Roleplaying

Four Dice Pool Systems All Gamers Should Know

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.

Star Wars, By West End Games

Starwars RPG

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.

While this game has been out of print for some time, the system was adapted into D6 Space, D6 Adventure, and D6 Fantasy. You can download the pdfs for free from DrivethroughRPG.

Legend of the Five Rings, by AEG

Legend of the Five Rings coverA 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, By Luke Crane

burningwheel

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.

World of Darkness, by White Wolf

world of darkness

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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Comments

  1. Kai

    One small correction: Ghostbusters (published by WEG, but created by Chaosium) was published in 1986, one year before WEG’s Star Wars. As far as RPGs go, that would make it the first dice-pool system.

  2. Doc Cross

    No Over The Edge?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Can’t say I’ve heard of that one. Much like it is impossible to hug every cat, there are some RPGs I haven’t had time to play.

  3. Copperhamster

    I saw a 36d roll in Star Wars once. I forget what for.

    I can’t remember what it was (it’s somewhere in my filing cabinet full o game books) but there was another game that had the ‘flip a coin’ dice mechanic. It even came with something like 10d6. They had pips, but also different colored faces: 1 and 2 were red (fail), 3 yellow (usually fail), 4 and 5 were green (success), and 6 was blue (sometimes 6s would let you throw away failure dice). Helped you get the result almost instantly.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Probably for a lightsaber attack with a force point. That was where we got the crazy dice bucket rolls, cause several powers added dice to a lightsaber roll, and a force point doubled all of them.

      • Rand al'Thor

        I think Mistborn’s feruchemy system takes the cake for most dice ever rolled in an RPG.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          That’s true, although at least in Mistborn you only actually roll 10 of them. The others are converted into automatic 6s.

          In Tenra Bansho Zero, a game I’ll be reviewing soon, you actually roll 30+ dice on a semi regular basis. It’s nuts.

          • Rand al'Thor

            Oh my gosh! That’s one of the indie games sold in the Burning Wheel Store isn’t it!

            Quick question: Is Swords and Wizardry (there’s an SRD site for it if you didn’t know) good for D20?

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            That’s where I heard of it! I can’t say I’ve ever look at Swords and Wizardry, so I don’t know if it’s good or not. That said, I always recommend staying away from D20 if possible.

          • Rand al'Thor

            True.

  4. Rand al'Thor

    1. Have you ever heard of Ubiquity?
    2. If you can’t find enough d6s for a Luke Crane game, roll any dice and have the upper 1/6 be a 6 while the upper half success and lower half no success.
    3. Those two are slightly related.

  5. Rand al'Thor

    Is Burning Wheel easy to minmax, and has balance issues or something? I’ve read the Hub and Spokes and it seems like advanced Torchbearer/Mouse Guard. So spellcasters are OP or something like that?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Spellcasters can be OP if they pick the right spells and really min max Will and Fort (to soak up the Tax). Turn Aside the Blade, in particular, makes them almost impossible to hurt in combat, which is obnoxious.

      The main problem though is that some Lifepaths are clearly better than others. This is largely intentional, in that someone who’s been raised as a knight will be more capable than a galley slave, but it can create problems. If one player just takes the better Lifepaths, they can end up with way more skills and ability points than other PCs. If everyone’s into that, then it’s fine, but if you’re expecting things to be balanced the way most games are, it’s a problem.

      The player who took peasant life paths may feel inadequate next to the Sorcerer Knight who strides into battle armed with lightning and protected by full plate.

      • Rand al'Thor

        Torchbearer, I’m sad because it isn’t the right feel for my game.

  6. Roleplaying Nerd

    There is a problem with the d6 pdf download link. When I first clicked on it I got something from iinet telling me that I was running out of time to complete a survey to receive a free Aldi gift card. When I clicked it again it sent me to Facebook’s sign in page. I tried again but I got Facebook again. Then I clicked it again and was asked me how I had got to the page. I am very confused.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yikes, those were some bad links for sure. Looks like in the years since I first posted this that site went down and was replaced with some nasty spam, thanks for letting me know. I’ve updated with links to the DrivethroughRPG page.

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