Thirty Minutes or It’s Free: Using Dominoes In Tabletop RPGs

dominos
This is both incorrect and making me very hungry

Sorry about the late post: I recently moved, and in the hustle and bustle of the move I forgot to queue a post for this Wednesday.

Something that has always fascinated me is the idea of making a tabletop RPG which does not rely on dice as the primary resolution mechanic. While reliable, understandable, and fun to roll, dice are hardly the only way to produce random results in a physical space. Cards have been used for a while, notably in Deadlands, but that’s not the end of it either. The thing I’m interested in, however, are dominoes.

Dominoes have a number of interesting properties. For starters, every domino has sides, which can have the same number, different numbers, a number and a blank, or two blanks. On top of that, the shape of a domino makes it easy to lay on a table, and hard to accidentally shift around. The uniform shape of dominoes also makes it easy to lay them adjacent to one another. Geometric shapes can easily be formed using dominoes in this manner.

The naive approach to making a game with dominoes is simply to use them as close to dice as you could: whenever you need to resolve a skill check, pull a domino from some sort of bag, box, or other random pile, and use one of the numbers on it as the result for the check, plus or minus modifiers. This works, but it’s also really boring, and does nothing that a die couldn’t do.

What if we spiced that up a little bit? What if the domino pulled represented both your skill check and you enemy’s skill check, simultaneously? After all, it has two numbers on it. I could see this working in a game of dueling, where the actions of the two combatants seem to happen simultaneously.I think for this to be interesting, you’d need a system where “get the highest number” (or, conversely, “get the lowest number” isn’t the core principle for dice rolls, or players will just always end up giving themselves the good side of the domino and their adversary the bad.

The issue with such a system is that player characters don’t always have an active adversary. If the character is climbing a wall, they pull a domino and, what, the other side represents how wall-y the wall is? That’s goofy. However, there is one “adversary” that player characters will always have to confront:

1445287639-JekyllandHyde_tickets
Their love of classic literature!

Characters are constantly undone by their own flaws, their own tragic characteristics and dark secrets. It’s possible to structure a game based around those flaws and tragedies using dominoes as a core mechanic. Whenever a character attempts to do something, they pull a domino, and choose a side to select as their skill check result. The other side doesn’t go to an enemy this time, instead it goes to what I am hastily going to name the Tragic Flaw Table.

The Tragic Flaw Table contains as many entries as the highest possible number on the side of a domino plus one (the plus one is to account for the blank), and contains a series of the character’s worst personality traits, with a short description and/or mechanical ruling when appropriate. When a character makes their skill check, they must look at the unused side of the domino. The flaw related to that number on the Tragic Flaw Table activates. This is obviously going to require some clever wording of the Flaws to ensure they make some amount of sense: if a character swings their sword at a foe, and the Flaw that comes up is “Has a hard time getting to sleep”, you’re probably going to just end up with a player shrugging.

Or, what if we took the dualistic approach even further, and simply gave every character a straight-up evil side, like the Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. Instead of the Tragic Flaw Table, you have a sort of Latent Evil Table, and whenever you pull a domino, you use one side as the skill check and the other one activates the associated trait on the Latent Evil Table. For instance, maybe 3 is associated with Disappear Without a Trace, an ability that lets your evil doppelganger simply disappear from a scene, no questions asked. Every time you pull a domino and don’t use a 3 side, you’re giving your evil side one “Get Out Of Jail Free” card.

love this, but let’s shift gears and talk about how we could use the domino’s geometric shape in game design. Traditional domino rules state that you can only lay dominoes next to each other as long as the touching sides have the same number. Let’s ignore that. That’s no fun.

Instead of that, what if we used the dominoes as a sort of “sentence construction” system. For instance, for convenience sake, let’s say we have dominoes that can have the numbers 1-6, without a blank, on any given side. Let’s then construct this table:

chart

Whenever you lay a domino on the board, you have to connect it to at least one other domino by having the sides touch. This laying of a domino represents your action. When you do so, you read the connection you made through this table, and that represents how you did. For instance, if there’s a domino on the table with a 5 side, and I lay a domino down such that a 2 is now touching the 5, I can read my result on this action as “With my heart pounding, I use the environment to succeed”. Depending on the context, I can then go on to describe how exactly that plays out (maybe I throw a flowerpot at my foe to distract them while I make the killing blow, or maybe I impress my crush by hitting the jukebox to get her favorite song to play). Clever domino orientations can introduce a third number to this chain, which adds the suffix sentence fragments.

Dominoes are just one way to spice up a resolution system for a roleplaying game. When considering how mechanical resolution in a game will work, don’t be afraid to use things other than dice, especially things as common as a deck of cards or dominoes. When you do venture out into the Wild West of game mechanics, consider what makes your new mechanic unique, and build a game based on that.

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