Thursday, July 14, 2011


As I step into creating a die system, lets run through a few things I like and dislike, since these things will obviously impact the final product.

1. I want a reliable/predictable measure of the dice to be rolled. Anyone who has read this blog knows I love Cortex+, but my big complaint with it is that I need to pack _all_ my dice to play. Not because a given roll will use them all, but because I have no useful way to predict which dice I'm going to need in what numbers. This may be a small and petty thing, but there's a practical underpinning to it.

2. Next, I want to use d6s. There are some practical underpinning to this - they're ubiquitous and familiar - but it's also strongly aesthetic. I own lots of cool looking d6s that beg to be used.

3. I want the difference between skill levels (or whatever they end up being) to feel substantial, and I do not need more than 5 or 6 tiers of capability. This is a cinematic/fiction driven sensibility based on the fact that such broad distinctions make for solid character shorthands and are easily recognizable.

Up til #3, all of the options were on the table, but that last step there is going to make a count system problematic. Count systems may have very coarsely grained outcomes (based on number of successes) but the actual die pools tend to progress smoothly, with only moderate differences between pool sizes, especially at high levels. I could work around this limitation with something too-clever, but that seems like a peg-hole problem.

A flat system is still technically in contention, though it would probably require stepped bonuses. For example, my cold was game handles this by making skill bonuses (on a 3d6 roll) +2, +4 and +6. Those are a little close (they work better for Fudge) but the idea of stepped bonuses is not entirely off the table.

The tally system seems like the best contender, something in the Risus/Over The Edge/WEG space, with 5 levels ranging from 1d6 to 5d6 or something similar. Historically I might try starting from a baseline of 2d6 so there's a "step down" option and there's at least a little curve in the default roll, but I'm less attached to that idea than I have been in the past.

Now, there’s still nothing concrete to make a decision on, and this can be pretty paralyzing. Almost any choice can be made to work, so what do you do?

Simple: You do -something-. I’m going to go with a tally system because as cognizant as I am of it’s flaws, I’m even more aware of the dangers of sitting here waffling. So with that in mind, let’s see what we can do with a stack of d6s.

The first thing to do is to consider difficulties. I immediately rule out contested rolls because the last thing a tally system needs is more math, so that means fixed difficulties. Since I’m starting from 1d6 I think that means I’m going to pick the classic baseline of 4.

You see 4 show up in a lot of games. It’s a pretty convenient number for a bunch of reasons. On a straight d6 roll, 4+ means a 50% chance of success, and on a 2d6 scale it’s close enough to 75% to be reliable. On a range of die sizes it’s a number that can potentially be hit by a die of any size. All of which is to say that if you’re thinking going with 4 is a ripoff of anything, realize there’s a reason for its ubiquity.

Now, this raises an interesting question: if I’m allowing 5d6 to be rolled, is a base difficulty of 4 even faintly scalable? Certainly, the apex die pools should be reasonably rare, but that’s not any kind of excuse - a known, rare problem is still a problem. Thankfully, I have an instinct that makes this a little less problematic: I’m looking for success to be the expectation. Someone with 1d6 might have some trouble, and 2d6 still has some risk, but by the time you hit 3d6 it’s very nearly a sure thing.

That said, no reason to just leave it at that. Binary success is a little dull because it offers little differentiation between activities. Teaching high school physics ends up on par with crafting the theory of relativity. So that suggests to me that adding additional tiers of difficulty is the best solution.

The problem is that difficulty steps tend to be applied very arbitrary in play. Climbing this hill is this hard, but climbing that hill is that hard and so on. I want them to mean something a little more self-evident. And that, I think, is where I’ll pick it up tomorrow.


  1. Have you read Atomic Highway? It has a d6-based system that I think kind of counts as count successes, but the interesting twist is that you're looking for dice that come up 6. Your attributes represent points you can spend on dice to kick them up to 6. So if your stat is 2, and you roll a 4, 5, and 5 on your dice, you can turn the 4 into a 6 with your 2 points, or (more efficiently) turn the two fives into sixes with your points.

  2. I have not. Sounds interesting, if a bit fiddly. I think there's a whole topic to be had that touches on games where you spend time staring at the dice and pondering what to do with them

  3. Have you considered something like Houses of the Bloodied? Players basically get to choose their own difficulty. Seems appropriate in a game where characters are expected to have a high level of skill.

  4. Player-set difficulties is a cool idea, but it's a very _big_ idea. That is to say, if I were to use it, I'd _really_ wan tot make sure the game is tuned just so as to make it a smooth fit. Without that effort, it just adds complexity.

    Not to say I'm unwilling to do that, but for very big ideas, I tend to keep them on the shelf until i come to a point where I have a problem I need to solve, _then_ I check the mechanic box.

  5. Hi Rob,

    I'm trying to come up with a "home system" too, to use in Sword & Sorcery and to deal with characters that are already accomplished masters in their fields(instead of young adventurers).
    I'm trying at first to use only 1d6 (something very light) with three basic types of action: dramatic (most of the stuff you see on movies), heroic (Greek heroes) and legendary (hmmm... Indian demigods?).
    Characters have only 3 stats (Origin, Boon and Bane) and "fate" points.
    Dramatic actions can be automatic successful if you got the right Origin or Boon (otherwise 4-6 on d6), but still require an action (like attacking mooks). Heroic actions require a check (5-6 on d6) and legendary actions require a check and spending fate points.
    It just a crazy idea I came up last week...

  6. There is also inverting the system. Essentially using the difficulty for determining the dice rolled and rolling beneath a characteristic, (ala The Fantasy Trip et al).

    The advantage of this is that people tend to think of difficulty in concrete steps so adding an extra dice to make something more difficult is trivially easy without the need to come up with specific numbers on the fly.

    And since attribute generation is part of character generation/progression, the shaping of this aspect of the character happens outside play.

    And it avoids adding or subtracting bonus to the die roll during play. People just have to add up the dice that they roll.

  7. I love d6s and I love dice pools. They are smooth and flexible. What I don't love is having very granular difficulties to handle them (aka WEG d6). Does it really really matter if it is a DN 12 vs. a DN 13? From my experience it is much more intuitive to have the challenge levels spread over a scale of 1-10(10+). One of the best roll mechanics IMO that play upon the dice pool vs. intuitive/compact/universal target number is Silhouette from Dream Pod 9. In this system, for those not familiar, you roll your Attribute in d6s, keep the highest roll and add your Skill rating to that to compare to the TN. Each roll of 6 beyond the first adds 1 to your total. I am not very fond of the "add your Skill rating" as it is an extra level of calc/delay, but the skill may be added as dice to the attribute pool to begin with. You end up with a unified d6 pool vs. an intuitive 1-10+ Challenge scale. What's amiss?

  8. I think you just summarized why OTE tends to be my default system. Anything else has to offer substantially more.

    Fate is actually starting to look like a viable alternative, and I really need to try running a game or two with it. Once we get beyond d6s, Cortex and DitV start looking shiny.

    I think I'm most comfortable with straight addition. I don't know why I find it easier than counting successes, but I think I do.

  9. You could have a look at the ±d6: Single d6, fast and free licensed → (german)

    Google-translated rules-text:


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