Forthright Sneak Peek: Difficulty

By | October 17, 2015

Hello again!

In the run-up to Metatopia 2015, we’ve been running a series of Forthright Open Roleplay sneak peeks of Beta 3, with a general goal of laying out nearly the entire system in blog posts before November.  Here’s the series so far:

Difficulty in RPGs is traditionally handled in two ways: having to roll a higher number to succeed at something (representing a more difficult task) and having to roll more frequently / needing more powerful abilities to stand a chance (representing facing a more difficult opponent).  Throughout the development of Forthright, I grew less enamored of both these methods – that loss of interest traces along the same path as the game’s evolution away from being “just another D&D clone.”

Difficult Actions

Traditional Difficulty Classes/Ratings are balanced around two factors:  how challenging the GM thinks a task is, and how much skill a character has at overcoming those types of challenges.  This has led to an arms race of a sort:  Players must keep increasing their skills in order to overcome challenges, and GMs must keep increasing their DCs in order to give the Players a challenge.  The result of this is that such “skill mini-games” play largely the same at the beginning of a game as they do in the endgame, only with bigger numbers.  Earlier versions of Forthright tried to solve this in a similar fashion to 5E, by reducing the maximum size of DCs so the arms race would not occur.

The problem with that method is that the Guide must still assess a general difficulty for the task.  Not only does this slow down play, this requires an extra layer of work for the Guide and can pause play while players wait for the DC.  We learned through playtesting that providing more guidance in this area actually slows down play even more because the Guide is obligated to provide an “accurate” DC instead of an off-the-cuff difficulty.

With the new Action Resolution Mechanic, we removed DCs from Forthright.  We decided that one factor, the character’s skill, was enough to identify how difficult an action would be to accomplish.  This also removes situations where a character fails a binary check and the narrative stalls – “well, you failed.  I guess you have to find another way.”  Forthright always maintains momentum within the story and the scene – either for or against the Protagonists – and therefore the story doesn’t stall through failure.

But how to represent a task that is more difficult than another?  This is handled four ways in Forthright:

  • Don’t Roll.  If the task is very easy, and the Guide cannot think of an interesting or engaging consequence for failure / setback, then no roll is necessary.  The Protagonist climbs the easily-scalable wall, sneaks through the empty and unobserved house, etc.
  • Bolsters and Hinders.  If the situation is complex, and some characters making a check would have an advantage or disadvantage, and the Guide can think of interesting and engaging consequences for failure, then Bolsters and Hinders can be applied to different rolls.  For example, if a Protagonist is racing someone else through an asteroid belt to get to a space station on the other side.  If one vessel is sleek and maneuverable and one is clumsy and sluggish, the pilot of the sleek ship may at the Guide’s discretion get a Drive Check Bolster while the pilot of the clumsy ship may get a Drive Check Hinder.  This should be used with discretion, though, or very quickly every roll is Bolstered or Hindered.
  • Dire Consequences on Setback.  The most common method of assessing difficulty in an action, though, will be dire consequences for Setback.  Navigating a high wire over a pit of lava, for example, is much more dangerous than leaping from balcony to chandelier to balcony over a ballroom.  A Setback over lava is a guaranteed Deathblow, causing at the very least permanent injury to a character, while a Setback from the chandelier might cause only a temporarily sprained ankle.  This is the primary method for assessing whether any given action is more or less difficult than another.
  • No.  This is the most powerful weapon in a Guide’s arsenal, and should be used sparingly and with thorough explanation.  This is used when characters want to perform actions that are impossible: dancing across a river without getting wet, balancing on a cloud, knowing a fact that has never been shared, that sort of thing.  Whenever the Guide says “no,” the Guide must explain why the task is considered impossible.

Difficult Enemies

Enemies in Forthright come in three flavors:  one-star, two-star and three-star.  You could call these “Mooks,” “Deputies,” and “Masters”; “Lackeys,” “Lieutenants,” “Leaders” – it doesn’t matter, beyond the functions they play within the story.

  • One-Star “Mook/Lackey”:  These characters have One-Star Proficiency in their Roles and 10 Resolve.  They are very likely to suffer Setbacks or Exchanges in a fight, allowing Protagonists to defeat them more quickly, but are just as equally likely to get in one or two good hits before they go down.
  • Two-Star “Deputy/Lieutenant”:  These characters have Two-Star Proficiency in their Roles and 20 Resolve.  These are tough customers who are more likely to get in some good hits on Protagonists before they go down, especially because of their increased Resolve.
  • Three-Star “Master/Leader”:  These characters have Three-Star Proficiency in their Roles and 30 Resolve.  They are equal to or better than Protagonists in all ways, and are very difficult combatants.

The Protagonists can face a number of enemies in a “fair fight” based on their Fighting Style Roles:

  • One-Star Fighting Style:  Can survive a one-on-one fight with 1 Two-Star (with luck) or up to 2 One-Star enemies.
  • Two-Star Fighting Style:  Can survive a one-on-one fight with 1 Two-Star or up to 3 One-Star enemies.
  • Three-Star Fighting Style:  Can survive a one-on-one fight with 1 Three-Star (with luck), 1 Two-Star, or up to 4 One-Star enemies.

Providing enemies of different combinations, and providing engaging terrain to fight in (instead of the standard X foot by X foot dungeon room) is the key to varied and interesting combats; the terrain will provide distinct advantages to those characters who are able to use it (such as granting cover, providing fodder for stunts, etc).

A “fair fight” in Forthright parlance is one which strains the Protagonists to their limit – they will come out on top, just barely.  This is a significant difference with many games, in which a fair fight is one that takes some small percentage of the Protagonists’ resources to win.  Because Resolve is recovered after every fight, Protagonists in Forthright do not need to play the planned game of attrition – they enter every fight with their full battery of resources, and as long as they end the fight still standing they’re in good shape.

This increases tension during combat scenarios and allows every fight to be tough, especially with Basketball Initiative in play.

But what about monsters that are more than just “Three-Star Bad Guys?”  Monsters like giant colossi, dragons, titans, etc?  Well, those aren’t designed to be faced by the Protagonists alone. . .but I’ll get more into that next time, because I’ve already gone on quite long enough for a blog post 🙂

So, thoughts and comments?  Go ahead and drop us a line – we talk back, sometimes a lot!