Series Info...Storms on Cloud Nine #14:

The Odds, Part One

by Scott Holliday
July 11, 2003

From the very beginning of design for Orphan Crown, it was obvious that I would need some built-in outcome resolution systems. In other words, dice. The majority of the time, when a character chooses to do something, it just happens. Saying 'Hi' doesn't require a skill roll. However, most games have additional elements where the outcome is unknown. This can be a simulation of luck — such as in a card game. Alternately, it can be a simple way to mask complex factors — such as a simple roll to describe the outcome of all the maneuvering and constant attention required in a horse race.

Of course, "roll" and "dice" are actually misnomers. I will be using computer programs to calculate results, and programming in traditional dice rolls undermines much of the power of the media. Asking a computer to generate a truly random number multiple times (roll 4d6) is actually a fairly complex operation in comparison to all you could do with just one. Regardless, random outcome resolution is easily based in dice theory, so that is a great place to start.

Perhaps before going further, I should recommend Travis Casey's Building Stories Telling Games "Thinking Mechanically" set of articles. You'll find a lot of depth there as he explores different mechanics and alternate methods for action resolution.

So, where to start? One important decision is to decide what "feel" of resolution you want. This is often based on the game's genre or its world-setting. The randomness in a realistic simulation will feel quite different from that in a world of superheroes.

  1. A true simulation might not have any randomness at all. Player actions might directly influence results. Examples of this would be FPS or RTS games. In many cases, all game systems can be resolved purely by calculating the exact results of your actions. The game still appears to have randomness because of the range of different results possible based on circumstances.
  2. RPGs may follow the truesim basis, but problems arise in how to resolve other character-based actions. Is smithing a sword automatic every single time? If not, what circumstances dictate success versus failure? What is the difference between player skill and character skill?
  3. In an RPG with a austere or realistic basis, characters often make errors or mistakes. They do not consistently operate at the peak of their abilities. Just because a character CAN play tennis at a master level does not mean he is famous — because most of the time, he isn't so spectacular.
  4. For RPG's with a heroic basis, characters generally operate at the height of their ability, although the amount of difference is not unbeatable. For instance, James Bond doesn't ever trip over his shoelaces and only misses a straight shot if the pool ball (or bullet) was defective. On the other hand, in a fist-fight any shmoo has a chance, however slim, to get in a lucky punch.
  5. For RPG's with a superheroic bent, characters generally operate at the height of their ability and can exceed less skilled opponents automatically. For example, the Hulk is massively stronger than normal humans — and many other superheroes. In any such contest of strength, he simply wins. No roll is necessary — there is zero chance that his result will not exceed that of his opponent.
  6. Also, in recent years there have been more and more RPGs based purely on drama. For this type of game, players often don't even need a character sheet. If something seems like it fits the story or the character, then it happens. If something seems out of place, then it is judged to be impossible. Unfortunately, this doesn't do us much good in computer game design, since we'll want the computer to be doing the work.

Given these descriptions, it should be pretty easy to classify a couple of the more widely known RPGs.

  1. Dungeons and Dragons: This is an odd mix — which is perhaps part of the reason for it's popularity. The results of a character's actions vary equally between the best and worst possible for that character (a simple roll of d20+skill). In combat, characters are always able to make a mistake (a roll of 1 always fails) or succeed (a roll of 20 always hits). However, for most actions this is not true, making it a superhero game in many instances. Additionally, when unopposed, a player can choose not to roll (called "taking 10" or "taking 20").
  2. Amber: Probably the best known diceless system. An ability score of 11 always beats a 10, which always beats a 9. Although this gives the game a superheroic feel, players can still modify the results of an action by setting up the situation in their favor. For instance, if the character with a 9 spent time planning beforehand, setting up a distraction, and making sure his equipment was better, depending on the GM's decision he could beat someone well above what his score indicated.
  3. White Wolf: The majority of the White Wolf games operate such that you roll a number of dice based on your skill. Each die is compared individually against a number needed for success. The number of dice that succeed then describe the degree of the success. With just the dice mechanic, this system is built to be austere. No matter how high your skill, there is always the chance for failure — especially in a difficult situation. This can be outweighed by the use of special powers and such, but the base mechanic is prevalent throughout the system.

All right, that seems like a lot for this week, so I'll save the rest for next time. Hopefully, I haven't already maligned someone's favorite game system. Next time, I plan to lay out several important considerations when designing a dice mechanic (or computerized resolution system) and then demonstrate using some of the systems that I will be using in Orphan Crown.

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