Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Allure of Dice in Fantasy Games

Gamers love dice, especially those used in fantasy roleplaying games, which have from their inception relied on the intriguingly shaped polyhedral d4, d8, d10, d12, and d20…and, of course, the mundane d6. Aside from the oddity and allure of the strangely shaped polyhedral dice, they often receive obsessive attention from some gamers, whose fascination ranges from collecting interestingly colored dice and finding just the right dice bag (or other container) all the way to sequestering “special” dice they believe gives them some advantage in play (despite their random nature).

Rolling dice -- whether a single die or a handful -- possesses some enchantment in the primitive parts of gamers’ minds that hints at magical divination (technically cleromancy, fortune-telling by casting lots, bones, stones, or other randomizers through which a divine entity or fate itself reveals its intention). Hovering over the dice, counting their results with a combination of anxious anticipation and potential triumph, remains one of the core components of roleplaying games, particularly those of the “old school” that employ polyhedral dice. For fantasy roleplaying gamers casting the dice determines the fate of our characters; the act literally becomes a form of divination that actually manifests aspects of “reality” within the game for a player’s hero.

I’ve enjoyed some indie narrative roleplaying games, though they’re not really within the scope of my design interests. As a gamer steeped in the time-honored tradition of dice-based roleplaying games -- and one who discovered the hobby through the venerable Basic Dungeons & Dragonsand its slowly disintegrating soft-plastic polyhedral dice -- I’m reluctant to completely abandon dice in games (despite my inclination toward more rules light systems than heavy complexity mechanics). Dice remain an integral part of roleplaying games constantly seeking balance with the equally essential storytelling elements.

Polyhedral Pantheon or Six-Siders?

In developing a fantasy roleplaying game with an original system -- something combining elements of the old-school retro-clones with a framework to more easily introduce a younger generation to gaming -- I’m facing a dice dilemma: do I try incorporating the old-school inclination toward the full range of polyhedral dice or do I focus on six-sided dice for their familiarity to newcomers and their greater availability?

In exploring this question I balance my fondness for enthralling polyhedral dice against the realities of familiarity and accessibility. Few kids exploring gaming on their own -- without the tutelage of a gamer-geek parent who, presumably, owns hordes of dice -- know what a d8 or d20 is or looks like, nor would they know where to find them. Other newcomers face the same “dice literacy” challenge. Most have six-sided dice around the house somewhere in now-archaic analog board games, though as technology relentlessly marches forward such relics may soon become lost as digital die-rolling applications become more widespread for personal computers and smart phones.

So I’m moving forward with development of a core rules mechanic based on the most mundane of all the polyhedral dice. A single d6 won’t satisfy the depth of play I’m seeking; I’m looking at using multiple dice to reflect the character’s experience (“level” for those of you who recall I’m integrating old-school elements into my project). With this choice I face a new challenge of re-invigorate the boring old d6 with some of the fascination associated with the “casting the bones” aspect of dice in roleplaying games.

Sum or Successes?

“Reading” the dice and interpreting the results often boils down to two methods. Do gamers roll the dice and add the resulting values numerically, or do the numbers translate to successes and failures (or some other effect)? The first one seems more intuitive -- dice have numbers, so when rolling one or several the player naturally want to add them all up -- yet the latter method allows for some interpretation within the scope of the game.

My first involvement with a success system was with West End Games’ Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game and with HeroQuest, produced jointly by Milton Bradley and Games Workshop. The core mechanic of each game required a multiple-dice roll in which one tallied the number of successes showing on the dice faces. In Hercules & Xena’s Legend System D6 variant four die faces showed successes (chakrams) and two failures (hydra heads). Each die pool roll also included a “wild die” with a critical hit (a lightning bolt of Zeus…an exploding success) and a critical failure (the eye of Hera) much like the “wild die” mechanic introduced in the second edition of West End’s Star Wars Roleplaying Game; rolling an exceptional success allowed that die to count one success and then was rolled again, with the critical failure either negating one success or causing a catastrophic failure.

In HeroQuest the die results depended on the action: three faces showed skulls representing hits, two displayed shields for hero defense, and one sported a monster-faced shield for creature defense. Additional supplements for the game added dice with different faces for various other rolls, but the core mechanic worked well for most situations in the basic game, primarily combat.

Both games provided special dice with theme-appropriate faces, though one could easily assign results to numerical die faces on regular six-sided dice (an alternative clearly provided in the Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game).

In both cases players rolled dice and then examined the results not for a sum of die-face values but for a tally of certain results -- each weighted by its frequency on the die faces -- with the presence of more than one favorable result determining base success and in some cases the degree of success. This preserves some mystique of “reading” the dice, even if they’re still only six-sided; rolling a handful of dice to represent skill (the more skill, the more dice rolled) enables a broader spectrum of results and offers room for growth through experience.

Interpreting the Dice

To add to the allure of the dice in the game I’m developing each hero gains a few special abilities, some of which allow them to interpret the dice results differently. The inspiration for this comes from my limited exposure to and understanding of Cheapass Games’ Button Men game, in which players use various dice and their rolled values for different combat effects; in the mechanics of Button Men, players roll a pool of polyhedral dice unique to their character and use the resulting values to eliminate the opponent’s dice and thus win fights.

In the system I’m developing for the retro-clone, newcomer-appropriate fantasy roleplaying game I’m toying with the idea of having one die pool roll determine both attack success as well as defense. This reflects one reality that a high-scoring attack limits the amount of defense one can offer opponents, and the more one tries to defend, the less effective his attack becomes. One die face would provide a “wild” result heroes can interpret differently depending on certain special abilities they choose during character creation. For instance, the heavy weapons specialty would allow a hero using such a weapon to count any “wild” results as “hits.” Some abilities allow players to use defend results as hits or convert hits in combat into defend results.

In examining the allure dice have for gamers, I’ve managed to resolve several issues surrounding the core resolution mechanic for my roleplaying game project. All I need now is some time to hammer that out into some kind of viable playtest material to see how it works in actual play. Stay tuned for further developments….

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