I’ve been writing systems for almost as long as I’ve been playing. This was mostly due to a lack of rulebooks when I was young. My early attempts were crude, but they didn’t have the same complexity as published games so my friends and I could understand them completely. If the rules I wrote didn’t have something to cover a certain event, I’d make a rule up on the spot. These games used six sided dice almost exclusively, as that is what I had available to me.
My first exposure to gaming was Palladium’s Rifts. Even from my first taste of gaming, I saw that games could resolve conflict in a variety of ways, using all those wonderful polyhedral dice that were sitting on the table. The Palladium system splits its rolls between a d20-based system for combat and a d100 system for skills. The second system I ever tried was West End Games’ D6 Star Wars game. This game introduced me to dice pools, although I wouldn’t come back to them for many years.
In a roundabout fashion, I finally arrive at the question I’m trying to ask: When a character in my system wants to do something, what do we roll? First, I should explain what I mean by my system. About six or seven years ago, I was playing C.J. Carella’s Witchcraft, which uses Unisystem. Now, while I generally like Unisystem, it has some flaws. When I set about fixing them with house rules, they kept adding up. Eventually it got to the point where I decided that patching the holes I saw in the system wasn’t enough, and decided to start from scratch. Several versions later, I’ve arrived here, writing the question in the title.
As I mentioned before, the first iteration of the system I’ve been calling Crucible was essentially Unisystem. It had a more narrativist bent, but the core mechanics were the same. For those unfamiliar with Unisystem, it is a d10-based system that involves rolling a single die and adding modifiers to get a result of nine or higher. The second iteration was my attempt at a d100-based system but without consulting any others of its type, my only experience with the style being Rifts, many years before. I also introduced a game economy based on the player’s attributes, my first experiment with that aspect of design. The third attempt was barely more than a concept but consisted of a pool of D6s. You kept a certain number of the dice from the pool after rolling and determined your result from the dice you kept. The fourth and most recent version used what was essentially the storyteller system of resolution. You had a pool of D10s and rolled them, those equal to or over a certain number were successes. Rolls with the appropriate amount of successes, well, succeeded.
To answer the first question properly, I have to ask a second question: Why do we roll what we roll? How does the mechanics of conflict resolution relate to the themes of the game and feel of the setting? I’m going to break down a few rolling mechanics and try to explain how they fit the game and the conflicts that might arise in said game.
BRP (Basic Role-Playing)
Used in: Call of Cthulhu, Runequest
My experience with BRP is limited, having only played a game or two of Runequest, but I have read the books and could probably run it with an hour or two to refresh. I’m going to focus on Call of Cthulhu though as its focus on modern supernatural horror is more along the lines of what I’m look for in my system.
In Call of Cthulhu, the players are struggling against forces far more vast then themselves. The only thing they have on their side is knowledge. This, I think, is the reason for the focus on skills in the game. As such, it makes perfect sense for the game to use a percentile-based system. It also allows players to fine tune exactly how skilled they are in a particular area. A skill of 60% versus as skill of 65% tells you something from a mechanical point of view and something about the character’s background. If your average skilled professional has 60% in a skill then someone with 65% in that same skill has a little bit of natural talent, or has focused a little more on that skill. This lessens the need for skill specializations and the like.
Why this won’t work: In the version of Crucible I’m working on at the moment, skills are not a focus of the system. I’ve removed the strict line between inherent abilities and learned skills. In Eclipse Phase, another system that uses percentile dice, the focus is still on skills. In both cases, the games are in the horror genre (Eclipse Phase less so, but horror is still a major theme). Crucible is not a horror game, at least not primarily.
Used in: World of Darkness, Exalted
Now, I’m most familiar with this system from Exalted, so forgive me if I’m a little off when it comes to this system. I do know that these games use a pool of d10s that you roll trying to get a value that equals a success. Getting a certain number of successes equals a total success on the roll. This may look familiar. When writing my most recent version of Crucible I was concerned with getting it to playability quickly and less concerned with an innovative dice mechanic. This is not as much of a concern for me now. However, I want an original set of mechanics that fit the mood and intentions of the setting.
Why this won’t work: Storyteller is a universal system. The dice mechanics do not relate to the feel of the game. It accomplishes conflict resolution in a relatively simple manner, but the actual mechanics don’t reflect the nature of those conflicts.
Roll and Keep
Used in: 7th Sea, Legend of the Five Rings
This system uses a pool of d10s as well. Players roll a number of d10s and choose to keep the results of some of the dice rolled. Instead of the difficultly/degree of success hinging on success values, the result total value of kept dice determines the result. To understand what this system does well, we need to look at what the games that use it do. 7th Sea is a swashbuckling game and L5R is a game about samurai. The strongest link I can find between the two is that both genres put heavy emphasis on the duel.
Why this won’t work: If the system excels at duels and swordfights, it lends itself towards genres in which this is a focus. Crucible is urban fantasy, not typically a genre that focuses on duels. This is more of what I’m looking for, a game in which the mechanics aid the genre. Sadly, it’s the wrong genre.
Used in: Dresden Files, Kerberos Club, Fate Core
This system uses Fudge dice, six sided dice with positive, negative, and neutral results. The driving force behind the game is not the dice mechanics but the game economy, fate points. These points allow players to use traits to drive the narrative. The use of skills and abilities can generate traits that player can then spend points on the drive the narrative. I won’t focus too much on the idea of game economy, that’s material for a different post.
Why this won’t work: The game economy drives narrative choices from the player. This isn’t a direction I want to take with Crucible. Stripping away concerns about game economy, we are left with a very simple conflict resolution mechanic, one that has no inherent ties to genre or theme. Fate Core exemplifies this.
ORE (One Roll Engine)
Seen in: A Dirty World, Wild Talents, Nemesis
ORE is another universal system, one that also uses a pool of d10s. Instead of looking for certain values on the individual dice to determine success or a total value of accumulated dice, you look for groups of dice with the same value. For instance, if I roll six dice and get a result of 5, 5, 7, 8, 8, 8, I have two sets, one that is two fives and the other that is three eights. The height of the values and the number of the dice in the set both contribute to the degree of success.
In general, the system is universal. The genres in the games listed range from Superheroes to Noir So clearly, the system has no strong ties to genre in the conflict resolution mechanic. I will take a moment to look at the mechanics of A Dirty World, the ORE take on Noir. In that game, your stats and skills change from moment to moment, not representing inherent abilities and static levels of knowledge but instead reflecting emotional states. This novel mechanic is how the game expresses the noir genre.
Why this won’t work: Like other universal systems, it lacks a link between genre and conflict resolution mechanics. It does illustrate that what you roll isn’t necessarily what ties you to a genre. A Dirty World is also a good example of what I hope to accomplish by ignoring the conventions of stats and skills. The major difference between their stat and skill analogues is the versatility with which they are used.
I don’t have an answer for my initial question. I don’t know what we roll. I do know a few things now. I know that I want to tie what and how we roll dice into the genre of the game. I also know I want to take a closer look at game economies. I also want to look at the themes of my game before deciding how I want to resolve conflicts within it. I also now know that the dice mechanics aren’t the only thing I can do to reflect the theme of the game.