Active vs. Instinctive Design Considerations

Active: a character consciously chooses to undertake an activity. This can involve forethought, planning, assistance, etc.

Instinctive: a character reacts to prevent some calamity. This is done in the moment and the circumstances preclude anything but immediate reaction.

I am using the terms loosely here; obviously, in the broader sense, a character's instincts can lead him to active abilities (for example, if my instinct is to seek revenge when I am wronged, I can seek revenge with foresight and cunning). The iconic example of the instinctive (or one might say reactive) ability is the saving throw from D&D, a last ditch attempt to salvage the character from harm.

The clear divide between active/instinctive is the role the players have in them. Active abilities are those with agency within the fiction (players, usually) influencing the fiction, whereas instinctive abilities are the fiction influencing them. If that makes even the slightest bit of sense.

Because of this difference, the systems demand different design strategies. Active abilities need to be designed in such a way that they can account for forethought, planning, assistance, etc., whereas instinctive abilities cannot.

What are some of the ways various games handle this?

Traditional RPGs: if you do a thing in a certain way, the GM might apply a bonus to your roll. Often in a binary pass/fail scenario, the difference between instinctive and active abilities is blurred. What is the difference between making a skill check to persuade the Duke and making a persuade check to avoid offending him? Not much.

Burning Wheel (et al.): FoRKs, wises, helper dice for active abilities. I don't know the system well enough to comment on its instinctive abilities except that I am uncertain that it has a separate system for them.

Apocalypse World: all abilities are active and the instinctive portion is typically wrapped up into the 7-9 results. The move made is determined by the fiction. There's also a help move. The only instinctive ability (I think) is the suffer harm move, which usually only occurs as a result of a move (thus the instinctive ability flows from the active and might be considered a hybrid form of that).

Blades in the Dark: adding +1d for a whole host of reasons. The players also have a choice to resist harm or accept the consequences.

What are your thoughts on these mechanisms, exactly?

Comments

  • edited February 21
    You're right active abilities values are built brick by brick (often with diminishing return), to represent project-like construction. Instinctive abilities, when using ordinary stats, are rolled at a malus (surprise) or "raw" to give the feeling of being "naked and on your own" in the face of harm.
    Saves are also a way of getting the player to accept incoming harm for their character.

    In many systems defenses are fixed and reactive when damages are random and active. There's a bit of primitive masculine/feminine thought there. For me, I like systems where "defense" is as active as "action". Too much Cobra space adventures I guess.
  • I don't see a binary division between active and reactive actions, but rather a continuum from preparing freely and planning in complex ways to not preparing and not planning.

    There can be active situations which involve unplanned and unprepared actions (some sudden urge or opportunity) and passive situations with quick but important character decisions (like choosing to accept harm for some good reason instead of trying to avoid it). There are also factors other than time and intent affecting the range of player choices: if I don't have any weapon, regardless of how freely and in advance I decide to have a fight I'll face it unarmed.

    Moreover, active and reactive behaviour is nested: I can prepare very cleverly and extensively to fight a dragon, and then make a lot of saving throws during the fight, or I can be suddenly forced to do something (e.g. the common RPG occurrence of being ambushed or chased) but manage to make detailed decisions and plans for the execution.

    Looking at a concrete example, the distinction between attack rolls, saving throws, ability checks and thief abilities in D&D results from
    • differences in what usually affects the roll (respectively character level and enemy defenses, character level and own protections, miscellaneous circumstances, and skills that are only vaguely related to character level)
    • an intent to limit the scope of special cases (e.g. mandatory saving throws, critical hits, contests between characters)
    • an old-school lack of taste for neat and uniform rules
    .
    All these dice roll types, even the most reactive ones, are essentially a success/failure test about the success of a player action that has been decided at a level of agency and abstraction that is supposed to be appropriate (opinions might differ...) for the situation at hand.

  • Burning Wheel has an entire subsystem called Instincts, soooo... :smile: And, actually, they work exactly as you'd expect: they get you a "free roll" when triggered, often, but you're not going to get bonus dice from Help or FoRKs, typically.
  • I suppose what I'm needling at is: how does one design mechanics in such a way that reactive/instinctive abilities are both mechanically satisfying (in the sense that they feel fair) while counterbalancing fewer opportunities for forethought while still maintaining a sense of urgency?
    Looking at a concrete example, the distinction between attack rolls, saving throws, ability checks and thief abilities in D&D
    You have pinpointed the exact reason I am having difficulties. The closest mechanics I have discovered in resolving the matter are Otherkind dice. Overall, I am interested in high lethality (a lá OSR) while maintaining open and fair play (that is, not relying entirely on the GM's whimsy to determine something).

    I've been tearing my hair out for some time over this matter and it is quite possible it is impossible to resolve.
  • I never thought of that this way. Why do you need more than urgency ? I mean, the effect of a simple question "You're walking into the grotto. Who goes first ?" is good enough for me. Could you be a little more specific with the applications ? Are you thinking of surprise attacks and witticism ? If it's for surprise attacks, consideration about distance, perception and mobility will have a great effect. If it's for extraordinary damage (hypnosis, poison, etc.) I don't know.
  • There are lots of questions that can be asked and answered with the dice, and the dice will always weave a better--and more impartial--story than the GM. Your mileage on this may vary, as the saying goes, but I do not regard my own narrative skills highly. Rather, I consider them middling at best, and so I vastly prefer the dice to tell tales.

    As an example of the questions I am interested in answering:

    1. Do you do X, and if so, how effective is your X? (How much progress do you make on X?)
    2. How much times does your X take?
    3. Do you suffer Y, and if so, how badly do you suffer Y?

    More concretely, in the context of the dismal dungeon crawl:

    1. How much progress do you make picking a lock? (None, a little bit, most of it, all of it?)
    2. How much time does it take to pick the lock? (No time at all, a few minutes or so, a rather long time indeed.)
    3. Do you trigger any traps? (No, yes.)
    4. Do your tools wear down? (No, yes.)

    Or a giant spider:

    1. Do you spot the giant spider lurking on the ceiling? (No and it gets the drop on you, yes but not before it strikes, yes and you act first because you're so sharp-eyed.)
    2. If you don't spot the spider, do you get bitten by the spider? (No, yes, yes and it hurts a lot.)
    3. If you are bitten by the spider, are you paralyzed by the spider's bite? (No, yes.)

    One can see the natural evolution of 6-/7-9/10+ from all of this, but I like well-defined procedures and mechanisms from the mechanics that PbtA games are a bit light on (nor do I seek to reinvent Dungeon World in this regard). The hardness of moves determined by the GM leaves me dissatisfied. There should never be a question in games where character death is a possibility as to whether it was the dice or the GM's caprice that killed a character (imo).
  • In a well-run PbtA game there is no “GM caprice.” The potential consequences of every action should always be clear to the players, so that they can make informed decisions. The GM has enormous leeway in terms of describing the potential consequences, yes — but the players choose to take the bait or not. I understand your desire for hard mechanical distinctions, but emphasizing the importance of GM discipline and consistency is the “fuzzy” way to sidestep the problem. That’s what works for me when I run PbtA games, anyway.
  • Okay, so you will have lots of active actions and reactive will be for surprise attacks and saves. Perception and reflexes checks have many downsides, can be hard to balance, what are they in fact ?
    Naked CON is old and tried for anaphylactic shock.
    For poison and the like, it must be easy to list elements and resistances, maybe with a rochambeau circle for auto-balance. Realism is not all.
    AW uses some Burning Wheel instincts : like the driver always has an escape route. That's good characterization. I prefer that to an universal mechanic that gets used in 3 types of instances only.
  • I'm not sure I fully understand what the problem or concern is here. I think it's smart to consider what "triggers" mechanics and whether they are active or passive in various ways... but it sounds like you're struggling with something beyond that. What is the issue, in fact, and what problems does it cause for you?
  • Paul_T said:

    What is the issue, in fact, and what problems does it cause for you?

    Game procedures to handle those rolls and how/when to use them properly. D&D is very slapdash in its mechanics, and many times they feel sloppy and underdeveloped. For instance, look at saving throws. You might have one that is a partial effect on a success and a full effect on a failure. You might have that is full effect on a failure and no effect on a success. You might have no real saving throw and instead abilities that trigger on a certain number of hit points. You might have abilities that trigger on hit points and then demand a saving throw.

    I understand this is all because D&D has cobbled together mechanical cruft over the past fortysome years, but I want something more. I have developed my own permutations of the rules that implement binary success/fail, ternary PbtA-style resolution, work-in-progress rolls, etc., but it's clunky, inelegant, and downright confusing to anyone who isn't familiar with how I do things. It feels...unhygienic.
  • Hmmm! It sounds like you're unhappy with how your rules are coming together, but I'm still not sure exactly how/why. Maybe give us a specific example of something you're unhappy with? Or an example of how ideal play would work with the kind of rule you want in place?
  • An example from last night's game will suit the discussion, I believe.

    There was a large pit in which the players were trapped, rapidly filling with acidic sludge from several large pipes. One of the players proposed scaling the wall (a sensible recourse). I had not prepped any notes on the slickness or existence of handholds upon the wall, so I judged the base DC as a matter of 15. Not too difficult, not too easy, I should say. Now, as a matter of course, I indicated to the players the following:

    1. The base DC is 15. This will allow you to scale halfway up the wall.
    2. Succeeding on a DC 20 check will bring you to the ledge, whereupon you will be hanging from it and capable of pulling yourself up shortly thereafter, but circumstance will impose advantage/disadvantage as warrants.
    3. Succeeding on a DC 25 check will allow you the full measure of success, whereupon you will be standing atop the ledge and fully capable of defending yourself.
    4. If you have any sort of tools in your arsenal that would assist you in this task, you may have advantage on the climbing check.

    This was, in my estimation, a fair judgment of the task. In retrospect, I may have lowered the base DC by 5 (to 10), but it is what it is. My ire here is that I have to make everything up by judgement call alone. There are many ways I could have handled such a task, and what I generated on the fly sufficed for the group (nobody expressed unhappiness), but I ought not have to. BitD, for instance, handles this scenario quite well, and AW would as well with an a Act Under Fire roll. Me, I am bereft and struggling. On a failed Athletics check to climb, the results are entirely to the imagination of the GM. What occurs? I could say, for instance:

    1. No progress! Try again next turn.
    2. You slip and fall into the acid. (Does this get a save to avoid? Save vs. prone and damage? Fall prone and then save vs. damage?)
    3. You provoke an attack of opportunity from a nearby enemy.
    4. You fail and cannot climb the wall right now until circumstances change. You’ll need to change approach, get help, etc.

    There are permutations upon permutations available, and like a man presented with a blank sheet of paper and told to draw, I am paralyzed with indecision (to overstate for the sake of the dramatic; the session went well overall). I need a coloring book, not a bare easel. Boundaries laid before me, lines and borders that provide structure and guidance, something more than “just set a DC and wing it.”
  • I would argue you need a ruleset with greater clarity (or prep with greater clarity, but that has diminishing returns), as you seem to already be aware. I think designing games which handle this kind of thing well is a tricky thing. We were talking a bit about this in the "Perception" thread, as well - how much leeway do the rules leave to make the way something is handled repeatable and/or predictable? Some argue that the "looseness" is a boon to the GM; I'd prefer consistency, myself.

    An important and difficult subject, no doubt. I tend to prefer (or design) rules which create much more clarity around these decision points. (Consider something like The Pool, which is tremendously clear on this topic, for instance.)
  • edited February 24
    Agreed. Foremost, my prep was not sufficient, something I will rectify in future sessions. Outside of that:

    In the same way that Fate offers varying structure for resolving tasks and conflicts (four actions and Contests, Conflicts, Challenges), so does D&D need those for modeling different aspects of the game. Heck, I would be happy enough if the game had longform guidelines on stunting (as in 4e) and a slightly-less-codified-than-PbtA system for consequences on failed rolls. Instead, there’s a considerable amount of meat for spells and the bones are left for skills. What happens on a roll? How do I set a DC, and when do I grant advantage/disadvantage? Who knows?

    In the end, the game has changed from my ideal vision of a fantastical exploration and role playing game to a picaresque high fantasy brawling simulator, and the rules reinforce that. Climbing a cavern wall? That’s Veins of the Earth, not D&D. Ah, well, so it goes.
  • Well, I don't disagree with you on any of that... but I'm not sure I have any great advice other than to play a different (or the same game differently).

    The old-school approach is to handle "rulings, not rules" as a system of precedents (like precedent-based law), so that, over time, the "System" gets nailed down. That could be useful for you, perhaps, but it does nothing to solve your initial conundrum.
  • If BitD/AW use approaches you like, but you can't just use those' games rules, then I think you can still use their logic. So:

    When the player characters are in a tight spot, like a pit filling with acid, be aware that 3 things can happen:
    1) The characters succeed.
    2) Things get a little worse.
    3) Things get a lot worse.

    With that rough logic in mind, you can apply those as you see fit based on die rolls.

    On the first failed roll, you'd probably want to make things a little worse:

    - You provoke an attack of opportunity from a nearby enemy.

    After a bunch of failed rolls, or after a really bad failure (e.g. natural "1"), then you'd want to make things a lot worse:

    - You slip and fall into the acid (and take damage, no saves).

    On a successful roll, you might say, "Okay, you escape the pit!" Or, if it's just barely successful, or if they were in a really bad position to start with, then you can use "7 to 9" logic and mix the good result with a bad result:

    - You escape the pit, but in so doing you provoke an attack of opportunity from a nearby enemy.

    Good enough?
  • @David_Berg: I am looking for more formalized procedures than that because the stakes are high. In a game of Fate, for instance, I have no worries about hurling whatever I feel like at the party because they can concede and take consequences to mitigate the danger. In D&D, there is no such safety net unless I craft one as the GM. Thus, how to gauge the results of a failed roll?

    For instance, if there is a chance that a character might entirely resist the danger and suffer no ill effects, a save for no damage is appropriate. If, on the other hand, the danger is unavoidable (e.g., dragon's breath), a save for half damage is appropriate. If the danger is debilitating but not lethal, then save vs. a condition, but if it's debilitating and lethal, then save vs. damage and a condition. Unfortunately, 5e is not written as transparently as I would prefer in this regard.
  • Gotcha. So you're not looking for a dice-results logic to apply across all rolls, but rather for a bunch of fictional situations with specific resolution procedures for each? Is that accurate?
  • Good questions.

    I'll add a slightly different angle:

    Sometimes, in such cases, it can be nice to think of the rules as a referee who is working together with the players to establish a reliably predictable playing field. In that sense, it can be good to engage the players in helping you find those guidelines (which, you're absolutely right, D&D doesn't help you with).

    That gets the players to buy into it, and gives them the transparency they need to be able to play. But it also gives you some room to let yourself off the hook: you're facilitating and refereeing - it's not all on you all the time. Think of it is a group responsibility you're chairmanning and you might find it easier, too.

    I like the guidelines you're typing up in that last post, above - I think that's a great start.
  • BitD, for instance, handles this scenario quite well, and AW would as well with an a Act Under Fire roll. Me, I am bereft and struggling. On a failed Athletics check to climb, the results are entirely to the imagination of the GM. What occurs? I could say, for instance:

    1. No progress! Try again next turn.
    2. You slip and fall into the acid. (Does this get a save to avoid? Save vs. prone and damage? Fall prone and then save vs. damage?)
    3. You provoke an attack of opportunity from a nearby enemy.
    4. You fail and cannot climb the wall right now until circumstances change. You’ll need to change approach, get help, etc.

    Interesting, wouldn't AW make the same demand of you?

    On 6-, make a hard move. How hard? Which one? Dislodge a pebble and watch it as it dissolves in a puff of smoke (announce future badness) or fall into instant death in the pool of acid (inflict harm as established)?

    There's a list, but you still need to choose, according to your prep and as established, which are pretty much the standard principles for D&D as well.

    If you're comfortable with that, but not with D&D's "well you're the DM, you decide the consequences, just think of something!", maybe just keep AW's move list handy and use it as needed?

    That's something I've been planning to do next time I run D&D.
  • shimrod said:


    Interesting, wouldn't AW make the same demand of you?

    On 6-, make a hard move. How hard? Which one? Dislodge a pebble and watch it as it dissolves in a puff of smoke (announce future badness) or fall into instant death in the pool of acid (inflict harm as established)?

    There's a list, but you still need to choose, according to your prep and as established, which are pretty much the standard principles for D&D as well.

    If you're comfortable with that, but not with D&D's "well you're the DM, you decide the consequences, just think of something!", maybe just keep AW's move list handy and use it as needed?

    This is the old realism rabbit hole. While the AW abstractions tend to make the details of the outcome mechanically indifferent, a creative GM invention, and a responsibly chosen and accepted step forward for the fiction, a D&D DM tends to be (quite wrongly) expected to impartially describe objective reality in infinite detail, which is of course impossible, causing embarrassment and disagreement about the "right" rules.

    For example, while the AW player could try to convince the GM that some spectacular stunts could allow him to leave the lethal acid pool quickly, before dying, the D&D player is more likely to argue about how much damage the acid should deal.
  • It has to do with expectations, true, but also with where the games place focus. AW's format (e.g. death isn't final, mechanical effectiveness doesn't make the game more or less fun, we care about the people in the setting, players have more control over outcomes, etc) makes this kind of choice feel very different.

    I agree that AW's open miss clause, on its own, is not better that D&D's task resolution (and certainly doesn't help you be "objective"), but there's a larger context which means that "being objective" isn't even a goal.

    AW's design - and Principles, which tell everyone what to expect and what to aim for - guarantee all kinds of subtle differences that make this feel very different (and less arbitrary) in play.
  • The 6d6 RPG has a core mechanic based on this approach: Characters get static (=intuitive)and dynamic (=active) potential they can use for actions.

    The game didn't fully click for me but it has some interesting mechanics worth looking at:
    http://6d6rpg.com/wiki/doku.php?id=:open:mechanics:core:quickstart_howtoplay

    I may revisit and tweak them at some point.
  • edited February 28
    @ValyrianSteelKatana, say the game provided (more) structure along the lines of "if you fail the Climb check while scaling a rough wall, make a DC 15 Reflex save or fall off; if you fail the Climb check while scaling a smooth wall, you fall off, no save; if you fail the Climb check while climbing an incline, make a DC 10 Reflex save slip and end up prone"? Would that help?
  • Gotcha. So you're not looking for a dice-results logic to apply across all rolls, but rather for a bunch of fictional situations with specific resolution procedures for each? Is that accurate?

    Yes, I would say that is an accurate statement. I'm already hammering out the basics of climbing in response to the last session.
    shimrod said:

    @ValyrianSteelKatana, say the game provided (more) structure along the lines of "if you fail the Climb check while scaling a rough wall, make a DC 15 Reflex save or fall off; if you fail the Climb check while scaling a smooth wall, you fall off, no save; if you fail the Climb check while climbing an incline, make a DC 10 Reflex save slip and end up prone"? Would that help?

    Nailed it.
  • As the DM, you'd still need to choose between rough wall, smooth wall, and incline.

    What is the difference between that, and choosing between "DC 15 Reflex or fall", "fall, no save", and "DC 10 Reflex or prone" directly?

    A difference I see is that the structure makes the consequences clear to the players, in advance. If we the players all know that a rough wall is DC 15 Reflex or fall, I know what I'm expecting when I decide to climb rather make some other choice (go around, burn a fly spell). Without the structure, I decide to climb, fail, and then you the DM need to decide what happens, which can feel arbitrary on both ends.

    Could the same be accomplished by making the consequences clear as the situation and actions are described? And for setting the consequences, I really think AW moves strike a great balance between specific and tangible enough give concrete answers, and abstract enough to be widely applicable.

    The reason I'm pushing back against the more structured approach with consequences predefined for specific activities or situations is that, playing D&D 3E for the last 20 years or so, I feel it can require a huge, seemingly ever-increasing amount of work from either the DM or the game designer, and more importantly, can often fail to avoid the feeling of arbitrariness, if either the DM or the player is unfamiliar with that specific bit of the structure, or if the DM constructs the situations to get to the results they want, which is very common: "incline is DC 10 Reflex or prone, but that's going to be pretty trivial for you guys, so I think the incline is pretty icy, and we all know icy is +5 to Reflex DCs, so it's DC 15 Reflex or prone".

    ... or am I getting further away from your point here?
  • ... or am I getting further away from your point here?
    Absolutely not. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment regarding Apocalypse World and D&D 3e. I suppose where I'm running into trouble with 5e is that it does neither. There's no list of moves, and there's little guidance. I need either/or to make the game function.

    In a way that moves are codified game mechanics that support the genre of the game, I realize that I need to codify game mechanics that support the genre of D&D that I want to play. If I'm focusing on The Dungeoncrawl, I need specific mechanics to handle that in the same way that Veins of the Earth has specific mechanics to handle it.

    This still doesn't really give me the option for dealing with how saving throws are supposed to function. (If I'm supposed to make rulings, I need to know when it's fair to call for a save for half vs. a save for no effect.) Obviously, following the fiction and all that gets you to a decent place.
  • I feel like save for half vs. save for no effect is something that only applies to concrete effects like spells, and maybe some of the traps in the DMG or Xanathar's? If you really need to make a judgment call about when a save vs. a trap is half effect or no effect, I think I would recommend just looking to the fiction. For traps, though, 95+% of the time I'd think a successful save would result in zero damage / conditions.
  • I agree that the saving throw mechanic is applied very haphazardly - sometimes it's full avoidance, sometimes it's half damage, and so forth, with little apparent logic.

    D&D5 seems to thrive on leaving such questions unspecified, which is pretty frustrating to many groups. (I was quite surprised, for example, to discover that there are no rules for handling traps at all in the PHB! How do we resolve looking for a trap, disarming it, getting stuck in it? Nothing.)

    In such cases, if you want to be objective, you need to set some kind of clear guideline for yourself: what fictional feature or detail determines whether a save should afford half damage, for instance?

    And here - as I said above - the players are you friends. See it as a group responsibility and the game will become clearer for everyone.
  • Paul_T said:

    (I was quite surprised, for example, to discover that there are no rules for handling traps at all in the PHB! How do we resolve looking for a trap, disarming it, getting stuck in it? Nothing.)

    That stuff's in the DMG, and in individual adventure modules. It's a fundamentally GM-facing concern, after all, so why would it be in the PHB?
  • There's rules for just about a million other GM-facing things in the PHB... plus, as a player, I'd like to know how it might be handled. Maybe I want to know what skills to choose, or what stats to prioritize, or how to indicate that to the GM... or I might want to have a clear sense of the consequences involved in searching for traps, how severe the risks are, and what my odds are like.

    I see no reason not to include such things in the PHB. Older editions always had rules for traps in the basic rules, as well, I'm pretty sure (never read 4E, to be fair).
  • Paul_T said:


    I see no reason not to include such things in the PHB. Older editions always had rules for traps in the basic rules, as well, I'm pretty sure (never read 4E, to be fair).

    4e had rules for how to resolve traps in the PHB. All the example traps were in DMG, along with rules on how to make your own, but everything you needed to interact with traps was right there (and was standardized in a really nice way).
    4e's traps were mechanically just an enemy statblock but with its only attack being one-used, and it lacking some of the stuff needed for full-on encounters (initiative, etc.) since you don't actually fight a trap.
  • Ah! Thanks, Emma. So this is really a 5E feature. Interesting!
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