System, Hold the Math

Just to illustrate something, here are a pair of systems that you can use as a basis for resolution.  They share two key characteristics – neither is math dependent but both are heavily expectations dependent.

Math is, I hope, self explanatory, but expectations are another matter. What that means is that they depend on the entire table sharing a reasonably common set of expectations regarding what can or cannot be done.  This tends to demand that the game be strong rooted in the real world, or be of a genre that the table knows well.   Most fantastic settings are problematic in this regard because the limits of magic or other supernatural elements can be much harder to intuit. Not to say this is impossible to overcome – sufficient familiarity of flexibility can find a way to deal with this, but it’s a hurdle all the same.

As an example, consider the difference between running a game about normal kids at boarding school vs a Harry Potter game. Because the limits of what magic can and cannot do are so loosely defined within the Harry Potter world, you run the risk of a disconnect whenever players decide to address a situation with magic.

This idea of expectations is an implicit part of a lot of lighter games.  The reason they can get away with leaving out rules for a of of situations is that the table already understands those issues to sufficient resolution to allow play.  More detailed rules are a useful way to bring together a group that does not have a shared understanding, but they’re certainly not always necessary.

(I am, by the way, really really interested in the idea of expectations. I think it’s a keystone of gaming, but that’s another topic.)

Anyway, expectations are important to both of these systems since they hinge on some of the ideas I’ve discussed in skills, specifically that if a character tries something they can succeed (modulo delay, sloppy work and so on) but not every character can try every thing.  This may require a healthy “no” (another topic for another time) occasionally, but the closer the table’s expectations, the less often that should happen.

System 1: Oracle Dice

Requires: 4 Fudge Dice

Process: When the character is faced with something that demands rolling, have a shared understanding of what will happen if nothing goes right or wrong.  This will usually be success, but the situation may complicate it. Once that understanding is in place, roll 4 fudge dice.

If they all come up blank, things proceed according to the default established before the roll, simple as that.  However, each [-] that comes up is something that goes wrong (Dropper a wrench), and every [+] that comes up is something that goes well (“this is UNIX! I KNow this!”).  These unexpected twists are narrated by the player by default (and their implications interpreted by the GM) but the player may hand that responsibility off to the GM if he is so inclined.

Optional Rule #1: Players less interested in narration and twists may allow a [+] and a [-] to cancel out.

Optional Rule #2: Differing levels of player skill or situational complication can be represented by setting rather than rolling some dice.  For example, consider the following skill ladder:

0 – No skill, no chance, shouldn’t even roll.
J – Secondary skill. Not something the character can normally do, but something they *might* be able to do, like Han Solo overriding a security lock.  Set one die at [-] then roll the other 3.
Q – Skilled – This is what you do. Roll the dice normally.
K – Extra awesomeness. Set one of the dice at [+] then roll the other 3.
A – Egregious awesomeness. Set 2 dice at [+] and roll the other 2.

Similarly, the GM may set some number of dice before the roll to reflect the situation being particularly favorable or unfavorable.  For ease of use, this unrolled dice cancel each other out, so a secondary skill ([-]) character with just the right tool ([+]) will roll 4 dice with none pre-set.  If there are more than 2 fixes plusses, reconsider calling for a roll.  If there are more than 2 fixed minuses, no such caution is called for, so long as everyone knows things are about to get ugly.

System #2: Throughline

Requires: At least 4 Fudge dice, but a big pile of them is cooler

Process: Before play begins, roll the fudge dice and leave them in the middle of the table. Play proceeds until the time comes to roll the dice (assuming a situation where the character’s actions remain within the sphere of expectations) and the player picks one of the dice from the middle of the table.

If it’s a +, things go well, the situation turns in the character’s favor.

If it’s a -, things go to hell.  Character still succeeds, but it sucks in some way. There’s a price. Things go wrong. Whatever. Fail forward.

If it’s a blank, then roll it. Resolve a + or – normally.  If it comes up blank again, the player has two options: accept a boring success, or escalate.  A boring success is just that – success, but no particular direction with it. Escalation means that before the situation is resolved, the stakes are raised. More is on the line, success and failure get bigger.  And the die is rolled again, repeating the process.

(Really, when you can, you should always, escalate, but the path to escalation is not always obvious.  The boring success options is mostly for situations where that’s not practical.)

After resolution. roll the die and put it back in the middle of the table with the others.

Option #1: If you have enough fudge dice, you can build a physical chain of outcomes as the dice get used.  This is kind of cool, but not actually useful.

(That said, if you’re a fan of McKee or Laws, then the jump from this to narrative up and down beats is a pretty easy one to make.)

Option #2: This assumes a community pool – it’s entirely possible to make the pools personal (giving each player their own “arc”) but that adds extra bookeeping.


They’re both very simple systems, but I hope thy illustrate ways you can change how you think about skill rolls.

21 thoughts on “System, Hold the Math

  1. Leonard Balsera

    “What that means is that they depend on the entire table sharing a reasonably common set of expectations regarding what can or cannot be done.”

    I wonder what it says about me that I consider this a baseline requirement for any rolegaming, regardless of how regimented the rules are.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      Well, most notably, it’s a regular exposure to people doing things in a way I would not in a million years. 🙂

      But in this context, it’s been an interesting illustration of how rules can replace a shared context, and the limits of that approach. The table has a very strong streak of treating the rules of the game as the physics of the world, to the extent that a lot of actions ONLY make sense in that context (motivations revolves around XP, action revolves around spells and abilities and so on). I think the GM has a very vivid sense of the world, but it is not always shared, so we rely on rules.

      However, while the rules make up for some of the disconnect, it has revealed a similar disconnect regarding the rules themselves. This is an OLD 1e game, with years of houserules and rulings. While there’s an effort made to capture them all, the reality is there’s a lot of table-lore, and knowledge of that is in many ways as critical a disconnect as setting understanding.

    2. The Dad Hatter

      I was going to respond about how this is the reason why try as I might, I can’t get into Rules Light style games. But the more I think about it, the more I think it isn’t the light rules that bother me so much as the light lore.

      I like having the rules as the physics of the world because it takes it out of the realm of being generic. I could flip a coin to figure out of someone jumps over a cliff but if I’m using the spells Accio, Alohomora, and Wingardium Leviosa with a wand then I KNOW I am in the world of Harry Potter.

    3. Rob Donoghue

      I think you’ve hit on something essential there. Rules light is often a way to deal with very-lore-light or very-lore-heavy play, but there’s nothing that DEMANDS that it be so.

  2. Teo Tayobobayo

    FUDGE cards can be used in the Throughline method. Well, they can used any time, but they seem totally appropriate for that.

    Another fun thing is to deal hands. This forces the players to figure the best times to use their bad cards. It can either emulate the lack of effort one puts forth when they know they’ve “got this one in the bag”, or when they just don’t care, because they know, “I’ll never make this shot.”

  3. Pat Gamblin

    Hm, the throughline gives me an idea. Roll a lot of fudge dice, at least a few dozen, maybe more, enough to cover a lot of rolls for the group. Any time in the scene that you would roll, instead pick dice from the pool. After you’re done, do not put them back. When you run out, take all of the dice and roll them, putting them back in the middle.

    Blank faced dice could still be rolled, if some randomness is wanted, but if the pool has a lot of -s, you’ll have to use them up before you can get a new pool. Granted, this could lead to players trying to force rolls on unimportant things in order to get bad dice out of the way, but I’m sure that can be handled.

    Basically lets the group see whether things are going well or poorly this scene (or part of the scene if there’s a lot of rolls to cover), but still manage when the good and bad happens.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      The number of dice in the pool is a really interesting question, because it could really be done with any sized pool, and probably work well. Larger pools allow more foreshadowing, so to speak, but a smaller pools force characters to pick up – dice sooner. Neither one is the right solution, but either way could totally work depending on your group.

    2. Fred Hicks

      This is where interesting things happen with individual player pools. Each player knows what negatives and positives they own for themselves, but the mystery remains for everyone as to what the order of events will be. That might be the right balance of tensions — small individual player pools making negative pickups more imminent/necessary, but still value of foreshadowing for everyone around the table.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      Definitely some similarities, the main difference being that fiasco is ultimately fair (or at least equitable) and there’s no guarantee the throughline will be. WHether its arc is up or down will only be visible in retrospect.

      That said, yes, there’s a lot of conceptual overlap there.

  4. Ryan Gigliotti

    I really like the Throughline system. Would *not* re-rolling the die after using it make that system more “gritty”, or at least tougher? I.e., no dice are rerolled until the entire pile has been used.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      Sort of. If you did that, You’d want to think a lot about how many dice you put in the pool, since you are thereby effectively defining the “arc” of the next few beats. By making the pool larger or smaller, you can throttle that experience. This is very cool, but I’m not sure how to determine what the right answer is for how big a pool _should_ be.

      My hope is that the grit emerges from player aversion to bad outcomes. The – dice are going to sit there, untouched, but building up until they MUST be used. THis won’t always be true – some groups will use them cheerfully, but those groups have different priorities.

  5. Rob Donoghue

    One other trick that occurred to me: if you leave the 4 dice on the table, they are what’s used any time the GM would roll to “test the breeze” (that is, make a roll that is neither success nor failure, but just to get a general sense of how things are going) . THis gets even more nuanced when used in conjunction with things like Fred’s “Mood of the Room” trick.

  6. Fred Hicks

    So I keep coming back to Oracle dice and I dig them a lot, but… I think the blanks could be more interesting.

    Like, Dragon Age style-point interesting.

    So if you get 4 blanks, things might proceed as they were before, but you’ve got 4 points to spend on style effects in support of that.

    Still noodling about what those style effects might *be*. Could be as simple as a table — 1 blank gets you X, 2 gets you Y, etc.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      Or, y’know, there might be two different kind of blanks.


      But broadly, yes, I agree there’s a lot more room for stuff to do with blanks. THat said, I really do want the option of letting someone roll a blank die to satisfy those layers who want the uncertainty, but it need nto be the only option.


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