Roleplaying

Acting With Clear Intent Improves Roleplaying

A common stumbling block in tabletop roleplaying games occurs when trying to arbitrate the results of a social interaction between characters. There are several clear layers of rules for most mechanics that provide guidance for the results of a roll, like attacking an enemy or picking a lock. However, since social interactions are infinitely more open ended, many game systems do not attempt to make very detailed rules for them. Compare the two different scenes below:

Scene 1: A ravaged battlefield

GM: An orc has just charged across the field at you. What do you do?

Player: I attack the orc with my sword, <roll> 17.

GM: You hit, roll damage.

Player: 9 damage.

GM: With one smooth motion you sidestep the orc’s sweeping axe and thrust your blade into his side. The signs of blood rage drain from his eyes, and as you withdraw your blade, the orc falls limply to the ground.

Scene 2: Eaststone Keep, Duke Warwick’s Library

GM: Sweat still stings your eyes from your race to arrive at the keep in time. The Duke awaits your report impatiently, and you recall that he has had much disdain for your party in the past. What do you do?

Player: I attempt to convince the Duke that a horde of orcs is coming, <roll> 17.

GM: Okay, the Duke believes you… now what do you do?

Player: …what do you mean?

GM: Well, you’ve convinced the Duke that the threat is real, but what did you want him to do about it?

Player: I’m sure he knows what to do to protect the village.

GM: Okay, he responds… “You bring me news of our coming doom and wish for praise? Were you not under an oath to the King to protect these lands? You claim to be highly trained warriors, and yet you’ve run from those savages and left my people to fulfill your duties.”

Player: Ah, now I see what you’re getting at…

In the first scene the player is attacking the orc. It is clear that a hero attacking a monstrous humanoid wants to kill them unless they state otherwise. The game master has a series of binary questions to ask in order to resolve this action. First, does the hero hit with his attack? If not, then the action ends. If yes, then damage is applied. Does the damage rolled by the hero reduce the monster’s hit points to zero or less? If yes, then the hero successfully kills the orc. If not, the orc keeps fighting. Each piece is straightforward, making it easy for the game master to focus their attention to the part that is more fun- describing the results.

For the second scene, we do not have a chain of events to follow that are dictated by game mechanics. The game master rules that the player’s roll is high enough to succeed at the stated action: make the Duke believe a horde of orcs is coming. But what does the Duke now do with this information? Our example game master might be too literal, but without more information from the player, most game gasters would have some difficulty resolving this action fairly. It is unlikely that player’s intent is solely to alert the Duke– their character has not left the task to a messenger, so it’s reasonable to assume that they want to guide the Duke’s reaction in a certain direction.

If the player clearly states the intent of their action, then the game master has clear guidelines for what success means. Consider an alternate way of playing out that same scene:

Scene 2a: Duke Warwick’s Library, Clear Intent

GM: Sweat still stings your eyes from your race to arrive at the keep in time. The Duke awaits your report impatiently, and you recall that he has had much disdain for your party in the past. What do you do?

Player: I tell the Duke that the orc horde is approaching; I want to convince him to send the town guard to follow us into battle. I roll a… <roll> 17.

GM: The Duke agrees that the threat must be faced head on. “You are the most capable warriors present, and you have already faced these orcs in battle before. I put my soldiers under your direct command for the duration of this crisis.”

Player: “Thank you for your confidence, my lord. We shall lead your men in battle and wipe out this threat to the peace.”

The player clearly states what they hope will result from their action, and this gives the game master a good idea of how the player hopes to move the scene forward. The game master can deliver a satisfactory resolution because they know what the player will consider success. But what if the player’s roll had failed?

Scene 2b: Duke Warwick’s Library, Failure

GM: Sweat still stings your eyes from your race to arrive at the keep in time. The Duke awaits your report impatiently, and you recall that he has had much disdain for your party in the past. What do you do?

Player: I tell the Duke that the orc horde is approaching; I want to convince him to send the town guard to follow us into battle. I roll a… <roll> 9.

GM: The Duke is unconvinced that your approach is the best way to defend against the horde. “I shall do no such thing. We will be safe behind the walls of the village. We have ample supplies, and the brutes are neither patient nor clever. If you do not wish to join us for the siege, then I suggest you leave before the gates are secured.”

Player: “With all due respect my lord, you are a fool. As our council is not welcome, we shall leave at once.”

Or what if the game master felt the roll called for a compromise, or partial success?

Scene 2c: Duke Warwick’s Library, Compromise

GM: Sweat still stings your eyes from your race to arrive at the keep in time. The Duke awaits your report impatiently, and you recall that he has had much disdain for your party in the past. What do you do?

Player: I tell the Duke that the orc horde is approaching; I want to convince him to send the town guard to follow us into battle. I roll a… <roll> 12.

GM: The Duke is cautiously optimistic about your preemptive action against the horde. “Take two-thirds of my men and intercept this horde. The remainder shall man the walls should your preemptive attack fail.”

Player: “We would fare better if we had every soldier fighting with us. However, we will do our best to stop this threat with what you have provided, my lord.”

Succeed, fail, or compromise, the game master knows how to resolve the social interaction once they understand how the player intends to forward the plot. If the player has different intentions – evacuate the town, defend the town, or light the beacon and call Gondor for aid – then what the player feels qualifies as success or failure will be very different.

Acting with intent creates a more satisfying story because the players see it moving forward in ways that are direct results of their successes and failures. If the heroes lead the town guard to victory it is because they successfully pushed the Duke into assisting them, and they rightfully deserve the credit for implementing that resolution. If they instead fail and the Duke decides to wait out a siege, then they will proceed knowing that the Duke took action that was directly opposed to their plan, building him up from a mere annoyance to a potential rival or even enemy for future games. The more clarity that a player gives to their character’s intentions, the more their game master has to work with to create a memorable gaming experience.

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Comments

  1. Oren Ashkenazi

    I see what you did there, talking about the establishment of intent!

  2. Jack Marshall

    Can’t think how many times the question, “So what is your intention here?” has cleared up a complex interaction quickly. Good for players to think about, yes, but surely the GM should keep the question as a readied action. Great examples.

  3. Anon Adderlan

    This is a bad example for the point being made, because getting the Duke to BELIEVE you, and persuading him to DO what you want (or doing what you EXPECT), are two drastically different things. And the GM already had enough information to know how the Duke would respond in character, which is the sort of thing I enjoy discovering (not DECLARING) in play.

    The problem with declaring ‘intention’ is that you don’t know you need to until after the fact. It’s assumed that to strike something with your weapon is to attempt to kill the target, but it’s less clear what breaking a fire wand will do. The player may think it will cause an explosion, but the GM may think it will just break. And while the player can state their expectations, and the GM can ask why, it still depends on making assumptions about what someone REALLY intended to do.

    Intention and expectation are big deals in tabletop RPGs, and we need better techniques to address them, but examples like this do more harm than good because they distract from the actual issue.

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