Patience, O Gentle Reader, for some matters cannot be measured in a few hundred words, nor even a dozen paragraphs, but must by every grain be sifted completely. So snatch not this post lightly, but gravely, that it might be understood in its intent.
I have seen posts occurring spottily about the net on the subject of an interactive/intelligence mechanic (not always as an 'IMech') in the last month. I have continued to give it thought myself, not wishing to add to the discussion until I legitimately had something comprehensive in scope to offer. But reading Zak's post here, and Oddbit's post here, and finally Telecanter's post here, combined with far too much play at SimCity 4 since Christmas Day (received a copy of the game that was formatted for Vista), my festering mind generated forth an epiphany, which I should like to share.
From comments written after Zak's blog, the thinking continues to follow the principle of 1. have skill; 2. roll against skill; 3. do or do not achieve goal. Zak (and his vigorous readers) has attempted to replace the 'roll' element with player prowess at what might be termed 'party games.' Such games might invigorate a session, but it was discussed earlier on this blog (here and here) that the problem remains that player characters with high intelligence or charisma may not be backed by players so blessed. In other words, if I cannot think of how to answer a question accurately in ten words or less, this does not mean my 18 intelligence mage cannot do so.
Nevertheless, reading through the various skill-testing ordeals, I was struck by the actual problem in the long accepted 3-point process above. Let us take a neutral example, a common circumstance, typically managed in the D&D setting.
I wish to bribe a guard, in order to gain entrance into ... well, it doesn't matter. I propose a sum of money, one of my skills is presented, a die is rolled, and the guard accepts the bribe, does not accept the bribe, or reacts in such a manner as to cause great problems for me. In the process of roleplaying the event, I draw upon my intelligence, my wisdom, my charisma, my bribery skills ... whatever the DM allows me to invoke. If I am successful, the guard's demeanor is influenced by me and I achieve what I want.
But let us reverse this situation and apply it to the guard's point of view. The guard has charisma, intelligence and wisdom also, and presumably 'guarding' skill. At what point does the guard gain the opportunity to roll dice to successfully force my player character to go away?
Do you see? It is one-sided. In discussing the IMech problem, I earlier brought up the point that combat created a dynamic that simply did not exist in those interaction circumstances of the game. This is why. Combat is not resolved by rolling the 'to hit' die and either successfully killing the opponent or being killed. If you boil combat down to one roll, you will very quickly find combat a VERY boring part of the game.
No, no, no, the NPC gets to swing also. They get to roll dice, damage the opponent or kill the opponent - the ultimate restriction on the character's freedom of action. It is perfectly reasonable that any lesser freedom of action placed upon the character is potentially fair ... even if that means the player is not able to do something the player wishes to do.
Why should it not be that as my player approaches the guard to offer the bribe, the guard's stance, the guard's demeanor, even the steely gaze which the guard holds as he watches me approach, causes my player to lose heart and not even try? Is this not also part of the IMech dynamic? It is always assumed that the player will without question get as far as offering the money - no matter what the player's wisdom or constitution might be. What if the player simply doesn't have the stomach for it?
Understanding, if I have made my point clear, that both sides should have the privilege of rolling against their statistics or skills in order to carry out their conflicting roles, it becomes very clear that rolling is inadequate to the mechanic. If I have a 14 charisma, and the guard has a 14 charisma, and I have the wisdom to recognize that I'm being hustled, and the guard has the wisdom to recognize that he's being hustled, how does a die roll based on the success/fail dynamic truly represent what is going on? Truth? It doesn't. However you design the rolls, the end result is a crap shoot. And craps, without the possibility of winning large amounts of money, is a dull, dull game.
Combat is not a crap shoot. The die roll in combat is influenced by positional tactics, armor class, the well of hit points one brings to the battle, magic, instrumentation and so on ... so it is not merely hit or miss. Most of all, a hit does not mean the battle is won, and a miss does not mean the battle is lost. It takes many hits and many misses to resolve the battle, and that makes the process interesting.
But interactive mechanics are not combat, and shouldn't be combat. A parallel system of 'mental combat' would be a poor substitute for roleplaying. And what we would want is an IMech that supports roleplaying, just as a near-death experience in combat does. Something that allows for an 'attack' and a 'defense.' Something that allows the element of chance, but reduced. For that, we don't want craps. Throw out the dice. The game here is War.
"The deck is divided evenly among the two players, giving each a face-down stack. In unison, each player reveals the top card on his stack (a "battle"), and the player with the higher card takes both the cards played and moves them to the bottom of his stack."
Now the reader, myself, and everyone associated with D&D know already that this familiar children's game was ramped to the maximum by Magic: The Gathering. If you're like me, you hate that game, more for the obsessive-compulsive behavior of the players than for the actual concept. This gets worse when one incorporates the accepted practice of deck-stacking into the game's competition, so that only the most obsessive can actually play the game publically. Nevertheless, the principle of the game is worth considering here, in that it changes elements of the game War in a manner that could be applied as an interactive mechanic for D&D.
First, "the deck" is not randomized. It represents a very specific set of skills or talents which could be tailored quite specifically to any player character, regardless of their stat distribution. Secondly, the "reveal" isn't random. The player holds the cards in his or her hand, and has the power of choice. And finally, the "battle" isn't won on the basis of the higher card, but rather upon a rock-paper-scissors motif.
(as an aside, rock-paper-scissors, like war, also yields the elements of chance without the need for a die roll ... but since the options are so limited, and cannot be customized for every kind of player, it is of little value as an IMech. It is an IMech, however - in case that was missed)
If the game of War is introduced into D&D, it changes the dynamic of bribing the guard from success/failure to a matter of play strategy. I have charisma, and the guard has charisma, but success is now dependent on when I play, rather than how much. Both the guard and I have winning cards; but his heart trumps my ace, unless I have a club that permits me another play, though now both my ace and his heart are gone.
I can see how the play could be accomplished. To get past the guard, a certain number of the guard's limited supply of cards must be 'deactivated.' The guard, in turn, as presented by the DM, can play to outwit the player. Both sides can roleplay the situation in order to encourage the other side to misunderstand what cards will be played. An edge might be allowed that will enable the player to 'see' some or all of the guard's cards. The DM will have to 'play dumb,' since the player's cards will always be known.
But there should be more at stake than merely getting past the guard. Obviously, once the guard gave in, the guard could be expected to do so in the future. So the real result should be the establishment of the 'relationship' between the guard and the player characters. Does he become 'Friendly'? 'Friendly with reservations'? 'Resistant but understanding'? Perhaps he isn't willing to let the players past, but he will be forthcoming with information. The final analysis must be more than just success/fail. A wide variety of results must be possible, and those results would be determined by which card was played against which card.
If you are looking for me, right now, to provide a phenomenal list of cards which could now be used to make all this possible, you're going to be disappointed. All I know at this point is that this is the right road to take. The exact nature of the cards remains a mystery to me as well as to you. But surely there would be cards based upon the class skills of the players; cards that would be gained with an increase in levels; cards gained in lieu of experience for traumatic or victorious moments had in a player's life; cards for reputation; cards for status and notoriety; cards for criminal behavior; cards for weakness and so on. A player's cards would be more or less static - every encounter would be approached with the same cards, which the player would have to learn to use ... though obviously some cards, such as "bribe with more money" would require the resources to back the card up. And of course, the devastation of a player's reputation would mean the removal of the player's reputation cards.
Complicated? Oh yes. But this is D&D, remember? We shouldn't pale at complication.
One last point, which is implied in the above and in the title of this post, but which may yet not have sunk home. An NPC should be able, through the application of cards, to force a player character to be the NPC's friend or ally. Players are forced to die. They are forced by the roll to be surprised. They are forced by magic to be possessed. You cannot have a character who chooses to limit the consequences of their actions to things the player isn't squeamish about. There must be the possibility of the player seeing the NPC coming down the street, the NPC to which the character has never been able to say no, and the player growing pale wondering what the NPC is going to ask for this time. If only the player could gain a level, and thus the necessary card (assuming the necessary card doesn't need to be gained some other way) to get that NPC bastard off his or her back.