Ability Frequency vs Payoff

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I’ve been thinking about an issue in game design, and in running games. The issue is the relationship between the frequency with which a player uses an ability and the amount of “payoff”, or impact on the fiction, that the ability provides. For this consideration, an ability might be an ability score, or proficiency, or skill, or move – whichever things a character has to influence the fiction directly. Whatever point of contact there is between the character sheet and the shared imaginary space.

I’m going to use 5th Edition D&D as one example, but I think this line of reasoning is important for any game, whether one you’re designing, or hacking, or running.

High and Low Frequency

When I talk about high frequency, what I mean is those abilities that get rolled or used often. A good example from many games is the perception skill, or whatever the equivalent is (perception, awareness, alertness, notice, listen/spot, etc.). I wrote about perception previously, and I won’t go over any of that here. The point is, simply, that some abilities get used significantly more than others in a given game. After a while, experienced players figure out what those abilities are, and often give every character at least a little bit of capability there. Perception rolls can be called for in every scene, to detect monsters or notice NPCs or find clues. These rolls can also provide a road-block to the game when the clue isn’t found.

Lower frequency abilities often include lore-related abilities. In D&D, knowledge skills are generally only used for two things: answering questions about the setting and background, which may or may not have any impact on the game, and giving the character knowledge about  monsters that the player knows from the Monster Manual. Other abilities are aimed only at rogues, or in the case of performance, only at bards. These can be low frequency abilities, because only one class will generally be rolling them – though sometimes that class will roll them a lot.

I imagine, in an average D&D 5E game, there could easily be 10 or more Wisdom (Perception) checks rolled, 2 or 3 Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Stealth) checks rolled, 1 Intelligence (Religion or Arcana) check rolled, and zero Charisma (Performance) checks. Each of these abilities, though, costs one proficiency pick at character creation. In terms of character generation, they have the same weight, but in play, they have drastically different weights.

High and Low Payoff

I’m comparing abilities by frequency and also by payoff – by what the ability gets you. Charisma (Performance) is another example of a low-payoff ability. If you use it, you might get a small amount of money or briefly entertain a crowd. Importantly, it doesn’t help you do anything central to any edition of D&D – explore set pieces and fight monsters. By contrast, Strength (Athletics) lets you do things that are central to D&D, like climbing and swimming – things that actually let you navigate a dungeon or outdoor setting. Dexterity (Stealth) lets you avoid combat when you want to, or set an ambush, or gain an advantage in combat. And we’ve already talked about Wisdom (Perception).

Some abilities are high frequency and high payoff, like perception abilities in many games, while other abilities are low frequency and low payoff, like performance or artistic abilities in most games. Other abilities lie somewhere in the middle. I don’t necessarily want to go through an inventory here, just put forward this way of understanding abilities in games and game design.

Frequency and Payoff in Running Games

When running a game, it’s good to keep in mind what abilities your players have invested in, and to make sure that all of them come up in the game at some point. You can also give insight when planning a game, which abilities will come up most often. For an urban campaign, maybe investing in Wisdom (Survival) won’t be all that useful, but Intelligence (Investigation) could come up frequently. In a game that will focus on cults and the undead, Intelligence (Religion) might come up a lot more often.

Some payoff can be in the fiction itself. For the example of performance or artistic abilities, which tend to be low frequency and low payoff, you can have a higher payoff in the fiction. The crowd can go wild, and the character can gain new fans. Maybe they get to stay in the inn for free whenever they’re in town. Later, when they want a hireling to come with them, they get one that is extra competent, or cheaper, or at least really loyal and enthusiastic. For a more concrete payoff, maybe there is a noblewoman in the audience who decides to become the character’s patron, paying her will to perform when not adventuring.

In the example of a knowledge skill, instead of giving basic Monster Manual information on a creature, perhaps each creature could have a particular weakness, or condition that the characters can exploit in conflict. Something like T-Rex in Jurassic Park supposedly not being able to see things that aren’t moving.

Frequency and Payoff in Game Design

Ideally, the frequency and payoff of abilities in game design should balance out. Low frequency should correspond to high payoff, and high frequency with low payoff. I think that this option is more interesting than having abilities be low frequency and low payoff (why have them all). High frequency and high payoff  would work well, though it might at some point become monotonous to have every ability have a huge impact every time.

The key to figuring out both frequency and payoff is playtesting. You’ll see how players use various abilities, and how much the enjoy the payoff you’ve designed in to them. You can not how often the abilities are used, and then when revising, tune the payoff up or down, or perhaps redesign the abilities so that they come up more or less frequently.

What are your thoughts about frequency and payoff in the games you design, play and run? 

Don’t Roll Perception


I’m really enjoying the One Shot podcast, which, if you don’t know, is an actual play RPG podcast that records one-off scenarios with a wide variety of games. If nothing else, it’s really helpful to have entertaining people play through a game session using a system I’m curious about. Their one-shot of Tenra Bansho Zero was so good it convinced me to buy the PDF, actually.

I’m listening to their backlog, and recently was listening to their Rogue Trader one-shot, as I’m curious about the setting and the system. I was also kind of interested in how this group would approach a setting like Warhammer 40k, since I hadn’t seen any other grim-dark games on their feed and thought it would be out of character for them, so to speak.

It wasn’t very far into the game until, for the first of many times, the players started getting frustrated with perception checks they were called upon to roll. The frustration got to be enough that some of the responses were even a little passive-aggressive, and it’s the kind of thing I’ve seen before in games: players frustrated that they have to roll to see things their characters are looking at. At one point, the GM sort of told them that because it is a tabletop RPG, they just have to make perception rolls. That’s how games are, after all. And most of the time, that’s true.

This is easy to avoid, though, even in games that are designed to call for ongoing perception rolls. Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about times when you are rolling to find a hidden trap, or rolling to target an invisible enemy in combat. Rather, these are just the knee-jerk perception checks that GMs and DMs so often call for. Roll to see whether you see anything.

Don’t do that. Instead, what I’d recommend, and what I try to do in my own games, is to just tell the players the interesting things they see. If they take time looking, they automatically find the clue, or the stowaway, or whatever, because that is the interesting result. These are, presumably, highly competent and skilled adventurers. Even a level 1 D&D character is tougher and more competent than a level 1 NPC.

Rather, call for a perception-style check when there is something secret but non-necessary to the story – some extra treasure, or a clue that would let the PCs skip the next dangerous trap, etc. In brief, passing the perception check should give the PC an advantage or a bonus, and not just let them continue in the story or notice something that’s readily apparent. And when you do call for a perception check, I’d make it clear what’s going on. “There’s a secret here – roll to see if your character finds it.”

(I know I am far from the first person to propose this, but it’s a house rule that I think makes sense in every game, including ones that are not written to include it.)

I think that the passive perception/insight score in D&D 4E and 5E is a great thing for this reason. Instead of calling for constant perception rolls, your perception is like a passive defense that protects you from being ambushed or lied to.

Same With Knowledge Rolls

Yeah, don’t do these either. Tell the player the interesting thing about your setting, or the snippet of ancient lore that adds color to the world. Only call for knowledge rolls when a success would give the PC a distinct advantage: reveal a weakness in a foe, for example, or recommend a solution to a puzzle. If a character is trained, or the equivalent, in a given knowledge skill, just tell them things pertinent to that knowledge when they come up. It’s never interesting not to know something. Then, whenever you do call for a knowledge roll, the player knows that this is a chance for their knowledgeable character to shine, granting themselves and possibly the party some real advantage that might save their lives.



Image credit: http://www.annett-bank.co.uk/feng-shui-intro (currently unavailable)

A couple years ago I got the crazy idea to rewrite the Dragonlance War of the Lance saga. I loved the stories, but returning to them as an adult, some things in them stand out as…better than others. But the stories remained stuck in my mind, and I chewed over this idea for a few months, off and on.

What I came to was a complete re-imagining of the saga, and the things I thought were cool about it. The return of the true gods; dragons; love triangles. (Spoiler alert.) But looking into Krynn as a setting, it also has its weak points. Ansalon is a continent smaller than Texas, with ice in the south and jungles in the north. There are no fewer than three comic-relief races: the kender, tinker gnomes and gully dwarves. Those were just things I didn’t want to rework.

I ended up creating a mish-mash medieval Asian fantasy setting, in the way that Krynn is a mish-mash medieval European setting. I wanted to get away from the Japan-fetishism that is totally not part of a lot of “…of the East” books for various games. What I came up with was Dragonblade!. And yes, the exclamation is part of it.

Right now I’m working on a 5th Edition D&D campaign based in the Dragonblade! setting. The story will arise out of choices the players make, but it will involve the return of some gods, dragons, and there is already one love triangle. I got rid of the comic-relief races, and the world will be appropriately big.

This is the Obsidian Portal page for the campaign. I hope that running this campaign will force me to flesh out the world more.

Running Evil NPCs


I am currently running a local group through Pathfinder’s Reign of Winter adventure path. In the most recent session, the PCs (who are mostly good-aligned) ended up taking two prisoners at the end of a big combat, as they do when their opponents surrender. Both of these NPCs who surrendered were listed as Neutral Evil in alignment, but neither one had a reason to fight to the death when the battle was already lost.

One of the NPCs was a human female soldier, a commanding officer, but not philosophically committed to evil. Just naturally selfish and maybe more violent than most. The other was a supernatural fey creature who was evil by nature, corrupted by dark witchcraft. In both cases, the PCs entered into negotiations with them, and were very reasonable. They even let the sergeant leave with her “loot” from her bedroom, rather than taking it.

As a result, the PCs got some quality information, especially from the supernaturally evil fey, because she wasn’t bought in to any particular cause, and was thankful for not being killed with cold iron. In both cases, though, they were kind of moved by the mercy shown, and in the case of the sergeant, I imagine her heading home with her possessions and life intact and really thinking about her life, maybe even making another decision. (In fact, she’s likely to come back later as a character working toward reformation).

The point I’m getting at with this little gaming story is that, given how alignment leads to so much misunderstanding and internet flame-wars (and memes, as above) it’s good to be flexible and responsive. It’s even good to reward “good” behavior in reasonable ways. Just because it says “NE” or even “LE” or “CE” on a character sheet doesn’t mean the person in question is always doing evil things, or will die in order to do evil, or will refuse to surrender, or is always lying and selfish.

Not only that, but these little moments of mercy are the kinds of moments that actually do change people for the better, sometimes, in the same way that one horribly cruel and painful event can change someone for the worse (again, arguably, see above).  If nothing else, it gives “good” PCs in a D&D-style game to be something other than cookie-cutter moralists or, more often, just people who ignore alignment almost all of the time. Even if their mercy is not returned, or if they are taken advantage of, it just pushes them to another important choice – how do they respond?

We Are Old

So, the plan was to have a nice long marathon game session, 8 hours or so, to finish out the GURPS Midnight campaign that we’ve been playing for well over a year now.

We made it for two and a half hours before everyone was in my living room, draped over the couch on on the recliner.  We mumbled about maybe making some coffee or going for a walk,and then gave up and called it a day. Luckily we will play tomorrow as well, and hopefully actually finish.  As the person running the game, I’ll be really disappointed if we don’t.

One of my friends made the point, and it’s true – we’re old now.  (All of us are in our 30s).  We can’t even game for a whole day anymore (honestly, I could have, but my love for gaming is well over into obsessive territory sometimes).

It’s true, though.  Ten years ago we were doing things like gaming for an entire weekend in the attic of our dorm, breaking only for maybe one sleep and a few meals consisting of pizza and Mountain Dew.  We were tired by Sunday afternoon, but dammit, we did it.  Orcs were slain. Elders were diablerized.  Quests were quested and hope was restored to the world.

Not anymore.

This makes me sad.  I know I’m supposed to be a grownup.  I have a baby now and everything.  But screw that – I want to game.  Except that I, and all of my friends, are aging.

GURPS: Midnight Grand Finale

Given unforeseen changes in my situation and a new job opportunity for one of my players, I’m planning on having a grand finale this coming weekend for my GURPS: Midnight campaign.  It’s been a fun campaign, I think, where I’ve tried a number of new things.  It has survived not one but two holiday seasons, which might be unprecedented for long-term games I’ve run.
I had planned to have about 5 more 4-hour sessions to finish the game up, and I’ll be collapsing that down into one 8-hour session with a break in the middle.  Essentially, I’ll be trimming any fat that I can find, and bringing things to a climax sooner than I’d thought.
As far as the story goes, the PCs have been kicking ass all over Baden’s Bluff.  They’ve managed to kill the head of a powerful smithing family, the Prince of the city, the High Legate, and a PC infiltrator nearly took over the Temple of Shadow, only barely being ousted by the NPC who is the new High Legate.  Another trio of PCs working together killed a colossal undead wyvern that had been plaguing the city since the very first session – written up as a 400pt monster using GURPS rules.  The PCs are now about 250pt characters, but still, they had a cool plan, took absurd chances, and my wife’s character got to ride on the re-dying undead wyvern’s back as it crashed into the city’s governmental center.
In some ways, it’s going to be hard to follow that kind of stuff up.  Fortunately, I have one more evil NPC to throw at them, and he’s the worst threat they’ve faced yet.
In the Midnight setting, Eredane, there is only one god, Izrador, the Shadow, who rules everything through his minions and Orc hordes and enslaved Dragons and so on.  His four most powerful lieutenants are the Night Kings (like Nazgul if Sauron had gotten a hold of the ring).  One of them, Sunulael, the Priest of Shadow, has gotten word of how well the resistance is doing in Baden’s Bluff, and he will be making a personal appearance there to straighten things out.
On the GURPS scale, he is a 500pt character, using the 4th Edition rules – firmly in demigod range.  The PCs are slated to be about 300pt characters by the end of the game, rising from 100pt to 200pt characters, and then having another 100pts of abilities from their Heroic Paths.  At first I wrote up Sunulael as a character just out of curiosity – what could I do, within reason, with 500pts?  Since I am adapting a D20 setting, I was looking at an ECL 32 monster in the setting sourcebook and trying to translate him into more limited GURPS terms.  Now, it turns out, I have reason to use him, since all the things the PCs have accomplished would absolutely draw his attention, and ire.
In a world run by evil, heroes are punished for success.
The PCs had a meeting with other resistance leadership (all but one of which they have overshadowed pretty thoroughly), and they ended up making the case for overthrowing the Shadow in their city and then working to inspire resistance in other places around the world.  That was one option, the other being to drastically strengthen their position in the city but continue working in secret, training and equipping resistance movements in other cities.  My players, though, they like drama.  And, honestly, this is the more fun option.
I haven’t planned for an 8 hour session since college, and even then not very often.  It’ll be interesting, and I want to cram the time with as much awesome as I can fit in there.  That being said, characters in GURPS are fragile things, and this Big Bad is very, very big.  Should be interesting.

My First Time Running The One Ring

Last night I got to run my first session of The One Ring for the group I usually play Savage Worlds with.  None of them had played before, but one of the players had bought a PDF of the Adventurer’s book (the game includes an Adventurer’s book and a Loremaster’s book) and had made a character for himself and his son.
There were only three players, so I added a Loremaster character to give them a solid 4 in their party.  They started out in Dale, and I sort of let them organically check out what interested them, and one of the characters gravitated toward a Hobbit I had created before-hand (I came with 6 pre-generated characters, though only one was used) and he ultimately became their fourth.
The party consisted of a Dwarven Treasure-hunter, an Elven Scholar, and a Woodman Warden.  Their fourth, Wiseman Took, was a young Hobbit Wanderer.
I basically ran the introductory adventure in the back of the Loremaster’s book – The Marsh Bell, which centers around tracking down and then rescuing Balin and Ori (yes, that Balin and that Ori) who were waylaid on their way to invite the King of the Eagles to send a delegation to Dale on the five-year anniversary of the Battle of Five Armies.  I don’t normally use published adventures, but I have a sick baby and as a result much less time to plan than I usually have.
The opening bit was all just improvised with the player-characters exploring Dale and making a few basic dice-rolls.  The Dwarf Treasure-hunter ended up checking out the Toy-Market with Wiseman Took.  The Elf Scholar visited the Ravensgate District seeking a library, curious about what passes for history and lore among mortals.  He met a well-to-do retired guardsman who had spent his reward for standing with Bard to fight Smaug on a big new house and on recovering scrolls and books from the ruins of Dale.  The Woodsman Warden got pulled into an archery competition with some of the King’s Guards, and won.  As a result, many of the guards who made money betting on him to win took him out for a bender.
After a scene in the court of King Bard when the PCs all meet each other, they went right into The Marsh Bell adventure, pretty much as written.  We got about halfway through, and should complete it next session.
Since this is my first time running The One Ring, and I never really understand a system until I run it a few times no matter how much I read it, during the course of the session I was doing a lot of referring back to the books.  I tried not to let it bog down the game too much, and for the most part things kept moving.  There were a couple water breaks while I searched for one rule or another.
I’d love if the index in the back of each book was rewritten.  It’s kind of like the Yellow Pages back in the old days – nothing is under the heading I’d think it was under.
That being said, I don’t think the session was bogged down, and considering I only did about 5 hours of preparation for a 3 hour game, including creating 6 characters for it, it was a lot smoother than most games would be.  Trying to run D&D or GURPS, Burning Wheel or Dresden Files for the first time under those conditions would be a nightmare.  With The One Ring, it was very possible.
I personally like the system a lot.  I like the simple dice mechanic, the easy cues for when good or bad things should happen (there is an Eye of Sauron and a G-rune for Gandalf on the Feat die, a d12 that is used for every roll).  It’s easy and intuitive to see when you have a great or extraordinary success, especially with the custom dice that come with the game, but the custom dice themselves are still very simple.  I’m a big fan of the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or the tactical board game Descent, but the custom dice with new symbols can present a bit of a learning-curve.
The only thing that threw the players off is when some of the cues for good things came up but they still failed the roll.  This wasn’t a big deal, but was a bit of a mixed message.  Otherwise, they seemed to perform pretty well for new characters – a squad of four Orcs were dispatched without a ton of trouble, but still had a couple of them scared.  They still felt relatively heroic when doing things they were very good at (the Scholar using Lore, the Warden using Hunting, and so on).
My main wish is that they had extra sets of the custom dice – they aren’t necessary, but they’re cool and quicker to use, but the one that comes with your boxed set is all you can get for now.
I am a huge Tolkien fan, and I like this game a lot.  I can see a ton of research and care that went into the game text, the trait choices, the words used to describe things and so on.  The books are replete with quotes and references to passages from the books, and I love it.
There are aspects of the game we haven’t gotten to yet – Corruption for example, and advancement, but from reading them I think they will continue to be interesting and fun.  I especially want to see how Corruption works – I can absolutely see how that system in particular was inspired by characters like the Master of Lake-Town, Thorin Oakenshield once Smaug is dead, Denethor and even Smeagol/Gollum.  Love it.
Next Time
I’m going to give the characters some Shadow and see what happens.  They’re all afraid to spend their Hope, partly for that reason, so I doubt we’ll see any significant incident, but I’m curious what the impact will be of making a few Shadow tests.
I’m also psyched about the Fellowship Phase, maybe for a third session.  It’s something that the players have never encountered before (not having played Pendragon or Mouse Guard, or other games with this kind of “down-time” mechanic spelled out) and I’m curious if they’ll be able to use it or if they’ll just kind of wait for me to throw out the next challenge or situation.