Basic Focus

bluediceOk, based on the previous post and some conversations on G+ with Bryant Durrell, I’m starting to crystallize this system in my head, starting from the Above the Earth concept. I’m going to call it the Focus systems, and I’be already realized there are two versions of it, which I’ll call Basic and Advance out of a sense of tradition. Basic uses 12 dice (a box of 16mm Chessex dice) and is pretty simple. Advanced uses 36 dice (A box of Chessex 12mm dice) and more fun dice tricks. Having a hypothetical advanced version lets me relax a bit with the basic version, because otherwise I feel obliged to throw in every trick I can think of. So with that in mind, the Basics of the Basic Focus system are as follows:


Player may describe their character as they see fit, and may append or expand on that description as appropriate. The GM may ask some questions for inspiration, but that’s about the entirety of it. Once complete, the player takes a block of 12 dice.


Play proceeds in traditional style (loaded, I know, but I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel). The GM describes the situation, player responds descriptively, and play proceeds in a free form fashion until a point of uncertainty. At that point, the player may take any number of dice from their pool and roll. The outcome is based on the best die’s result, as follows:

6: Things go awesomely. Achieve the goal and significant benefit.
5: Things Work well: Achieve the goal and get a small or colorful benefit.
4: Things work. Achieve the goal.
3: Complications: Achieve the goal, but with a cost or a choice.
2: Uh Oh: don’t achieve the goal
1: Oh no! Something goes horribly wrong!

So, as I wrote that, I realized that in practice, that’s more grain than I like, and I really just want three outcomes (good, complicates and bad) so I retune it, PBTA style:

5-6: Achieve Goal, woo hoo!
2-4: Complication: Achieve goal, but there’s a cost or complication
1: Something goes wrong

This has a few bits to it:

  • Dice rolled are spent (removed from the pool) but 1’s might go back into the die pool. I like the idea, but it’s one more thing to keep track of, so we’ll see if it works in practice.
  • Boxcars allow critical successes.
  • Asymmetric distribution It makes for a fatter middle, but I’m ok with that, as it’s the fun space.  However, if I did a version with Fate Dice It would force an even distribution, with the tiers mapping to +, 0 and – respectively. That may be an argument for going 1-2/3-4/5-6 but I’ll worry about that later.
  • So what if you have no dice? That will probably call for a roll on “the black die”, which treats a 5 or 6 as a 4 (and gives back a die when rolled).

So far this is largely one way – that is, it’s about spending dice. The trick then is how dice get refreshed. The most obvious solution is something akin to an aspect invocation, but I’m not sure how well that will work for a kid. It’s not that the kid is unwilling to do silly or risky things, but it feels like the communication element needs a bit of nuance, so I’m going to reframe it as follows: When the player answers a question from the GM, the get a die back.

When I first considered that, I thought I’d need more options, but as I thought about it, I realized that this is a really flexible tool because there are no particular limitations on what sort of question the GM asks. It can be used to invite contribution, yes, but it can also be used in a manner like an invoke if the question is sufficiently leading. This feels like it may be all I need (plus maybe the rule of 1s).

And with that, I think I have the whole of what’s needed for Basic Focus (or at least enough to test it out). I’ve already started throwing ideas into the bucket for Advance Focus (it’ll probably be keep 2, and will steal liberally from Risus, Over the Edge and ) but I’m going to let those marinate until I’ve had a chance to put basic through the paces.

9 thoughts on “Basic Focus

  1. Thorin Messer

    Have you considered instead having successes go back into the pool? Or are you thinking of 1s going back in as a way to take the sting out of bad rolls?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      The latter. Though Ralph Mazza made a very interesting suggestion that I give those 1’s back after using them to introduce a complication. Chewing on that and determining if it’s suitable for basic.

      1. Brian

        If a player can roll multiple dice and take the maximum rolling a maximum of 1 will be rare.
        1 die = 1/6
        2 dice = 1/36
        3 dice = 1/216

        If your “something goes wrong” is a 1 or 2 a player will hit it more often, but it will still be relatively rare.
        1 die = 2/6 (1/3)
        2 dice = 4/36 (1/9)
        3 dice = 8/216 (1/27)

        I’m trying to find a simple seven-year-old-appropriate fix. My natural inclination towards complexity isn’t helping.

        1. Rob Donoghue Post author

          Yep. Intentional, though this is one of the other factors pushing me towards 1-2 rather than 1. At this point, need to see it at the table and see if that feels right.

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  3. Chris Shorb

    Feels like the character doesn’t matter, mechanically. Because nothing in what my character has on their sheet has any mechanical impact to the game.

    Which may be what you wanted.

    I can see a place for this:
    Success on 6+. Fun stuff 3-5. Failure on 1-2.

    And then somehow players can do something mechanical with their characters that allows them to add to the dice, somehow. Maybe it’s getting to PBTA at this point.

    But I’d just like my character to mechanically matter some how.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      That is a fair criticism, and in fact is one I worry about, but one I am consciously risking. The thinking is that the fiction will need to be strong and respected, and that play will be close to diceless in its cadence. I am _fairly_ confident that it’s workable, but I am also cognizant that it depends on a lot of work in the moment rather than letting the system do the lifting.

      More critically, I think that a protean character is going to be better suited for playing with a kid. Their stories often evolve rapidly, rapidly enough that anything I write down can get outdated almost instantly. Running into that specific problem is what pushed me in this direction.

      (And I note, advanced version will absolutely have hooks for more normal character stuff)

  4. Dan Kaiser

    A few years ago this blog had started designing a basic system where one or more d6 were added with success increments of 4, 7, 13, and 19. It seems that idea could be combined with this one. A basic success (4) might be a success with complications, 7 is a solid success, 13 is an amazing success, and 19 a truly superhuman performance. Instead of just rolling a set number of dice (or variable based on skill/ability), they come from your total pool and represent the amount of effort and/or resources spent to make that happen.

    For the advanced version, having a more specific character set of skills and/or natural abilities might be reflected as a small additive bonus (like +1 for having training, +1 for above average ability, with these being additive).

    Original design starting here I believe:

    I hope you continue to update us on your design process!

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I originally was avoiding tallying for this game because my main audience is 7 years old, but I am starting to suspect i have underestimated his math skills, and I may need to reconsider!


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