No easy task

Both Knave and Tunnels and trolls share a couple of properties: crawl games, fairly cartoony encumbrance (though in different ways) and a dicing system with a fairly difficult baseline difficulty.

I want to talk about the task resolution. (Practically every game resolves tasks and conflicts in some way; these ones resolve tasks explicitly and conflicts as a consequence of several discrete task resolution checks, or sometimes just one task resolution check.) Both of the games have a baseline chance of success of around 40 % with a big inaccuracy involved, yet it does not make a difference here. Knave does have a possible advantage die to adjust this into an easier roll, but still, the difficulty remains fairly high.

In Knave it was about orienteering when a range of mountains is clearly visible to give a direction; in Tunnels and trolls it has been about slashing webs with a magically sharpened knife, crossing pits and having a few people hold one up as that one carefully puts weight on a pit trap to open it.

These kinds of tasks become highly volatile; either the game master gives an automatic success or it becomes a highly risky act. There is no way to dice “it usually works, but maybe not this time”.

If we think of real life risk-taking, having, say, 1/10 chance of getting lost would be seen as highly risky, and likewise 1/10 chance of falling to an unknown destiny. Rpg design often aims towards somewhere between 1/3 and 2/3 for the success chances, plus, especially in more modern games or “story games”, significant failure stakes.

This creates a very particular, heightened or dramatic, kind of narrative, or in case of crawl, a game of taking risks rather than managing and minimizing them. Or maybe another formulation: the friction of war is either removed or exaggerated into a dramatic obstacle. This is very noticable after having played tens of sessions where 1/6 (or 5/6) chance with several bonus or penalty dice are rolled as a normal part of the procedure; or sure, my monk is using their psionics with roll under of d20 (20 explodes) against 21, and there 42 would be a second degree failure with possibly significant consequences, and 63 third degree failure, etc, so these have a chance of less then 1/400 and 1/8000, respectively. Yet still we roll, because psionics is dangerous and these might happen. I always have to make the active decision to take the risk to fry the character’s brains, even if it is fairly small; exactly how small should the risk be to be worth it? That is for me to decide.

I am interested in further thoughts around very likely and unlikely odds, and especially constructive use of such.

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4 responses to “No easy task”

  1. Sportsball & Success

    Whenever the conversation comes up around odds and more, success and what we consider to be successful, I think about sports and success. It is clearly not a 1 to 1, but here is what comes to mind.

    In baseball, a hitter who hit .300 or more in a season would be considered a great hitter. Hitting .400 or better is a truly rare feat. What this means is that the player successfully reaches base, only 3 (or 4) out of every ten at-bats. Less than half the time the player gets a turn at bat, they manage to score a hit. And yet this is an all time great hitter if they do it across their career. 

    But at the table, if I make ten rolls in a session and succeed in only three, that might make for a crappy night. Unless those 3 rolls were at meaningful moments? Is there were the vague idea of player skill comes in? Getting your character into position where the only roll you succeed at it may be the only roll that mattered. 

    • If there are ten people

      If there are ten people poking a gibbering mouther with spears, and hirelings with with 10 % chance with some player characters having a maybe 20 % chance, and we defeat it without losses, that was a success, right? Even with plenty of missing.

      Contrariwise, if someone has gotten their character to a situation where they have an 80 % chance of making a roll to not drown and perish, it is a bad situation. Such close calls will get your character in the long run, even if they survive this once.

      While some kinds of knowledge check with a 15 % chance of just knowing a crucial piece of information is pretty nice already. It might just flat out solve a scenario, or at least make it vastly less risky than going in blind, like were the other week; is this witch just an old crone, or maybe some 8+ HD D&D hag, or something in between? If someone had known more local history, that could have been terribly helpful and informed our approach. We ended up managing a minor diplomatic loss wiht potential long-term consequences, but also concrete short-term room to maneuver. And now we know more.

  2. My apologies to you, Tommi. Back when you originally posted this, a bad click eliminated my attempted comment, and since then, everything has interfered with recovering what I was trying to say. I’ve finally arrived though!

    One of the ideas that has really come together for me, over the past three years, is that we shouldn’t be talking about rolling to succeed. It’s always a roll to fail, and I don’t think that’s a clever word trick. I think it’s a central point of understanding play. Relevant posts here include Failed rolls for plot in action – not so easy, Monday Lab: Whoops, and Monday Lab: Probable cause.

    Regarding your points, the first consideration is whether we can even take a given set of rules seriously. Rules which include resolution without an understandable, playable failure result are entirely broken, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Eliding or ignoring failed outcomes is included; I’m looking at Väsen most unsympathetically in this regard, although it is merely an obvious inheritor of a whole bundle and decades-long lineage of worse-and-worse design.
    If the rules are not broken in this way, i.e., they are in fact playable rules, then understanding of the system definitely includes what can be failed, how badly one fails, and how often. Now … is there some optimal or sweet-spot concept for play in general, which rules of this kind should include? I don’t think so. I think this topic is highly game-specific and often integrated with many, even most of the other rules. [I don’t really care whether the integration is intentional or not; I’ve played great games whose rules’ properties were unexpected and sometimes bewildering to their own designers, as well as thoroughly cleverly-intentionally constructed games which stink on ice.]

    Regarding Tunnels & Trolls, I think you are completely correct that it is “a game of taking risks raher than managing and minimizing them.” In this, it and others I can mention, everyone playing knows that they have entered into the Axiom of Choice, meaning no one knows what profile of success/fail outcomes, as well as various decisions, will characterize play within a short time after starting. And that profile at that moment, as well as every successive moment after things change more, is the actual/immediate situation that you are playing. [I distinguish T&T and some other games from the majority of historical RPG design, in which failure is in a broken system and therefore real play must stop, and be heart-massaged back into increasingly less-fun form, per failed outcome. That’s why people become aversive to failure, not because they don’t like failing.]

    I also think that considering risk in terms of “how big is still acceptable” is not relevant. Dice will be dice, and since we are playing linearly, consequence by consequence, we do not get repetitive attempts at the same moment of play. Therefore basic probability theory is not going to be our friend: this roll does not care a bit that you have 99% on your character sheet. If you want to do it, then you’re going to try, big chance, little chance, any chance.

    To continue with T&T thoughts, I can’t stress enough that fully-firing play includes both strategy and guts, but mostly the latter. A core strategic feature, I think, concerns deployment: who goes into the collective fight roll and who doesn’t, and what the latter may accomplish. There are certainly others as well, especially regarding resources. But in this game, strategy only goes so far: then the dice do what they do this time, and we are in the lap of the gods – knowing only that whatever happens, it will be playable, without softening or protecting or working-around.

    • Thanks for the reply. We are in no hurry here.

      I have not thus heard/read your thought about failure and look forward to them with interest.

      I think our thoughts around Tunnels and trolls are aligned.

      I disagree with your take on probabilities not being that important, should you try to apply it to all games. At least in context of Coup I am quite actively thinking of character survivability and advancement in the long run. We are currently stuck with a mid-level party (levels around 3-5 with some lower) and progress forward is partially curtailed by us losing a high level character every now and then, often due to nasty small probability events. I think that if we manage to avoid them, while still earning experience, we can reach a consistently and reliably mid-level party and advance to high levels, too, or at least be a step closer.

      This is, of course, not Tunnels and trolls; but even there, one who rolls life-or-death saving throws often will perish quite soon. Not conductive to long-term play with the same character, that. Often play is short-term and long-term advancement is not too much of an issue, in which case this is not an important phenomenon.

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