Runic Rants: Opposed Rolls Ties

2021-08-25

Runic Rants is an irregular series of thoughts, opinions, and experiments about RuneQuest.

Opposed Rolls in RuneQuest are pretty simple. It takes only a couple paragraphs on page 142 of the rulebook to explain the process: the adventurer and opponent each make an ability roll and whoever achieved the greater success “wins”. Achieving a “greater success” in this case means “greater” on the scale of ability roll results: critical success beats special success, special success beats success, success beats failure, and failure beats fumble.

But the list of outcomes on page 144 can easily stump the reader. More specifically the second and third bullet points:

Tie: A tie (where both participants achieve the same type of success) means the situation is temporarily unresolved. If both participants rolled a critical success, the result is a tie.

Two Losers: Both participants fail their roll. Neither party achieves their intended goal.

These situations can be hard to picture in practice: what is the Gamemaster supposed to do with a “temporarily unresolved” situation? How is that different from an actual “tie”, which occurs when two critical successes are rolled? And how are these two different from both participants failing their rolls and “not achieving their goals”?

To figure this out, we will look at three classic situations:

  • Sneaking: Rurik the Loud is trying to sneak past Earwax the Deaf. This will be represented by a Move Quietly roll opposed by a Listen or Scan roll (even maybe the latter augmented by the former!)
  • Bullshitting: Rurik the Loud is making a scene at the market, trying to guest past Mikeva the Mean, the bodyguard of a priestess Rurik wants to talk to. This will be a Fast-Talk roll opposed by a Loyalty or Insight roll (or, again, maybe the latter augmented by the former!).
  • Racing: Rurik the Loud has made bold claims about his equestrian skills, and has been challenged by Larhast the Quick to a horse race. This will be a good old Ride (Horse) skill contest.

The cop-out solution

The easy solution is to introduce some house rules stolen from another BRP game: Pendragon. This is a popular house rule, in which the Gamemaster rarely has to think about ties and unresolved situations:

  • If one roll is better than the other (on the fumble to critical scale), then the winner and loser are clearly defined, and the rules-as-written can be applied.
  • If both rolls have achieved the same level of success, the one who rolled the highest number is the actual winner.

This rule was in fact present in some of RuneQuest’s early drafts. It even features in the RuneQuest Quickstart (see page 6). It does make things simpler for the Gamemaster, but it should be noted that the designers eventually opted against it by the time the RuneQuest rulebook was released. The reason was that they didn’t want to mix rolling high and rolling low, especially since there are no other situations in RuneQuest for which a player would want to roll high on a D100. They got rid of this rule to preserve flavour and consistency.

This rule also doesn’t completely eliminate the problem: two players could still roll the exact same number. There is also the situation where both rolls fail — some people still apply the “highest rolled number is the winner” house rule, with one contestant “failing more” than the other, but I think I prefer to have both contestants actually fail… assuming we figure out what that means.

A Detour to Narrative Games

I think a key to figuring out what to do in these cases is to take a little detour to the world of narrative games such as HeroQuest/QuestWorlds or FATE.

In these games, a roll doesn’t represent the simulation of an action being undertaken by a character — that is, in these games, you don’t make an “Athletics” roll to specifically jump from the back of your flying hippogriff onto the charging Tusk Riders below, applying modifiers to account for differences in speed, reduced visibility from the dust rising from the Tuskers’ galloping hooves, and the fact that you’re holding a sword in each hand. Nope. In these games, you roll to figure out the outcome of a scene in which you use your athletic prowess to move the action to the back of a Tusk Rider’s mount. How it happens specifically (jumping from your hippogriff or dangling underneath it or whatever) isn’t relevant to the roll itself because these are still the same original situation and desired outcome: you were on a hippogrhiff, and now you’re on a Tusker, fighting its rider.

The difference between those two approaches is outside the scope of this article and, depending on what kind of RuneQuest Gamemaster you played with, it could be a revelatory paradigm shift or splitting hairs… my main point here is that narrative games often use rolls to advance the story from one beat or scene to another, as opposed to using rolls to model a specific physical action. Let’s keep that in mind.

Unresolved Situations

Okay, let’s come back to our simulationist RuneQuest system and look back at the example situations while keeping in mind what narrative games tell us about rolls.

I think that the main difference between an “Unresolved Situation” and the other outcomes is that all other outcomes are, well, resolved, in the sense that the story moves on to the next beat or scene: trying to sneak past Earwax the Deaf, trying to get past Mikeva the Mean, and trying to race Larhast the Quick have all been resolved. Whether Rurik succeed or failed or whatever is another question, but the question of “is this scene over?” has an answer, and it’s “yes“.

In comparison, an “Unresolved Situation” means that the scene is not over. More rolls are needed. Why?

  • Sneaking: Rurik is stealthy (he succeeded his Move Quietly roll) but hasn’t found a good opportunity to get past Earwax. Earwax has seen something move (he succeeded his Scan roll) but he’s not sure if it was just an animal, so he stays alert. The scene isn’t over.
  • Bullshitting: Rurik has some good arguments for seeing the priestess (he succeeded his Fast-Talk roll), but Mikeva has a hunch he just wants to scam her with a shady business deal (she succeeded her Insight roll). Still, Rurik has a little bit of time for another roll before Mikeva loses her patience and lifts her axe. The scene isn’t over.
  • Racing: Rurik and Larhast are neck and neck after the first lap of the racing track (they both made their Ride rolls). Instead of a small scene where the hero wins the race, this turns into a suspenseful set piece!

Of course, the laziest way to continue the scene and, hopefully, resolve it, is to make both players roll again. That’s obviously boring: two people roll their Ride skill until one fails. And with every roll, the Gamemaster and players wonder how they’re going to describe anything interesting and different compared the previous roll, and so they just roll in turns. Bleh.

Again, let’s think about this narratively. Why is the situation unresolved? Well, I mentioned it above with the horse race: maybe it’s because things are getting suspenseful. The stakes have been raised, the wind is turning, another of the priestess’ bodyguards shows up to ask what’s going on, a crowd is gathering by the race track, and so on. The following is entirely optional, but here are some ways to add tension to the situation:

  • Sneaking: The stakes are raised when Earwax calls upon another guard to come check out this shadowy figure he glimpsed. Later, maybe an actual wild animal shows up, which can be a distraction that Rurik can benefit from, or an additional bit of danger he needs to deal with!
  • Bullshitting: The stakes are raised when other market goers come up to Rurik, saying that they’ve been waiting to speak to the priestess for the past two hours, so why should he skip the line? Shortly after, maybe the priestess comes out and asks who is making all this ruckus in front of her tent!
  • Racing: The stakes are raised when the City Rex appears in the tribune, after people told him that two excellent racers were competing in the arena. Bystanders who are now betting on Rurik and Larhast are throwing vegetables and sandals at the contestants, hoping to give the advantage to whoever they are cheering for!

Regardless of whether the Gamemaster is indeed describing these scene changes or not, it’s clear that the two characters’ skills are evenly matched so far, and therefore something else has to set them apart, or something else has to happen. For instance:

  • Your spirit sets you apart: you can roll the same ability again, but you have to augment it first with a Passion or Rune. If you already augmented the previous roll, find another augment.
  • Your ingenuity sets you apart: you have to roll a different ability to show how you’re doing things differently and get a head.
  • Your ability to adapt to change sets you apart: the situation has changed (see above) and you’re using this to your advantage by rolling a different, relevant ability.

The Gamemaster can optionally set some limit on the first option (“you will only be able to re-roll the same ability once again only in the entire scene“), or even forbid it completely (“we’ve established that both characters are quite evenly matched, so you can’t re-roll that ability anymore“).

Going back to our examples:

  • Sneaking: Rurik rolls Move Quietly again, but augments with the Movement or Darkness Rune, or with the Scan skill to look for good spots to hide into. If Rurik has to roll something else, he can roll Climb as he uses the verticality of the environment to his advantage, or Animal Lore to lure the wild animal that showed up towards Earwax, or Jump to take a risky shortcut over an obstacle towards his goal!
  • Bullshitting: Rurik rolls Fast-Talk again, but augments with the Earth Rune, or with Charm. If Rurik has to roll something else, maybe he makes the risky move to lace his words with threats, rolling for Intimidate. A safer move might be to roll for Gossip or Homeland Lore to know a few things about the priestess that will convince Mikeva that Rurik has her best interests in mind, or Orate to speak to the angry crowd about these unacceptable wait times!
  • Racing: Rurik rolls Ride (Horse) again but augments with the Movement or Beast Rune, or a Passion related to the stakes of the race (maybe a Hate Passion for the opponent’s tribe). If Rurik has to roll something else, he can roll Animal Lore to better handle his mount, or Intimidate to taunt Larhast into making a mistake! He could also roll Dodge to avoid the rain of rotten tomatoes and radishes coming down on the track!

Based on these new rolls, the Gamemaster and players can weave a growing narrative of this scene, and this in turn will inform them about new rolls they can make if there is once again an “Unresolved Situation” outcome. For instance, in the Racing situation, after Rurik sees that bystanders are cheering and throwing vegetables, the third round of rolls could be Sing or Orate to get his side of the crowd to rally behind a taunting chant that will make their aim better, and will sink Larhast’s spirits!

By diversifying rolls like this, the Gamemaster can not only greatly reduce the chances of a continued need to keep rolling, but also make the outcome much greater than the players’ original goals. Again, in the Racing situation, Rurik would come out not only victorious, but Larhast would be humiliated, covered in rotten produce, and a whole chanting crowd would be gathering around Rurik. Follow the dice, run with the story, and you may end up in interesting places!

It’s possible that both characters are exceptionally good at a lot of things. Rurik and Larhast could have 80% or more in Ride, Animal Lore, Dodge, Orate, and Sing! Or the players could be exceptionally lucky, succeeding even with rolls under 30% skills! Both are highly unlikely but hey, weirder things have happened at the table. In that case, the scene could still be playing out after three or four rounds of rolls. What to do then?

  • If the players and Gamemaster are engaged and having fun: Nothing! What may have been an anecdotal scene is suddenly becoming a suspenseful and exciting part of the characters’ story! The players may remember this for months or years. The Gamemaster should lean into it and, especially, make sure that the outcome matches the suspense. Just getting past Earwax, meeting Mikeva’s boss, or beating Larhast in a race and never mentioning it again might feel anticlimactic. It may be better to have some lasting consequences to these scenes, such as Earwax hunting Rurik personally through the wilderness, Mikeva investigating Rurik’s business and associates, or Larhast coming back angry and drunk with a handful of friends, accusing Rurik of cheating.
  • If the players are not engaged, or the Gamemaster is in a hurry: Set a limit. Declare that this scene is over after a certain amount of rolls (three seems appropriate to me), and that if the contest is unresolved by the end, it is treated as a tie. If the Gamemaster doesn’t want to derail the current adventure with the creation of a whole new sub-plot and the introduction of a new secondary NPC, she can even state that there’s only one roll, and that it will end in a tie unless there’s a clear winner.

This last bit is a great segue into the next segment!

Ties

Ties are sometimes easier to handle, and sometimes harder to handle than unresolved situations. The problem arises from situations that are hardly compatible with the idea of a tie.

For instance, Racing is a clear example where a tie is possible and easy to grasp: Rurik and Larhast crossed the finish line at the same time, and have to agree that they are just as good as the other one at riding horses.

It’s harder for Sneaking or Bullshitting, though. The best I can think of is:

  • Sneaking: Rurik has successfully moved past Earwax, but Earwax has successfully spotted him. So now Rurik is inside the Lunar camp, but Earwax is ringing the alarm. How is that different from a failure of Rurik’s roll, you ask? Well, with a failure, I would have ruled that Rurik gets spotted before he makes it into the camp. See: a failure means Rurik doesn’t achieve his goal, which was to get past Earwax. Here, he did succeed. But so did Earwax.
  • Bullshitting: Rurik has successfully gone past Mikeva and is now talking to the priestess, but Mikeva is on to him and will stand next to her boss during the conversation. Mikeva might interrupt Rurik on a regular basis, and might even jump on him when he wants to take something out of his bag. Again, the difference with a failure is that Rurik achieved his goal of talking to the priestess, but Mikeva achieved hers to get in the way.

This isn’t perfect, and it is potentially hard to come up with on the fly during a game, but it’s a start. If you can’t think of a good way to handle a tie in a given situation, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to fall back to the “Unresolved Situation” outcome above, and ask for a new round of rolls, raising the stakes, etc. That is, unless the players can think of something. Don’t forget: when in doubt, always ask your players! Not only does the Gamemaster not have to always have all the answers, but also often the players will give you all the rope you need to hang them!

Failures

And now, for the last outcome: both opponents have failed their rolls. This is like a tie (above) but with failure instead of success. Again, it’s very useful to approach this with a narrative game mindset, i.e. keep in mind that failure here means that the players did not achieve their goals.

  • Sneaking: Rurik didn’t find a good way to get past the guard. It doesn’t necessarily mean he was seen or heard, however. Remember: Move Quietly is an approach Rurik took to achieve his goal of getting past Earwax (as opposed to attacking Earwax or charming Earwax or whatever). Failing a Move Quietly roll means he didn’t achieve that goal. It may be because he was spotted by Earwax, but it may also be for other reasons such as not finding enough dark spots to hide in, or realizing his armour is making too much noise, and turning back. Since we’re in the “Failure” outcome, Earwax actually failed to spot Rurik, so it’s probably one of the latter.
  • Bullshitting: Rurik fails to convince Mikeva to let him speak to the priestess. Mikeva failed her Insight roll so she doesn’t have any concrete reasons to distrust Rurik, so maybe she’s in a bad mood, or maybe the priestess happens to be busy and has instructed her bodyguards to refuse any visitors. And this is another lesson from narrative games: don’t hesitate to slightly change the “reality” of the game world to explain the outcome of a scene. Maybe the priestess was previously suggested to be available to visitors, but after these rolls, it turns out she isn’t. The Gamemaster can introduce a visitor currently talking to her, which Rurik can spot through the opening of the priestess’ tent, for instance.
  • Racing: Rurik and Larhast fail to finish the race because they crashed their chariots or lost control of their mounts. Maybe they actually finish the race, but they tired their mounts so much that it’s a disappointing finish, and anybody who had any bets going on, or any interest in the outcome, have left and gone back to other better things.

Conclusion

Hopefully, reframing rolls as narrative ways to resolve a scene and achieve a goal, along with all the examples sprinkled through this article, have given you some good food for thought! I can only hope it may even help you run better games… At least, organizing my thoughts by writing them down here has definitely helped me clarify things that were previously merely gut feelings. I have anecdotes from my own Gamemastering of contest scenes that worked well, and others that didn’t work so well, and now I better understand what was involved.

Until the next rant, may the stakes be ever risen against you!

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