Monthly Archives: July 2011

Skill Contexts

I am totally breaking my own rules and double-posting today because I think these ideas are complimentary enough that they would suffer from a split across the weekend. This won’t make a huge amount of sense without the post prior to it, so if you haven’t read that yet, start there.

Feng Shui’s skill system was one that I really came to appreciate as I started digging into other games. It had a very clever element to it that let a reasonably short skill list feel suitably broad yet cinematic. The idea was simple: each skill actually represented three things. The first was the skill itself, the things you would expect to fall under the skill. Drive let you drive things, Guns let you shoot guns and so on.

The second was your knowledge about the skill. That is, your Guns skill also encompassed your knowledge about guns, ballistics and all things gun related. You might not be a scientist, but you could answer serious metallurgical questions if they had to do with bullet composition or gun barrels.

The third was that it encompassed how connected you were within the social network surrounding the skill. That is, your Guns skill represented how well you knew and could find gun makers, gun smugglers, black market gun dealers, the location fo the nearest gun show and so on.

I adopted this idea in a number of games, adding a 4th element: perception. Your Guns skill might not help you spot a footprint, but it would let you recreate a firefight from evidence or spot a sniper. It worked decently, better in soem contexts than others.

Recently, Brennan Taylor has taken this idea and nitro-injected it for his game Bulldogs. In Bulldogs, he has structured his skills explicitly in terms of these broad categories of action. It’s pretty slick.

Anyway, I like this idea a lot, and it’s one of the best ways I know to distinguish between broad an narrow skills. A narrow skill just does a thing, a broad skill has a whole array of associated things (knowledge, connections, perception and the like) with it.

Now, let’s take this back to the skill system as we’ve proposed so far, with it’s increasing narrowness of scope. It’s foundation – the culture skill – is one that explicitly depends on context. By creating the culture skill, you are implicitly creating that culture in your setting. You are saying things about the culture based on what the skill does. This is pretty potent, and I intend to use that potency over the course of the game.

Specifically, I intend to make it a necessary part of advancement. That is, I am going to add an extra step between “Soldier 2d6” and “Musketeer 3d6”, and that step is the explicit creation of context.

That sounds fancy, but in practice it’s much simpler – it requires taking the skill, which is fairly abstract, and concretely nailing it to the setting with specifics. In this case, the specifics might be what military the soldier is serving with, such as “Sargent of the Army of the Republic 2d6” or “The Queen’s Guard 2d6”.

This difference is easy to point to in the fiction, but it also has the mechanical impact of turning the skill from a narrow one into a broad one (see, there was a reason for that whole preamble). It also now opens the gateway to buying a specific skill at the next die-step up, which also indicates the context within which the character’s skill is exceptional.

Doing this as advancement is simple enough – the context should be something that evolves out of play, but doing this as a part of character creation offers an extra bonus: Players may _create_ these setting elements as part of character creation. In effect, character creation can become setting creation.

Obviously, this isn’t required. The GM can have a list of contexts to pick from if so desired. Heck, I’d suggest having such a list as a starting point, then letting players come up with exceptions, or drive you to come up with something off the top of your head when they really need a context for the best bakers in the kingdom.


Ok, enough combat for now. We’ll need to come back to it after other things have evolved a bit more, but I feel like we’ve got enough of a foundation to work with. That brings us to something that’s potentially even stickier: Skills.

Broadly speaking, skills are going to be what distinguishes one dice pool from another. That may seem like a very pedestrian, gamey way to describe them, but in practice it’s the purpose they ultimately serve outside of the game space. Inside the game, in the fiction, there’s obviously a bit more to it than than, but to someoen watching your game, they’re the reason you rolled 5 dice instead of 3.

There are a lot of different ways to handle skills lists. There’s the traditional skill list, where you create an actual list of skills which – hopefully – covers everything a character might do and let players buy from it. There’s the broadly descriptive model, where players simply take descriptors (like Cop, Soldier or Pastry Chef) and use those values for anything that fall under the auspices of that descriptor. There are hybrid models that use a short list of broad descriptors to be all encompassing. And we’ve only scratched the surface – we haven’t yet considered, stats, pyramids, simple and advance skills, specialties, descriptive vs. narrative pricing, implicit skills and many many other things.

All of which is to say, there’s no right way to build a skill system. Use what you’re comfortable with and you’ll be fine, but if you try to present it as somehow inherently superior to other models, you mostly reveal your own ignorance. I think the skill model I’m going to pursue is clever, and I like it because it does some novel (and some less novel) things, but it’s no great apex of skill design.

The system starts from two datapoints: I like cultural skills and the system has been designed so a d6 is a valid value. For the unfamiliar, cultural skills are a bit of an idea riffed from Over the Edge, where you had a 2d6 in anything you should normally be able to do. It’s a super practical rule, but when you try to move the OtE system to another setting, you find yourself asking what “normal” is when you start comparing elves and dwarves. With that in mind, I want the starting point of every character to be “[Culture] d6”.

Now, it will probably be pretty easy to figure out what that means, and if that was the only skill then it wouldn’t really be much of an issue, but obviously we’re going to need to start slicing things thinner. And that’s where things are going to get a little bit fiddly, since I’m not going to let skills improve.

That sounds draconian on the surface of it, so let me explain a bit. The character’s [Culture] skill will never be higher than a d6, but he can learn more specific skills at a higher level. However, rather than making a fixed skill list and letting people buy up it (So one guy might be Swordsman 2d6 and another might be Swordsman 4d6), I’m going to make the scope of skills narrow as they go up. That is, 1d6 skills (of which [Culture] is the only example) are SUPER broad. Any skill at 2d6 is still going to be very broad, but not as broad as culture. As such, Merchant, Soldier, Noble and so on are all valid 2d6 skills.

Each tier narrows things further. At 3d6 might be Musketeer or Doctor. 4d6 might be Fencer and Neurologist. 5d6 narrows down to a specific specialty, like rapier or diseases of the brain.

Obviously, each of these must be built on a foundation. So you need to have Culture to get Soldier, Soldier to get Musketeer and so on. These higher level containers create natural limiters on the flow of skills, so you don’t just get “Rapier 5d6” out of the blue.

Now, this is a good start, but there’s one more twist to it that I haven’t touched yet, and this is the really crazy bit, but it’s going to have to wait until next week. 🙂

The Hard Questions

Ok, the remaining questions:

  1. How many dice should it take to offset a status?
  2. Who gets to say what form the status/result takes in the fiction?
  3. What order do things happen in?
  4. How big an advantage is 1 die?
  5. How does this map over to multiple combatants?

These are some of the hard ones.

How many dice should it take to offset a status?
I touched on this earlier, and one commenter gave some useful breakdown, and the short form is that this is a surprisingly tricky question. If this number is fairly low (say, 1 die per) then it makes dice differences more potent because it makes it easier to smooth out any short term advantage that a smaller die pool might have achieved. Not sure if that’s good or bad, but it’s important to know.

This also plays interestingly into the question of how target numbers are rolled for, because there is some question as to whether and how players can -try- to recover. This is not totally black and white, since I think it might not be unreasonable to say that if you really want to focus on recovering, pick something other than attacking (with a target of 4) and do that.

Lastly, we get some interesting effects if the pricing is inconsistent. Damage could become “stickier” if it becomes more costly to remove (or reduce) a status.

But in that, I think we might have our answer – reduction. If the “cost” is 1 die per 1 step reduction (rather than total removal) then it has two interesting effects. First, it makes it harder to clear the board – totally removing a severe effect – so the more severe the effect, the more implicitly costly it has become. Second, it means that even with mitigation, the accumulation of statuses is dangerous. That is, if you are already inconveniences and harmed (or whatever) then you can’t just bump a taken out result down 1 to save yourself – you need to remove it entirely.

There’s also some asymmetry to deal with. The steps for inflicting a status are big, so leftover dice are going to be more common than statuses, and that’s a problem, since it invites fights that never end except at the very high and very low skill ranges. Some of that will hopefully be mitigated by other things you want to spend overage dice on, but that’s a weak prop.

So with all that in mind, I think the right answer is to make the price consistent, but slightly higher – Allow 2 overage dice to reduce (but not remove) a status.

Who gets to say what form the status/result takes in the fiction?
Touched on this yesterday, and for the moment, I’ll stick with the target defining things (with the possible optional rule of allowing the attacker to define things with a higher roll).

What order do things happen in?
Ah, now there’s a bit of a bear. Initiative.

I cannot think of an initiative system I’ve ever actually liked. Round robin works ok, so it’s all the way up to tolerable. Speedy action based ones (Shadowrun, Deadlands) make me crazily stabby. Shot Clock ones (Feng Shui, Exalted 2nd) always seem promising in theory but always prove more work than they’re worth in practice. I could totally cheat the whole issue and go for scene based resolution or some other abstraction to escape the question entirely, but I don’t actually enjoy things like that (with the exception of how The Shadow of Yesterday handles it, which I’ll probably steal).

The reality is that I’m probably going to be forced to go with some sort of round robin/turn taking model out of brutal necessity, but I don’t have to like it, and I can work to avoid things like “Declare up, resolve down” because part of what I’m trying to avoid is the big pow-wow between each round of combat. If action isn’t fluid then it’s less fun for everyone.

Honestly, initiative is one of those areas where I really prefer GM instinct and dicelessness. That is to say, while numeric initiative totally makes sense when everyone is part of the big picture (as in the case of, say, a tactical minis skirmish) that’s not how fights work in fiction or perception. They are lots of miniature stages within the large picture, and we (as audience) move from one to another according to the cadence of the fight. A good GM can use “initiative” as that audience, moving from place to place according to the logic of the fights, not according to some numeric counter. Doing so covers a multitude of sins, allows for characters with different levels of combat focus to get different levels of attention while still keeping the spotlight from lingering too long in one place.

But that’s not something you can really write a rule for. That’s a problem.

So, honestly, my take on it is to make the official rule very simple – literally just go around the table rather than do any weird rolling or anything – but provide guidelines for initiative as cameraman. Mechanically, we might allow some rules for speed tricks using unused dice or the like, but those are for exceptions – character for whom speed is a schtick. In the absence of that the role of initiative is to keep everyone playing and engaged, not to reward the guy who found the best mechanical abuse of the system.

How big an advantage is 1 die?
Pretty big. In the end, if a 1d advantage means an 80% chance of success, I’ll be happy. Obviously, there’s a sliding scale to this – 3d should beat 2d more reliably than 5d will beat 4d, but that’s my ballpark starting point, with a roughly 10% margin of error. However, I expect abilities (ways to spend dice) will throw this off when I get to them, which is fine.

How does this map over to multiple combatants?
This is the most important question to apply to any combat system. It is not hard to come up with a brilliant, clever, intricate system for handling 1-on-1 fights which utterly fails to account for multiple actors. Some of them try to apply duct tape solutions, like trying to make everything into chained sets of duels or aggregating opposition, but you can see the seams when that happens.

There’s also an important genre consideration to how numbers work. I hate to invoke realism, but I’ll do so in this very broad context – being outnumbered sucks. One man can absolutely fight a larger number of opponents, but doing so is dependent on a lot of factors, most of them involving finding a way to keep them all from coming at him at the same time. This is important, not because of how you model tactics, but because it’s very important to _society_. It’s what makes armies and police and many other things work. It also matters to style. The number of people one guy can fight speaks directly to the genre of things. In a gritty setting, even badass will run from groups of lesser adversaries, but in very cinematic settings, those adversaries are probably mooks, and can be easily dispensed with.

I’m definitely looking to avoid mook rules, though that’s a whole other discussion of it’s own. They’re easy to add if a specific genre demands it, but I don’t want them as a baseline. I like ganging up to be dangerous because of the aforementioned social element (and, in fact, this sentiment is all over the Fate 2 combat rules) but I think I may have implicitly handled that already. Since status mitigation depends on excess dice, the simple reality is that multiple opponents are going to burn through your dice in no time at all, even if they’re not hugely dangerous individually. That’s just a gut answer for now, but I think it will do.

Fighting Questions

Ok, getting into some of the nitty gritty here, so let’s review.

The idea so far is that combatants will have die pools of D6’s. When they go after someone in a fight, they are trying to hit a fixed target number, with a result as follows:

4 – Inconvenienced
7 – Harmed (possibly handicapped. Maybe another term)
13 – Taken Out

These are statuses which map to in-fiction effects, and they also accumulate, so an inconvenienced character who is inconvenienced again becomes harmed.

Statuses can be changed by spending unused dice. Unused dice are dice which have been rolled, but which were not necessary to hit the target number. If, for example, you rolled 4,3,3 then you can hit a 7 with 1 unused die (or a 4 with 2 unused dice) which you can use for stuff. Much of the stuff is currently undefined (and is expected to be a place for mechanical hooks) but specifically, they can be spent to “downgrade” statuses.

With that in mind, I’m looking down the barrel of the following questions:

  1. Does the attacker choose the target number he’s going for, or does he simply take the result?
  2. When a status “rolls up” does the previous status remain? That is, if a second inconvenience becomes harm, is the target now inconvenienced and harmed, or just harmed?
  3. Is there an option to respond to a Taken Out result?
  4. Are statuses the only possible outcome, or are they simply the non-specific outcome? That is, is a disarm a _form_ of harm, or something with a difficulty equivalent to harm (because it has a similar impact but with player-directed outcome)
  5. Are 3 statuses enough? Do we need 4?
  6. How many dice should it take to offset a status?
  7. Who gets to say what form the status/result takes in the fiction?
  8. What order to things happen in?
  9. How big an advantage is 1 die?
  10. How does this map over to multiple combatants?

That’s a lot. Enough to tempt me to just accept a standard injury model and move on, but I’m kind of dumb that way, so let’s press on and work through these, though it may take a while.

1. Does the attacker choose the target number he’s going for, or does he simply take the result?

Ok, two options: decide before you roll (declare intent) or declare after you roll ( describe outcome). The argument for post-roll is that the assumption is that every attack is an attempt to finish the fight. It also opens up an interesting decision-point of allowing the attack to choose to get a lesser outcome in order to keep more unused dice. That is, if you rolled 4,1,1,1 then you might feel better off taking the 4 and three unused dice (which probably need a cool name) than taking the 7 with no remaining budget.

The argument for a pre-roll decision is that it adds a little more strategy to the mix. It makes risk-taking a bit more of a calculated gamble, and it does _not_ require any post-roll decisionmaking. That’s kind of a big deal, since post-roll decisions are a big source of friction – you totally don’t want a player sitting there deciding if he really wants that 7 or those unused dice on a borderline case.

So, there’s a clear priority conflict here with no clear answer. I think either option could work well, so it’s really a matter of taste, style and (of course) subsequent testing to see which works. It’s one of those situatiosn where you make a decision, but put a pin in it to come back to. With that in mind, I’m going to go with decision before the roll because I think it will be easier to test whether that feels frustrating than it will be to test if it’s what people want.

2. When a status “rolls up” does the previous status remain? That is, if a second inconvenience becomes harm, is the target now inconvenienced and harmed, or just harmed?
The default assumption in most systems would be that the effects stack – that is, that you would now be inconvenienced and harmed. I’m inclined to buck that trend, at least while we have such a short list of statues, because it effectively lengthens the “damage track”. This might prove to be too much bookkeeping in the end, but it’s what I want to try for now.

3. Is there an option to respond to a Taken Out result?
I feel like there should be, but the real answer to this can be found in the question of sequencing. If all action is simultaneous, then this is easy to implement – just let overage dice be used immediately to mitigate an effect. Unfortunately, simultaneous action has its own drawbacks, so this question needs to be set aside until we answer the question of order of events.

4. Are statuses the only possible outcome, or are they simply the non-specific outcome? That is, is a disarm a _form_ of harm, or something with a difficulty equivalent to harm (because it has a similar impact but with player-directed outcome)
I’m strongly inclined to the latter, and as I think about it, I think the rubric may be simple. Outcomes are defined by the attacker, harm by the defender. That means that the fiction of being taken out stays firmly in the hands of the player, which is a plus. It also works nicely with the idea of hitting set difficulties, and it also supports players who are very descriptive as well as those who are not.

Curiously, this also suggests an interesting extension of the outcome ladder, which might be a little meta, but kind of resonates with me. To inflict harm AND describe it, you must hit the next target up. That is, the target for taking someone out in the way YOU want is 19. It means the “one shot kill” still exists as a possibility when dealing with very skilled opponents, but it’s rare. That has some weird interplay with things when the target is already hurt, so I’ll need ot think about it some more, but if nothing else it feels like a good optional rule.

5. Are 3 statuses enough? Do we need 4?
Dunno yet. But the answer to that previous question may prove a suitable compromise.

Ok, enough for today. We’ll run through 6-10 tomorrow.

Actual Fight Mechanics

OK, so the basic non-fight component of a conflict is this: take a swing, beat a 4, if successful, the other guy is taken out.

(I like “taken out” as a euphemism because it underscores that all ways of taking someone out of a fight are roughly equal – unconsciousness, death, getting tossed overboard and the like all fall into the same bucket, and it leaves the exact color and fiction flexible. It also leaves a hook in place later to allow players to offer their own taken out outcomes if you want to avoid death in interesting ways, but that’s a matter to think about later.)

Once we’re in an actual fight, we don’t want things to be quite so quick as all that, but we still want to respect the 4+ success rule. We could go for a numeric system (hit points or the like) but let’s think of this in terms of statuses – we have this idea that a good enough roll can result in being taken out, what else might happen as a result of a roll?

Suppose that there are two other results – inconvenienced and harmed. Inconvenienced means that the other side has gotten some transitory advantage – they’ve knocked you back, rung your bell, seized the high ground or whatever. Harm is more palpable – it’s a disarm, an injury or some other major setback. And, of course, the third result (taken out) has already been recovered.

So, at their baseline, let’s map these as follows:

4 – Inconvenience
7 – Harm
13 – Taken Out

Now, that maps to our difficulties, but it raises some immediate questions. Does it mean that you need at least a 3d pool to be able to win a fight? And what happens when two people of high skill go at each other? Do they both just die? Obviously, we need to address these issues.

Now, the first is pretty straightforward, and we’ll do something that has been done in many other systems and just have damage “roll up”. That is to say, if you inconvenience someone who is already inconvenienced, they are now harmed. If you inconvenience someone who is already harmed and inconvenienced, then they’re taken out. Pretty simple. It allows high skills to get decisive results while allowing unskilled combatants to have sloppy, ugly fights that end badly.

Still brutal, though, especially since there’s no idea of defense. Skill won’t keep you standing any longer, and that’s problematic.

The fix for this is tied into how I view the statuses. Note that it would be normal to put a checkbox next to each status an fill them in over the course of a fight, but that’s more static than I like. I actually don’t want them to be static, I want them to come and go – not just inconveniences (which are already often tenuous in games like Fate) but harm and maybe even taken out. This means that, at a high level, I want people to be able to improve their status as they play, so that’s another axis of action. Sometimes it will be a dull axis (shrugging off an injury) and sometimes it’ll be flashy (getting out of a tight corner) but the bottom line is that status can fluctuate over the course of a fight.

(Saying that, my gut is suggesting we need a 4th status, just so there’s more room for things to slide. That may be true, but I’ll sideline that concern for now. If I figure out a good mechanic for this, then one good test for it will be expanding the status list).

So how should we implement this? My first thought is to make it something you can spend extra dice on (that is, for those who don’t recall, dice that weren’t needed to hit the target number). This has an interesting upshot because it provides a double incentive to go for inconveniences and harm rather than KO’s, because you’re more likely to have extra dice left, at least in theory. Of course, the fact that hitting three “4s” may be easier than hitting one 13 may also play into that. This also provides an interesting tool for NPC behavior, since the target number an NPC aims for speaks directly to their tactics, and can be a solid part of an NPC writeup.

Anyway, at the simplest you could just say that 1 extra die can reduce things by one “step”, so a hurt can become an inconvenience for 1 die, or go away entirely for 2 dice. That’s a good baseline, but it might be too easy. This is something to test, but I’d absolutely want to fiddle with different costs, including a higher base (say, 2 dice per step), or a sliding scale (1 for inconvenience, 2 for harm, 3 for taken out if apt – or perhaps the reverse!) but the idea is solid. It just leaves two real questions – how it interacts with a taken out result, and how it sequences. Those are pretty fiddly bits, so they’re best left for tomorrow.

Combat Waffles

All the previous discussion about fights also implies something that I figure I’ll state outright – writing a generic combat system is a much bigger pain in the ass than writing one for a genre. So much so that most generic combat systems aren’t – they are in fact implicit declarations of genre through the simple fact of how they handle things like survivability, “realism” and such.

Not to say they are unaware of this. Most provide a baseline with the expectation that it can be tweaked to handle other genre expectations (provided the game acknowledges genre expectations in the first place), but they need a starting point. So with that in mind, let’s establish one.

My personal burden is that the two poles I am drawn towards in RPG combat are strongly opposed. The first is Swashbuckling, which is a bit over the top, but not as much so as Hong Kong action or Anime. The second is Rolemaster, where violence is dangerous and risky and always to be taken seriously. Those two things are hard to combine, but ideally we can pull off some sort of vinaigrette sort of emulsion.

This means the first thing to look at is stunting. This is sort of a broad question best phrased as “how tolerant is the system of players doing cool stuff that might be unrealistic or tactically inappropriate but which looks awesome?” This is a kind of important question because, practically speaking, swinging from a chandelier is a pretty awkward way to make an attack, but it looks pretty cool, so how should a game handle it?

The first option is the strict realism school, which would impose a penalty to the attack based on the difficulty of it, maybe call for an athletics roll to pull it off, and otherwise frown and tut-tut at the idea. In short, everything in the system would suggest that this is a terrible idea, and one you really shouldn’t pursue unless absolutely necessary.

There’s also a loose realism school which is not necessarily going to penalize such an attack so much as make it non-optimal. It might offer some small benefit (such as allowing the attack to be made with an athletics skill) for a serious tradeoff (you do unarmed damage, which probably sucks). This is something you can do, but it’s rarely going to be the optimal thing to do.

At the far opposite end, you have the true stunting school (names thus for it’s use in Exalted) where the character gets a _bonus_ on the attack based on how awesome it is, thus making colorful attacks desirable. This can get a little silly as players ham it up to get the bonuses, but it definitely supports the flashy.

Between those, there’s a broad band of cinematic styles, ranging from abstract cinematic (like 4e’s stunts, where the mechanical effects are sufficiently disconnected from the fiction to allow a lot of narrative flexibility within fairly strict mechanical interpretation. Also applies to many scene-based resolution games) to gritty cinematic (as in Feng Shui, where stunts are penalized, but that penalty is very small and bonuses are very high, which allows them but discourages their constant use).

This cinematic space is probably where I want to aim for, which is definitely on the swashbuckling end of things, but it highlights a few things. My real goal is the 1970’s Three Musketeers movies, where fights have flair (and even humor), but also have a sense of danger to them despite reasonably limited bloodshed. That means I’m not looking for Hong King musketeers – it sucks in film and it’s not what I want in a fight.

Part of this is tied to the cultural role of violence and death. It’s important to remember that while we remember the duels and swordplay in the Three Musketeers, that was criminal activity. Duels are illegal because people killing each other is a terrible thing. It’s a sin and a crime, and while you might try to outright murder the other guy on the battlefield or in certain brutal circumstances, those are edge cases. Or should be. The problem is that in any modern game, you can be certain that a player wants to be Wolverine (or the like), and such things quickly move towards the least common denominator. That’s rough.

And with that, I find myself wrestling again. Is there a meaningful way to address the role of conflict in the game outside of the conflict rules? Setting design can speak to it certainly, but there’s a reasonable case that they can be quite toothless in the face of a setting that says one thing and rules that say another.

Argh. Ok, I clearly need to just write some rules, then worry about this issues _after_ I do so. Doing so beforehand is proving utterly paralyzing.

What To Do With a Fight

At first glance, it can seem like the question to ask yourself when designing a combat system is “How can we have everyone kill each other?” This is certainly an important question, but I think the real question is quite the reverse. That is, “How can we keep people from killing each other?”

Why? Ok, consider most any other action in an RPG or story. You want to lift a rock? Maybe roll some dice and you lift the rock. Ditto for climbing a rope, charming a barmaid or anything else. But when the action is “Stick my sword in that guy” we’re uncomfortable with it being that straightforward, and when it comes to the other guy trying to stick his sword in us, then we definitely don’t want it to be that simple.

So with that in mind, the real purpose of the combat system is to make the process of killing someone take enough time and effort to complicate matters without making things un-fun. That is, I admit, a kind of callous and disturbing take on it, but the role of violence in RPGs is a bit of a messy topic (and one I’m not really going to drill into at the moment).

On the “not making thing un-fun” front, many systems put a subtle (or not-so-subtle) thumb on the scales in support of the idea that the PCs are going to win any fight they engage in, albeit at some cost. This is a tricky balancing act because we instinctively want a “Fair fight” but we also want a fight we can win. This is the sports movie paradox, and it pops its head up in RPG design in a lot of odd places. This is a big issue, but it’s also a high level one, which makes it hard to address at this point.

In terms of complicating violence, the trick is that the heart of a combat system is not dealing damage, it’s damage mitigation. Not that dealing damage in unimportant, but rather it’s simple and straightforward, and if that’s all there was to it, then combat would just be back to the straightforward “I put my sword in his gut”. Mitigation is all the reasons that you can’t put your sword in his gut, or that it doesn’t end the fight when you do.

Classically, this divides into two things – defense and resistance – though that is a division born out of tradition more than necessity. Defense is all the reasons why something wouldn’t hit you (that is to say, have no subsequent mechanical effect) while resistance is all the reasons that a hit doesn’t end the fight (such as damage reduction or hit points). This sounds tidy, but historically it’s very muddled. Consider the role of armor – is it a function of defense or resistance? You can make a case for both (and, indeed, in some systems it has elements of both) and in doing so you highlight the division.

There’s a reason that this model lines up with a similar two-part model for offense – roll to attack + roll to damage. They’re opposite sides of the same coin, and a lot of games have streamlined both of these things into a single roll to hit, with damage based on Margin of Success plus some modifier (such as weapon or strength). This is certainly easy, but it tends to encounter predictable problems. Specifically, it tends to make whatever stat covers accuracy into a super-stat, and it does weird things when dealing with weapons at extremes of the damage range (since it can make “0 damage” weapons, like a ping pong ball, lethal).

Unfortunately, the alternate approach of adding more layers of rolls (say, one for attack, one for penetration and one for damage) gets cumbersome quickly, so it’s not a solution either. Practically speaking, we’re limited to a small number of rolls for an exchange in combat, but at the same time we want it to be more than just a single exchange. So where does this leave us?

Well, let’s look at what we have for dice. Right now, our core idea is that a normal success is easy to achieve, and there’s not much that’s more normal than whacking someone. This means we’ve got a default assumption that it’s pretty easy to hit someone, and I’m ok with that, because it is. And that, right there, speaks to something of a design goal – the purpose of every swing in a fight is to end the fight, so there needs to be a good reason it doesn’t.

Having a goal like that is essential to making a combat system do something other than emulate another combat system you’re familiar with. That specific idea is a somewhat brutal design goal, and it won’t stand on its own, but it’s a great start, and it gives us something to build from for the next time.

Combat is a Pain

Ok, back on track. Time to think about conflict. Now, the reality is that if you’re designing a game, conflict really means combat. Yes, absolutely, you might need to handle other types of conflict, but combat is the starting point. This is partly because it’s such a central part of the hobby, but it’s more because if your system is going to break, this is where it’s going to happen. That sounds negative, so let me put it a little bit differently – no other part of a game system requires you to think about what the game will actually be like and how that interacts with expectations than combat.

That’s a pretty loaded statement, so let me unpack it a bit into the four things that make combat a pain in the ass.

First, because combat tends to have explicit stakes (character well-being) that are measurable outside of the fiction (stats and information on the character sheet) its impact is directly observable in action. That is, while there may be some narrative interpretation applied to how 7 hit points got lost, it’s still 7 hit points getting lost. This is not necessarily true of every system out there, but it’s common enough to be a default.

Second, there’s a huge range in expectations regarding how combat should go, so much so that it’s one of the main yardsticks for judging genre. Games might have lethal, brutal combat, or they might have fast and loose, mostly harmless combat. Or they might have something in between. Whatever the case, the usual yardstick is that there is usually a specific look and feel the designer is going for, often epitomized by a particular book, movie or TV show though sometimes through their own personal lens of how fights work “in real life”.

Third, fiction (both on-screen and in-mind) has the benefit of narrative protection for heroes, allowing an author to tell a tale of brutal, unforgiving violence without accidentally losing characters. A designer who seeks to emulate that may quickly discover that brutal and unforgiving cuts both ways. This can be addressed by effectively having different rules for players and everyone else (4E and many video games do this well) but that introduces a lot extra overhead into the system.

Last, we’ve got decades of training from D&D that have totally shaped our perspective. This is not a sleight to D&D but rather an assertion of its huge mindshare, as can easily be seen in most RPGs and computer games. And not just CRPGs – there are precious few shooters out there that don’t have some form of hit points, and there’s a good reason for that. If play is fun, then dying (and thus not playing) probably isn’t. On the upside, this simple model has supported a lot of fun play, but it also means that the assumptions that might guide you in other parts of game design may fail you here. The blatant gamey-ness of combat does not stick out to people the same way it would in other parts of the game, and in fact if you move away from the established standards, people start reacting badly because they know how things should be.

Now, these are concerns, but not show-stoppers. But they’re important to keep in mind as we move into designing conflicts.


I’m briefly sidetracked today by a comment on an earlier post which used a phrase I’m utterly delighted by. The poster was concerned about the variance in larger dice pools, but described it as “the mathematical whimsy of dice pool systems”. That’s a fantastic way to put it, and I’m totally filing that away.

But he raises a valid point, and he’s not the only one to do so. Variance is a bit of a specter that has been raised more than once. For those unfamiliar, the concern is basically this: the bigger the pools of dice get, the less predictable the outcomes get. Once you’re rolling 5d6, you’ve still got a curved outcome, but the curve gets shorter and fatter. You can see it when you map out the curves from 2d6 to 5d6, and it only gets more pronounced with time.

Now, this is totally a function of taste. I admit that so long as pools stay under 7d6 or so, the variance is still within my personal threshold, but I completely understand that other people’s thresholds are elsewhere. The thing is that this is mostly something that math nerds are sensitive too, but gaming has no shortage of math nerds, so it’s not so easily dismissed as all that.

So with that in mind, let me turn the question around a bit, and look at why we have dice in games in the first place. At heart, it’s a matter of determining success or failure, with the uncertainty of things providing some of the thrill of play. Notably, that uncertainty is what puts games at a remove from pure narrative, and you can determine a lot about a game by how much of that uncertainty is in the game (determined by dice) and how much is in other sensibilities (such as drama or karma).

Now, this simple point has expanded into realms of nuance, with degrees of success and success with consequences and so on. There are piles of variations, but what’s interesting to note is that there is often a divergence between results (as shown on the dice) and outcomes (how those results are interpreted). The best example of this is probably D&D, where in an attack, there are 20 possible results, but only 2 (maybe 3 with crits) outcomes.

This is an important point to bear in mind when you start looking at these die curves. It’s not the specific numbers that matter so much as the bands of results. If hard rolls (13s and such) are common, then the variance starts becoming an issue – possibly a frustrating on – and that’s where a lot of systems fall down. By having difficulties creep up along with die pools, you end up feeling like the treadmill is outracing you. Less consistent results combined with consistently escalating difficulties can make “high level” actions feel less heroic.

The solution to this is to take the base difficulty very seriously (Savage Worlds does a great job with this). If the target is really and truly 4 most of the time, then the big die pools feel powerful (especially when paired with the ability to “spend” unused dice). Using higher difficulties to represent specific circumstance is useful as a tool to manage exceptions, not as the default.

A Little Spin

Ok, so we now have a basic die mechanic (a tally system for dice pools ranging from 1d6 to maybe 5d6) and a basic method for establishing difficulties (numeric steps 4/7/13/19 based on expertise required to perform a task) and a methodology for handling success. That’s a good start, but for all the thinking that went into it, there’s not much there. In the absence of further details, this is just one more d6 system looking for an answer to the question of “Why not just use RISUS?”

First off, let me state that RISUS is a good answer to many questions, and if the sole purpose of this were to create a not-RISUS, that would be a little lame. There is a lot of desire in RPGS to differentiate purely for the sake of differentiation (or, more cynically, to make something different enough that you can put your name on it) so beware that particular lure.

Thankfully, I have enough things I want the system to accomplish that we still have some very organic work to do. Let’s start looking at the bells and whistles.

When looking to add fiddly bits to a system, its worth thinking about when in the process you want things to happen. Are you going to introduce choices before the dice roll or afterwards? Or both? This gets further complicated when you have more than one roll (such as D&D’s attack & damage) but let’s not borrow trouble. We’ll assume a single roll for the time being.

When making this decision it’s worth realizing that there’s more than just timing at work. Choices made before the roll have a very different texture than those made afterwards, and the difference revolves around the certainty of the outcome. Any choice made before the roll is, practically, a gamble. It’s a choice being made on the hope that the subsequent roll will succeed. This has the benefit of being more engaging and the drawback of risking paralysis – it’s easy to get hung up on what would be the “right” choice.

In contrast, choices made after the roll are very certain, and tend to be all about working with the outcome. In addition to being simpler, these choices usually are much easier to ingrate into the fiction of play. That is, characters don’t use their big attack to miss – they hit, then decide it’s going to be a big hit. For some people that logic is jarring, especially if the game has enough missing that it’s expected, but other players find the other disconnect jarring.

So, let’s say we want a before-the-roll mechanic. We probably want to embrace the gambling element of it, allowing the player to take on some risk before the roll in return for a potential reward. The easiest way to do this with the system so far is to play around with the trickle-down nature of success. Under normal circumstances, even if you don’t hit the target you’re going for, you still succeed to a lesser extent. You could offer a bonus on the outcome provided that failure will be absolute.

That feels a little awkward, and there are simpler alternatives. Bonus Dice, for example, are a common trick for rounding out dice pool systems. That is to say, you may get to roll extra dice, but only count the best ones. These might be true bonuses (Like in PDQ# or Over the Edge), fixed result pools (like Cortex+ always keeping the best two dice) or roll & keep systems (like L5R).

This is a pretty robust system, and has the advantage of keeping the results within the bounds of the original die pool. It’s worth keeping in mind, but it’s also well worn territory. I’ll keep it in mind, but I’m not particularly inspired. With that in mind, I’m switching the focus to an idea for an after-the-roll bonus.

A while back, a very clever game called Secret of Zir’an failed as a result of a terrible printing failure. One of the more fun ideas it included was a very robust system for using the Margin of Success on a roll for mechanical purposes. That is, if you needed a 20 and rolled a 25, you might spend 2 points to do extra damage and 3 points to knock your opponent over. Neat little mechanic, and one I’d love to capture it.

The problem is that margin of success math is a pain in the ass. Adding up a bunch of dice is enough of a barrier – adding a second equation to the mix is just a bad idea, so the trick is to find a way to make that simple.

With that in mind, we’ll try a trick that steals a page from the idea of bonus dice, but keeps the focus on the margin of success. The player may “keep” however many dice he needs to make the roll – if there are dice left over, then those can be spent as currency. It doesn’t matter what the values on the extra dice are – the dice themselves are currency.

For example – let’s say you’re rolling 4d6 trying to hit a 7. You roll 2, 2, 3, 4. You can build the 7 out of the 3 and 4, with 2 dice leftover. Those two extra dice can be spent for extra effects (akin to Dragon Age’s stunt points). I don’t yet know what the points will be spent _on_, but I think that gives enough of a starting point to start hanging some bits off of.

Now, it’s important to remember that these bonuses need to be tangential, not additive. That is, no number of bonuses should be able to turn a 4 result into a 7, which means the bonuses don’t make the result _better_, they add additional elements to it. In the most broadly narrative sense, each bonus might be used to declare a fact of some sort. This is a fuzzy distinction, but it gets concrete when you start building specific rules – it’s easy to look at any specific bonus and compare it to what a higher roll would have done, and see if there’s any overlap.

Curiously, this little test also sheds a lot of light on what needs to be thought about in a conflict system, so we’ll probably head that way next.