Resolution Systems

Last night Doug ran a great one-shot introduction to the Burning Wheel system. Aside from his good work as a GM we had a wonderful, mature bunch of players that really got into playing their roles, using accents, gestures, and movements to embody their characters. Fun was had all around.

Through a very simple storyline with archetypal Middle-Earth characters Doug introduced us to the major mechanics of the game – Artha, Combat Scripting and a Duel of Wits. All in all, I’m pretty impressed with Burning Wheel. It plays more exciting than it seems and it lends itself very well to storytelling. There are some glitches I would want to patch with house rules and it does lean toward the gritty side rather than the heroic side (which is normally my preference), but it’s a very clever and fun little game.

What my interactions with Burning Wheel and a few other Indie RPG’s out there have led me to reflect on is the nature of what I’m calling “Resolution Systems” in an RPG. Resolution Systems are what make a roleplaying game a game. They are the mechanics which everyone goes through in order to determine whether the actions being taken resolve themselves favorably or unfavorably (and for whom). It is popular for Resolution Systems to involve dice in some manner, though there are also diceless games and games which use cards, or coins or other methods. The main requirement for a Resolution System is that it follow some basic rules known to all the players which in some fashion restrict the possible outcomes of a situation.

Resolution Systems are good. Even live-action games use basic Resolution Systems. I stress, without a Resolution System a game is simply not a game – it is something else, possibly something fun, but not really a game. One reason gamers like myself play is we like the intellectual/puzzle-solving aspect of attempting to operate within the parameters of the Resolution System provided in order to come out with the best possible result. For this to be effective and fun the Resolution System needs to do a few things:

  1. It needs to be limiting in the right degree. Systems that are too restrictive railroad players into predetermined results removing all suspense. Systems that are too loose do not permit sufficient predictability for the players to have confidence that their actions matter.
  2. It needs to be relatively unobtrusive. Different players like different levels of complexity in the rules, but ultimately the Resolution System is a means to an end, not an end in itself, so it should be simple enough to keep the game moving.
  3. It needs to be fair. The players need to have confidence that the system isn’t rigged against them, and that they can actually achieve success by playing within the rules.

Those are sort of the bare minimum things the Resolution System needs to do, however, what the Indie RPG designers are demonstrating is that a Resolution System can do more than this. Indeed, it could be argued that a Resolution System isn’t fully developed unless it takes into account these other factors:

  1. Theme. If possible a Resolution System should fit within or even help establish the theme of the game. Using a poker bidding system in a game about Riverboat Gamblers is an example.
  2. Simulation. What types of situations do you envision this system resolving? The Resolution System should be flexible enough to effectively simulate the situations you intend with the degree of accuracy you desire.
  3. Rewards. Since your players will be rewarded with success when they play the system correctly you should think about what types of behaviors you want to reward and plan the system accordingly. If you reward players for killing monsters the game will be mostly about hunting and fighting monsters.

The Duel of Wits from Burning Wheel is a great example of a Resolution System that takes these latter 3 things into account. The theme of Burning Wheel is very Tolkeinian and one feature of this style of fantasy is the confrontation with an opponent in a public arena where credibility is on the line. The Duel of Wits helps establish the overall theme of Burning Wheel by providing a means for players to simulate scenes like the confrontation with Wormtongue. This answers the question of what it is intended to simulate, which is does effectively through the simple mechanic of having each side begin with a “body of argument” that is the target of their opponent. The side which has their body of argument demolished first loses. Victory means that you may demand the losers meet certain conditions you established at the beginning of the duel. Because achieving victory requires the players to take actions like “incite”, “accuse”, “discredit”, “rebut”, “obfuscate”, and “avoid” the players are rewarded for clever argumentative roleplaying. This Resolution System accomplishes exactly what it sets out to in a very neat way.

In a few days I will talk about how I think the Duel of Wits mechanics could be used as an interesting model for various Resolution Systems.

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