Wednesday, November 15, 2017

How to Write a Rule: Framing the Solution

My reader kimbo is right when he says that a principal decision in climbing a mountain is time and risk ~ with the logical association that rush makes danger, whereas patience should reduce the probability of an accident.  When looking at a mountain, its natural for the players to consider the lay-out and decide whether or not they want to risk the more dangerous routes, or head around "the long way" in order to find safer, albeit more time consuming alternatives.  This is what I meant when I wrote "time and space."

We have a few considerations to apply to this, however: the first being that the whole mountain is not evident to the players, when the decision must be made.  For a full measure of the mountain, the whole mountain would have to be viewed, and from good, clear vantage points, trusting the weather holds.  It can take a couple of days to march around a good-sized mountain ~ assuming it can be marched around, as it might be part of a range, which might make the far side of the mountain very difficult to assess.  Secondly, the mountain needs to be assessed by someone who knows how; an experienced mountain climber can "see" more in the falls and curves of the landscape that most of us can.  It wouldn't do any good to send the flying mage on a tour around the mountain, unless the mountaineer (more likely a ranger) can go along.

Now add to this that parts of the mountain can't be seen at all from the ground, making themselves evident only once the players are actually in the act of climbing.  A good looking route can have a surprise along the way, where a cleft only 12 feet wide ~ virtually invisible from most places on the ground ~ suddenly makes the route impassable.  The same can be said for overhangs and surfaces that turn out to be less than solid.  Ice and snow are additional variables that are largely impossible to predict.

The only real surety about choosing a route comes from having climbed the mountain before ~ either personally or in the form of a guide.  Nearly all the difficult mountains that were climbed in a rush of ardor with the rise of 18th & 19th century Romanticism were attempted before a climb was successful, often many times.  Like a ship exploring a coastline in the new world, mountain climbers would attempt different routes and make copious notes or drawings, seeking the measure of the task before surrendering, returning to the valley.

It became evident that there were summer routes and winter routes; routes that risked fog; routes that were dangerous due to crosswinds that would create sheets of ice or made balance difficult (changeable winds that could be deadly for a flying mage trying to land on a rocky and uncertain ledge); routes of all kinds.

Still, we want a rule set that encapsulates at least some of this.  I don't think any of it can be limited to a set formula of time vs. space.  Rather, I see a series of "wagers" that the players face.  They can, initially, choose the slower path, which might get them closer to the goal before having to take serious risks, but nothing with a dangerous mountain can be certain.

So the first task is to determine how dangerous is this particular mountain?  Right off, I find myself seeking an established system of some kind.  Growing up near the mountains, I'm familiar with a rating system that's used for ski trails: a green circle for easy slopes, a blue square for intermediate slopes, a black diamond for advanced slopes and a double black diamond for expert only slopes.  In Europe, the system is different, with pistes described as green, blue, red and black, with double or triple black diamonds, orange (extremely difficult) or yellow (ungroomed and unpatrolled).

Obviously, much of a mountain can't be skied at all, but I see no reason not to employ the spirit of the system.  Rather than trying to specify a whole mountain as "difficult" or "easy", individual routes along the same mountain can be described as a string: green, green, blue, green, black, blue, green, black, black. We can then produce simplified versions of "piste maps," such as the one shown below:

Click HERE for full size

We don't have to get anywhere near this complicated.  With a little imagination, we can apply a string of "dangers" to, say, Wildstrubel in the upper left hand corner, with those evident cliffs, uncertain snow fields and glaciers.  We can then see how forks in the string would allow a choice to go left or right, because this way looks "blue" rather than "black" ... even though it might end in a triple-black diamond climb another hundred meters above, where we can't see.

This leaves us with a meaningful resolution for the wagers the players would try: I would suggest that, in terms of success, we see the scale as a series of descriptions, that could be employed by the DM to the player, without actually describing the actual roll that would be needed for success (we do want the wager to have an uncertain quality, though the rule must be rigorously adhered to by the DM ~ no fudging!).  Slopes can be "safe," "easy," "chancy," "tense," "tricky," "risky," "hazardous," "improbable" and "impossible."  This gives us two wagers for each of four types (North American system) or eight wagers among eight types (European system).

In each case, we inform the players ahead of time that the way ahead "looks tricky" suggesting that there is a very reasonable probability that they won't succeed ~ perhaps guaranteeing failure unless someone with experience attempts it.  I should think "tricky" would be the most dangerous an amateur should probably attempt - anything above that is bound to mean a serious fall or accident.

Now, this is the sort of thinking that I'm encouraging where it comes to making rules for anything.  Start by describing how the players might solve the problem (assessing the mountain before climbing); then, defining the structure of the problem (dangers mountains possess, nature of mountain routes).  If possible, use established ideas from professionals dealing with those problems in the real world.  Then, figure out a way to map it (pattern string based on danger code) and then to communicate that map to the players in a way that enables them to make multiple decisions over the course of the adventure.

Then, having established this framework, we can go ahead and add other details, events, monsters, problems and obstacles, in keeping with the motivation-adventure path I described last month.

What's missing from the above are the multiple results that might arise out of failure - and success too, which might increase the character's ability to climb and assess other mountains, as well as perhaps an experience adjustment for characters making mistakes and taking damage.  I'm going to forego this, as I'm starting to get involved in another project.  I don't know if I'll come back to this making a rule series ~ right now, I don't see much else to say about it.  I am open to questions, however, and as readers know, questions tend to inspire me to go deeper into subjects (the adventure path link was the result of a reader's question, nyet?).


Tim said...

Well, I hope the series doesn't culminate here, as I'd be interested in seeing how you add additional information to the rule structure without causing the whole thing to topple over or become difficult to use.

Say we start with this basic system involving trail assessment, we produce a reasonable method of calculating the wager and the cost/benefit (e.g. you determine how long a slope might take to climb based on character abilities, and what chance of failure there would be at each "checkpoint") and then want to incorporate more elements, like weather (precipitation and muddy terrain versus intense sunlight, for instance) or tools (connected to the preparation component: how should having certain tools affect the climb? Can we recover from failures, or take more dangerous routes?)

Perhaps tools can be added in easily since the players see their own ability to control the situation by bringing along extra equipment; on the hand, weather effects could simply dampen the players' hopes or cause them to burn out (pun intended), because the corresponding preparation or adjustment aspects aren't as clearly established as "buy a grappling hook in town so you can take an extra save vs falling". Obviously, that work then falls to the DM in how the rule is incorporated within the rest of the system, but the point would then be how to integrate new rules successfully.

One element that is obviously connected is the psychological response to the wager the DM proposes. Does an extra roll provoke more tension compared to a +3 bonus? Is one more fair than the other? That would make an interesting topic for discussion (heck, someone could write a doctoral thesis on it): are there common responses to different kinds of randomness, and do players tend to evaluate some forms of randomness differently, perhaps overestimating or underestimating their odds? If we produce a set of mathematically-calculated odds, how does a gambler respond?

One example might be a critical hit system (since we're using a combat system as our basis): whereas some tabletops will give an additional damage die roll every time a critical hit roll is achieved, others will instead give flat bonuses or multipliers, say the maximum possible on damage dice. Some systems will allow extra hit rolls to provide the possibility for chaining rolls. In this context, critical hits can also work against the player (since an opponent can use the same system). How the players interact can also have a big effect on how these systems connect to one another: what if our hikers chain together, or choose routes independently? When do we consider hikers a unit (cf. initiative rolls) versus independent participants (cf. attacking and defending)?

Alexis Smolensk said...


The additional items that you mention, weather, tools - or I might propose season or altitude - can be rolled into the difficulty scale I proposed. A climb that might be "tense" in clear weather would be "tricky," or even "risky" in a storm. A lack of the right tools could increase the difficulty up the scale; so could virtually any other element you might name. Thus, the original scale stands and doesn't need modifiers or a second system to manage the difficulty of rolls.

The roll itself could be a bell-curve based on 3d6. "Safe" wouldn't require a roll, "easy" might need a 5, "chancy" a 7, "tense" a 9 ... and then things get scarier as "tricky" needs a 12, "risky" a 14, "hazardous" a 16, "improbable" an 18 and "impossible" means literally that, the climb can't be made. Impossible is a dead end.

Then, for an amateur climber (sage ability), we could add an extra d6, the character having the benefit of "the best 3 out of 4" dice. An authority would enjoy the best out of 5d6, an expert the best out of 6d6 and a sage the best out of 7d6. That way, even a sage couldn't very well rely on making an 18 out of seven dice, but might feel safe chancing a hazardous passage and would be virtually sure to manage something risky.

Other dice might then be added for specific, hard to find tools ~ which might then be lost along the way if one is dropped. Failures might include stat checks that enable a "recover" from a fall or not dropping a tool so far that it can't be recovered (though the recovery might be a dangerous climb in itself).

Finally, regarding stat effects. I think that the experience of climbing should be far more important than the character's stats. Stats are used too much as a "solve-all" feature that makes much of the game's play very grey, as character's with high stats can do virtually anything by rolling their way through every obstacle. Moreover, persons with different high stats would naturally navigate up a mountain differently: someone wise would select their footing; someone with constitution would brave slow and stolidly; someone with dexterity would rely on their balance to carry them through while someone strong could support their weight better or feel less swayed by their equipment.

Thus, everyone climbs differently, using the stat that is best for them; in effect, eliminating the importance of stats (we could simply say "use the stat that works best for you") by recognizing that they'd likely range from 16 to 18 for every player. No, I think experience is the thing: and experience could be partly gained by just climbing successfully. Each successful roll of "tense" adds 10% of one knowledge point; a successful roll of "tricky" or better adds 20% of a point ~ and only fools court "risky" rolls, so we don't award better knowledge for stupidity. Then, if a character, any character, wants to be a better mountain climber, they only have to climb mountains.

Drain said...

This post really got my headjuices bubbling over.

Two things,

1) Would every single climber be expected to roll or just the trailblazer, with mitigation for those who follow?

2) How would this system deal with deadly consequences of failure? You speak of lost tools and survivable falls which I have to assume would be results returned by simple failure, I am to assume that, in accordance with your previously exposed thoughts, the dice would have to fatefully come up 1-1-1 (downright impossible once you start adding expertise dice), before anything lethal would be on the cards, correct?

Alexis Smolensk said...

1) The major roll would be for the trailblazer; that part of the string would then be reduced in difficulty for those following behind. Thus, while the trailblazer made the "tricky" roll, the others would only have to manage "tense."

2) Ah, yes, death. But that would depend on the difficulty of the passage, yes? We could implement a 3d6 roll, with a bell curve, for failures ... and that bell curve could be adjusted easily, so that failure on an "easy" part of the string would mean something different from failure on an "improbable" part.

As an aside, I just finished watching The Eiger Sanction from 1975: THE mountain climbing movie, in my opinion. You can watch it on this site, though you'll have to turn off your adblocker and it's basically a pirate link. If heights freak you a little, as they do me, it's a good, tense, often scary film. Eastwood took lessons and then trained to climb so that he could do the work personally ~ he does not use a stunt double in the film, and this is obvious from quite a lot of the close up shots, made in a time when it was impossible to get this level of realism from a mat-painting. It's a particularly good film in many ways.

Near the end, without spoiling it, there are several points at which the expert climbers must manage "improbable" sections of the Eiger. One expert climber died during the shoot due to poor weather and other factors ~ the danger the actors and climbers faced making the movie is absolutely real. IMDb says that, in the film, when Eastwood cuts his safety line, he really is over a 1,000 foot drop.