2011-08-01 : The Unreliable Currency series from 2010

This is the Unreliable Currency series:
2010-02-16 : Things on Character Sheets (2)
2010-02-18 : Currency - Spanning Divide and Range
2010-02-19 : Shared Positioning at the Micro
2010-02-23 : Can your brains just do it?
2010-03-01 : Reliable vs Unreliable Currency

Comments and questions, as always, very welcome.

1. On 2011-08-01, stefoid said:

say yes or roll the dice?

"I want to gain an advantage for having the high ground"

gm "yes"


"OK, roll your combat to see if you can..."

"too bad, although he is more exposed down there, you're also more exposed up here, so your advantage cancels out."


2. On 2011-08-01, stefoid said:

in the example above, the player fails the dice roll, leading to the gm describing the failure to gain advantage


3. On 2011-08-01, Vincent said:

Sure! That's how it works in Storming the Wizard's Tower, basically. Say more about it?


4. On 2011-08-01, stefoid said:

It removes the judgement factor from "does this character deserve a bonus?' which is nice, but the best thing is you dont need a zillion situational rules like "when the player is on higher ground, they get a bonus'.  You just need one rule that says, "if you want to go for any kind advantage bonus, roll for it"


5. On 2011-08-02, Vincent said:

Well, sort of. Now you need a zillion situational rules about when you can roll for an advantage bonus, OR ELSE you have the same colorless, inert "advantage bonus" that commoditization gives you.

In Storming the Wizard's Tower, you say how you're going to try to take advantage of an established tactical feature of the battlefield, you roll to see how well you do take advantage of it - how big your bonus is - and then the GM chooses whether it's an attack bonus for you, a defense bonus for you, an attack penalty for a certain enemy, a defense penalty for a certain enemy, or what.

It's a pretty happy medium between fairness and judgment calls. It's not suitable for every game, of course, but for StWT it's just right.


6. On 2011-08-02, Simon C said:

I have a question.

You talk about "unreliable currency", but then all the examples are instances where the unreliability comes from judgement of the fiction. Are there unreliable currencies that don't rely on judgement of the fiction, or are the two terms interchangable?

I suspect there are other kinds of unreliable currency, but we haven't talked about them much.


7. On 2011-08-02, Simon C said:

To clarify: I think we haven't talked about them because they're probably less interesting than judgement of the fiction, which is very interesting.


8. On 2011-08-02, stefoid said:

I mean you dont have to write in a rulebook, under section 13 - paragraph 4.3 "the rule for attacking from a height advantage", etc..  You can supply a generalized procedure.

As to the how you might implement such a procedure, in Ingenero for example, the player says what their characters intentions are and how they intend to make it happen.  "Im going to blindside the Nazi that Jack is fighting to give him an advantage"

There is no specific rule for blindsiding an opponent.

In Ingenero, the player decides what they want to happen - in this case they type of advantage/disadvantage the character intends - not the GM.

The zillion situational rules arent stated explicitly, they are lumped under GM plausibility fiat, just like anything a character attempts.

Is that just shifting the judgement call from "did I gain a bonus?" to "is it possible to gain a bonus?"  yes.  But thats a lot more relaxed judgement call to make.  Its a lot easier/agreeable to split the remotely plausible from the flatly impossible than it is to determine if something that is plausible, actually happens.

Well actually its not shifting the judgement call to plausibility, its limiting it to that, because you always have to make the plausibility call anyway.


9. On 2011-08-02, Ben Lehman said:

Man, even a year ago I was smarter than I am now. :D



10. On 2011-08-02, Vincent said:

Simon: I noticed a fun example of an unreliable but non-judgmental rule deep in the comments of one of those threads:

Remember the example of the warrior who becomes mayor? Here's a reliable currency rule:
If you switch your class from warrior to politician, your experience in battle half-applies to the political arena. Buy politician abilities with half the total XP you've spent on warrior abilities.

So if our warrior has spent 50 XP on warrior abilities, when he makes the switch to politician he reliably gets 25 XP to buy politician abilities. His player can use this to decide when and whether to make the switch.

Here's a corresponding unreliable currency rule:
If you switch your class from warrior to politician, does your experience in battle apply to the political arena? Roll percentile dice. Buy politician abilities with that percent of the total XP you've spent on warrior abilities.

So now if our warrior makes the switch, how many XP he gets to buy political abilities with isn't reliable. If he rolls a 15 on the percentile dice, that gives him 8 XP - I guess he learned things from battle that don't really apply to politics. If he rolls an 80, though, that gives him 40 XP, and so he's able to bring his battle experience powerfully to bear.

From here.


11. On 2011-08-02, Vincent said:

Oh - I got distracted from my full answer.

Simon, I think the reason that "+2 for the high ground" comes out as the example is because I was all like "rules that require you to judge the fiction create unreliable currencies." There are lots of other ways to create them and reasons to have them, no doubt.

I have no expectation whatever that "rules that require judgment create them" is the most interesting thing there is to say about unreliable currencies. It's a wide open topic!


12. On 2011-08-03, Simon C said:

Oh hey, that is a neat example.

I think "judgement of the fiction" is probably what a lot of people needed to hear about at the time, but yeah, lots of other stuff too.

It strikes me that a thing about unreliable currencies is that they interact powerfully with "no take backs" mechanics. I think "no take backs" plus unreliable currencies is a pretty interesting thing.


13. On 2011-08-03, Vincent said:


"No take backs" vs "take backs" is an interesting thing too all of its own.


14. On 2011-08-04, Michael Pfaff said:

Does the "high ground" unreliable rule move into reliable territory if you're using a map, and you have marked the high ground?

"I move to the hill on the map, and fire at Jimmy down below."

"Great. Since you're on the hill, you get +2."


15. On 2011-08-04, Josh W said:

I don't think I've seen a game that lets you rewind past a use of unreliable currency:

If it costs you something to perform an action with an uncertain chance of success, then people will be pretty unimpressed if you suggest rewinding before the point where dice were rolled.

In that situation there's an obvious conflict of interest; rewinding the game either makes the unreliable currency reliable (if you just stick with what was rolled before) or allows you to reroll.

The former situation applies to all kinds of hidden information situations too.

I suppose how you deal with this depends on what take backs are in your game, how important efficient currency management is, whether uncertainty is providing drama or inspiration, etc.


16. On 2011-08-04, stefoid said:

"If it costs you something to perform an action with an uncertain chance of success, then people will be pretty unimpressed if you suggest rewinding before the point where dice were rolled."

Thats not unreliable in the sense that vincent is talking about.  If the rule says "spend something to perform an action" then you can rely on the fact that when you spend the thing, you get to perform the action.  It would be unreliable if there is a judgement call to be made by someone "When you spend enough, you get to perform the action" without specifiying exactly what 'enough' was—that would be unreliable.

In my head I use the terms "solid" and "rubbery".


17. On 2011-08-08, Josh W said:

Ok go one more step ahead:

Resource A spent->action

/->resource B changed
Resource A spent->action->dice rolled
->resource B unchanged

Actions to change Resource A don't reliably transfer into changes to Resource B, there's uncertainty in it.

Sometimes that uncertainty can be quantified in terms of probability or risk, (dice systems) sometimes it can't (unprincipled player judgement, or judgement based on unknown principles).

Vincent can speak for himself, but I think it's no prob to have two main types of unreliable currency; either way the person making decisions on the basis of them knows that the changes he's expecting are not gauranteed to happen, unless he tries something to "fix the odds"/insure the principles are nailed down.
That's the important part right? The experience of the people making decisions based on the game's structure?

When they put a bit of game mechanics in motion, is it going to take the changes all the way, or could it get stopped part way through?

Also some control-theory stuff maps straight onto this discussion without any problems I can see. It uses some of the same vocabulary in the same ways, and just adds stuff. Like that little diagram up there is a rough transition diagram for a non-deterministic state machine, it's just a discription of potential cause and effect in a game system, nothing special, but that double interpretation means you can consider what other states could be used to choose between outputs and make it more deterministic etc.


18. On 2011-08-08, Josh W said:

Hmm, formatting broke my diagram, you can get the idea though, two possibilities forking off the die roll.


19. On 2011-08-18, David Berg said:

I'm with ya 100% on this, Vincent:

"Designing rules that treat fictional causes seriously means, at a pretty significant level, abandoning fairness and equalization, and thus embracing both mechanical risk and social-aesthetic risk. Your character can get unfairly hosed, through no misstep of yours, and your friends can make systemically-binding judgment calls that you don't like."

I wasn't sure what your takeaways for future design were, though.  Care to share?

My thinking, for a while now, has been to work on the judgment call end.  Communicate the logic from which the judgment calls should be made, show how to make them, and then your players will be able to employ whatever positional mods etc. your system entails without feeling unfairly hosed (99% of the time, anyway).

If that could be sufficient nailed, "treat fictional causes seriously" could be the resolution rules.

Of course, as you've said, designing for players to do a thing means more than just telling them to do it.  But that just makes this a worthy challenge!


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