Saturday, 9 August 2014

#RPGaDAY - Day 9: Favourite Die/Dice Set

'The Boys'
Dice are at the core of what we, as roleplayers, do. With a handful of exceptions, which are either entirely non-random systems - a concept pioneered by Amber Diceless Roleplaying - or utilise a different means of random number generation, such as a card draw, every roleplaying game eventually uses dice to simulate the vicissitudes of fate in some fashion.

Some roleplayers seem to genuinely fetishise their dice, keeping favourites with 'the 1s rolled out', or shaming those that misbehave (although I suspect/hope that most diceshaming is mostly done in fun, rather than earnest). I don't, so instead of talking about my favourite D20 ('I call her Vera'), I'm going to muse on a few of the different ways that various games ask you to use these most ubiquitous of gaming paraphernalia (well, the most ubiquitous apart from purely mundane kit such as pens and pencils and bits of paper).


The simplest method of using dice is to roll a single die and read off the result, perhaps adding a fixed number to it. The appeal of this is of course that the probabilities are extremely simple. You have the same number of possible outcomes as the number of sides on the die and, provided a rough approximation to an unbiased die, an equal chance of any given outcome. On a D6 you're as likely to get a 1 as you are a 6.
3 or 13?

If you want something a little more predictable, rolling two or more dice and adding them together gives you a bell curve. If you roll 2D10 there are one hundred possible outcomes, of which ten result in a total of 11 and only one results in a 2 (or 20); there's a possibility that you'll get an outlier result, but the chances are good that you'll end up somewhere in the middle.

Of course, those same two dice read as the tens and units of a D100 bring you back to the flat probability distribution on a much larger scale, and make it easy to work out the chance of rolling less than or equal to a given number as a percentage. Percentile systems are popular because people have a pretty solid understanding of percentage, or they think they do at least, even if that understanding stops at 50/50 means even odds.

Say hello to my little

Do you want a) more exciting probabilities or b) more rattling? How about dice clusters? Roll a whole bunch of dice, but don't worry about totals; just count the dice that turn up above (or below) a given target number. The ur-example is probably the White Wolf/Onyx path system, which reached its ultimate expression in Exhalted, where 'bucket of dice' ceased to be hyperbole for high-powered PCs.

Dice clusters, and especially that little fistful of D6s over there, brings me to the first of two dice mechanics that I want to give a little more thought to. Don't Rest Your Head is a game in which the characters are insomniacs, whose level of sleep deprivation has become sufficient to catapult them into a parallel reality where exhaustion brings power. To do anything of note in the system, you roll a number of D6s, so does the GM.

Resting your head is, it turns out,
a really bad idea
As standard, you roll 3D6. These are your discipline dice, you always roll them, and a roll of 1, 2 or 3 is a success. Get more successes than the ST and your action succeeds. There is a good chance, however, that the ST will be rolling more pain dice than you have discipline dice, in which case you can make up the difference in one of two ways.

Exhaustion is a measure of how tired you are. It starts at 1, and you can increase it by 1 every time you take an action. If it hits 6, you collapse into unconsciousness. Why increase a stat which eventually knocks you out? Because every level of exhaustion is another die you can roll. Again; 1-3 succeeds.

Madness is pure risk taking. You can add up to 6 madness dice to any roll, just like that. 1-3 succeeds.

Cthulhu D6s - could be
good for pain or
So, low rolls are good, right? Well... sort of, because once the basic business of succeeding or failing is out of the way, you check which set of dice has the highest number showing (hence the multi-coloured cluster there; white for discipline, black for exhaustion and red for madness. I wasn't running the game, so I have no pain dice.) That set dominates, and you really want that to be discipline when possible. When discipline dominates, you are in control, even if you failed; you keep it together.

If exhaustion dominates, you pick up another point of exhaustion; this is what most often causes people to pass out, at which point the gribblies come for you and you are completely defenseless until you wake, and mostly defenceless for a good hour afterwards, since being rested in the world of the Mad City is to be borderline functional.
What fresh lunacy is this!

If madness dominates, you completely lose your shit, and you can only do that a few times before you lose it for good.

Finally, if pain dominates, your situation deteriorates, even if you succeeded.

I am filled with admiration for this system, which combines pretty much every major facet of the system and setting into a single exchange of rolls, even while I don't especially like it as something to play. It's slick and clever, but it means that characters have almost no significant strengths or weakness and there is virtually no strategy, beyond the game theory involved in deciding when to risk going mad and how exhausted you're prepared to be. It's emblematic of the fact that the game is more about the setting than the characters, and as a result it's fun for a bit, but there's no great mileage, for me at least. On the other hand, it's well worth a try if you get a chance to play.

Minimising randomness

Modern FATE cares
little for the colours of the
dice, but two pairs is
A final approach, and one that is increasingly popular in recent years, is that of FUDGE dice.

A FUDGE - or increasingly FATE - die is a D6, but in place of numbers it has two sides with + symbols, two with - symbols, and two left blank. They are rolled in sets of four, with each + adding 1 and each - subtracting 1 to modify a base stat. This minimises the randomness inherent in dice rolling because the outcomes will average at the level of the stat in question, but leaves present the possibility of a wildly atypical outcome.

In modern FATE systems, the outcome of a roll is also modified by spending Fate points for a fixed bonus. This system maintains a level of uncertainty, but ultimately means that PCs will usually succeed at tasks within their field of expertise; a bad roll tends to mean putting more effort in, rather than failing outright.

FUDGE/FATE tries - and to a large extent succeeds - to have its cake and eat it, maintaining the tiny random gods of gaming tradition, but at the same time placing agency squarely in the players' hands. Again, well worth a look, and something I'll be coming back to.