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Steal This Idea

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.

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.

While this doesn’t directly effect the conflict resolution system itself, one thing I’d like to come out of this game design is a game that can tell a story in a single session, with minimal prep – or carry itself over a multiple sessions. Yes, you can run a pre-generated one-shot adventure in Dungeons and Dragons, and most other RPGs, but that’s really an open-the-box-and-go experience. Even a premade adventure takes a significant amount of time for the GM, and new or lapsed players will spend half the session trying to figure out what, exactly, they can do.

With this in mind, I’m setting up a few scenarios to evaluate ideas against.

First, we have the Randoms. This is a group of friends who play games regularly but do not generally engage with RPGs, as they’re seen to take too much time and prep work. This group does, however, play Legacy games as a semi-stable group. They’re able to complete a game (or two) in a given session, with occurs once every month or two. There may not be a permanent GM with this group. This is a younger group, a relatively diverse as far as race, gender, and socio-economic backgrounds.

Second, we have the Dungeoneers. In one form or another, they’ve played RPGs, possibly going back decades, in various groups. Now older, this group has coalesced from their current social circumstances. They’re a regular group, generally playing one game at a time, with one GM, until the story completes. They’re past ‘power leveling’ as a way to mark achievements, but appreciate progression as a marking of progress at some lecvel. This group is probably far more homogenous than the Randoms.

Third, we have the Streamers. This is a group that plays every week on a fixed schedule, with fixed roles, and is invested in the creation of a story and a world as a long-form piece. I call this group the streamers after groups like RollPlay, Critical Role, Dice Camera Action, or Acquisitions Incorporated: C Team. These players are into the characters and story above all else.

One group I’m not considering are the hard-core dice rollers – the power levelers, min-maxers, and spreadsheet gamers for whom combat is the primary activity, and stories are an excuse for violence. Without meaning much judgement, whether you’re a wargamer or an old-school RPG player, you’re well covered.

The simple fact is, once the setting has been laid and the characters created, 90% of an RPG session is spent resolving conflict in one form or another.

Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and its various hacks/remixes have an interesting take on this. Yes, it’s a dice-based game (you roll 2 6-sided die), but the resolution explicitly allows for a mixed success. If you roll 10 or higher, you have a “full success” and have only positive outcomes. A total of 7-9 indicates a mixed success – you have a positive outcome, balanced by a negative. Rolling less than 7 means you fail. That does not mean your action actually fails – if you’re performing a skill check on something that is so easily accomplished as to make a roll nearly meaningless (such as opening a door), you may complete your action – but will face significant repurcussions (such as: you break the door so that it cannot be closed, you are spotted or are so loud you attract attention, you open the door to reveal a waiting guard, etc.) You don’t forget how to turn a doorknob.

It’s this range of success to failure, with the ability to decide your outcomes that makes this system so interesting to me.

So, to modify yesterday’s list a bit:

Users/players: One Game Master + multiple players (target will be 3-4 non-GM players). Some players may not be at the same physical table.

Actions: Actions that bring conflict may be Combat, Skilled Action, or Role-play

Conflict: Player vs GM, Player vs Player, and Player vs Environment. The basic steps of any conflict are:

  1. Initiation
  2. Resolution
  3. Impact

Possible impacts:

  1. Full success
  2. Mixed success
  3. Failure
  4. The repercussions of success and failure follow logic, and roughly outlined (to allow for flexibility for the sake of gameplay and drama).

The difficult of an action will be impacted by a character’s skill level, whether a player-character or NPC. There will also be generic levels of difficulty for non-character-conflict tasks.

Some actions may be near-simultaneously, so we must have the equivalent of an “initiative system”, which allows for clear decisions on what action/player gets priority.

Goals:

  • Resolution should allow for some degree of strategy for both the current action and future actions.
  • Players should have significant freedom in strategy. The GM system should be predictable, but all for unexpected outcomes
  • Random chance is not eliminated, but the risk should be estimable.
  • A truly simple action should be easily achievable. A risky one should be “high stakes.”

Imagine, for a moment, you’re an adventurer, creeping down a hallway towards a treasure just out of reach. Or, imagine you’re defending the last remnants of humanity from an alien onslaught. The only thing in the way is you and your BFG-401K. Perhaps you’re a hacker, preparing to reveal the misdeeds of a corporation who has been slowly poisoning its customers.

In a video game, your skill comes into play. Whatever the situation, you choose your action in the split second – should you attempt a headshot, or aim for the body? You inch as far away as possible from the sleeping dragon and slow your movement. What transpires is, generally, a measurement of your skill and ability to navigate risk. Statistical variables may come into play, but the modern theory of ‘good gameplay’ puts large pieces of the success or failure on the player. Randomness exists, but for flavor and variety.

Contrast this to Dungeons and dragons and other dice-based tabletop RPGs. You roll a certain type and number of dice. You add or subtract a modifier. Your success or failure rests on picking a skill with a high modifier, and hoping you meet the target number. There’s no skill or strategy to this. There’s less ‘game’ here than in a game of craps.

Further impacting the game, a success or failure in one roll has nothing to do with the success or failure of the next. Perhaps a skilled game master will change the difficulty of the next roll (by raising or lowering the target) based on your roll, but the roll for the next action is not materially impacted by the first action – a 20-sided die has a 5% chance of landing on any particular number, no matter what. It’s the bad sort of random. Any tweaks to this system happen because a person wills it so, not because the system accounts for it.

Now, let’s be honest that no one will actually be aiming a plasma rifle during a tabletop RPG, and that these games scratch a far different itch for gamers. But within a setting that is mostly, if not entirely, theatre-of-the-mind, what if we developed a system for interacting with the world in a way that better enabled player strategy and choice, while still allowing for randomness and the excitement of the unknown.

Consider poker, blackjack, and other card games. You can build a strategy, and choose what, when, and how to play your cards. You may have terrible luck, or great luck, with your draws. But you can work within those cards to best your opponent, whether it’s the house or another player. Once those cards are played, they’re done, at least until the deck is recycled.

So, I’m going to attempt something entirely mad: Creating an RPG, using card game mechanics. I’ll definitely explore blackjack as a base, but I will also look at creating a system which borrows elements from various poker elements and other games. I’m going to start with the basic system for player interaction, and then build a world, character generation, and game systems from there – publishing as I go.

Here’s what I have so far:

Users/players: One Game Master + multiple players (target will be 3-4 non-GM players). Some players may not be at the same physical table.

Conflict: Player vs GM, Player vs Player, and Player vs Environment. The basic steps of any conflict are:

  1. Initiation
  2. Resolution
  3. Impact

Actions that bring conflict may be Combat, Skilled Action, or Role-play

The difficult of an action will be impacted by a character’s skill level, whether a player-character or NPC. There will also be generic levels of difficulty for non-character-conflict tasks.

Some actions may be near-simultaneously, so we must have the equivalent of an “initiative system”, which allows for clear decisions on what action/player gets priority.

Goals:

  • Resolution should allow for some degree of strategy for both the current action and future actions.
  • Players should have significant freedom in strategy. The GM system should be predictable, but all for unexpected outcomes
  • Random chance is not eliminated, but the risk should be estimable.
  • A truly simple action should be easily achievable. A risky one should be “high stakes.”

My goal is, over the next few weeks, to settle on details of this and find a way to move this from an abstract system to a game.