Big one today – I am sharing the dice rolling system that I am strongly considering using as an alternative to the classic Beat the Odds roll. This is definitely playtest material and I would love to hear your feedback.
Why a new mechanism?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let me just give some background for why I am exploring alternative options for action resolution in FU.
The primary reason is the classic beat the odds roll is only really satisfying with a very small number of bonus or penalty dice in play (or a roughly equal number so they cancel each other out). Once you roll more than a few dice, the results become very predictable. This is not a bad thing, and served me well for a very long time, however it makes the rolls either very predictable (because you are rolling so many bonus or penalty dice), or very “swingy”. The steep influence of bonus/penalty dice on probability has been flagged as a big issue for many players and there have been more variations of the FU die mechanic than any other type of hack! It is obviously a concern worth addressing.
This limitation of predictable odds also affects other aspects of the game design, including advancement. Improvement (as we’ve come to expect it in RPG’s) results in a character accumulating more descriptors, gear and abilities which in turn means the player rolls more bonus dice. This will very quickly tip the balance in favour of player success. While I’m all in favour of having competent characters, this needs to come with enough threat in the mechanics to make dice rolls exciting.
The second reason I am exploring an alternative is to make the core mechanic quicker and more intuitive, particularly in terms of the creation of the dice pool. Currently you do a lot of math before a beat the odds roll – you “add up” all the bonus and penalty modifiers, find the difference and apply that to the base die you roll. While not “heavy lifting”, and certainly no different to adding and subtracting a variety of modifiers in games like DnD, it is something I feel can be smoothed. Furthermore, the current system requires the narrator to have a clear justification for each penalty (or bonus) they throw at the character which can sometimes be taxing – especially when you “just know” the action is hard.
The next reason I am exploring alternative resolution mechanics is out of a desire for more flexibility in what can be done with the dice rolls. FU can be used in a huge variety of settings and genres and some of these conceivably have different needs from the die roll. In particular, I am thinking about conflict resolution (and combat specifically) and how different players or groups prefer to handle it. I don’t want to add a variety of different rolls to the game – I love the clean elegance of the current system, but I also love how other games use the dice roll to provide a variety of information beyond just success and failure.
Finally, selfishly, I like dice pools. I love the rattle of a handful of dice and the satisfying sound they make as they splash across the table. I also love the “gamey” aspect of picking through the pool to find the dice that I’ll use to resolve my action. I think that the moment where all the dice are spread out before you, and you are searching for the numbers you need, increases the tension. I know that some players really prefer the dice rolls to disappear in play so they can focus on story, but there is room for both.
The FU Dice Pool
First, let me point out that Yes / No / And / But remain at the heart of FU. There is no change to this integral concept of the game. What I am looking at is modifying the way we determine what result is achieved.
At it’s core, this resolution mechanic is opposed dice pools. One pool represents all the elements working in the character’s favour, while the other pool represents all the things working against them. However, dice are still only rolled by the player.
You will need to tell the dice in different pools apart. Either use dice of different colours, or different sizes.
In all the examples below I use white dice to represent the “positive” pool and black dice to represent the “negative” pool.
1 – Assemble your pool
When a character attempts to do something where the outcome is questionable or potentially dangerous, we go to a die roll. The player and game master discuss the action and identify the potential advantages and disadvantages present in the situation.
A character’s die pool begins with two dice, one positive [+] and one negative [-].
For every advantageous trademark, tag, or environmental condition that will improve the character’s chance of success, add one positive [+] die.
For every threat, obstacle or disadvantage that makes the action more difficult, add one negative [-] die to the pool.
Common modifiers might include:
- The character’s trademarks / meta-tags [+] or [-]
- The opposition’s tags [+] or [-]
- Environmental tags [+] or [-]
- Assistance from an ally [+]
- Not having the right gear [-]
- Under time pressure [-]
FU Points: a player may spend FU points to add more positive dice to the pool. One FU point adds one [+].
This forms the base die pool.
Example – Sir Galvin and the troll
Dave’s character, Sir Galvin, is out questing in the forest. He comes to an overgrown old bridge and is halfway across when a troll crawls from beneath and demands to eat his horse.
“Outrageous!” Dave cries. “Sir Galvin would never give up his noble steed. In fact, he wouldn’t put up with such a monster in the King’s forest. I draw my sword and charge straight at him.”
This is obviously a conflict and it will be resolved with the roll of dice. Dave and the GM discuss the situation and decide that the question to be answered by Sir Galvin and the dice roll is “Do I charge the troll to the ground without injuring myself or my horse?”
Dave grabs [+] and [-] as the base of his pool. He points out that he has the trademark Daring Knight [+] and the unlocked meta-tag Batter down my enemies [+]. The GM tells Dave the troll is huge [-] and strong [-]. The GM also agrees that charging the troll on horseback give Sir Galvin another advantage [+].
Dave’s dice pool consists of seven dice – 4 positive (white) dice and 3 negative (black) dice.
2 – Roll and match dice
When you have gathered your die pool, roll the dice.
Pair-up positive and negative dice that rolled the same number. Discard all such matches.
For example, if a die roll was: Positive 2, 3, 5 and Negative 1, 3, 3 you would pair-up a positive 3 and a negative 3. The remaining pool would be Positive 2, 5 and Negative 1, 3.
Discarded pairs will play no further part in resolving the action.
The remaining dice will be used to determine whether the action succeeds or fails.
FU Points: at this point a player may pend a FU point to re-roll a positive die. Only positive dice may me re-rolled, and only those that remain in play (if they were matched and discarded they cannot be re-rolled). A player may spend as many FU points to reroll as many [+] dice as they wish, but each die may only be rerolled once.
Example – Sir Galvin and the troll (cont.)
Dave rolls his dice, scoring [+] 1, 3, 5, 6 and [-] 3, 4, 6.
That means a pair of 3’s and a pair of 6’s are matched and discarded.
Dave is left with [+] 1, 5 and [-] 4.
3 – Effect and qualifier dice
The highest remaining die is the effect die. This will tell you whether the action succeeded or failed.
If the effect die is [+], the result is YES. If the effect die is [-], the result is NO.
Now find the next highest die. This is the qualifier and tells you how complete your success or failure was.
If the qualifier die is the same type as the effect die, it is AND. If the qualifier die is a different type, it is BUT.
For example, if both the effect and qualifier are [+], the result would be YES AND. If the effect die is [-] and the qualifier is [+] the result would be NO BUT.
Only one die: If there is only one die left in the pool after matches are discarded, the result can only be YES or NO (depending on whether the die is [+] or [-] ).
No dice: If no dice remain in the pool, the situation is not resolved, but either escalates or is interrupted by a new encounter / threat / situation.
Example – Sir Galvin and the troll (cont.)
Discarding pairs of matching positive and negative dice, Dave is left with [+] 1, 5 and [-] 4.
The highest die (5) is positive so the effect is YES. The next highest die (4) is negative, making the qualifier BUT.
In response to the question “Do I charge down the troll without injuring myself or my horse?” the answer is “Yes, but…”
The GM and Dave have a brief conversation and decide that Sir Galvin does indeed charge down the troll, knocking it to the ground, but the creature’s flailing arms also knock the knight from his steed. Sir Galvin rolls deftly back to his feet and approaches the prone troll…
The system in a nutshell
That was a rather long-winded explanation of what is actually pretty intuitive and not that different from the current system. As a quick recap, here is the system in one quick chart:
- Establish situation, stakes and the question to be answered.
- Assemble dice pool
- Start with [+] and [-]
- Add further [+] and [-] as the situation dictates
- Player may spend FU points to add [+]
- Pair [+] and [-] with matching values and discard them
- If this discards all dice, the situation escalates / changes without being resolved
- Player may spend FU points to reroll any remaining [+]
- Highest remaining die is the effect die
- If effect die is [+], the result is YES
- If the effect die is [-], the result is NO
- Next highest die is the qualifier die
- If it is same die type as effect die ( [+] or [-] ), the qualifier is AND
- If it is a different die type as effect die ( [+] or [-] ), the qualifier is BUT
- If there is no second die, there is no qualifier – the answer is just YES or NO
Similarities and differences to the classic beat the odds roll
Here are a few quick observations, comparing this system to the classic die mechanic.
First, I have found assembling the pool is quicker. You just pick up the [+] or [-] dice as you talk through the scene. There is no “cancelling out” prior to the roll, so it speeds things up and gets us to the interesting bit – reading the result.
Like the classic system, only players roll dice. This gets around some of the FU hacks that opt for a more traditional opposed die pool.
We are no longer using the actual number rolled to determine the effect (beyond comparing to other dice). This opens up possibilities for using the rolled value of effect and qualifier dice for other purposes.
On a base-line roll (with no extra bonus or penalty dice) the only results possible are “Yes, but…”, “No, but…” or an escalation. Some people will see this as a flaw in the system, but I like how it draws results to the centre. Without any extenuating circumstances, you will not achieve an amazing success or horrifying failure.
Straight “Yes” and “No” results are less common than other results. I like this as the qualifiers of “and” and “but” are really where the interesting moments of the story sit.
The impact of bonus and penalty dice are sharply reduced from the classic roll. (I will admit I am struggling with the maths here, particularly because of the chance to (a) cancel all dice and (b) the need to compare the opposed pools to each other twice. If someone is a whiz with AnyDice or other probability programs, please feel free to calculate the odds!)
Now, another example…
Example – Tennessee Smith dodges death!
Our old friend Tennessee Smith has been exploring an ancient Egyptian temple when he picks up an artefact and accidentally sets off a trap. The GM describes to Vicki, who is playing Tennessee, how the door to the chamber begins to grind closed, while at the same time the floor is sliding away to reveal a pit filled with undead crocodiles. Those ancient Egyptians sure know how to build a trap!
“Oh blast!” Vicki exclaims. “I need to get out of here with the Idol of Nefertiti, so that’s going to present a problem. I’ll tuck the idol under my arm, use my whip to swing across the pit before it opens too wide, and then roll under the closing door.”
“Okay,” Ben, the GM says. “That’s a lot of actions. Are you happy to resolve the entire scene as a single roll like this? Or would you prefer to break it down into seperate challenges – leap the pit, then try and get under the door?”
“I’m okay with doing it as a single action.” Vicki says. “I see it kind of as a single dramatic moment, anyway. Tennessee swings across the pit, tumbles onto the other side and then slides under the door like a baseball player sliding into home.”
“No problem, but it will mean a big die pool.” Ben pulls a face as he thinks about all the factors involved. “So what are the stakes? Obviously, success is you get out unscathed. What’s the risk – besides being trapped in an ancient tomb with undead crocodiles?”
“Well, the museum wants the idol for display,” Vicki says, “So it probably won’t be good if it’s damaged. What if the risk is the Idol of Nefertiti is damaged in some way?”
“Sounds good.” Ben says.
“So the question I’m asking is: Can I leap the pit and slide under the door without damaging the idol?”
Vicki then begins to assemble her dice pool. She starts with the basic [+] and [-], adding [+] for Smith’s Daredevil Adventurer trademark and another [+] for his Trusty Bullwhip equipment. Ben points out this is a tough challenge, as our hero must swing across the pit [-] while avoiding the snapping jaws of the undead crocodiles [-], do it quick enough to get to the door before it closes [-], and with a precious artefact tucked under one arm [-]. That is three positive and five negative dice in the pool!
“Ahh, those are pretty steep odds,” Vicki says. “I’m going to throw my last two FU points into this, too, for two more bonus dice.” The final dice pool is 10 dice – five positive and five negative.
Vicki rolls the dice, getting [+] 1, 2, 5, 5, 6 and [-] 2, 4, 5, 6, 6.
That’s a lot of fives and sixes! The next step is to pair-up any positive and negative dice with the same value, and discard them. That means a pair of 6’s, 5’s and 2’s are removed:
Only four dice remain, and it is not looking great for Tennessee Smith:
Looking at the two highest remaining dice, we have a negative 6 and positive 5.
That’s a No, but… result.
Vicki repeats her question; “Can I leap the pit and slide under the door without damaging the idol?”
“No,” Ben says. “You swing across the pit with ease, but when you land on the other side there is an unpleasant ‘clink’ as the idol connects with the stone floor. You slide across the dusty floor and under the door just as it closes. The idol is damaged, but it is not irreparable – you may have to track down your old friend Doctor Clagg to have it repaired.”
*Note, while Ben gives quite a long response, the actual answer is the part in bold. It clearly responds to the question and incorporates both the effect and qualifier. If the action had been less elaborate, the response would likely have been shorter.
Possibilities present themselves
I said way back at the start of this article that I want an action resolution system that is flexible enough to meet the needs of a range of situations, genres or play styles. Here are some possibilities that become available with the system presented above.
As we are comparing highest rolls between two pools, rather than against a set target number, you could actually use any type of dice. If you have a love for d4’s, or a stack of d10’s left over from playing Vampire: the Masquerade, you could use them. The odds do change based on the number of sides your dice have, but it is a possibility.
A more interesting possibility, however, is the potential to throw a larger polyhedral into the pool to represent a super power, astounding training or a particularly terrible menace. They could also represent differences in scale. A man might be “strong”, but an elephant is strong on a different scale. When superheroes fight each other they might all roll d6, but when a super-powered being punches a mere-mortal they might get a bigger die thrown in for good measure. Likewise when dodging a blast from the laser cannons designed to destroy starships, or when your plucky thief stabs a dragon with a dagger. Such an alteration to the die system, however, would need to see both pools affected, otherwise things might become too one-sided quickly. In the tests I have done (don’t you sit by yourself rolling dice for hours?) a single d8 or d10 to a pool doesn’t have a massive impact.
More information please
It is now possible to get a “Yes, and” result with a double one, or a “No, but…” with a two and three. As the rolled number has been unhooked from the resolution chart we can actually use the numbers to expand the information a roll delivers.
The first idea that springs to mind is “damage”. Imagine, when a character attacks an opponent, the value of the effect die becomes the damage suffered by the “loser” of the attack. In fact, you could use both the effect and qualifier die to allocate damage to either or both parties:
I swing my sword at the goblin! Do I hit him without exposing myself to his rusty dagger?
Yes, you land a solid blow on the creature dealing 5 points of damage, but he slips his dagger into your side and you suffer 4 points of damage.
*Note! The answer doesn’t actually fit the question, as a “yes” result should mean the character is not stabbed by the goblin. Perhaps the question should have just been “Do I hit the goblin?”
Now, this is not necessarily where I’m heading with the combat system (unless that’s what you want – tell me!). However, if you want a combat system that mimics more traditional RPG’s, that’s pretty solid. You can then throw in some modifiers for light/medium/heavy weapons and armour and you have a full-blown combat hack.
You can use the same concept for healing, magical backlash when casting spells, or even indicating how long an action takes – in this case, rolling a low number might actually be better!
You could also look at whether either or both result dice have odd or even values. Depending on how deep you want to mine information, even or odd numbers could mean different things depending on whether they appear on positive [+] or negative [-] dice. I’m not sure what information you might pull, but the possibility remains.
I can see predefined encounters, traps or adversaries with an attached “difficulty” in the form of pre-set penalty dice. The ogre your knight fights is Threat 2, so you add [-][-] to the die pool. It potentially takes away some of the story-driven element of the game by replacing a list of tags with a number, but as a a shorthand to define specific situations and circumstances, though, it could be a useful option.
Rewards and special effects
I particularly like the idea of rewarding some boon or bonus if a player rolls a double 6 to get a result (that would be a “Yes, and…” or a “No, and…”). Perhaps the player earns an XP or FU point in such a situation. You could extend it to any “and…” result achieved with a double.
You might also somehow take into account the number of dice with the same value. If, for example, you rolled [+] 5, 5, 5, 5 [-] 2, 3 there might be some bonus for having multiple 5’s. This could be similar to the extra “and” responses, allowing the character to have a “Yes, and, and, and, and…” result.
That brings me to the end of a very long article! There is a lot here to think about, and I prepare to press “publish” with some amount of nerves. The mechanical elements of a game system can be controversial at times. Some people like the dice rolls to just get out of the way, while others love the “game within a game” that some systems provide. I hope that the system presented above provides a happy middle ground, but I would love your feedback.