Aug 27, 2013

How tough is tough? Creating obstacles for PCs

Babbling at the Counter #05 – Pen and Paper

How tough is tough? Creating obstacles for PCs

As a GM, I’ve gradually moved more and more towards RPG systems with simple conflict resolution. For me, it means that two different but related things are simple: Values to Compare, and Logistics. By Values to Compare I mean how to decide the Target Number on any given throw. By Logistics I mean how the player has to execute the throw. Today, I’ll talk about Values; the next Babble will be about Logistics.

Some systems are what I’ll be calling “complex”, if when designing an object on the game world they have not only a lot of Values, but Values that are calculated from the previous ones.
For example: Your character has a Body Stat (or Value). From it, you calculate his HP as [Body x5]; his Combat Prowess as [Body + Speed] and his Attractiveness as [Body + Mind] (because, clearly, being good looking isn’t all, right? Ask a doctor or a lawyer).

Keep in mind that I’m not saying that complexity is a bad thing, ‘cause I don’t think so. Complexity help both with realism (if it’s done right) and with character customization (again, if it’s done right). It’s great if you want to make a focus on gaming aspects, so the GM can just design obstacles using guidelines to make them balanced against the relative power level of the character but not taking into account their actual abilities. If they are underpowered, they die.

But, what happens when the players make and unexpected move? Again, I'll use an example:
So, the GM puts the McGuffin (big important plot related item) on the hands a big bad orc tribe that lives on some mountains. She creates the stats of the orc chief, the common guards, the chief's elite guard and even the slaves, in case she has to use them as an improvised militia. She has a handy list of every kind of weapon every kind of orc can have access to, and draws the map of the tribe's settlement. With everything written down, she can check whatever she needs as soon as the characters act. They want to fight? The soldiers have stats. They want to bribe the guards to get the McGuffin without a hassle? Well, there are stats and values for negotiation, in case the social character wants to try to keep it non-violent. What could go wrong?
What? They want to seduce the chief's mistress to get access to his tent while he is gone? Well, the GM hadn't thought about it, but he must have one, or a wife, or something, right? So... she must be more intelligent that the slaves and soldiers... but that changes completely the math about the Persuasion Roll. Mmm... Of the course, the GM could just fudge the Target Number, but then, what's the point of having so many Values to check?
In the end, either the GM improvises something on the spot (again, making the complexity of the system irrelevant if not bothersome) or she forces the plot to prevent that option.

In my short career as GM, I've seen my fair share of derailed adventures. I used both of the tactics above, and in the end decided that it was not worth it. With simpler games, it was easier. Following the previous example and using Risus (, this could happen:
So... seducing the mistress, eh? She is an “Orc 3” and “Chief's Lover 4”. So her devotion to him might hinder any attempt to seduce her, or perhaps the character runs the risk of falling in love with her if he isn't successful.

There are so many ways this love triangle could go very, very wrong.

Either way she uses the same Value, “4” from “Chief's Lover”, a simple Value to think on the spot taking into account the character's abilities (so the GM can make the encounter easy, average or difficult).

Ok, so to sum this all up. Simple systems offer a simple way to improvise, so creating obstacles doesn't interfere with the flow of the game, while giving a numerical system to decide what can and can't be done, and giving players the options to customize their own abilities.
Even though complexity can be good, it's not suitable for every situation (neither is simplicity, it depends on play style).

Next week I'll give my take on the Logistics of RPGs. Have fun till then!

- The Storeman

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