Tag Archives: World Building

Investigations and Failures Pt. 1

I’ve been giving failure a lot of thought.

As depressing as that sounds, I’m talking game mechanics.  I come from the school of thought that player failures are an important part of adventures, especially in relation to dice rolls.  The chance of failing in combat is what gives the game an edge and forces the players to decide to engage, avoid, or flee.  Failures in diplomacy rolls can lead to new plot twists and challenges that will follow the party throughout a campaign.  Overall failure to stop an evil plot can change the course of entire campaigns, or begin all new ones.

In a recent episode of the excellent podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, Robin Laws talks about removing failure as an option for research rolls.  Laws is usually of the mindset that failure is an important and positive element in games, but not for the aspect of investigations.  In other situations failures mean something happens that changes the way the adventure will proceed, but failure in research rolls, such as the Library Use skill in Call of Cthulhu, is a null result.  No plot twists are created, no new challenges arise, it’s just a road block that stalls the game.  Worse, it might mean failure for the mission, not to a dramatic hail of bullets or blasphemous Elder God, but at the hands of a card catalog.

For that reason his Gumshoe game system doesn’t have a Library Use skill.  A player is expected to describe how the investigator is going to look for information; for example, “I will go into the library and look for books on alchemy.  Then I’ll read through them keeping an eye out for anything regarding the Elixir of Mercury.”  If that information is there, then the character will find it.  No roll is necessary, the player is rewarded for good planning, and the game continues.  If the player doesn’t get the information, it’s because it isn’t there and not because they failed a roll.

This is a concept that I agree with… to a point.

I love the idea of encouraging the players to be descriptive about how they are searching for information.  For similar reasons in my Lamentations of the Flame Princess game I give a bonus to searching for secret doors if the players give details.  “I search the room for secret doors,” gives then the standard chance but, “I check the north wall, especially the area around the book case,” will give them a +1 bonus.  This also adds to the atmosphere of the game and makes the characters more a part of the setting.

As to not requiring any roll on investigations, it depends on the game concept.

If the game is one that isn’t focused on research, then this is a fine way to handle things.  Dungeons & Dragons is a good example.  I would use the descriptive no-roll solution for a party trying to search an archivist’s library for historical information, or to find the lineage of the would-be heir to the throne.  Dungeons & Dragons has no research mechanic and isn’t an investigation based game, so I’d rather keep things moving and rely on the players’ creativity over cludging some kind of Wisdom or Intelligence based skill check.

Another case where I’d use this solution is when the characters are assumed to be investigators by nature.  In a game where everyone is playing a private eye then it’s reasonable to go with the no-roll descriptive option.

I don’t agree with this method in games where investigation is a major component, but where not all the characters are assumed to be investigators.  Call of Cthulhu is an excellent example of this kind of game.  In this setting I want a mechanic that allows the scholar-type character to shine.  I want the professor to be able to accomplish things that the marksman and the thief can’t, but by the same token I want the professor to face a risk of failure within their specialty.

Another benefit of the skill based research roll is that it allows for jack-of-all-trades characters, like the private eye who’s good with a gun or in a library, but not to the level of the soldier or the scientist.

For these reasons I value the possibility of failure in research rolls, within the scope of investigation games like Call of Cthulhu.  However this doesn’t remove the concerns Robin Laws brought up about the impact failed research rolls have on this kind of game.  In part two I’ll give my thoughts on how to better handle these situations to keep the game interesting but still have a price to be paid for failure.

A librarian is the investigator’s best friend.

1 Comment

Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Clerics, Gods, and Magic

For most of its history Dungeons & Dragons has been a pantheistic world where the gods of many societies exist and vie for influence.  Books like Deities & Demigods encouraged this melting-pot and the progressive codification of the Outer Planes describing where different gods lived drove home the idea that a disjointed collection of cosmic beings was the de facto norm for the game world.

We like having lots of gods in our game worlds.  We like capricious gods, jealous gods, protective gods, warrior gods, nature gods, and evil gods.  This appeal can be seen everywhere from actual human religions to those of fantasy.  Even many monotheistic religions appeal to this with saints, angels, and demons who fill similar cosmological roles as the demigods of pantheistic religions.  There is something in human nature that finds it easier to identify with lots of individuals who have their own personalities and proclivities.  Maybe it’s simply that it offers better opportunities for storytelling.

This is a fine situation for world building and works great for just about every character concept, except the one it should be most important to; the cleric.  Clerics are the instruments of divine will upon the world, holy warriors who wield mystical powers gained through prayer.  This is reflected in their level titles (remember those?) which for Basic D&D are Acolyte, Adept, and Priest/Priestess for levels one through three respectively.  I’ve said before that the cleric is the class least easily identified with in fantasy literature, but in a universe where gods directly intervene in mortal affairs the presence of empowered followers doing their will makes sense.  For many cultures this is the sole basis of magic.

In a pantheistic society there is usually an understanding that all the deities have a role to play and should be respected, or at least placated.  A proper cleric should be the spokesperson for their pantheon, but while we like having multiple gods it’s hard for us to conceive of a holy warrior who represents an entire group instead of a single patron.  Maybe this comes from the same appeal we have for pantheons in the first place, the desire to link a single personality to an ideal.  Maybe it is because most of us come from a real world society dominated by monotheistic religions whose core tenants forbid the patronage of other deities.

Whatever the reason, it’s far more likely that you’ll find someone playing a “cleric of Thor” or “priestess of Ishtar” than a “weapon of the Gods of the Isles”.  Again, where world building is concerned, this isn’t a problem.

Where it does cause issues is in dealing with clerical magic.  Why would a god of darkness grant his cleric the Light spell?  Why would a goddess of pain grant her servants healing spells?  The spell list for clerics is wider than the scope of a single god.

There are a few solutions to this theological problem.*

1) Ignore it and just play the game.  This is the default answer that Dungeons & Dragons used up until 2nd Edition.  The advantage is that it’s quick and easy.  It’s suitable for a player who doesn’t want to get into the specifics of  a religion and for characters who do want to role play a specific religion it’s not going to break the game.

2) Restrict what spells a god will grant their clerics.  The 2nd Edition Complete Priest’s Handbook introduced the idea of clerics whose powers are limited based on their faith.  These restrictions are offset by strengths in areas related to the deity.  Thus the cleric of a death god would not have access to Cure Light Wounds, but would gain powers to Command Undead and Inspire Fear in compensation.  This has the value of logic but at the cost of flexibility and a big part of the appeal of spell casters is versatility.

3) Roll up your sleeves and play with the spell tables.  A cleric in a pantheistic religion, even a cleric devoted to a specific patron deity, is going to call on the powers of all the gods.  Conveying that goes a long way towards bringing the world to life.  If you can do it by increasing a player’s options instead of limiting them it’s even better, and since what defines clerics as warriors of the gods is their magic that’s the best place to start.

In my next post I’m going to demonstrate my idea, so stay tuned.

*These options are not mutually exclusive.  If one player wants to take option two and another likes option three, game balance won’t be upset.


Posted by on September 12, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming, World Design


Tags: , , , , , ,