Thinking About Dice Systems
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.


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,
  • 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?


My D&D 5E House Rules

For even more of my alternate rules for D&D, check out the Hoard of House Rules! Just shy of a buck. 

Updated a bit, so this is a re-post. Yay!

I’ve written up a ton of hacks and house rules, and I’ve been given some thought to what house rules I would use if I could use any I like. (Alas, I have to take players’ tolerances into account)

Hard Rest

This is similar to the system for rest used in Adventures in Middle-Earth. Long rest is only available when in civilization, or at least resting someplace safe and comfortable. Ever gotten great sleep on the ground out in the weather? Yeah, me neither.

I also like the system whereby during a long rest, rather than recovering all of your hit points automatically, you are able to roll all of your remaining hit dice to recover hit points. This will recover a lot of hit points, but not necessarily all.

This house rule does give somewhat of an advantage to classes that can partially recover their abilities with a short rest, like Warlocks or Monks. I would have to playtest this house rule to figure out whether it is too unbalancing.

No Cash

Half of my players can’t even be bothered to track their own coinage (my wife in particular) and I never particularly enjoy making sure every monster they defeat erupts into the correct amount of coins, gems and art objects when they die. Instead, I’d like to just use rolls against set difficulties, using the character’s proficiency bonus. If the character is flush with cash, say just back from a dungeon delve, then they roll with advantage. When they are in debt or broke according to the fiction, they roll with disadvantage. Since my players love to haggle, successful haggling doubles your proficiency bonus for the roll, while failed haggling makes you just roll a straight d20. (Maybe the haggling DCs are just the buying DCs, +2)

When you want to buy something, here are the DCs:

  • Something simple and inexpensive, like adventuring gear: DC 8
  • Something mundane but expensive, or a common magic item, like a longbow or a healing potion: DC 10
  • Something very expensive, like plate armor, or an uncommon magic item: DC 12
  • A rare magic item: DC 15
  • A very rare magic item: DC 18
  • A legendary magic item: DC 20

Of course, PCs have to put in the work finding rare or expensive (or magical) items before they can make the roll to see if they can afford them. The DM has an option of saying that a character who fails the roll still buys the item, but is strapped for cash. Most of the time, when returning from an adventure, the characters will be flush with cash, and that’ll be the time they want to buy things anyway. So a mid-level character (level 9+) returning from an adventure will have just shy of a 50/50 chance of affording a legendary magic item, and better than 50/50 of affording a very rare magic item. The limitation there will be based on the setting, with this being plausible in Eberron and less likely in another setting, based on availability of magic items overall.

Update: Modified Cash

Taking an idea from Torchbearer, but being much less punishing about it, I thought you could use dice to represent treasure in the abstract. So some silver pieces might be a d4, and some gold pieces a d6; gems or art objects could be a d8. An artifact might be a d10 or d12 – same with magic items. You can roll the die when you appraise the items, or when you try to use them to boost your d20 roll to buy something, in addition to your proficiency bonus. If you gain debt, it can be measured in dice, or it can simply grant disadvantage on rolls to purchase things until you roll as success, as above.

Modified Firearms

I think that the payoff of using historical firearms, rather than a weapon like a longbow, is that it as a slower rate of fire and does a lot more damage. At least, that’s what I’d like to house-rule firearms to do. So as a house rule, I have black powder pistols require two rounds to reload, and black powder rifles require three, and their damage dice are doubled. In essence, they will function as powerful first-shot weapons, and I think that this fits their historical use pretty well.

10th Level Spells

10th level spells exist, and as one  would expect they are available through scrolls (which are of course artifacts) and for 19th level spellcasters. Such spells can be world-changing, but can only be cast once each by a given spellcaster. The heading is a link to my full post on 10th level spells.

Deeper Backgrounds, and Backgrounds as Level 0

When a player selects a background, they should also flesh out the background with all of the NPCs who might be connected, including their immediate family, rivals, mentors and the like. As a rule of thumb, at least a couple of interesting NPCs who might get caught up in the story per background. I also linked my post about treating Backgrounds as 0-level classes, adding a bit of survive-ability to first-level characters.

Alignment Redefined

I like using alignment, but alignment as written in D&D includes a lot of nonsense and argument-fodder. So what I do is I replace “Good” with another descriptor that defines what “good” will mean in this setting. For example, in my Twilight of the Gods setting, good becomes “Generous.” I replace “Lawful” with an order-oriented, pro-social term from the setting that is morally neutral if possible. In Twilight of the Gods, that becomes “Civilized.” I replace “Chaotic” with a pro-freedom, or maybe individualistic, term; in Twilight of the Gods, that term is “Wild.” And then for “Evil” I do the same as I did for “Good” – choose a more specific or helpful term. In Twilight of the Gods, that term is “Treacherous.” So instead of Chaotic Evil, a character would be Wild and Treacherous. Instead of Lawful Good, a character would be Generous and Civilized. See? Better. Also, a result of this is that “evil” characters are much more viable. One can play a “Selfish” character in Twilight of the Gods more easily than an “Evil” character in a standard D&D setting.

Discount Adventuring Gear

In a game that is using currency, this is just an option to buy adventuring gear at a 50% discount. The associated cost is that with any failed roll, and almost certainly on a roll of “1”, the gear breaks, and can probably only be repaired with the appropriate tool proficiency.

With the above system of going cash-less, maybe a failed roll allows a PC to buy a discount version of what they wanted. So they get what they were after…kind of.

Simplified Paralysis Effect

For any effect that paralyzes, such as hold person or a ghast’s claws, a paralyzed character is shaken free of paralysis the first time an automatic critical hit is scored against them.

…Or Resist Paralysis at Cost

As another option for PCs who are paralyzed, they can choose to take 10 psychic damage for each level of the spell used to paralyze them (or an amount the DM thinks is appropriate for monster abilites that aren’t spells) in order to take an action to break free. So they still lose at least one action, and take the damage, but aren’t standing there doing nothing for round after round. Probably need a house rule that for species that are resistant to psychic damage, like kalashtar, they need to take the full damage to break free. Their resistance doesn’t help them in this one instance.

Bards Rock

Bards have never really gained a bonus, or any kind of benefit, for using their musical instrument in combat. I like the idea of a bard being able to use their abilities more effectively if they focus on their music alone (much like bards in Everquest, honestly). I would want to work out specifics with the bard player, assuming they were interested, but here are the options I’d have in mind:

  1. The bard counts as two levels higher than normal, and has access to more powerful spells
  2. The bard’s spells are power potent, adding 1 or 2 to their spell attack bonus and to the DC for saves against their magic
  3. They don’t lose spell slots – they can keep casting indefinitely, or maybe they have one extra spell slot per level that can only be used when they are using their instrument in combat (since indefinite spells is pretty powerful)
  4. There is an ongoing bonus effect – an aura of courage like a paladin has, or an aura of bonus hit points for her comrades, or something similar
  5. Her other bardic inspiration dice go up one die type, so from d6 to d8 and so on

Area of Effect

The heading is a link to the full table that I posted a while back, but for theater of the mind I like a system where you roll randomly to see how many creatures are caught in an area of effect spell. Just assume that the character is doing all they can to maximize the spell’s effectiveness and avoid hitting their friends. I would have to adjust this system for an evocation specialist wizard who could sculpt their spells to hit their foes and avoid their friends, but that’s easy enough to hand-wave (add a bonus to the AoE roll or something).

Prestidigitation and Animate Object

I just personally dislike Prestidigitation as it works in 5E – it takes me out of what’s going on every time to have someone doing magical laundry every day. House rule is that it allows you to perform sleight of hand tricks like a stage magician and that’s pretty much it. Still can be used creatively, but isn’t the cure-all for discomfort.

In the case of Animate Object, it’s simply broken if used to animate 10 daggers, so I would say that you have to animate objects one at a time. Otherwise you get a ‘cloud of daggers’ effect that deals a potential 10d4 +40 damage every round.

RPGs = Six Situations

I was thinking about the practice and experience of playing a TRPG consisting of about six situations, and how you could look at the challenge of designing a game as having something interesting for those six situations. I’m using tropes from fantasy RPGs here, but I think it would be easy to reskin these situations to include different tropes.

In Town

Town, or the city, or whatever your home base is. Time spent in town is time finding a way to rest and recuperate. If you are going on a shopping spree, it’ll happen here.

I like the way that Torchbearer makes resting a challenge. It is not easy, nor assumed, that you’ll find a safe place to rest. You might end up hiding in a stable or sleeping in an alleyway. I also like the way that The One Ring and Adventures in Middle-Earth require you to open a Sanctuary before you can fully rest and recover there, often demanding a quest, or at least a successful audience with the ruler of that Sanctuary.


It’s always hard to add mechanical teeth to socializing. There’s this idea that you should speak and interact in character, and as you do so it’s hard to know when to roll the dice and when not to. What if you make a great argument, or come up with a killer lie, but then botch the roll? Or what if you make an absurd ask and then critically succeed? This kind of silliness can just be the fun of using a randomizer, but I watch groups struggle and disagree on where to draw the line here. Surely it’s because socializing is something we literally act out at the table, in contrast to exploration or combat. We never ask for anyone to test their weapon skills, but we do ask them to test their social skills from time to time.

Some groups, of course, don’t socialize much at all. You get the mission briefing, and then head to the entrance to the dungeon and kick in the door.


A lot of time in classic fantasy and sci-fi stories is often spent traveling. There is the canard of The Lord of the Rings being mostly just people walking and looking at trees, but even in something like Star Trek you spend a lot of time figuring out what you do while watching stars zoom past.

One option is always to just hand-wave the travel and get to the next interesting thing. As a lifelong road trip connoisseur, however, the journey really is about more than just the destination. Again, I think of The One Ring, and to a slightly lesser degree Adventures in Middle-Earth, as well as Mouse Guard as games that focus on the journey itself and provide mechanics to make it an interesting challenge.

In terms of verisimilitude, when I think about traveling hundreds of miles through a fantasy landscape on foot, that would absolutely be a noteworthy life experience. Lots of challenges would arise and lots of interesting things would happen, not even counting the monsters and random encounters. I would like to have mechanics to support this.

In Camp

Camp differs from being in town, because it is a time with particular traditions like setting watches and rolling for night encounters. I was thinking of having a camp checklist, and the more things you can check off on the list, the more comfortable you are and the better able you are to recover.

  • Clean water
  • Dry/Shelter
  • Fire
  • Food

A simple example might be that for each checkmark in D&D, you can roll up to 25% of your hit dice. So with clean water and shelter but no food or fire,  you can only roll 50% of your hit dice to recover. That’s not prefect, but is a decent example. Maybe you just recover 25% of your hit points and other expendables per check-mark when you camp.

Investigating Danger

Searching a crime scene, checking for traps, or exploring an ancient tomb all count, and have been central to TRPGs from the beginning. Some OSR folks make the case that original versions of D&D were more about exploration than combat. Some games do this part really well, like Gumshoe. Like with socializing, groups have a chance to choose whether they want to handle investigation with rolls or with players describing what their characters are looking for. I have a whole blog post about how you shouldn’t roll perception that you can check out if you want. But whether you are playing Mothership or Pathfinder, investigating dangerous areas and situations is a big part of what is fun about many TRPGs.


Most RPGs are mostly about fighting. If you read the rulebook, most of those rule are about combat – usually physically combat, sometimes social conflicts as well. But social conflicts go under this heading as well as fistfights.

I don’t feel like I have to put time into making the case that RPGs focus on fighting, honestly, but see below. They don’t have to.

Rules Modules

So, if we look at each of these six categories of systems in turn, we can also imagine a group preferring to ignore some of them. Maybe your group wants to hand-wave their way to their destination, or maybe they want to just camp and rest and not worry about safety and comfort. Maybe they will handle time in town between games, just buying things from a price list and getting straight to the adventure when they get together to play. There could even be a group that wants to skip the combats (blasphemy!). If each of these systems is built like a module that can be used or ignored, I like that idea. You can socket in what interests you and get on with playing only the things that interest you.

Advancement in Breath of the Wild

Why Breath of the Wild is the best open-world game ever

I know I am late to the party, but I’ve defeated Calamity Ganon and loved pretty much every moment of Breath of the Wild. One of the many interesting things about this game is that it does not handle leveling up the way that most other RPGs, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age or Skyrim for example, do. I know that this is very much in line with the Zelda series of games, but the only Zelda games I’ve actually played are the original, Legend of Zelda, Wind Waker, and now Breath of the Wild.

Player Skill Development

There are cleverly hidden tutorials for things like shield surfing and the perfect block and perfect dodge, which are all skills that depend on the player’s dexterity. Each of the shrines is also potential skill development, as it teaches you various ways to solve problems that reflect some situations you find while exploring the world. Of course, this is an open world, so the shrines don’t necessarily happen in any particular order (after you leave the starting zone), but frequently I would have to learn something to solve a shrine, and then later realize that I could use a similar skill to solve a problem in the world.

This is the part of game design that builds up player mastery or system mastery, which makes a big difference, at least to my experience of games. This can also reveal when a game is too complex for the people playing it. In a current D&D campaign for example, we are at 12th level and players are still realizing features their characters have had for months. My character has so many different abilities to use in combat that I regularly forget one of them in a given fight – and fighting is what D&D is built for.

5th edition D&D is a lot of fun, but by the time you hit about 5th level your character has a ton of abilities, even in a system that is clearly slimmed down compared to 3.5. I have pretty much never been in a game where the players remember all of their abilities, me included. Similarly, after learning in theory how to perform a perfect dodge and a perfect parry, I never again used those skills in Breath of the Wild, getting through to the end of the game without them (except for learning how to deflect Guardian blasts, which seems to simply be necessary). Though it does say something for the flexibility of the game that without a difficult setting, I was able to ignore two significant skills and still complete the game.

Player mastery really comes up in the shrine quest of Eventide Island. You are stripped of all of your equipment, and have to complete three shrine quests on the island starting from nothing. This depends much more on your player skills than normal, as for a lot of the game you can power past mistakes and tough fights by force-feeding Link and using your best weapons until they wear out.

“Leveling” – Hearts and Stamina

The closest to leveling up that you do in Breath of the Wild is when you complete four shrine quests you turn in four Spirit Orbs for another heart or portion of stamina. There are no built-in increases aside from these two things – if you want to deal more damage, or absorb less damage, move faster, etc., then those things have to be accomplished in other ways. But in terms of ‘leveling up’ in the traditional way, this is it for BotW.

Hearts and stamina also provide difficulty settings for the game. If you find the game to be difficult, you can solve more shrines and gain more hearts and live longer in fights. If you want to explore more freely, then you can turn in more Spirit Orbs and gain more stamina so you can climb higher and swim farther.

Or you could leave the starting zone, go straight to Calamity Ganon, and fight him at the equivalent of ‘level 1.’ There are whole YouTube channels devoted to this kind of mastery.

Ingredients for Cooking

Finding new ingredients and new recipes allow you to heal up and create self-buffs, and this is another way that you advance in the game. The farther you travel from your starting zone, the more exotic ingredients become available to you, and as you gather these various ingredients, you are also able to use them to upgrade your weapons and armor (which I discuss below). If you need to, you can also just travel around gathering apples, which are very common and safe, and devour them in the middle of fights to help you survive when your skills and equipment aren’t enough. You can also create food that gives you 25 bonus hearts when you eat it, or triple upgrades your armor, etc.

Weapons and Armor

Breath of the Wild is interesting because of the speed at which your weapons break down – a very durable weapon will survive at most a handful of fights before it explodes into bluish shards. I thought that I would find this more frustrating than I did, and there are so many weapons in the game that my weapon inventory is never empty, and most of my korok seeds go to expanding my weapon stash. This is something like D&D, with the classic question of how will we carry all of our loot back to town. The main downside is that when I find a weapon I really like (I’m looking at you, Thunder Spear) it only survives a fight or two before it explodes into shards. But when I read about the game, I expected to spend more time scavenging weapons.

Improving Armor

I suppose the other way that you “level up” in the traditional sense in BotW is when you can improve your armor with the help of up to four Great Fairies in the game (with, yes, a bonus fifth who resurrects horses). Like cooking and selling, upgrading armor is the reason to travel the world harvesting strange things, and is like the soft form of the “fetch” quests that are so central to MMOs.

Exploration and Unlocking Travel

Breath of the Wild is, above all, a game of exploration. And it is so well designed, it is at times stunning. There are shrines and korok seeds to find, and the game rewards climbing every cliff and ever tree and literally looking under every rock.

There is a history of ‘hex crawls’ and traditional RPGs that focus on exploration, and ideally a dungeon crawl is first and foremost about exploration. I’ve never seen exploration done better than Breath of the Wild, however, on or off a screen.

One of the ways that you ‘level up’ in Breath of the Wild is not only through exploration, but by unlocking travel options. When you find a new stable and have access to your horses, or especially when you unlock a new tower and expand your map. Teleportation between shrines and towers becomes necessary and commonplace, but even after dozens (hundreds?) of hours of play, I find myself returning to already-explored areas to discover new things.

Lots of Ways to Win

What Breath of the Wild masterfully provides is an open-world game that is also open as to how you can win it. You can depend entirely on player skill, and beat Calamity Ganon to death with three hearts and scavenged equipment. You can travel around gathering ingredients and create super-foods that give you bonus hearts and upgrades and survive regardless of your skills. You can upgrade all of your equipment and have amazing armor to wear, or travel the world gathering powerful weapons to use. You can solve all of the shrines and have a huge number of hearts. Or do all of the above.

For all of their complexity, most tabletop RPGs have only one way to win – do the thing the game rewards with XP (almost always fighting) and get XP and improve. But if you are playing D&D 5E, there’s no way to just ignore leveling up and just rely on your skill as a player. You couldn’t go and gather amazing equipment rather than level up either. One way or another, you need to get XP. That is the only path to winning. This narrow window is the case with pretty much every tabletop RPG I can think of, even the really clever ones. I’m just left in awe of the designers of Breath of the Wild, including for this reason – that they created an open-world and open-victory game.

Horror Gaming

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game) - Wikipedia

I think that the hardest kind of RPG experience to create at the table is horror – by a significant margin. I’ve been alarmed, worried, disgusted, and so on at the table, but very rarely frightened. The most frightened I remember being was in an Old World of Darkness game using Kult’s setting. The game that is always recommended is Dread, which is a great use of Jenga to create tension at a table whether you want it or not. It still requires more elements to approach horror.

I wonder – it’s pretty easy for a movie to scare the crap out of me. Why is it so much harder at a table?

Players Must Buy In/Session Zero

I’m pretty funny – I can coax someone into participating in a funny game. I can coax someone into participating in a heroic adventure game. I even know how to design specifically for either goal, among a few others. Horror, though – I don’t know how to coax someone into a horror game, and I can see ways that horror more than other genres would press against players’ lines and veils.

For this reason, a Session Zero for a horror game is necessary. The discussion of what you want kept out of the story needs to be had, because it will likely be the job of the GM in a horror game to suddenly introduce disturbing imagery and themes. It also occurs to me that a tool like the X-Card should be available, but in the context of a horror game, I can see that using it would potentially take people out of the moment – like pausing a horror DVD to answer the phone. And of course we shouldn’t harm each other for the sake of playing pretend, but if we can figure things out ahead of time, that is especially good in the context of a horror game.

Hope Must be Limited

The reason we sat down and designed Reckoning, a dice-less horror RPG, was because of the problem of dice. As long as you can roll dice to have a chance to triumph, horror is almost impossible. Our players would grin their way through horrific scenarios, or so we thought them, rolling dice all the way. My friend Jason says that a horror game can therefore never use dice, but I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just that dice can’t be an option for triumphing. Stakes have to be set carefully, perhaps.

Reckoning limits hope by having a scene count-down which will end with something horrific happening. Each time a card gets turned, you know something else bad is going to happen, all getting closer to the worst thing happening. I think that some kind of countdown, some kind of visibly growing threat, could be necessary. The proverbial ticking time-bomb that the players know about, even if the characters do not.

Doom Must be Foreshadowed

Continuing on with the previous thought – when you go to a horror movie, or pick up a horror novel, you know what kind of story it is. This has to be clear from the start with a horror game as well. Even if not from the literal beginning, there should be a big reveal at some point, early. Ideally, all of the players should think, “Oh crap, this is going to be deliciously bad.”

If possible there should be foreshadowing both in the fiction and outside of it – in the room where the game takes place. On the character sheet. On the pages of rules you reference during the game. On the art you use to represent what the characters see. In the music you have playing while you game.

A Strong GM Seems to be Necessary

I asked Twitter to let me know about any APs tweeps are aware of that represent a horror game that seemed to really foster fear and horror on the parts of the players. I enjoy APs, but they are generally what I end up doing when I run horror – some moments of squick and then dark humor the rest of the time, bordering on outright zaniness. Even for AP groups that focus on horror gaming, this seems to be where they max out as well. When done well, the squick is very squick-y and the dark humor is dark and funny, but would I call it horror? I’m not sure.

One thing I’ve noticed is that horror gaming, even the squick/dark humor kind, seems to demand a strong GM. I would love to see an attempt at a GM-less (or GM-full) game that does horror consistently well. My guess would be that if it does, it is simply a game (like many GM-less/full games) that attracts a bunch of GMs as players. I think horror gaming will simply depend on GM skill + player buy-in, full stop. I don’t see a way around that, and I don’t see any game that gets around that, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong by some genius game design. As I sit here, that game design is beyond me as a designer.

It’s Cthulhu and Footnotes

The last thought I have about horror gaming is that Call of Cthulhu dominates horror gaming the way D&D dominates fantasy adventure gaming. Clearly, there are other popular horror games, like All Flesh Must Be Eaten back in the day, or Bluebeard’s Bride; various Worlds of Darkness, or of course the often-mentioned Dread. There is also Monsters and Other Childish things, perhaps, or Clockwork: Dominion. But Call of Cthulhu looms over all of these, and when horror gaming comes up, CoC will almost invariably come up as well.

What is the difference here? What makes Call of Cthulhu stand out, despite being temporarily supplanted by Vampire the Masquerade for example? I think one difference is that many of those other games are also about adventure and the chance to triumph. Not Bluebeard’s Bride, and mostly not Dread perhaps, but otherwise, those games listed above can be played as adventure or comedy pretty easily. Really, the one that would be hard to play that way would be Bluebeard’s Bride – I think one could easily hack Dread to tell a Fiasco-style story, as an example.

I think that the key appeal of Call of Cthulhu for horror gaming might be that it is common knowledge that CoC is not about triumphing, or even in many cases surviving, a horror story. It is about going insane and/or dying horribly. The worst things you’ll encounter you cannot possibly overcome no matter what you do. So the game is about progressively learning what those awful things are, and then having a good time on the way down after that. This, even more than the Mythos, is what keeps Call of Cthulhu in that top slot, I think. At least, when I look at horror APs and talk to people about horror gaming.

What Did I Miss?

These are just my thoughts, neither exhaustive nor meant to be so. What did I miss? What has been your experience of horror gaming?