729 – Introduction

Ok, need to break from monsters for at least a day or two, so here’s a design distraction.

Ok, this is a design I’ve been working on. A conversation on G+ with William Nichols reminded me that I really need to get this down on paper. This has some obvious ancestors (The -World system – World of Dungeons in particular – and Fate) but also some obscure ones (most notably, a superhero game called Above the Earth. After the fact, I realized there’s a little bit of backwards Wushu in there too, which is a bit of unintentional humor). Basically, I don’t pretend to having an original thought anywhere in this, but that’s fine. Anyway, I’m calling it 729 for the moment, at least until it’s done.

I’ll do a fancier writeup later, but for now, let me lay down the bare bones. Core resolution is single roll apocalypse engine – roll 2d6, on a 6- it goes poorly, on a 10+ it goes well, and on a 7–9, the result is mixed. Obviously there will be guidelines and examples and such, but that’s the core. For the moment, assume there will be no moves per se. That might change with time, but for simplicity, there is only a roll, initiated by a question (usually “Can I…” or “What is…”).

The system also assumes the existence of bonus dice. That is, sometimes you might be rolling 3d6, 4d6 or even more. However many dice you roll, you keep the best two (though there may be exceptions later, but we’ll get to that). As an important corollary to that, there are no bonuses, so you’ll never be adding anything.

Your character “sheet” is just some true stuff about your character. This is pretty open ended – it might be a description, an aspect list, a class, or whatever. Largely depends on audience. One way or another, this is what is true about your character. When it’s relevant to a roll, you can describe its interaction with the roll, and grab a free bonus die. So if you’re a “ninja” and you do something sneaky, you describe that you do it “like a ninja” and get to roll 3d6 and call it a day.[1] The exact details of the descriptors don’t matter a lot, and this is intentional. That said, it completely works with Tinyfate.

With this, you are almost ready to start play. When play begins, each player grabs 10d6 (either the white ones you get in bulk, or use one of those chessex pools). This is their “effort” pool, and whether it represents willpower, luck, determination, divine will, experience, opportunity or narrative power is an intentionally unanswered question, especially as the answer may change from situation to situation.


In play, a character can spend dice from the effort pool to improve a roll. Dice spent in this way are lost. Physically toss them back into the reserve bowl that they came out of. But if a roll matters, then spend some effort on it. Best practice is that the use of effort must be tied into the fiction, but the reality is that this is loose – the only real bar is that they not simply be spend without comment. Something in play must reflect the effort[2].

Effort pool refreshes at the start of the session, or at a reasonable break point. GM may also give effort rewards according to whatever criteria she likes[3], or may offer it to players in return for making certain choices or accepting GM forces.

Now, this is an OK design. I could write it up into a nice pdf and it would see some use, but I wouldn’t be happy with it, because it has two serious flaws.

  1. The effort economy is awkward.
  2. What happens in a conflict?

The effort economy question is an interesting one. Accepting that it’s currently kind of arbitrary based on the GM, it’s functional, but very clunky. The question is what problem needs to be solved. I could easily come up with rules for GM reserve of dice, used to drive effects, and a whole economic cycle where dice go from players into the reserve, from he reserve to the GM, from the GM to players and so on. But any such system is going to complicate the system, perhaps unreasonably so. it is very easy for the economy to become such a fiddly mini game that it distracts from the game as a whole.

Which is why, for the moment, I’m sticking with clunky but functional. If the rest of the system was tuned, then I might see what I could do, but it would be super foolish to delve too far into it without addressing the other issue.

Conflict is a much more cumbersome issue. Now, arguably, this is also a problem that need not be resolved – it is totally possible to just say combat resolves just like everything else. Tune the granularity as you like – one roll per fight scene, one per clash of blades or somewhere in between. That works in the most technical sense, but I worry it could be flat in play.

Is that a problem? Well, what is the game? If conflicts are common, then it’s probably an issue. If they’re not? No bigger.

But that leads to the next question: What’s a conflict? I’ve been using the term interchangeable with combat, but that’s only because combat is the most obvious example of a conflict. But to consider how muddled the language is, look at the discussion of “social combat” in RPGs – it’s not combat, but the tools of combat get used for these conflicts because they’re what we have.

So I use the term conflict to abstract out the idea into a few identifiable bits, specifically these two things:
1. A situation which cannot be satisfactorily resolved in a single roll
2. An action where there are costs associated with outcomes.

There are other things which might make up a conflict[4], but these two are the two I always come back to.

The first one is a familiar bugbear, and it’s pat of the reason that wound systems were invented in the first place. While they may be refined in the details, at their heart, they still boiled down to “you may fail X times before actually failing” because failing after the first roll would be unfun.

And that is where the second one pops up. The most obvious cost associated with a conflict is “damage”. As noted above, within a single conflict, that is just a timer on how many die rolls it takes to resolve something. But the cost element means that that there is a measurable impact of winning with 5 good rolls and zero bad ones versus winning with 5 good rolls and 4 bad ones. The second fight would play differently, but it would also cost resources (damages) so that the character has fewer resources in the next conflict.

This is, I should add, why combat is so appealing as a model . It has the same currency (supplemented by things like poison and injury), something that is hard to translate over to other conflicts. It can be mimicked with fatigue or mental stress, but that is not always an intuitive match – the fact that we lost one argument on the internet rarely makes us any less capable of engaging in the next one (with some exceptions). This is one of the brilliant things about Mouseguard’s stats-based injury system, extended and explored further in to Torchbearer. By making multiple currencies, it becomes much more organic to translate them between different scenarios, and by making them effectively binary (you’re tired or you’re not), the logic of their applicability becomes obvious. This is good tech.

I look at all this and it suggests to me that if I want to add a system for conflicts, then I need a system for consequences. Simplest answer is to have effort stand in for damage, and that flags why I didn’t want to mess with the economy until I’d looked at conflict. It also worries me a little bit, since draining the effort pool seems like a good way to drain fun.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other possible mechanics to look into for handling this. I have not even touched the possibility of penalty or locked dice yet, and that just scratches the surface.

Anyway, I lay all this out now so that when I start talking about refining it in the future, you have the starting point.

  1. If you’re feeling like it, you can actually stop there to build a very simple Risus World hack. Start from this premise of competence (always rolling 2d6) then distribute 6d6 among 2 to 5 descriptors or cliches, so Barbarian 3d, Hairdresser 2d, Ninja 1d and now you have a character sheet. roll 2d6 + appropriate cliche when using it. Damage is taken from die pools, Done.  ↩
  2. And this is why the exact nature of effort is flexible. Cleverly taking advantage of the environment is just as valid as an anime-style I FIGHT HARDER FOR THE PEOPLE I LOVE!  ↩
  3. That probably sounds sloppy and arbitrary, but that’s because it is. GM rewards like this can be fun and functional, and it’s entirely possible to write the words around them so they don’t sound totally arbitrary, but that would be sleight of hand. It’s arbitrary. I’m ok owning up to that. But this is also a bit of a pain point, as we shall see.  ↩
  4. Th most obvious is “tactics”, the idea that different approaches can produce better or worse outcomes in the conflict. I recognize this is an important part of play, but I think that’s actually universal rather than a specific function of combat. That is, “tactics” are just a specific expression of “the fiction impacts the dice”. The irony that the system I’m using to illustrate this actually reduces tactics to pure color it not lost on me.  ↩

13 thoughts on “729 – Introduction

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      There is a common (if you’ll pardon the pun) pool of super lightweight games which this absolutely swims in. The Pool, WARP/OTE, Risus and maybe Fae are all in there.

  1. Jason Pitre

    Effort pool refreshes at the start of the session, or at a reasonable break point. GM may also give effort rewards according to whatever criteria she likes[3], or may offer it to players in return for making certain choices or accepting GM forces

    I must admit that Lady Blackbird has won me over in terms of a pooled resource refresh method with the reflection scenes. It does a fantastic job of introducing explicitly non-conflict scenes, which balances the tempo of play admirably.

  2. Kevin Matheny

    Riffing on what I gleaned from the previews of Feng Shui 2, and what you’ve previously blogged about disadvantage, could you model failures as another dice pool that attaches to characters and gives them crappy numbers?

    Something like this…

    Failure gives you a die in your Fatigue pool (need a better word to contrast with Effort, but you get the idea). Use a different color to track them.

    For each die in your Fatigue pool (or each 2, or 3, or some such) you get a – 1 to rolls.

    You can burn off Fatigue dice by using them in a roll, but you must use the Fatigue die’s result.

    If you wanted to make Fatigue dice really bad, treat it as a d3.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      You’re getting ahead, but yes! I’ve been thinking of using black dice in some way to reflect accrual of badness

  3. Robert

    I wonder if you have looked at the Dresden Files RPG?

    I’m generally a skeptic of simple mechanics — I like the rules to be clear and descriptive and gritty, for there to be something solid and repeatable about the reality. Not that that is inherently good, it’s just my thing. I thought FATE was bland and uninteresting and quite frustrating, actually, while for all its glaring flaws, I really enjoy GURPS.

    DF for me combined the best of both worlds. It was obviously roleplaying heavy and in ways abstract — “aspects” are the way they describe your ninja/barbarian/hairdresser roles, and they range from “Wizard of the White Council” to “hates pets” and anything else you can imagine.

    At the same time the way those aspects are invoked and used is very clearly defined, and there’s a skill system, and powers, and feats as well.

    Anyway, you might find it worth a look.

  4. Sandra

    One thing that always bugged me with Powered by the Apocalypse games, and their ancestors and cousins like Traveller and Stars Without Number, is that 2d6 vs 7 has a very similar probability curve to 4dF vs zero, and I find the latter easier to read quickly. The stats in 2d6 games and 4dF games are about in the same range/granularity, too.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I actually agree strongly enough that I have some design noodling in that space, but it needs more work before it can see daylight.

  5. Phil

    Rob, I seem to recall you saying at some point that you didn’t like Gumshoe because of the diminishing pool part of the mechanics. Maybe I’m remembering who said that incorrectly, but you seem to be treading in the same area here. There’s a difference, obviously, between Gumshoe, where the pools only refresh at the beginning of a game session, and the economy in 762 or Fate. Is that the key distinction to you?

    As I’m sure you know, Monte Cook’s Cypher System (used in Numenera and The Strange) uses ability pools that are damaged/reduced in combat. Pools are refreshed by resting, although it would play better I sense of metagame economy if you could spend XP to refresh your pools. GM intrusions are a cool feature, not unlike compels in Fate, but I digress.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      So, two differences from Gumshoe:

      1) difficulties are transparent. Because it’s *worlld, there’s no risk that you’re wasting pool or not spending enough.

      2) the pool is not required. If you run through your pool then you can still roll and have a reasonable chance of success.

      Small changes, but they make a huge difference. that said, versions of Gumshoe with more aggressive refresh models are less bothersome to me.

      Considerations are similar for the cypher system, but in its case the “spend xp as a resource” sours the pot for me.


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