Over 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.
The 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.
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.