The Dice Have It

I figured out pretty early on in the design of Dusk City Outlaws that, if I was going to have a game that's easy to pick up and play on the spur of the moment, I was going to need mechanics that are easy to teach and understand, but that could have a big, and varied, impact on the narrative of the game. Today, I'm going to talk about how the game's streamlined narrative dice system came about.

There have been a fair number of games released over the last few years that use unique dice mechanics, and sometimes unique dice, as a means of introducing more narrative variability and interpretation into task resolution. I love this idea; you roll the dice, and then you interpret the results and what they mean for the narrative. It's like watching the High Aldwin consult the bones in Willow (and yes, I unironically love Willow).

 Playing with prototype dice during the filming of an actual play session. Left to right: Rodney Thompson, Sam Witwer, Elisa Teague. Photo by John French.

Playing with prototype dice during the filming of an actual play session. Left to right: Rodney Thompson, Sam Witwer, Elisa Teague. Photo by John French.

But I'm a tinkerer at heart, and I had in mind some additional goals for a narrative dice system that I wasn't quite getting out of everything that was out there, or at least everything I'd played. First, I wanted a dice system where your chance of success was immediately obvious to even the most casual player. This is something that I think many dice systems, both traditional and modern narrative systems alike, struggle with. There's an interpretation layer the player has to pass through to understand just how likely they are to succeed. Even looking at your character and evaluating how good you are at something is an exercise in system mastery and relative interpretation.

There is one common die system that does do a good job of making it very clear how good you are at something, and how likely you are to succeed on any given task: percentile systems. It's easy to translate a percentile chance of success into a practical understanding of how likely you are to succeed. Saying, "I've got a 75% chance of success on this" is a very comprehensible statement to most people. Unfortunately, percentile systems don't stand up as well when you start adding in modifiers or shifting difficulties.

 Sam knows his die roll was good enough to succeed, but Elisa sees the twist of negative consequences on the horizon. Left to right: Rodney Thompson, Sam Witwer, Elisa Teague. Photo by John French.

Sam knows his die roll was good enough to succeed, but Elisa sees the twist of negative consequences on the horizon. Left to right: Rodney Thompson, Sam Witwer, Elisa Teague. Photo by John French.

The second goal I had is that, for all of the awesomeness that narrative dice systems provide, sometimes you just want to roll some dice quickly for a succeed/fail result. During the development of D&D 5th Edition, we often referenced situations where the Dungeon Master would call for a roll to get some guidance on how to proceed when they didn't have strong feelings about a task or situation. More complex narrative die systems often result in situations where every die roll becomes an exercise in interpretation, but I wanted a system where the rules said that it's OK (and easy) to have a quick die roll to determine success or failure, then move on.

My last goal is that I wanted interpretation of results to be simple and fast, even if it's the first time you're sitting down at the table to play, no matter how complex the situation is that triggered the die roll. Symbol-based narrative dice systems actually have some elements that make this easier, and some that make it harder. Counting symbols is, in general, easier than doing even simple math. It's just easier to look at a die and count the number of visible symbols, even over looking for some number of dice with an X or higher showing.

With all of these goals in mind, and knowledge of how the various die systems I've played with interact with those goals, I settled on a few things. First, I wanted to go with a percentile system. However, instead of modifying your chance of success based on the situation, the system would assume that your base chance of success for any task never changes (with a few caveats about impossible or automatic attempts). Instead, to represent things that increase the challenge or tilt things in your favor, the player adds narrative dice to the roll. These dice would come in two varieties, one positive, and one negative, and with only a single type of symbol on each type of die.

 Challenge dice (left) and advantage dice (right), with the drawback and boon symbols, respectively.

Challenge dice (left) and advantage dice (right), with the drawback and boon symbols, respectively.

This results in a system where, on any given die roll, you can have:

  • Success
  • Success, but something goes wrong in the process
  • Succcess, and you get an unexpected additional benefit
  • Failure
  • Failure, but there is some upside to the attempt
  • Catastrophic failure with unintended consequences 

I felt like that was a pretty good starting spectrum of results, but these starting decisions did have some consequences for the kind of game I'd be making. These basic design decisions meant that the game wouldn't focus very much on the granularity of its challenges, and combat probably wouldn't be dependent on any target's defenses. Any enemies that are particularly defensive, or particularly vulnerable, would need some other way to indicate that.

 The prototype advantage and challenge dice used in playtesting.

The prototype advantage and challenge dice used in playtesting.

Once the game came together, the die system worked surprisingly well for a first draft. New players, and players less experienced with roleplaying games in general, were able to quickly identify what they were good at and make and interpret rolls quickly. While running the game, I found that it was really easy to just throw advantage and challenge dice into the roll based on the circumstances. Best of all, the spectrum of six possible results ended up doing a lot of the heavy lifting in providing exciting, diverse narrative beats during game play.

So, what changed during development? Mostly things surrounding the system, while the core system stayed intact. Early playtests weren't seeing advantage and challenge dice have a big impact, so I doubled the number of symbols on each type of dice. The unfluctuating percentages for skills left players feeling like they didn't have a lot of control over the game, so a mechanic for spending luck (the players' hit point-like resource) to guarantee success, but at the cost of adding challenge dice to the roll, was introduced (this mechanic is called pushing your luck). I originally had a rule that said that you can only have 3 advantage or challenge dice on any roll, unless a game mechanic says that you can have 4; that mechanic wasn't worth its complication, and while running the game I found myself ignoring it frequently, so it was cut.

 The most recent prototype advantage dice.

The most recent prototype advantage dice.

Other than that, the system has worked pretty well. I avoided trying to tie too many mechanics to boons or drawbacks (the symbols on advantage/challenge dice) because I wanted them to be largely in place for the players to interpret based on the situation, not the system itself. I think it hits my three goals rather well, and I think people will find it to be a nice, lighter narrative die-rolling system that moves quickly from the time the roll is announced to the point where the players are done interpreting the results.