Map-and-key RPGing contrasted with alternatives

pemerton

Legend
In another thread there has been a discussion of map-and-key RPGing, and how it is a distinctive way of handling framing and resolution in RPGing.

Consider the following situation, not uncommon in fantasy RPGing: The PCs are at place A, on the edge of a desert. They wish to get to place B, on the other side of the desert.

How has it come to be that everyone at the table agrees that that is the fictional situation? One possibility is because there is a "world map", and the position of the PCs, and places A and B, are all marked on it, and by looking at the map we can see that there is a desert between A, where the PCs are, and B.

That is an example of using a map-and-key to frame a situation.

The PCs decide to cross the desert. How long does it take, and do they make it? One way to resolve that is to use the map to determine the distance, to divide that through by a movement rate for the PCs, to look at how much food and water will be needed per unit of time, etc. This is roughly what is presented in (eg) Cook/Marsh Expert D&D and Gygax's DMG. I get the impression it's also an approach used in at least some 5e D&D (eg the wilderness travel in Tomb of Annihilation, if I've properly understood what I've read about it).

That is an example of using a map-and-key to resolve an action declaration.

Consider this different situation: The PCs are lost in the under city sewers and catacombs, and find themselves looking up through a grille in the street where an enemy is looking down at them, gloating. The reason why the PCs were sneaking through the catacombs is because they were trying to make it to a wizard's tower in the middle of the city, before their enemy (whom they'd drugged to give themselves a head start). Now they have to race through the undercity while their enemy proceeds above ground!

How has it come to be that everyone at the table agrees that that is the fictional situation? One possibility is because there is an undercity map, and the GM has been providing descriptions to the players (eg "You come to a place where the tunnel stops, and the water drops over a 'falls' to a cross-wise tunnel 20 feet below you - what do you do?") and then the players have been describing which way their PCs go (eg "We use a rope to lower ourselves down alongside the 'falls' and then proceed down the cross-wise tunnel to the right"). Eventually, the result is that the PCs find themselves at a place where there is a grille to the street above.

That would be an example of using map-and-key first to resolve the action declaration "We travel through the undercity catacombs and sewers" and then to help establish the framing "You are looking up through a grille in the street, where your enemy is looking down at you." How the presence of the enemy is established, on this approach, is a further thing - perhaps its a random encounter roll, perhaps the GM has just decided to add it as a type of "spice" to the situation dictated by the map-and-key.

When the situation I've described happened in my Burning Wheel game, though, it didn't arise via map-and-key play. There is no map of the city or its catacombs and sewers. After the PCs drugged their enemy, their players decided that they would sneak through the catacombs to the wizard's tower. I called for a test on Catacombs-wise, at an appropriate difficulty. The test failed, and so I framed the PCs into the situation described: they had become lost, and found themselves at the grille where their enemy - now recovered from having been drugged - was looking down at them, taunting them. No map-and-key resolution of moving through the catacombs; no map-and-key contribution to the framing of the situation.

In my game, the race to the wizard's tower was not resolved via map-and-key either. It was resolved via opposed Speed checks.

In the same game, when the PCs needed to cross a desert to get from A to B, there was no map-and-key resolution. Rather, there was an Orienteering check made against an appropriate difficulty.

Another approach to resolving these sorts of action declarations is from Marvel Heroic RP - I've used it in my fantasy adaptation of that system. The goal or threat is framed as a Scene Distinction (say "In pursuit of the Orcs" or "The Giants are gaining on you") and then the players can declare actions for their PCs which - in the fiction - help the PCs in their goal (eg in one of our MERP/LotR sessions, Gandalf used his magic to create squabbling among the Orcs whom the PCs were pursuing, and who were carrying a palantir that they might well squabble over - this slowed the Orcs down) and which - mechanically - ablate the Scene Distinction. If the Scene Distinction is removed before something else happens to bring the scene to an end, then the PCs achieve their goal (eg they've caught the Orcs, or escaped the Giants).

In non map-and-key approaches a map might still be fun or even helpful to use, as a source of descriptions and flavour and so on (eg in the MERP/LotR Cortex+ example, we referred to the map when we described the Orcs as having begun their journey in Angmar, and heading south towards the Gap of Rohan). But the map is not being used as a constraining device for framing or for resolution.

This post has focused on the use of map-and-key techniques to establish and resolve actions to do with where the PCs are and where they go. Map-and-key approaches can also be used to determine what the PCs find but I'll hold off on that until I learn whether or not there is any interest in this topic.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

pemerton

Legend
This is a cross-post from the other thread, but seems like it is actually a better fit here:

Here are four ways of resolving "wilderness"/cross-country travel that are not map-and-key:

* The GM, or perhaps the players and GM together, just describe(s) the travel. It's mere colour, some "joining" narrative that lets us understand what's happened between the resolution of the last scene, and this next one. The Green Knight RPG uses this approach. I almost always use this approach in Prince Valiant.

* The goal of the travel is described by a Scene Distinction, and the mechanical device that the players use to have their PCs achieve that goal is to declare actions that (i) in the fiction, help the PCs achieve their goal (eg gain on their quarry, slow their quarry down, etc) and that (ii) mechanically, ablate the Scene Distinction - if the Scene Distinction is eliminated, the PCs achieve their goal.

* Some non-map-based way of establishing distance, and how punishing that distance is, is used to set a type of obstacle for the travel. The resolution of the travel proceeds by the players declaring actions and/or spending player-side resources that allow them to meet the obstacle, or to offset it in some fashion. (I've got in mind, here, the Torchbearer rules for Journeys. A 4e skill challenge can also look a bit like this.)

* The player describes their intent-and-task (eg "I am going to cross the desert on my camel!") and the GM sets an obstacle using whatever the rules are for doing that. Then the player rolls the dice and appropriate consequences are narrated as the system dictates.​

I doubt the above four cover the field. And then there are possibilities of mixing them - eg in Apocalypse World if a player declares "I cross the burn flats in my car", the next step in resolution will depend on whether or not that is an attempt to impress someone (in which case it might be Seduce/Manipulate, depending on further details) or is being done under pressure of some sort (in which case it is probably Acting Under Fire) or does not trigger any player-side move, in which case the GM's job is to make a move (probably soft) in response. So if a move is triggered it might look a bit like my fourth dot point; but otherwise it looks the most like my first dot point.
 

niklinna

učim hrvatski
* The goal of the travel is described by a Scene Distinction, and the mechanical device that the players use to have their PCs achieve that goal is to declare actions that (i) in the fiction, help the PCs achieve their goal (eg gain on their quarry, slow their quarry down, etc) and that (ii) mechanically, ablate the Scene Distinction - if the Scene Distinction is eliminated, the PCs achieve their goal.
Could you elaborate on this one :p
 

Staffan

Legend
I think there's a distinction between using an abstracted resolution method and the narrative editing that happens in some games, with abstracted resolution methods being closer to the map-and-key approach. Some games, of course, use both in different ways.

Let's take the Troubleshooters as an example. One of its main rules elements is the Skill Challenge: mechanically a series of 3-5 rolls for various skills, and depending on how many you pass will result in various outcomes. So for example, if you're traveling through the wilderness to get somewhere, that might be a skill challenge for Endurance, Medicine, Survival, and Willpower. Depending on how many of those skills your party can succeed at, you will get various outcomes (better than expected, as expected, success but with negative effects, failure, or failure + negative consequences). That's still dealing with a pre-established world, just abstractly.

But the Troubleshooters also has rules for narrative editing, using Story Points as a meta-currency (though that's not all they're used for). This can be something like "There's an ex around that I can talk to and get into a loud argument with, which will give Sally the perfect distraction for sneaking out to do a thing." That ex wasn't there, and quite possibly didn't exist, until I spent the Story Points.
 

Staffan

Legend
* The goal of the travel is described by a Scene Distinction, and the mechanical device that the players use to have their PCs achieve that goal is to declare actions that (i) in the fiction, help the PCs achieve their goal (eg gain on their quarry, slow their quarry down, etc) and that (ii) mechanically, ablate the Scene Distinction - if the Scene Distinction is eliminated, the PCs achieve their goal.

Could you elaborate on this one :p
This sounds like something along the lines of an Extended Skill Test (I think that's the term they used) in old Storyteller games, though the term "Scene Distinction" sounds like something game-specific. If I understand Pemerton's description, it could be something like: You're "Lost in the Woods 10". When you're Lost in the Woods, you need to cross off one Supply per day, and you're subject to various random encounters. You can take various actions while Lost, such as Find The Way (which would reduce the Lost in the Woods number, and when it's down to 0 you're no longer lost), or Forage for Supplies (which would find supplies). Depending on your abilities, you might be able to use non-mundane ways of getting out as well, such as being able to Speak with Animals which can get you help from animals to guide you out.
 

pemerton

Legend
Another approach to resolving these sorts of action declarations is from Marvel Heroic RP - I've used it in my fantasy adaptation of that system. The goal or threat is framed as a Scene Distinction (say "In pursuit of the Orcs" or "The Giants are gaining on you") and then the players can declare actions for their PCs which - in the fiction - help the PCs in their goal (eg in one of our MERP/LotR sessions, Gandalf used his magic to create squabbling among the Orcs whom the PCs were pursuing, and who were carrying a palantir that they might well squabble over - this slowed the Orcs down) and which - mechanically - ablate the Scene Distinction. If the Scene Distinction is removed before something else happens to bring the scene to an end, then the PCs achieve their goal (eg they've caught the Orcs, or escaped the Giants).

In non map-and-key approaches a map might still be fun or even helpful to use, as a source of descriptions and flavour and so on (eg in the MERP/LotR Cortex+ example, we referred to the map when we described the Orcs as having begun their journey in Angmar, and heading south towards the Gap of Rohan). But the map is not being used as a constraining device for framing or for resolution.
* The goal of the travel is described by a Scene Distinction, and the mechanical device that the players use to have their PCs achieve that goal is to declare actions that (i) in the fiction, help the PCs achieve their goal (eg gain on their quarry, slow their quarry down, etc) and that (ii) mechanically, ablate the Scene Distinction - if the Scene Distinction is eliminated, the PCs achieve their goal.
Could you elaborate on this one
So in MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, Scene Distinctions are formal properties of scenes - free descriptors established by the GM (there is a rationing rule - I'll skip it for the moment).

These can include literal descriptions - eg High Walled Castle - or more abstract or figurative ones - eg Corridors of Power, or Creepy Vibe - and goal-related ones - Folk in Peril, In Pursuit of the Orcs, or (in a scene intended to emulate Aragorn's uncertainty at Parth Galen) Uncertain As To Your Best Course.

All actions in this system are resolved via opposed dice pools, which include dice taken from applicable descriptors, and the effect of actions is to create new descriptors, step up existing descriptors, or step down existing descriptors. (Via a system based on dice-size ratings.) If a Scene Distinction is stepped down to zero, then the scene no longer contains that thing.

So if the players, via appropriate actions, eliminate the Folk in Peril descriptor, then the folk have been rescued. If they eliminate In Pursuit of the Orcs, then they've caught up to the Orcs. If they eliminate Uncertain As To Your Best Course, then they can move on to the next scene with a more focused purpose.

The system has ways to bring a scene to an end - eg by knocking PCs out of it, or by a GM-side resource expenditure (2d12 from the Doom Pool) and if the scene ends with a Scene Descriptor still in play, then that Descriptor is true/reinforced/etc. So eg if the scene ends with In Pursuit of the Orcs still in play, then the Orcs got away. If the scene ends with The Folk (Still) In Peril, then things are not looking good for the folk! Etc.

Hopefully that makes sense.
 

niklinna

učim hrvatski
So in MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, Scene Distinctions are formal properties of scenes - free descriptors established by the GM (there is a rationing rule - I'll skip it for the moment).

These can include literal descriptions - eg High Walled Castle - or more abstract or figurative ones - eg Corridors of Power, or Creepy Vibe - and goal-related ones - Folk in Peril, In Pursuit of the Orcs, or (in a scene intended to emulate Aragorn's uncertainty at Parth Galen) Uncertain As To Your Best Course.

All actions in this system are resolved via opposed dice pools, which include dice taken from applicable descriptors, and the effect of actions is to create new descriptors, step up existing descriptors, or step down existing descriptors. (Via a system based on dice-size ratings.) If a Scene Distinction is stepped down to zero, then the scene no longer contains that thing.

So if the players, via appropriate actions, eliminate the Folk in Peril descriptor, then the folk have been rescued. If they eliminate In Pursuit of the Orcs, then they've caught up to the Orcs. If they eliminate Uncertain As To Your Best Course, then they can move on to the next scene with a more focused purpose.

The system has ways to bring a scene to an end - eg by knocking PCs out of it, or by a GM-side resource expenditure (2d12 from the Doom Pool) and if the scene ends with a Scene Descriptor still in play, then that Descriptor is true/reinforced/etc. So eg if the scene ends with In Pursuit of the Orcs still in play, then the Orcs got away. If the scene ends with The Folk (Still) In Peril, then things are not looking good for the folk! Etc.

Hopefully that makes sense.
Yes it does. It strongly reminds me of clocks in Blades in the Dark and some other games (although those do work slightly differently).
 

pemerton

Legend
Yes it does. It strongly reminds me of clocks in Blades in the Dark and some other games (although those do work slightly differently).
There's a similarity, yes. MHRP also has a way of getting closer to a literal clock, by having a type of Scene Distinction called a Scene Complication that steps up on its own unless the PCs step it down (and when it steps up from d12 to 2d12 then the GM has the necessary resources to end the scene).

There are technical differences between a Scene Complication that starts at d4 and grows, and a clock-like Scene Distinction that starts at d12 and needs to be stepped down, that correspond to their difference in the fiction. Eg trying to solve the puzzle while the room fills with water is a Water-Filling Room Scene Complication; while trying to get all the civilians onto the plane before Dr Doom can blow it up is a Get Everyone On Board Scene Distinction.

I should add, like all the best RPGs (!) there is no single articulation of all this in the MHRP rulebook. I'm putting it together from different bits found in the rulebook, plus examples given in various Event books. I think it's a real shame that the licence was pulled on this system and so it's never been further developed or presented in a more consolidated way.
 

pemerton

Legend
This sounds like something along the lines of an Extended Skill Test (I think that's the term they used) in old Storyteller games, though the term "Scene Distinction" sounds like something game-specific. If I understand Pemerton's description, it could be something like: You're "Lost in the Woods 10". When you're Lost in the Woods, you need to cross off one Supply per day, and you're subject to various random encounters. You can take various actions while Lost, such as Find The Way (which would reduce the Lost in the Woods number, and when it's down to 0 you're no longer lost), or Forage for Supplies (which would find supplies). Depending on your abilities, you might be able to use non-mundane ways of getting out as well, such as being able to Speak with Animals which can get you help from animals to guide you out.
This is different from the MHRP example I had in mind. I'm not familiar with the Storyteller system details, but this reminds me of a cross between a 4e skill challenge and a Torchbearer Journey, which I put together in my third dot point in my second post upthread. Because it seems to have a resource-management aspect that is not really a part of MHRP.
 

DMZ2112

Chaotic Looseleaf
I'm also curious about the Scene Distinction concept -- who decides when it has been removed? Is it a traditional dungeon master referee role, or table consensus? Does it matter? Does it work in either case (or a third case)?
 

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top