Thinking About Dice Systems

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Some public domain dice

When I’m coming up with a game, it’s easiest if I start with a dice mechanic that I already understand. It’s a big advantage – there is less to playtest, fewer decisions need to be made, and I can get right to designing the fun parts of the game. This is why I love hacking games so much – the dice system is already there, I just need to improve how its used. I thought I would share some of my reflections on various dice systems. Maybe it’ll save you some time in designing your own game. Some familiarity with the games listed will help – I’m not going to explain them all in any detail.

And, of course, you can always design your own new genius dice system. But in case unique dice aren’t important to you…

Fate Dice

I love Fate. Fate dice are great because the scale of success is the same as the scale of ability. That is, you know +3 means your character is Good at something, and you know that +3 is a Good result. This is very simple and direct, compared to a target number system like D&D for example. Is a +3 good in 5E? Not sure. Kind of? Not if you’re trying to roll against a DC of 20. I watch DMs struggle to interpret middling results, partly for this reason. The player rolls an 11 to do something. It feels too high for a failure, but definitely isn’t a great result. Fate dice simplify and clarify this problem completely. I have a pile of hacks for Fate Core for a reason.

Kids On Bikes Dice

Kids On Bikes uses a single die against a moving target number. Your die might be a d4 up to a d20. This is simple, and the die clearly shows how good you are at what you are doing, but also introduces some problems. For one, with a target number of 5+, a character with a d4 cannot succeed. With moving target numbers, it is hard to hold in your mind how likely you are to succeed. The probability isn’t intuitive. So you get a very simple system, one die at a time, but you need to think through how a moving target number affects those rolls.

Call of Cthulhu Dice

Call of Cthulhu is a venerable and popular system. One reason, I think, is that it uses a percentile system. A huge benefit to a percentile system is that the chance of success is always obvious. If you have a 50% chance or a 75% chance, there you go. Over time CoC has added degrees of success, which is a big benefit for a percentile system that is usual just a binary succeed/fail result. These degrees of success require a little bit of math, figuring out what half and one fifth of 73 is, but I think it’s worthwhile in-game. You could also just eyeball it – if you make the roll by a wider margin, you get more of a result, and the opposite for failing by a larger margin. A percentile system is also great for incremental improvement. Going from a +3 to +4 is a 33% increase, but you can increase percentile skills bit by bit and still feel like you’re making progress while not unbalancing the system.

Blades in the Dark Dice

I have yet to play Blades in the Dark, but having read through the book it seems that the dice system is designed to function in the 1-4 d6s range. I like the dice system, but it doesn’t have much room for variety – similar to PbtA’s -2 to +3 range. In terms of probability, though, there is more difference between 2 and 3 BitD dice than between +2 and +3 in PbtA, I think. Anyway, BitD is a good option if you don’t want much granularity. If you have a bad/good/better/best type system for ranking abilities, this dice system would work well.

Genesys Dice

I love the idea behind Genesys dice (or Edge of the Empire dice). In practice, interpreting a dice roll slows down game play drastically, and the system ends up presenting information you don’t necessarily need or that is hard to interpret in the moment. On the other hand, the system provides a lot that other dice systems don’t, and I like that. I like that your roll result can be a combination of failure but advantage, or a combination of success but growing threat. In my opinion, though, the system requires an online dice roller, or the app from Fantasy Flight, or else a lot of table time is spent interpreting your dice-roll, and that’s time spent without anything happening in the fiction. That being said, you get much more from a single dice-roll in Genesys than you do from any of these other dice systems I mention.

D&D Dice

OK grandpa, here we go. D20 + bonus vs target number is what like 95% of tabletop RPG players are doing when they roll dice. But wait, there’s more! They also roll single dice, and pools of dice, for things like damage and spell effects and recovery. They roll percentile dice for random tables and 4d6 for character creation and various dice for hit points. Part of the fun of D&D is that you get to break out and use all of your dice. The downside is that everything is an exception. You can only sometimes guess how a mechanic will work – compared to, say, Fate or PbtA. Tools like DND Beyond help a lot, but the only reason that designers are trying to hack 5E for other games and genres is its ubiquity. Designing new things for D20 style games is a nightmare compared to other systems.

Old School/OSR Dice

Is that you great-grandpa? D&D’s profusion of different dice mechanics has deep roots, and the oldest editions of D&D sometimes read like different people designed each dice mechanic without talking to each other. This was exacerbated by not always referring to dice in the core texts – you’d read something like “3-17 appearing” and have to think for a moment to realize that must be 2d8+1 and not 3d6-1. Some abilities are a percentile, some are based on a d6, and some use a d20 to roll high while others use a d20 to roll low.

World of Darkness Dice

It’s known that the World of Darkness took its dice system largely from Shadowrun, but they improved it by removing exploding dice. Dice pool + exploding dice with d6s is just…it’s madness.There is a lot to like about the world of Darkness dice system. You get to roll big handfuls of dice when you are good at something – its rewarding in a tactile way. There are also two sliding scales – number of dice, and target number you want on each die. The problem there is that probability quickly gets away from you. Is it better to roll 7 dice at difficulty 7, or 8 dice at difficulty 8? In the moment, who the heck knows? Later editions of the World of Darkness addressed this by keeping a fixed target number, but I still like the sliding target number as an additional variable. You just need to be careful about what kinds of things can change the target number compared to what adds or subtracts dice.

Powered by the Apocalypse Dice

Even I have tried my hand at a few PbtA hacks – the system is very easy to design for because everything is an exception. If you want a mechanic for something, write a move. If not, then just describe what happens. The dice system is very simple and straightforward. There is no real mechanic for making something more or less difficult (without writing multiple moves for the same thing at varying difficulty) but the system is tuned to aim toward failing slightly less than 1/2 the time and most often getting a marginal success. The key here is to make sure that failure is interesting, since it will come up often, especially with a -1 or -2 ability. Games like Dungeon World do this by letting the player mark experience when they fail, which is often enough to at least dull the sting. Most PbtA games also let the GM escalate the situation on a ‘miss’ of 6 or less, a kind of “no, and” style failure that is more interesting than a simple “no.”

Savage Worlds Dice

Savage Worlds never uses all of the usual dice except the D20, and the target number is always the same – a 4. The addition of a coin-flip “wild die” d6 to every PC roll also helps make success much more likely, which fits the fast-and-fun pulp style of SW. (“coin flip” meaning you have a 50% chance of success on a d6)

Mouse Guard/Torchbearer Dice

I love both Mouse Guard and Torchbearer, but the dice for both are basically a coin toss. You roll d6s against a target number of 4 or higher and count successes. Occasionally you can actually spend a resource to re-roll the dice that come up 6s, so there’s a little bit of the fiddling around that I enjoy, but I’d rather a little more variety than a 50/50 chance on every die. That being said, it’s simple, easy to remember, uses dice you already have, and I’ve had fun playing both games.

Parsec Dice

I know, probably none of you have heard of Parsec. It’s the game I published in 2012 through Jolly Roger Games. It uses d6s where the number of dice rolled are based on your attribute plus/minus modifiers and the target number for those dice is based on your skill. The advantage is that what you roll is set and clear without having to ask the GM each time. If you roll 5 dice with a target number of 3 or higher, then you can shorthand that as 5@3. Not world-shattering, but I’m still proud of the game, especially as my first published game.

Summary

When choosing a dice system, considerations include:

  • How long does it take to interpret what the dice say?
  • How often is success likely, and does that fit with your genre and expectations for play?
  • Is it clear to the player how likely success is with a given roll?
  • What is the tactile feeling of rolling? Are you rolling too many dice? Too few? Like ‘mouth feel’ for wine, what is the intended ‘table feel’ for your dice system? Everything hinges on a single die? Or heaps of dice skittering everywhere, to be collected and counted up?
  • Do you need special or unusual dice, or can you just grab what’s in a board game box and play?
  • Is there a way to get the same information with fewer, or simpler, dice?
  • What does the handful of dice mean? Is it the character’s total ability (World of Darkness)? Is part of it the difficulty they face (Genesys)? Is it all of the advantages they have (D&D advantage, bless, bardic inspiration)?
  • Are the dice clear without asking the GM? For example, you have to ask for a DC for your d20 roll, but rolling damage dice is obvious as you’re just adding them up.

What are your favorite dice? What is your favorite dice system?

Comparing The One Ring 1st and 2nd Edition

Image Credit: Free League Publishing

When The One Ring came out, originally from Cubicle 7, it was obviously the best tabletop RPG adaptation of Middle-Earth out there. MERP had some great supplements that I still use as resources, but the rules had little to do with Middle-Earth. Arda Marred was a cool fan project, but it’s no longer supported, and can now only be found on the Wayback Machine as far as I know. The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game by Decipher was…bad. It was d20 using 2d6 instead of d20 and that was about it. It tried, but it wasn’t a game I would play.

The One Ring nailed it, however. Better than any tabletop RPG to date. There was the right focus on conversations and meeting new people. You had to open sanctuaries between adventures. There were robust journey rules. Skills and traits were drawn directly from the text of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and used in creative ways. The art was beautiful. I ran a campaign and it was a blast.

When I saw that a 2nd Edition was coming out from Free League, I felt a mix of excitement and trepidation. What would they change? Would they just improve 1st Edition, or go in a new direction entirely? I bought the core rulebook and the Starter Set box. The Starter Set, as a starter set, is excellent. I read through the core rulebook, and my analysis as of now is that 2nd Edition is a lateral move – but I’ll say a bit more below by way of comparison between the two editions.

What’s the same:
Three attributes used in an unusual way, heroic paths that are essentially classes, cultural rewards and subtle magic items, loads of Middle-Earth flavor, abstracted wealth and standard of living, fatigue and encumbrance are connected with ideosyncratic helm rules, combat rules and stances are similar, damage and armor rules are similar

The One Ring 1st EditionThe One Ring 2nd Edition
I prefer the attributes in this version

Distinctive features and traits are more diverse and interesting. There are also more mechanics tied to them

The art is much better, at least according to my taste

I prefer Wilderland as a default setting compared to Eriador
A few mechanics are simplified compared to 1st Ed, though it isn’t a big difference

Less paging around the book to learn – a bit better organized

The Starter Set box is excellent

As you can see from the above, I have a slight preference for the 1st Edition of The One Ring. At best, the 2nd Edition is a lateral move. Nothing is purely improved, though a few things change, and as always your mileage may vary. If you already have 1E, keep it and play it in good health! If you don’t have The One Ring, I imagine the out of print 1E will be expensive now, so go ahead and grab 2E. It is still hands-down the best Middle-Earth RPG out there.

That being said, reading through 2nd Edition did motivate me to dust off my homebrew take on Middle-Earth…

Have you read The One Ring? Have you played either edition? What do you think?

Working Stiffs 0.3

Image: Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines

Alright. I hacked Vampire the Masquerade 5th Edition, and while running that game, I also wrote a PbdA version of VtM. Because I can’t stop myself, I just finished rewriting that hack into Working Stiffs, my general game about being a vampire serving your vampire overlords night after night, and then maybe trying to kill them. This is the 0.3 version, meaning there is more work to do, but as usual I’m sharing it once it is at a point where you could take it and try playing it. 

As always, feedback is welcome if you have a chance to take a look at it. 

And yeah I’m still writing a bunch of other stuff 🙂

What D&D Meant

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/WhJ3-DofzdM/maxresdefault.jpg
Screenshot from Champions of Krynn

In the Early 90s

I started playing D&D in the early 90s, when I was around 11 years old. I actually started with Dangerous Journeys, which is really unusual, but I found that huge tome in a bookstore in the fantasy/sci-fi section (back when it was only a few shelves in a B. Dalton’s). I soon moved on to D&D – or what we called D&D, if we called it anything.

For us, D&D was a hodgepodge stitched together from disparate elements into something that I’m not sure Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson would have recognized. Here were our “core rulebooks” when we first began:

Those last three were ‘Gold Box’ games released in the early 90s. You’ll note, of course, that none of the books listed are part of the core rule-set of any edition of D&D. We used the Gold Box game manuals for some of the rules around character classes and leveling, since they were all based in the core AD&D rules. Parts of Dangerous Journeys got wedged into what we played as-needed – there is a robust character creation system in DJ, for example, that provides more interesting results than AD&D did. We also used Dragonlance Adventures for basic setting material and some special rules for that setting, but as you can see, we did not yet have copies of the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, or Monster Manual.

We had come to D&D through being fans of the Dragonlance novels, tearing our way through the Chronicles, and then Legends, and then Preludes and so on. But we didn’t even always play in Krynn – we used and hacked and adapted the resources we had for whatever purpose we had in mind. This was “D&D.”

I think this was the case for many groups, back in the day. Since 3.X, I think that the assumption of what constitutes D&D has become much more standardized, but I feel like earlier editions were more often cobbled together from hand-me-downs and whatever you might stumble across in a bookstore. There was no game store anywhere near us (at the time, walking or biking distance) and even if there was, our parents were primed to see “Dungeons & Dragons” as threatening and vaguely occult. But they knew we loved fantasy and sci-fi novels, so whatever silly game of pretend we were playing was no threat.

So, when you first started, especially if you are old like me, what was “D&D?” What resources did you have for roleplaying? Was it off the shelf core books, or did you cobble it together like we did? Let me know in the comments.

Premature Cthulhu Hack

So, turns out Sandy Petersen, one of the original designers of Call of Cthulhu, decided to share his expert opinion with regard to genomes and trans persons. Of course, he has absolutely no expertise, and could have easily just kept his trap shut. But he didn’t.

In response, I’m sharing my hack of Call of Cthulhu. It’s an improvement on the base rules, as well as a simplification, adding in a Mothership-style stress mechanic to deepen the way Sanity works. It worked really well for a few sessions of a game I ran not long ago. At the same time, this is not in any kind of polished state. These are drafts I fixed up a bit before I uploaded them.

All of this is intended to be Creative Commons, Attribution, Share-Alike, Non-Commercial.

Enjoy!