June 5, 2017

Called Shots in D&D

Dungeons and Dragons uses hit points to represent something other than body integrity.

"Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck. Creatures with more hit points are more difficult to kill."
From http://www.5esrd.com/gamemastering/combat/#Hit_Points 

Similarly, damage isn't a measure of how much physical trauma a person suffers or how much or kinetic force their body experiences.

"Describing the Effects of Damage
"Dungeon Masters describe hit point loss in different ways. When your current hit point total is half or more of your hit point maximum, you typically show no signs of injury. When you drop below half your hit point maximum, you show signs of wear, such as cuts and bruises. An attack that reduces you to 0 hit points strikes you directly, leaving a bleeding injury or other trauma, or it simply knocks you unconscious."
From "D&D Basic Rules for Players," p. 75

In other words, we have good guidance on how to describe damage and health.  Characters with 50% or more of their hit points left "typically show no signs of injury" because their lost hit points represent "durability" and "luck" and other ephemeral, heroic things.  Characters with 49% or fewer hit points show cuts and bruises, but not major traumatic injury.  Their physical durability has been worn down, but not exhausted.  The creature is not struck directly until it is reduced to 0 hit points.

Now, naturally, as a DM, you can play fast and loose with this.  These are just tips - advice you can ignore if it suits you.  Some monsters are more... ablative... than others.  A black pudding can have bits hacked off of it without really lessening its threat.  A zombie can take an arrow through the heart, even if it still has 10hp left.  But for most living creatures, you should follow the guidelines in the rules.


What are the called shot rules in 5th Edition D&D?

Short answer:  There are no official called shot rules in 5e.  There are some class abilities that work like called shots, though.

If the players want game effects from their called shots, they should play a Battle Master Fighter (Trip Attack, Disarming Attack, Pushing Attack, and Distracting Strike make sense as called shots) or a Rogue (Sneak Attack is a called shot to a vital area that deals more damage and often kills enemies).  They can take the Martial Adept feat to gain Disarming Strike and Trip Attack if they want to make called shots to the arms and legs and see game effects of those attacks.


How do you handle called shots in core D&D rules?

Remember, how effective an attack is in D&D is based on both the attack roll and the damage roll.  A natural 20 critical hit that deals 18 damage to a 120hp dragon is still just a close call.  Similarly, if the player declares that they're shooting the orc in the heart, you have to judge what happens based on the attack roll and the damage roll.

Called shots intended to deal more damage do not deal more damage.  The PCs are trying to do the most damage possible with every attack.  "Called shots" in this case are just narrative details.  Here's an example of how you should run it.

An orc has 15 hit points.  

Miss:  The attack is a clear miss.  Tip:  Always describe failures and misses by having the target be super cool, or use them as an opportunity to add visual context to the scene.  Never make a monster or a PC look like a bumbling idiot.
  • The orc swats the arrow from the air with its greataxe.  
  • You have to pull your shot at the last second to avoid hitting your ally.

1-7 damage:  The attack doesn't really harm the orc.  I like to describe incidental damage - scratches and bruises - at this point.  I find it hard to narrate reduced "will to live" or depleted "luck."
  • The arrow doesn't penetrate the the orc's hide armor, but the force of impact left a bruise.  
  • The orc turns unexpectedly in her struggle to hit Ragnar, and the arrow grazes her side.

8-14 damage:  The attack injures, but has no other effect.  Damage that reduces the orc to less than half their health always results in an injury in my games, but it never disables the creature.  Also, if possible, I like to make the creature get panicked, enraged, or concerned at this point, indicating if and how the PCs can end the fight without killing.  An enraged orc isn't going to quit, but a panicky-looking ogre can probably be chased off.
  • The arrow sinks into the orc's chest, mere inches from the aorta.  He staggers, then screams in pain and fury.
  • The arrow passes clean through the orc's body, puncturing his lung.  Pink foamy blood aspirates from the gory hole.

15-29 damage:  The attack takes the creature out.  I usually just let my monsters die when their hit points reach 0, but some DMs let them make Death Saves and all that.  Unless a blow deals enough damage to outright kill the monster, it's got a few seconds to bleed out.
  • The arrow strikes the orc's chest and she falls down senseless.  
  • The shot knocks him flat.  He ain't movin'.

30+ damage:  The attack is a one-shot kill.  If the damage is so severe that there is no way the monster can survive without breaking the rules, I like to narrate a grisly, certain death:
  • The arrow blows through the orc's chest, straight through the heart.  A gush of blood like a burst water baloon erupts from the orc's back, and she drops to her knees, then falls face first to the ground, dead. 
  • The arrow hits him in the heart, and the orc's eyes glaze over as he topples backward, dead before he hits the ground.  

What if you like what the PC wants to try?

I love RPGs because you can do all kinds of crazy stuff.  And there's this thing called the Rule of Cool.  I'm a big proponent of the Rule of Cool in my games.  So I let my players try all kinds of crazy stuff.  This means twisting spells, crazy athletic moves, and... the occasional called shot!

Here's what you do:  Check for official rules first and use them or modify them to suit; otherwise use optional rules or invent an ad hoc system; then remind the players this is a spot ruling that only applies here and now, and you plan to revisit it later.

First, check to see if there are already official rules for this action, or rules that can be used for this action, with a little modification.  If so, use those rules or modify them slightly as needed.

Example:  The rogue wants to wait in hiding, readying an action for when the ogre charges toward the fighter.  When the ogre runs by, the rogue will stick out her leg and trip the ogre.  The DM sees there's a Shove action that knocks enemies prone, but it uses an opposed Athletics test.  This seems more like a surprise trip, so the DM rules that the Rogue will roll Athletics (because tripping the massive ogre is still a matter of force and leverage) opposed by the ogre's Perception instead (because the ogre's ability to resist has more to do with not being taken by surprise).

Second, consider if the player is trying to do something another character in the party can do (or will be able to do at a later level) with a special ability,   If that's the case, either don't allow it, or make sure you make it harder or less effective than the special ability in question.  You don't want to cheapen the other PC's special ability.  To make an ad hoc system for an action, either use an optional rule or use an attack roll, ability check, saving throw, skill check, or an opposed skill check - whatever makes the most sense.

Example:  The Sorcerer wants to use Ray of Frost to freeze a puddle of water to make a section of ground difficult terrain to slow the enemy.  The DM likes this, but requires the Sorcerer to make an Arcana check, DC 15, to hit the puddle without making the ice crack and shatter, or cause other problems that could undermine his attempt.  Failing the check wastes the Sorcerer's action.

Third, remind the players that any spot ruling applies only to this specific action, not to future actions.  Always reflect on your rulings after the session - sometimes you allow players to do things once that would unbalance the game if you let them do them all the time.

Example:  The prince becomes furious when he catches the Rogue lying to him, and he attempts to beat the Rogue senseless with his scepter.  The Rogue wants to disarm the angry prince.  The DM decides on the spot to use the optional Disarming rule from the DMG (page 271).  The DM says, "That's an optional rule.  I'm not sure I want to use it every time, but it makes sense to use it right now.  We'll discuss it over email after game."


Why doesn't D&D have called shots in the core rules?

D&D cannot work that way.  Unlike RPGs like Night's Black Agents, where combat can be resolved in one or two attacks (with a few notable exceptions) and called shots can be very interesting (read: stake to the heart), D&D PCs will make 15 attacks before a fight is over.  If every attack has the option to be a called shot, the game will slow to a crawl.  What adds five minutes to a Night's Black Agents fight would add half an hour to a D&D combat.  That would suck.  As it's designed, even D&D classes that have the ability to make something like called shots have systems that either limit how often they can do it (Battle Master Fighter / Martial Adept feat) or streamline it into a regular attack (Rogue sneak attack).


Where is this desire for called shots coming from?

Players are always looking for a gamble.  Some RPGs allow players to make a called shot by reducing their chances to hit to increase the effect of the attack.

The problem is, when RPGs allow this kind of decision, it's always the best choice:  It increases your odds of winning glory if you hit by causing some impressive special effect.  It's rare that the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.  And that's OK!  Because in these games, the called shot adds detail to the world or is a necessary part of the genre the game is emulating.  

Besides, some classes don't have a lot of good options.  Champion fighters, Barbarians, and even some Rogues have pretty repetitive turns.  Turn starts, make sure you can hit the monster from where you are, roll to attack, roll damage, repeat.  In some battles, especially against monsters with a lot of HP, it can get dull.  So they want to try exciting things.  I can't blame them.


March 30, 2017

D&D Moves

DM:  “The mine ends in a room constructed of chiseled stone blocks, thirty feet square, with a floor of stone slabs.  There’s a 25 foot wall around the chamber, but it doesn’t go all the way to the ceiling of the cavern.  What do you do?”PC:  “Can I climb over the wall?”DM:  “Sure, make a DC 15 Athletics check.”PC:  “Oops.  I got a 12.”
This is the worst part of D&D.  If all you’ve ever played was D&D, you might not even realize it.  Here’s the relevant section from the official rules:  “...[a failure] means the character or monster makes no progress toward the objective or makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.”  


That’s not very good guidance for DMs.  There are just two options given to DMs.  One of them is good (progress combined with a setback), and the other is terrible (makes no progress).  Not progressing is boring.  The player will just try again, effectively wasting table time.  There needs to be more meat to the failure guidelines.  That’s what this article gives you.




Inspiration from Other Games


Apocalypse World and the other Powered By the Apocalypse games (such as Dungeon World) have a unique mechanic that really should not be unique.  They force the GM to apply stakes to every outcome of every single die roll.  Once I tried Dungeon World, I never went back.  I apply stakes to every outcome of every single die roll now, and it's improved my GM game considerably.

(If you use the link below to get a copy of Dungeon World, you'll give me like twenty cents, so that's neat, I guess?)



The way the Powered By the Apocalypse games do it is simple:  The GM has a list of Moves.  When the players look to the GM to see what happens or when they're sitting around doing nothing exciting, or when they fail a roll, the GM uses a Move.  The moves are the "failure" stakes for their rolls.  Every player move has success stakes, and the failure stakes are just that the GM will make a move, though sometimes they describe a bad outcome and also note that the GM will make a move.  


It's simple in concept, but taxing on your creativity to frame every roll so that there are stakes for every outcome. It requires frequent improvisation, even within published modules.  The Powered by the Apocalypse games help GMs out with that by giving them a list of moves; so every time the GM has to improvise, they can just scan the list and choose the one that seems most interesting at the time.  The list of moves helps you stay creative, even when you don't know what you should do. It's not limiting -- just about everything a GM would want to insert into play is covered by a Move. It just provides inspiration and advice.


The list of moves is a list of things that make the situation the characters are in more exciting.  Even when a move is subtle or off-screen, it should raise the tension.  Most of the moves add complications, conflicts, or cause problems.


So I said to myself, why not do that for D&D?


Below is a Moves "system" for Dungeons & Dragons DMs called DM Moves.  You make a DM move when a player character fails a roll or looks to you to see what happens.  The move should always follow a PC's actions, but it doesn't have to be something that happens to the PC directly.  There are examples under all the DM Moves, below, that show how the DM Moves work.


Like most of my writing about how to improve your D&D game, these DM Moves don’t modify any existing rules.  They just guide DMs toward what works best to engage players and generate fun.




When to Make a DM Move


When a character fails a check
PC: "I want to climb over this wall to see what's on the other side."  DM: "OK, make an Athletics check, DC 15."  PC: "I got a 7."  Make a DM Move.


When a the characters get new information
PC: "I want to look for information about the Red Wizards of Thay in the library."  DM: "Make a History check, DC 15." PC: "I got a 19."  Give the player the information they earned and make a DM Move.


When the players look to the DM to see what happens
PC: "I want to shoot my Fire Bolt cantrip at the cask of oil, hoping to cause an explosion."  Make a DM Move.


Unlike a Powered by the Apocalypse game such as Dungeon World, you won't need to use DM Moves in combat very often.  D&D Combat is a tactical game in and of itself.  It uses its own, separate, system.  Attack rolls, spells, class abilities, and saving throws have their own “within the combat system” stakes built in for failed rolls.  However, sometimes in combat, the players get new information or do something creative and look to the DM to see what happens.  Make a DM move then.




Failed Checks aren't Failed Actions


In the Powered by the Apocalypse games, failing a roll doesn't necessarily mean the player fails to do their intended action.  Remember, even the D&D rules allow two different possibilities:  The character “makes no progress toward the objective” or the character “makes progress combined with a setback determined by the GM.”  That can mean...


There's a Problem
The character fails to do their intended action because of the problem described by the DM Move you made.  A character doesn’t just fail to progress because of the tumbling of a mystic icosahedron in alternate dimension.  They fail because of a problem in the shared imagined space of the game world.   Because of the DM Move, the character has to try some other approach; or they have to deal with the complication the DM Move introduced before they can try again.  


Important note:  If you’re using an ability check to get past an obstacle preventing the PCs from getting to more interesting parts of the adventure, use “Another Door Opens” or “Success with Consequences” instead.


Another Door Opens
The character fails to do their intended action, but your DM Move gives them an opportunity to achieve their goal another way.  Sometimes it's an opportunity that draws them into doing something more exciting, dangerous, interesting, or dramatic.  Sometimes the opportunity has a cost.  Sometimes it just helps develop the fiction, explore more of the setting, or draw the characters deeper into the adventure.  


You might wonder why giving a PC a new opportunity is a good sanction for a failed check, rather than the reward for a successful one.  Consider it from the player’s perspective:  They wanted their character to do something, but the dice say they can’t.  Instead, if they want to achieve their goal, they have no choice but to do it a different way - a way they wouldn’t have chosen.  To the player, offering them an opportunity will feel like a sanction.


Success with Consequences
In the rules, this is called “progress combined with a setback.”  In RPG theory circles, it is called “fail forward.”  On Run a Game (and in the Fate RPG), it is called “success with consequences.”  The character succeeds at their intended action, but triggers the problem caused by the DM Move you chose.  If you used a "hard" move (something immediate and irrevocable), the consequence happens right now, and the players have to deal with it.  If you used a "soft" move (something distant, off-screen, or vague), it sets up more danger down the road and raises the tension level, but doesn't make an immediate demand on the characters.


Never Use “No Progress”
When there’s no reason not to repeat the attempt, and the attempt doesn’t cost anything,, don’t use a “makes no progress toward the objective” outcome.  That’s boring.  The player will just keep rolling until they succeed.  The only time a PC should be allowed to try again on a failed check is if every failed check comes with a cost or consequence.  Even that can turn an exciting scene into a frustrating one, so use it sparingly.




The DM Moves


Here are the D&D DM Moves.  Remember, when a player fails an ability check, gets information, or looks to the DM for the results, you should make a DM Move.  Moves that do not directly harm the characters or change the conflict are called "soft moves."  Moves that harm the characters or change the conflict are "hard moves."  (Click the list to download a printable PDF page of the moves to bring to the table.)

  1. Have the dungeon interfere
  2. Leverage an opportunity or drawback of someone's class, race, or equipment
  3. Highlight a conflict using their Alignment, Trait, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw
  4. Take away their stuff
  5. Make something deal damage 
  6. Name the price, and ask
  7. Put someone in a spot
  8. Split the party
  9. Reveal an unwelcome truth or signal an approaching threat
  10. Increase the time pressure

How to Use the Moves


1. Have the dungeon interfere
This is an "A Problem Arose" move, but it can also be a "Success with Consequences" move.  The dungeon is full of dangers including monsters, traps, curses, shifting walls, spells, crumbling architecture, water, gas, fire, and so much more.  Failing to do something is not just "no progress" -- something has to stop the adventurer from trying again.  And in this case, what stops them is one of the dungeon's many hazards.  Even outside a dungeon, you can think of a cool “fantasy hazard” to interfere.  This is the best move for pushing the fantasy exploration elements of D&D.
Example:  With difficulty, you climb over the wall... and hear the sound of crossbows firing rapidly!  Arrows are flying toward you.  What do you do?


2. Leverage an opportunity or drawback of someone's class, race, or equipment
Failing to do something can come along with an opportunity.  In this case, use an opportunity that fits the class' abilities.  The idea is to show off a character's class.  It doesn't have to be the character who failed the roll.  You can also have a problem arise that fits a class, race, or equipment in the party.  The Baron can’t be persuaded because you brought a stinking dwarf.  This is the best move for shifting the spotlight and showing off a character’s outward traits.
Example:  There are no handholds where you can reach, but if you could stand on a magical Floating Disc, you could reach the handholds higher up the wall..
Example:  You can't get over the wall because your armor is too heavy.  If you take it off, you can heave it over, then climb over yourself, unarmored.  What do you do?


3. Highlight a conflict using their Alignment, Trait, Ideal, Bond, or Flaw
The move represents an opportunity that opens up, but it creates a conflict with one or more characters' alignments, personality traits, ideals, bonds, or flaws.  The conflict can be an opportunity or a setback.  An opportunity can start a discussion between characters who have different perspectives.  For instance, the opportunity to kill a slumbering orc is expedient for a Chaotic character and dishonorable for a Lawful one.  The trait you're highlighting doesn't have to reside in the character who failed the check.  This is the best move for shifting the spotlight and showing off a character’s internal motives and drives.
Example:  You just can't get up the wall.  Only Sir Marley is strong enough to get over the wall.  Remember Marley, your Flaw is "I secretly believe that everyone is beneath me."  What do you do?


4. Take away their stuff
“...the Lord will come like a thief...” (2 Peter 3:10).  This move is different from "name a price and ask" (below), because in this case, you don’t ask.  The player doesn't have a choice.  Make sure the loss of the item is more than a minor inconvenience.  The character should be worried about the loss.  However, the loss doesn’t have to be permanent - it just has to be interesting, exciting, or push the PCs toward some danger.  Because magic items are very rare treasures in 5th edition D&D, don't just destroy them.  You can take them away without taking them away forever.  This is the best move for highlighting the value of equipment and emphasizing the resource management aspects of D&D.  It can also draw the PCs into greater danger, chasing after or replacing lost or stolen gear.
Example:  You get over the wall, but you lost your balance and almost fell at the top, and your bow slipped off your back, clattering down the other side.  What do you do?


5. Make something deal damage
Things in D&D deal damage all the time, and failed checks are an ideal time to do it.  Damage is part of the combat system stakes, but you can deal damage outside of combat, too.  This makes the PCs more vulnerable if a combat starts.  They might take the time to heal the damage you dealt, so don't bother dealing damage unless you're dealing at least twice the party's level in total damage to a single character, or an amount equal to the party level to every character.  You can deal more damage than that, if you want.  Five times the party's level is a heck of a lot of damage.  Ten times the party's level is likely to drop or kill someone.  This is the best hard move when the PCs know there’s a battle looming, enemies chasing them, or they’re on a short timer and have to hurry.  It combines well with “Have the dungeon interfere” because dungeon hazards from Kobold archers to pits of fire often deal damage.
Example:  You get over the wall, exhausted and scraped up.  Take 1d6 damage.  What do you do?  (The example character could be Level 2, so 1d6 damage hurts enough to be worth it).


6. Name the price, and ask
Describe how the character will fail unless they pay a price.  The price has to be a resource that the characters care about.  If the party is not racing against the clock, wasting an hour of time isn't a big deal.  If the party has ten thousand gold pieces, twenty silver pieces isn't a big deal.  You can also name the price in terms of story - “give us the child and you can walk away” or “I’ll tell you, but you’ll owe me.”  Like “Take away their stuff,” this move can highlight the resource management aspect of D&D pretty well, but it introduces a hard bargain, so it’s even better for highlighting strategic decision making or adding complications to their well laid plans.  It’s also a natural hard move in social conflicts, to make NPCs demand proof, bribes, compromises, or concessions.
Example:  You'll need to use all your pitons if you want to climb over this wall.  You won't be able to get them back from the other side, so you’ll have to mark them off your sheet.  What do you do?


7. Put someone in a spot
The character's failure puts them in a sudden, unexpected, dangerous situation.  They need to take immediate and decisive action or get help from their allies to get out of it.  You can also put a character in a vulnerable position.  This is a hard move that changes the situation dramatically, but still gives the character a chance to get away.  Unlike “Make something deal damage,” you’re giving the PCs a chance to avoid the danger.  The character in the tight spot can be the one who failed the roll, or the failure can put someone else in a spot. This is the best move for raising the stakes fast.
Example:  You get to the top of the wall, using the vines as handholds.  Just as you're about to grab the top edge, the vines start to tear away.  You fall five feet immediately before the vines catch.  You're dangling twenty feet off the ground, and the vines are about to tear the rest of the way free.  What do you do?


8. Split the party
The old advice "don't split the party" is there for a reason.  Players want to avoid splitting the party because it really puts the characters in a tight spot.  So if you want to raise the stakes quickly, split the party.  This move is dramatic in a dungeon or wilderness, where the characters can’t get back together before they have to face another monster, hazard, or obstacle before they can reconnect.  You can split the party on the small scale, too.  Open a simple ten foot wide chasm between them as they march single-file down a five foot wide hallway, or have the monsters attack right in the middle of the group.  It’s also interesting to split the characters up across a larger scale like a city or even continent.  There are drawbacks to the GM for running a split party for a long time, so most of the time, you should create a split that the players can resolve within a few hours of play at most.  This is the best move to make when the characters are in dangerous, unfamiliar territory and already feel a little lost.
Example:  Near the top of the wall, there's only one handhold.  You have to perch on this one tiny ledge and lunge for the top.  It's a heck of a reach, but you make it -- barely.  Unfortunately, as you lunge, the ledge cracks and falls free.  There's no way for anyone else to get up here.  What do you do?


9. Reveal an unwelcome truth or signal an approaching threat
This is a great "soft move" that moves the story along and raises the tension without making the players deal with a new complication.  Unwelcome truths are facts that are true in the game world, that the player characters will not like.  "...[S]ignal an approaching threat" means give the players a hint that things are about to get worse.  You can signal an approaching threat by hinting that some distant creature has become aware of the characters, even vaguely.  It’s the best move to make when the PCs are feeling safe or when they don’t know what’s going on or what kinds of dangers await them. It's the best move to make to introduce the stakes of the situation the PCs are in.  It can also hint at distant happenings in the larger story or reveal dark truths about the campaign setting.  Magic is dying.  The plague has come to Neverwinter.  The cult is close to freeing the Bound God.  It’s fun on the small scale, too.  See the example.
Example:  You get to the top of the wall with a lot of effort.  When you pull yourself over, your armor makes a loud CLANG! that reverberates down the dark hallway ahead of you.  If there's anything down there, it knows you're here now.  What do you do?


10. Increase the time pressure
D&D works best as a race against the clock, because it has a tight resource management system where every PC resource refreshes after a certain amount of time.  If there’s no hurry, the PCs are much, much stronger.  Consequently, DMs almost always create some reason to hurry.  When you make this move, you introduce a new timer, use up valuable time, or shorten the fuse.  Introduce a new timer by describing a new race against the clock.  For instance, a sentry runs off to warn their boss, or the characters learn that something bad happens in this dungeon when night falls.  Run down the clock by making actions take a lot longer than planned.  Shorten the fuse by revealing an unwelcome truth:  That the characters have a lot less time than they thought.  Be aware of the rest mechanics in 5e and how they create time pressure.  Here are some ways to increase the time pressure:
  • Create new time pressure where there was none
  • Put some new event on the clock (e.g. rival adventurers arriving in an hour)
  • Deny them the chance to take a rest before the next battle
  • Remind them how many hours are left on the clock (if they’re nearly out of time)
  • Take a day off the clock (where there are fewer than ten days left)
  • Take an hour off the clock (where there are fewer than ten hours’ left)
  • Take fifteen minutes off the clock (where there are fewer than 3 hours’ left)
  • Take a round off the clock (where there are fewer than 20 rounds or 2 minutes left)
This is the best move to make when you want to push the PCs to take hasty, exciting, risky, bold, heroic action. It's the best move to stop them from being too cautious.
Example:  You approach the wall, but quickly realize there are no handholds.  It's flat brick.  But there is some scrap wood here, and you could build a sturdy ladder long enough to get to the top.  It will take about an hour.  What do you do? (In the example situation, using up an hour is only interesting if there are fewer than ten hours on the clock.)



Ask, "What do you do?"


Traditionally, according to Vincent Baker, when the GM makes a Move, they should follow it by asking a player or all the players, “What do you do?’  This passes the "talking stick" back to them and makes everything you say into a prompt for them -- requiring their input. You can use this question to focus closer on the acting character, broaden the focus to let anyone else jump in, or refocus the spotlight on a different character.  Use body language and character names to shift the focus of the action around.  Here’s an example where the DM makes a move that leverages an opportunity for someone's class and then uses "What do you do?" to shift the spotlight.

Example:  OK, Barbarian, near the top of the wall, there's only one handhold.  You have to perch your toes on this one tiny ledge and lunge for the top.  It's a heck of a reach, but you get to the top -- barely.  Unfortunately, as you lunged, the ledge cracked and fell free.  There's no way for anyone else to get up here without magic.  Wizard, Cleric:  What do you do?

January 13, 2017

The Game Inside the Game

Today's article is a higher-level theory post.  In it, I break every RPG down to just four core games.  Most RPGs only use two of them to resolve procedural challenges.  That's how few games there really are inside the hundreds of games we play!

A game is an organized activity of play with rules and objectives that are determined by a combination of luck and skill.  Games turn story problems into tension because they introduce risk.  A risk is when someone makes a consequential decision with incomplete information, which is a core element of a game:  A test of skill or luck to win an objective within rules.  The objective is the consequence, the skill is the decision, and the RPG's use of hidden information and luck provide the uncertainty.

Without games, the outcome of story problems are decided by the GM and players, so the characters may feel tension, but the players won't, because the players get to decide how things end.  If there's a game, there's a chance the players will fail or that other, unpredictable complications will arise outside of their control.

Games are where story problems turn into real tension.


Full size here: http://www.runagame.net/2016/08/interactive-games-literally-play-with.html


There are hundreds of tabletop roleplaying games on the market, but there are only two games inside of them.  The two games are a resource management strategy game and a wagers and dares game.  Very few RPGs (or even story games) use improvisational theater (improv) as a distinct game that determines outcomes within their set of rules, but it is worth mentioning.

[Update] Puzzles

I just wrote an article about puzzles in RPGs, so I feel like an idiot for totally missing one of the games inside our games!  Thankfully a reader helpfully pointed out on G+ that I had forgotten puzzles!  I've added a section below.


The Resource Management Strategy Game

Dungeons & Dragons originated from a war game, where units attacked one another, and a "hit" destroyed a unit.  Heroes emerged, single powerful "fighting men" and "wizards" who were a whole unit in one person.  As it evolved, these heroes became able to withstand multiple "hits" and deal multiple "hits" worth of damage.  This led to the first resource management game on the single character role-playing scale.

The kinds of strategic decisions players made were similar.  A force of ten cavalry units could maneuver around an enemy force of eight infantry units to conserve their numbers for a stronger attack on the enemy's eight archer units in the rear.  A fighting man could sneak past a monster to conserve "hit points" for a harder battle later on.  In the newest edition of D&D, a party of Battle Master Fighter, Tome Pact Warlock, Life Domain Cleric, and Assassin Rogue can put on disguises and try to bluff their way past a contingent of drow guards to sneak into the prison and free the High Lord from captivity, conserving their Superiority Dice, Spell Slots, and Hit Points for the inevitable fight on the way out.

A resource management game has several moving parts.  In a resource management game, the players choose when to spend their characters' limited resources.

  • Their resources might give them advantages in the dares and wagers game (see below) such as Willpower points in the World of Darkness.
  • Their resources might allow them to win story elements that they want (usually story victories or advantages) without any die rolls at all, such as wizard "utility spells" in D&D, Fate points in Fate, and so forth.
  • Their resources might protect their own lives (e.g. hit points), so that losing resources makes it harder to survive attacks.
  • Their resources might determine how well they can defeat enemies, so that as they expend resources, their ability to defeat foes diminishes.
The final aspect of resource management is the most important:  Resource management is meaningless if the player characters' resources can be regained without risking losing some story element that the PCs care about.  In other words, if the PCs' resources can be refreshed without a story cost, the PCs effectively have infinite resources, and there is no resource management game.  In most RPGs (GUMSHOE, D&D, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, etc.), resources can be refreshed with time, so in most RPGs...

There is no resource management game unless there is time pressure.

Time pressure keeps the PCs from refreshing their resources by having some story event happen after a certain amount of time has elapsed.  The story event has to be something the PCs care about preventing.  As a result, it limits the resources the PCs have access to.

D&D, the most popular RPG, refreshes resources on a daily (long rest) and hourly (short rest) basis.  That means that GMs can use time pressure on the scale of hours or days.  For instance, realistically, giving the PCs a day before disaster strikes allows them to take one long rest (6 hours, once  per 24 hours period) and several short rests (one hour each). Giving them "until dark" lets them have a few short rests only.  Giving them "about an hour" doesn't give them any rests at all -- they have only the resources they start with, nothing more.  (The 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide has guidelines for how many encounters of what difficulty the PCs can handle between rests.)


Most RPGs are designed with a "standard" resource cycle baked in.  Some base the resource cycle on story cycles, like GUMSHOE or Fate, while others base it on time, like D&D.

When a game bases the resource cycle on the story, story and time are tied together:  You can't get a full refresh of your Investigative abilities in Night's Black Agents until you've completed an operation.  If you retreat to refresh your resources, it only works if the operation ends.  So unless you want to go into that ruin with a mallet and stake, you have to give up and flee London, ceding Vauxhall Cross to Dracula's control.

When a game bases the resource cycle on time, you have to build time limits into your stories.  The orcs are guarding the dragon's hoard for it while it's away.  It will be back in 24 hours.  The Tremere vampire clan will be hosting Elysium at the manor house in 2 nights, so that's how much time you have to uncover proof of their plot to assassinate the Prince.  The secret Renraku illegal R&D facility is aware that they have been discovered.  They're packing up right now, and will be cleared out in four or five hours.

Meaningful Resources

A 2-6 hour unit of play with a beginning, middle, and end is typically called a chapter, adventure, module, scenario, operation, mission, or story.  During such an adventure, each player will get about 30-90 minutes of spotlight time.  That time will include up to 20 chances to spend resources for advantages in the dares and wagers game (see below), to achieve story elements, to survive attacks, and to defeat enemies.

If your PCs have around 100 hit points each (500 total for the party) and the ability to heal hundreds of hit points a day, 10 points of damage to one character is not meaningful.  40 points of damage to one character is meaningful.  Consider that the party has 500 hit points and the ability to heal or avoid 300 points of damage.  40 points of damage to one character represents 5% of the party's defensive resources.

Why does this matter?  As a GM, your side of the resource management game is to drain the party's resources and make them think creatively to come up with strategies that conserve their resources while achieving their goals

Combat is Intense Resource Management

About one third to two thirds of your typical 20 chances to spend resources will be combat actions.  Because of the war game origins of RPGs and the fact that you have to simulate combat (this isn't LARP), combat uses the game system more than other scenes.  Combat is also the most rule prescribed part of most RPGs.  In other parts of the game, the GM gets to frame die rolls, stating what happens on a successful roll and what happens on a failed roll.

In combat, most of what you do is prescribed, and all the stakes are resource management stakes:  If you make an attack with a longsword, you roll Proficiency + Strength Modifier against the target's Armor Class.  If you hit, you deal 1d8 + Strength Modifier damage; and if you miss, you do not deal damage.  The "penalty" on a miss is that your opponent survives to attack you later (reducing your Hit Points resource).  If you choose to use a Battle Master Maneuver to try to turn a miss into a hit, it will cost a Superiority Die.  This resource requires an hour of time to refresh, but hitting this monster might kill it and prevent some damage or other problems it might cause, and those problems might be more expensive than losing the Superiority Die.  This kind of strategic decision happens every round in combat in most RPGs.


The Wagers and Dares Game

A wager is when you risk something against someone else's stake based on the outcome of a future event.  A dare is when one person defies another to test their courage.  The wagers and dares system in RPGs is commonly called a "check" as in "skill check" or "Charisma check" or "Sanity check" etc.

This is the simplest part of an RPG, but GMs miss opportunities to make checks into wagers and dares all the time.  Without a wager or dare, there's no game.

Full size at http://www.runagame.net/2016/08/stakes-terminology-infographic.html 

A wager is something that the player character can lose if the check fails.  The dare is the thing that the player character takes a risk to achieve.  Often there's a dare without a wager:  "Make an Athletics check with a difficulty of 15 to climb the wall."  Where's the wager?  What happens if the check fails?  The character doesn't climb the wall.  So what?  They'll just try again.

The stakes have to go both ways, or there is no wager.  

In the example above, the stakes only go one way:  On a 15 or better, the character climbs the wall.  On a 14 or lower, nothing happens.  The GM's job is to have the world respond to the player characters' actions.  "Nothing happens" is failing to GM.  It's also weak stakes, since the PC can usually try again.  Even when that PC can't try again, another PC can usually try in their place.  It's also failing to include a game.  Why roll the dice if not to play a game?  So let's fix it.

"Make an Athletics check with a difficulty of 15 to climb the wall..."

  • ...and if you fail, you try for several minutes and realize it is impossible for you to get up to the alcove (story).
  • ...and if you fail, you get to the top after several close calls and falls, scraped and bruised, suffering 1d6 damage (resource).
  • ...and if you fail, you waste 15 minutes, and have to try again (resource).
  • ...and if you fail, you get to the top but make enough noise to alert the guards (story).

As you can see, the stakes don't have to be "fail to get to the top of the wall."  The stakes can be all kinds of things.

The stakes have to be things the player or character cares about, or there is no dare.

Story Dares

The best dares are story dares.  Two of the wall climbing examples above are story wagers.  The player character wants to advance past an obstacle in the way of their goal.  To do so, they have to risk failing to achieve their goal ("impossible for you to get up to the alcove") or risk adding a story complication ("make enough noise to alert the guards").

Resource Management Dares

Something neat happens when you have a resource management game in full effect:  You can make resource cost dares!  Two of the wall climbing examples above are resource cost dares.  Remember, a resource management game is only in play if there are limited resources, and if limited resources refresh over time, that means a resource management game is only in play if there is limited time before the PCs lose something they care about.  The wall climbing example provides two such wagers - one for resources assuming there's a time limit ("suffering 1d6 damage") and another for time ("waste 15 minutes").  If the PCs have all the time they want, wasting 15 minutes is not a meaningful wager.  Nor is 1d6 damage, because with unlimited time, there is unlimited time to rest and heal.

Combat is full of resource management dares -- the combat system in most traditional RPGs is designed to give the players at least one resource management dare every time their turn comes up.  Combat without strategic resource management decisions can be pretty boring.

(One of the biggest complaints about 4th edition D&D is that past level 5 or so, PCs have too many resource management dares each round, slowing combat to a crawl.)

Meaningful Resource Management Dares  

OK, so you've got time pressure.  Now, how many resources should you force the PC to wager as stakes?  Remember, the stakes have to be things the player or character cares about, or there is no dare.

A D&D fighter with 120 hit points is climbing up a 20 ft. wall.  The worst thing that can happen is that they fall 20' and take 2d6 damage.  That's not a meaningful dare - that's a waste of table time.  Here are some better options:

  • Hand wave the action.  "You climb up the wall."  You skip past the situation so you can get on to the next, more meaningful opportunity for a wager.
  • Change the resource.  Hit points aren't the only resource stakes.  "Make an Athletics check, difficulty 15.  If you fail, you waste 15 minutes and have to try again."  OK, now we're wagering time stakes, and those don't scale with level!
  • Change the stakes.  Don't use resource management stakes.  Use story stakes.  "Make an Athletics check, difficulty 15.  If you fail, you make enough noise to alert the guards."
[Update] Degrees of Success

Most RPGs have different degrees of success.  Ultimately, these work out to the same thing as a simple success/fail wager proposition with a little extra description to them.  Consider Fate's Success with Style, Shadowrun's number of successes, or Apocalypse World's 7-9 and 10+ results, and D&D's damage rolls.

[Update] Fail Forward

I've written extensively on the value of Success at a Cost ("fail forward") mechanics, before.  I love them.  When framing the stakes for a roll, the GM can make the wager any of the following:

  • Standard frame:  Roll well and succeed, roll poorly and suffer a consequence
  • Typical "fail forward" frame:  Roll well and succeed, roll poorly and succeed at a cost
  • Decision frame:  Roll well and succeed, roll poorly and choose to suffer a consequence or succeed at a (higher) cost
  • Bad to Worse frame: Roll well and succeed at a cost, roll poorly and suffer a (worse) consequence
  • Degrees of Success frame:  Roll really well and succeed, roll well and succeed at a cost, roll poorly and suffer a consequence (or succeed at a greater cost)

All of these stakes frames are wagers and dares.  The GM wagers the success outcome that the player character wants and dares the player character to risk the consequence to achieve it.


[Update] The Puzzle Game

The third game inside RPGs is the puzzle game.  In a way, the puzzle game is outside the game.  A puzzle is a mental challenge that the player (not the character) undertakes.

Success or failure at a puzzle is similar to a wager/dare:  The GM frames the stakes for success and failure, often with degrees of success (for every wrong guess...  for every 5 minutes you spend...).  But instead of using an aspect of the game system to help your character, you're using your real-life brain power.

For a puzzle to be its own game, it has to have the following characteristics:

  • It cannot be another type of game, e.g. a puzzle that the characters can solve by spending resources or winning die rolls
  • The players have to use their real-life problem solving skills to come up with the answer
  • The puzzle has a finite solution set determined beforehand (a gestalt mystery is an improv game, not a puzzle game)
There are a bunch of different ways we use puzzles in RPGs:
  • Common games like riddles, mastermind, charades, etc., which usually have wager stakes
  • Mazes, which are great because they have resource management stakes
  • Mysteries, which have wager stakes, usually with story-based degrees of success based on how fast the mystery is solved

Is Resource Management a Puzzle?

No.  There are many hazardous RPG situations that the PCs can solve through a variety of strategies with varying risks and costs.  Resource management is problem solving, like a puzzle.  However, a puzzle has a finite solution set -- "the answer is a mushroom"; "the killer is Count Vizerio"; "a red, blue, or green marble will open the door."  A resource management challenge has an infinite solution set.  

For example, if there are three drow warriors guarding the exit to the prison, there infinite ways past them.  Some will work better than others because of the scaffolding the GM creates to give the PCs a few easier paths to victory ("the guards are having a heated argument over money") and the boundaries on the scene the GM creates to limit the PCs' options ("the guard post has a clear view of the passageway that leads out of the prison").  This is a resource management game because there are infinite approaches:  Just to name a few, the PCs can...  try to sneak past, use an Entangle spell and run past, poison some wine and deliver it, bluff your way past, get some disguises, provoke them to fight each other and sneak past in the confusion, bribe them since they're stressed over money, set a trap at the entrance to the guard post to slow them down, use a smoke bomb, make a distraction to draw them away, etc.  The GM has provided scaffolding to hint that the drow can be provoked to fight one another or easily bribed, but describing them arguing over money, but that's not the only solution.  If the PCs are greedy and don't want to spend money on a bribe, and they value escaping without anyone seeing them, they might choose a harder solution that has the benefits of secrecy and frugality.

Puzzle Monsters

In D&D (and some similar games), there are bizarre monsters that can be defeated only by solving a puzzle with a finite solution.  For instance, a Vampire in D&D cannot be destroyed permanently except in a few very specific ways.  The mystery has a finite solution set (find the vampire's coffin and kill it there, prevent it from escaping to its coffin, or else kill it in running water or sunlight), a resource management challenge (Is it worth burning resources fighting the vampire now, before we've found its coffin?  Or should we flee?), and the round-by-round dares and wagers of combat.


The Improv Game

A fourth game-within-the-game exists, but is rarely used in tabletop RPGs because it requires giving players director-level agency (meaning, players get to control the game world, not just the GM).  Some story games have included improv as a game (e.g. Microscope, Fiasco), while other story games and RPGs have instead taken aspects of improv and incorporated them into the resource management game (e.g. Fate, Vampire) or the wagers and dares game (e.g. Monsterhearts, Call of Cthulhu).

The difference between improv being used as a game and improv aspects being incorporated into resource management or wagers and dares is complicated.  Improv is part of all role-playing, after all. So, to what degree can a player's role-playing actually achieve their character's objectives?

Improv is play, but it's not very game-like:  It's not a competitive exercise, and you aren't playing toward an objective other than to be entertaining and genuine.  A character in an improv game may be trying to achieve something, but the improv player is playing to "see what happens."

Improv prompts are often wager outcomes:  "Make a Sanity check or become paranoid and afraid of your friends."  But rarely are procedural outcomes driven by improv acting.

Role-playing (Improv) usually contributes to the two other games.  My favorite improvement made in 5th edition D&D is that good role-playing of your character's traits, ideal, bond, and flaw earns Inspiration, a resource that gives you Advantage on the wagers and dares rolls in the game.

Two story games I know actually use improv acting to determine story outcomes, as opposed to using improv prompts as outcomes:  Microscope and Fiasco (and probably some other story games - I haven't played them all!) use improv acting to resolve procedural questions, rather than dice or resource management.

[Update] Is a Game that has a lot of Player Agency an Improv Game?

The improv game inside an RPG only happens when improvisational storytelling determines the outcome of events, not when dice create a system element that has a bounded effect.

Consider Fate:  In Fate, Create Advantage is one of the Four Actions.  With a successful Create Advantage roll, you improvise any advantage you want for your character or disadvantage you want to cause an opponent.   That thing you improvise is called a Scene Aspect.  The effect of Create Advantage is that that Scene Aspect provides you a one-time +2 bonus you can claim on a future roll if the Scene Aspect is relevant.

What determines how events play out?  A die roll.

Can the improvised storytelling determine the course of events?  Sort of...  It provides a description that has a "value" equal to +2 on a die roll, once.  But the description is also literally true fact.  So its ability to overcome opposition is limited, but it's still an undisputed fact.

Consider this example:  A Fate character uses invisibility magic.  They roll to Create Advantage and add the Aspect "Invisible" to their character for the scene, with one free use.  This means that on a future Stealth roll, that character can claim a +2 bonus.  That's a very good bonus, but it doesn't mean the character literally can't be seen.  If another character uses Notice and beats the invisible character's Stealth roll, they will "notice" them all the same.  Are they actually invisible?  Yes!  But the assumptions players might have about invisibility do not apply. The character can't blithely walk past sentries and be untouchable in battle.  In fact, from a practical standpoint, their +2 bonus only applies the first time their invisibility is tested.  Past that, they're just as easy to see or fight as a visible person.

But there are ways that the improvisation of "invisibility" in fate does determine outcomes, independent of the dares and wagers game and the resource management game.  There are some narrative effects of being invisible that don't involve die rolls at all.  A video recording of a battle between a villain and an invisible PC attacker would not reveal the PC's identity, for instance.  In this way, Fate has an improv game.  It's just very tightly contained, to preserve the tension-building benefits of its dares and wagers game and its resource management game.


What have you seen?

Let me know if you've found other games-inside-the-games or other RPGs that use improv as their primary procedural task resolution mechanic.  I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.