Saturday, February 19, 2011

GM Mentoring: On Task Resolution...

Good Morning, All:

Unlike many of the GMs I know, I enjoy running games in multiple systems. While I prefer D&D (when I'm not burned out on it), Savage Worlds and Traveller, I enjoy the occasional dip into other systems as well. In the past, I've run campaigns in both HERO System and Storyteller System that ran over two years long, and I've run numerous other systems as One Shots and short-lived efforts. One of the things I discovered is that I have started thinking in more generic terms regarding task resolution. Some might call these thoughts a skill system, but for games that do not have skill systems per se, I think it is more accurate to describe this process as task resolution.

Originally, my internal system for establishing the generic nature of task resolution across multiple systems stems from my exposure to MegaTraveller's Task Resolution system developed by Digest Group Publishing back in the day. Essentially, this boils down to describing a task in two steps: 1) Identify the task's difficulty (which in turn effects how it is resolved), and 2) Identify the results as degrees of success. Once I have figured out a generic description for a given task, I can simply use my understanding of the current rules set to apply the system to my description, and I have the means by which I can implement that task within the context of a specific gaming session.

The benefits of using this approach are numerous, but the most important to me is that much of my work on adventure material (for my own personal use, at least) is usable no matter what system my players want to play. In my mind, if I've figured out a generic description for a given activity, whether it is attempting to bribe the guards, repairing a broken clockwork mechanism, diagnosing an illness, or even launching a rocket into space, then I can simply apply that knowledge to multiple gaming systems. Describe once, play multiple times.

There are other benefits as well. Using this approach creates a more consistent gaming experience across the board for the players, allowing them to develop (even if only subconsciously) better expectations on how well they may accomplish tasks. The use of degrees of success allows very skilled players the opportunity to shine and very lucky players the chance to cheer for their success. I find that this process makes it easier for me to learn new gaming systems, too, as I simply need to identify how to apply my task descriptions to the system as it currently exists, and I have an instant wealth of game lore to draw on that has been developed by decades of GMing. For me, it's a worthwhile practice, and with that in mind, I thought I would share a little of my thought process here in case it helps others out as well.

Task Difficulty
The first step in describing a task is to determine how difficult a task is. I tend to identify the difficulty of a task using one of the following descriptors, presented in order from easiest to most difficult:

  1. Simple: These tasks are so easy that they are effectively automatic. I don't even make someone roll for a task that is identified as Simple. However, because circumstances can modify the usual difficulty of a task, this serves as a starting point for those modifications.
  2. Routine: These tasks as considered routine for a person skilled at performing them, but are difficult enough that the novice making the effort has a chance of failure.
  3. Average: These tasks are the most commonly encountered tasks of the game. They are difficult enough to challenge the average character early on in the campaign, but not very difficult for characters with some experience under their belt. When in doubt, assume a task is of Average difficulty.
  4. Difficult: These tasks are considered challenging for someone that is skilled at the task, but only moderately so for a master at it.
  5. Formidable: Even masters find themselves challenged by certain tasks, and formidable tasks constitute the body of those particular efforts. Beginners may not even be able to accomplish these tasks, or if they do, it is simply by sheer luck.
  6. Staggering: When considering a staggering difficulty, bear in mind that beginners stand practically no chance of success, the skilled only succeed rarely, and even masters find such efforts to be very challenging.
  7. Impossible: Because I like to think of my players attempting the Impossible and succeeding, this is the last level of difficulty. Masters can barely accomplish these tasks, and others have no hope of success without a lot of help and beneficial circumstances.

As I've alluded to above, there are circumstances that can impact the difficulty of a task. When I describe a task to myself, I consider what it would be like under average conditions. For example, the average wainwright might want to build a new wagon wheel to replace one damaged over the course of a bandit attack outside of town. For an average wainwright with average tools and no external pressures, this is likely to be a Routine task. After all, this is what he does for a living. Now, what happens if the bandits decide to attack the shop while he's working on the wheel? Or his tools are stolen and he has to make do with inferior tools? Or alternately, the wainwright has superior tools and an abundance of resources to help him out? What if he's being rushed by an upstart band of adventurers eager to get back on the road? Any of these circumstances can impact what would ordinarily be a Routine task. Here's a small list of examples to consider.

  • Performing a task under fire: Performing a task in a dangerous situation, such as in the midst of combat, typically increases the Difficulty Level of a task by sometimes one or usually two levels, making it significantly more difficult to perform. (For example, brain surgery is considerably harder in the midst of a gunfight as opposed to in a quiet surgical theater.)
  • Inappropriate location: Performing a task in an inappropriate location, such as making repairs in the field, can increase a task's difficulty by one level.
  • Lack of proper tools: Performing a task without the proper tools can increase a task's difficulty by one level. Some tasks can be performed without tools at all, while others require at least makeshift tools.
  • Lack of spare parts: Performing a task without the proper spare parts available, forcing one to improvise using inappropriate materials, can increase a task's difficulty by one level.
  • Crossing racial lines/creature types: When performing a task that would become more difficulty when working on other races, species or creature types, such as attempting to perform a medical diagnosis on animals or monsters for which you have not been trained, increase a task's difficulty by one level.

Other significant circumstances can impact a task's difficulty, at the discretion of the GM.

Game Mechanics: Task Resolution
D20 (+1/level)152025303540
D20 (+1/2 levels)101520253035
Savage Worlds+2+0-2-4-6-8
Simple D6 (2 in 6)+1+0-1-1-2-2
Traveller (2d6)+2+0-2-4-6-8
GURPS/HERO (3d6)+3+0-3-6-9-12
Note: Negative modifiers above imply penalties, which modify either the die roll or the target number, depending on which approach makes the attempt more difficult to accomplish under a given rules system. Positive modifiers are bonuses, and act in such a way as to make the attempt easier to accomplish.

Degrees of Success
While some game systems provide details on multiple levels of success and failure, others sometimes only present a simple pass/fail mechanic, leaving it to the GM to house rule degrees of success. Based on using this approach over the course of many years, I've essentially come to recognize that it's best for me to think in terms of only four levels of results:

  1. Critical Failure: This is the most abysmal of results, typically resulting in something bad happening to the character above and beyond simply failing to resolve the task. This is the kind of failure that actually makes the situation worse, in addition to any natural consequences for failure.
  2. Failure: The character simply failed to resolve the task at hand. If there are natural consequences, then those take place.
  3. Success: The character succeeds in resolving the task.
  4. Critical Success: The character succeeds to such a high degree that he gains an additional benefit on top of the natural consequences of successfully resolving a task. This is potentially the kind of thing that makes gamers slap each other on the back and cheer when they see the results come up.

For Savage Worlds, a critical failure is rolling Snake Eyes, while a critical success is achieving a Raise. For most versions of D20, a critical failure is rolling a natural one, while a critical success is rolling a natural 20. (Alternately, you could define critical failure here as rolling 10 less than your target, while a critical success is rolling 10 above your target.) For 2d6 systems, natural 2s and 12s replace the natural 1s and 20s of the D20 System. For 3d6 systems, natural 3s and 18s replace the natural 1s and 20s.

Whether or not you decide to write down your task descriptions, using this method mentally can improve your abilities as a GM. I've found that I tend to think in world terms instead of PC-specific terms, which reduces the sense of escalating difficulties that sometimes accompanies a long-term game (the world doesn't get more difficult just because the PCs get more competent.) I can leverage my gaming skills across multiple rules sets, and I have more resources available to resolve gaming issues because I can more easily translate from one system to another. All in all, it works for me, and hopefully, it will work for you as well. Please let me know what you think.

Hope This Helps,


Clovis Cithog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clovis Cithog said...

I like it . . .
On a TIE result, characters succeed with minor reservation;

drop an object,
take 1 hit point,
empty currenty magazine,
etc . .

migellito said...

I've used this basic idea for a long time now, and I think I also was inspired by megatraveller :) However, I had never thought about applying it to 1d6 resolution for OD&D.. thanks for this Flynn!!

Andreas Davour said...


I would probably never use this as is, since I'm way to enamoured by the quirks by the different systems I like to play, but I like the holistic view and grasp if the very idea.

Also, even if I have given up hope on Traveller, I still have a soft spot for my old favourite MegaTraveller.