Blind Difficulties and Hidden Trouble

I’ve been tinkering with Fantasy Flight’s newest takes on the Star Wars RPG quite a bit lately, transitioning from Edge of the Empire to Age of Rebellion with a group that ranges from fairly new roleplayers to old hands. We’ve been having fun and despite a few oddities, the game is well put together and fun to play. One of those quirks came up recently and I’ve been running over it in my mind a lot trying to think through my feelings on the issue. The issue of course is blind difficulties.

To try and explain what I mean, let me set the scene of what happened in game. So I was using an idea from an old SW adventure as a starting point for my new game and this involved a droid that the party meets who is in the employ of a really impressive slicer. The party’s computer expert (who is really good) wanted to check into transmissions being sent by the droid but these transmissions are being overseen by the droid’s employer (the slicer). So it’s an opposed roll. And I didn’t consider when planning things out that I was going to come to that moment when the PC looked at me and said that they wanted to check this out and I had to assign them a difficulty pool.

Of course, the whole point is that the droid is undercover so by assigning this huge difficulty pool (5 difficulty with 4 challenge dice), the party learns exactly what the computer skill of their opposition is. More than that, they learn – no matter what else happens – that the droid is definitely not what he seems. Not that they suspect it, they know it.

Admittedly, only the players know, not necessarily their characters, but it’s no longer a point of suspense or conflict – it’s clear knowledge.

And with this roll, I realized that in this system it is nearly impossible to “keep secrets.” This was such an odd moment for me that I actually did something I’m usually loathe to do and paused the game to discuss and consider the issue with my players.

We kicked around a few ideas – that the GM just make the difficulty pool and roll it “behind the screen” – and compared it to other games such that, “hey, I rolled a 30 and still failed, there must be something going on!” This was good brainstorming, and I’ve considered these ideas more fully since then but honestly, it’s still a difficult piece of design to navigate. Sure, in a game like a d20 system rpg, a roll like the one mentioned above does make a difference – but the player is still in the dark about the bits “under the hood” of that difficulty check. Why a 30 failed is a different question than, “why does this robot have a 5/4 stat/skill split when that doesn’t jive with his story at all?” It’s a different level of information being presented in a very straightforward manner. The other idea about hiding rolls is untenable as well – as the game engine is so built around the very transparent nature of dice pools and the resultant narrative-shaping symbols.

Information is powerful and shapes decision-making even when we try to ignore it. More importantly than metagaming, this type of information creates a situation where very straightforward revelations are made that do not exist in other aspects of the game. Combat, for example, uses standardized difficulties with upgrades for NPC qualities like “Adversary” but as my group has learned, combat is another quirky bit of the game where the margin between the PCs winning easily and the NPCs wiping the floor with them is very swingy. Even so, combat still contains surprises because even though you might suddenly learn who is a nemesis versus a rival… you probably already had some indication of that going into the fight from other in-game information that had little to do with stats. This same issue exists with any area of the game that could benefit from “hidden information” from Stealth rolls to Social Interaction rolls.

Of course, my last paragraph suggested a possible “halfway” solution to this. It is possible that I could just come up with a system of standardized difficulties – such as with combat – and then upgrade the dice (or use setback dice) as modifiers based on the opposition. While this still reveals the caliber of opposition, it is less directly revealing than providing the opposition’s dice pool exactly. So, creating a talent similar to Adversary for different types of NPC actions such as awareness or slicing, etc. It’s a step but not necessarily a solution.

I’d love to hear any thoughts about FF’s Star Wars games, the idea of blind difficulties, or navigating this terrain in game. I think my follow up post to this one will discuss how I let the PC’s set their own difficulties on a recent occasion and how ridiculous space flight is in this game. But all that is still to come.

As always, thanks for reading and comments are welcome.

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9 responses

  1. I don’t know how well your players would handle this, (and admittedly I’m not entirely familiar with the gaming system) but in situations where this occurs I’ve been known to assign a lower difficulty to uncover some “planted” info that is put up to validate the cover of the individual and hint to the player that there “might be more here than meets the eye.”

    But that digging deeper might either:

    A. Lead to some serious embarrassment if it turns out to be nothing – up to and including the possibility of a friend turning into an enemy.
    Or
    B. Tip someone/something off if it indeed does turn out to be something.

    And let the players make the call how they wish to proceed.

  2. Sometimes, I think that is a good suggestion and is the type of thing I would do. The deeper issue is opposed rolls in this game system specifically create a difficulty (a pool of difficulty and challenge dice) which directly correspond 1-to-1 to the opposition’s ability. So this trick works well in some instances but won’t in all/the majority of situations (for this specific game system).

    It’s an odd duck.

  3. Generally speaking, because I am unfamiliar with the game system you are using, I ask you why not have the players exercise their agency on blind rolls at the beginning of the game, before it starts? Have each player make 2 blind (or secret) rolls for every hour of game time you intend to play. Record these and keep them behind the screen. Then use them in whatever order you devise.

    If there is sensitive information to be gained, break the data that can lead the players to surmise the information into the number of pips on the die. So 4 pieces of data on a D4, 20 pieces on a D20, or 4 pieces every 5 pips D20, etc. Chart this data in a linear fashion, either ascending or descending order.

    The system works thusly:
    1 – consult the blind roll for success or failure range
    2 – if proceeding, have the player openly roll on the selected Die (either for raw data on success or “corrupt” data on failure).
    3 – then use social interaction to play out the scene rather than just hand out a grade, which is essentially reading your cool adventure novel aloud to the players who really should be playing, IMHO. This will get the player involved and keep the meta-game and the in-game inseparable. which is exactly where I like to play my game.

  4. It would work fairly well in a binary system but the way the FF Star Wars dice mechanic works would complicate pre-rolling. It is definitely not a “one-roll” system. I think that is part of what makes it special but also part of what makes it oddly complex in weird places.

  5. Interesting question!

    I have been running EotE, and we are considering if the group of characters is going to mirror the group of players’ desire to shift slowly into Age of Rebellion. I suspect we are better suited to EotE (due to the group dynamics as free operators as compared to what might happen in assigned missions).

    Like you, I agree with the spirit of the rules that rolling needs to be out in the open. I have not had the issue come up yet of having to or wanting to conceal such a big secret, but I think it is just a matter of time… like possibly next session when they get some face-to-face time with the current object of their ire.

    What I have been considering is to roll the difficulty dice secretly, and leave the rest of the pool in their hands. This is not a great solution. What it does is deny them knowledge of by how much they succeeded or failed in the interaction. They know the general tenor of the result, and can get more information if they try to make use of Triumph or Advantage, but they do not know if they succeeded. This in itself is a signal that something odd is up, so it only makes sense to use this when they are already suspicious and it is time for that suspicion and doubt to grow into certainty.

    In your example with the ‘droid, I think I would have framed the scene in one of two ways after assessing their motivations. If they were curious about the signal, I would offer them the chance to waive the roll for a basic success. It’s a routine thing, checked out in a routine way. If they accept, then they (because the enemy Slicer is so skilled) satisfy their curiosity, perhaps by running a basic diagnostic, getting an all-good report and a cessation of the signal (for now). If they want to “see what they get” on the roll, then set the difficulty not as an opposed roll vs the enemy slicer, but against differentiating between a simple wiring glitch and a carefully disguised system (say, by choosing a standard or hard difficulty for the condition of the droid, with a few setback dice based on your colorful description of what a mess the thing’s innards are). If they succeed there, then they are led to upgrade their curiosity to suspicion or perhaps to full on investigation of the signal. If they fail, again… “there is nothing to see here” and the players might even believe it.

    If they were already suspicious, however, I have less to lose from doing something odd with the dice, so I could conceivably choose to conceal the difficulty side of the pool. Most players will get why you are doing that. Their Talents will still work and they can apply them as they would normally to downgrade difficulty, or remove setback dice, etc. They lose nothing except certainty of the difficulty.

    Still, in a real case of something like this, though, I might delay the roll for a period of time to start the narration based on the comparative skill levels of the two Slicers. Give them hints that there are layers and complications in the coding and their defensive operations which are good…no…really good…no…impressive…most impressive… then call for the roll. When they see the pool against them, they can enjoy challenging it and are prepared for it. The droid can seem more like a victim than a villain, and they can feel good for having good instincts and spotting a problem before it festers into a major threat.

    What do you think?

    1. “What I have been considering is to roll the difficulty dice secretly, and leave the rest of the pool in their hands.”

      Are you advocating taking the dice out of the player’s hands? I am asking because I do not know this system. Would the players normally make this roll themselves?
      Your explanation confuses me because it is sytems driven I guess.

      Would you say your example blends player knowledge with character knowledge, or creates a meta-game the players have to respect and walk around (player knowledge not equal to character knowledge)? I go for the blended player+character system of play myself so I am thinking my bias blinds my understanding of your solution.

      1. Normally, in this game, all dice are rolled openly, and in many cases the group collaborates on narrating how the dice are interpreted. (short video here: http://youtu.be/Pskbjv6nxjE , detailed video here: http://youtu.be/zDFxcgCqulk ) The dice themselves contribute directly to the narrative. As pools are built from scene elements, they will reveal an opponent’s traits. This may, as described above, provide too much insight into things too soon. What I am suggesting is to build the pool with the players normally, but to hold back the difficulty dice to roll by the GM in secret. Character traits and talents would still be employed to modify the number and type of Difficulty Dice as usual, but the total number of dice, and the results on those dice, could be kept secret. This would still signal that something was up (so, is still a problem), but could at least preserve a small sense of mystery for the players.

  6. So, interesting anecdote. I tried this in a limited way – with setback dice. When a player (again the computer guru in this case – but also a pilot) had a trait that removed Setback dice, I simply didn’t add them. I later realized, in talking to the players, that this wasn’t working because they felt like those talents were useless because they never seemed to have setback dice to remove. Silly me. I tried to tinker without really understanding what consequences existed for that choice.

    That said, I agree with your idea with the caveat being that it feels as if it adds a barrier to the intent of the dice pools and forces the decision of do I roll them all behind the screen or only some. If you only choose to do it sometimes, those rolls take on extra significance anyway. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding your intent?

    1. I think the thing you mention with the setback dice could happen to anybody. I was lucky that I had 5 players in a noisy environment around a long table, so I just started with the process of spelling out how the pool was built every time someone had to roll. We go through each type of die and spell out what shapes and influences the roll starting with their proficiency pool, which I counter with my difficulty pool, then they riff on the setting elements of the scene and situation to try to add boost dice, which I counter with setback dice. During that whole schtick people remember their Talents and cancel things out. Due to the back and forth nature of it, and as a primer for the creative pump, I have gotten into the habit of holding more dice than I need. 😉

      As for the secret rolls stuff, I think I am just echoing the points you make in the original article, while offering support for when you could try it and when it might be just as problematic as rolling in the open…. for a group that wants to be surprised, or reduce the IC vs OOC knowledge divide.

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