Monday, November 30, 2009

What Are Narration Rights?


This might be one of the most important issues I ever take up on Socratic Design. I hope I can do it justice. In fact, if I’m not happy with the way this article turns out, I’ll probably do a part 2 later some time.

Defined simply, Narration Rights are the ability to describe what happens during play with the credibility that makes what was described established as fact in the game’s fiction. Okay, so maybe that’s not so simply. Let me try to rephrase. Narration Rights basically dictate who can say what matters when.

Narration Rights pass around quite frequently in all games. There are two main instances when Narration Rights and who has them are important- In-Resolution and Plot-development. Plot development is narration designed to move the characters through parts of the game where there aren’t any conflicts or challenges. Examples might be traveling on a road, describing the interior of a bar, an exposition on the history of a place/item/person, or just general description. I’m not going to talk a lot about this type of narration. Vincent does an excellent job explaining it in his Roleplaying Theory Hardcore article entitled, “Roleplaying’s Fundamental Act.” I highly recommend that article. Usually one person is designated as having Narration Rights when it comes do framing scenes or describing items/locations.

The other type of narration, the in-resolution narration, is more important and interesting to what I’m doing here at Socratic Design. If you haven’t read my post on Resolution systems previously, I recommend it. I’ll be basing a lot of what I say in this article on what I wrote there.

In-Resolution Narration Rights can exist at any of the stages in IIEE. In the beginning… Narration Rights for resolution systems were strictly allocated. In most games the non-GM players were given rights to describe what their characters did during the Intent and Initiation phases of resolution while the GM was given the right to describe what happened in the Execution and Effect parts of resolution. For instance, in AD&D you could say that your character was swinging his sword. However, if you fumbled, it was up to the GM to describe why and what the consequences were. In other games, the EE might have been left up to “non-partial” rules and sourcebooks. A good example would be Rolemaster. The players could narrate that their characters were swinging their swords, but upon rolling, the players or GM would consult a weapons table that would describe (in detail) the amount of damage, injuries, bleeding, and consequences of each strike. However, it was never left up to the players in these games to describe what came after the roll. At least not according to the rules.

Games that followed this tradition were molded in the image of Dungeons and Dragons which invented that dichotomy of Narration Rights. The dominance of that method of delineation of narration existed for decades, and really, one could even say that today most mainstream games follow it. This method is also more a feature of Task Resolution systems rather than Conflict Resolution systems, but that’s not absolute.

While giving the GM control of the final two or even the final one step of resolution has been the traditionally accepted method of allotting Narration Rights, I have a significant problem with it. First, it denies the players the ability to really see his/her character through a challenge or conflict. They have to let someone else describe what their character does or suffers. Second, it stymies group creativity when so much of the narration burden is placed on one person’s shoulders. GM burn-out is a real thing and can really poison a group’s social contract. Finally, and most importantly, strict separation of narration rights very easily can neuter the importance of success or failure. Let me explain what I mean.

Let’s take an old standby RPG example- sneaking past some guards. Specifically, let’s say the situation is that the player-character wants to get by the guards to gain entrance to a building. First, let’s take an Actual Play experience I had in a game I played once called Mechwarrior:

Player: I want to sneak past the guard to the door on the other side of the room. (Intent)

GM: That’s fine, modifier is 2. Go ahead (Initiation).

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a success.] (Execution)

GM: You get past that guard, but on the other side of the divider is another guard taking a coffee break. He notices your character, what do you do? (Effect)

In this instance, the GM totally negated the roll by the player. The GM controlled both the setting and the Effects of the rolls, so he wasn’t breaking the rules. He was just simulating the break room for the guards at a military installation. The Player’s ambitions and goals were secondary to the whim of the GM or perhaps the information provided by the adventure module we were using. The roll became meaningless because no matter the outcome, a guard would have discovered the player character. One has to ask, what was the point of rolling, then? It’s a good question.

Let’s review that same situation but instead, the Player has Narration Rights over the Effect of the resolution mechanics.

Player: I want to sneak past the guard to the door on the other side of the room. (Intent)

GM: That’s fine, modifier is 2. Go ahead (Initiation).

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a success.] (Execution) Sweet! My character slips past the guard and makes it through the door to the server room unnoticed. (Effect)

OR, let’s have him fail:

Player: Here I go! [He rolls against his character’s Sneak ability. It’s a failure.] (Execution) Ack! The guard notices me when I bump into a table. (Effect) I draw my taser and try to hit him before he can sound the alarm.

In both of those instances, the player’s actions, rolls, and goals are front and center in play. The GM helps facilitate the action without dictating success or failure. The dice rolls matter. They affect the play in a permanent and meaningful way.

Let’s take another- searching a room a clue in a mystery game. My experience from Call of Cthullu:

Player1: I want to pick the lock on this roll-top desk.

GM: That’s fine, roll for it.

Player1: My skill is 65. [Rolls a 75. Failure]

Player2: I look under in the wastepaper basket for anything useful.

GM: Roll a spot check.

Player 2: [Rolls an 88. Failure] Drat!

Player 3: Let me have a try at the desk. [Skill is 43. Roll is 55. Another failure]

GM: Okay. You fail to get the desk open, but on top of the desk is an open envelope. There’s an old parchment inside and…

In this instance, the GM has negated the effect of a failure. One might not think that this is as bad as the guard example, but really it almost is. There were no consequences for the failures. However, the GM had to make up something to keep the action going. Otherwise the game would have stopped. If the players had the Narration Rights to describe the outcomes and consequences of a failure, the action might not be stymied. For instance, it could turn out this way:

Player1: I want to pick the lock on this roll-top desk.

GM: That’s fine, roll for it.

Player1: Player1: My skill is 65. [Rolls a 75. Failure] Okay, I break the lockpick in the lock and suffer 2 damage but manage to get the thing open. Inside I find documents that link the businessman to the cult we discovered…

That’s not an easy thing to do in a game design. I know this from personal experience. It took me a long time to get the mechanics of The Holmes and Watson Committee right. And then it took my play group a while to get used to them. However, I have found it is much more satisfying for players (and the GM too honestly) if they get to describe what happens to their characters. The action and the fiction of the game center much more around what all the participants want to do rather than preconceived plans by one player.

Even if your game breaks down the Narration Rights to the Player gets to narrate all successes, the GM gets to narrate all failures is better than the GM gets to narrate all Executions and Effects. But even then, I feel that’s not very challenging both as a designer and a player.

Do you HAVE to do it that way? Of course not! Your vision for your game may require a more traditional method of allocating narration rights. But don’t let that be your default position because it’s easier. Challenge yourself and your play group.



Monday, November 09, 2009

What is Resolution?


I’m going to tackle a rather large topic today- Resolution. This is one of the most necessary parts of a RPG and also one of the most thorny. It seems that almost every game has a different one. There’s been some attempts at OGL’s and Creative Commons like D20, The Shadow of Yesterday, and maybe a few others. If they fit for your game, I encourage you to use them. However, from my own experience, I’ve found that independent RPG designers really like to create their own Resolution system.

Resolution is a part of System, but not the whole of it. It is one method that can be used to decide what happens in-game. I’ve divided this entry up into three main parts: IIEE, Task Resolution, and Conflict Resolution. Hopefully by the end of it, you’ll understand Resolution a little bit more and be in a better position to evaluate the resolution system you have in your RPG or need for your RPG.

Generally, most resolution systems follow a particular order of operations called IIEE, or Intent-Initiation-Execution-Effect. You are probably already familiar with these even if you’ve never been exposed to that term before. Sometimes each step in IIEE is very formalized within a game’s mechanics, and other times they’re left up to the players to hash out during play. I’ll give you a brief overview of each term before delving into the two main types of resolution systems.


Intent- Intent is all about real-world announcement of what the players want the characters to do in-game. Shooting an arrow, hacking a computer system, talking down two strangers in a gun fight, romancing the femme fatale, are all examples of a character’s intent. As I’m sure you well know, announcing something doesn’t mean it actually happens.

Initiation- At this point the characters have moved into action. This is not to be confused with another game term “initiative.” Some games allow players to roll (or use some other method) to see in what order their characters will act. Sometimes that method precedes the Intent phase of Resolution, sometimes it precedes Initiation. Be careful not to confuse the two. Initiation is where the character is doing something. No more announcements about the particular character who is in action may be made.

Execution- In this phase, the action is completed. We know whether or not the character has succeeded or failed. None of the consequences of that action are dealt with here. This is purely the phase where success, failure, or something in between is decided.

Effect- This is where the ramifications of the action are adjudicated. Damage to one’s hit points are counted, death checks are made, fallout is decided, modifications to areas of the Exploration like Setting, Character, or System are incorporated into the game, and so on. Here is where the tangible changes to the in-game narrative happen.

The important thing, from a design standpoint, is to realize that at each step currencies can be spent, bargaining between players can take place, and modifiers can be added. Typically, games focus just on developing currencies for one area- usually Initiation or Effect. However, there is plenty of design space at each one. Open up the possibilities in your mind as you consider your design. You might decide that only one or two steps should be affected by currency or modifiers in your game. That’s cool. But don’t let that be your default position.


There are two main types of Resolution systems used in modern RPGs I’m going to talk about: task and conflict. For a long time, really, only task resolution existed. I remember the early days of the Indie RPG movement when designers started experimenting with conflict resolution. The wars that had to be fought on billboard forums to establish its legitimacy were vicious. I don’t think that designers who come to RPG creation now-a-days really have a grasp at how hard guys like Ron Edwards, Jared Sorenson, John Wick, and Clinton Nixon had to fight to fend off attacks on what they were doing. See Vincent Baker’s “Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore” if you want to taste a slice of what it was like. Anyway, that’s probably a story for another time. Brief definition of the two: Task Resolution looks at the component actions that must be taken to solve a conflict, while Conflict Resolution tackles the entire conflict in whole often without necessary regard to the minute methods or skills used.


Task resolution is fairly simple. A character is trying to perform some action and the player uses dice, cards, fate points, or some other mechanic/resource to see if it happens. Opposition is usually provided by some static difficulty factor or perhaps environmental obstacles that make performing the action more difficult. Famous games that have employed this type of resolution include Dungeons and Dragons, Rolemaster, Call of Cthullu, GURPS, Star Wars D6, and Palladium.

The arguments over which method to use like roll-under, roll-over, dice pools, fate points, poker cards, d100 vs. d20, taking a twenty, and so on are basically meaningless. Task resolution is about whether or not a character will be able to perform a single act or a series of actions successfully. It doesn’t deal with the player’s goal, long-term consequences of those actions, or anything beyond what’s happening immediately.

Task resolution is really great for “crunchy” games where the point of play is to pit your characters against challenges and see if your strategy as a player can overcome them. Gamists tend to like task resolution because it gives them a chance to step up and show off their strategies, equipment, and skills. It’s not an absolute must-have type thing for Gamists. They can enjoy games with conflict resolution as well, but in my experience, the advantages of using a task resolution system really shine when creating a game about facing physical challenges and obstacles.

Task resolution is also quite good for capturing the “essence” of a Setting or System in order to reinforce that Setting or System. For instance, I played a lot of Mechwarrior RPG back in the 90’s (I am getting so freaking old!). It used task resolution to simulate the decisions a mech pilot has to make during combat. Why I was fighting my opponent in the mech or my character’s long-term goals were irrelevant to the mechanics. It was all about reinforcing the sense of decision making under pressure. That’s not engrossment or immersion as some may be tempted to call it. The task resolution system was implemented to strictly reinforce the expectation that the goal of play was to experience (as best as possible) what it would be like to be a mech pilot.


Conflict resolution on the other hand takes a look at a bigger picture. Rather than concern itself with a blow-by-blow account of what happens like task resolution does, it instead focuses on character or player intent. Some of the better-known games that have used this form of resolution include Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, Universalis, The Shadow of Yesterday, Polaris, and Spirit of the Century. There are two main methods I’ve seen for handling conflict resolution: setting stakes and stating intentions.

Setting stakes has fallen out of favor somewhat as the years have gone by. It’s easy to see why. When setting stakes, players will negotiate the outcome of a contest before any dice are rolled (or whatever mechanic is used to see who wins). Each player describes what will happen if they win the contest, and then tradeoffs and qualifications are added as necessary. This continues until all players involved in the contest are satisfied, then they roll (or whatever). Whoever wins gets to narrate what happens and fill in any details that were left out during the stakes setting portion of the resolution.

The potential problem with this type of conflict resolution is that the stakes can get out of hand. “If I win, I get to rule the world!” is what it can degenerate into if one is not careful. This method can sometimes put the “Effect” part of Resolution before the “Initiation” part. That can lead to a great deal of confusion and an anti-climactic (and thus less satisfying) ending for a long, drawn out conflict. A game designer may have to incorporate rules for backing down on stakes and starting over if they get too high for the players to agree on like in Polaris. A strong Social Contract is needed in order to keep things from spiraling too far out of control. A good example of how this is done right can be found in Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. A good example of how this can be done totally wrong is in my game, Hierarchy.

The other type of conflict resolution- and probably the one much easier to work with as a designer- is stating intentions. For instance, when two players come into conflict, i.e. characters they are playing have opposing goals, each will state his or her character’s intended action. One player might say, “My ranger intends to leap across the table, disarm his foe, and back him into a corner for interrogation.” The GM then might say, “The villain intends to dodge your lunge, grab the jewels, and escape out the second story window.” Players then take their dice and roll (or use cards or whatever) to see whose intentions get to be implemented. The winning player then narrates how it actually happens.

While those two systems may seem similar there is a big difference. Most games are more complex than my simple example between the ranger and the villain. There’s a lot that can happen before, during, and after players roll dice. Lots of currency and resources can be spent to alter the outcome, and unlike with task resolution, partial success can actually mean something here. A partial success for the ranger might be disarming the villain. While a partial success for the villain might be to escape without grabbing the jewels. It’s all up to the narration of the players once the dice are done.

And I think that’s the important facet of conflict resolution, or one of the important facets anyway. With task resolution, the outcomes are dictated by the rules. If you fail your lock picking skill check, the lock stays shut (and often a second attempt is forbidden). You can always add in narration if you want, but it has no way to mechanically affect the success/failure in the game according to the rules. Any effect it does have is decided at the Social Contract level among the players and then implemented into the System (big S) afterwards. With conflict resolution, the players (remember the GM counts as a player too) dictate the outcomes. Getting a bad roll while trying to pick a lock can mean all sorts of things. It could be that the lock is picked, but trapped. It could mean that the character is shot during the process. It could mean that the lock pick is now jammed in the door. These are very simplistic examples, and I hope they don’t make you think that conflict resolution is just task resolution with talking. It isn’t. Conflict resolution decides who gets narration rights to say what did and did not happen in-game, and more importantly, it decides if a character achieves his or her goal.

Conflict Resolution is, I feel, best suited for games that want to emphasize moving the narration and plot along rather than overcoming discrete challenges and physical obstacles. While those two things are certainly part of the conflict in games that employ conflict resolution, the physical movements of the players aren’t as important as the story that’s being told. The throw of the fist, the hurl of an insult, or the smile of a seductress are not seen as wholly different from each other in the way that task resolution might differentiate them. The key is not focusing on individual actions but instead on individual motivations. I hope that’s not too confusing or repetitive.

Let’s wrap this up. First, this is not a matter of scale. If you believe Task Resolution focuses on minute actions, you’re wrong. If you believe Conflict Resolution can’t be used to cover blow-by-blow combat, you’re wrong. The difference between the two methods can be described as “what’s at risk.” Take again the very common RPG motif: picking a lock. You find it in fantasy, sci-fi, westerns, whatever. Genre isn’t important. Let’s add some Color, though. Let’s say the character wants to pick the lock so he can successfully spy on people in the next room. Task Resolution puts the success of picking the lock at risk. Failure in that lone action negates (or potentially negates) any further actions taken to implement the character’s motivation. The roll (or whatever) only decides if the lock can be picked and will likely be modified by the physical construction and intricacy of the lock. That’s all.

Conflict Resolution on the other hand isn’t really concerned about the lock, or rather isn’t really concerned about just the lock. It’s concerned about the character’s motivation- to spy on the other people. The roll (or whatever) won’t be modified just by the lock’s physical properties, but the physical properties of the room, the determination of the “other people” not to be spied on, methods being employed by those who want to stop the character from spying, and so on. The lock is part of it, not the whole of it. What’s at risk (and this is the important part) is whether or not the character learns anything by spying on the other characters i.e. satisfies his motivation.

Is that then assuming he gets past the lock? No. If the results of the roll (or whatever) determine that the character fails to learn anything, it could be because of the lock. Or it could also be because the walls were too thick. It could be because the others were talking low. It could be that the character’s nemesis was hiding in the room and challenged him to a duel before he could eaves drop. It could also be that there was a woman and her baby crying in the other room, or something else more interesting in the room distracted him. The possibilities are limited just by the narration and players’ imaginations. A roll that does not grant the character’s desire is not a failure per se, it is instead an invitation to add complication. For task resolution, a failure means “stop, try something else.”

Task Resolution is exploring the challenge of performing a particular action; Conflict Resolution is exploring the challenge of gaining advantage over other characters.

A RPG necessarily has to have some type of Resolution system. There’s no getting around that because sooner or later, characters will come into conflict. If they don’t, then you really don’t have a narrative of any kind. Sometimes the conflicts are on a grand scale, like fighting for the immortal souls of a town full of people. Other times it’s fairly simple like cracking open a safety deposit box. Either system can, eventually, resolve the conflict. Decide which best suits the type of play you envision for your game and then begin developing in that direction.