Playing roles

It's a role-playing game! This is what we do - adopting the role of an imaginary character, and reacting to the situations those characters are confronted with - but we often have different styles and abilities.

Some players will act out every action of their character, speaking in their voice for the whole game session, while others will describe their character's actions in third person. Some players will look to portray characters with similar skills to their own, or vastly different. It's part of the escapism.
Me, I think that part of the fun of role-playing is exploring characters who are better, or worse than ourselves - I'm a weak, short-sighted nerdy type, but I'd prefer to play a sharp-shooter outlaw, or an axe-wielding mercenary. I agree, though: now and then, it's fun to play an heroic exaggeration of oneself.

Different styles

Some players are good at in-character dialogue - they will slip into the persona and speak as though they were acting in an improvised play. In grammar, that's called direct speech. Other players don't enjoy that so much, and prefer to refer to their character's speech in the third person: they'll say "Grog the Barbarian says he doesn't want to do that," rather than speaking as though they were Grog: "Grog not want to." That's called reported speech.
Of course, both these styles are valid. We're playing a game - we're really more interested in having fun, rather than pushing people's comfort zones.
Reported speech even allows you to add descriptors, rather than trying to pull off the acting for your self. "Grog the Barbarian bares his teeth and growls that he doesn't want to do that."
It also lets you put some distance between you the player and the situation your character is in, which can be useful if you're having an in-character argument, or - maybe more uncomfortable - seduction.

Social skills

Some gamers advocate doing away with social skills in games, but I don't like that approach, as I think it's unfair. Specifically, it causes problems when you have charismatic players playing uncharismatic characters, and vice versa.
For example, imagine a very forthright and centre-of-attention kind of guy playing a character who is supposed to be significantly below average in the charisma stakes. He makes no allowances for it, in game, and just plays with his own level of social ability.
Conversely, consider a player who is rather socially awkward and lacking in empathy, playing a character who is meant to be suave, cool and a ladies' man. He tries to role-play those traits - but we really have to rely on the dice results to see how cool and seductive his character is being.

To counter these examples, I felt I needed to come up with a couple of house rules:

Resolve social skill checks before role-playing
  • Where game rules include a mechanic for social skills, get players to make their dice rolls for social interactions before role-playing the outcome
  • It can be just as fun to role-play bad results, as it is to be successful
Discuss the player's social intent, then roll
  • Get the player to describe what they're trying to do, including any specific topics they want to include
  • Modify the skill check to account for good and bad points
  • This method works well with players who aren't Machiavellian masters of manipulation, but want to play such characters
Combining the two ideas above lets you get the best of both: you can adjust the difficulty of the check based on the input from the player, and then role-play the results.

Rewarding the quiet ones

Many RPGs explicitly tell you to reward good role-playing, with in-game bonuses, extra improvement points, and even treasure. I generally like this sort of thing in principle, but it can be easy to overlook players and characters who are equally contributing to the enjoyment of the game.

Off-line role-playing - by which I mean submitting in-character write ups of game sessions, drawing elaborate maps from explored regions, anything of that sort that shows deep engagement with the game - is a source of great joy to me. I find it really exciting when someone has taken time outside the game to do their write up, or make props, or whatever.
This sort of off-line role-playing should be rewarded! That's especially important if the player is shy of role-playing at the table - watch out for this sort of player. They're the ones who don't speak up much, or avoid talking in-character, but still seems to be enjoying themselves, and aren't goofing around. Remember to allow their off-line outlet to count as much as other players' exemplary role-playing at the table.

Lots of actors relish the chance of playing a flamboyant character, an insane persona, a disabled character, a vile villain - all because they get to flex those acting muscles. Look at me, I'm acting! Notice how a great many Best Actor awards go to such intense performances?
Sometimes, though, a character's nature won't allow for much overt role-playing at the table - a silent loner, or a shy youngster - it's not appropriate for these to command much attention during the social parts of the game story.
Watch out for these characters - don't let yourself get too dazzled by overt displays of role-playing from flamboyant characters to the extent that you over look these more subtle types.


Taming the Chaos: probability and the heroes

Some time ago, I was discussing critical hits and misses in RPGs with a friend. We talked about how criticals, badly handled, can ruin a game.
He set me on the trail to writing this post - but being the kind of sciencey person I am, I couldn't just spew back out all he'd said. I had to go look for the facts and logic myself - which in turn led me to find other opinions...

To start with, in a survey that I ran on some RPG forums, I found that responders said they liked character skill or player choice to be the most significant part in success or failure, not the dice roll.

On the other hand, in another survey, responders said that they like the extra randomness of critical hits and misses.

So here I'll look at what we can do to marry these two apparently conflicting preferences.

Critically Random

Critical hits and misses are a staple of a great many RPGs. You rolled the biggest number on the die, so you get more than mere success - and the inverse for critical failures.

Players love criticals, because they reward those big rolls, and punish the low rolls - but are they opening up a wealth of excessively random results, where the die result overrides the skill of the character?

Yes, I believe I can show that to be the case.

Critical misses: the more you try the worse you fail
With critical failure rules, whenever you roll the dice to determine your character's success at a task, you run the risk of a critical failure.
The more often you roll, the more likely you are to screw up in this way. This punishes the player characters more than the non-player characters, because the PCs are the focus of the game. You're making all the rolls.
Further, lots of game systems have ways for powerful characters to take more actions during their turn. The more actions you can take, the more you can achieve, meaning that you are generally more effective.
Similarly, some games use dice pools, whereby you roll more dice of the same type to represent your increasing power, and count the number of dice that beat a given target number. It's common in those games to have a critical failure happen when the number of your dice that come up with the minimum result (usually 1) exceed the number that succeed. But it is also common in such games for the success number to be moveable - a routine task might need you to roll a 5, but a difficult task might need a 6, for example.

But both these systems also give you more chances to critically fail, because you're rolling the dice - and taking that risk - more often.
It shouldn't be a consequence of increased power to run a greater risk of catastrophic failure than some unskilled dweeb, should it?

Critical hits: GM loses control
Critical hits give some special result as a reward for a good roll on the dice. Where this can be problematic is that the game's progress can be altered in the extreme by a single random outcome.

For example: In 3rd edition D&D, using only the Players Handbook (let alone the plethora of Splatbooks that add so many options that the creators can't keep track of them), it is possible to create a 1st level (that is, a fresh start up) half-orc barbarian character who can deal 66 damage on a successful critical hit. (Our Strength 20 half-orc is using a Greataxe, is in a berserk frenzy [barbarian Rage], and has rolled maximum damage on a critical hit.)
To put that in context, a routine hit from the same character (no critical, no Rage, rolling average damage) would deal 13 damage. Hell, a maximum damage roll without the critical is 22.

Why's that important? Well, a normal bad guy for this 1st level barbarian is likely to have 10 hit points or so. So the barbarian can kill one of these routinely - whether they get a critical or not. Clearly this is the barbarian's job.
But the heroes aren't supposed to just beat down every encounter they meet. Sometimes - usually for the sake of plot - they need to meet something so overpowering that they ought to run. The Dungeonmasters' Guide even tells us to do this. So an overpowering challenge (challenge rating 6, to use the jargon) that the players are supposed to flee from is likely to have 50 to 80 hit points - a young white dragon, for example, has 76.

With one very lucky hit, the 1st level barbarian can reduce this supposedly overpowering monster to a mere 10 hit points - low enough for the rest of the player party to finish it off with little risk.

Similarly, RoleMaster and its derivatives, (including Middle Earth Role-Paying (MERP) and SpaceMaster, and all), had long tables of critical hit results. Often these were amusing ("arrow pierces both ears; hearing impaired" followed by some extreme damage multiplier for skewering the target's skull) - but ultimately they created the same problem: through random chance, dangerous foes could be destroyed with a single attack.

Conversely, this can easily go the other way: an encounter that was intended to be routine, or even a pushover can explode in the players' faces. That lowly hobgoblin that the mid-level party have cornered stands a non-zero chance of killing one of the player characters in a single hit.

At this point, whether it's the players who are winning big or loosing out, our GM has lost control of the game.

The overpowering encounter has been defeated, or the hero on whom the story-line has been pinned is dead. The game is most likely to grind to a halt while the GM tries to think of a new story line - or they'll be tempted to alter the supposedly overpowering encounter to add another monster to take the dead one's place, or somehow claim that the dead PC lives.

Very unsatisfactory.

What Do We Do About It?

If randomisation can ruin the game, what do we tend to do about it? Anecdotally, it seems, we cheat.

Fudging the rolls
When random rolls go against the story, the GM is tempted to cheat. This special cheating is called "fudging", and most games even explicitly advise the GM to do it.
To me, this ruins the fun. If I know that the GM is fudging to keep PCs alive, to push the story forward, then all sense of risk is lost. I feel like Superman before anyone figured out Kryptonite was bad for my health. As a player, I've quit out of few games over the years where cheating in my favour has kept me alive - and I know other players who feel the same way.

I've also found that GM fudging regarding dice rolls is a significant issue with the wider gamer world. In my survey, I found that about a third of responders volunteered that they considered GM rolls to be subject to doubt, and that they resented or otherwise felt negatively about that. The other two thirds gave no opinion - which considering it wasn't a question I'd asked in the survey, we can't really take as a positive result for GM trust.

Doing away with fudge
If fudging the rolls is a source of dissatisfaction, how can we do away with it?

Rolling in the open:
The GM can of course, roll all the dice in front of the players. That works fine if our game is under control - but if randomisation can have a negative impact on the game, then rolling in the open doesn't solve this. It can even lead GMs to extreme methods, like practising sleight of hand or loaded dice - and no-one in their right mind wants that.

But if we've got our randomisation in a place where all parties are satisfied with its results, then rolling in the open can be engaging and exciting. Players pay more attention when the GM rolls the dice in front of them.
If you adopt this method, you may need to get your players on board with the principle of dramatic irony - the players may end up knowing (or suspecting) things their characters don't know. If the players can see that you've rolled a tiny number on the dice, but announced a massive number as the result, they know the big bonuses you're adding to that roll, and may treat their antagonist with more fear than he would normally command.
Me, I like to cultivate dramatic irony in my games: giving out scenes where the villains discuss their plans, or shadowy figures stalk the player characters. As long as everyone is on board with the separation of player and character knowledge, it can be good fun to play along with the ignorance.

Players roll all the dice:
D&D's Unearthed Arcana supplement for 3rd edition included this variant rule: Let the players roll everything for themselves.

If the GM's dice rolls are suspect, then stop rolling. Instead of the monsters having a dice roll to attack the heroes, the heroes get a defence roll to avoid the monsters' attacks. Rather than the vile vizier trying to lie to the heroes, the heroes try to sense his motives.
Instead of the GM rolling for the NPCs, you assume that the NPCs' actions are always the average of what they might achieve, and let the players do the randomisation.

The great advantage of this is that the players become proactive, leading the action, even when they're defending against a horde of attackers.

Of course, this involves tweaking the rules of the game. It may take some work on the GM's part - but most RPGs give you some idea of what the average results of typical rolls are going to be. You'll just need to work out the rules of thumb for your NPCs and monsters, and apply them.

Again, this method only really works if the randomisation element in your game is sound.

Taming the Chaos

What can we do to keep the game manageable (assuming we're not going to cheat)?

Change the dice: 
If we change from a d20 to a d12, the chances of getting the maximum or minimum result increase - and vice versa. So to decrease randomness, it might appear that we should increase the number of sides on our dice.

But we can't simply swap dice types around without rescaling the modifiers. A +2 to a roll is a big deal when you're rolling a d10, but relatively insignificant when you're rolling a d100.
If we take the d20 as a base, and change it to a d100 instead, we'll need to multiply all the modifiers in the game by 5.

As long as we make sure that the point at which criticals happens stays as the maximum and minimum results of our die type, we should find that they happen far less often (one 5th of the time).

But is that really solving the issue? A less common chance is still going to happen now and then - and perhaps the increased rarity will work against us, as we become even less inclined to plan for those outside chances.

Do away with criticals?
My first instinct is to certainly get rid of critical failures, they're annoying at best and often counter-productive at worst - but critical success is a reward that players seem to resent losing.
I ran a quick poll of RPG forums again, and found that three times as many people liked critical success rewards than disliked them, and over half of people disliked critical failures.
I also found that a significant number of responders volunteered that they didn't like critical success in skills - combat seemed to be acceptable, but the outlandish outcomes of critical skill success seemed to be a randomisation too far.

While getting all this data in, there were some critical failure rules that were brought up that seems to be well-liked, and certainly appeared interesting.

So if critical hits in combat are well liked, how can we keep them? We need to retain the excitement of reward for a good roll, while ensuring they don't ruin the GM's plans (by killing the heroes, or by the heroes killing supposedly overpowering encounters).

Critical advantage
In the game I run, I make critical success in combat give advantage, instead of massive damage.
When a critical result comes up on the dice, the player (or me, as the GM) can opt for some extra effect. in my rules, I split those extra effects into Attack, Maim, or Move.
The Attack option means that the creature can get a free attack (either a simple attack, or a combat trick, like tripping the defender, or disarming them). The attack must make a new check to make this attack. There are a limited number of attacks in a round, so the player has to judge whether this is worth it.
The Maim option lets the player choose to inflict some injury on top of the damage they are deal, so that the defender starts to bleed each round, or has reduced movement, or some similar effect. The defender gets a check to resist this effect.
The Move option lets the attacker re-position themselves in the fight as a free move.

In play, these options have kept the reward of critical hits, which players like, but have largely retained control of the game. With a single additional hit, a hero is unlikely to kill an overpowering menace - and vice versa.
Also, the variety of options gives players choice

Optional failure
While we're praising options for players, I should mention one of the better critical miss rules that was brought up while I was researching this post.
In a few games, a bad roll on the dice allows the player to take the option of re-rolling - but if that second roll is a failure, something catastrophic happens.

For example: In at least one of the systems, that catastrophic thing is damage to your weapon - the game is a post-apocalypse setting, where materials to repair swords are scarce. Let's look at that in action...

Altair tries to hit the lowly goblin with his staff, and his player rolls a 1. The player can opt to re-roll, but risks breaking or damaging his staff  if he misses with the second roll. The player thinks the goblin is not worth the risk, and decided to simply miss. No critical.
Later, Altair is faced with a foul giant. The stakes are far higher, and every hit counts. Altair's player chooses to re-roll his potential critical miss, as he judges it better to try again and risk breaking the staff.

Conclusion: Chaos Tamed?

The randomness of critical hits and misses can be fun, and need not wreck the precarious balance of the GM's plans.
Options and choice for the players are good - giving bonus choices to increase drama is better than merely adding damage, or a secondary table of random effects. When players can choose how their awesome or terrible dice rolling effects the game, there's more meaningful fun to be had.


Marlborough Challenge - done!

After 33 miles of wide open views, chalk hill figures, ancient burial mounds, stone circles and neolithic tracks, sun, wind and rain, elation and pain - I'm done!

33rd mile

I came in 107th, out of 150-odd finishers. About 40 people either dropped out along the way, or didn't show up on the day. I managed to get round in 6 hours 27 minutes, which is about what I expected, if not a bit faster.

Big thanks go out to Pete and Jo for coming down to Avebury and the finish line, and to Helen, for putting up with my training and boring blurbs about hill reps and pace records for the last few months, and then being good enough to hug me (despite my being all stinky and sweaty) at various check points on the way round.
But untold thanks must go to Stewart, who came along to give me the support of someone who knew the route, had run it before, and could ferry Helen between check points. Without Stewart, it would have been a far lonelier run.
I also have to say how amazing the other runner on this event were - everyone (at least, everyone I met) was cheerful and friendly, far more interested in having a good day than beating anyone.

My muscles seems fine today: tired, but not aching. More uncomfortable is my left knee, which really started to whinge and complain at about 28 miles. The pain seems centred on the tendons along the side of the knee, that move the foot and lower leg, and it comes on with the last few degrees of movement between bending and straightening my knee. On the other hand, I can already walk down stairs like a normal person, so it's not all that bad.
I had a similar injury on my first long run, last year - on my right knee. It just needed rest and shorter distances - and now, I think it's stronger.
I dare say I'll be recovered enough for work on Wednesday.

You can, of course, still visit my Just Giving page to donate - it stays open till the 12th August. Thanks to everyone who's donated so far. It really helped inspire me to keep going, knowing that people have put their hands in pockets to donate on my behalf.

And now? A few short runs this week, and settle into a 10 mile max routine again... until the next event that takes my fancy.
Someone told me there's a run from Avebury to Stonehenge on the May Day Bank Holiday...


Dancing lessons from God

"Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God"
Bokonon, from Cat's Cradle

Last Friday, I was running my usual lunch time route round the airfield perimeter where the glider club meets, and I was stopped by a chap in a Landrover. "You can't run here", he said. "There is no right of way here." Or at least, that was the jist of what he said.

After I'd run back to the public road and gone back to work, I looked up the local Ordnance Survey maps to check that he was correct. Yes, he was, it turn out. There is no public right of way on that path. I'd been running there for three years, but apparently I'd never had the right.

So, I had to find another route with defined rights of way.

As it happened (as it was meant to happen), I found better, hillier route, through woods and fields.

The views of Warwickshire are lovely. Round the airfield, being a wide open flat landscape, all I would ever see was the sky. That's interesting enough - cloudscape and sunlight and the shadows of rain - but I spent much of my time looking out for gliders rather than enjoying the scenery. (Gliders will kill you if they hit you, and they're very quiet and hard to steer out the way of a suddenly emerging runner...)

But now I'm rewarded with high places and wide views of rolling hills and fields and woods. We're having a late spring after that cold spell, and all the plants are hurrying to catch up - the trees are still partly bare, but the grass flowers are out and the bluebells are tentatively carpeting the woods. It's only going to get more lovely.

Of course, all this running and enjoyment of the great outdoors is only possible because of my great medication. Remember to sponsor me if you haven't so far!