Conflict in NRP is handled in situations. Every situation contains three parts: a player character goal, an obstacle defined by the narrator, and the approach chosen the player(s) to reach the goal despite the obstacle.
Situations can be tactical, the immediate problem to be overcome, or strategic, the ultimate concern faced by the players, or any of various scales in between.
For example, the immediate problem could be a squad of guards to get past, while the ultimate concern might be to defeat the CEO of Evil Enterprises. In between could be the goal to discover the corporate plan for a takeover of the internet, or to secure proof that Evil Enterprises has been enslaving the inhabitants of the Border Provinces.
It’s up to the narrator to stack these situations, like nested matryoshka dolls, so they make sense for the players.
APPROACH VS. OBSTACLE
The approach is defined by the characters’ (aptly named) characteristics: their attributes, skills, and drives.
Attributes are innate abilities, similar to what you find in other RPGS (sometimes called ability scores) but in NRP there are a potentially endless number of attributes. The chapter Creating Characters – Attributes has many examples. Most are considered average and thus don’t need to be recorded on the character sheet; only the handful that define the character, meaning they are above or below normal, are written down.
Skills encompass all of the learned characteristics of the character. This includes what other RPGs call skills, but also the abilities often instilled by class. There are no classes in NRP, leaving players and narrators free to create their own informal archetypes by clustering skills.
Drives are the hallmark of NRP, the motives that move the characters to action. They modify action rolls the same way attributes and skills do, by applying bonuses and penalties to action rolls. But, the drives specifically address the character’s goal in the situation. Does the goal serve the character’s drives? That’s a bonus. Does the goal force the character to act against those drives? That’s a penalty.
The obstacle can include the attributes, skills, and drives of non-player characters (NPCs) and the forces of nature that embody the game setting. Basically anything that stands between the character and his or her goal.
HOW ACTION ROLLS WORK
The approach gets a d6 roll and the obstacle gets a d6 roll. Very straightforward. All of the modifiers are mathematically aggregated into a single bonus to one of those rolls, creating an elegantly simple way of resolving situations. If the character’s approach has more positive modifiers, that’s a bonus for the player’s approach roll. If the obstacle ends up with more positive modifiers, that’s a bonus for the the narrator’s obstacle roll.
Grade school math. We can do that, yes?
The player rolls a die, the narrator rolls a die, one of those dice gets the aggregated bonus and the results are compared. The highest result succeeds. Ties can have a variety of outcomes, depending on the nature of the situation.
This is called an action roll.
In many cases, the narrator must conceal from the players the ultimate modifier, as it would reveal information to the characters that they have no way of knowing. In these cases, only the result of the roll is revealed, which itself reveals clues to the situation.
As you can see from the chart below, action rolls in NRP are quite definitive. A simple advantage of +1 creates a significant difference in outcomes, more than doubling the chance of success for the roll having the advantage. Advantages of +2 and so on create even more drastic results. This is intended to reduce mathematical power-gaming in favor of dramatic decision making before the action roll. It incentivizes players to have their characters make smart decisions, and penalizes them harshly when they don’t.
THE HIERARCHY OF SITUATIONS
Situations are nested in a neat, narrative hierarchy of time periods: actions, scenes, acts, and episodes.
The action roll is so named because it is necessary for resolving action situations. However, action rolls can also apply to higher levels in the hierarchy of situations. In these cases, you can call them scene rolls, act rolls, or episode rolls. But, you don’t have to. So long as you understand how they work. (More on the higher layers of the hierarchy later.)
Before we move on, it would help to explain that characteristics, and thus the action rolls they modify, fall into four basic types: vital, physical, social, and mental. There is also an additional type of action, crafting, which can be influenced by multiples types of characteristics. The names themselves provide some explanation of their difference, but we’ll get deeper into the distinctions between these later.
An action is, as the name implies, a single action taken by the character(s) in response to the action’s situation. This can involve a single action roll, or multiple action rolls addressing different aspects of the action. For example if the character is trying to stealthily convince someone, this would require a preparation roll for stealth, which then modifies the social execution roll. Or, if the character is attempting a riposte, this would require a defensive combat roll in preparation followed by an offensive combat roll.
Actions have no set length, but they are generally short.
Some examples of action types? A combat action comprises a quick series of physical maneuvers, attacks, and defenses. Other physical actions include chases, stealth maneuvers, and difficult motions like diving, climbing, and leaping across gaps. A social action comprises a series of comments, gestures, and other communications, things like seduction, encouragement, and manipulation. A mental action comprises a series of investigations, calculations, and other attempts to work through a set of information, things like scientific inquiry, engineering, and tactical analysis.
The defining factor of an action is that the character faces an immediate situation, the goal and the interfering obstacle, and elects how to deal with it, the approach.
A scene is the culmination of multiple actions. The end of a scene is the climax of a series of actions that have a common, over-arching situation.
The scene is the basic unit of time in NRP. When designing the game, the narrator should define each scene according to a diverse typology of scenes (combat, chase, negotiation, investigation, etc.) described in the Narrating a Game chapter. We’re all familiar with these types of scenes from novels, films, and television shows.
The narrator may, if he or she has a well-defined situation for a scene (meaning it has a well-defined goal and a well-defined obstacle in relation to character drives) call for an scene roll at the beginning of the scene, presenting the players with foreshadowing to allow them to make an informed choice of approach. How to manage this is described in Narrating a Game. The result of this scene roll modifies the action rolls, based on how those actions adhere to the overall approach the players chose.
If the players initially expect their characters to fight, but in the course of the scene they negotiate instead, the result of their scene roll is a penalty because they had prepared (vitally, mentally, emotionally, and perhaps physically) for a different situation. Likewise, if they choose for their characters to hold out for information (an investigation approach), but end up fighting, the result of their scene roll is a penalty. But, if they follow through with their original scene approach, the result of the scene roll is treated as a bonus to action rolls during the scene.
Sometimes the outcome of the actions in a scene fit the story (meaning the scene type) the narrator has laid down. Sometimes, however, the characters’ actions will lead to a scene type that the narrator had not expected. This is one reason NRP provides the narrator with a typology of scenes, to help him or her shift gears when the players go off-script.
For example, if the narrator wrote the scene as combat and the players elect to flee, the scene becomes a chase. Likewise, if the scene is written as a debate and a character looses his or her cool, it can become a fight.
This is a tricky part of the narrator’s role, as he or she needs to make sure that each scene ends in a clear lesson for the players in what sorts of actions will lead to victory or defeat. If the players—through their characters—confound the narrator’s idea of how the scene should play out … well, perhaps he or she has assessed their abilities (attributes, skills, and drives) incorrectly. Fun times!
This does not mean that the narrator has to plan out everything beforehand, deciding what will or will not lead to the characters’ victories. Sometimes, just as in the writing of a novel or screenplay, the story imposes its realities on both the players and the narrator. The scene must be rewritten!
The narrator is the steward of the story’s reality. Sometimes the narrator needs to recognize that his or her calculation of the characters’ strengths and weaknesses has been misguided. When this happens, the narrator needs to quickly recalculate, readjust, and rewrite the larger situation. NRP’s typology of scenes is intended to aid the narrator in this effort and permit the players greater freedom in following their characters’ drives.
Act, Episode, and Franchise
Following the pattern established above, an act is a series of several scenes, and an episode a series of 3-5 acts. All games played in the same setting can be generally referred to as being in the same franchise, although this is unlikely to often come up.
As with scenes, at the end of each act and episode there is either a lesson for the players about the story or a lesson for the narrator about the characters and players.
A gaming session should consist of a single act. This gives the narrator a chance, between game sessions, to rework the episode situation if the players (meaning the characters as diligently performed by their players) scuttle the script!
As stated above, action rolls are primarily organized according to the four types of attributes, skills, and drives: vital, physical, social, and mental. Vital actions can affect any of the other three types, and there can be significant overlap between physical, social, and mental actions even when vital characteristics are not involved.
Additionally, crafting is considered a meta-type of action that involves physical, social, mental and potentially vital characteristics.
Beside being broken down by type, action rolls are also divided into three styles: execution, preparation, and training.
Execution rolls are the familiar actions intended to create actual effects on one’s environment. This would include combat, negotiation, reasoning things out, and crafting.
Preparation rolls are attempts to influence the following execution rolls. These include ripostes, maneuvers, magical buffs, stealth, etc. As an example, here is how stealth preparation rolls work.
Stealth rolls are preparation roll attempts to hide one’s execution in some way. This could be an act of forgery, disguising one’s passage against trackers, concealing one’s true motives or methods, hiding the method of an assassination, picking pockets, sneaking around in the shadows. A stealth roll is made, the result of which is then applied to the execution roll. Often the execution roll itself is a simple thing; after all, anyone can walk around. But, when the execution roll is also difficult, the result of the stealth roll takes on paramount importance.
A reverse stealth roll can also be required, if the player wishes the character to communicate something in a specific way. For example, if hidden characters wish to attract the curiosity of guards without revealing their exact location, they might snap a twig or whistle. Or, if a character wants to show an opponent they are outmatched, in order to move them into surrender or negotiation, the player attempts a reverse stealth roll to execute skilled yet harmless attacks. Or, if a character wants to communicate to allies in a way that is hidden from opponents, by slipping a specific hint into dialogue or drop a clue that would be recognizable to friends but not foes. This is all up to the imagination of the players and narrator.
Training rolls are intended to improve the character’s attributes, skills, and drives. Execution rolls are always played out in-game, but training can be carried out “off screen” during down time (while the other characters are doing other things) with the results revealed by the narrator after the scene is complete.
Execution and training rolls each have specific names for each type of action. You can use these specific terms, or just reference them by their type and whether they are execution or training actions. Make it as simple or in-depth as you want.
The essence of vital actions is transforming or expressing oneself. When they are paired with physical, social, and mental actions, vital actions involve transforming or expressing one’s individual will outward to affect the environment. All of the supernatural aspects of the game setting—magic, psychic abilities, super powers—are managed through vital characteristics.
Vital training actions, called contemplation, can be purely individual meditation, prayer, or recitation, but it can also involve group chanting, prayer circles, and similar interactive practice. Vital execution, called transformation, includes all attempts to adjust, invoke, or resist a character’s drives, as well as attempts to use a character’s vital attributes to effect physical, social, and mental outcomes.
The essence of physical execution, called exertion, is transforming the character’s physical environment, including other characters and objects. Physical training actions, called exercise, can involve individual training or sparring with a partner. When sparring against a partner, physical training follows the rules of exertion toward the improvement ends of exercise.
In combat, physical action means attempting to damage another character, or maneuvering that character into a disadvantageous position. If the point of maneuvering the opponent into disadvantage is to communicate the character’s martial superiority, rather than improving subsequent execution rolls, this requires a reverse stealth role.
Note that combat actions can be modified by vital characteristics (for example, using one’s POWER to increase one’s GRIP, if applicable), but also by social characteristics (like sensing the opponent’s morale) or mental characteristics (like recognizing the opponent’s fighting style). Like stealth rolls, these require a preparation roll that then modifies the execution roll.
It should also be noted that physical actions against objects which are combat-like are treated like combat actions. For example, attempting to hit a lever with an arrow in order to toggle it, or kicking a door to open it, or trying to smash a magical ring with an axe.
In movement, physical action means attempting to overcome the obstacles of the physical environment, like climbing a wall, balancing in a precarious place, or swimming. The physical obstacle might even be the character’s own limitations, as when the character attempts to struggle longer than his or her ENDURANCE would allow.
Like combat actions, movement actions can be affected by vital powers and mental knowledge.
The essence of social actions is transforming the character’s social environment, by negotiating relationships, uncovering the drives of others, and manipulating those drives.
Social execution, called negotiation, involves acting directly against the personalities of other characters. This can include aggressive attempts at manipulation and helpful attempts at encouraging or otherwise improving other characters. Social training actions, called rehearsal, can be purely individual acts of practicing social characteristics, but can also involve interacting with a willing audience, social sparring, which would follow the rules of negotiation toward the improvement ends of rehearsal.
Note that, like physical actions, social actions can be affected by vital, physical, and mental attributes.
Sometimes, the other characters are amenable to the transformation, in which case all modifiers make the PC’s attempt more likely. Sometimes, the other characters are defensive against the PC’s goal, which results in a typical action roll in which the obstacle modifier is subtracted from the approach modifier.
Many cases of negotiation are more complex. For example, if an NPC secretly wants to help the PC’s goal, but is suspicious of his or her motives, or fearful of the consequences. In these cases, multiple rolls might be required, the early ones to overcome the NPC’s reluctance—in which a normal antagonistic subtraction of modifiers applies—then later to seal the deal, if (and only if) the earlier rolls were successful, in which the modifiers are combined.
This process is helped along if the character is subtle enough to begin by trying to uncover the target’s motives and concerns before attempting to negotiated the new relationship.
Some social actions are more broad, targeting an entire group of people. The character might be trying to boost a group’s morale with a song or inspiring speech, calm a rowdy crowd with an impromptu warning, or sow suspicion among allies with a well-placed innuendo.
As with physical exertion, social negotiation can also have a stealth component. When the character is trying to disguise his or her true goals during a social interaction, a stealth roll should be made first to see how well the character has assessed the situation. The result of this roll modifies subsequent social execution rolls.
The essence of mental actions is transforming the character’s understanding of the environment.
Mental execution, called investigation, involves acting directly against the gaps in one’s understanding of the world. This can include individual attempts to figure things out, rational debate with others, and (paired with negotiation) attempts to elicit information from others.
Mental training, called study, involves practice to improve one’s mental attributes and skills. This can be purely individual reading or going over mental notes, but can also involve recruiting others to test one’s knowledge and reasoning, which would follow the rules of investigation toward the ends of study. Note that “studying” information previously unknown to the character would, in NRP terms, follow the rules of investigation, not study.
Also note that, like other actions, mental actions can be affected by vital, physical, and social attributes.
Crafting actions are similar to combat actions in that the character is attempting to create an effect on an other, in the case of crafting some raw substance intended to become a useful tool.
However, unlike purely physical actions, crafting is necessarily affected by social and mental characteristics. The character’s knowledge obviously affects crafting, but social characteristics can also affect how the resulting tools are received. For example a crafter with high mental characteristics but low social characteristics can craft objects that are practically effective but ugly, repulsive, or unmoving. On the other hand, a crafter with low mental characteristics but high social characteristics can craft objects that are convincing but impractical. Its flaws would be apparent to those with appropriate mental characteristics.
Some case studies to make things clearer? Okay.
Singing an existing ballad to move an audience is simply a social action, a negotiation. Composing an original ballad is a crafting action, and would invoke the character’s mental characteristics in addition to social. If the crafter’s mental characteristics are too low, the narrator could rule that the logical flaws in the lyrics might strike listeners with high mental characteristics as jarring. Listeners with lower mental characteristics, however, might be quite moved.
Or, let’s say a character is trying to invent a more effective way to hack into an enemy’s cyber-network. If the crafter has high mental characteristics but low social characteristics, the resulting tactic might be highly effective, but seem clumsy or irrelevant to characters with low mental characteristics. Characters with high mental characteristics, however, might see the logic in the approach.
Like other actions, crafting can involve both execution and training styles. Execution crafting, called creation, involves the crafting of new tools. Training crafting, called methodology, involves crafting new ways to create tools. This is a subtle distinction, and the details must be worked out between the players and narrator.
For example, a player may want the character to craft a better way to forge weapons, or a more efficient way to separate bad ingredients from chaff. In general, methodology is far more difficult than creation. The narrator has an ultimate veto over methodology, as it could drastically alter the game setting.
Crafting can also involve multiple steps, for example binding cordage from raw fibers and then weaving that cordage into a basket. Or, mining raw ore, smelting it to purity, then manufacturing it into a useful tool. Or, selecting proper ingredients, preparing them, then mixing them into an effective medicine. Each of these steps requires a separate action roll. Sometimes, the character is only involved in one of these steps, for example a character purifying gold that some other character will then use to create jewelry or coins.