Basically, A Guide for Every DM to Handle Every Action in Every Game
It’s going to happen, eventually. No matter how engaging your descriptions are, eventually one of the players is going to want to do something. A character is going to have to take an action. Now, I’ve said a lot on the subject of using the dice to resolve actions (Five Simple Rules for Dating my Teenaged Skill System), and I promised follow ups on all aspects of resolving actions. Well, here we are.
Let’s start with some useless pontification on role-playing theory, shall we?
The Useless Pontification on Roleplaying Theory
Most RPG rulebooks actually make a pretty big assumption. I mean, let’s take a look at the very basic core role-playing exchange. The actual step-by-step “how to play an RPG.”
- The DM presents a situation
- The players imagine their characters in that situation and decide how the character acts in response
- The DM determines the outcome and describes the results, creating a new situation
Right? That’s a role-playing game, at its heart. That is how all RPGs work. Except that step three is a little more complex. It looks more like this:
3a. The DM determines whether or not the action is even possible
3b. The DM determines whether the outcome needs to be randomly determined
3b1. The DM determines how to randomly determine the outcome
3b2. The DM makes a die roll or instructs the player to make a die roll
3b3. The DM determines the outcome of the die roll
3c. The DM decides an outcome
3d. The DM describes the results of the action of the players
(We call this process of determining the results of actions “Action Resolution” or “Adjudicating Actions”)
Now, go back and read through your favorite RPG rulebook. How many steps are covered and how much page space is given over to each. You will find that 3b1 and 3b2 get a lot of coverage. And the rest is kind of assumed or glossed over. That is why I wrote Five Simple Rules. To help cover 3a, 3b3, and 3c. But there are still some big gaps. For example, a lot of magic happens between 3b2 and 3b3 that most RPG manuals don’t even begin to discuss. So, I’m going to look at the whole process. And, most importantly, I’m going to look at how shine a bright spotlight on on Step 2. Because Step 2, as I noted in another article (Defining Your Game), is really what puts the RP in RPG. It is actually pretty much the definition of role-playing. And, in discussing all of this, I am going to draw attention to a concept that is absolutely VITAL for running a good, ongoing role-playing game that pretty much every role-playing game book ignores and assumes that you, the DM, will figure out on your own.
So the Player Declared an Action: Intentions and Approaches
You described the scene, you asked the players what they want to do, and now some player has opened his or her noise hole and something resembling language has come out. In theory, the player is trying to tell you what his or her character does in response to the scene. In practice, players usually suck at this until you start teaching them how to do it right.
When a player declares an action, you, as the DM, are looking for two things. WHAT is the player trying to accomplish and HOW is the character trying to accomplish it? I call these things the Intention and the Approach. Sometimes, figuring them out is easy. Sometimes, it isn’t. But you have to figure them out. Do not try to adjudicate the action unless you can state clearly in your head an Intention and an Approach.
The Intention is the thing the player is trying to accomplish or make progress toward. For example, if the character is climbing a wall, his Intention is to end up on top of the wall. If he is searching the room, his Intention is to locate anything hidden in the room or satisfy themselves that nothing is hidden in the room. If a character is keeping watch, his Intention is to be forewarned of anything approaching the camp. If the character is trying to persuade the guard to let him into the castle, his Intention is to get the guard’s permission to enter the castle.
Intentions tell you what success looks like. The character is on the top of the wall. He finds the hidden thing. He is convinced there are no hidden things. He is not surprised by intruders. The guard grants permission to enter.
Be very careful about assumed and unstated Intentions. Do not be afraid to ask the player what the character is trying to accomplish. “I swing on the rope and kick the guard” might be just what it sounds like, but it might be ambiguous. The character might be trying to move the guard, or push him over the railing, or knock him to the ground. Always ask about unclear Intentions. “What are you actually trying to accomplish” is a good question to ask.
The Approach tells you how the character is trying to accomplish the Intention. The character is trying to get to the top of the wall BY climbing it. The character is trying to locate hidden objects BY searching the room thoroughly. The character is trying to get the guard’s permission BY being persuasive. Sometimes the Approach is obvious. Sometimes it is not. And sometimes key details get left out.
For example, the player climbing the wall did not mention using any tools. Is he using pitons, a grappling hook, a crampons and climbing claws. These are all part of his Approach. As for the player trying to persuade the guard, what persuasive argument is he making? Is he just saying please? For maximum clarity, you should always force a player to be as clear as possible about their Approach. “What exactly is your character doing?”
The Approach is as vital as the Intention. In fact, the two work things work together. The Intention tells you, the DM, what success and failure look like. The Approach helps you determine if the action is possible and helps you determine what mechanical rules to use. But, more importantly, the Approach is the part of the action where all of the role-playing lives. I kid you not. This one little thing is actually the glue that binds the mechanical gamey parts of the game to the role-playing parts of the game AND shines a huge spotlight on Step 2 in EVERY SINGLE ACTION. You’ll understand this when we start looking at Consequences! And without those, you are not running a role-playing game. You’re running a game with some story elements.
The Approach: Where Role-Playing Lives
Why is the Approach so important? Because the Approach is what differentiates one character from another more than anything else. It might seem like the Intention is important, and it is. But the Approach is the part that really helps define a character.
For example, suppose my coworker and I both make big (separate) screw ups at work. We both want to avoid getting into trouble for the screw up (that is our Intention). So, I lie and conceal the screw up from my boss. My coworker admits the screw up and tries to fix or mitigate it. In game terms, I make a Bluff check and he makes a Diplomacy check to avoid being disciplined. In both cases, the outcome is the same: we either get disciplined or we don’t. But my action has left the screw up unfixed, floating out there and it might come back to bite me in the ass. Also, if my deception is ever discovered, or my action fails, I have the additional trouble of having lied to my boss to conceal my mistake. My coworker meanwhile gains a reputation for honesty, whether or not he gets disciplined.
Now, that is not to say that Intention isn’t important too. Both the means and the ends are important. My point is that, in most RPG systems, the Approach only explicitly matters insofar as it determines what mechanics to use to determine the outcome. But you are ignoring a big part of the game if that is all you use the Approach for.
How to Adjudicate the Action Like a Motherf$%*ing Boss (I Like the Title, I’m Using it Again)
Once you have identified a clear Intention and Approach, it is time to adjudicate the action. And we’ll run through the steps, one by one.
3a. Determine Whether the Action is Possible
Different DMs do this step in different ways. Me, I ask myself two questions.
First, is the action the character is attempting physically, mentally, or spiritually possible in the game world? Different DMs worry about this more or less. A full discussion about suspension of disbelief and verisimilitude is beyond the scope of this article. Maybe some day. Just be aware of this: there is no one right way to handle this question, but every f$&%ing DM out there thinks there is and they will tell you so. Some DMs will tell you never allow anything remotely “unrealistic,” while others will say “never, ever disallow any action as impossible because you are stomping on the players fun.” Well, they are both wrong .The real answer, the useful answer, lies somewhere in the middle and it lies in a different middle spot for every DM and every group. Don’t even get drawn into this useless argument.
Second, can the Approach the player stated actually bring about the Intention the player stated. Can the character actually end up on top of the wall simply by climbing? Can the character actually get by the guard simply by saying please? Can the character actually make progress toward their stated goal by taking the action in question?
Now, for all my egalitarian bulls$&% about “no one right answer,” that part (the one about whether the Approach can lead to the Intention) isn’t optional. If you skip it, you are damaging the level of role-playing in your game. Why? Because you’re removing the connection between actions (Approaches) and outcomes (Intentions). You don’t want to create a world in which any action can bring about any goal. Eventually the players will stop making logical, rational decisions when they realize it. They will start to simply use their best numbers against every challenge. I am not kidding. Ask any five DMs who have run a couple dozen Skill Challenges for D&D 4th Edition and four of them will tell you that this can happen.
Of course, it falls to you to determine how strict you want to be on the connection between Approach and Intention. But whatever you are comfortable with is fine. And don’t let ANYONE tell you there is a proper level. Just don’t ingore the question completely. Always ask yourself if the Approach can actually get to the Intention (or make progress toward it) and don’t be afraid to rule that an Approach CAN’T bring about an Intention.
If you determine the action is not possible for either reason, THE ACTION FAILS. Skip to 3c. You’re done. In some cases, particularly when you feel it should be obvious that the action can’t succeed OR when the failure will bring some harm to the character, it is appropriate to warn the player. Usually, the player has a mistaken impression about the situation, the world, or the rules and usually, that is due to misunderstanding or poor communication. Thus, you do not want to punish the player or cost them anything. It is okay to tell the player that their action can’t lead to success if you feel it should be obvious. Of course, sometimes it won’t be obvious until someone actually tries the action. In which case, treat the action as a failure and move to the end (3d).
3b. Determine if the Outcome Needs to be Randomly Determined
Now that you have determined the action can succeed, you need to determine whether or not it warrants a die roll. Do you need to use the game mechanics to figure out what happens? Five Simple Rules deals almost entirely with this step, but I’ll sum up the important points:
If the action can’t actually fail or failure is extremely unlikely, THE ACTION SUCCEEDS. Huzzah! Skip to 3c.
If the action can fail, but failure carries no risk or cost and the player can freely try again and again, THE ACTION SUCCEEDS. Huzzah! Skip to 3c.
If the action can fail and failure somehow changes the characters’ situation, you need to use the dice baby. Keep going.
3b1: Determine How to Randomly Determine the Outcome
Now it is time to use the game rules, bubby. But you’ve made it easy on yourself. By grilling for a clear Approach, you’ve done most of the work for figuring out how to use the rules. The Approach should clue you in to which ability score, skill, attribute, ability, dice pool, or whatever the hell else your game uses. This is the part where you crack the book and roll the dice. Use your best judgement and you will do fine.
3b2. Make a Die Roll and 3b3. Determine the Outcome of the Die Roll
Roll the dice and determine whether the die roll succeeds or fails. Read the rulebook if you are unclear; the whole rulebook is basically about this step.
3c. Determine the Outcome (and Consequences)
Somehow or other, when you reach this step, you have a couple of things to work with. You have an Intention, you have an Approach, and you have either the word SUCCESS or the word FAILURE. If you don’t have those things, something went wrong and you need to figure out how you f$&%ed up a simple (nested) step-by-step guide. Go back and troubleshoot.
Now comes the part where you have to decide the result of the action. “But Mr. Angry DM, sir, I already have the word SUCCESS or FAILURE. Isn’t that the result.” NO! Bonus points for calling me ‘Mr.’ and ‘sir,’ but you are wrong. That’s something a lot of people assume and that is why a lot of people bitch and whine about binary systems in an argument I will not get into here. The rule books generally, inexplicably stop at the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and assume you can take it from there. But there’s more to it than that. And handling this step wrong can ruin your entire game forever and make all your players hate you and also cause the moon to crash into the Earth. No pressure, though.
Seriously, though. You might have noticed that started this whole process with two things: an Intention and an Approach. Ultimately, you want to get two things out: Outcomes and Consequences.
The Outcome is a direct result of the Intention and whether or not the action itself succeeded or failed. If you have the word SUCCESS, the character reached their stated Intention (or made progress, more on this in a second). If you have the world FAILURE, the character did not reach their stated intention AND something has changed so that they either can’t try again or must decide whether to try again. Because, remember, if they can keep trying again and again without any cost or risk, the action CAN’T FAIL.
So, the Outcome writes itself. That is the easy part. And if you spend more than a second or two on it, you are over thinking it. Either the action succeeded or whatever it was that kept the character from trying over and over happened: you set off the trap you were trying to disarm, the monster heard your attempt to break down the door, you fell and took damage, you ruined some of your materials and have to buy more, you waste time and you have a deadline (the ticking time bomb I mentioned in Five Simple Rules) and so on.
Now, sometimes, as a DM, you will decide that the Outcome doesn’t get all the way to the Intention. That’s fine. Sometimes, an action is complex and requires multiple successes to achieve. Of course, you shouldn’t do this willy nilly. You should always have a good reason. And there needs to be a visible benchmark for progress. A lock so complex it requires three successes to pick is stupid. There is no way to separate one action from another. “Do you continue picking the lock” is a dumb question.
But a vault door with three locks, each of which has a trap on it is fair and gives a sign of progress and a risk or cost for failure. As does a door lock with three locks leaving a room that is filling with water. About the only consistent example of a situation where fuzzy progress and multiple die rolls is okay is social interaction, and I have a whole separate article about that coming soon.
So, when deciding that the Outcome is “progress toward the Intention” and not the Intention itself, ask yourself what the party can see or hear or perceive to tell them progress was made. And ask yourself what dragging the action out accomplishes for the game. If the answer to both of those is nothing, success equals Intention achieved.
But the Outcome is only half the result. The other half of the result is the Consequence. Consequences are a very important way to spotlight the choices your players make in Step 2. A Consequence is something that occurs as the result of choosing a specific Approach. They can be positive, negative, or neutral, and they can vary depending on the success or failure of the action, but their existence should never depend on the Outcome of the action. That is to say, whether an action succeeds or fails, you must think about the Consequences.
Remember how my coworker dealt with the screw up by admitting it and I dealt with it by concealing it? Well, whether my coworker succeeded or failed, he gained a reputation for honesty and owning up to his mistakes. Our boss will probably remember that and trust him in the future. Whether I succeeded or failed, that mistake is still out there waiting to be discovered. It can come back and cause trouble. And, of course, the problem reappearing can create situations where my deception might eventually be exposed despite my successful lie. And, if I fail to deceive my boss, I am branded as a liar. That has repercussions as well.
After the Outcome is determined, you must think about the Consequences of the Approach. How does the players decision to utilize that particular Approach change the world?
Sometimes, Consequences grow naturally out of the action themselves. Combat actions are great examples of actions whose Consequences take care of themselves. Everything you do in combat helps shape the overall outcome of the combat. You position yourself here instead of there. You use a healing spell instead of attacking. You choose this target instead of that target. And so on.
But what often gets overlooked is the Consequence of choosing to fight at all. When you kill off a patrol in a monster’s lair, what will happen when and if those bodies are discovered? If some of the monsters get away what are the Consequences?
Other actions also have Consequences that appear organically. If the party jumps a ravine instead of building a makeshift bridge, the ravine still exists as an obstacle. It might slow down anyone following them or it might hinder them as they try to come back the way they came. Setting off a trap vs. disarming a trap vs. avoiding a trap fall under the same heading.
The key, then, is to look at whatever was involved in the situation (the PCs and NPCs, the physical objects, the locations) and ensure that they have been permanently changed as a result of the PC’s Approach in a way that logically follows from the PC’s Approach. Every time the players take an action, you should be able to see how the world has changed as a result of their choice. Whether the action succeeds or fails, there should be some evidence of that choice. And if they haven’t been changed, be sure that lack of change is, in itself, a choice (like the ravine the party jumps or the trap they didn’t disarm or the trail they worked so hard to conceal in the wilderness).
The positive or negative nature of Consequences should not depend on the success or failure of the action. Just because I got away with telling my boss a lie doesn’t mean the Consequences are positive. They are pretty negative. The important thing is that the Consequences follow directly from the Approach in a way that makes logical sense and any reasonable person could see the connection. You should be able to say something like this:
- “Because the party jumped over the ravine, the ravine remains an obstacle for anyone traveling that hallway.”
- “Because the PC chose to conceal his mistake instead of fixing it, the client is going to get a fine from the IRS.”
- “Because the PC bullied and browbeat the guard into letting him into the castle, the guard told the other guards about the PC. Now they all dislike the PC and will harass him.”
- “Because the PC chose this APPROACH, this CONSEQUENCE exists in the world.”
Not every Consequence will be an issue. If the PCs never wander that hallway and nothing ever tries to follow them down the hallway, it doesn’t matter that the ravine is still there. That’s okay. Don’t try to force Consequences to have an impact. As long as Consequences occasionally pop up in ways the PCs can see, they will learn to act as though their actions have Consequences.
It is also important that you never, ever contradict a Consequence. If the party leaves all of the obstacles behind them untouched as they travel through the forest (jumping ravines, fording rivers, traveling out of their way to avoid bramble patches, and so on), anyone following them is going to have a hard time keeping up. They should not be followed. And if they are followed, you need to acknowledge that the party made it very hard on their quarry. “The half-starved, wild-eyed bounty hunter glares at you. He has obviously had a hard few days (and he’s missing some HP). ‘You lead me on a merry chase through the woods, but I still have more than enough strength to deal with you…’”
Back in Five Simple Rules, I noted the importance of differentiating approaches as a way to ensure that the skill system retained its depth and didn’t become a game of “choose the highest skill modifier and just use that.” Well, this is exactly what I was talking about. Consequences are what ensure that two actions are different even if they have the same Outcome.
Remember: Outcomes come from Intentions and Consequences come from Approaches. Consequences follow logically from the Approach and can be positive or negative or both regardless of the Outcome. Consequences might never come up in the game again, but when they can come up, you should make sure they do come up. Never contradict a Consequence once it exists.
3d. Describe the Results
Now comes the time to show off your improvisational chops. You need to tell the players what the Outcome of the action is and apply any results. Then, you need to lead into the next decision point. If you are an experienced DM, you probably have already found your voice, but if you are a new DM, this part can be pretty daunting. So, I’m going to make it simple for you.
Remember way back in Step 2, the player told you what he or she wanted his or her character to do? There was an action from you which you took the Approach. Start by repeating that. Then, using the word ‘and’ or ‘but,’ tack attach the Outcome you decided on in step 3c.
- “Using your grappling hook and crampons, you climb the wall and you reach the top.”
- “You threaten to beat the guard up if he doesn’t let you in, but he isn’t intimidated and won’t let you in.”
If the Consequence is something that has an immediate, direct effect on the party right now and it needs to be handled, throw that on as well. Or if it is something that will have a future impact, try to work that in too. But that isn’t always possible.
- “You get a running start and jump over the ravine, landing on the far side. If you want to get back, though, you’ll have to jump over it again.”
- “You threaten the guard, but he won’t let you in. He also narrows his eyes and it is clear he’s angry. Hopefully, he won’t make trouble for you later.”
Don’t force mention of the Consequences, but it is a good idea to reinforce the idea that the choice of Approach has an impact on the game whenever it is possible to do so. Just keep it natural.
Either way, that is all it takes. One sentence to close the action. You can try to dress it up and make it more exciting, but the deep, dark secret is that you don’t have to. And if you try to dress it up too much, you risk poor communication. It is far more important for the players to understand that they succeeded or failed and to restate their goals. The fact that you are responding directly to their actions and throwing back their own words does far more to keep them engaged than all the fancy adjectives any thesaurus can. Because it tells them that the outcome was tailor made for them, that you listened to their action and responded with a hand-crafted, lovingly made result.
Out With the Old, In With the New
And the action is done with. You started with a single, declared action. You teased out (or asked for) the Intention and the Approach. You made sure the Approach was a feasible way to acheive the Intention. You determined whether the action succeeded or failed. Then, you determined the Outcome and the Consequences. And you described the results.
Now, you are ready to move on to the next action and do the whole thing again. But remember, there may be a new Consequence living in your world. Make a note of it if you have to. Somewhere, there is a guard badmouthing the PCs or a ravine with a tree trunk laid over it like a bridge. But otherwise, you adjudicated the hell out of your players’ actions. Go you!