Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Difficulty With Dice; or, A Plethora of Projects

So I just don't feel like I'm designing enough systems right now. You know how it is.

So, Craig Shaw Gardner, right? Author of parodic fantasy (etcetera) books with alliterative names, featuring comically-inept protagonists accidentally overcoming implausible evils. Distinctive mishap-based writing style. I wondered how difficult it would be to make an RPG system that supported that kind of story.

I suspect the answer is both "very" and "one already exists", but who am I to let such trivialities deter me?

CSG writes a very specific kind of genre fiction, be it fantasy, B-movie or otherwise. It's essentially comic heroic fiction.

Protagonists are mildly special, not particularly competent, fairly decent at heart, and suffer enormous swings of luck. They win through by a mixture of enormous good fortune, coincidence, courage, derring-do, not really seeing any alternatives, improvisation, flashes of genius and the power of friendship. The most classic of these is Wuntvor the Apprentice, a wizard's apprentice who never really had time to learn any magic. He occasionally attempts the odd spell, which inevitably misfires, but still often achieves something useful, sometimes simply due to surprise value. He often carries powerful magic or artefacts of uncertain effect whose use must be carefully judged and delayed until a really desperate moment.

A hotchpotch array of allies, semi-allies, love interests and magical creatures (sometimes overlapping) accompanies him in an ever-shifting party that manages to repeatedly fend off the threat of demonic incursion, rescue his wizardly master or his love interest, and bicker incessantly. All are technically quite powerful, but hampered enormously by various problems, ranging from cursed weapons and the constant attention of annoying salesdemons, to an allergy to magic, to inability to refrain from announcing honest opinions, to staggering narcissism and lust, to complete inability to perform a spell correctly, to obsession with music-hall comedy and the search for fans, to raging feuds with other party members, to appalling memories.

Objectives of the system

  1. Party members should be incompetent but successful, in that they generally achieve (harking back to Dan's terminology) their long-term aims, but often fail at their short-term goals.
  2. Number 1 should work out because something else interesting happens as a result of failure at an action, which may be equally or more beneficial to the PC than success in their attempt.
  3. Wild swings of luck should be common, constantly dropping the PCs in trouble before allowing them to get out of it.
  4. Coincidence and Chekhov's Guns should be regular aspects of the game.
  5. Playing up preposterous characteristics should be mechanically beneficial in order to encourage it.
  6. All setbacks should be temporary. Victory is not ultimately in question, only the manner in which is is achieved and how long it takes.

This putative system will be called A Band of Bunglers for future reference.

Mechanical considerations

Any die roll to determine success should ideally tackle two questions.

  1. Did the action achieve its objective? (Success)
  2. Did the action work as expected? (Competence)

For example: Snorelock the Sorcerer is attacked by a band of pirates due to a misunderstanding over some treasure. He attempts to use Rumpold's Raging Ravens to drive the pirates away, but accidentally turns himself into a gigantic peony instead. The pirates decide that the treasure must be accursed and make a hasty retreat. The spell achieves its objective while misfiring spectacularly.

This may well be the sort of game where a non-traditional mechanic would work best, but let's start with what I know and work from there.

Contrary Dicepool System

The first mechanic that comes to mind is one where two different aspects of a dicepool determine these outcomes.

Let's assume you have four attributes named Cunning, Smarm, Furtiveness and Violence. These are all rated from 2-5. You roll one die for every point in the attribute, and hope for matching dice. The number of matching dice determines how competent you are, while the value of the group chosen determines how successful you are. The player may choose which dice to select if there are (for example) a low triple and a high pair.

This would be a describe-roll-narrate system, where the player announces their character's broad intention, rolls the dice, then narrates what actually happens.

I really can't do the maths here. It seems fairly clear that you will generally work out far more successful than you are competent, but beyond that I'm lost.

Luck Pendulum System

This is a deliberately swingy system, still pretty traditional.

Again, let's assume you have four attributes named Cunning, Smarm, Furtiveness and Violence. These are all rated from 2-5. You roll one die for every point in the attribute and hope for a 4+. Each success means you do better at what you attempt.

When the game begins, there are also 5 dice assigned to a Luck pool and 5 to a Doom pool. Ideally, these should be a different colour from the rest of the dice.

If a roll goes badly, a player can grab extra dice from the Luck pool and add them to the result. If they are successful with the Luck die, then things work out for them, but through luck rather than competence; they should narrate the outcome accordingly. Used Luck dice are transferred to the Doom pool.

Dice in the Doom pool can be used to introduce additional complications. These might be making a task more difficult, getting the party lost, allowing monsters to nick off with some bit of equipment (they can get it back later), kidnapping a vital NPC, and so on. Used Doom dice are transferred to the Luck pool.

Freestyle Doom Token System

In this system, it really doesn't matter how you resolve obstacles.

There is no GM. Each player is allocated, oh, two Doom Tokens at the start of the game. These represent problems that will afflict the party.

At any time, a player can throw in a Doom Token to make life worse for someone, including themselves, by introducing a problem. It may represent an enemy, a task proving more difficult than expected, a sudden calamity, hostility from the townsfolk, a romantic embarrassment, the loss of some item, or whatever.

Once there is only one remaining Doom Token per player (not necessarily distributed in that way) then you collect all the tokens and distribute them again. This time, you distribute three. Next time, four. And so on. The same or similar problems may well recur, but this time bigger and more ridiculous.

Two Skill System

Again, let's assume attributes rated from 1-5. This time, the numbers represent targets you want to roll less than or equal to in order to succeed at your objective. The difference is that there are only two attributes: Competence and Luck.

If you succeed at both rolls, you achieve exactly what you set out to do. If you succeed on Competence only, you do what you intended, but it doesn't work out quite the way you expected. If you succeed at Luck only, you achieve roughly what you wanted (more or less) but bungle the thing you were actually trying to do.

GMd Doom Token System

In this system, it really doesn't matter how you resolve obstacles.

The GM introduces problems by assigning a number of Doom Tokens and placing these on the table. These represent the problem's difficulty: a bigger Doom pile will take more effort to overcome (essentially they are hit points).

Players can work on overcoming the difficulty by using their abilities. Successful rolls can chip away at the Doom Token pile, and the player gains those Doom Tokens into their hand.

At any time, a player can throw in one or more Doom Tokens to create a stroke of luck. This may be as simple as having an enemy duck the wrong way, or they may spontaneously change the weather, introduce a helpful NPC, or whatever else seems fun. Running gags or recurring and erratic NPCs seem good. A spent Doom Token may end up being largely mechanical, or adding new elements to the game. Spent Doom Tokens are returned to the Doom Pile. If a Doom Token is spent to overcome the Doom Pile, this may be a zero-sum exchange.

Either the GM or players can also chip away at the pile by suggesting setbacks that afflict the players. Perhaps, instead of decapitating one of the mad hatstands with her die roll, the warrior trips over the wizard's beard and her sword goes flying into a tree? Perhaps the cyborg assassin's previous programming as a coffee machine once again resurfaces? Perhaps a mob of angry cobblers turns up demanding payment for the large pile of worn shoes left (and repaired) in an earlier town as part of a hilarious misunderstanding? Perhaps the alien has discovered a countermeasure to some technique that previously rendered it helpless? Again, these tokens go to the affected player(s).

Multiple tokens may be spent all at once on substantial changes.

Essentially, the idea here is that the GM and players trade tokens back and forth to swing luck in either direction and create entertainment, for as long as it seems enjoyable. The obstacle is overcome once all the Doom Tokens are held by the players, so things going badly for them is actually beneficial.


It strikes me that actually, at least some parts of the FATE system would be quite suitable here.

Let's assume that we strip down the skill list to my four attributes named Cunning, Smarm, Furtiveness and Violence. Okay, we probably also need something like, oh... Poise, Velocity and Brawn. There is no magic attribute, because magic is a character concept rather than a skill.

Aspects could well be perfect for building characters around a strong core of rather silly premises. Salt-of-the-Earth Apprentice Wizard With A Yearning for Luxury is a solid starting point. My Heart Is Your Doormat is a reasonable source of both problems and strength, especially when coupled with Inexplicably Alluring. I Must Serve My Master is another good double-header that can inconvenience the character or spur them to heroic efforts.

But I don't think I like the existing Fate Point economy. We want something... swingier. And more prominent. Aspects that only come up occasionally aren't hugely defining.

Let's go back to my earlier idea of the Doom Pool. To define challenges, the GM assigns a Doom rating based on how difficult it is, combining them if several challenges coincide (say, two different antagonists). To be clear, coinciding should happen a lot, because pantomime antics are the order of the day. A Doom Pool of a corresponding number of dice (or tokens) is assembled.

This, coincidentally, if articulated in the rules, could also help provide that balancing guide that I really needed for Dixie-2.

At any time, characters can invoke an aspect for the usual benefits. They don't need to spend a Fate Point to do that. Fate Points are earned when things go wrong for the characters because of some Aspect or other (compels) in much the same way as ever. A really bad stroke of luck should earn multiple Fate Points.

What you do want Fate Points for is to invoke, well, fate. That Doom Pool I mentioned that represents the current situation? Those is a rich seam of pure, untapped luck. At any time, including after a roll, you can chip in a Fate Point to grab a fistful of dice from the Doom Pool and add them to the current player's hand.

The difference is that when you succeed at a task because of Doom Dice, your in-character success is due to luck. The magnitude of the luck versus skill should be loosely based on the dice involved: if you roll four successes with skill and one with Doom dice it's only a small fluke, whereas eight successes from Doom and none from skill means you bungled spectacularly but somehow it worked out enormously in your favour.

This scheme has some benefits because it intrinsically encourages the unlucky-lucky dynamic I was talking about. You can only use the Doom Pool to get lucky by spending Fate Points you earned from being unlucky.


  1. I think on the whole I like the Contrary Dicepool System best. I suggest for maximum luck-over-competence you should allow a "set" of one die to count. So a roll of one six will definitely solve your problem, but will make you look like a total prat in the process.

    I'm not sure how it would run with a luck mechanic, but I suspect it would actually be swingy enough by itself that it wouldn't strictly *need* one.

    1. That's the one that convinced me to write the post, so I'm definitely fond of it.

      I'd have to do some playing to get a feel for things. I think it would be pretty swingy, but I'm not sure whether it would be a fun swingy or not.

      I didn't really get into narrative elements (reusing plot elements for comedy) or more storygamey ideas so there's probably at least one more to come here. I might also want to think about how a single game wants to feel in terms of pacing and stuff. And I suppose there's, like, what happens specifically when you fail or succeed at stuff.