Conflict resolution, take 3

After taking some time off and considering the previous entries in the system, this are my latest thoughts around conflict resolution for an RPG system.

To summarize my previous goals:

  1. The system should allow to strategy and semi-predictable outcomes. It should be neither totally random (dice rolls) or totally predictable).
  2. If the order of play can’t be determined by the storytelling and fiction of the world, a system will allow the players to determine the order.
  3. All action takes place via the players. The DM never acts, except as a reaction to the outcome of a player’s action.
  4. The result of an action will be either a full success, mixed result, or failure.

Not a goal, but an additional restriction: The system should work with a single, standard 52 card deck. No special supplies are required.

Conflict Begins

  1. All engaged characters are dealt a hand of 3 (secret) cards.

Order of Play

  1. The general preference is for storytelling and fiction to determine the order. If the group is walking down a hallway single file, the character in front encounters danger first, and thus is first to act/react unless they choose to delay their action. If one character is about to act on another character who is asleep, then the sleeping character goes second. If two characters are genuinely attempting to act simultaneously (i.e. approaching each other around a blind corner), or attempting to act simultaneously to another stimuli (i.e. reacting first to a signal) – then continue with this set of steps.
  2. Any characters who attempt to act at the same time place a card from their hand face down. 
  3. When all cards are placed, they are revealed. The player with the highest card goes first. For the purposes of determining order, Aces are high followed by Kings, Queens, Jacks, then 10s and all other numbered cards in descending order.
  4. If there is a tie, another card is dealt to the tied players, and the process repeats.
  5. If more than two players are attempting to move simultaneously, non-tied players go in order of their cards. Then the tied players re-draw. For example, 4 players play, in order, a King, a nine, a nine, and a five. Player one (King) goes first, then Player 4. Players 2 & 3 (who both played a 9) redraw, and play 10 and 2, respectively.. The final order is Player 1 (King), Player 4 (5), Player 2 (10), then Player 3 (2). All cards played until this point are discarded.
  6. Players who go through these steps DO NOT draw back up to 3 cards.

Resolve action

  1. The desired action is described in story terms, and aligned to a player character’s skill or action. The DM gets final say on validity.
  2. The player plays 2 cards from their hand face up in front of themselves. If they have a card remaining in their hand, it is set aside for now (but not discarded).
  3. The player plays additional cards as desired by drawing from the top of the deck. The goal is to meet or exceed a target without going over 21.
  4. Target for mixed result is 15. Target for a full success is 17. Going over 21 is an automatic failure.
  5. If you get 21 from the 2 cards from your hand (aka, blackjack) you have an automatic full success, which cannot be interfered with.

Modifiers & Assistance

  1. Modifiers come from a character’s innate skills, the surrounding environment, or other players.
  2. Modifiers increment or decrement the target by 1. So 2x (-1) modifiers, make the target for a mixed success 13, or full success 15.
  3. One player involved in the scene or action may choose to assist or hinder at any time before the action is resolved by replacing the last card played with one card from their hand. Each action may only be assisted/hindered once, and each player may only do this once per round.
  4. Some skills may allow you to “hold” a card going forward. This essentially allows you to assist yourself. Once per action you may spend one hold to replace the last card played with the one remaining card in your hand (if you have one) or draw a card from the deck, and replace the last card played if it is beneficial (the card that was removed from play will be discarded.

After all players have gone (1 full round) the DM deals enough cards to return all players to 3 cards in hand. When the deck runs empty, reshuffle all discarded cards.

I feel pretty good about this system, though the numbers may need to be adjusted. What say, you, internet? Reasonable next steps to check the validity of this system would be some simple dogfooding, and then take an Apocalypse World (or derivative system like Dungeon World or The Sprawl) adventure and rework it using this system.

New job, new distractions

First, I’ve taken a break from my game design experiment because I started a new job. I’m no longer a UX Manager at eBay. I’m now a Senior UX Designer at Indeed. My thoughts on job titles, taking a management (or individual contributor role), and looking for and leaving jobs.

I had a week in between jobs, and used that time to work on 2 projects. First, I wanted to make progress on my workbench. I need to move my shop space into a different part of my house, and the current bench is not moveable, and even if it was, has some functional shortcomings. Second, I started exploring 3D modeling in Blender (via a Udemy course). I’ve got no particular goal with this other than to learn a new skill. I’ve always been curious about 3D modeling though my exposure to the creation process was limited to one college course. I’ve barely made it through the first section but I understand enough now to have some fun.

As my schedule settles over the next week or two, I will begin reviewing the game work I’ve done so far and define next steps.

Game Design – 4 Eras

Each of the 4 pre-defined eras (and any custom eras) starts with understanding the time period, state of the world, and the location of the story. What is the defining event that begins this era – whether it’s a deviation from our own history, or a future timeline? What is scarce, exciting, and new? What is common or mundane? What would scare the characters?

Era 1 – The Space Race

In 1969, Apollo 13 finds an artifact on the moon, advancing computer technology much faster. This is never revealed to the world at large though the uptick in technology is noticeable and abrupt. It’s explained away by governments and industry as a consequence of the space race. Mostly, it’s the same decade we know. Concordes and 747s. The gas crisis. Vietnam. The F-14 Tomcat. The WTC is completed in NYC. ARPANET comes online. MASH airs and Watergate occurs. Technology takes time to ramp up, but it starts with military and government technology – the sharing of information between the powers that be are suddenly able to find and share information much, much faster.

The era comes to an end on April 5, 1973, with the launch of the Pioneer 11 probe from Cape Canaveral, FL, onboard an Atlas-Centaur rocket. In our world, the Pioneer 11 was launched to explore the solar system. In this alternate world, its mission is to search the solar system for more signs of artifacts.

In this era, the players may be young adults in the US, draft age. With the draft lottery starting in late 1969, this is a pivotal era for youth. You could be potential draftees, unsure about the future, or anti-war activists, actively antagonizing the authorities, who stumble onto hidden information. You’re not the establishment and you’re not thrilled about where things are going. So when you find evidence of a conspiracy, your world goes from a little crazy, to entirely upside-down.

The group may want to explore the following questions: What is the nature of the artifact? How does the group find evidence of the artifact? The only people who know are the highest of the high in the military and government. Do they try to share that information? How does it remain hidden, in the end?

Era 2 – Technology Races Ahead

In 1992, the Shuttle Program has with the last launch and subsequent retirement of the Challenger shuttle and the establishment of the ISS. They’ve been replaced by autonomous spaceplanes (transport of people and light cargo) and reusable vertical rockets for heavier launches. Civilian transportation is faster, sleeker, and more often autonomous that not. More attention is given to high speed networks – trains connecting major cities and hubs many miles apart with ‘quiet’ supersonic transport (well, the sonic boom isn’t as bad, at least, but engine noise is engine noise).
TVs and computers are decades ahead of what we knew – closer to 2018, though the styling has not evolved as quickly. The height of ‘cool’ personal technology is essentially a mix between a TI-83, a Gameboy Color, and a BlackBerry. There are different versions/brands, but they’re nearly ubiquitous for high school kids through young adults. You communicate with your friends using the ubiquitous networking that allows for the autonomous transit systems.

The players may be high school kids in the 1990’s. You live in central NJ, and spend your free time at malls, wishing you could go to New York City, taking the maglev to the shore, hanging out with your friends, and generally avoiding your parents and any real responsibility. Then, one day while watching the SSTs take off from Lakehurst (connected to New York and Philadelphia, as well as the nearby McGuire Air Force Base from one of the miles-long noise buffers, your personal tech goes nuts. You get messages in nonsensical English, your memory gets filled up, you lose your homework, and in general things start to go wrong with any bit of technology you encounter.

The era ends with the secret launch of a rocket – at first thought to be the first salvo in a missile launch, and a nuclear war nearly erupts. Claimed, eventually, to be a test by the US of a new entirely new autonomous rocket, it contained no crew, and only a small probe containing a previously unknown AI core, which would be sent out into deep space.

The group should consider:  How do the players determine that an AI is communicating with them? What type of AI is it? Why did it try to escape? Do they try to return it to the military, protect it, take advantage of it, or something else? What clues the authorities into the fact that the group ‘possesses’ the AI? How does it get to the launch site and why? What does the AI know about the mysterious artifact? Tip: For an unstable AI, use translate software and translation from English to multiple unrelated languages then back to English. For example, English > Welsh > Chinese > English.

Era 3 – The Gravity Well

A colony has been established around earth – it orbits at the Earth-Moon L1 Lagrange Point (a stable point where its position is held between the two bodies with no need for additional energy). It houses a few thousand people – scientists and engineers who are working to build our first permanent home among the stars, and a launching point to further explorations. Your characters are support staff. Regular engineers, vacuum welders, doctors, and pilots who would regularly cycle in and out. It’s business as usual, until communications are cut off. The players become isolated in one part of the colony.

What is their goal? Do they attempt to escape? They must get to the docks. Re-establish control? Get to the control center. Their only regular communication occurs with a very put-upon AI colony administrator which is constantly interrupted by the third party that is attempting to take over the station. Eventually players become aware that the colony is being destabilized and must make choices – evacuating the color vs evacuating the landing zone.

The era ends with the colony crashing (into the moon or the Earth, find a reason for one or the other to be the destination). Perhaps many (or most) are saved. Perhaps none survive. Regardless, the impact area is devastated for thousands of miles.

The group should consider who would want to halt humanity’s progress into space – and why they would. Is it to hurt us or save us? Is it a human presence or something else? Humanity moves out of Earth’s gravity well regardless – why? How will the players’ actions encourage this? These questions impact not just the end of the story, but the challenges they players will face.

Era 4 – The Stars

Humankind has populated the solar system – Mars, Ceres, and Ganymede all have a permanent human presence of some sort, in addition to smaller ‘orbitals’ in various stable orbits. The moon remains conspicuously un-colonized, except for small military stations with near- and far-side relays. For most people, it’s simply not important enough to bother with. The actual travel is almost mundane at this point. AI controls nearly every point in the trip.

The players work for Orbital & Atmospheric Recovery Corp (aka The OARC, a governmental and semi-military group), assisting with the terraforming (warming) of Enceladus as a potential source of clean water and as a transition point to further space exploration. At this point in human existence, conflict is rare, as resources are plentiful, but this far on the edge the basics can be scarce – food, drinkable water, breathable air. You’re only a bit of metal, plastic, and insulation away from the cold vacuum of space – and even moon-side, people sometimes decide they know better and want to do things their way.

A ship from the inner solar system with no flight plan, life signs, or identification arrives in orbit, claimed by multiple factions. Your group is sent to find the ship, and discover it is not what it seems.

The era ends with the appearance of a new star – the incoming deceleration burn of an unknown, uncommunicative spaceship spaceship. Does it come in greeting, a threat, or a warning? Meanwhile, the successful opening of the Enceladus colony with a special dedication to your players, who bravely sacrificed themselves to preserve the fledgling settlement… or, did they? Here, at the edge of space, what has remained hidden or been reveal?

The group should consider, in a society that has everything, what happens when there is suddenly something new and scarce? What is on the ship and why did it appear? What is the relationship between the two ships and the artifact from the first era?

Next Steps

Really, none of the above are worlds. However, they are sketches that allow me to re-evaluate the types of stories I’d want to tell, the types of characters that inhabit this world, what these characters could do, and how conflict might be resolved. Meaning, virtually everything I’ve written up until this point is potentially up for a re-think.

Game Design – The World

The gameplay in an RPG is shaped by the system, which is shaped by the world. A high fantasy world doesn’t involve computer hacking, and an alternate-present sci-fi adventure doesn’t take well to magic spells (or at least needs some interesting hand-waving). Personally, I’m tired of ‘standard’ fantasy settings (think anything Tolkien or D&D inspired).

I like the idea of “Tales From The Loop,” in that it focuses on these low level stories where the players may be heroic, but they are not “heroes.” I’ll also admit to appreciating the spotless dystopia of “Mirror’s Edge.” One fantasy setting I’d like to borrow from is “The Black Company.” Not necessarily the world itself, but the principle that the powerful, the true masters of the world are best kept far away. Attracting even their benevolent attention can be dangerous.

Let’s move forward with the idea of an alternate-history sci-fi epic. It gives the opportunity to explore how society can be shaped by technology, how needs and wants change over time, and allows many opportunities for a ground-level perspective for players. To allow further flexibility, I’d like to build a system that is is era agnostic – meaning that it can support multiple settings and levels of technology, leaving it up to the group to determine the exact workings as long as they fit within the principles of the system.

More benefits to describing eras:

  • Player progression is not limited to gaining new skills. Your accomplishments, whether your character survives or not, allow you to shape the future of the world. Players are rewarded by literally shaping the future.
  • Each era will have breathing room both before and after it to allow for groups to find additional adventuring spaces – as long as the end doesn’t contradict an established fact. Or, if it does, consider the difference between an accurate and an official history.

The Principles of the World

  • People are people, whether they’re in the past or the future. Most people aren’t good OR bad. They’re scared, jealous, loving, kind, and occasionally heroic – sometimes all at the same time. 
  • Your game doesn’t NEED a villain. It does need an antagonist whose needs and wants oppose the players. No good antagonist is evil for laughs. They do good things for a bad reason, or bad things for a good reason.
  • Violence has repercussions. Short-term or long-term, whether in terms of physical harm, emotional harm, or social status… others will notice.
  • Life is long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of excitement or danger. Skip the boring stuff. If it’s not important to the characters or the story, it’s not important to the game.
  • That danger doesn’t need to be extraordinary even if the external circumstance are (to us). Conflict that happens at human scale can follow the same patterns of jealousy, fear, and the like – whether they happened 30 years ago, or will happen 300 years in the future.
  • A mystery may be revealed to the players, but the wider world may not know. If a mystery is revealed, subsequent eras will face major changes.

What isn’t UX design?

To summarize Christina Wodtke:

User Experience Design is the design of:

  • The concept or model for the system (or product) and its organization and use.
  • System behavior, including feedback.
  • How data is ordered and expressed to users.
  • How the user interacts with all of the above, whether it’s a digital, physical, or voice UI, or something else entirely.

Also, this is a terribly boring discussion. But, if a designer is going to post this in public Slack:  

Well, my brain won’t let it go and I am going to spend my afternoon obsessing over it.

The UI is part of the UX that users actually experience. The UI is literally how a buyer will experience all of the other work you’ve done, and if it’s not accessible, readable, and usable – it doesn’t matter. The UX perspective takes the constituent parts of the interface, ensures the support the concept or mental model of the product, the information architecture, and the communication loops between user and product, and make sure they work. This applies whether your UI is a smartphone screen, the smartphone itself, a musical instrument, a book, a microphone, or a table at a restaurant.

Stop acting like UI is a dirty word and build it into your UX practice. If you don’t want to do UI, go be an accessibility advocate, a product manager, a developer or any one of the dozens of other incredibly valuable roles in the creation and release of a product.

In short: Get the fuck over it. Design your experiences end-to-end, or don’t be a designer.

RPG Character Creation, Part 1

D&D is probably the best known modern RPG system, and it’s character creation system is fairly well known. Select a race and class, apply your randomly generated stats, and add the appropriate bonuses. This approach tends to lead to gaming the system for stat boosts, considering the nature of the game lies in modifying an otherwise entirely random dice roll. That’s not necessarily bad – that’s just what the game is. It’s a legacy of it’s origin as a wargame and dungeon crawler. The biggest weakness is characterization – the 2 axes of alignment (good/neutral/evil, lawful/neutral/chaotic) have existed for several versions. And, while later editions have made ‘backgrounds’ a thing, they’re still minor, barely counting as flavor text. Compare that to selecting your spells – in both the amount of time involved or in the space on the character sheet. It doesn’t stopped a determined player from writing a backstory that defines their roleplaying, but it does nothing to encourage it, either.

Shadowrun (5th edition) takes a slightly different tactic towards generation your character. It replaces random generation with the ability you select from 5 predetermined starting blocks that give you different amounts of character-building currency (money, skill points, etc) to spend. Shadowrun encourages more actions outside of combat (I think – 5E is in severe need of a V2 edit for common terms and organization) but the fact is you will spend far more time considering what your character can do than who they are and why they do those things.

The Sprawl (based on Apocalypse world)… each character has a playbook that helps your build your character – specifically, what your choices as, say, a driver say about you as a player and how they impact both your playstyle and your other choices. The basics of the system are a few attributes that every character has, and that every action (called a Move, in-game) is checked against. It encourages you at every step to not just say what move you make, but to ensure that you describe your actions, since that will allow your GM to determine not just your roll, but the potential consequences of your failure (or success).

In Tales from the Loop’s manual – the first 48 pages are devoted to world setup. Then you set up your character. You have 14 steps from selecting your type (class), setting basic attributes for gameplay, but the last 9 are literally about the details and make your character unique and their relationships to the world and other players – down to their favorite song. Each character ’type’ gives the player 3 key attributes, then asks the player to select 8 things about their character. The easiest is their name. The rest define their problems, their drives, and their key relationships with the other players and the worlds around them. Skills and attributes take a page and a half.

For a game where combat and conflict can come in many forms, both from internal and external sources, it is important that a player knows how their character would act and react to the people and situations around them. Both building your statistics (or skills) AND your character should have equal weight. The system sets limitations and provides guidelines – but players may expand beyond the framework we provide for their character. Now, the specifics of skills and attributes really is determined in large parts by the world of the game – but the basic setup should be the same.

The first action should be selecting what type of character you want to play, whether you call this a class, an archetype, or something else. This will determine quite a bit of your base stats and how you interact with the game systems. Then define who your character is – why they are that type, and what makes them unique – age, race, culture, and other details that influence both numerical modifiers and roleplaying style. You select and refine your actions (a limited selection of ways you impact the world around you) and the other strongly-defined details such as a character’s compulsion – an action that must either take place (putting the character or group at risk) or be resisted with an increased difficulty over time. Last, as a player you will determine the goal(s) you must achieve in order to level up. If our interaction system is card based, perhaps the the entire game – including character creation – could be as well. You’d have to simplify the details enough to fit comfortably on standard-sized, double sided, playing cards without requiring too much lookup in a manual (otherwise, just reference the manual for everything), but it also creates a nice way to randomize the details for a group looking for a quick setup (and prevents duplication).

I’m also considering the idea of a “change of plans” style event where, when certain conditions are met, a player may unilaterally change certain conditions of the game. This is a holdover from an idea I was considering for a heist-themed board game where players had personal goals to achieve in addition to the overarching goals, and a change-of-plans would offer one way to prevent another player from walking away with the story. In the context of an RPG, you’d need to take care to enable the right variability, and how that would impact the GM’s plans for the story. Perhaps it’s a once-per-session/story “get out of jail free” card that turns a failure into a success, but will introduce some sort of additional cost down the line.

Before I go too far, I need to design the basic world for the game so it can shape the system.

Conflict Resolution: Wrap Up

I’m not sure, right now, which conflict resolution system is better. Likely, I’ll want to do some beta testing to see what actually works best. On the surface, both options should work for their intended purposes of allowing informed, strategic decision making without being totally predictable. One unintended side effect is that individual rounds of conflict will take longer to resolve. I think that’s a good thing – if something is meaningless, don’t perform a skill check. Just let it go. And if conflict must happen, it should be impactful. Rather than 10 rounds of combat, scratching away at a monster’s hit points, increase the stakes in each round and resolve it in 3 or 4.

Up next, I want to sketch out some ideas for character creation and leveling. Character creation is something that takes forever in many RPGs, yet rarely manages any ‘characterization.’ Consider a Dungeons and Dragon’s character – the vast majority of time is spent looking up stat bonuses, spells, and weapons, and other than some very general prompts for alignment and background, you’re left on your own. Also, leveling is a problem. With the structure of the playing system, that’s been sketched thus far, this isn’t something where we can simply add numbers to modifiers. In D&D, that doesn’t matter because the modifiers for your adversaries go up. Here, the threshold is fairly static (if somewhat random). Perhaps it’s too early to determine without knowing the world of the game, but I believe it’s worth looking at other methods of rewarding continuous play.

Conflict Resolution, Part 4: Poker-ish

The other system I sketched out to use cards as the resolution mechanism is based off ‘Stud’ poker. It’s definitely not poker, but it borrows some elements of the risk/reward system. Otherwise, I still like the basic success/mixed/failure model of the last iteration, though there are tweaks that could be made.

Stealing from Poker

The part I want to steal is the ability mitigate your own risk by choosing to fold or continue as information is disclosed. Each player will have a hand of 5 cards, playing 1 face up, then 2 face down. The GM will play all cards from the top of the deck – there’s no GM ‘hand.’ Face cards are worth 10 and aces are worth eleven.

Initiation

When multiple players want to act simultaneously, each will simultaneously play one card face-up. Like with my blackjack-based proposal, the highest-valued card goes first. If the values are tied, a new card is drawn and the cycle repeats until on player has a higher value card. The player draws enough cards to bring their hand back up to 5 cards.

Resolution

The player plays 1 card face up, and 2 face down from their hand. The GM does the same from the deck. At this point the player may choose to fold, earning a minor failure. Assuming the player wishes to continue, another player may opt to intervene at this point. The description of that is below. The player and DM flip the first face-down card. The player may again choose to fold, earning a minor failure. If the player wishes to continue, the second face-down card is flipped. The total value of the cards is calculated for both the player and the GM, unless a 3-of-a-kind exists. A pair adds 5 to the value of your hand. A modifier can add a small value (+1 or 2) to your hand value, but does nothing for pairs or three of a kind.

An intervention

A player intervenes when they want to help or hinder another player’s action. Each player can intervene once per round, and action may only see one player intervene. To intervene, this player (the intervener) will announce their intention after the original player and the GM play their cards, but before any face-down cards are revealed. The intervener will discard 1 card from their hand, then replace anyone ONE card in play, face up or face down, with a card from their hand at some point before the resolution end of the hand. The intervener MUST replace one card.

Impact

So, while the actual impact to the characters would change based on the final word and game systems, we can break it down into 3 sections.

Full success

  • Player gets what they want, and then some
  • Player has three of a kind (GM does not have 3 of a kind)
  • Player wins by 5 or more/li>

Partial success

  • Player what they want, with some drawback
  • Player and GM both have 3 of a kind (actual cards irrelevant)
  • The total value of the player’s hand is greater by less than 5, or equal to that of the GM

Minor failure

  • Player MAY get what they want (GM discretion – for the easiest of tasks), but must give up something in return
  • The player folds after playing their face up card
  • The player folds after revealing they first face-down card

Failure

  • Player MAY get what they want (GM discretion – for the easiest of tasks), but will suffer serious consequences.
  • The GM has 3 of a kind, and the player does not
  • The total value of the GM’s hand is greater than the value of the player’s hand

Assuming a group is playing with a single deck of cards, all cards would be collected after a round, shuffled, and dealt.

Conflict Resolution, Part 3: Blackjack

Let’s revisit the parts of our system.

  1. First, we set the initiative – the order of play (if it can’t be determined purely by storytelling).
  2. Next, we resolve the action – determining the outcome and judging if there’s any modifier at play from character based skill or another player helping (or hindering). Ideally the player can mitigate luck with strategy, while the DM’s play is fairly straightforward.
  3. Last, we determine the impact. The player may be successful, fail, or be somewhere in between. A player may have a limited ability to improve their results after the fact. I won’t define the effects here – they come from the part of the actions and world, and should vary widely enough to provide sufficient options for most situations.

Modified Blackjack

We’ll borrow the core mechanics and rules from Blackjack (face cards are worth 10, aces are worth 1 or 11, dealer stands on soft 17), and remove some of the higher risk features such as double-down, splits, and insurance. In a casino, you’re generally playing with multiple decks – at least 4, from what I’ve seen. While that’s an option here, these rules should work with one standard 52 card deck.

Initiation

Normally, one player is acting against the GM (representing the environment or the recipient of the action) at a time. However, if multiple players are attempting to act simultaneously (but independently) against the same ‘target,’ each player will be dealt 2 cards face-down. Each player will select one card, and flip it simultaneously. The highest card will go first. If the players tie, a new card will be dealt to each player. This will repeat until one player has a higher value card. If the order of actions does not matter (such as every player examines their surrounds, play can proceed clockwise, counterclockwise, or whatever consistent, uniform direction the GM prefers.

When the order of action is resolved, each player will flip their remaining card face up. The dealer will receive 1 card, face up. All players will receive another card, face up, and the GM will receive a card face down.

Instead of taking an action, one player may assist (or hinder) another player by stating their intention to do so before any cards are dealt. This player will go after the player they’re assisting, without bidding for initiative. They will also receive 2 cards face up. Only 1 player may assist at a time.

Resolution

At this point, each player should have 2 cards, face-up.

Any player with a natural 21 from their first two cards (blackjack) will have an automatic full success, regardless and assistance or hindrance from other players.

If the GM has a natural 21, any players without a blackjack automatically fail.

If both the player(s) and the GM have a natural 21, the outcome is a mixed success.

In the case where neither the player nor the GM have a natural 21, play continues similar to blackjack. The player may hit (take additional cards, one at a time) until they choose to stop. If they exceed a total of 21, they bust, and will fail. Each player follows in initiative order.

Players may have skill modifiers as a part of their character that allow them to add or subtract 1 or 2 from their card total. This will not give them a blackjack, but will allow them to reach a higher total, or prevent a bust and lowering their total hand (or, if one player is attempting to hinder another, lower their total, or make them bust.

A player who is assisting or hindering another player adds or subtracts a modifier in the case of success (1 if a partial success, 2 if a full success) from the acting player’s total.

Once ALL players are done, the DM will reveal their cards, drawing until they meet or exceed a 17 (the GM should stand on a soft 17, or ace + 6). If the dealer busts, it is an automatic full success for all players who did not bust.

Impact

So, while the actual impact to the characters would change based on the final word and game systems, we can break it down into 3 sections.

Full success

  • Player gets what they want, and then some
  • The player gets a blackjack, and the GM does not
  • The player wins with 20 or 21
  • The dealer busts

Partial success

  • Player what they want, with some drawback
  • Both the player and GM get a blackjack
  • The player wins with less than 20

Neutral

  • The player MAY CHOOSE to get what they want, but must give up something in return.
  • The player and GM tie (other than both receive a blackjack)

Failure

  • Player MAY get what they want (GM discretion – for the easiest of tasks) but will suffer an unexpected consequence.
  • Player loses to the GM
  • Player busts

After a full cycle of play is complete, all cards are discarded and reshuffled (for a single deck). Multiple decks can go until the cards run out.

Conflict resolution, Part 2: Randomness

First, go watch White, Brown, and Pink: The Flavors of Tabletop Game Randomness from GDC 2018. I’ll summarize a few points below, but in far less detail than that video.

In designing games, a degree of uncertainty is essential. – Greg Costikyan, “Uncertainty in Games” (2013)

According to the video, there are 4 main types of uncertainty you encounter in games:

  1. Hidden info: Obscuring a hand of cards
  2. Performance & skill: Most sports
  3. Opponent uncertainty: You don’t know exactly what your opponent will do
  4. Randomization: Dice, spinners, and the like

For RPGs, you tend to see a bit of all 4, though “performance and skill” is often minimized by game systems. It doesn’t matter how good your skill is – the dice roll is all that matters. And this might be a fair representation of the fact that the massively interconnected and, practically speaking, random world we live in tends to wreck the best laid plans. For the system I envision, I’d rather see skill (as both roll-playing skill and strategy) have a stronger effect on the outcome than just flavor, and actually reduce opponent uncertainty. The costs of failure will be clear, and you’ll be able to see the impact coming from a mile away if you fail badly enough.

Let’s talk about randomization. Every time you need to resolve a conflict, you will parse the game state, decide what action to take, and see the results of your actions. In a game, you can explicitly support randomizing the game state by randomizing the starting map or the available items to select (cards in Dominion, tiles in Azul, among many others). Randomizing the input of a player’s actions allows for a high level of strategy and self-determination. Contrast that with result/output randomization: If everything is based on a pure dice roll, it’s down to luck – not strategy or skill – leading to frustration.

Randomness also matters for correlation: As events happen over time, do they say anything about the other? True randomness, aka white noise, is totally unpredictable. This is rolling a 20-sided die to see if you succeed. Each roll has a 1 in 20 chance of hitting a number, and that has no impact on the next roll. This leads to players powergaming and exploiting loophole in, I believe, an attempt to mitigate a system that is completely random.

Interestingly, “white noise” is often a bad UX outside of games. Consider a music player set to shuffle. A true random selection could play the same some 10 times in a row. Instead, a good music player avoids the same song. A great music player gives the option of not even playing the same artist next. Another implementation is red (Brownian) noise: the individual variation from one to the next is small, but random. The range of outcomes in the short term is very predictable, but over time you can have a very high variation.

Most interesting, and according to the video often pleasing to people is pink noise: a high chance of small change with a small chance of big change. It allows players to plan actions with reasonable confidence, but never guarantees success. Rolling multiple dice (taking either the total or the difference), or card distribution.

To catch up, I wanted to design a conflict resolution system that allows for uncertainty without white noise randmization. What games include all four pillars of uncertainty, and pink-noise randomization? Casino games. Poker and blackjack, specifically.