Role-playing games are the best thing since sliced ogre for you, your kids, and your grandma... but there is one particular happiness that can be gained from them that is not for everyone. Only the select few, those of us with refined palates, the nerds among nerds who would appreciate the emphatically overdrawn syntax of this sentence ever learn to enjoy it. It is enjoyed by such brilliant minds as the Matt from Herding Dice, John Kim, and other masters of mechanics. This is the joy of the hacking the rules themselves.
To play around with the mechanics is to create the rules by which the game world is governed; it is a creative process in some ways more fundamental than playing a role. The core of all role-playing games is that they simulate a reality in which people can enjoy playing characters. Game designers have found many different ways to simulate the limitations of reality while allowing characters to have autonomy, each game striking a balance between a sense of realism with a sense of fun. Each design has a different flavour; there are so many games out there now that you can truly order them to taste.
There are many mechanics that form a game. This article’s focus is on dice mechanics, what makes them good, exciting, clunky, or weird. Dice mechanics are good when they 1) create tension (there’s a variety of possible outcomes), 2) are somewhat realistic, and 3) are simple. If you have any favourite dice mechanics, please let me know in the comments! I’m always looking for interesting game systems.
1) Meat and Potatoes: d20 mechanics (Bad to Good!)
Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, and the d20 Open Game License are the staple of many a role-player’s diet. d20 mechanics have their high and low points. There are an exciting twenty possible outcomes for each roll, which usually include one opportunity for wild success or critical failure. These mechanics break down in the realism department because each outcome has an equal chance of happening. The rules change the probability of success by incorporating modifiers and changing target numbers, but no matter how weak or powerful your character, there’s still a 5% chance that you’ll either critically hit that dragon or fall flat on your face jumping over a log. These eventualities often seem out of place and ridiculous. Regarding simplicity, recent incarnations have improved considerably, most of them paring it down to just a 20-sided die, avoiding the need for excessive polyhedrons. The 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons also introduced the idea of advantage and disadvantage, which improves the believability of the outcomes by giving players a pool of two 20-sided dice to choose from.
2) All Had The Graph Of Power! Marvel Superheroes (Bad to Ugly!)
One dice mechanic that has always intrigued me is the one designed for TSR’s Marvel Superheroes. It features very simple resolution: every action is resolved by a percentile dice roll combined with consulting a chart. It accounts for the huge disparity of power in the Marvel Universe by having each character roll under the assigned level of their power for different effects. As interesting as it is, however, the reality it creates is a broken one where failure is frequent. This means Colossus may have difficulty pinning a starving serf to the ground, and Aunt May can knock Spider-Man out cold. There are some mechanics that work to mitigate this kind of thing, but they aren’t powerful enough to avoid frequent absurd power upsets. Wild successes and failures are defined by the chart. Oddly, if you put together the chance of a wild success or a critical failure, depending on the action you’re taking, it is frequently more likely to knock it out of the park or to fail epically than it is just to succeed. Again, this undermines the sense of realism in the game.
3) One Roll To Rule Them All: Fate Core & Fate Accelerated Edition (Best!)
Featuring a robust mechanic based on the earlier FUDGE system, the Fate systems are two of my favourites. Players simply resolve all actions using a small pool of four FUDGE/Fate dice, which are 6-sided dice that supply outcomes between -4 and +4. There are fewer outcomes possible with this type of roll, but the outcomes follow a curve. The curve makes wild success and failures possible, but more rare, lending a sense of realism. There are also other mechanics that enable characters to succeed where they otherwise may not, and scale mechanics that allow this single dice roll to resolve conflicts on any scale. In combination, this creates a dice mechanic that simulates realistic outcomes, while providing the creative freedom of a truly universal system and enough tension to make victory sweet.
4) Welcome To The Desert Of The Real: Shadowrun (Good to Ugly!)
There will always be a soft spot in my cold gamemaster heart for this game, though I don’t play it much anymore. In principle, the resolution mechanic is fairly simple; a combination of skills and gear provide characters a pool of 6-sided dice they use to resolve opposed, unopposed, and extended actions. The bigger the dice pool, the greater a character’s chances of success or wild success. Dice pools by nature allow somewhat more realistic outcomes, and the core mechanic is really quite simple. There are so many additional rules, however, that gameplay tends to bog down in the simulation. Almost every piece of gear, skill, and action has a specific rule that is perfectly logical and lends to a sense of realism for the game. But, frequently, the complexity takes players out of the game too much for them to enjoy the sense of immersion that so rich a game world deserves. Also, rolling upwards of twenty dice is both super fun and more than a bit ridiculous.
5) ...And Four Stunt Points! Fantasy AGE (Good!)
This dice mechanic is a hybrid of early d20 mechanics and the Fate system. It uses a small pool of three 6-sided dice to resolve actions with a single type of roll. Outcomes range from 3 to 18, again making them feel realistic. An object of study for Matt from Herding Dice, it also features some super entertaining tricks. When players roll doubles, they gain a certain number of points with which to buy stunts – which are cool things their character can do. This means that wild successes are not limited to high rolls (though high rolls help). While it does not cover the same scope as Fate, it is nevertheless a very enjoyable resolution mechanic.
These are only some of the highs and lows that players may encounter using different dice mechanics. Of course, this article doesn’t consider all the different mechanics that exist, and doesn’t even touch other forms of resolution. If you’re still reading, you’re probably of the ilk that will stay tuned for the forthcoming article about alternative resolution mechanics. See you there!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (role-playing games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
25/8/2018 03:54:32 am
After 20 years of roleplaying, I've come to the conclusion that the best mechanic is easily the d6 dice pool, with 5s and 6s as successes, and ALL roles as contested rolls (i.e. the difficulty is a dice pool rolled by the GM, not a fixed target number).
Daniel James Hannon
21/3/2020 02:28:51 am
Deadzone the skirmish game is a brilliant implementation of this mechanic, using 3d8 and opposed rolls. Your models have between 3+ and 7+ for a success and damage is measured by how much you exceeded the roll by. Slick, quick and easy to read
11/4/2021 10:04:34 am
I only discovered this article two days ago, and wanted to read it a few times.
11/4/2021 10:12:37 am
This is in reply to Greg
12/6/2021 03:31:29 pm
Too many dice = You have to find / buy more dice to play, unless you are playing online. While many would argue that playing online is standard now, most of these systems were designed with real table top in mind. If the system gimmicks ddemand the roll to stay on the table in order to verify something (like checking small details between the first and opposed roll) then yes we are talking more dice than we will find behind the sofa.
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