In my last post, I talked about dice pool systems and why you might use them. With the basics explained, it’s time to examine a few specific roleplaying systems and see what they did with the idea. Each of these systems exemplify a different way to use dice pools. While each of these games has many merits and flaws, I’ll just cover their core die mechanic and how it is implemented.
This is arguably the first dice pool system ever published. It uses the standard method of adding attribute to skill, rolling that many d6, then totaling them all up. The number of dice rolled tends to range from two at the low end to eight at the highest, which is fairly reasonable. Sometimes, characters add +1 or +2 to their total. This is a somewhat clunky attempt by the leveling system to provide a mid point before adding another die, but for the most part it does not detract.
The major problem with Star Wars is when you have a Jedi character. While normal characters usually max out around eight dice, Jedi can easily roll twice that many when using lightsabers. Not only is this incredibly unbalanced, but it makes playing Jedi a major pain. As Jedi are the first thing many people want to play, this is a concern.
Overall, West End’s Star Wars does a passable job with the the dice pool system, and it does have the major benefit of using d6s, which most people tend to have laying around the house from all those unused copies of Monopoly.
A samurai game of silk and steel, Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) uses a similar system of rolling a number of d10s equal to attribute plus skill. Any dice that come up as a 10 “explode” and are rolled again, adding to the total. However, there is a twist! Only a number of dice equal to the attribute are added up, and the rest are dropped. For example, attacking with a sword would be agility + kenjutsu, keep agility. This helps to keep the math down, at least at lower power levels, and allows for some interesting outcomes. You don’t need to keep the highest dice – sometimes, you might wish for a lower outcome.
The best example of this was the 2nd Edition blood magic system. Blood magic was evil and gross, and it tainted the soul of whoever used it. Messing up a spell by failing the casting roll would gain you taint. However, succeeding too much would cause you to gain taint as well, since you drew in more of the dark energy than you meant to. As such, players using blood magic chose dice so that they were as close as possible to the target number without going over, which made for a very different experience.
L5R is now in its fourth edition, and that particular blood magic system is long gone. Unfortunately, the game never quite followed up on it, and now almost every roll is made with the intent of getting the highest total possible. This is certainly a passable system, but it doesn’t quite make use of the roll-and-keep concept’s full potential.
One thing L5R unquestionably does right is limit the maximum number of dice on any roll to 10. Any dice over that amount are converted to a flat bonus. This keeps the number of required dice to a manageable level, and a group will always know exactly how many they need.
Burning Wheel (BW) eschews the additive based system and goes right for successes. Characters roll a number of d6s equal to the skill or attribute being tested, plus whatever bonus dice are appropriate. Any dice showing 4-6 are successes, any dice showing 1-3 are failures, or traitors as BW refers to them. This fifty-fifty split of success and failure means it’s fairly easy to tell at a glance if a character is likely to succeed or fail the roll before them.
At first, it seems like the dice in this system could be replaced by coin flips without much change. However, things are a bit more complex than that. There is a mechanic by which you may cause your sixes to be open ended. For each six rolled, you add another die to your pool. There is also a means by which you can alter the value needed for a die to be counted as a success. Powerful magics can cause threes to be counted, and god-like power can even turn twos into successes. This gives the group a useful tool when they want to increase the average number of successes without increasing the maximum upper limit, something that often comes in handy.
Like Star Wars, BW’s use of d6s is a major boon. Also like Star Wars, the number of d6s needed can sometimes get out of hand, particularly when sorcery is involved. However, since the players do not need to add up the totals of every die rolled, the problem is mitigated somewhat.
Classic World of Darkness (CWoD) includes games like Mage: The Ascension and Vampire: The Masquerade. CWoD includes what is probably my favorite core die mechanic of all time. Characters roll a number of d10s equal to attribute plus skill or, occasionally, attribute plus attribute. By default, dice that roll six and up are considered successes. However, that number can be shifted up or down to correspond with the challenge level of a task. This means the GM has three different axes on which to adjust difficulty:
- The GM may give the character bonus or penalty dice. This is best used when the altering factor is coming from within the character, such as a momentary burst of strength or a bleeding wound.
- The GM may increase or decrease the number of successes required. This is best used to represent factors outside the character’s control. A blinding dust storm when they are trying to shoot, or a target who can barely move because of a bad leg would both change the difficulty of an action.
- The GM can alter the value needed for a success. This may seem unnecessary, but like in Burning Wheel, it allows for scenarios in which the total potential of success does not change, but the likelihood of success does.
As an avid game master myself, I very much enjoy having those options. Unfortunately, CWoD is flawed in other areas. Just within the core die mechanic, there is a rule that every die which comes up a one reduces the number of successes, which actually makes higher skill characters more likely to botch.
New World of Darkness (NWoD) removed the problem of ones reducing successes, but over all it just isn’t as versatile a system. Successes are now limited to eight and up on each d10, which creates a feeling that players have to scrounge for every die they can get, because the individual chances for success are so low.
Core die mechanics are one of the first things to look for when choosing a new roleplaying game, so it is important to understand what options are available. Dice pool systems provide a lot of flexibility and control, which makes them great for a variety of different games, particularly those heavily driven by narratives. However, not all systems are right for all groups, so it is important to understand what strengths and weaknesses each core mechanic brings to the table.
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