Monday, September 15, 2008

Them Bitey Jaws

I've been playtesting a variety of rules for the DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND game, and they're starting to settle down into a pretty cohesive whole. The process has been interesting on a lot of levels, but one in particular struck me -- the ability to adjust one's die roll AFTER one knows if that roll was successful.

Virtually every system that allows such adjustments (through some sort of point mechanic that allows the player to add to their roll or to re-roll a given die) requires the player to apply the adjustment before they know the outcome of the roll. The player is asked to gamble that A) the adjustment enabled by the resource will increase their result sufficiently to succeed, and B) that their original result was insufficient in the first place.

When I started working up the Stunt mechanic for DPoNI, which I originally got from iwatt, I used the same thinking. You could apply bonuses to your checks based on your skill ranks, if you got creative and gave me a good description. But folks didn't use the stunt rules all that often. Usually they'd forget in the heat of battle, or just shrug and hope for a good roll without the bonus.

I hadn't gotten the rules right. This was a cool idea, something very much in line with the feel I want for DPoNI, but my players weren't naturally gravitating to it. I took out a few of the other optional rules I'd implemented, but stunts remained a little-used feature.

It turned out the best way to get players to consider stunts was for me to suggest them -- and this started happening AFTER the die roll. If somebody had missed by only a little bit, there'd be a scramble to look over the character sheet and find some over-looked bonus that might apply. Stunts fit the bill admirably. Because they work as a static bonus, rather than a re-roll, they represent sort of that little extra effort that a character makes, using their existing skills, to just do a little better. And because you can apply them after discovering your roll wasn't quite enough, you don't need to keep track of every possibility while making your decisions -- you can discover possibilities afterwards, when you know you need them.

It means characters in DPoNI are a little tougher than standard True20 characters. They'll make successful rolls some 10% more often, depending on their level. And that's okay. DPoNI is meant to be more about coming up with cool stuff to do rather than managing resources and surviving (once again, like ALWAYS) by the skin of your teeth.

I tend to play more of a style where a player says what they want to TRY and do, and then makes a roll, the result of which tells us how WELL they did. So the actual narration of the event simulated by the die roll naturally comes after the roll is made and success is determined. The Stunt bonus, in this context, is more a function of the narration than the attempt. It works like this:

Player: "I attack! I get a... 14."
DM: "Oh, dear. You need at least a 16 to hit this guy."
(player looks over character sheet and notes she can get a +2 stunt bonus from her Acrobatics skill)
Player: "Okay, but I'm using my Acrobatics."
DM: "Okay, you'll just barely hit if you can do that. How are you using Acrobatics here?"
Player: "I run up the side of the cavern, somersaulting backwards and landing behind him, catching him just off-guard enough to skewer him before he knows I'm there."
DM: "Sold."

When a player rolls well, often the satisfaction of the roll is reward enough -- not all players feel a need to narrate something cool at that point. And likewise when a player completely botches a roll -- they're cranky and frustrated and not inclined to jump in with a bunch of creativity.

But nothing spurs creativity like the knowledge that if you can come up with something, you can snatch victory from them bitey jaws of defeat. So what do you think? Is this a reasonable way to run things? Does it require too much adjudication on the DM's part? Should NPCs get the same benefits?

Fish photo: Gavin Mills


  1. Hypersmurf5:05 PM

    -- You could apply bonuses to your checks based on your skill ranks, if you got creative and gave me a good description. But folks didn't use the stunt rules all that often.

    Hell, I tried! :)

    -- And likewise when a player completely botches a roll -- they're cranky and frustrated and not inclined to jump in with a bunch of creativity.

    Alternatively, the player jumps in with a bunch of creativity - "I kick a belaying pin loose, freeing the line holding the foresail furled - the sudden flapping of canvas behind him distracting him just long enough for me to...

    ... ugh, a 2. I guess even with +3 for stunting off Profession: Sailor, that's not gonna happen.

    It's disappointing to describe a cool stunt, only to have it fail dismally anyway. With the decide-after-you-roll system, it helps you guarantee that your coolness pays dividends.

    On the other hand, with the wrong players, it can lead to a very mechanical feeling for the cinematic moves. If someone is only doing something cool to get the +2 for the Acrobatic Charge, it sucks some of the cool out of it.

    So I can see benefits either way, and I'd need to try the decide-after in a game before I could make a final call on which I preferred, I think.


  2. Well, at GenCon this year I was mostly using the decide-after-the-roll system. Likewise at the Boston Game Day. Of course, if a player comes up with something cool PRIOR to the roll, I'm not going to shut them down, but it seemed to be +fun when they were allowed to do it afterwards.

  3. Although my game has slightly different mechanics, I found the same underlying principle to be true with Action Points: players tended to forget to use them because the potential benefit didn't seem to be there. First, I changed Action Points from a d6 to a d10, but that still didn't mean they were getting used very often. Then, I got a lot less picky about letting the players know the target number they needed to hit. Suddenly, Action Points became a significant part of the game.

    I think it's the same principle; in general, players don't care to use optional rules or subsystems if they don't have some notion as to whether they're just wasting their time, or if it's going to pay off. And heck; rolling an action point is less "work" intensive than using a stunt bonus, they way you describe it.

    I do like your concept, though. If I hadn't literally just finished my mini-campaign last weekend, I'd consider adding the rule that if you use an Action Point, you have to describe how you're doing it in some kind of fun, Feng Shui way or something.

    Now we're starting a Cthulhu game, so action points and stunts alike will be in short supply, I imagine.

  4. -- players don't care to use optional rules or subsystems if they don't have some notion as to whether they're just wasting their time

    It's basic interface design -- a component that doesn't behave in a predictable fashion won't get used.

    Now, games are supposed to thrive on a certain degree of unpredictability, but that needs to be channeled into particular points. The die roll is the unpredictable bit in an RPG (that, and the decisions of your fellow players), and I'm thinking that maybe making the ability to adjust that roll ought to yield predictable results.

    Either way has its merits, for sure. And like hyp says, you can get players using the decide-after system cynically and only bringing up coolness in order to do "win" the game.

    I'd still rather have the coolness there than not have it all.

  5. Still wondering what the fish has to do with anything, though.

    Although that is a freaky cool looking fish, I'll grant you that.

  6. Grr... can't edit my post. Anyway, I also agree (if I'm reading you right) that the "principle" behind the subsystem, i.e., it's better to have players doing cool stuff, even if their motivation is to "win" than it is to not have cool stuff happening, and then sitting there all philosophically smug and superior because you're not tainting your game with such low brow concerns or whatever.

    Even in the most narrative or method actor focused group of players, you can't divorce the fact that role-playing games are games and as such, of course players want their characters to attempt things that they feel they might actually succeed, and they have little incentive to attempt things that they can't predict they will succeed on or not unless they are really unusual players who really enjoy watching their characters repeatedly fail spectacularly to accomplish things that they are attempting.

  7. Nothing sucks the fun faster than describing a stunt and then botching the roll. I think I've been using what you propose, but in my normal half-assed way. :) That is, sometimes I'll let them know they barely missed in case they want to use Conviction or Extra Effort, but it never occurred to me that they could use stunts the same way.

    Regarding the issue of players "gaming" the system, I feel as long as it's allowing me to avoid such things like "I hit it again" it will be a plus in my book.

  8. Brilliant twist on the tradition, Core. Looking forward to one day having a chance to come up with some cool shit to save my ass.

  9. It's funny cause definitely memories of Barsoom inform this design choice. One thing I remember with a great deal of fondness would be whenever somebody missed a roll by a small amount, and the whole gang would pitch in to run through all the possible sources of additional bonuses. People would look over each others' character sheets, consider the rules (gasp), and generally just collaborate to come up with a plausible reason for an increased bonus. Getting to the bonus was a goodly portion of the fun.