Where Is Play?

By | March 15, 2014

Hello and welcome back!

We’ve got a major update today – we’ve stepped through the Beta chapters and made some modifications to each of them, as well as some modifications to the Game Charter and Character Sheet.  You can check out the latest versions here, and you can see the changes we’ve made here.

As we examined the mechanics of Forthright Open Roleplay, one of the questions we asked ourselves is, “where is play?”  Specifically, does the majority of play occur before dice are rolled to determine the results of an action, or does the majority of play occur after dice are rolled to determine results?

This was an important question for us to consider because it would determine the overall flavor of the system.  Pushing more play before dice rolls would force the Players to think more strategically, to try and improve their situation as much as they could in order to maximize potential success.  Pushing play after dice rolls would force the Players to react to the consequences of the roll.

Now, how would that change play?  Well, pushing play toward modifying the chances of success is a very traditional manner of play – this is what most people have experienced when they have roleplayed.  There’s nothing really new there, though there is variation in modifying factors, etc.  It is a simple, intuitive system – that’s why it’s persisted for so long.  I think of Pathfinder and Numenara as having this type of play.  Because randomness of success is largely seen as undesirable, many systems with pre-roll play react to the randomness of the roll by pushing bonuses higher and higher in order to try and remove randomness.  Other systems would react to randomness by allowing players to pre-emptively reduce the difficulty of the roll.

Pre-roll play therefore encourages Players to think ahead, to plan, and to be more careful.  Whether this subtle message is picked up and heeded is dependent entirely on presentation.  I do not personally think this needs to be trumpeted much to roleplayers because as I mentioned it strikes me as very intuitive.  I want to do something, so I get all my ducks in a row in order to do what I want to do either by pushing my bonus as high as possible or by pushing my difficulty as low as possible before I roll to see if I succeed.

I am willing to admit that this may seem intuitive to us because we are all of us at Room 209 Gaming plan-ahead sorts of people.

Post-roll play, though, encourages a completely different kind of behavior.  Post-roll play includes “yes, but” play and play wherein dice results are not binary yes-no, but instead enforce narrative descriptors that immediately invoke the consequences of having taken an action.  I think of Fate and Edge of the Empire as having this type of play.  Randomness in these cases is capitalized upon and woven into the narrative by turning non-binary success into story complication for one side or the other in a conflict.

Post-roll play therefore encourages Players to just do something, and we’ll figure out what happens.  This is a very different sort of play that disincentivizes strategery and forethought – doing so becomes boring and then you’ll have a boring game.  Get out there and muck it up!  That makes things interesting, engages the players, and should keep things constantly moving forward and at a decent pace – all things that can prove problematic in pre-roll play.

That said, having played both types of games, I find pre-roll play to be generally both more problematic and more rewarding.  Post-roll play works for me for a much lighter game, with lighter consequences, in a sort of beer-and-pretzels let’s-just-have-some-fun kind of way.  I don’t consider the consequences of my actions past the next challenge.  Rather than feeling grandiose or epic, post-roll play feels to me to be freewheeling and I think that’s in large part because of the mentality it fosters to leap, don’t look.  And I love that for certain flavors of game.  For instance, I think it works perfectly for Edge of the Empire (which, you may have guessed from its frequent mentions on this site, is my favorite of the Star Wars tabletop games) because Star Wars always had that kind of damn-the-torpedoes flavor to me.

But for Forthright, I wanted us to capitalize more on inducing players to plan ahead and think carefully before taking action.  So in our case, the majority of play is pre-roll.  But pre-roll play has, to my mind, two major detriments:  pacing and failed rolls.  And if we were to implement this type of play in Forthright, we were going to need to find suitable solutions to both.
Pacing struck me as the kind of thing we could simply teach Guides to work with.  I’m a bit like Hannibal from The A-Team: I love it when a plan comes together.  And to my mind, the reward for a good, well-thought out plan is a smoother operation or a higher likelihood of success.  So if Players are planning ahead, why not let them?  
They’re still playing the game, they’re having fun (unless they have said they do not like planning ahead and are only doing it because they feel like they have to, in which case they should probably look into post-roll gaming), and the Guide is essentially able to eavesdrop on their planning to determine how the next set of encounters will go given the way the NPCs are acting and the way the PCs will act.  Both sides are planning ahead in this case (or should be), and there is no real need for intrusion on that.  But both Players and Guide need to be ready to act once they’re done planning – which usually isn’t a problem.
The problem with pacing, then, is when someone is not participating in the planning or when the social cues that Guide or Players are ready to move on and put the plan into action aren’t picked up.  Pacing can be solved, then, through some guidance of our own, so that pondering doesn’t become ponderous.
The problem of pacing being a problem of planning (or over-planning) leads directly into the second issue with pre-roll play: failed rolls.  In post-roll play games, failure isn’t so much of an issue because it’s representative of very little effort on the part of the player who failed the roll.  But when a player or multiple players have put a lot of effort into an action or set of actions, and then the randomness of the dice causes those actions to fail, it can be an extremely frustrating experience.  Dice might be thrown.  Someone might lose an eye, it’s terrible.
In order to combat this (and prevent roadblocks in the story from failed checks), no failure in Forthright Open Roleplay does not provide characters with new information.  They always learn something from failure, allowing them to try new approaches to what they are attempting.  I’ve mentioned this approach previously – it’s one which we hope will make failures meaningful, will still promote forward motion in the story, and help negate the absolute frustration of utter failure.
In this way we provide a degree of post-roll play.  When you roll, even on failure, all is not lost – you are still provided with new data, which you can then use to proceed toward your goal (or take a detour so you can swing back to it later).  We are trying to offer “think ahead, plan carefully, do something. . .and then we’ll see what happens.”  This isn’t a particularly new or revolutionary idea, but we’re hopeful that providing structure around it can help Players and Guides alike understand how to drive the story from within the context of the Gamescape.
 Don’t forget to check out the latest versions of the ruleset and the change log. Thanks for reading, and we’d love to know what you think in the comments section below!

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