We’ve just started playing the new Star Trek Adventures (aka STA), and there’s a few mechanics in there that has spurred me to think about task difficulty levels, and even more specifically, about how to set those difficulty levels. It isn’t necessarily anything groundbreaking, but it does have me looking at it in a new way that both seems to make it more intuitive to me as well as offering up something that could provide extra excitement and options in play.
It all has to do with leveraging the notion of an “aspect” or “trait”. Both FATE* as well as STA use this concept. Roughly speaking, an aspect/trait is a phrase or descriptor that denotes something specific and/or out of the ordinary about the thing it’s attached to. So, for example, a scene could have an aspect of “Dark and Stormy” attached to it, a thing could have the aspect of “super hardened steel” attached to it, and a person can have aspects such as “Earnest Mecha Knight” or “Broken Arm” attached to them.
The key for my mini-epiphany here is that they are denoting things out of the ordinary. Most game systems will have a table denoting difficulties and a target number or similar that the character must achieve using the combination of their attributes/skills/etc and the die roll. Usually there’s a progression such as Easy, Medium, Hard, Very Hard, or more poetic such as Routine, Skilled, Challenging, Difficult, Insane. The question, as a GM, is in coming up with what level a task should fall in… we can get good at it over time, intuitively grasping both the world we’re supposed to be simulating as well as the meta-analysis of a character’s ability and the player’s frustration tolerance. But as we developing that sensitivity is pretty nebulous, and can lead to some whipsawing of difficulty levels all over the place. And even with experience, sometimes it can still feel all a little to arbitrary, and there are still times when the answer might stymie us.
After all that setup, here’s the grand idea/procedure: Pick a base difficulty level, whatever’s appropriate for the game system.** For example, let’s pick 1. Then, adjust from there by adding/introducing aspects. Hindrances add to the difficulty, niceties subtract.
Where I think this really can help is in using a trio of “generic adjective” aspects : Extra, Extremely, Insanely***. For example, a lock could be Extra Complex, a door could be Extremely Sturdy, a navigation plot could be Insanely Complex, a puzzle could be Extremely Tricky. (Of course, the puzzle could also just be bog standard Tricky – which wouldn’t warrant an aspect). These adjectives respectively add +1/+2/+3 to the difficulty.
This seems a lot like the typical ladder of difficulties (Easy, Medium, Hard, etc…), but this combo aspect of adjectives feels more graspable than the abstract nature of Easy/Medium/Hard as it focuses the attention to the actual thing at hand in relation only to itself, rather than that more abstract sense. Plus, it then combines nicely with other aspects that can be placed on the scene, which themselves could receive the trio of adjectives to further specify how affecting they are.
So, to use a Star Trek example, Bones and Kirk beam over to Chancellor Gorkon’s ship. The Chancellor has been shot. “Jim, I don’t even know his anatomy…” says Bones as he tries to save the Chancellor. Task time! The base difficulty is 1. The Chancellor took some hits and is hurt pretty bad… he’s extremely wounded. Our difficulty is now 3. Their standing in the lounge of the ship… not exactly a hospital environment, and Bones only has his little medical bag with him. The aspect “Rudimentary Supplies” adds an additional 1, for 4. Plus, Gorkon is a, and has the aspect of, Klingon. That counts poorly here given Bones’ lack of their anatomy. So we’re at a difficulty of 5. And, worst of all, this is a major diplomatic incident. The aspect of “Tense Situation” accounts for the factor that everyone is seriously on edge. Boom, difficulty of 6.
Fortunately, Bones has an aspect of Xenobiology (could also be something fanciful like “Doctor to the Stars”) to represent he’s seen and studied a lot of different alien species over the years. He may not know Klingons specifically, but it helps him make good guesses. So that brings the difficulty back down to 5. Unfortunately, that is all he has to bring to the situation; he’s got good skill and could potentially roll well, but it’s still difficult. Doubly unfortunately, he rolls poorly, and he and Kirk are arrested.
To use another example, a party is trying to close a magical portal while under attack from beasts that are emerging from the portal. The portal is a pretty simple one, and has no descriptor on it. But, the “Howling Windstorm” that accompanies it, along with “Frenzied Combat” make things much more difficult, as does the fact the group’s magic expert is nursing a “Ringing Headache” from being hit in the head by a tire iron earlier (long story). Still everyone came prepared… the “Norstrormorororos Texts” they brought along gives them access to a lot of knowledge and tricks, and they are “Covered in Thyme”, a known beastie deterrent. With their magic expert noted as someone who “I eat rituals for breakfast” the difficulty returns to 1, and the roll is easily made, and the portal closes.
Again, this could all be done with a simple accounting by the GM, but I think there’s something more satisfying and fun in calcing it all out like this. For one, it lets the players know exactly where this is coming from, and also highlights how their preparation or the special aspects of their characters are helping in the situation (making them feel more epic). Even better I think is that in listing all the aspects, they’re left out in the open and can lead to players coming up with more interesting and varied solutions by using them in clever ways, and perhaps even turning the tables into something wildly memorable. Even if not, many aspects will both aid and hinder – the Extra Windy condition may hamper communication and lock picking, but also gives the characters protection against ranged attacks, narrowing the attack options of their opponents.
Overall I think this could be really cool. I’m going to try it out when next I run a game (squeezing it in even if the game system doesn’t intrinsically use something like aspects). And this gives me something more to add to my stack of ideas for that RPG system totally honestly no really I am still (slowly) building…
* FATE uses the idea of aspects very broadly, where an aspect on a person (which itself can represent special training, or a characteristic, or a philosophy, or…) is similar to an aspect on a scene, is similar to an aspect on an object. STA, on the other hand, has Traits for scenes and objects, but on a person, usually only their species is a trait, whereas there’s a different mechanic (Values) for philosophies and mental states, and a third mechanic (Focus) for specialized training…
** My own favoured spot to start from would be to pick the level that requires a competently skilled character to succeed at the majority of the time.
*** I would also include some adjectives to denote easier tasks, such as: Elementary, Trivial