Resolution in RPGs

In mechanics, role-playing games on November 6th, 2006 at 10:54 pm

d20Over on Story Games, Fred Hicks, creator of Don’t Rest Your Head and co-authour of Spirit of the Century, has done a really brilliant job of describing the different forms of resolution in role-playing games [link visible only to Story Games members]. The most commonly used current model for action resolution is based on drawing a distinction between “task” and “conflict” scale resolution. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is a false dichotomy, though. Fred highlights some of the problems with the task-conflict model, and then draws up his own model for describing resolution systems. Since the thread is not available to non-members, and I like the model, I thought I’d share a brief overview of it, and then comment a little on its uses. No doubt it has its own flaws, and it may be closer to being evolutionary rather than revolutionary, but it’s the best thing I’ve seen so far, and has some relevance to improving your own games.

First, I should clarify that I am talking here about resolution as it happens in practice, not as it is written in the rules. While the latter (should) have a strong influence on the former, most rulesets (so far) leave a little wiggle room that can allow different groups to occupy different regions of Fred’s model. I’ll explain this more after I describe the model.

Fred describes two axes for describing resolution systems. Both axes are continua, rather than containing discrete positions, but Fred divides them into sections for clarity of discussion (see the diagram below). A system at any point along one axis can also be at any point along the other axis.

planet d12The first axis is Clarity & Relevance of player intent. This describes whether a player’s intent when taking an action with his character — why she wants her character to do what is being resolved — has any effect on how the result of rolling the dice (or playing cards, etc.) affects the in-game fiction. At one extreme, the player’s intent has no effect on how actions are resolved, and frequently there is not even an impetus for the player to describe his intent. At the other extreme, the player’s intent has a formal, clearly understood impact on how actions are resolved — the player’s intent shapes the fictional results of the action’s resolution, whether the action succeeds or fails. Fred also highlights one region in between, which describes an area where the player makes her intent clear to the other players, and they take it into account informally, but there is no agreed imperative that the player’s intent must be reflected in the results of the action.

The second axis is how granular resolution is — whether a single iteration of the resolution mechanics affect a single character action, determine the shape of an entire scene, or somewhere in between. Fred focuses on the two extremes, but very few games are written as having scene-based resolution. action-by-action resolution is the level of granularity described by most rulebooks.

Clarity of Intent Diagram

Why are these axes relevant to the average player (as opposed to game designers, who can always use sharper tools to see how rules affect play)? First, by being aware of how positioning along the grid these axes form has an effect on play, you can choose games that fit on locations along the grid that suit your personal tastes best. If you prefer fast paced games, games closer to the scene resolution end of granularity are more likely to suit you. If you want a greater impact on the direction of the game (as opposed to reacting to a plot laid out by other players), games closer to the intent-helps-shape-the-fiction end of the Clarity & Relevance spectrum will suit your play better. Also, they are a good tool for identifying why resolution systems may not work for your group, and how to drift them to something that suits you better.

Also, very few games are completely clear about where they sit on this spectrum. Traditional games tend toward the task-by-task and low Clarity & Intent areas, but the ambiguity leaves room to shift a little towards a more agreeable style of play if you want. likewise, while most story-based RPGs tend not to use task-by-task resolution, they are not always clear just where in “not-task land” they are. Again, this ambiguity leaves groups room to customize the game somewhat to their preferred style of play without going all the way to drifting the rules.

I hope this is as informative and useful for you as it has been for me.

  1. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the scope of the comments that separate opaque and relevant task resolution.

    Under the opaque mantle, it suggests that players don’t clearly state their intentions, and that this is traditional play falls in. I think the task-related intentions in traditional play are often very clearly stated — “I try to hit the monster with my sword” or “I fire a magic missile at the enemy’s cleric” or “I sneak up behind the ogre and pick his pockets for any coins.” To me, that sounds relevant to what the resolution of the task will be.

    What am I missing here?

  2. Chris,

    Sorry, I guess I wasn’t quite as clear as I thought I was. The intent referred to there is the “conflict” level intent. That is, not just the fact that you are swinging your sword or picking the lock, but the fact that you are swinging your sword in order to kill the Black Knight, or picking the lock in order to get the Top Secret blueprints in the general’s desk.

    While the intent (within context) would be quite clear in those two cases, it can be rather opaque a lot of the time in traditional games, since their resolution systems focus on the physical act, not what is in the character’s (or player’s) head. I know that I’ve had cases where I had my character do a skill check, only to have my GM misinterpret why I was doing it. Normally it’s a simple matter of saying “ummmm…no, I wanted this,” but if my true purpose isn’t clear for a while, it can really muck things up.

    Also, when everyone has their intents out on the table, it either makes the GM’s job a lot easier, assuming he is trying to give the player’s a real impact on the direction of the game, or else it makes it a lot easier to realize that he is railroading or being a schmuck.

    YMMV, I suppose.

  3. Ummm….just to answer again in a short and to the point manner….

    It is referring to why the character is taking the actions that he is, not just what actions are being taken.

  4. Hmm… So this really seems to have less to do with resolution of conflicts or tasks and more to do with where the control over the entire situation lies, by the sounds of it. The two extremes would be where the GM runs a very tight, narrow, railroady game and a completely GM-less game where everyone involved acts as player and GM to construct the whys and hows of the session.

    I assume by the one example you used, you’re referring to something like a spot check in d20. The GM calls for it, but the player has no idea why they’re rolling the check unless they actually succeed. If they don’t succeed, then they never discover why they were rolling the check.

    Is that a bit closer to the point?

  5. Let me fall back on the standard resolution example, originally used by Vincent Baker to try to explain the difference between task and conflict resolution. It was used extensively in the Stury Games thread as well.

    A character is breaking into an office in order to break into a safe where her player thinks she will find papers related to the current situation. This can be resolved in any number of ways depending on the game being played and the traditions of the group playing. The possibilities along the Clarity & Relevance axis could be roughly divided into the following groups, although as an continuum this is more ad hoc categorization than real groups:

    1. The players reasons for trying to crack the safe are never expressed openly. While they may be inferred by the context, everyone except the player is left guessing. Why this is so can vary, from the GM not caring about such petty things as what the player’s are planning, to “it doesn’t say anything in the rules about talking about my larger intentions.” The appropriate resolution occurs, and the GM (or other players) narrate based only on the pass/fail nature of the roll. Therefore, it is quite possible — even likely — that the player could succeed at breaking into the safe, but not find the papers she wants, requiring another guess about where they might be. This is the far left of the Clarity & Relevance axis — the player’s strategic goals are not expressed, and have no relevance to the outcome of events.

    2. The Player openly explains her big picture reasons for breaking into the safe — wanting to find the papers. The roll is made. While the player narrating the results is under no compulsion to have resolution directly address the player’s stated intentions, at least it is unlikely to directly clash with them either.

    3. The game’s rules or group tradition dictate that when players go to the resolution mechanics, players state their objectives (finding the papers) in undertaking the described course of action (breaking into the safe). Narration of the results of the resolution must be relevant to the players stated goals. Again, there is no guarantee that this will be done in a manner that is satisfying to the player, but by rule the players objectives must be addressed in play. Note that this level of clarity and relevance can still be achieved using “task-by-task” resolution. While mechanics like the conflict rules in Dogs in the Vineyard, or Bringing Down the Pain in The Shadow of Yesterday are the first examples that leap to mind, group agreement could create something similar in most traditional games.

    Note that railroading occur in any of these cases, although it tends to be more transparent the further towards Clarity & Relevance you go in your resolution.

    Is that clearer? Do you have any questions about the Granularity axis?

  6. A little more. The first and second two styles are much closer to each other than the second to the third.

    I don’t know about how others play, but there’s usually a reason for why the PCs are doing something, and they usually know it. They’re trying to crack into the safe to steal papers they need for an investigation, for instance. In the first example, they simply wouldn’t state it (my players would probably see it as stating the obvious if they did). In the second example, instead of saying “I pick the lock on the safe” like they would in the first example, they’d say “I pick the lock on the safe because I think the papers I need to steal are in there.”

    It seems like a minor difference — stating the reasons versus not doing so.

    I think the stating of the why really comes up more in certain media for playing. PBeM/PbP is probably the best example. Since players are writing the narrative instead of speaking it, I find they’re more likely to give an account of the character’s thoughts while also posting their actions, so you get a sense of what the character is thinking, which in turns lead to a very good understanding of why the character is doing it.

    It still typically doesn’t change the outcome, just the amount of context put in place.

  7. “A little more. The first and second two styles are much closer to each other than the second to the third.”

    I can understand why it seems that way, since the second column sounds like “column 1 + x” while column 3 sounds like a completely different paradigm. If you remember, though, the entire axis is a smooth continuum. There is no sharp breaking point between columns, so column 2 is, in a manner of speaking, a hybrid of column 1 and column 3.

    “I don’t know about how others play, but there’s usually a reason for why the PCs are doing something, and they usually know it.”

    Well, yes, certainly the players always know the motivation (or rationalisation) behind their own character’s actions. The issue is whether it is communicated to the other players, especially the one that will be in charge of narrating the results of resolution, so they can be integrated organically into the results.

    If your group just communicates like this automatically, and it works well for you, then that’s great. Just bear in mind that some groups do not communicate motivations like that. In some cases it’s necessary for them to enjoy their play (notably players who identify as various flavours of immersionist), while in others (like old-school dungeon crawlers) motivation isn’t really significant to play, so why waste the time and effort.

    “It seems like a minor difference — stating the reasons versus not doing so.”

    Really? It seems like a pretty significant difference to me. On the one hand, there is a decision that player reasons should have no role in shaping the fiction of the game — everything is the product of declared actions and the narrator’s imagination. On the other, you have play where people other than the narrator can have significant input into narration, albeit with the consent of the narrator. If you’re into that sort of thing, having the extra impact and control that this can offer can make the game a lot more fun.

    “I think the stating of the why really comes up more in certain media for playing.”

    Actually, I think it has a lot more to do with a group’s playstyle, and what it is about roleplaying that jazzes them about playing RPGs. If your in it for kicking ass and looking cool, motivation is just clutter getting in the way of your cool. For a lot of players, though, helping to shape the fiction on a level beyond choosing her character’s actions can greatly increase the fun of playing. I know I count myself in the latter group, at least in games that have a significant plot.

    “It still typically doesn’t change the outcome, just the amount of context put in place.”

    You’re going to have to clarify what you mean by outcome here before I can comment. Do you mean the results of the dice, the way the results are narrated as part of the game fiction, or some third meaning that isn’t coming to mind just now?

    (P.S. I hate reading threads where people are constantly asking for that sort of clarification when the meaning should be obvious, but I’m genuinely not sure here)

  8. By outcome, I meant the resolution as they relate to success or failure. In traditional systems, anyway, a success on breaking into the safe will mean the safe is open (and then the GM would tell the player if the piece of paper they were looking for is there) and a failure will mean they don’t get it open. Their reasons for doing so wouldn’t have any effect on their success/failure of opening the safe or of finding the paper or not. I can understand this changing in games in which the players have as much say about the direction of the plot and story elements as the GM. In my group’s recent experimentation with Wushu, one of the players really got into the idea of adding elements. They were searching for clues, and although I had it in my mind he would find that clue in about another five minutes of time, he narrated he saw a slip of paper on a desk just before the house he was in went up in flames. I went with it, and that’s how he got his clue instead of how I had planned.

    Anyway, regarding motivations, I see your point. I think maybe I’ve simply been playing with my group so long and am very good friends with everybody that I know what their motivations are. I know why they choose to do things in the game. When I’m not sure, I just ask.

    However, in a lot of cases, I don’t think the why matters as much as in other cases. Why are they trying to pick the lock on the safe? More than likely, clues in the adventure have been pointing to evidence that what they seek is in the safe, so I know why they’re trying to get into the safe. They want to get the paper. Even if they don’t explicitly state that when they tell me they’re going to try picking the lock, everyone knows why because we’re all on the same page (unless someone has stopped paying attention).

    In a dungeon crawl, it’s more than likely irrelevant why they choose to take the right turn instead of the left turn. I honestly don’t care. They made a decision, and that’s good enough for me. They hang a right and I tell them what happens. Now, certainly patterns in their dungeon-crawling choices may emerge.

    In social situations, I definitely see there being more reason to know the whys, though. I know there have been times when I haven’t been clear on why the players are reacting to someone or a particular situation in a particular way. The old GM in me would’ve just shrugged and did the best he could, all the while baffled. The current GM would simply ask what’s going through their heads so I can better give them an appropriate response. But again, even with social situations, I know the players and I know the characters they’ve developed, so I often have an idea what they’re up to. Sometimes they do surprise me, though, and that’s where some simple but direct questions come in handy.

  9. A possibly not-so-interesting aside: In my upcoming supers campaigns, the motivations of the characters will actually play a rather large role in the structure of the campaign, so maybe I’m not as sure about this as I think I am. 😉

    [Note: comment edited slightly by moderator to comply with this blog’s comment policy. Hopefully the original poster’s intent is intact.]

  10. There’s not supposed to be any real implication (at least by me) that play is better to the right end of the Clarity & Relevance axis than it is to the left. Which location you prefer to play at is personal taste. I think I’ve recently made clear that I don’t believe in what is sarcastically called WrongBadFun on the RPG forums. There are just different styles of play that each have their own fans. If explicit declarations of purpose get in your way, then not only do you not need them, but you should not use them.

    The purpose of this post, and a theme that I plan to expand on in a future post, is that being aware of alternative styles of play cannot hurt, and a little experimentation now and then can be a good thing, as well. Variety is the spice of life, and all that.

    i should also mention that many of the people I play RPGs with are not always what you would call conventional thinkers 😉 I’m not sure I could second guess them most of the time if I wanted to.

    In a dungeon crawl, it’s more than likely irrelevant why they choose to take the right turn instead of the left turn. I honestly don’t care.

    Well, this article is only referring to situations where you are using resolution mechanics. Going to the dice, as it were. I assume there is no dice rolling involved when your players make a left turn in a dungeon (barring traps) 😉

  11. Over in the original thread, Brand Robins just posted the kind of blow-by-blow clarifying example I’ve been too lazy to do 🙂

    So let us say that we’re trying to find a way into the sewers, and the GM knows that only the Five Wise Dudes know the way in. In no-clear-intent or what-the-hell-ever-we’re-calling-it-now-used-to-be-task resolution it might go like this:

    Player: I use my Gather Information to find a good Bar
    GM: Um… okay, roll.
    Player: Okay, I get a 17, is that enough?
    GM: Sure, you find an awesome bar. There are totally girls there, you could …
    Player: No, I’m not here for that. I find a smart looking guy
    GM: Okay… that’s easy to do.
    Player: Now I want to use Diplomacy to make friends with him.
    GM: Okay, that’ll take a 20.
    Player: I get a 20, and I make friend with him and buy him a drink.
    GM: He tells you his name is Darb.
    Player: Cool, I ask Darb to show me how to get into the sewers
    GM: He doesn’t know how to get into the sewers.
    Player: What? Shit, I ask him who would.
    GM: He says no one does, save the Five Wise Dudes.
    Player: Fine, I use my Gather Information to find out where I find the Five Wise Dudes.
    GM: Okay, that’ll take a 25
    Player: Okay, I got a 27
    GM: So you finally come to the venerable sanctuary of the five wise dudes, where they wait for you in purple prose description here.
    Player: Okay, so I convince them to let me go to the sewers
    GM: That’ll be a Diplomacy roll
    Player: 17
    GM: Good enough, they take you.

    The big thing here is that because the Player isn’t letting the GM know what his end goal is the GM can’t help steer him at it until the end — assuming the GM would want to steer the player. The player never knows which roll will end up with him at the sewers, or near the sewers, or if he can even get to the sewers. So pretty much he keeps trying different things until he finds one that will work. Task by task, no clear intent.

    In conflict/clear intent/scene resolution it might go like this:

    Player: I want to find a way into the sewers, I’d like to use my Diplomacy to make a local friend who can help me do that.
    GM: Roll your Diplomacy
    Player: I get a 27
    GM: Okay, you meet a guy named Darb who tells you that only the Five Wise Dudes know the way in, but because he likes you so much he takes you to their sanctuary where they wait for you in purple prose description here, because Darb vouches for you they show your way into the sewers.

    Here everything happens based on the stated intent, and on success the character goes right through. It would be possible to break this down into sub tasks and still have the overall itnent resolution work above-board, vis a vis Fred’s chart. (For example the GM could say, “Okay you need to make a local friend, then you need to convince him to take you to the sages, then you need to convince them to let you into the sewers.”)

    The big difference is that once the series of rolls is over the player and the GM both know where the player will be or won’t be, where as in the series above its a long string of guesses as to what is going on. In our second example the player clearly knows what he needs to do, and failure points are systematized and clear. In the first example the player doesn’t know, and the GM may (accidentally or deliberatly) spinning the player farther and farther out because he’s not on the same page.

  12. Well, this article is only referring to situations where you are using resolution mechanics. Going to the dice, as it were. I assume there is no dice rolling involved when your players make a left turn in a dungeon (barring traps)

    You’ve never had players do the RPG equivalent of flipping a coin? “I’m rolling a D6. 1-3, we go right. 4-6, we got left.” 😉

    I like that Gather Information example. I think it makes the point about stating intentions (or not) and why it’s important clearer for me. Simple communication (with a desired end result) between the participants is definitely important. I’ve seen that type of thing go bad before, but not in awhile. For something like investigation, my players are generally clear on what they want to get, which definitely helps my job as GM immensely.


  13. No problem, Chris 😉

  14. Somehow this thread escaped my scrutiny, Gerald – thanks for the reminder to check back in on it. Your blog looks great, BTW.

  15. Thanks, Jason. The look is just a theme provided by, but I like it.

    BTW, anyone reading this should definitely check out Jason’s game, The Shab al-Hiri Roach.

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