D&D General Skill challenges: action resolution that centres the fiction

Pedantic

Adventurer
For practical purposes it is impossible for the GM to decide the state of the world, in all relevant respects, before each action is declared and resolved. Which guards know the password? Is their knowledge out-of-date due to a password change? Where is everyone in the castle? How many of them might recognise a disguised PC? Which accents will they treat as foreign or suspicious?

In my experience, the practical upshot of the sort of approach you advocate - once the fiction becomes richer than the artificially austere environment of a classic D&D dungeon - is that the GM has to make stuff up as they go along prior to actions being declared and resolved, or else introduce new fiction into the situation as part of success or failure narration. The first case puts the shape of the fiction primarily into the hands of the GM. The second case does likewise, unless (and to borrow @Manbearcat's phrase) the GM is on some sort of "budget". A skill challenge is exactly that sort of rationing device. The GM has no more than N moves (and maybe 2 fewer, if the players roll no failures) before they are obliged to narrate a final conclusion to the situation. No more than N troublesome townsfolk, password-forgetting guards, suspicious responses to accents, etc.

A GM can and should attempt to make all decision about the fictional setting without regard to the player's intentions. You're talking as though "this thing cannot be done perfectly" means "therefor, we should do precisely the opposite" follows. Why is it superior that a GM should pick a specific number of obstacles, instead of attempting to determine the situation in absence of the player's input?

* It produces more interesting play, in the sense that the players do not have to try to puzzle out the GM's - perhaps ad hoc - conception of the fictional situation, and instead can follow their own sense of the fiction and (if their checks succeed) make that part of the shared fiction;​
* It produces more interesting fiction, in the sense of fiction that more closely resembles the inspirational fiction (eg JRRT/LotR, REH/Conan, etc).​

I don't think the first point much matters, if the alternative is what you're proposing. I'm arguing the game is improved by giving players agency to affect the number of points of interaction it takes to achieve their goals, "success" in SC parlance, you're suggesting that it's better to set that number beforehand, through an arbitrary system instead of leaving it up to human judgement.

We can certainly both agree a bad GM can cause havoc in either state, from setting up SCs where they don't belong, making them too complex or not complex enough, or in my paradigm, by arbitrarily adding additional complication to the fictional situation after it's been established, so let's assume a talented one. In that case, my paradigm will increase player agency at least some of the time, even if our poor GM occasionally does slip after a string of successes and decide there really should be another guard patrol in this castle in the heat of the moment.

Pretend for a moment that we did have a perfect simulation of a fantasy setting available, to go look at after each declared action, and the goal of our system is emulate that view whenever possible. What will have a higher success rate? A system whereby a human does their best to emulate knowledge of that world, or one where we pick a number ranging ranging from 4-15?

To me, these events seem to more closely evoke the feel of Viking myths and related fairy tales - spying the ox, and then trying to trick the dim-witted giant chief into trading back the horse for his own ox, and then narrowly avoiding being eaten when the deception is seen through - than would happen if the resolution was based on GM notes + discreet action resolution. (What happens if the GM doesn't think to note a barn in the steading, or a giant ox? Why should such an interesting fictional element be contingent on the GM thinking of it?)

I'm fairly willing to concede that if you want to emulate a specific narrative, you can better achieve that by using a closed scene resolution system, because you will have more control over the arc of the action. That's not really relevant to my point about agency, and could very while lie in opposition to the particularly flavor of gameplay enjoyment I'm talking about. I am less interested in having a compelling narrative emerge than in trying routinely to make the best choice in a bunch of strange situations.

Players will still find plenty of obstacles to founder on, even if they manage to ignore/obviate a few. If you're looking for the experience of trying to do your best in a fictional world, it's going to be better if that world rewards you for optimal choices.

And this is FUNDAMENTALLY why we won't agree, cannot agree, because we are not approaching the structure of play in the same way, at all. There is no 'world' and it is NOT being 'simulated' in any meaningful way. We are playing a game which involves telling parts of a story, or several interwoven stories. Nobody owns it, or has total control of what it is. There is certainly no 'deist god'. There are a group of participants who are playing the game and finding out what sort of world they are creating, and what sort of things will happen in it, together. There's no need for the GM to be in some sort of 'drivers seat'.

The "deist" bit is important there. The GM is absolutely not in any kind of driver's seat, they aren't advancing "the narrative" in any meaningful way, outside of hopefully setting up an interesting place to be in, with interesting problems to solve and interesting things to care about. I'm not the viking hat guy, I'm just also not the "story" guy here. Narrative is a retrospective view on the events that occurred, not an intentional act of creation by the group sitting at the table.

But how do you measure when it is no longer possible? Either you have to have closed scene resolution, or the GM invents that answer on their own (or maybe a player gives up or changes there mind I suppose).

This is entirely intrinsic to the player's goals. If your goal was the save the last native badgerhorse and then it dies, the goal is not longer achievable (or maybe it is, if you've got resurrection magic, it's a fantasy game, you might have pretty extreme actions available).

The GM can never be removed. In this classic paradigm the GM IS the world, removing them isn't even remotely possible.

The GM can be quite easily removed from resolution. Actions can just do whatever they say they do, and be absolute descriptors of themselves.

So, you are advocating for a radically different play loop then, where the GM describes an initial situation, players declare actions (I would say here that they would have to declare INTENT, not just what action the character takes), resolution takes place (IE dice or whatever), and then the PLAYER DESCRIBES what the resulting situation is. What if their intent fails (IE the dice go against them?). How does the sequence get reestablished, and how in fact does an overall goal get established to start with if there is no 'closed resolution' of overall (operational level basically) goals? I don't see how such a technique could be architected outside of something like SCs (though obviously something like BitD scores would also work). Honestly you are getting VERY close to the Heroes of Myth & Legend Challenge System here...

No, the description of the world is established by the resolution mechanism. "You jump 30 ft" is quite clear. We know where you started, we know where you landed, we know what kinds of things modify that number from a table of sensible modifiers, it's all self-contained and does not require anyone to adjust the fiction outside of the stated effect. Failure to activate an action (i.e. in the case of skill check with a DC where failure is possible) should be described as part of the action. I imagine for this simple jumping example, you likely jump less far.

"Overall goals" do not need system specification. Players can just want things, and then take actions to try and make them occur. If I want to be somewhere else, I will go look at the movement rules. If I want to disguise my appearance, I will check the rules for creating an effective disguise, use them to measure its effectiveness, and then use the rules for determining whether a disguise is seen through when the PC interacts with anyone else. Resolution does not need to be less atomic, from those specific actions, players can string together plans and desired specific changes in the world.

Really, I think what I'm talking about is not particularly radical. You can just keep the desired outcome in your head, and use it as a guide to determine what action you take next. The whole enjoyment is in picking an effective strategy to make that desired outcome occur.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Pedantic

Adventurer
No, now they know a way to even-handedly decide. We can get on with the interesting part, what actually is it that we find in this situation?

This is really starting to get to me. I don't know why the approach represented here by SCs gets a monopoly on "interesting." I've used the phrase "interesting decision" several times to describe what is enjoyable about the kind of optimization puzzle you get from trying to take the best option in a complicated system, and there exists a whole field of games that live and die entirely on conceit being fun. Arguably any abstract board-game has nothing to recommend it outside of "trying to make the best decision out of a complicated but limited set of choices," and we've been doing that as long as we've had history.

Is it truly so baffling that a person might enjoy a serial set of such problems in a boundless, serially repeatable format, where instead of acquiring the most victory points, one gets the satisfaction of "winning" by instead defeating their fictional childhood rival and saving the country from a rampaging elder god? The appeal is pretty intrinsic. Heck there's a whole genre of computer games, the "immersive sim" which is built around exactly this model, they just aren't as good at it as TTRPGs are. It's really hard to let players have the entire palette of all their actions open to them at all times in a videogame.

I'm perfectly willing to concede, and have several times done so, that if you don't care about this kind of agency, or, if you're willing to take another priority over player agency (like say, narrative arc cohesion, or even ease of preparation/use) you might absolutely reach for a SC model. I am not willing to concede that "agency" in the sense I'm using it doesn't exist, isn't entertaining and engaging, nor that skill challenges lack it.

It is perfectly possible that this is an intractable design problem, wherein you must make a trade-off between various goods and set various design goals. We could perhaps, note that, draw some conclusions around what systems engage people in what ways, and use that knowledge to benefit everyone in future designs, when playing, when making recommendations, and so on.

I would not presume that at all, and find the idea that this is the only design which provides 'agency' to be a highly dubious proposition. You would clearly benefit from playing in a game using an RPG and techniques which challenge your assumptions.

I have, I didn't like them (well, even that's an overstatement, better to say I liked them less than other TTRPG experiences I've had) I've spent a long time thinking about why, and formulated a theory about player agency to explain it.
 

A GM can and should attempt to make all decision about the fictional setting without regard to the player's intentions. You're talking as though "this thing cannot be done perfectly" means "therefor, we should do precisely the opposite" follows. Why is it superior that a GM should pick a specific number of obstacles, instead of attempting to determine the situation in absence of the player's input?
The statement I bolded here is HIGHLY ideological. It represents only one specific school of thought on RPG design, and arguably not even the most prevalent today (in terms of RPG designers considering it true). In fact in terms of how I think about GMing such an idea is either antithetical or irrelevant.
I don't think the first point much matters, if the alternative is what you're proposing. I'm arguing the game is improved by giving players agency to affect the number of points of interaction it takes to achieve their goals, "success" in SC parlance, you're suggesting that it's better to set that number beforehand, through an arbitrary system instead of leaving it up to human judgement.
But I have seen no evidence whatsoever that any proposal you have put forward would achieve this. I think @pemerton has quite convincingly argued that this will fall entirely to the GM in trad-like play.
We can certainly both agree a bad GM can cause havoc in either state, from setting up SCs where they don't belong, making them too complex or not complex enough, or in my paradigm, by arbitrarily adding additional complication to the fictional situation after it's been established, so let's assume a talented one. In that case, my paradigm will increase player agency at least some of the time, even if our poor GM occasionally does slip after a string of successes and decide there really should be another guard patrol in this castle in the heat of the moment.
How will it do so? Specifically, how will it move the decision as to when a goal is accomplished from the GM's purview to that of the player (or even shift it in that direction)? I mean, your very words reveal that the GM is going to decide and has to exercise some skill in deciding what 'string of successes' should be considered sufficient! This IMHO is not player agency.
Pretend for a moment that we did have a perfect simulation of a fantasy setting available, to go look at after each declared action, and the goal of our system is emulate that view whenever possible. What will have a higher success rate? A system whereby a human does their best to emulate knowledge of that world, or one where we pick a number ranging ranging from 4-15?
What is the point of this comment? I mean, first of all you presuppose something as an axiom that is patently not even close to ever holding in real play, like by a humongous margin! And then what is the point you think follows from that? That in a state of perfect knowledge of fiction (and presumably every skill, discipline, scientific knowledge, etc. that could bear on answering questions about it) we wouldn't need dice? I utterly grant this supposition, but since it is completely unrealistic I am going to disregard it as irrelevant to any practical discussion of RPGs!
I'm fairly willing to concede that if you want to emulate a specific narrative, you can better achieve that by using a closed scene resolution system, because you will have more control over the arc of the action. That's not really relevant to my point about agency, and could very while lie in opposition to the particularly flavor of gameplay enjoyment I'm talking about. I am less interested in having a compelling narrative emerge than in trying routinely to make the best choice in a bunch of strange situations.

Players will still find plenty of obstacles to founder on, even if they manage to ignore/obviate a few. If you're looking for the experience of trying to do your best in a fictional world, it's going to be better if that world rewards you for optimal choices.
I don't understand what about SCs prevent that. I mean, 4e generally leans heavily on the conceit of 'level appropriateness', so DCs are almost always close to the PC's level, and the fiction is then described in such a way as to plausibly fall within the range of 'heroic', 'paragon', or 'epic' in its scale and tone. So, at 1st level the PCs approach this SC and the bad guys are goblins, etc.
The "deist" bit is important there. The GM is absolutely not in any kind of driver's seat, they aren't advancing "the narrative" in any meaningful way, outside of hopefully setting up an interesting place to be in, with interesting problems to solve and interesting things to care about. I'm not the viking hat guy, I'm just also not the "story" guy here. Narrative is a retrospective view on the events that occurred, not an intentional act of creation by the group sitting at the table.
Well, I would describe a GM who is the sole source of the fiction and topics of play as being 'in charge' of the game. I can only repeat what I said that you responded to, try playing some games that are not designed to work in the specific way that you seem to think is how an RPG must work. There are many more things under the Sun than you can imagine!
This is entirely intrinsic to the player's goals. If your goal was the save the last native badgerhorse and then it dies, the goal is not longer achievable (or maybe it is, if you've got resurrection magic, it's a fantasy game, you might have pretty extreme actions available).
Sure, but how many tasks must you succeed at to save the badgerhorse? The GM is going to decide that, not the player. And the GM is largely going to determine when it would be appropriate for the badgerhorse to 'die', etc.
The GM can be quite easily removed from resolution. Actions can just do whatever they say they do, and be absolute descriptors of themselves.
No, because the GM in your model is the complete arbiter of what the situation is which needs to be resolved! No amount of detailed specification of effects of actions matters here! Nor is such a thing practically possible anyway.
No, the description of the world is established by the resolution mechanism. "You jump 30 ft" is quite clear. We know where you started, we know where you landed, we know what kinds of things modify that number from a table of sensible modifiers, it's all self-contained and does not require anyone to adjust the fiction outside of the stated effect. Failure to activate an action (i.e. in the case of skill check with a DC where failure is possible) should be described as part of the action. I imagine for this simple jumping example, you likely jump less far.
And how slippery is the floor? Is it possible that the landing spot is unsafe? There are a bazillion factors which can effect what happens, and what is in the universe of things which could POSSIBLY happen. Nobody can enumerate them all. This is not really such a huge deal in terms of adjudicating actions, actually. It is a MUCH MUCH bigger deal though in terms of adjudicating fictional position and appropriate scene framing. None of that can be done objectively, at all.
"Overall goals" do not need system specification. Players can just want things, and then take actions to try and make them occur. If I want to be somewhere else, I will go look at the movement rules. If I want to disguise my appearance, I will check the rules for creating an effective disguise, use them to measure its effectiveness, and then use the rules for determining whether a disguise is seen through when the PC interacts with anyone else. Resolution does not need to be less atomic, from those specific actions, players can string together plans and desired specific changes in the world.
And you still have not explained how it is that you think any of this can happen in an objective fashion! What comes next after the character takes a certain action and the rules say "OK, you succeed, the effect is X." Now a new situation exists, what is that? Who decides what it is? Who chooses what happens when the characters go down the path to the left? Suppose they decide to bushwhack instead of going left or right? Now what? Surely the GM cannot have considered all these possibilities and there's no conceivable way that a game system can cover every possible action, including the salient facts bearing on its outcomes, that could exist.
Really, I think what I'm talking about is not particularly radical. You can just keep the desired outcome in your head, and use it as a guide to determine what action you take next. The whole enjoyment is in picking an effective strategy to make that desired outcome occur.
Nobody is claiming that free unstructured play isn't highly doable, it certainly is. Many gradations exist too, like hexcrawling, where there are some rules but the PCs can still do 'anything' basically. Or dungeon crawling where some structured rules exist (say in B/X) but you can still do whatever. It isn't a question of if all these can exist. The actual observation of the OP was simply about the evolution of techniques of play within the scope of SCs. So maybe we should call this side discussion to an end and get back to the main one, lol. I think we're never going to get closer to agreement than we are, although I think you have made some interesting observations on some related stuff, which I have enjoyed.
 

This is really starting to get to me. I don't know why the approach represented here by SCs gets a monopoly on "interesting." I've used the phrase "interesting decision" several times to describe what is enjoyable about the kind of optimization puzzle you get from trying to take the best option in a complicated system, and there exists a whole field of games that live and die entirely on conceit being fun. Arguably any abstract board-game has nothing to recommend it outside of "trying to make the best decision out of a complicated but limited set of choices," and we've been doing that as long as we've had history.

Is it truly so baffling that a person might enjoy a serial set of such problems in a boundless, serially repeatable format, where instead of acquiring the most victory points, one gets the satisfaction of "winning" by instead defeating their fictional childhood rival and saving the country from a rampaging elder god? The appeal is pretty intrinsic. Heck there's a whole genre of computer games, the "immersive sim" which is built around exactly this model, they just aren't as good at it as TTRPGs are. It's really hard to let players have the entire palette of all their actions open to them at all times in a videogame.

I'm perfectly willing to concede, and have several times done so, that if you don't care about this kind of agency, or, if you're willing to take another priority over player agency (like say, narrative arc cohesion, or even ease of preparation/use) you might absolutely reach for a SC model. I am not willing to concede that "agency" in the sense I'm using it doesn't exist, isn't entertaining and engaging, nor that skill challenges lack it.

It is perfectly possible that this is an intractable design problem, wherein you must make a trade-off between various goods and set various design goals. We could perhaps, note that, draw some conclusions around what systems engage people in what ways, and use that knowledge to benefit everyone in future designs, when playing, when making recommendations, and so on.



I have, I didn't like them (well, even that's an overstatement, better to say I liked them less than other TTRPG experiences I've had) I've spent a long time thinking about why, and formulated a theory about player agency to explain it.
This was a thread about SCs, and in fact the question of whether something else is better was not even really in scope. I understand you disagree with their fundamental structure, but IMHO trying to get everyone here who has used and honed them for years to suddenly decide they are rotten to the core is kind of beating a dead horse at this point, lol. It is an interesting discussion, perhaps, but I'm still interested in hearing more about people's thoughts on the OP, though I think my own opinions/ideas/experience has gotten a pretty good airing, thank you! So don't feel too frustrated, we're all just in a certain space in terms of how we play, and its different from yours.
 

pemerton

Legend
A GM can and should attempt to make all decision about the fictional setting without regard to the player's intentions.

<snip>

The GM is absolutely not in any kind of driver's seat, they aren't advancing "the narrative" in any meaningful way, outside of hopefully setting up an interesting place to be in, with interesting problems to solve and interesting things to care about.
What sort of RPGing are you talking about here?

If you're asserting this for RPGing in general, then you're just wrong. Burning Wheel, Prince Valiant, 4e D&D, Torchbearer, Agon - just to mention a handful of RPGs - are ones in which the GM should not attempt to make all decisions about the fictional setting without regard to the player's intentions.

If you're asserting it for skill challenges, you're also just wrong, as these are part of the resolution machinery of a RPG - 4e D&D - that makes having regard to the players' intentions an important consideration in GMing.

If you're asserting it as your preference, well fair enough, but I'm not sure how that bears upon the thread topic.

This is really starting to get to me. I don't know why the approach represented here by SCs gets a monopoly on "interesting." I've used the phrase "interesting decision" several times to describe what is enjoyable about the kind of optimization puzzle you get from trying to take the best option in a complicated system, and there exists a whole field of games that live and die entirely on conceit being fun. Arguably any abstract board-game has nothing to recommend it outside of "trying to make the best decision out of a complicated but limited set of choices," and we've been doing that as long as we've had history.

Is it truly so baffling that a person might enjoy a serial set of such problems in a boundless, serially repeatable format, where instead of acquiring the most victory points, one gets the satisfaction of "winning" by instead defeating their fictional childhood rival and saving the country from a rampaging elder god? The appeal is pretty intrinsic. Heck there's a whole genre of computer games, the "immersive sim" which is built around exactly this model, they just aren't as good at it as TTRPGs are. It's really hard to let players have the entire palette of all their actions open to them at all times in a videogame.

I'm perfectly willing to concede, and have several times done so, that if you don't care about this kind of agency, or, if you're willing to take another priority over player agency (like say, narrative arc cohesion, or even ease of preparation/use) you might absolutely reach for a SC model. I am not willing to concede that "agency" in the sense I'm using it doesn't exist, isn't entertaining and engaging, nor that skill challenges lack it.

<snip>

I have, I didn't like them (well, even that's an overstatement, better to say I liked them less than other TTRPG experiences I've had) I've spent a long time thinking about why, and formulated a theory about player agency to explain it.
None of what you say is baffling. You're describing a type of RPGing that I have started many threads about, and that I think of as RPGing as puzzle-solving. I don't mean by that there is necessarily a unique solution (although sometimes it comes close - think of Tomb of Horrors), but that the principal job of the players is to take the pieces that the GM presents them with - the various elements of the fiction - and use them to come up with a solution. The key value, on the player side, in this sort of play, is efficiency or even expediency.

It's perhaps worth noting, at least in passing, that there is at least one RPG published by a well-regarded design team that combines this sort of RPGing with a type of player-intent driven RPGing, namely, Torchbearer. (In terms of its design heritage it combines Burning Wheel with classic D&D.) I haven't played enough of it to form a view on how successful it ultimately is, but I have played enough to know that it is amply playable and is fun. @AbdulAlhazred and @Manbearcat are two posters in this thread who know the system better than I do (though I think of the three of us I may have the most Burning Wheel experience and so the best sense of how it lives up to that particular side of its heritage).

But the juxtaposition of your two quotes above surely makes it clear why you are experiencing some pushback to your agency claims. A system in which the GM make all decision about the fictional setting without regard to the player's intentions fairly clearly gives the players less authority over the content of the fiction than one in which the GM frames situations having regard to player intentions (see eg 4e D&D's player-authored quests) and/or in which the GM narrates consequences of checks having regard to player intentions (which is how skill challenges work). The systems I've just described produce fiction that either closely reflects player intentions (if the players roll well such that their PCs succeed in their quests) or that is shaped in obvious opposition to those intentions, and hence still reflects the players' concerns (if the players roll poorly, such that their PCs fail, leading to the GM narrating consequences that express that failure of goal/intention).

This is also why you are receiving pushback on your railroading claims. A system in which whatever happens - be it success or failure - reflects and expresses in some fashion the intent the players had for their PCs in the imagined world hardly counts as a railroad in the standard meaning of that term. It is the players, not the GM, who are providing the basic orientation of play, are establishing (via their intents for their PCs) what sorts of outcomes will honour success or failure, etc.

I'm arguing the game is improved by giving players agency to affect the number of points of interaction it takes to achieve their goals

<snip>

This is entirely intrinsic to the player's goals. If your goal was the save the last native badgerhorse and then it dies, the goal is not longer achievable

<snip>

The whole enjoyment is in picking an effective strategy to make that desired outcome occur.

<snip>

I think what I'm talking about is not particularly radical. You can just keep the desired outcome in your head, and use it as a guide to determine what action you take next.
Affect, in your first quoted sentence, and make in your third, are misleading verbs. Because the players aren't actually making changes to their PCs' situations (outside of some rather narrow resolution frameworks, like the depletion of a wall's "structure points" that we discussed upthread). What they are doing is generating - via success or failure at their checks - "prompts" to the GM to narrate new fiction in response. But as @AbdulAlhazred has explained in detail, the idea that any given action resolution process (outside of those few narrow frameworks like bursting down doors or bashing through walls) will generate unique possibilities of narration is just fanciful.

Even with the wall example, how many bashings will (i) attract attention from people inclined to defend the wall, or (ii) cause enough impact that a brick or stone might fall from it and bang the bashing PC on the head, or (iii) cause enough dust that there is the possibility of interference with vision, or that some sort of lung condition becomes a risk for those breathing it in? I spent some of my time this weekend hacking away at a tree stump with my block splitter and my axe. Shards of wood were flying about. I was wearing safety glasses in order to stop them getting into my eye. D&D characters don't wear safety glasses - so what is the risk to them of hacking away at blocks of wood?

And look at your example of the badgerhorse. Who decides that the one that dies in front of the PCs is the last one? Who decides that there is not a hidden pocket of badgerhorses, in some remote place, that might yet be discovered and used to restore these animals to all the lands they used to roam? The whole parameter for success here is determined by the GM exercising their authority (which is virtually unlimited, on your preferred approach) over the backstory and situation.

No one thinks that your preference is particularly radical. As I mentioned upthread, there are well-known RPGs that are built around it, including 3E D&D (outside of combat), GURPS, to a significant extent RuneQuest, to some but a lesser extent Rolemaster. But when you use verbs like "affect" and "make" to elide actual processes, which involve the GM making decisions about what happens next based on their imagination of the fiction, you will be invited to sharpen your analysis!

The GM can be quite easily removed from resolution. Actions can just do whatever they say they do, and be absolute descriptors of themselves.
As @AbdulAlhazred noted, the GM - so far from being removable - is utterly central. Without the GM, on your approach there is no way of knowing whether or not this dead badgerhorse is the last one. The players have no way of making that true or false in the fiction, given that all they can do is declare actions for their PCs and - as per the quote with which I opened this post - their intent is irrelevant to resolution.

the description of the world is established by the resolution mechanism. "You jump 30 ft" is quite clear. We know where you started, we know where you landed, we know what kinds of things modify that number from a table of sensible modifiers, it's all self-contained and does not require anyone to adjust the fiction outside of the stated effect.

<snip>

"Overall goals" do not need system specification. Players can just want things, and then take actions to try and make them occur. If I want to be somewhere else, I will go look at the movement rules. If I want to disguise my appearance, I will check the rules for creating an effective disguise, use them to measure its effectiveness, and then use the rules for determining whether a disguise is seen through when the PC interacts with anyone else. Resolution does not need to be less atomic, from those specific actions, players can string together plans and desired specific changes in the world.
AbdulAlhazred already analysed your jumping example: slippery surfaces, blustery winds, an insect in the eye at the key moment of run-up, etc - all of these are things that could modify the "how far can you jump" number but are not, in fact, able to be imagined in total by even the most diligent GM.

The disguise example I've already mentioned. Which NPC might have seen the PC in the market yesterday? Which sorts of accent need to be altered or concealed? There is so much that is involved in concealing one's identity as one moves about a place, and again no GM can conceivably imagine it all, or factor it all in to the resolution.

Gygax, in his RPG design, used two basic techniques to resolve these problems that arise from the number (for practical purposes, unlimited number) of things that might both bear upon, and result from, any particluar action (1) He establishes the canonical environment as an incredibly austere one - the typical dungeon room, in classic D&D, has less stuff in it than there is to be found on my kitchen bench. (2) By a combination of rules and convention he makes some parts of the fiction highly salient - doors, most obviously, but also ceiling heights and slopes of floors - while making other parts of it, such as interior design (colours of walls or ceilings, design of chests or armoires, artistic styles of statutes, etc) mostly irrelevant unless expressly called out by the GM (eg mention of a checkerboard floor, or a particular image on a tapestry or face on a statute, or the colour poem in ToH).

Once we get to city adventures (as Gygax calls them in his PHB), or variants on them such as infiltrating a working castle, or trying to depose a political leader, the idea that this can all be established and extrapolated in some impersonal fashion becomes (in my mind) quite ridiculous. I mean, the GM can make notes like "If the king goes missing for more than a week, the duke takes over as regent" but how is this increasing player agency? Or telling us what happens if the PCs, before kidnapping the king, run a strong campaign of delegitimation of the duke?

The upshot, in practice - at least in my pretty extensive experience - is that we get improbably austere fiction. Every building has architecture but not colour. Every person has height but not accent. Every kingdom has a population, and perhaps a standing army, but no customs for sayings before dinner. An austerity that was a mere contrivance in Gygaxian dungeon crawling becomes something that (in my view) is ludicrous if we're supposed to be imagining realistic worlds.

You're talking as though "this thing cannot be done perfectly" means "therefor, we should do precisely the opposite" follows.

<snip>

We can certainly both agree a bad GM can cause havoc in either state, from setting up SCs where they don't belong, making them too complex or not complex enough, or in my paradigm, by arbitrarily adding additional complication to the fictional situation after it's been established, so let's assume a talented one. In that case, my paradigm will increase player agency at least some of the time, even if our poor GM occasionally does slip after a string of successes and decide there really should be another guard patrol in this castle in the heat of the moment.

Pretend for a moment that we did have a perfect simulation of a fantasy setting available, to go look at after each declared action, and the goal of our system is emulate that view whenever possible. What will have a higher success rate? A system whereby a human does their best to emulate knowledge of that world, or one where we pick a number ranging ranging from 4-15?
As @AbdulAlhazred said, how is it relevant to RPG design and play to suppose that something, which in fact is not possible, is actual?

Even if it were, why should I care about emulation of in-fiction likelihoods (which is the "success rate" you refer to if I've read you correctly) as a goal of RPG design? What is the likelihood that the person killed by the burglar whom Peter Parker chose not to stop would be Peter's Uncle Ben? Given the population of New York City, near enough to zero. But that is what drives the story? As Luke Crane says in the rules for Burning Wheel, if a player establishes on of their PCs' relationships as their wife, then of course when the vampyr comes to town it is the PC's wife whom they try to seduce. In my view interesting RPGing is not based on likelihoods but on narrative drivers.

This also brings in my remark, upthread, about the value of efficiency/expedience. One purpose of a system like the skill challenge framework is to foreground other values in play. This is one reason why a system like that is (as I posted upthread) more likely to produce fiction that resembles the inspirational fiction, which rarely treats efficiency or expedience as the most important thing.

I'm fairly willing to concede that if you want to emulate a specific narrative, you can better achieve that by using a closed scene resolution system, because you will have more control over the arc of the action. That's not really relevant to my point about agency
I don't know who you intended to refer to be "you", but I want to make it clear that (if your sentence is to be true) than it can't be confined to the GM. In the examples that I posted, it was the player who imagined the giant ox in the barn, and who (at the table, via a successful declared action) made it the case that in the fiction the trickster PC saw it and was able to take it. And the same player then came up with the idea of swapping it for the gifted steed (this failed) and of his PC using his knife to jam the giant chief's mouth open so as to avoid being swallowed (this succeeded).

In the 4e episode I posted, it was the player who came up with the idea that singing an Elven song of apples blossoming in the summer would help endure the terror of the demon's cries, and who came up with the mechanical notion that this was a way to make a Diplomacy check feasible given the character's fictional position.

I'm also not sure what you mean by "emulation of a specific narrative" - to the best of my knowledge neither of the episodes I described emulated any specific narrative. But I think they evoked the tropes and feel of a certain sort of myth or fairy story much more than would be the case were they resolved using GURPS, RM, 3E D&D or even RQ.

And to me, this is all highly relevant to a discussion of player agency. It shows players authoring fiction, and doing clever things with the interplay between fiction, resultant fictional positioning, and mechanical possibility. It's not puzzle-solving, but that's not the only form of agency going about in RPGing.

Why is it superior that a GM should pick a specific number of obstacles, instead of attempting to determine the situation in absence of the player's input?

<snip>

you're suggesting that it's better to set that number beforehand, through an arbitrary system instead of leaving it up to human judgement.
I think I've provided a fairly extensive explanation of my preference here; so has @AbdulAlhazred. Once we accept that the players as well as the GM will contribute to imagining the fictional situation; and once we decide that we want some determination of finality other than the GM just deciding that that was the last of the badgerhorses; then some mechanism is needed to regulate the generation of adversity and failure relative to players' successful and unsuccessful checks. This is what @Manbearcat above referred to as "the budget".

The skill challenge structure is not the only way to do this. But it is one way. And as the OP said - and this was it's point; the OP compared skill challenges to other closed-scene resolution systems and said nothing about GM-extrapolates-outcomes-from-their-conception-of-the-fiction resolution - it has certain strengths compared to those other ways, including the way it centres the fiction in action resolution.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
My feeling is that this kind of argument is only meaningful in terms of discussing what are the actual rules of the specific WotC version of SC (at any particular point in 4e evolution I suppose). I'm not all that interested in dissecting the exact RAW and RAI (to resurrect the terms used back in the day) of the game. I think I, and I assume the OP, are more interested in how it CAN be played and what actual successful practice looks like (and maybe what the alternatives are and what SC's weaknesses are). So, I am not that much taken with your principles. Yes, I am playing fast and loose in some sense with the rules, but that is my prerogative and at most I am interested in how it may relate to the spirit of what was written.

Well, I'm just saying that the ACTUAL WORDING of the DMGs is pretty vague as to what a ritual does in an SC. DMG1 p74 "Characters might have access to utility powers or rituals that can help them. These might allow special uses of skills, perhaps with a bonus. Rituals in particular might grant an automatic success or remove failures from the running total."
That's fair enough, although it means our arguments are tangential to one another. I'm applying specific beats general. You're rightly pointing out that the language is vague. These arguments are not in conflict.

Nothing in the above quote seems to definitely state a rule. Each statement is qualified with 'might'. In fact this text is asking the GM to consider what these might be and if they will be effective, and to what degree. All I'm saying is that I think the greatest weight is placed on the firmer and more definite parts of the text. It is CLEAR that an SC has a complexity-determined pass/fail condition at its core. It is also clear that there are a certain number of advantages and a certain number of checks of various difficulty (in the DMG2 write up, DMG1 didn't have this refinement). I'd mostly go with the DCs/advantages being fairly canonical, I believe they were intended to help tweak the overall chances of success in SCs, to 'tune' the system. However, because each SC is pretty situational I think they are more likely to see modification.

I'd point out that in DMG2 there is actually an example SC on DMG2 P98 'Moving through Suderham', which uses TOTALLY different rules! I mean, its a stretch to even call it an SC in a sense, yet it is designed as such and presented as such. This illustrates that, certainly by 2009, the designers of the game thought that even the 'so many successes before 3 failures' core mechanic was fair game to be modified if it suited the GM. Now, honestly, I doubt I would do that except in a case where I wanted to create a mini-game of some kind for whatever reason (and I'm not super fond of that kind of thing, so I wouldn't, but if I did).
The Suderham example is pretty interesting. It feels like the designers are still figuring out what they can do with the SC architecture. They call out that...

"This challenge does not follow the normal rules for skill challenges."

...so once again, as I am talking about the normal rules for SCs, it seems tangential.

OK, well, I think its a bit less nailed down in DMG1, which lacks advantages and is less specific about rituals. My feeling is that I'd just use the advantage rule, even though its complexity 2, and not worry about it. As I say, Mearls literally wrote an SC that changes ALL the SC rules, and its an example in DMG2, so giving the PC one advantage on a complexity 2 challenge when they use a VERY appropriate ritual seems rather appropriate to me.
Would you agree the RC gives their landing point? Their final take on SCs? Or is there a later game text that carries the design work on further?
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
@AbdulAlhazred I have some of your posts to catch up on, but meanwhile I found some math here on Enworld (from 2008) on SC probabilities


Just as with Group checks in 5e, it's quite important for a group to have grokked these odds when they implement the system (because they decline more sharply than is sometimes intuited.)

The RC came out in 2010, and perhaps the Advantages rules, along with the prescribed mix of difficulties at each complexity, were the designers' proposed solution to the maths problems. I suspect understanding and implementing the Advantages (you might like to call that that reifying the intent of previous handwaving, heh) is very helpful for groups to get SCs to work well at their table.

@AbdulAlhazred this is partially a response to your thought that
I think people are overestimating the degree to which the intent in 4e is for all these various elements beyond the number of successes and failures to be used rote as exactly written. There are advantages, different DCs, possible 'use a ritual and get a success' (or other resources), etc. It is not really exactly spelled out that every one of these must be in play exactly to the letter of the blurb on each one.
The RC is written as it is to tackle the maths problems of the earlier takes. My view is that it's pretty important for successful application to follow that design as written.
 
Last edited:

clearstream

(He, Him)
I think the fundamental problem is, it would be a bridge too far for D&D! I mean, people were already weirded out by the idea of Skill Challenges, which are really just a 'non-combat combat system' in their most vanilla form in DMG1. They really don't have to be a very radical thing, but a clock-based design WOULD need to be a pretty radical restructuring of D&D, you couldn't get away with pretending it was Trad at all, not even for a second.
How are you defining "Trad" in this context? What are it's distinguishing features?
 
Last edited:

clearstream

(He, Him)
But the juxtaposition of your two quotes above surely makes it clear why you are experiencing some pushback to your agency claims. A system in which the GM make all decision about the fictional setting without regard to the player's intentions fairly clearly gives the players less authority over the content of the fiction than one in which the GM frames situations having regard to player intentions (see eg 4e D&D's player-authored quests) and/or in which the GM narrates consequences of checks having regard to player intentions (which is how skill challenges work). The systems I've just described produce fiction that either closely reflects player intentions (if the players roll well such that their PCs succeed in their quests) or that is shaped in obvious opposition to those intentions, and hence still reflects the players' concerns (if the players roll poorly, such that their PCs fail, leading to the GM narrating consequences that express that failure of goal/intention).
In the context specifically of a game text that includes what I will refer to imprecisely as "task resolution", would you say that SCs can bring in what I will equally imprecisely refer to as "intention resolution"? That is to say, would it make sense for a group to view the razor between a simple series of tasks, and an SC, as being pursuit of an overarching intention (that N-tasks will resolve)?

Gygax, in his RPG design, used two basic techniques to resolve these problems that arise from the number (for practical purposes, unlimited number) of things that might both bear upon, and result from, any particluar action (1) He establishes the canonical environment as an incredibly austere one - the typical dungeon room, in classic D&D, has less stuff in it than there is to be found on my kitchen bench. (2) By a combination of rules and convention he makes some parts of the fiction highly salient - doors, most obviously, but also ceiling heights and slopes of floors - while making other parts of it, such as interior design (colours of walls or ceilings, design of chests or armoires, artistic styles of statutes, etc) mostly irrelevant unless expressly called out by the GM (eg mention of a checkerboard floor, or a particular image on a tapestry or face on a statute, or the colour poem in ToH).

Once we get to city adventures (as Gygax calls them in his PHB), or variants on them such as infiltrating a working castle, or trying to depose a political leader, the idea that this can all be established and extrapolated in some impersonal fashion becomes (in my mind) quite ridiculous. I mean, the GM can make notes like "If the king goes missing for more than a week, the duke takes over as regent" but how is this increasing player agency? Or telling us what happens if the PCs, before kidnapping the king, run a strong campaign of delegitimation of the duke?

The upshot, in practice - at least in my pretty extensive experience - is that we get improbably austere fiction. Every building has architecture but not colour. Every person has height but not accent. Every kingdom has a population, and perhaps a standing army, but no customs for sayings before dinner. An austerity that was a mere contrivance in Gygaxian dungeon crawling becomes something that (in my view) is ludicrous if we're supposed to be imagining realistic worlds.
In the tradition of wargaming, he may have been thinking of the die-roll as covering those myriad possible factors - wood chips hitting your eye and so on. The goal is something like surface to the table for player leverage those impactful factors they could reasonably observe and have power to interact with, and let the die roll model those innumerable factors - secret badgerhorses etc.

When we place out our painted minis on the felt, with a handful of terrain models, you certainly can describe that as "austere": it's true as you say that there's a ton of absent detail. I think we still imagine that detail is present.
 

@AbdulAlhazred I have some of your posts to catch up on, but meanwhile I found some math here on Enworld (from 2008) on SC probabilities


Just as with Group checks in 5e, it's quite important for a group to have grokked these odds when they implement the system (because they decline more sharply than is sometimes intuited.)

Oh wow! The math seems pretty broken to me. Do I read this correctly? If you need to roll ten on your skill checks (so pretty average difficulty) the party has only 22% chance of beating a complexity two skill challenge and only 2% chance of beating a complexity five challenge? :eek:
 

pemerton

Legend
If you need to roll ten on your skill checks (so pretty average difficulty)
That's not particularly typical.

At 1st level, a good skill bonus is +8 (+3 stat, +5 training). And medium difficulty at 1st level is DC 12 (Rules Compendium, p 26). Even with a poor stat, training will be +5 which makes 7 or 8 the number of success.

At 30th level, a good skill bonus is +34 (+8 stat, +5 training, +6 sundries from character build and items, +15 level). And medium difficulty is DC 32. Even with a poor stat (+0 or +1 at that level), that's 12 less sundries for a medium DC, and if the player wants to succeed on those skill checks they will acquire those sundries.

That's before we get to resource use, which is relevant even at 1st level but of course far more relevant at 30th (given the extreme depth of 4e character builds as levels are gained).
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
Oh wow! The math seems pretty broken to me. Do I read this correctly? If you need to roll ten on your skill checks (so pretty average difficulty) the party has only 22% chance of beating a complexity two skill challenge and only 2% chance of beating a complexity five challenge? :eek:
It was very broken, but remember that's in 2008. The 2010 RC works to patch up the maths by prescribing a mix of DCs and translating what had been vague before into concrete rules for Advantages on higher complexity SCs.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
That's not particularly typical.

At 1st level, a good skill bonus is +8 (+3 stat, +5 training). And medium difficulty at 1st level is DC 12 (Rules Compendium, p 26). Even with a poor stat, training will be +5 which makes 7 or 8 the number of success.

At 30th level, a good skill bonus is +34 (+8 stat, +5 training, +6 sundries from character build and items, +15 level). And medium difficulty is DC 32. Even with a poor stat (+0 or +1 at that level), that's 12 less sundries for a medium DC, and if the player wants to succeed on those skill checks they will acquire those sundries.

That's before we get to resource use, which is relevant even at 1st level but of course far more relevant at 30th (given the extreme depth of 4e character builds as levels are gained).
By 2008, SCs were widely acknowledge as broken - in terms of the underlying probabilities. The 2010 rules are what I would think folk should use.

With 5e they made an extremely similar mistake on Group checks, which they later patched over with modified advice on how to run them. I would have thought they'd have learned by then!

EDIT The problems created included - as one poster put it - "I guess I have to sit-out this encounter while McSkilly hogs all the fun."
 
Last edited:

Oh wow! The math seems pretty broken to me. Do I read this correctly? If you need to roll ten on your skill checks (so pretty average difficulty) the party has only 22% chance of beating a complexity two skill challenge and only 2% chance of beating a complexity five challenge? :eek:

It was very broken, but remember that's in 2008. The 2010 RC works to patch up the maths by prescribing a mix of DCs and translating what had been vague before into concrete rules for Advantages on higher complexity SCs.

You guys need to scroll down to post 6 which links to the instantaneous errata by WotC (mid-July 2008).

Skill Challenges were fine after that errata. They improved after 2010.

Again, I’ve been running them since inception. In my running of them it’s probably something like 7.5-10 % failure rate across the distribution of all of the SCs I’ve run.

And here is the thing. The base maths become MUCH more adversarial as you climb into Epic Tier…so, on paper, you should be failing more, right? Wrong. Failure rate remains roughly the same in Epic because resource suite expansion giving the PCs the ability to call upon means to (a) outright earn successes (Rituals, Dailies, more willingness to make Coin fungible toward that end) and (b) the ability to call upon Encounter Powers to reroll checks (the original Advantage) or take Failures “off the board” or buff your allies checks.
 

pemerton

Legend
In the context specifically of a game text that includes what I will refer to imprecisely as "task resolution", would you say that SCs can bring in what I will equally imprecisely refer to as "intention resolution"? That is to say, would it make sense for a group to view the razor between a simple series of tasks, and an SC, as being pursuit of an overarching intention (that N-tasks will resolve)?
I don't know.

But anyone who wants to adjudicate action consequences (be they successes or failures) simply by extrapolation of immediate, granular causal consequences of the task performed by the acting character will struggle with skill challenge adjudication. For instance, they won't be able to introduce the canyon, as per @Manbearcat's example:

You are riding full throttle on horseback, with precious relic in tow (freshly stolen from an evil god's temple in order to bring it...wherever), through treacherous terrain where a single misstep by your horse could mean disaster. You are in the middle of the skill challenge when you fail a check that should indicate that you look like an inept fool and fall off your horse (even though you're an accomplished rider). Orrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr...the check could signify a critical failure within the fiction external to your riding. Perhaps you reach a dead end with an enormous jump (difficult DC) over a rushing river canyon facing you. Outside of the obvious jump attempt, there are a number of interesting decision points that could spawn from this failure at your ride check (and corresponding skill use possibilities).
But without that sort of consequence narration, it's not clear to me how the GM is going to establish overall success or failure at the goal in a way that coheres with the emerging fiction.

In the tradition of wargaming, he may have been thinking of the die-roll as covering those myriad possible factors - wood chips hitting your eye and so on.
In which case, it's no longer true that the GM is establishing all the parameters of the fiction prior to the action being declared and the dice rolled.

The goal is something like surface to the table for player leverage those impactful factors they could reasonably observe and have power to interact with, and let the die roll model those innumerable factors - secret badgerhorses etc.
These distinctions between what might be interacted with, and what not, are in many cases arbitrary (or, perhaps, conventional).

D&D emphasises distances but not surface conditions - but both are impactful for a jump. It would be no less arbitrary for the GM to track all the surface conditions, or the winds, and to establish the distance of the jump as something to be read from the dice rolls!

The problems created included - as one poster put it - "I guess I have to sit-out this encounter while McSkilly hogs all the fun."
What problem? I've never seen this to be an issue in skill challenge resolution.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
You guys need to scroll down to post 6 which links to the instantaneous errata by WotC (mid-July 2008).

Skill Challenges were fine after that errata. They improved after 2010.
That's what I'm saying here: it's advisable to use the 2010 rules.

Again, I’ve been running then since inception. In my running of them it’s probably something like 7.5-10 % failure rate across the distribution of all of the SCs I’ve run.
Absolutely - having run them from inception, you've grokked the system. That's what I'm pointing out. I have read accounts here on Enworld of groups failing to grok the far more straightforward (mathematically) Group checks.
 


clearstream

(He, Him)
But what about all the players trapped in that month of 2008? Who's thinking of them!
Or those quoting 2008 rules hard at me :p

To be fair, from this vantage point looking back, one of the first tasks is to be sure what version of SCs folk are referring to. Is it right to say our baseline is 2010 then?
 

That's what I'm saying here: it's advisable to use the 2010 rules.


Absolutely - having run them from inception, you've grokked the system. That's what I'm pointing out. I have read accounts here on Enworld of groups failing to grok the far more straightforward (mathematically) Group checks.

Sure.

User error is common in TTRPGing. Being quite deft at both the GMing role and the player role of any given game is a difficult thing. Its a skill to be earned via thoughtfulness, comprehension of principles/techniques/engine interactions and best practices, humility, and disciplined practice.

That is a good thing!

What isn't a good thing is what I see happen in a lot of Skill Challenge threads (historically). Refrains whereby people are basically committed to a decade + long effort of casting this sort of resolution and this particular game, 4e D&D, in as negative a light as possible and doing ZERO inventory of their own role in the problems their having):

  • Fail Forward doesn't work!
  • The fiction doesn't change after resolution!
  • The fiction is meaningless!
  • The fiction is too meaningful and there is no actual "game" there!
  • The math is broken so the system doesn't work!
  • This is an exercise in useless dice rolling and free form roleplay!
  • You can't use Powers or Rituals in Skill Challenges! They're totally prescriptive railroads!
  • The fiction of 4e is nonsensical!
  • Intent/Goal-based consequences of action resolution equals meaningless, nonsensical, agencyless play!
  • Fire doesn't cause ignition of flammable materials (and dozens of other wrong ideas about keywords and "Target - Creature")!

I could go on and on and on with these sorts of things.

The reality is, there was...and remains...a very large contingent of anti-4e sentiment by a particular (and particularly raucous and in your face...here and in real life) group of D&D players who have died on every hill...at every opportunity...for 14 years...overwhelmingly wrongly...who will never course-correct their wrongness and put it on the record because inevitably they're going to trot out the same nonsense 2 years later at first opportunity.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
I don't know.

But anyone who wants to adjudicate action consequences (be they successes or failures) simply by extrapolation of immediate, granular causal consequences of the task performed by the acting character will struggle with skill challenge adjudication. For instance, they won't be able to introduce the canyon, as per @Manbearcat's example:

But without that sort of consequence narration, it's not clear to me how the GM is going to establish overall success or failure at the goal in a way that coheres with the emerging fiction.
That's a great example, thanks! I think folk using task resolution picture that they do narrate the consequences... of the task. It feels like the broader narration @Manbearcat brings in orients toward the intention. I think it becomes necessary, really, to work within the ambit of the intention, as that is where things must if successful land. It must come to legitimately follow.

In which case, it's no longer true that the GM is establishing all the parameters of the fiction prior to the action being declared and the dice rolled.
Yes, and we often see folk at the table narrate that extra detail from the roll. A previously unnoted detail is referenced - "You trip over a corner of the carpet..." or whatever, when we didn't mention a carpet until now.

These distinctions between what might be interacted with, and what not, are in many cases arbitrary (or, perhaps, conventional).

D&D emphasises distances but not surface conditions - but both are impactful for a jump. It would be no less arbitrary for the GM to track all the surface conditions, or the winds, and to establish the distance of the jump as something to be read from the dice rolls!
Motives for not tracking all those things include the questionable accuracy in doing so, their possible irrelevance, and simple human limitations. It seems totally uncontentious to me to say that wargamers don't suppose there is no mud, potholds, blowing leaves, etc on the field where they aren't expressly listed and modelled, but leave it up to dice to say if those too-many-to-count factors had an impact.
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top