to leave the choice to roll to the players, the GM, or both (basically, whoever is most likely to feel bored, frustrated, or stuck in such a situation).

    For instance, maybe choosing to roll limits the scope of your success -- yeah, you'll get some info, but if you could *actually* get on the wizard's good side, he might also willingly tell you/show you this other thing. Or may rolling costs some resource (spend X points/dice/lose potential XP gain/whatever). Lots of options here, but balancing the game so that "playing it out" is generally advantageous and going back to the gamble of the dice is only for desperate situations or when you're stuck or when you're short on time could be interesting.

    Apocalypse World also has some potential goodness in this sense, when making certain mechanical moves is predicated on having certain fictional details established in play. For instance, a move like "When you share an intimate conversation, one-on-one, with someone, you can roll to get them to open up to you: if you succeed, their player can choose to either a) reveal a meaningful and important secret, or b) give you a String on them." Or maybe, "If you can get someone to kiss you, the MC will have them offer you one significant gift or favour." Combined with clear guidelines to the GM/MC for what kinds of significant information it might be interesting to drop into the players' hands, this kind of thing can be quite interesting (if perhaps too formulaic for what you're looking for).

    Seduce/manipulate is supposed to work like this, given the concept of leverage, but somehow I find that it doesn't *always* feel right in play: I don't know if it's a design issue or just a player skill issue, though.

    It could be fun to design slightly "looser" moves, though, like the manipulate move we talked about on Skype that one time, or a list of options for the GM to choose from, with a direction to "choose 3 of the NPC is smitten, awed, or beyond happiness; choose 2 if the NPC is satisfied, content, feels safe, or is excited about some new information or acquisition; choose 1 if the NPC is tempted to side with the PCs, but isn't quite sure".

    I've seen a lot of success with this kind of situation, also, with games that use stake setting or similar mechanics. When the roleplaying is used to inform the possible outcomes or stakes, it can feel pretty natural and organic, and the group's viewpoint on what's happening (based on the roleplaying of the scene) is of fundamental importance. For instance, if the group is dealing with the wizard and is pissing him off, we can say that he's storming off right now, but what's at stake is: will he inform the authorities that the PCs are a menace to society? But if the conversation was friendly and jovial, and things went well, those outcomes won't seem so appropriate. Instead, what's at stake might be: "While offering the PCs a tour of his laboratory, will he accidentally show them a secret he didn't mean to expose?"

    I've enjoyed this style of play, because you kind of get the best of both worlds: the roleplaying is absolutely key (to establish the range of possible results), but the dice still inject some uncertainty into the possible outcomes. The group consensus of the fiction ultimately determines what is a likely outcome and what isn't.

    Of course, all these techniques just shift the decision point: somewhere in there, the GM still has to make a call about whether the NPC is impressed or not (or whatever). It's just a question of finding the most natural or easiest decision point.

    Also:
    Rickard, I'm trying to mine your comments for inspiration, and the first thing that comes to me is to have Revelation Encounter steps, like:
    1. Establish revelation topic (magic item use),
    2. Signal your strengths and weaknesses, what you can offer and what you want (knows of gems, fears mentor, wants crystal info, etc.),
    3. Make offers and counter-offers (crystals for gems, etc.).
    4. If step 3 does not produce a Revelation, the GM must then offer a tough choice (starting a Decision Encounter) or a new danger (starting an Escalation Encounter).

    Does this solve any problems? I'm not sure...
    This might not be on-topic for this thread (not sure), but I like it! I think it has potential.
  • edited June 2013
    Rickard, I'm trying to mine your comments for inspiration, and the first thing that comes to me is to have Revelation Encounter steps, like:
    1. Establish revelation topic (magic item use),
    2. Signal your strengths and weaknesses, what you can offer and what you want (knows of gems, fears mentor, wants crystal info, etc.),
    /.../
    Does this solve any problems? I'm not sure...
    I like how you interpreted and presented an idea from my post, because it feels like we're creating something together now by throwing ideas to each other. :) I will now brainstorm in this post.

    Dialogue and rewards
    I would probably not make revelation-decision-escalation as what a dialogue itself should strive for, but how the relation is changed from the dialogue. You can possibly have a kind of resolution mechanic (dice or not) to determine how the relationship is changed. Is it improved (and how?), does things turn ugly or is the relation unchanged? Example: a stranger with an unchanged relationship is still a stranger. But because the player needs an incitement to roleplaying, you can still weave in clues while having the dialogue*. (Remember what I wrote about leaving holes in the mechanics that must be filled in with fiction?) So your system could have two kinds of rewards. The relation could improve and the player could get more information.

    Resolution mechanics
    You can probably have any kind of resolution mechanic, from just dialogue driven to bookkeeping the relations of each specific character that the players encounter. You could also have different means in how the player interact through their character. From aggression, manipulation and cunning to using information, status and contacts as advantages. You could also create consequences, like the characters having to pay for their information, that they need to escalate to violence, that they will create an enemy/friend, or that they have to promise to fulfill other persons' drives. You can also include decisions as if the player can use information and play out a dialogue with that in mind (leverage) or if they can instead roll the dice to see if the relation changes so they can get more information.

    Preparation
    What I also think is important is how you prepare the information. Is it just a list of facts that you choose from, do individuals have specific information based on relations on a map or is it just clues that form a path to get through the adventure? Is it important to specify the roles that the NPCs have in the scenario, like aiding the characters, antagonists, people with their own personal agendas, people in need etc.? All this will lead up to how you will go through with dialogues and (if needed) resolution mechanics. ([edit] And the whole preparation depends on what kind of playstyle you want. A full out improvisation game would benefit of a fast preparation, like writing a list, and then having the story evolve through dialogue - an idea taken from Improvisation by John Hodgson and Ernest Richards.)

    ---

    [edit] * When reading about improvisation, they (from Johnstone to Hodgson) always say that you all should have a common goal in each scene/dialogue with the improvisation. That's why it's good to have one thing (the relation) to play against but another thing (information) to weave in. It ease up the difficulty with improvising a dialogue.
  • edited June 2013
    Some good stuff here. Short on time now, but quick responses:

    Callan, good call on emphasizing the social contract. That initial agreement "this is a challenge!" might make the distinction between reasonable objection and sore loserdom much clearer. Also good point on communicating difficulty level.

    Paul and KBob, re: optional rolls, I've actually used the pacing dial for that at times. If there's an NPC conversation where the players don't want to take the time to do their best, they can just state a general intent, crank the dial to "Summary", roll randomly, and I'll make up a result based on what seems most likely, edging toward positive on a high roll and negative on a low roll.

    In my experience, this works fine for avoiding a roleplay-it-out scene, but not for aiding one. I never once had a player embark on the roleplay challenge, and then halfway through say, "Never mind, let's just roll to see how this ends." For the player, that's admitting defeat, even if the subsequent roll says your character succeeds. That might be different, though, if I had some system for factoring Your Roleplayed Effort Thus Far into the roll...
  • Of course! The pacing dial...
  • edited June 2013
    That pacing dial really is one hot piece of gaming technology.

    Yes, it is kind of admitting defeat, but the roll acts as a back up. Maybe you could convey that in this case it's similar to a saving throw (Social)?

    It might be some old technique biases showing through though. I've played older games that often had some kind of generalized back up mechanic for when things stalled. Idea rolls in CoC when players themselves just plain don't know where to go looking for clues next, for example.
  • I've got it. This goes along with my old "Delve World" ideas, which I'm still convinced are basically correct (though I like your new combat system a whole lot, Dave).

    Make a list of 3-4 things that will auto-succeed in getting the NPC to do what the PCs want. If they do something else that basically fits the criteria for Seduce/Manipulate in AW, then roll for whichever PC is in the lead in the conversation, with maybe a +1 for help or whatever.

    Here's the thing: roll (behind your Mighty GM Screen, of course) after *either* the auto-succeed *or* the establishment of leverage. That way, the players won't know whether they hit an auto-succeed condition or merely forced the issue, thus not gaining OOC knowledge. (But tell them how it works up-front.)

    Matt
  • Slick, Matt. I worry, though, about muddying the clarity of "this is a challenge to you, the player" with rolls that depend on luck and character stats for success. "Can succeed by acting, but there's a back-up resolution method" is great! But the back-up might need to be called out as a back-up. Rather than rolling when the players do something that's AW-stlye productive (which could, if not rolled for, soon lead to an action that auto-succeeds), it might be better if the roll came when they head off course and it looks like they won't be succeeding at the skill challenge.

    Maybe the triggers for the roll could be a list like:
    - players repeat a tactic that already didn't work
    - players do something that might cause the NPC to abandon the interaction
    - there hasn't been discernible progress in a while

    Then at that point, the GM rolls. The players know by the roll that they are failing, but haven't necessarily failed conclusively yet.

    - If the roll goes well, the GM has the NPC come right out and name the PCs their offer and their price.
    - If the roll goes poorly, the GM has the NPC attempt to end the interaction, leaving unless coercion is employed.

    The roll should factor in whether or not the PCs have established any sort of leverage. If none, big penalty. If some, no adjustment. If great leverage, big bonus. Although now I'm relying on the GM's judgment of how the NPC perceives what the PCs have said, which isn't that different from freeform. Perhaps that's fine, though, as we still have a way to resolve what happens and wrap up the interaction, which is what freeform can lack.
  • That's an interesting take, I think: the GM rolls dice when things are going poorly for the players.

    (It's kind of like the reverse of AW: when the GM must "make a move", they roll the dice. You could even take it that far, in fact: the GM names -- or secretly determines -- a particular threat, and then rolls the dice to see how far they can push it through. So, let's say you're investigating something and not getting anywhere -- i.e. the players are not doing well, not figuring out the puzzle in front of them -- at some point the GM can warn them of a threat. "There's a grinding noise from above, then a metallic screech... what do you do?" When the players' reaction is somewhat clear, the GM rolls dice with appropriate modifiers: if they are being clever and have good information available, the roll is in their favour. If they are being careless or are in over their heads, the roll is at a significant penalty. Same in an interaction with an NPC: the GM explains how are things are starting to go poorly, then rolls the dice.)

    The idea reminds me a little bit of low-level old-school D&D: all the players groan when they realize that, oh crap, we're going to have to roll the dice instead of just roleplaying our way through this...
  • edited June 2013
    Huh, so, like, if the GM is thinking that the NPC gets tired of talk and closes negotiations, the GM has to signal that that's approaching, and then roll to make it so? I wonder if it might be possible to include "NPC closes negotiations" on a list of Hard Moves and then tell the GM, re: Hard Moves, "to do it in the fiction, you have to roll it".
  • Yeah, those are better ways of phrasing my original idea.
  • edited June 2013
    Dave,

    Yeah, the GM makes a "hard move", and has to signal it, as usual, but the dice dictate just how far the hard move can be carried through. Fictional positioning influences the roll.

    Maybe something like:

    [threat move chosen by GM]
    - low roll: appearance of threat taking place, but actually further chances to rectify situation are easily available
    - medium roll: threat comes about in mild form, extreme or unusual measures can still rectify situation
    - high roll: threat takes place immediately and strongly
    - very high roll: threat takes place, as above + additional negative consequence or introduction of new threat
    - highest roll: threat takes place, as above + additional negative consequences or new threat + additional permanent setback which cannot be rectified

    "NPC closes negotiations"
    - low roll: NPC makes a show of not wanting to talk anymore, but actually can be swayed with further offers/new tactics
    - medium roll: NPC closes negotiations and starts to leave, but could be compelled to stay if offered something special
    - high roll: NPC closes negotiations finally and abruptly (e.g. slams the door), will be extremely negative in the future
    - very high roll: NPC slams door, and reports the PCs to the local authorities or other sanctions
    - highest roll: NPC slams door, reports PCs to authorities, and decides they are evil fiends which must be removed from this county/society, will oppose them in every way possible in the future

    "Giant axe swings down from ceiling"
    - low roll: Announce attack ("soft move") - maybe the axe misses on the first swing but is now swinging back - players can decide how to deal with it
    - medium roll: Announce attack near completion, lucky or unusually smart action can still avoid it
    - high roll: Someone is hit by the axe, gruesome injuries
    - very high roll: Someone is hit by the axe, as above, and it swings back to threaten players a second time
    - highest roll: Someone is hit by the axe, and it breaks the rope bridge they're on (a danger of falling for everyone involved), aswell as cutting off their escape route

    Not the best example, but an illustration of what I was thinking.
  • I'd just put a hard, real life timer on it. Like five minutes (just glance at your watch and roughly remember the time). The rule would be it's not a hard cap - if the GM gets carried away with the roleplay and doesn't notice ten minutes has slipped away, that's fine.

    I'm not sure about ending with a roll though - initially it seemed like the idea was the skill of negotiation. But here, once we get to a certain point, it sounds like people are suggesting going to a gamble system (thus if you pass or fail by gamble, skill is made moot). It might even encourage just blathering for time and not really trying to negotiate roleplay to win - just stalling till we get to the gamble point.

    I would suggest maybe just the DM can flip a coin to either add, say, two more minutes, or it's over and ba-bow, you failed! With the two more minutes, it works as before - GM glances at his watch and if he gets carried away with RP and six minutes passes or whatever, that's okay.

    Also part of the Social Contract is that anyone who is getting sick of the players and GM chin wagging to no particular result can, when the time passes, suggest to the GM he flips the coin. This isn't to be taken as a 'hey man, don't tell him to flip the coin!' complaint against the person who calls for the coin flip - instead its a sign of 'your roleplay was dissapearing up its own arse - either pass us, fail us, or get off the can!'
  • In Delve, I've been writing lots about what the GM must or must not do, and worrying about how to make it stick. "You can do X only if you roll" is beautifully concrete.

    Those roll lists look pretty fun to me, Paul. I do worry about the Cool Toy bias -- will the GM really do the best they can to meet the players at a point of success, with such handy failure options staring them in the face? -- but "worse failure options" can't be the solution to that. Maybe success needs an equally cool toy? Like, at the moment when the GM decides, "Yes, this NPC would totally agree to that!" there's also a roll, dictating something like the NPC's disposition toward the PCs going forward? So just as a GM might find "new enemy for the PCs" to be a fun result, "new ally" or "new faction that wants them to join" might be equally appealing?

    I have some misgivings about allowing the luck of a die roll, rather than the players' acting, to determine the difference between "you and the NPC couldn't agree" and "the NPC is now your sworn enemy". That should be determined by the tactics you employ and the skill with which you pull them off. "Fictional positioning influences the roll" sounds good, but I'm not sure how much it's wise to ask the GM to turn the immeasurable into numbers. Suppose the PCs act like scary magical psychos, intriguing the wizard but also terrifying him. "Can still be swayed" seems relatively likely... but so does "decides they are fiends and will oppose them"! So what modifier should be applied to the roll? I suppose the right lists of "these gives bonuses" and "these give penalties" could be applied and in this example might cancel each other out. Hmm. That might be doable, if such lists were clear and simple.

    Another concern: is it ever okay for the GM to say, "the wizard hates you forever" without rolling? If not, we have a handy categorical distinction between things the GM can and can't do without a roll, which is a nice assurance to the players and will probably aid buy-in to this system. But, we may also have situations where the players simply do a thing that'd piss the wizard off, and then the dice nullify their actions' consequences. I suppose that in addition to a short lit of "these will get you the info" phrases, each NPC could have a similar list of "these will make them hate you". Is NPC creation becoming too much work?
  • I'm not sure about ending with a roll though - initially it seemed like the idea was the skill of negotiation. But here, once we get to a certain point, it sounds like people are suggesting going to a gamble system (thus if you pass or fail by gamble, skill is made moot).
    I would completely agree with you if it were possible to pass by gamble. But in the current proposal, it isn't. All you can do by gamble is:
    - get another chance to win by skill
    - fail
    - fail harder

    That makes it okay, right?

    As for your idea of using a timer, I think that's an excellent tool for navigating the social space of one person loving the roleplay for hours, another getting caught up in it even though they're not loving it, and a third disliking it. I think the pacing dial already accomplishes a very similar function, actually. The trouble is that, once the players have taken on the challenge, and they know the GM will signal victory once it's achieved, then saying, "I'm done with this" is identical to saying "I lose." No one likes that. So for the time limit to play any role in determining win/loss, I think it'd have to be a hard and fast "if you haven't won by exactly 5 minutes time, you lose". Which I think we both agree would go against the intent here.
  • Cool Toy Bias is a great point, Dave.

    How strong is the interest in the GM's side when it comes to seeing the PCs succeed? By experience has been that in similar games I very much feel like "a fan of the players", so I wouldn't particularly need strong incentives, personally. (In Delve, the PCs advancing generally means the GM gets to showcase more of her cool stuff, no?)

    As for the possible range of outcomes, that's never bothered me in gaming, given a few things:

    1. The modifiers to the roll and the scope of the roll are adjusted correctly (or easily adjustable), so that you don't get a significant chance of, for instance, the worst possible result on the same roll which gives the best possible result. For instance, set it up so that someone with all the possible positive modifiers ("friendly, courteous, and reasonable") doesn't have much or any chance of rolling "the NPC hates you permanently for the rest of your life".

    2. We have some flexibility in narrating the specific outcome. ("Some undefined additional permanent disadvantage" can generally be worked into any conflict-worth situation without straining disbelief, and there's nothing wrong with NPCs acting rather irrationally, that makes for interesting play in most cases.)

    Put those two together, and that would work well enough *for me*. But there's a lot of personal taste involved.

    I like the idea that these failure conditions *must* be rolled. Given the "black box GM" thing you've got going on, it could be additional reminder for the players to get really worried whenever the dice are rolled.

    Keep in mind that the GM would have some flexibility for when to declare the roll to be applicable: kind of like calling for moves in AW. I don't think specifying what kinds of actions would piss of an NPC ahead of time is necessary; I would rather be surprised by their reactions now and then -- but the GM can certainly have some sense of what my lead to a possible roll.

    Maybe each scenario, however, would have a list of meaningful threats or failure conditions, and these are things that MUST be rolled for? Local Lord decides the PCs are criminals and should be executed; death trap decapitates someone in the temple... that kind of stuff.
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