A few days ago Black Cat posted a somewhat ranty article about how in many RPGs dice rolling doesn’t really matter, because the GM controlls the occasion when dice are rolled, the stats to be used, the difficulty of the roll and then interprets the results. And while I do think that this methodology has its place and can do great things, I agree with the author that minor adustments to this general formula, like whether you use 1d20 or a d6 dice pool, do not change the game much. Messing with dice and numbers like this is probably the least impactful tool we have in our game design toolkits. So this is a list of things, that other people have done with dice. We will look at the following criteria:
- When to roll?
- How do we determine what to roll?
- What happens then?
- When to roll next?
I use “rolling” as a short hand for engaging the mechanism. It applies equally to handling cards or other tokens. I will also give example games as appropriate and try to list where this mechanism shines and where not.
Please Roll Sytems
This is the aforementioned methodology. In this system a person, usually called GM, can ask for rolls. On a good result the player generally gets what they were trying to accomplish. On a bad result they don’t. The GM will interpret the details.
- When to roll? – When the GM tells you to.
- How do we determine what to roll? – The GM names relevant stats, modifiers and difficulties.
- What happens then? – The GM interprets the result in terms of the established fiction.
- When to roll next? – When the GM tells you to.
This mechanism has been present in RPGs right from the beginning, when D&D came up with ability checks. It is indeed well suited for moving around in a challenging environment designed by a GM. It is present most RPGs to this day. Because it relies on the GM to this degree, it can easily incorporate aspects of most of the systems following.
Decision Cards and Pseudo Tarot
This mechanism takes away some of the variables used in Please Roll Systems, namely stats, modifiers and difficulties. Instead you just flip a card from the stack and look what it says. This makes for some democratization because there are no hidden variables. Everyone has all the information there is and can give input for interpreting the card. That also means that players will sometimes just draw a card to find out how their character will act. This system is often favored by players who like their play mostly freeform. GMs are not required for this system, although games might have them of course.
The two main varieties for this type include decision cards with texts like “Yes!”, “Yes, but…”, “No!” etc. and tarot like cards that just show image with a concept like the major arcana in tarot. While using proper tarot is theoretically possible, the meaning of the cards is often opaque and may be hard to use at the gaming table.
- When to draw? – When you feel like it or another player asks you to.
- How do we determine what to draw? – Just draw.
- What happens then? – The card is interpreted in context of the established fiction.
- When to draw next? – See above.
Forgian Stake Resolution
Popularized by games like The Pool or Primetime Adventures this system twists Please Roll in another direction. The main part is that before dice are rolled there is an explicit discussion on what the character wants, the stakes in question. The stakes should be done in such a way that they move the story forward in a way. When different characters are in a scene, they should get their separate stakes. Let’s say a paladin and their squire defend a village from vile demonspawn. The paladin might roll to defeat the demons and the squire might roll not to look stupid. Or the paladin might roll to save most of the villagers and the squire rolls to save the paladin. Or whatever. It’s up to the negotiated stakes.
This system therefore relies on an active interest of the players to spin the story forward. Since stakes are tailored to the individual character, this system can gracefully handle a character’s personal and psychological issues. It doesn’t do detailed action scenes due the the tendency to zoom out.
- When to roll? – When a character wants something really bad.
- What to roll? – The prototypical games with this system have freeform traits so the player can choose the trait they consider fitting. The GM might influence the difficulty, but is not expected to follow any conceiveable idea of realism. In The Pool the GM can just do as the will, in Primetime Adventures the Director has a budget.
- What happens then? – On a succesful roll, whatever is negotiated. Games might assign a player who fills in details based on the die roll. Games vary on whether the result on a miss are made explicit during negotiation. If they are, they are referred to as counter-stakes.
- When to roll next? – Usually it’s one roll per scene. If the scene does not bring about a conflict worth rolling, why play it?
Move and Target Systems
This is something you are probably all familiar with. It does combat of small units and does it well. Each character gets a tracker that determines when they are out of action. On your turn move your character, choose a target in range and attack them. A character may have different forms of attacks and further combat relevant actions. It is important to attack the right opponent in the right way and figuring out what that is can be part of the fun. Other options and win conditions may become possible due to terrain as determined by the GM, merging this system with Please Roll.
- When to roll? – When it’s your turn.
- How do we determine what to roll? – Pick one of the actions on your character sheet and do what it says. If you want something else ask the GM how to do it.
- What happens then? – As determined by the action in question.
- When to roll next? – When your turn next comes up, unless you’re taken out or the fight is over.
The good thing about this system is that it does one thing very well. The problem is that it does nothing else and this therefore rarely used alone. So called “social combat system” often take part of this system, the health tracker, but without moving and choosing targets, it’s just not fun.
Wushu Skilled Group Actions
Well, that is a bit of a weird name, but this mechanism has been invented several times over. It is present in mook fights in Wushu, skill challenges in D&D4e and, I was told, extended group actions in Mutant Year Zero. (I haven’t read the latter.) This mechanism assumes a group of PCs working together to achieve some goal. To achieve this goal a certain number of succesful actions is required. Each player is free to contribute to the collective result as they fit and roll an appropriate stat.
- When to roll? – When there is such a kind of extended conflict going on and you’re up.
- How do we determine what to roll? – Think about how your character can contribute, then roll an appropriate skill. The GM, if such a person is around, might name difficulties or modifiers.
- What happens then? – A succesful action is counted for towards total conflict. Failures might have various consequences as determined by the individual game.
- When to roll next? – Depends very much on the game in question. There might be regular turns similar to a combat system or a more freeform approach.
This system is very good for what would be a montage in a movie. Characters doing different things in different places in different ways contributing to the same goal. It is notably the main system in Wushu.
Pick A Fight Systems
Games with this approach are Dogs in the Vineyard and With Great Power…, which provided me with the name for this pattern. With Great Power also has a Forgian Stake System for non-action scenes. Pick A Fight systems handle entities in conflict. They can be used for Humanoid vs. Nature, if nature is treated as an opposing entity. If several PCs are in the conflict agains the GM, this is handled as parallel one on one conflicts.
Pick A Fight systems are usually done in turns. They rely on the participants choosing what they are willing to invest in the conflict. Whicht resources you burn, how much pain you are willing to incur. They therefore require explicit methods to gracefully give up. I very much recommand reading both DitV and WGP. They can teach a lot about game design. Sadly both are out of print.
- When to do the thing? – When you pick a fight with someone or someone picks a fight with you.
- How do we determine what to do the thing with? – You take action to make your opponent concede. Say what you do. Say what you invest.
- What happens then? – Your opponent must choose whether to go on or give. You may suffer fallout from your action regardless.
- When to do the thing next? – If the fight is still going, decide if you are willing to continue etc.
State of the World Systems
The main trait of these systems is that the whole group shares dice or tokens which remain on the table and show something about the world. Examples are Durance and Kingdom where the dice and markers on the table inform the group about the state of the prison or community. The result is less about individual actions, but when you narrate something you should take the current layout into account.
In Dread the single marker is a jenga tower and “rolling” is just drawing a stone. The tower shows the rising tension in a horror movie and when you toss it over your character dies.
- When to roll? – When the responsible player (which might be anyone) or general rules says so.
- How do we determine what to roll? – Varies.
- What happens then? – Generally nothing much. Things go as intended. Certain combinations, like a toppled tower, can have special meaning. Nevertheless you should respect the current layout when you add to the fiction.
- When to roll next? – See above.
This is found in Fiasco and Conquer the Horizon (pdf). At the beginning of the game all the dice are in the middle of the table. At certain times as determined by rules you will take a die from the pile and give to another player or keep it yourself. The game is generally over when there are no dice left. Dice may be rolled at certain times as the determined by the rules.
- When to roll? – You move and roll dice when the rules tell you to.
- How do we determine what to roll? – The dice. Just the dice.
- What happens then? – The rules will tell you.
- When to roll next? – See above.
That’s it for now. As you can see a game might use several of these systems and of course their are games which do not fit a category neatly, like Polaris or Capes. Both games do their very own thing and I do recommend them.