First off, I’ve created a PDF compilation for your reading pleasure! Click below to grab it:
And so, where do we go from here? The big next step is to take this core engine and begin to create some full rulesets out of it, both for playtesting but moreover for actual campaign play. First up will be using it for an upcoming (and fittingly) Star Wars game I’ll be running. Over the coming months I’ll share the design diaries as I put it together.
After that, I have some ideas for at least partial write-ups for campaigns based on Zoids, spycraftian action, Broken Lands, and maybe even Firefly. Though the idea of a Tank Girl RPG I used as an example in the introduction could also be fun to try out…
Thank you all for reading, and if you try this out yourself and create a campaign with it, I’d love to hear any feedback. Game on!
Postscript – Breaking the Core Mechanic (In a Good Way)
Sometimes, hooking a sub-system onto the core isn’t quite enough to model the intricacies of a particular genre. Sometimes you just gotta directly hack the core. Here’s one example of how this can work well when carefully applied, centering around the fixed target number. Continue reading
Additional and Common Subsystems and Considerations
To round out and complete the resolution system… Continue reading
Creating the Base Pool
After going through nearly the entirety of the resolution system and outlining the bits that happen once the base pool has been gathered, it’s well past time to cover how that base pool, and its baseline value of 5 dice, is generated. This is no trivial matter. As every test or roll made by a character begins with these values, what gets included, measured, and listed on the character sheet not only defines that character but also has a huge influence on the overall genre, tone, and playstyle of the entire game/campaign. These values say what’s important about the characters, and thus what’s important about the game. They influence how the players view the characters, how they approach things, and what kinds of actions they will take. They provide flavour and guidance and ultimately are the lens through which the players/characters know themselves. All in all, the way characters are measured and defined is one of the most important choices in designing the campaign. Continue reading
The Twist: “Buying” Success
Riffing on the previous concept is a twist that complements the idea of MoS from the opposite direction: If I fail the roll, or if I succeeded but want extra MoS, I can “buy” extra dice to succeed (or succeed better) at cost.
While this doesn’t preclude the recommendation of using a “fail-forward” concept in scenario design, there are still times where I might want my character to succeed in this moment, right now. And so I have a choice… let things continue as I rolled them, or am I willing to put my character into some narrative (backed by mechanics) peril in order to get the win?
If I choose the latter, <devilish voice>excellent</devil>. Much like the ladder of options for MoS, each extra die bought in this manner raises the magnitude of the potential trouble. The number of dice to be bought doesn’t need to be stated up front, allowing them to be bought one at a time, rolling and adding to my total and gradually raising the stakes until either my character succeeds or I reach my limit of peril.
Note that the narrative/perilous cost of the extra dice is paid whether they lead to success or not! Continue reading
The “Extra Die” Beauty: Creating a Margin of Success
Now we get to the key idea that really makes Aurora sing: After tallying enough dice to reach the target number of 15, any “remaining” dice count (as in counting the number of dice themselves, not the numbers on the dice) as the Margin of Success (hereafter often noted as MoS).
With this innovation*, a Margin of Success mechanic is elegantly added to a dice pool system that keeps things moving quickly and, most importantly, preserves the pool’s visceral nature. By dealing in dice (and by having/keeping a fixed target number), there’s no need to calculate something fiddly such as “for every 5 points over the target number you have achieved an extra level of success.” Count out to 15, move the rest of the dice to the side, and there’s the Margin of Success.
With this, the many great options and advantages of a Margin of Success system open up:
- Provides for more interesting narrative outcomes. With an explicit MoS system, the players and GM know not only if the character succeeds or fails, but also how well or by how much. Did they just narrowly make it? Succeed with style? Fail miserably? Or did they shine in a moment of glory? This gives everyone a tool to create and craft a rich and more exciting scene and story.
- AND, using the “Buying Success” mechanic detailed in the next section, it allows for tension, excitement, and a great story even if the character fails or just ekes out a win.
- Allows for the easy creation of cumulative or extended tasks, compiling a count of MoS towards completing a goal.
- Explicitly allows the coupling of success in combat (or other conflicts) with the skill roll, avoiding the oddities (and often frustration) of excellent to-hit rolls yet terrible damage rolls, or vice versa. This makes the skill roll more important and thus makes character ability and agency more relevant.
- By leveraging MoS as a type of “currency,” interesting subsystems can be added, such as spending MoS to activate special abilities, create advantages, or other creative and exciting outcomes.
Handling Difficulty and Modifiers
As already noted for the reasons mentioned above, the baseline difficulty of a task as well as pertinent modifiers are handled by adjusting the dice pool, adding or subtracting dice in ½d increments. The target number (15) remains the same. Continue reading
Baseline Values and an Aside on Probabilities
The base number of dice for a skilled entry-level professional is baselined at 5 dice. With 5d and a target number of 15, the chance of success is roughly 75% (in actuality it is a bit over, but close enough). As outlined in this previous blog post, this falls into the probability range that I find is most perfect, where a competent, trained, healthy individual beginning their professional career should succeed on almost-routine tasks (I say almost, as if it were perfectly routine there’d be no need to roll a test!) most times. And even in those instances where they fail their roll, rarely will it be too disastrous of a setback (especially if the player chooses to succeed at cost, which is further explained below).
By adjusting the dice pool up and down in increments of ½ dice (a d3) allows for roughly this progression of success chances:
||50% (actual is 45%)
In graph form, it looks like this (courtesy of anydice.com):
In play, it is easy to remember that 3½d to 5d forms the middle ground of success probabilities. Anything less than 3½d is super unlikely to succeed, and anything over 5d is pretty much guaranteed to succeed.
Taken together, everything comes together nicely:
- A nice round target number that is easy to remember.
- An easily graspable number of dice that counts as “competent”.
- Enough dice to let beginning characters succeed despite modifiers while also tempting the players with extra actions.
- And an intuitively graspable notion of the chances of success.
Fixed Target Number and Difficulty as Dice Modifiers
There is one main disadvantage to most dice pool systems: the time it takes to total the rolled dice. This begins to get especially tedious around 7-8 dice and only increases thereafter, slowing the game and potentially killing its momentum.
A second disadvantage also arises if the system uses a series of increasing target numbers (for example, setting a target number of 10 for an Easy task, 15 for a Moderate task, 20 for Difficult task, etc). Doing so undermines the intuitive feel of “Number of Dice = Chance of Success”. If I have 8 dice in my hand versus 5 dice, I should feel as though my character is more capable; however, if the target number is also changing/increasing, then it’s tough to gauge whether those extra dice really are leading to an extra chance of success. With two variables at play it creates a matrix of possibilities that hinders any automatic and visceral feel.
By setting the target number at a fixed value of 15 and by adjusting both for the difficulty as well as accounting for all other modifiers by adjusting the number of dice rolled:
- The number of dice rolled at one time is generally kept low.
- Even when many dice are rolled, we only need to count enough dice to make 15, which can be easily done by adding together the highest dice until 15 is reached. (The remaining dice are used as a “Margin of Success”, to further explained below.) This avoids needing to tally large numbers of dice.
- And because the target number never changes, we easily grasp the chance of success by the number of dice in our hand. The visceral nature of the die pool is maintained.
Base Underpinnings and the Dice Pool
At its fundamental level, this is a d6 dice pool system, chosen for the numerous of advantages it brings to the table:
First and foremost is the pure visceral aspect of a dice pool. By holding a number of dice in our hand we gain instant feedback of our strength in that moment. We feel it. As characters progress in skill and ability, it’s immediately apparent through the number of dice. So too is the impact of adding or subtracting modifiers. At each moment in the game we feel our character’s chance of success (or not). Altogether it is much more personal than a faceless target number, and as such the experience of rolling heightens our emotional attachment.
Secondly, to summarize this earlier blog post, it allows for an elegant way of handling multiple actions by a character in a turn: for each declared action above the first, subtract one die from every test made. This allows for a sweet differentiation between experienced and inexperienced characters while also elegantly handing movement and incidental actions. Within this system there are no fixed silos of (arbitrarily increasing) attacks per turn, no rigid number of actions/moves/bonus actions, or the like; instead it provides a unified and organic method that promotes options, interesting choices, and crazy excitement.
Thirdly, it allows for various sub-systems and abilities (such as martial arts, stunts, equipment traits, or other similar things) where removing dice can be used to “fuel” special maneuvers or attacks.
Lastly, because we’re dealing solely with dice, both the number of calculations as well as the values involved tend to remain low. There’s no need to add, for example, +17 to a roll. Starting with a base number of dice (likely to be less than 10), then adding or subtracting a few dice (likely to be less than 6 either way) for modifiers keeps things simple. Even if our list of modifiers grows large, because we are dealing with actual dice it remains easy to calculate things by going through modifiers one by one and physically adding or removing dice from our hand until the final value is reached. Continue reading