As I mentioned awhile back I’ve been tossing around a dice mechanic for a game system. There’s a rather extensive set of design goals I’ve got floating around in the back of my head. Here’s some random thoughts on existing mechanics that keep them floating.
Disclaimer: I like my systems to be mathematically balanced. Some people don’t, I’m not them. I don’t like systems where combinations of race/class/powers/builds are just world crushingly more powerful. Whether by accident or player design characters that end up with those combinations make the game less fun. When one player constantly upstages everyone else during play, you’re going to find few enjoy playing. So balanced math is near the top of the list for design goals.
Let’s look at an obvious mechanic in almost every game, weapon damage. Weapons have different damage… for lack of a better word let’s use range. Let’s take a familiar system to many, Dungeons and Dragons. A longsword is a d8, a greatsword is 2d6. One averages 4 points of damage, the other 7. But it gets tricky, a long sword has +3 to hit while the greatsword is only a +2. That nudges the longswords damage over time upwards because it hits more often. A long sword also allows you to use a shield which decreases the damage you take over time because you’re harder to damage.
Are they balanced? Unlikely. With a limited set of ranges caused by a fixed set of dice (d4,d6,d8,d10,d12) it’s not possible to balance them. You can get them close but there’s always going to be a particular weapon that’s simply… better to use.
Gamma World Fourth Edition bypasses this by throwing out the whole individualized weapon stats, a move I really applaud. It’s a paradigm shift for this particular style of mechanics. There is no one best Light 1-Handed Melee weapon in that system. This is an awesome step forward for roleplay and characterization and a giant step backwards for mechanical diversity. But the step forward is what I personally care about.
So one of the design goals is that weapons are Gamma World 4E in flavor. A few broad categories or rather combinations of categories, Light/Heavy, One Handed/Two Handed, Ranged/Melee, define each weapon. Light weapons favor faster fighters, heavy weapons favor stronger fighters etc. Light weapons hit more often but do less damage, heavy weapons hit less often but do more damage.
But mathematically is there any real difference? If something hits more often but less damage and less often for more damage, isn’t that simply the same thing by the numbers and all its really doing is giving the illusion of a difference? Something to think about certainly.
The damage ranges conflict with another design goal, a better roll on your attack increases your damage output. Dungeons and Dragons allows for this in a binary way, you hit and deal your normal random range of damage or 5% of the time, on a natural 20, you deal maximum damage. But if you need say a 5 to hit that means that it doesn’t matter what you roll really. You either need any one of 14 numbers, makes no difference which one or that 20. 5-19 always results in the same damage.
It works but I’m thinking, what if your damage scaled in a more granular fashion? So that a 19 is better than a 15 is better than a 10 is better than a 8 is better than a 5? That would be pretty cool now wouldn’t it? Of course if we were playing with a computer we could easily do that. Computers have no trouble computing what 57% of 1d8+4 is. People, generally not so much, ignoring any Rainmen in the group of course.
On a side note, one of the House Rules I used for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition is I averaged damage across the board. 1d8+4 meant you dealt 8 damage. It worked really well for speeding up the game and no one found it detracted from it. So it was a win/win in our group. Other’s who’ve tried it report a similar overall
After running millions of simulations and computing percentages and spreads and the like my current design (after shelving several) is to use dice pools for your attempt roll. The ‘better’ you are at something the more dice you get to rol but you still only use ONE of them. The pool currently ranges from 1 to 5 with non-skilled getting 1 die with some penalties and legendary world shaking heroes getting 5 dice with bonuses.
To this basic premise I add the ability to fine tune percentages by adding flat bonuses, a flat bonus nudges the percentages up by (1/dice size)*100) percent.
A hero with a some training in Heavy Melee skill might have a 2d8+4 which averages out to roughly a 10, while a 5d8+4 averages 1 better with an 11.
Whaaaa? you might be saying, increasing the dice pool from 2 to 5 increases my average roll by only 1 point (technically it’s 1.4 give or take). That’s crazy, why spend character points to get bigger pools?
Well there’s a fix I have in mind for that which is simply adding in the exploding or acing dice mechanic from Savage worlds. Which simply means that if you roll the maximum on a dice you get to roll it again and add them together. With explosions turned on let’s run those numbers again. 2d8+4 exploding now averages 11 per roll. 5d8+4 exploding is 13.6 so we’ve gained a 2.5 higher roll. That’s a more reasonable gain.
Exploding dice also have a very critical (to me anyway) benefit of allowing anyone to successfully attack anyone. Granted it might be a ‘ slim chance’ but there’s none of that “Oh they’re level 2′s and I’m a level 12? Pfffft, I just walk through them, they don’t have much chance to hit me and if they do it’ll take a week to burn through my hit points. Meanwhile every time I swing three die.” This is important to me because it keeps all content relevant. There are no creatures that get ‘out leveled’. That’s one thing I dislike about Dungeons and Dragons in all Editions but especially 4E. Any creature four levels higher or four levels lower than the players is difficult to impossible to use. They’re either impossible to hit or impossible to miss or vice versa depending on your viewpoint.
One of the other design goals was the use of ‘stunting’ dice mechanic that Dragon Age Origins RPG brought to the table. With that system you roll 3d6 but one’s an off color. That die is your stunt die and the value shown gives you that many stunt points you can use to give your attack a bit of ‘oomph’ by letting you knock someone down or daze them or move after the attack etc. In other words you’re encouraged to do cool shit on your turn which is never a bad thing.
Now we could go with an odd color in a dice pool and that would work certainly. But what if instead we say that if you roll doubles of a number you get that many stunt points… That gives a player a bigger incentive to up their dice pools than purely more chances to succeed.
Your chance of getting doubles with 2d8 is only 12.5%, with 5d8 though you’re going to end up with doubles 83% of the time. Which kind of makes sense, a barely trained fighter is going to be lucky to hit you with a sword much less do a double flip over the bar, bounce off the mirror after cracking the bartender on the skull and then swing out to catch the chandelier to swing over to the door. But a legendary warrior with a 83% chance of getting some stunt points should be able to do something that awesome a majority of the time.
Another design goal the use of a bell curve where extreme swings in value are infrequent is in one of those shelved systems but I had to drop it as I like the idea of dice pools. It might be possible to ‘do the math’ and come up with a way to drag it back in but for now it’s on a back burner.
By the way, the d8 I refer to is simply a placeholder. I’ve yet to determine which die size offers the best results for the damage design goal.
So right now my current mechanic, using a dice pool for attacks of exploding dice along with a way to allow for stunting handles several of my large view goals.
The trick is of course going through the nuts and bolts of the minutiae. How to handle specialized training? What about weapon quality? What are the typical min/max ranges of bonus possibilities and penalties. What about the range of target numbers you’re trying to succeed at, whether it’s whacking someone with a sword or picking a lock or convincing a tavern wench to meet you after closing?
Let’s not forget about weapon classifications, how do we truly differentiate those? What about damage mitigation? How many hits, hit points, damage ratings does it take to go from healthy to dead? How many attacks does that take on average? Is it too slow to be fun aka the high level solo boss slog in 4E or too flast like the one hit kill possibility in Savage Worlds?
Game mechanic design isn’t something you can just jot off on a piece of paper. You can have what appears to be an awesomely workable system but then once you start coming up with all the nuts and bolts it just falls apart.
But running through it is certainly mentally stimulating.