MASS Part Four – Resolution Mechanic and Immersion


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Or, Stat+Skill vs Difficulty, roll the dice and … why am I doing this again?

In order to be distinctive and contribute something to the ethos of RPGs I wanted this system to have a unique resolution mechanic. In order to satisfy the KISS principle it needed to be as simple as possible.

Jumping to the end, the result isn’t completely unique and definitely has influences. It’s based in the stat+skill with modifiers classic. But from there at least it does some unusual things, with a rather particular dice approach and mechanism. But more on those specifics later if you remain interested.

Getting even this far was a blocker to getting this system written for most of a year. One of the challenging elements of game design is that you are trying to push boundaries that have had forty years of experience in establishing themselves. Much like any artistic endeavour, your yardstick is the best of the entire history of the art in question. No pressure, right?

My approach was to get back to basics: What is the purpose of dice (or cards or resource expenditure or whatever) in an RPG?

In essence, a system defines options and players and GMs pose outcomes, then use a resolution mechanic to determine which outcome is ‘true’ in the game. Generally two outcomes are posed: firstly, how things will go if the player rolls a successful outcome; and secondly, what will happen on a fail. There are gradients of this – critical hits and misses, borderline successes, auto successes, damage rolls, soak rolls, and so on - but the principle is basically the same. In oppositional systems there might be opposing outcomes directly using rolls for determination. In more simulationist systems each enemy might get their own go, and each might have similar checks and outcomes, all managed by the GM. Simulationist systems will generally also govern what is at stake with each roll of the dice with high detail. Some leeway into Gamism or Narrativism will occur depending on how the dice or outcomes might be manipulated or might trigger exceptional outcomes.

So. Bring up the pace of player interaction (similar to what the Apocalypse world engine does) and remove the need for a GM to roll for non-player characters. Story elements are inserted with GM fiat rather than requiring dice to justify whether they are fair. This is a much more cinematic approach, and moves away from simulation substantially. Naturally that fits my own personal desires, but would firmly entrench the system’s niche. The result delineates the limits of the system’s generic-ness: it won’t do well simulating tactics or strategy, in favor of a resolution focus on story outcomes. While there might be tactical situations and battles in the story, what the players will be rolling about are the stakes that they wish to involve themselves in from a character investment or personal investment perspective.

With this focus I determined to base the resolution mechanic in a starting point that most role players would be familiar with to alleviate the adaptation angst. Characters would have default ability to affect the world they exist in through their basic statistics, and aptitudes. But then the emphasis of the resolution mechanic would be on players using their Agency to dictate the stakes they were aiming for. Players would then use roleplaying, problem solving and negotiation to optimize their chances of the outcomes they desire. For each roll of the dice there needed to be a reason that supported the story progressing, even in microcosm. So each roll would have stakes, require real player investment and generate real story outcomes regardless of the roll outcome.

So a single roll resolution mechanic. With negotiation for what dice to throw into the mix as part of the set up before a roll is made. That cut things down a lot. To try to get to what dice might be used and how to set up the probabilities I played out a wide variety of options, and landed on an approach after much brainstorming. Rather than set a difficulty as the number to beat, I included the situation modifier as part of the roll.

Situation – a dice dictated by GM or challenge initiating player. Higher number of sides harder, lower easier.
Base Statistic die – if the character has any aptitude in the relevant action to be attempted, otherwise a default crappy die.
Specialist – if the character is trained at some level in the relevant action, add a die depending on their experience.

Then I added the overlay of influence that I wanted to achieve through Agency, and I threw into the mix the idea that any session might have game themes, and if the players referenced the theme they would get a bonus die.

It all came down to how to make the rolling of the dice determine outcome. I landed on what I think is neat way of doing it, leveraging a number of successes concept but adjusting a bit. The idea is to roll as low as possible and add dice together, with a cut off on the number of dice added, but not the number of dice rolled. So more dice is always better as it gives a chance for the lowest two or three to be within the target desired, but there are diminishing returns on what value adding extra dice to any one roll might provide, and chance is still a factor.

Wanting to trigger the potential for exceptional results and the creativity they inspire, I threw those into the mix as outcomes depending on the rolls, and also included a large middle ground where the staked outcomes might both eventuate (positive and negative). This last element allowed for pyrrhic victory, attrition or delay, but I determined that the option would always fall back to the player in margin rolls for what of those options might play out. This last part harkens to an Apocalypse World type approach, with the key variance being in how the stakes negotiation and scene proposals are handled, and an under rather than over take on target numbers, and a lack of reliance on established ‘moves’.

Having played with it a bit now, it seems to work. A core mechanic is in place, and to my perplexed amusement as to exactly how it eventuated, it ends up playing out quite a bit like the objectives I had laid out: as a gamist approach to narrative. Each challenge rolled for requires negotiation, strategy and, well, gaming, before the dice are rolled, with the stakes being how the story continues.

Which lands on a classic interesting dilemma. Sacrificing immersion to enable gaming of the narrative. There is always a play between resolution mechanic and immersion, and I have heard much wailing and gnashing of teeth from players as their experience is interrupted by the game system elements. In the end I am OK with the compromise in this instance, as the dice rolling is minimum, and always focused on and moving back into story quickly. The amount of gaming required on setting up stakes is something players already do when they engage in RPGs: by pointing a spot-light on it there is an initial interruption of conversation flow, but I hope that this also will erode with acclimatization for anyone willing to put in that investment. As an aside, I am actually more worried about the ‘scene break’ mechanism for Agency accumulation (another topic), as this element of the game flow is pretty critical and is a bit more outside the common experience, with a similar interruptive effect.

Well, anyhow, that’s theory. Guess it needs more real play. Another reason I’m glad it’s finally out there, even in its zero dot point five version.
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