So, in the second part of this series of blogs, I came to the conclusion that the current dice system for my tabletop RPG Blackmarked is hot garbage. It’s terribly non-evocative, the actual probability distribution was all wrong, and it had a lot of seemingly arbitrary math tacked on.
Unfortunately, I had already written about 50 pages of rules using this system. It was deeply ingrained into all of the other systems. What do I do? Do I just try and fix it up a bit so I don’t have to change too much? Maybe at least try to develop a system for which the Target Numbers end up looking similar?
No. Of course I don’t.
Just because it’s going to be a lot of work doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Like I said, a core dice mechanic is essential to a good game, and will permeate through all of its parts. To leave something so fundamentally uninteresting at the core of my game would be dooming it to a death sentence.
So what’s a better system? Well, basically, the only way to find out is the same way you generate any good design: raw iteration. Create a new idea, put it through the grinder, keep what works, trash what doesn’t, repeat until game is good. Anyone who thinks they have the best version of their design in the first iteration is either divinity given flesh, or an idiot.
So, here I am, stuck thinking up a new system. I needed something interesting, something that captured the mood and theme of my game at its first level. Eventually, what I came to was going back to one of the games that inspired Blackmarked, Dark Souls. Specifically, what I thought of was how every action in that game ties back to the Stamina system, which limits how much you can do in a single span of time by forcing your character to rest. Alright, I thought, here’s a system I can work with. A bit of reworking, and…
Idea #1: the dStamina System
- Every dice roll is a 2d6 roll (two, six-sided die) plus the relevant Skill. If the result is greater than or equal to the Target Number, it’s successful.
- Every character has a pool of extra d6s called the Stamina Pool, which may be added on to any roll. Resting is the only way to replenish this pool, and depleting it causes exhaustion.
OK, so immediately we have a simpler system, and one which seems to invoke the theme of characters slogging through this world, instead of marching triumphantly, a little better. There’s a pretty glaring problem, though, which ruins this system. Basically, if Target Numbers are low enough, or Stamina pools high enough, players will just save their pools for one big dice roll at the end of a session, throw all but one Stamina die in the roll, and make success almost mathematically guaranteed. People aren’t going to want to spend this pool on anything but the biggest rolls, and those rolls are going to be rendered trivial as a result. More often than not, this system is just going to be 2d6 + Skill, with no alterations, which is boring.
Idea #2: the dStamina System Mk. II
- Every dice roll is a (2+Skill)d6 roll. If the result is greater than or equal to the Target Number, it’s successful.
- The Stamina Pool exists as per Mk. I
OK, so here’s a small iteration, designed to try and keep the core structure, but lessen the player’s ability to auto-win important rolls by removing their guaranteed skill modifier, and replace that with a more random way of factoring in Skills, by having Skills add extra dice. Unfortunately, for all but the most obscenely large Target Numbers, creating a dice pool of about five dice or more will pretty much guarantee success, with every additional die only marginally increasing your odds.
For this system to work, either Target Numbers need to be so high that performing no or low-Skilled checks need to be literally impossible, or Stamina Pools need to be so small that they’ll basically never get used. Both are not good.
Idea #3: the “Try Again” System
- Every dice roll is a 2d6 roll plus the relevant Skill. If the result is greater than or equal to the Target Number, it’s successful.
- If you fail, you may incur one Strain to reroll your 2d6, this time as 2d10. If that fails, you may do so again to reroll your 2d10 as 2d12.
- Strain causes negative effects to your character, and must be rested away.
Alright, so if incurring exhaustion to add dice to your dice pool seems pretty broken, how about using exhaustion to make the dice in your pool better? This system removes a player’s ability to just burn away their character’s stamina to ensure success, which is very good, while still offering a good motivation to use up that stamina (rerolls).
The problem I have with this system is that it causes some weird interactions with the Skill system. Spending 2 Strain increases your average roll result by 6, which means that if Skill numbers are low, the benefit of having high Skills is not going to be equivalent to the gain of just burning 2 Strain, and specialist characters are going to be less useful. If Skill numbers are high, however, Target Numbers are going to have to be high to match, and all of a sudden that +6 on average from Strain rerolls are going to be borderline useless. We’re so close, though.
Idea #4: The Strain System
- Every Skill a character has is represented by a size of die, four-sided all the way to twelve-sided. Every dice roll is just rolling the die of the associated Skill. If the result is greater than or equal to the Target Number, it’s successful.
- You may roll a larger die than your Skill allows, but doing so risk incurring Strain (more so for larger jumps in Skill).
- If you incur too much Strain (from pushing dice rolls, or from taking damage), the size of every single one of your Skill dice starts to go down.
- Strain can only be regained by getting a good night’s rest.
If Skills and the die size system are interacting weirdly, we can solve that by just making them one and the same. This system has a variety of benefits. One, it makes the Skill system as a whole much clearer, and makes it more obvious how much better one Skill rank is than another (someone with d4 Strength will only match a TN of 4 a quarter of the time, while someone with d6 Strength will match it half of the time).
On top of this, boosting the size of your die is still just as good as before, and can allow you to perform some feats outside of your normal skill set in really heroic ways, but the cost of doing so is enormous: you run the risk of making your entire character less effective for the entire rest of the in-game day. Again, boosting die size to perform feats beyond your Skills doesn’t render Skills irrelevant, because your Skill is your die size. These seems pretty in-theme to me: being a big, courageous hero up against impossible odds is exhausting. Hell, just getting through the day will probably be exhausting, which, if you’re an adventurer for-hire, it should be.
Narratively, this system also has the benefit of emphasizing downtime. As a character adventures, they’re naturally going to incur a decent chunk of Strain one way or another, and unless the party wants to go on completely gimped, they’re going to need to think about how they’re guaranteeing themselves a good night’s rest, which is an interesting thing to have to think about. This means that Game Masters can do some really interesting stuff with a party’s downtime, and emotional distress can have a real, significant effect on a party (by ruining their good night’s sleep), and can have a significant effect on the game. All of a sudden, the throwaway line of “We set up camp and go to sleep” becomes a lot more interesting.
On top of this, this system can form the base for other interesting systems to be built on top of it. For example, since deciding upon this system, I built another attribute for characters, their Vice. Basically, getting a good night’s sleep is easier (and thus, getting rid of Strain is easier) if a character indulges their Vice beforehand, which can be anything from getting really drunk to gambling to indulging their bloodlust to just shutting themselves off from the others and reading forbidden knowledge.
Now, characters have a mechanical incentive to be the kind of bad people that match the setting, and now they have a built in character trait that makes developing a character’s personality easier, and Game Masters have a way to introduce interesting situations into that character downtime (the guy you just lost all your money to in a card game offers you an odd job to win it back, the guy you’ve been drinking with all night is actually the target you’ve been chasing for the last 2 weeks, etc.).
This is the power of iteration. By just making system after system, thinking about each and making meaningful changes, I’ve gone from a weird, non-evocative, arbitrary dice mechanic to one that’s extremely evocative of my setting. This system probably has its own flaws, and will still need iteration, but by not being married to my original ideas, I’ve gone from something OK to something great, and my game will only improve as a result.