Thursday, September 10, 2015

Back to Basics - Occasion to Roll

The occasion to roll is one of those ambiguous elements in TRPGs. I recently thought about some Project Management techniques in a different way that lead me to having more to contribute to this discussion.

In an an iO9 article about terrible Tabletop experiences, I am reminded of one of the problems I faced as a player and a GM - the occasion to roll. This is a common source of mistakes, and a part of RPGs that make the narrative enjoyable and removes the players from immersion. I realize how the GM and I, or the Player may have very different expectations of consequences, but there are some ways to maintain a close matching set of expectations.
Example. In driving. When GMs make a mundane task have lethal consequences serving no purpose in the narrative. I'm reminded by it constantly every time I drive. When I'm behind the wheel, I know I can take my time and avoid a risky occasion and maneuver to an occasion with inconvenience as a consequence of failure. 

What can we measure or observe? 

This would be our players engagement and their level of frustration, or exhaustion. We can measure how many ideas they communicate and how many we can juggle, and remember. We can look at our notes and see how many facts have entered into play.

Of all the things we can track, the ideas the players communicate and attempt are the things we can observe most easily. Its easier also when we make them, the Players, "Dress the Scene" more or build up the scene they know they have to get into themselves with the GM challenging or adding details as a "Backchannel" (a kind of "I agree and..."). The GM can use leading, guiding, or informative questions to guide this.

Example for the player dressing the scene.
 You need to convince The Prince this argument, how do you think that will play out? Walk me through what your PC does. 
Backchanneling Example

  • Ok, how much time and resource are you allocating? 
  • What are you willing to risk?  What are you willing to pay?
  • You cannot have X, if you are going for Y. Both cannot work out, are you sure? 
  • This will put you into conflict with the Duke, 
  • Your men will not like this if they find out.
  • Can you elaborate/clarify/give more details?  

 It tends to be guide or leading questions, and commentary about the costs, consequences, and complications of certain courses of action. The GM ideally will be 1 out 3-5 sentences of the players course of action.

We know an elevator pitch  takes about half minute or so, or speil (the pitch and the speil) takes about 2-5 minutes with the GM backchanneling details and other considerations. The longer the GM asks the player to talk, the easier it is for the GM to do the following:
  • learn the most important part of the pitch or speil
  • the part that has the strongest emotional pull on the player
  • the opportunity cost of what the player is proposing in his pitch of speil. 
Given these elements, we can make some simple guides to what occasion is best for the roll.

Guide of Importance

A simple test of importance is to check against the Scenario (the Goal of the interaction), and the situation the GM and Player are working on. In about 5-10 minutes of exchanges, between GM and Player, a roll could be called of the most uncertain part of the plan or course of action of the PC.

Let the player talk, there are implied and explicit details he will be getting to, but let him bring the whole picture. The GM backchanneling with questions or minor detail clarification ("Yes and...") should help him make a very good overview of his goals as well as his risks and obstacles. This mindset is similar to Case Study Analysis or Problem Solving Questions or Facilitation type activities.  

The GM may draw from 5W+H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How), and various other guide techniques:

  • Pros and Cons
  • SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats)
  • TTT (Topics, Targets, Trade-offs), 
  • Divergent Perspective or Problem Framing Techniques. 

The GM highlights activities part of the Adventure or High Risk activity part of the game. This High Risk can be substituted with Uncertainty in games of Horror or Drama. The risk or uncertainty he calls to roll serves the story. Asking that question: "How does this serve the story?" is worth reflexively asking every roll is called.  

Guide for the Dramatic

A simple test of Drama is to do a check of Importance, and the GM asks himself “what are the current strongest emotional triggers or draws in this situation?”. In the importance, he looks at the emotional context of the action or uncertainty. 

The GM examines where is the emotional crossroads that leads to uncertain futures or which really test everyone's understanding of the character.

The GM checks Pacing - where he is now in story and if he is trying to "build up" or trying to use what he's established (using the build up) to lead into rising conflict or tensions. Or is the GM trying to resolve a scene and then focus on what will the actions say about the character.  

Dramatic is more informed if we keep good character personality and relationship notes. If the character has flaws and strengths that the player is well aware off, and what may be inevitable in folly (character tragedies type stories; GM keeps taking note of what kind of setting and genre his running - in Tragic settings then tragedy must ensue). 

The last guide is the Games Theme and Consistency. Dark settings, Heroic settings, Fantastic settings, etc... each have their own template of how certain scenarios play out. These are guides where the drama is to be found.

This may mean the Player may not be rolling regarding his competence, but mostly the circumstance surrounding him and the likeliness that the setting and drama will complicate events.  

Guide of Opportunity

This simple test is too look at the task and examine its Opportunity Cost Value. The GM asks “How much work does this represent?”. This is the most quantitative means of measure, but like other guides can be mixed and matched depending on the GMs resources at the time. 

 Trivial Matters, things of low cost may be ignored and work that weighs heavily, representing days or weeks worth of work having much more serious penalties applied or much greater difficulties assigned for the roll.

When the Speil or pitch is made, the GM tries to figure out the Scale and elements involved in the success. He looks at the "Plan" devises what are its chunks and how all this work coalesce or from it emerge something strange and different (emergence theory, from complexity theory). 

You may find the complex tasks article useful for this.

Final Note

I don't expect any GM to hit all 3 prerequisites per roll. It would take a lot of practice and repetition to be able to structure games and scenes in this way. Its juggling a lot of details and adapting to what clicks for the players. Hopefully wording it, would make it easier to capture for the GMs or players reading this.


Always check it the Players are enjoying setting up the scene. that you can just use leading/guiding backchanneling questions to set up the costs (and opportunity costs) of the interaction (as nothing is free and easy). Its when they "push their luck" (or maybe taking forgranted what is at stake or the risk) then we call for the roll.
Telegraph or Foreshadow the Risk and Costs. In the Six thinking Hat Method you are the Black Hat. The GM is bringing convergence in the ideas and narrative. 

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