Selm the Shady squinted, his sharp eyes taking in all the tiny details. The green door seemed to jump back and forth in the light of the sputtering torch. Selm wet his lips, sliding the first tool deep into the cylinder. Careful not to jerk the tool, thereby setting loose the poisoned dart nestled within, Selm carefully depressed the pins, his sensitive fingers ensuring just the right tension. He slid the second tool into the cylinder, deftly avoiding the menacing dart. He closed his eyes ignoring the sweat beading on his forehead, he breathed in deeply, then slowly exhaled. His lungs empty, he opened his eyes prepared to apply the perfect torque.
From the darkness, near the corner, Dremnar the Dwarf blurted out, “Hey Selm, it’s cold down here.. don’t forget the metal is a little different in the cold!”
Pericles the Paladin nodded suddenly, his dim thoughts clearing momentarily, “Oh, and.. uh.. remember that they kind of make a sound when you turn the key.. usually.”
Desna the Druid snorted, somewhat dreamily calling out, “Selm, this too.. the lock is fastened to wood.. so if you press the jamb real hard the dart might miss you even if it shoots!”
Not one to be outdone, Cleis the Cleric spoke up as well, “Selm, the map has an ‘X’ on the other side of this door.. so check to make sure it’s not barred on the other side too!”
Selm sighed, and quickly turned the cylinder so as to avoid further interruption.
Such is life when a 10 DC is all that is required to aid someone in a skill. It can be annoying to the player that invested so much into the skill, and it can be annoying to the GM, who planned the dungeon out with certain realisms in mind. So, How does one keep tension in the game with so many people having so many chances to succeed?
I have a few rules of thumb as to how to resolve different kinds of skill rolls and how to adjudicate them keeping the story in mind.
First, for keeping game balance in mind, there’s a difference between a ‘high’ DC on a skill check when one party member is rolling and a ‘high’ DC when an entire party is rolling.
So, when the rogue is stumbling from the bar, and spots scuff marks in the mud by the patio that’s a tough roll. If the rogue is rolling a spot skill by adding, say, 5 to a d20, then it’s reasonable to think that a 15 is a ‘hard’ DC, as it’s roughly 50/50. For a real tough roll, you might put down a DC of 20, for a success of about 75%. That’s totally different, however, if all 5 party members are rolling. If there are 5 peasants walking past with a 75% chance each to spot then as a group they have a 76.27% chance of success. Add one more peasant and they go up to a whopping 82.2%. The conclusion here is that the more people trying to hit a probably, the easier it becomes. So, my rule of thumb for rolling wherein a single character should succeed.. set the difficulty so that only about a quarter of the group *can* make the roll. If they entire group is great at the skill, just give it to them and keep the narrative rolling. On the other hand, if the group is entirely awful with the skill, give them a different way to get the evidence.
On the other hand, we have rolls wherein, say, a rogue makes a lockpicking skill and everyone else in the group starts making aid rolls. For my part, I simply allow only a single aid roll from the group. Otherwise it gets silly. In rare cases, when there may be a roll that most of the party can aid on, either make it hard, or distract with other rolls at the same time. So, it may be that the rogue is lockpicking, and our dwarven fighter friend reaches for his aid dice, call for a different, concurrent skill roll. If the character succeeds, give them some extra bit of information about the dungeon or it’s inhabitants. Likewise for each other character.
My friend knows a lot of stuff about (something) and wants to see that reflected better in game, how can I do that?
Realism is a hot topic in the tabletop blogosphere right now. Posts have predictably run the gamut from ‘don’t think about it at all’ to ‘add whatever house rules you can to make it as realistic as possible’. I’m going to add the philosopher’s perspective, and say that you have no idea what reality is. Let’s take a few examples of real world reality before turning to gaming.
How many miles of shoreline does England have? If you answered with a number (like the CIA did: 12429 km or 7723 miles) then you’re wrong. This is one of the early examples used by Mandlebrot to show the importance of fractals (or at least got him on the path). The point is, the higher resolution your measuring tool, the longer the coastline. What’s worse, is that there is no real ‘right’ answer as long as your measuring tool is getting you the results you need, then you’re close enough.
Another more abstract concern is that seeing in no way means believing. We all know that our senses can be tricked. Pencils appear bent when viewed through a glass of water, wind through the trees may sound like the baying of some creature, even a scent on the wind may be deceive. If senses were totally reliable, there would be no such thing as an illusion. Weirder, illusions aren’t perceived the same way by different viewers, showing that sensory perception is a personal, subjective experience rather than a reliable tool for encountering ‘reality’. If these clear cases of unreliable sensory experience are indicative of the overall unreliability of senses, then there’s no reason we can ever be completely satisfied with any of our sensory experiences. That being so, what does it say of our certainty of the reality we experience?
So, let’s focus on gaming. There are things that we each seem to ‘know’. One member of my gaming group is a big, huge fan of physical fighting. As someone that participates, or participated, in formal fighting and MMA he is well aware of how people act during a fight, and what happens to a person the moment they get hit. This is the sort of thing that no RPG covers well, and nobody would play a game that did. As for me, I am pretty well versed in anthropology and mythology. It rankles me greatly when a society is set up in a game in such a way that isn’t at all sensible. Another gamer I know is simply baffled by the concept of Hit Points, and reinterpreting HP abstractly doesn’t seem to help. It hasn’t escaped my notice that leveling up doesn’t phase him at all.
Though it should be said, every RPG is, in some way, a model for reality. The question isn’t so much ‘how much reality we can capture in a given roll?’ as it is ‘what is the purpose of the game, and how do we capture that in a rules system?’ The d20 games are among the most sophisticated and popular RPGs on the market. This family of games captures very well the struggle of heroes against dark evils lurking in the cosmos, and those heroes growing efforts to vie against those evils. GURPS, on the other hand, is a system that lends itself very well to playing short games with a set of already powerful characters fighting some unusual opponent. In GURPS the players aren’t bent towards heroism, nor toward any particular genre. The system is pretty weak, however, when it comes to protracted games that invlove characters that grow into their situation. Other games are designed to capture their stories as well, World of Darkness captures their characters a particular way, HERO system in their own way. Each system trying to capture a reality in a particular way. In a Pathfinder game, the oddity of the kindgom next door having no agriculture may be that way because it’s unimportant to the game in which you are playing, in a Werewolf game that may be central to the plot line.
So, when people complain about realism in games, there’s probably two issues they may be hitting upon. The first is something like ‘This game doesn’t reflect something realistically.’ This could be ‘I hit that guy with a sword 12 times before he died.’ The second concern they may be relating is something like ‘This game doesn’t spend enough time accurately reflecting the one thing I know really well.’ This might be ‘I hit the guy so he should lose 1 to his AC because he’s flinching now.’ While the first concern may reveal something the GM can anticipate, or the system could change in another version or through errata, the second claim is something only the GM can contend with, but is usually best left aside.
Let’s look at a rules system that has been fiddled with since the early days: alignment. In the first days of D&D, alignment was one of three option: Chaos, Neutral, Lawful. In those days, Lawful was correlated with ‘Good’, and Chaos with ‘Evil’ (or, perhaps better, Actively Stabilizing and Destabilizing). This was perceived as deficient because it just didn’t reflect the span of motivations of different characters, so a good and evil axis was added. In the years to come, people hotly debated what each possibility meant, and whether characters could be dedicated to one axis more than the other, or two different characters with the same alignment might disagree on important issues. One of the best changes introduced by 4e D&D was the altered alignment system, specifically the ‘Unaligned’ category. Gone are the debates of whether Neutral was concerned with balance, or if they could just stay out of the conflicts entirely.
So, should a game be concerned with Realism? Of course, but not beyond the scope of the goal of the game. Our own grasp of the reality in which we live is tenuous enough, and our knowledge of that reality is paltry at best. We certainly wouldn’t want the game to determine each actual wound to placate doctors while also placating economists and geologists. What is important is that the game captures the essence of the story in the execution of the rules. As always, fun is important, rules less so.
I have a character that is an investor, how can I do that without breaking the game?
Economics of game worlds are something best not put under a microscope. Adventures blow the curve so far that they’d have trouble spending their money, luckily somewhere out there is a sweat shop filled with level 5 wizards pumping out +1 short swords and giving them to hapless commoners who generally earn about a silver a day. Given the cost of any single item and the assumed income of the shop keepers and their staff, we have to assume the profit margin they get from Magic Sword Distributions, llc are slight indeed. We should also forget the 50% markup from buying from and selling to adventurers; most of that profit margin must be rent and electricity. And as is well known, the land owners charging these exorbitant rates spend most of their money on dwarves who dig out experimental tunnels only to be abandon and occupied by the denizens of evil. And, of course, those dwarves are the type that eat gold. Surely that is a viable interpretation of the economic system.
Ok, I don’t know the origin of that tangent. As it turns out economic systems are so complex we can’t even approximate real ones very well.. we should forgive game designers that are just trying to create enjoyment for other players. To that end, we have to apply the same filter for our players. A system of investing in the economy must be at least as abstract as the economy in the game, but still have a fun, game-like feel. So, the first rule in adventurer investments is to not worry about where the funds are actually going. In large enough cities there may even be a cushion for the GM in the form of an investment firm; profits not guaranteed, of course.
So, a simple investment system might go like so:
Max investment size is dependent on the city size / population.
Class I – 100gp
Class II – 500gp
Class III -2000gp
Class IV -5000gp
Class V -10000gp
Investment risk/reward is based on economic viability.
|Level||Normal DC||Flush DC|
A character must have invested for a full month before rolling for dividends. If they beat the economy DC, they earn 20% their investment. If they fail to beat or meet the DC, they earn 5% their total investment. If they roll a 1, their investment is lost. So, going by statistics, there is a 5% chance of losing your investment, and you earn 5% per month. That’s not a good bet, but the risk is mitigated by paydays.
So, for example we have a hamlet (Class I) that is experiencing normal economic conditions. And the character invests 50gp for one year. Using a random number generator I determined the character got these results: 6, 2, 10, 6, 10, 20, 3, 10, 12, 10, 20, 18.
There were no 1’s in the bunch, so the initial investment was not lost. 5% of 50 is 2.5, or 2g 5s. This criteria was met 9 times, so our character extracted 27 gold from normal months. The character also beat the DC of 17 3 times. What luck! that’s 3 payments of 20% of 50gp, or 30gp. So, over the course of a single year, the character has earned a total of 57gp, and still has invested their original 50gp.
That’s neither unbalancing nor insignificant, but it does lean towards insignificance. To power up the system allow the ability to invest two or three times. That means a d20 roll per month per investment. Rolling more means more 1’s, but also more successes. If that’s not good enough, then lower the DCs to every other from 19 down. Doing both of these can result in big bucks, for instance:
A character invests the max amount twice in a town (Class III) that is currently undergoing a renaissance resulting in Good economic conditions. The game is favorable to investments (two investments with doubled success rates). That’s 2 2000gp lumps put down for a 13DC. The character rolls:
- Set 1: 13, 15, 11, 17, 2, 18, 5, 16, 20, 18, 3, 18
- Set 2: 9, 7, 16, 20, 6, 6, 19, 15, 12, 4, 13, 20
Successes over DC: 14
Non-1 under success: 10
I daresay our investor beat the curve quite soundly (with DC of 13 we’d expect 9 or 10 over DCs, and I expected to see a 1, too). So, anyway, here’s our results: 5% of 2000 is 100, 20% of 2000 is 400. That means our investor earned 1000gp for not meeting the DC, and 5600 for meeting the DCs, so over the course of the year, our investor earned 6600GP, and still has the 4000 in investment. This probably isn’t game breaking since immense amount of gold comes out over the course of a game year, which is quite likely the entire game. If playing something like Kingmaker, though, this can generate a ton of gold very quickly in real-time, but if you’re playing Kingmaker, chances are your character is swimming in gold anyway.
So, this is a system that could add an interesting and fun dimension to a game, or it could generate too much cash too quickly. I would be inclined to allow the system, without thinking in the reserved version, and I’d probably be OK with it at mad money-generation level. When keeping time in a tabletop RPG, one may be forgiven for being amazed at how much real-time it can take to go from one month to another. And if it becomes unbalanced, you could always run a one-shot exacting revenge on the group of clever super thieves that stole the investors money. At the conclusion of such an adventure the character reclaims their own investment, plus perhaps other wronged investors, leading to a moral decision – but when it’s all said and done, there’s nobody in town willing to accept investments any longer.