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The Most Boring Rule

They say a meme is the idea analog to a virus because of how they spread. Some ideas are also like the flu virus; they make a healthy body weak and ache. And just as the flu lives on from host to host, so do some really crappy ideas.

Like “Defenders win ties.”

That might have a place in some well-themed board games, like Shadows Over Camelot where heroes must “be better than” their foes, but in RPG-land, here’s what happens:

Bob: “I swing my sword at the orc’s face! Because, you know, face!”
GM: “The orc flips out of the way! because, you know, his face!”
[There’s a roll, and it ties]
GM: “Nothing happens! I sure am glad we’re playing this game, Bob!”

And now your hopefully interesting action sequence is going to take one (or two, with an exchange system) roll longer to go somewhere.

When you have a simple pass-fail mechanic where nothing else happens secondarily due to the roll, “defenders win ties” preserves the situation, the moment, the status quo. That’s pretty damned weak when we’re playing a game that claims to be about playing out awesome stories and fights and shit. “Defenders win ties” is not awesome.

Why it Works In Board Games

This mechanic often comes up in board games. Why? Because in that frame, it works. Most often, these board games are either Press Your Luck games or games with a tight, active economy. If an RPG models either of those, then “defender wins ties” can turn into some sort of interesting decision point. And that’s good.

In Press Your Luck games, you want to reward the player being able to Press Her Luck, and thus somehow put that some of mechanic in with your game, like the wager mechanic in Houses of the Blooded.

In a game with a tight economy, a tie often means “win if you’re able to spend a resource” or something similar. (So does “I lost but not by much.), This creates the decision: do I spend to overcome this crap? Fate & Cortex+ work like that[1], where if you roll a tie and you have the resource to spend (Fate Point & relevant aspect; Plot Point and additional, useful dice). I also see this in Technoir, asymmetrically, but rather than explain it I’ll just point you to the free player’s guide.

(That said, in Fate attackers essentially win ties, just that in typical combat that’s a 0-stress attack — which is meaningless. You put some english on that by a weapon bonus from having claws, and then that tie becomes a vicious 3-stress attack.)

Other Things To Try

Roll off on ties

This is a simple way to make something not a tie.

Aggressor wins ties

Wait, you mean a mechanic that rewards action? Nah, it’ll never work…

Players win ties

Here (assuming a game with a GM), at least preserving the moment rewards the player instead of punishing him. Though, you’ll need to come up with a PvP tiebreaker…

Ties mean Something Else Happens

We did this in The Bad Man. When the players tie in PvP, the Mad City interrupts the fight to Make It Worse. That fits our game pretty damned well, as there’s always looming adversity.

Defender Still Wins, But There’s More To It

Maybe the defender wins ties, but you get a +1 forward to your next roll because of an advantage, or maybe the defender has a negative modifier to the next thing rather than a lasting consequence, etc. Something where the situation doesn’t remain static. Or something akin to Don’t Rest Your Head, where success or failure on a roll still tweaks an economy.

 

In short: if you can’t make the roll interesting somehow mechanically and they can’t buy their way out of a boring tie, don’t let ties lead to boring inaction. Unless you hate freedom.

– Ryan

[1] As does Void Vultures, though for the first fight last night I had yet to introduce the economy & rules from that. But once that was introduced, people pushed back from times where I, as the Void Master[2], won the tie. And the game started to sing.

[2] I rather enjoy the rül about that. But then, I would.

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27 Responses to The Most Boring Rule

  1. You didn’t mention it, but D&D is an example where the aggressor tends to be rewarded. Ties tend to go to the aggressor with the possible exception of saving throws (I don’t remember the rules across all editions). As you mentioned on Twitter, it’s because the game wants the magic moment of hitting. In my experience, so do the players. If their hit percentage is low, they get more upset. While I don’t have numbers to back me up, I think they would prefer to hit every time and do smaller amounts of damage even if it means their characters get hit more often.

    Huh, wonder if this gets expanded out even more in 4e. Players hit often but for smaller amounts and the NPCs hit less often but for greater amounts? (I haven’t looked at the numbers to know for sure). If so, that would amp up the reward for action on the part of the PCs while giving them the “thank Avandra” moment when a potentially devastating attack misses them. But that could screw with the DM’s pleasure and lead to the feeling that the PCs aren’t really being challenged. Anyways, thanks for the post!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Tracy,

      *nod* Totally, though that also makes me realize I didn’t spell out one of my assumptions: “defenders win ties” is typically in opposed-roll systems, whereas D&D is a target number one. Which is kinda of interesting if you turn it on its head: the D&D, the defender has a pre-generated a target number, and the attacker rolls to meet or beat. In other games, the attacker randomly generates a target number for the defender to meet or beat.

      The mechanical difference is subtle, but the impact of increasing the odds of “and nothing happens” is felt.

      – Ryan

    • Yeah, I sensed the assumption which is part of the reason I commented on Twitter first instead of here (which probably only makes sense in my head). :) I feel older D&D systems often had a few more opposed roll situations, but we moved away from that because opposed roll systems at the level of detail in most D&D games would leave players too unsure of the risk and hinder action. In traditional play, imo, there are way too many instances where failure stops the game from moving forward and not enough tools given to players to convert failures into successes to profit from that level of uncertainty.

    • There are some opposed roles in there too. (For example Hide vs. Spot, or Move Silently vs. Listen.) In those, ties still reward the “attacker”.

  2. Tom says:

    Excellent point that I hadn’t even thought of before. I’d add one more possibility: “Ties mean the stakes are raised higher”, which is just a specific variation of “Something Else Happens”. I’m thinking of Dogs in the Vineyard, for example, where an entire conflict that has no resolution means you have to move up the deadliness track to continue to press the point: words, fists, knives, guns.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Tom,

      YES :)

      – Ryan

    • Ties = Escalation is generally my favorite, too.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      *nod* Yeah, though it doesn’t work in every game. Some games (often the ones where you see this rule), combats and conflicts are multi-round affairs where ties might happen once, twice, three times, etc. And if after each one it escalates, you’re going to hit the Wall of Gonzo. And that might be appropriate for Gamma World, but… :)

      Another twist is “ties change the situation,” which does require people to be able to flow with that without getting gonzo (unless that’s what you want).

      Yet another twist your comment caused me to think of: “ties end it right there dramatically.” Though I think I’d rather have that in a game where ties were not too common.

      – Ryan

    • Well, yeah… “escalation” doesn’t *always* have to mean “kick it up an order of magnitude”, it can also just be a relatively subtle change in the situation that raises the stakes in a tangible but not necessarily dramatic way.

      But your point seems to be that this takes some skill to accomplish meaningfully over and over again, possibly in the same scene, to which I say “absolutely, yes.”

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah. It’s also not always a pacing that people desire. But that gets back to what the game’s trying to do.

      A fighty game might not always work. A drama engine would benefit from that. Etc. etc.

      – Ryan

  3. Ties in boardgames (especially ties in end-game scoring) will often be decided via secondary characteristics. Tie points, but the most blue tiles breaks the tie, etc. So it creates an extra point of caring about a specific resource for that circumstance, without (like the FATE example) spending anything. I can’t think of any RPGs that operate like that, except in things like D&D initiative where there’s a roll, and if that roll is tied, you go to modifier (and then often, it’s still tied, which is a problem.)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Dave,

      I’m speaking about mechanics of the moments, and there are plenty of games where those mechanics are just ties. Winner-determination rules ate wholly a board game thing, so not what I’m talking about.

      I have only seen “advanced” tie breaker rules commonly for group rolls like initiative. Still, what happens when all of those things are tied? That’s where the real rule lives.

      – Ryan

  4. Rob Donoghue says:

    So what about the fact that this same reasoning applies to a miss?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Rob,

      It’s not, not really. There’s a different emotional beat going there, “crap I missed” is not the same as “crap, I tied. Fuck that.” But yeah, you will get no argument out of me that failure shouldn’t be boring.

      But it stings less than tying.

      – Ryan

    • Lugh says:

      I’m with Rob here. I don’t see “I lost because the tie went against me” as significantly different from “I lost because I rolled 1 less than I needed.”

      The tie can be incredibly dramatic. That’s the moment when the swordsmen lock blades, pushing against one another, both knowing that the first one to back away is likely to lose. Or, in many games, it is the perfect time to reinforce that one little bonus, be it from custom gear or setting up a situational modifier or what have you, that made the difference.

      Just like any other roll in an RPG, it is as boring or as meaningful as you make it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Just like any other roll in an RPG, it is as boring or as meaningful as you make it.

      That’s a “system doesn’t matter” approach to gaming. As both a game designer and as a player, I find that to be uninteresting and unproductive.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I also realized another part of this is: “let’s treat this situation that is neither a success or failure like a failure.” That means “ties = success” is in the same “uninteresting from a design perspective” camp, but at least it’s not a whiff note in play (for those games where failure = whiff and move on).

      – Ryan

  5. I agree. Having the defender win every tie *IS* boring! Sometimes it’s fun to put a player character on the loosing side and let him get his ass whipped. This is expecially poignant when said player character started a stupid fight to begin with. Proving that just cause that character is an NPC doesn’t mean he can’t kick butt too. : )

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That depends on the game as well. Some games are entirely about fights, like old-school D&D and whatever. In which case, they’re supposed to pick fights. :)

      But yes, beat management (which is what you’re talking about) is a thing. It’s not this thing, though.

      – Ryan

  6. Joel says:

    Interesting! I’ve always tended to assume, intellectually, that the defender winning ties is best because the deck’s already stacked against them–the mere fact that they’re defending means they’re in the worst position in that moment, with the highest risk. And odds of an attack hitting are usually better than 50/50. But experientially, I’ve found that as Tracy says, the frustration at taking action and having nothing happen is far more overwhelming (and frequent) than any frustration felt at someone else taking action against me and having it succeed. When playing D&D 3E the fact that you only had to EQUAL the target number to hit was a great comfort; those times when a “tie” comes up and the attack hits (especially in the early days of play when we were still learning the rules) had a powerful effect in reinforcing the idea that we had effective characters who could DO SHIT.

    Other aspects of the game undermined that to various degrees in various situations, but that’s another topic.

    Lots of “missing” leads to feelings of futility, regardless of any mathematical analysis that shows the hit ratio to be favorable or whatnot. In a similar vein, my friends and I always hated D&D 3E’s “Roll again to confirm the critical” rule. The “rational,” mathematical argument that it helps balance the game and protect the players against egregious amounts of monster critting just couldn’t trump the feeling that we’d already scored the crit and had to endure another roll to possibly have it taken away from us.

    The additional point you brought up in the comments above, that D&D is Roll vs. Target Number instead of opposed rolls, reinforces that relationship of tiebreaking to perceived empowerment, I think. By saying “Whichever side rolls dice wins ties” (which is the defender in a Saving Throw, for instance), you’re subtly nudging things toward the “When we roll, shit gets DONE” side of the spectrum.

    I’m fond of Shock’s rule on ties–that the situation escalates so that there’s something more extreme at stake. It’s kind of a hybrid between “Roll off on ties” and “Something else happens.” It’s similar in a way to Dogs’ escalation (an argument becomes a fistfight, a fistfight becomes a gunfight) but on a more grand scale: sneaking around becomes a daring chase; a detective interviewing a witness becomes an attempt to arrest him, etc. When it happens in a game, it’s energizing: a kind of frying pan-to fire transition reminiscent of Star Wars or Indiana Jones–Indy goes from punching a nazi on a tank, to caught in the tank treads as it’s heading over the cliff.

    I guess this all goes back to the fundamental philosophy: When you roll dice, the situation changes dramatically and unpredictably; otherwise don’t roll dice. :)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I guess this all goes back to the fundamental philosophy: When you roll dice, the situation changes dramatically and unpredictably; otherwise don’t roll dice. :)

      That depends on the sort of games and the goals of that game. Not every game is a one-roll scene game, where that philosophy certainly applies.

      – Ryan

    • “I’ve found that as Tracy says, the frustration at taking action and having nothing happen is far more overwhelming (and frequent) than any frustration felt at someone else taking action against me and having it succeed.”

      This, by the way, is in line with analysis of Magic: the Gathering play, where Cancel cards (“You don’t get to cast that spell!”) are seen as worse than Kill cards (“You did cast that spell, but I’m killing your thing right after!”). The effect is the same, but the idea that you actually got to achieve something first matters.

  7. Ed Murphy says:

    We had “something else happens” come up in a college game. The PCs were racing for a door; two of them tied; those two reached it at the same time and got stuck in it.

  8. Another excellent post, Ryan.

    I have to say that I’m becoming a big fan of the last 2 options you listed. I haven’t had much opportunity to play with systems that handle things this way, but the idea intrigues me.

  9. Reverance Pavane says:

    Traditionally the defender wins ties can occasionally be useful for timing purposes. The prime example of this is probably Runequest with the attack/parry mechanic, where a characters successful attack is “tied” by the defender’s successful parry. Bouts between skilled and well-equipped opponents could take ages, and were often a source of dissatisfaction.

    One of the big problems is that time tends to be fixed in these kinds of contests and success is calculated only as a probability in each arbitrary slice of time. There are few games which reverse the situation and take a look at how many “slices” it would take you to create the success, with the side taking the least time “winning” the contest.

    [Aside: for the more maths literate with at table computing support, one solution to this problem is to compute the accumulated probability of success for each side of the contest. Then make a skill test for each side and cross reference with the probabilities you calculated. This results in the number of rounds it takes for each side to acquire the success indicated by the roll. The lower result is then used to determine the number of rounds that it took for that side to generate the success. Reset, rinse, and repeat. If other circumstances intervene then neither side has been able to get the upper hand. Add a fatigue limit and you get a situation where the opponents will break apart to reconsider their options if neither side can overwhelm the other immediately.]

    Apart from that, I personally like games with a strong possibility of tied results – which is one of the reasons I like Ironclaw. If one side can’t break the tie in their favour through expertise, or an appropriate reaction to the situation (such as retreating from the attack – which leads to a much more dynamic play), then usually it’s a case that both sides are successful. In combat this may mean both sides get hit – something that’s happened in real life to me far too often to ignore at the game table…

  10. One interesting aspect in board game design of the use of tie resolution is to foster collaboration or competition. Ties are won by first to post encourages early escalation and thus over-commitment of resources and competition. Ties are shared encourages cooperation, as multiple people deliberately share resources until tit-for-tat breaks the cooperation. Very vicious is that ties both loose, and the winner is the third-place player.

    I’m not sure how this applies to RPGs, but the option of “both loose” is interesting.

    • Interesting observations, Christopher. Anything that breaks down the mechanical options into smaller working parts means better and more precise tools for designers to work with!