Wednesday, December 2, 2009

FFF: Before the Roll

Another post about a hypothetical resolution system of 3d6 (maybe +bonus) vs target number, with rich dice (dice that convey extra information). The dice respectively represent force, finesse and fortune.

As I was writing this, I refined the idea of the fork a little bit, and realized the more practical division, for discussion purposes, is between things that happen before the dice roll and things that happen afterward. This is the split between things which impact the outcome (fixed things like stats, or dynamic choices like tactics) and different ways the outcome is expressed (much more system specific, but generally breaks down to choices made after the roll, like how damage is distributed).[1] Today I'll look at some options for how to manipulate the system before the roll.

We can have modifiers that exists before the roll, based on the type of die (I need a cooler name for the die categories, to better discuss this idea generally). Presumably this calls for very small values, otherwise they kind of overwhelm the dice. Suppose, for example, that you have stats that correspond to the dice, say Force: 2, Finesse 3, Fortune 1. While you could just total them up and use that as base modifier, that's pretty uninteresting. If, on the other hand, you choose one of them before you roll the dice, that gets interesting. Sure, if all else is equal, you'll just pick your highest value, but that gets complicated when your best is not appropriate to the challenge on hand. Since the bonus not only improves the total roll, but it also increases the likelihood that that die will dominate. If you're running a race, using your force bonus (and thus making force dominate) might well make you lose to someone who has finesse dominate.

That also hints at the reasonthe bonuses need to stay low: bonuses over 3 are going to make it very hard for that die to NOT dominate.

An interesting twist on this is to change die size. One of the joys of dealing with dice from d4 to d12 is that each bump in die size is basically equivalent to adding a +1 (modulo some fiddliness with range). The bonuses could just as easily be handled as die bumps: Instead of rolling 3d6 all the time, maybe I'm Fortune d4, Force d8 and Finesse d6. On the upside, this is kind of neat, especially if the dice can be shifted around dynamically[2] - it's got a very organic feel without adding math. The downside is that I've just complicated my life.

One of the big benefits of 3d6 is that it is demonstrably easy to learn by rote. D&D exposure means a lot of us can roll up stats in our sleep[3], and it's still pretty easy for those who haven't. Mixing up die sizes turns it into an actual mathematical exercise, removing some of the benefits of going to a dice model. It also increases the number of supplies needed. This is not a huge factor, but it's nice to know you have all the necessary dice needs covered with a handful of D6s rather than a bag full of D-everythings.

But for all that logic, I still really just dig the idea of trading dice values, especially on the fly. It triggers that gambling part of the brain I guess. That's a good reason to keep this one in mind - sometimes unreasonable fun can point to the right choice when mere logic fails.

One other option is to mess with the dice pool directly. The player could choose which 3 dice he rolled (3 fortune, two force and a finesse and so on). There's a little play there, but there are probably not enough choices to be interesting. But suppose we add more dice: make it a roll of multiple dice, perhaps 1 per "point" of the stat, then tally the best 3.[4] Basically it's a roll and keep model, but the number of kept dice is fixed at 3. Since the best 3 dice might be of any category, you are more likely to dominate with your high stat, but not guaranteed.

There's definitely some added complexity there - sorting dice is a mental process, much as adding them is, but it's not an overly complicated one, and at least it means you can stick to d6s. It may seem a trivial thing, but if you can only have 1 die type, the fact that d6s pack so compactly that you can buy them in bricks is a pretty big deal.

Now, for the most part I've been focusing on the dice and not giving much thought to the modifier to the roll. This is intentional because, to be frank, that's the easy bit. A skill list (pre-defined or user defined) plus an anticipated numeric range is all you need. Not to say there aren't mechanically interesting things you can do in that space, but rather that it's a very familiar space, and one that would be a whole other topic on its own.

Anyway, that seems like a good start for things we might do before the dice hit the table. Tomorrow, let's start looking at the different ways we can read them and what we can do with that information.

1 - As I was thinking of examples, I realized there are very few systems that call for post-roll choices normally, but it's fairly common in subsystems like specific powers. For example, if you have a power in 4e that lets you move the target, that's a post-success decision to make.

2 - For example, imagine a default 3d6 system. If I need to focus on finesse, I can bump my Force or Fortune die down to a d4, and my finesse up to a d8. If I really focus, I drop both Force and Fortune to d4s, and bump Finesse to a d10. I probably have some other mechanical control to determine how far I can focus any one particular die. 

3 - This is, by the way, why I think the easiest way to do something like fudge dice is 3d6, use D&D stat modifiers. It's totally illogical, but if you've played enough 3rd ed, it's second nature to read the dice and convert it into a bonus or penalty.

4 - It would also be possible to roll X, tally the 3 of your choice. This gives the player control over what factor dominates, provided he's willing to choose a non-optimal roll. I'll probably come back to this one when we get to post-roll mechanics.


  1. "Bonusless" trait effects could occur too. Suppose I have two "Force" traits (Brawny As A Billygoat; Tough As Nails) and one "Fortune" trait (Charmed Life). If I can justify that one of those traits is applicable in the situation, I check it off, indicating I need to give it a rest before I can use it again, and get to reroll the one die that's in line with that trait. Basically this would let me turn my 1's and 2's on a specific d6 into something better (or you could go old school Fate and make it a die flip -- 1 into 6, 2 into 5, 3 into 4). That admittedly is an after the roll effect, but I honestly find it more interesting than a system of flat bonuses, and it retains that old-school fate idea that the maximum you can get on your dice is the maximum possible, period.

  2. Oh, I dig that. We've talked about categorizing aspects before, and this seems a really natural way to do it. I think it gets even stronger when the categories for the dice are more thematic and less mundane than the current FFF set.

    -Rob D.

  3. Yeah. And you & I have talked in the past about the potential strength for aspects to have *categories*. This is a way to take advantage of that. And if it's 3d6 without modifiers ever, and die flips are the only way to optimize, then you're also creating a setup where a result totaling 18 is still relatively rare (must be made of natural sixes and flipped ones), which is nice.

  4. Yah - sets up the "aspects only" game really very nicely.

  5. This might already be a different path than where you're taking this system, but it's immediately making me think of incorporating a Reiner Knizia victory condition into an RPG.

    His whole schtick is to make players build up a variety of resources, but having victory depend on the lowest of those resources. This compels players to boost their resources equally, even if it is more difficult to do so.

    Thus, I wonder if you had a game where, say, each player had Fortune, Finesse and Force tracks. These tracks would be, say, from 1-10. There's an endgame condition dependent on where those tracks are at the end of the session. "Your fortune is lowest, meaning you end this dungeon crawl with no loot." (To put a different spin on the term.)

    This is still a loose thought, but I quite like the idea that you can only roll three dice at a time, but you can *choose* the colors of those dice. You can go all fortune, all force, all finesse or mix them in a 2:1 combination that omits one of the three. Let's say failure boosts the corresponding track throughout the game.

    Thus, you could want to boost your Finesse track, so you try to find harder Finesse challenges to tackle knowing that the failure is likely but it will pay off in the long-run.

  6. @Daniel Oh, interesting. Even more than tracks, that suggests something to me akin to "Above The Earth" but with flavored dice. For those who don't know, AtE (Which I hope I'm remembering the title of correctly) is a super's game where the main mechanic is that you have 100 dice, and you spend through them over the course of the game, so it's a very broad resource management game. categorized and colored dice could let you compose different starting sets of 100, and make the resource management a bit more flavored and robust. Hmmm.

    -Rob D.

  7. Ooh, that brings to mind some of the early discussions on Story-Games when people were hacking together new systems for Dark Sun.

    The metaphor that comes to mind with the AtE resource management: Creating a legacy. In essence, you begin with 100 colorless dice. By rolling them, you give them a color, which in turn means that it gradually gets redder or blacker or whiter until the end of the game when all 100 are colored, and your legacy is secured. Again, that's probably not the metaphor you're looking for, but it's definitely a versatile method of building long-term rich data.

  8. Enh, this is bar talk - there's absolutely nothing I'm looking for, except what can be found. I dig the idea of the dice slowly creating a story, but that also gives me another idea, of the die pool getting slowly tainted.

    That is, what if you start with one color and have it taint (gain or swap in other colors) over time? That is super hot. Imagine an angelic game or something with those overtones, where your initial set of white dice might eventually become grey, or even black. Maybe it's a result of rolls, but maybe it's a result of choice: suppose you could turn in a white for 2 or 3 grays? Sure, no reason to do it when you've managed your resources well, but when you're running low, you're on the ropes, and it REALLY matters?

    Definitely fun to think about.

  9. That is pretty much the direction the Dark Sun discussion took. The game would begin with a fishbowl full of blue glass beads. This literally and metaphysically represented the world's last remaining supplies of water that have not been corrupted by the taint of magic.

    An act of magic would force you to blindly pull some beads out of that bowl, hoping for as many blue beads as possible.

    However, after the magic was complete, the blue beads would be replaced with beads of other colors, depending on what you used the magic for. This pushed along a metaplot about the decline of human civilization, but also had some short-term mechanical effects when anyone tried to perform a magical act.

  10. I just played RK's Ra last week. Another one of is great auction-style games with a zero-sum bidding mechanic that he uses quite often. Basically, it goes like this: The auction lot builds up incrementally until there is an auction. When you bid on the auction, the amount you bid goes into the middle and becomes part of the next auction lot. Thus, if you bid a high number, it (a) weakens your bidding for the next lot, and (b) makes the next lot that much more valuable.

    I could see squeezing a lot of mileage out of this between the players and the DM.

    Great game btw and totally worth picking up if you like those sorts of games.

  11. Even before I read your post here, I was wondering about a system with differing die sizes. After reading the post, I decided to crunch some numbers to see what other effects it might have, and at Daniel Solis's insistence, I'm posting them.

    To compare apples-to-apples (and match your example in footnote 2), I had the die-sizes sum to 18. The result is that of the three possible combinations (2d4 + d10, d4 + d6 + d8 and 3d6), the biggest difference was in the mid-range values. There are more ways to roll 3d6 than the alternatives, all these extra ways land clustered around midpoint. d4+d6+d8 had the second most possible rolls, again, clustered around the center.

    Consequently, rolling 2d4+d10 is most likely to get a 14--18, but it's also more likely to get a 3--7. If you're dropping two of your approaches down to a 4, it means you're probably in a bit of a "Hail Mary" situation, so a distribution that favours extremes works well.

    You can see a graph showing these results at

  12. Justin, have you played the Ra Dice Game? Perhaps it's more directly portable to a dice-based RPG? (I'm not actually sure, not having played either version myself.) Here's the description I could find.

    Ra - The Dice Game takes all the major thematic elements of "Ra" and uses them very creatively in a dice game. Pharaohs, The Nile, Civilizations, and Monuments as well as the occasional catastrophe are all here. Scoring is nearly identical to the standard version of Ra.

    From the box: Remember Ra! Now Reiner has added dice to the game and in such a great way. Players still try to score by collecting Pharaohs, niles and floods, monuments and civilizations, but this time they roll dice and choose which to keep and which to re-roll. True to the original game, players must watch out for disasters and each of the three rounds ends when "Ra" shows up a set number of times, so players need to watch Ra and decide when the round may end and when they have more time. After three rounds, the player with the most points is the winner!

    Contents: 1 game board, 92 wooden cubes, 5 dice, 1 Ra figure, 4 summary cards, rules.


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