RPG Systems


I am up to session 6 of a short campaign using Mutant:Year Zero, a post-apocalyptic RPG from the Free League, a Swedish mob whose games I had never heard of before I stumbled on Mutant. This game is apparently 30 years old – I’m playing the 30 year anniversary edition – and I guess it must have been available only in Swedish for most of its history, because I’d never heard of it or the Free League before. Which is a shame, because Mutant:Year Zero is a brilliant RPG, and the Free League’s work is a really refreshing and much welcome addition to the role-playing world.

Mutant: Year Zero is set in a post-apocalyptic earth, with the players taking the role of mutants, a mysterious group of humans with strange mutations that give them a kind of limited impact super power. The mutants are clustered together in an Ark, a safe haven in a world of decay and destruction, and from the Ark the mutants venture out into the ruined outer world (called the Zone), looking for artifacts left behind by the Ancients, the people who ruled the world before the apocalypse. There are no humans in this world, just mutants and threats. The world is a really decayed and ruined place, so even finding something like an old bicycle or a pistol is a huge achievement, and when the mutants start the game they will have nothing better than a hammer or slingshot made out of old scrap, probably no armour and only their wits to help them survive. From there they build up their own supplies and develop their Ark, while (perhaps) simultaneously learning the secrets of the apocalypse.

Character creation

Character creation is a simple process of spending points to buy ranks in four attributes and 13 skills. You choose a character class from a choice of eight, each of which has a unique skill that only they can use. Character classes are well suited for the environment, including archetypes like Dog Handler (who has an actual dog that can do stuff), slave (who is super tough) and stalker (who finds secrets in the Zone). You also get to choose talents, some of which are unique to your class, and you roll up a single mutation to start with. Mutations are fairly exotic things, ranging from being able to explode with spores that do damage or hide your escape to being able to read minds. Mutations are triggered with mutation points (MPs), with more MPs being spent to get bigger effects. All PCs start with one MP, but it’s dangerously easy to get more. Finally, there are no hit points in this game – you take damage directly on your attributes, which means there are four damage types, and there are mutations and conditions which can do damage to all of them. Attributes range from 1 to 6, skills will be generally no more than 3 at start.

The system

Mutant uses a unique and savage dice pool system which incorporates a huge element of risk into skill checks, along with a vicious death spiral mechanic. You roll a dice pool composed of two types of dice, attribute and skill dice. All dice are d6s, so you need to make your dice pool with two colours of dice – in the set that comes with the game you use yellow for attributes and green for skills. Any 6 is a success, and if you roll a 1 on your attribute dice that can become damage. Once you roll the dice you can make the decision to either take the result you rolled, or push the roll. Pushing means that you can reroll any dice that show no 1s or 6s. This means you can get a success even if you failed on the first roll. However, once you push the roll any 1s do damage on the attribute associated with your skill. When you push the roll you also get MPs equal to the number of 1s you rolled, so there is a benefit to taking the damage. This means though that every skill check can potentially kill you (if it is tested using strength), knock you out from fatigue (for agility) or render you useless with confusion or doubt. It also means that you become worse and worse at everything the more you make skill checks. Worse still, the GM is advised that failure should always come with a cost, so if someone rolls a dice pool and gets no successes the temptation to push it is really high – and there is great pleasure for GMs in punishing PCs who fail. The dice pool mechanic is further enhanced by adding gear dice, black dice representing the benefit of using equipment. These can get you more successes but any 1s rolled on these dice will damage your gear if you push the roll, so pushing your roll when using your favourite artifact will eventually break it unless you can get a gearhead to repair it (also a roll with a push/fail risk!)

Damage taken to attributes can be recovered with four hours of rest and consumption of a specific resource, or connection with friends (some relationships are established inside the party to help with this), but early on in the campaign the resources required are quite expensive and rare, which makes resting a costly business. The whole thing is finely balanced – at least early on – to ensure that the players are constantly on the edge of their seats, and always eagerly scrounging more stuff, but most of all always considering the risk of their next action. The game is heavily loaded with risk and decay, which makes it a really good mechanic for a living-on-the-edge post-apocalyptic setting.

Combat

Combat works pretty much on the lines of the skill system. You need at least one success to hit someone, though your opponent can defend and if they get more successes than you they can damage you. Damage is usually just 1 or 2 points per weapon, straight onto your strength attribute, with armour as a (pretty ineffectual) soak. Extra successes on your attack can be used to do extra damage or other effects like disarming your opponent, knocking them down, gaining initiative, etc. However to get extra successes will likely require that you push your attack roll – which means you damage your own strength, so one pushed roll and one hit and you can be out of combat. If your strength drops to 0 you take a critical hit, which can be fatal but most likely means you have penalties until you heal. But this combination of pushing rolls and taking damage against an attribute that can have a maximum value of 6 means that combat is absolutely lethal. Most fights only last 1 or 2 rounds and end with the entire party badly damaged, either from injuries or from pushing their rolls. I think someone has been reduced to 0 and taken a critical hit in every session so far, and there have been several fights where the PCs have been super close to TPK – in one fight a PC unleashed a huge wave of mutation powers to kill an opponent out of desperation, but their mutant powers backfired and killed them too. It’s that kind of game.

The speed and lethality of combat means you can get through a lot of fights in a session, and you can get a lot done. Where other systems might have a dungeon crawl that takes sessions to complete, in Mutant you can do an entire lair in half a session. Combat is fast and deadly and a lot of fun.

The Ark

Another excellent aspect of the game is the development of the Ark. During character creation the players also develop their Ark, describing its structure and main inhabitants and assigning it basic levels in four attributes (Warfare, Technology, Culture and Food) which determine how well the PCs can do things like defend the Ark, understand artifacts they find, obtain food, and read and write. As the PCs adventure they find artifacts, which they can choose to use or to hand over to the Ark to be stored in the Dawn Vault. If handed over, these artifacts add to the Ark’s attributes, slowly improving it. The players can also select projects to improve the Ark – things like a defensive wall or a farm or universal suffrage – which further improve the Ark. As the campaign unfolds the PCs and the Ark develop together, until the Ark goes from a desperate hard-scrabble hideout carved from the corruption to being a real home for the PCs. This mechanic is very simply set up but very effective, and the way the Ark and the PCs interact with each other to support each other’s development and achievements is really great. Seeing your players debating whether to set up a tribunal or a secret police force (or cannibalism!) is really fun.

The campaign arc

The book comes with a campaign idea and some adventures related to it, which you can choose to follow if you like. This involves uncovering the secrets of the apocalypse and the truth about the Ark and the mutants who live in it. It helps to explain a strange point made at the beginning of the book, which is that the mutants who live in the Ark don’t remember how they got there and can’t have children, and look up to a mutant called the Elder who used to offer them guidance in their new world. This means that the Ark is a kind of stand-alone setting, much younger than the apocalypse, so it’s as if the PCs just sprang into being (it’s as if a group of god-like beings just created them from nothing!) The campaign arc answers these questions, and can also tie into an amusing-looking spin-off called Genlab Alpha. However I didn’t really like the campaign arc, so I have dumped it and decided to keep the apocalypse kind of mysterious and go my own way. I’m not sure why I didn’t like it – it seems like it would be perfectly playable and very satisfying (and challenging!) to complete, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with the other tasks like exploring the Zone and building up the Ark, which are where the real fun lies. I guess I just don’t like being told what to do, or maybe I had my own vision of the apocalypse that I wasn’t willing to compromise on. However, if you don’t use the campaign arc you’ll probably find yourself running – as I have – into trouble explaining who the PCs are and why they’re there.

Good points

This is an excellent game. My players have all exclaimed multiple times at how much they love the simple, high-risk system, and how exciting the whole thing is. The Ark development is enormously appealing, the character classes really are evocative of a post-apocalyptic game, and the constant resource-scrabbling and the nature of the threats you meet really help you immerse yourself in a post-apocalyptic worldview while you’re playing. The simple, speedy nature of the rules means we almost never argue over rules – there’s the odd aside along the lines of “isn’t it weird that they decided this” but nothing more, really – and the entire system can be memorized, pretty much, because it’s all so simple. It’s a very big difference from the other system we’re playing at the moment, Shadowrun, where we often get bogged down in complex debates about stupidly complicated rules. There also aren’t many ambiguities, so you can play through almost without checking the book, unless you need to remember something numeric (this usually only happens in the Ark development phase). Somehow this game has managed to incorporate some fairly robust resource management, stronghold development, character development and high pace adventuring within a very simple, very easily learnt package. I really cannot sing its praises enough!

Some bad points

Besides the limiting nature of the mutant definition and the campaign arc, the main flaw with this game is the simplicity of the rules themselves, which sometimes lend it a bubblegum, comic, not-so-serious feeling that is both slightly out of whack with the context, and also an inducement not to take the game too seriously. We’re having fun with this at the moment but it limits the appeal of the system for other worlds, and I think it could also undermine it over a very long campaign. The game isn’t ultimately suited to a long campaign unless you really exploit some of its less-explored details (like relationships between PCs), because the simplicity of the rules means that there is not much sense of character development, and nothing gets bigger or more complex as you go on – your mutant powers don’t grow, and really all that happens is you get a new skill point or a largely not that great new talent. In a more rich and detailed system there would be new powers or better hit points or something, but you don’t get that here. So I think it might become a bit sterile over a long campaign. However, we’re 6 sessions in and still loving it.

Other Free League products

I’m kind of amazed that this game came out 30 years ago, since it feels much more like an early-noughties indie game than a game developed when the industry was new and still at its height. I’m also very impressed by the quality of the work – the artwork and writing are top notch, it’s well laid out and organized, the order of presenting information – the way of thinking – very logical and clear, and everything very nicely packaged. I subsequently bought another game by the same company, Coriolis, which is like a more mature version of the system set in space, and it is really a stunningly beautiful book with what looks like a very rich and playable system. I’ve also jumped into a kickstarter for a fantasy version of the system, called Forbidden Lands, which looks even more beautiful. I have wanted to play high fantasy for a long time but I simply can’t find a system I like, and I think it’s possible that a mature and richer version of Mutant: Year Zero could do the job. With the benefit of being well written, beautifully packaged, and well structured by an experienced and excellent game development company – how did I miss them for so long?

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During a moment of sudden frenzied violence in yesterday’s Shadowrun adventure our wizard character Adam Lee deployed an indirect mana attack spell for a grand total of only 2 or 3 points of damage. Immediately afterward our opponent – a russian Shadowrunner mage – dropped an indirect attack spell on me that something like 8 points of physical damage even though I have a monumental full defense dice pool, decent armour and good body. This prompted me to declare that “Direct spells are shit!” Today I thought I’d check this statistically, and see if I can identify some guidelines for using direct and indirect attack spells. There seems to be a general consensus that direct spells are better against people with heavy armour and high body, and reliably deliver damage while indirect spells have bigger upper limits. Is this true?

This post assumes the reader knows the Shadowrun 5e rules.

The difference between direct and indirect spells

Direct spells use the force of the spell as a limit on the spellcasting check, and target either body or willpower only. So for example our wizard Adam Lee, with a 14 dice spellcasting pool, will be making a challenged check against the body or willpower of the opponent, which will typically be 4-6. In contrast, indirect spells use the spellcasting skill with the same limit against the opponents defense (Intution+Reaction, no limit). Any net hits then do damage as a weapon with damage Force and AP -Force. So it appears that if you can get through the defense you can do a lot of damage, but high dodge opponents will be a challenge for this spell.

In practice it looks something like this: with a direct spell Adam can expect an average of about 5 hits, while the target can expect 1-3, so Adam can expect to fairly comfortably deliver 2-4 damage at a low risk of drain. With an indirect spell Adam will also get 5 hits, but the opponent will be likely to get 3-5 hits so perhaps half the time Adam won’t hit, and when he does hit he will get 1 net hit. But that net hit is added to the force of the spell, so e.g. with a Force 6 spell he might do 7 damage that is then challenged by the opponents soak with AP-6. If the opponent has body +armour of 17, this means the opponent rolls 11 dice, gets about 4 hits, ends up taking about 3 damage – so it seems like it levels out in these kinds of scenarios, but that the direct spell is more reliable. Is this correct?

Comparing effectiveness using average hits

I ran a brief comparison of the average damage to be expected from Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spell using a basic excel spreadsheet. Here I calculated the average hits for each spell, the average defense, calculating damage for the indirect spell only if the average spellcasting hits were bigger than the average defense hits, and then using average hits from the soak check to further reduce damage. I did this for a target with defense pool 10 and with body values of 3, 5 or 8. I ran the analysis for spells of force 3 to 8.  For each level of force I calculated the minimum armour value at which the direct spell did more damage on average than the indirect spell. This is the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell. For example at Force 4 the direct spell is better against anyone with armour higher than 7, largely because the net hits from the indirect spell attack are so low (due to the Force-based limit) that it can’t do much damage.

My first interesting discovery was that this armour threshold is independent of the target’s Body – it is approximately the same for all three simulated Body values of 3, 5 or 8. This surprised me, because I thought the direct spell would really lose out against higher body, but ultimately this doesn’t matter. I also found that as Force increases, the armour threshold for a direct spell to be better than an indirect spell really skyrockets. Figure 1 shows this for a target with Body 5 and defense pool 10 (it is approximately equivalent for other Body values), and you can see that for a Force 8 spell the target needs to have armour of 23 or more in order for the direct spell to be better than the indirect spell. This is because a force 8 spell has 8 acc, 8 damage, and AP8 – it shreds through anything except the scariest armour, and in fact this spell is basically as good as the best sniper rifle in the game.

Armour threshold for effective direct spells by spell Force

So my first finding is that while in theory direct spells might be useful against heavily armoured foes, they typically are only better than indirect spells at very high levels of armour, and if you’re playing a mage capable of spells of force 6 or higher you are unlikely to be meeting the kind of armoured foes against whom you need to deploy your direct spells.

When is an indirect or direct spell better than a gun?

Next I conducted a few rough calculations to see when either of these kinds of spell is better than a good old fashioned lead injection. For this I posited a street samurai with a 14 dice pool to hit using a Colt America L36, which is Acc 7, dam 7P, AP1. Can’t go wrong with those stats! I compared it to Adam Lee’s direct and indirect spells against a couple of targets: one with defense pool 7, and total soak of 12 or 20; and one with defense pool 12,  and total soak of 12 or 20. I found that in all cases the indirect spell was better than the gun at Force 6. This was independent of the total soak or defense pool. In some cases the direct spell was simply never better than a gun, but interestingly for the higher defense pool against the higher soak, even a Force 4 direct spell was better than a gun.

The reason for this is that as the Force of an indirect spell increases its damage increases even more. Assuming you can hit on average, even the thinnest margin leads to increasing damage with increasing force, and the damage increases by more than the force. For example, against someone with defense pool 10 and soak 12, the average damage of the indirect spell ranges from 0 at force 3 (it doesn’t hit) up to 8 at force 8. At higher force values, damage increases by 1.3 – 1.5 for every unit increase in force. This is because the increased force simultaneously increases damage and decreases armour, so even when the force-based limit is well beyond what your mage can expect to roll on average (e.g. Adam Lee expects about 4-5 hits on average, so any spell of force 5+ applies a higher limit), you still see your damage increase.

This means that in general, as you increase the force on your indirect spell to make it do more damage, you also raise the threshold above which a direct spell of the same Force would be any use. And you make your spell increasingly better than a gun. And it appears that Force 6 is the sweet spot beyond which a readily-available and relatively dangerous gun is no longer better than a spell for a relatively beginnerish mage.

Direct spells as one-shot killers

There is a way to make a direct spell a one-shot killer, though: cast it at low force and Edge it. Remember, Edge adds 3 to your dice pool, sixes roll again, and you get to ignore limits. This means that a Force 4 direct spell has no upper limits, but is defended against by a very small dice pool. Adam Lee, Edging the spell, will likely get 10-11 hits, with no upper limit on how many he can get, but the target having to roll just 3-6 dice to defend. Chances are this will do 7-9 damage, which brings a single target perilously close to death. A similar indirect spell is much less likely to achieve this, because the defensive dice pool is larger and has no limit.

This strategy is especially effective against targets with very high dodge, because it ignores dodge, and it’s particularly effective for GMs to deploy against PCs since the NPCs don’t need to save up their Edge for later. If the opponent is protected by a mage they may get some counterspelling, and they can Edge the defense, but even then it is likely that by pooling all of that together they will still have a smaller dice pool than the attacker. If there is no mage in the party then even Edge is going to be of little use, and the spell is going to cause a lot of trouble. This is especially true for those mages who have both a stun and a physical damage direct spell in their arsenal, since they can choose the spell to match the target – a troll street samurai deploying Edge will likely still only get 6 dice to defend a stun attack. Note that Edging an indirect spell to make into a killer is less effective, since the real power of indirect spells lies in their high damage rating and armour piercing, so they are at their most effective when cast at the kind of Force ratings that do not put crippling limits on the caster’s success.

A final note on the effectiveness of attack spells in Shadowrun

Above I found that a 14 dice attacker with magic is only more effective than a 14 dice attacker with a basic pistol at Force 6. This is a big problem for magic, because Force 6 will cause physical damage on the caster unless they have a very high magic attribute, and for an indirect attack spell to be significantly better than a gun it will need to be Force 8 or 10, at which point any human mage will be risking very large amounts of physical damage that cannot be healed. I think this under powers magic a little relative to the other fighters in the game, unless the PC is somehow carefully balanced to make sure that it can be super good at resisting drain and casting spells, probably also with a high Body. One way to get around this could be to relax the limits on Magic attributes, allowing them to become 7 or 8 in basic characters, which means that a combat mage who really focuses on that aspect of their character could be able to sling around Force 7 or 8 spells without suffering physical damage. Another option could be to drop the rule that drain can become physical when the Force exceeds the Magic attribute – it means that Force 8 spells are still high risk but not fatal. This is particularly important because Force acts as a limit on spellcasting rolls, and if you can only cast Force 5 or 6 spells you are suffering a significant reduction in maximum attack capability compared to say a street samurai (7 with a katana) or a sniper (8 with some rifles). I think in general the rules on limits may be a problem for high level characters – when you have a limit of 8 on the number of hits you can roll, but your opponent has 30 dice in dodge and no limit, you’re simply never going to hit, and fights are going to become very long and boring as people trade blows that never hit or only barely hit and do little damage. I think a quality that allows you to increase accuracy, or some other property for higher level characters, might be useful. At the moment wizards have the ability to exceed all limits by casting high Force spells but in reality they never will – a Force 10 spell will carry a large risk of serious injury for a wizard. I think it would be more exciting and make wizards more dangerous if they did not face this extreme risk. Remember that wizards have low initiative and weak armour (in general), and everyone aims to gank them, so it would be nice if they could be more able to take these risks in the one round of combat where they’re still alive.

Another possibility is that mages just aren’t that powerful in Shadowrun, and that it is better to play a mage who is good at a single material thing (e.g. shooting a pistol) and give him or her moderate background magic for support – healing, armour, that sort of thing. But even then, a PC who can get a maximum of +3 to your armour for a short time is not an especially great contribution to the party, especially if their shooting is good but not top notch. I think a few things here need to be tweaked to make mages more dangerous at the extremes of their range.

 

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Art after the fall

I have just begun GMing a short post-apocalyptic campaign using the Mutant: Year Zero system. Before adventure begins the system requires the PCs – who play mutants – generate their safe haven, which is called the Ark. This is a brief description of the Ark from which the PCs will begin their adventure.

Zone location

The near zone

The Ark is in the middle of a giant collapsed city, which is bisected by a winding river that was no doubt once a beautiful sight, but which has turned into a deadly, torpid sewer. The Ark is north of the river, a few kilometres away from a pair of towers that face each other menacingly across the width of the river. Stories and legends warn the PCs not to cross the river, or even to go close to it – but for now these stories are irrelevant, since as much as possible the PCs avoid even venturing too far from their Ark, let alone to the far side of that stinking ditch.

The Ark

The Ark is an old football stadium, its bleachers still largely intact and its entryways roughly boarded up and barricaded against the dangers of the Zone. Sometime during the collapse a blimp crashed into the stadium, and the ripped and torn fabric of the blimp has since been stretched out and converted into a partial roof over the stadium, stretching over the fantastic arcing sculptures that formed the original design of the stadium roof to turn the whole structure into a kind of giant tent. The People live in evacuation tents and simple makeshift shacks around the edge of the pitch, with the pitch itself devoted to a few patches of poor quality farmland to grow potatoes and pumpkins. Some people also live in tents and improvised structures on the bleachers, the lower parts of which have been torn up and long since used for firewood or building material. The tunnels and walkways under the bleachers where fans once congregated in between games have been converted into storage spaces for scavenged food and weapons, extra living space, and mushroom farms. Near the entrances they have been hastily barricaded in hopes of slowing down attackers who breach the entryways. The bosses have also carved out their domains in these dark spaces, usually in corporate boxes overlooking the pitch, connected to bars with windows looking out on the blighted zone. They and their closest sycophants live here, lording it over the People however they can.

In the center of the pitch is the old gondola of the fallen blimp, which rests now under the central arches of the stadium. This gondola is the residence of the Elder, who grows sick and weary of this world and rarely ventures out. A straight path leads from the entrance to the gondola across the pitch to the tunnel by which the Home Team used to enter the grounds. If one follows that tunnel to the changing rooms of the Home Team one will find the area has been sealed off and turned into the Dawn Vault, where relics of the Ancients are stored and the Chroniclers live their careful secluded lives.

The Bosses

There are several gangs in the Ark, but it has not yet descended to the anarchic state in which all people must pick sides and pick up axes, so there are also many independent individuals, and the bosses, though they jockey for power, have not yet fully stamped their authority on all the People. Nonetheless, some bosses are becoming increasingly active in jockeying for power, and some actively speak against the Elder. Some key bosses are:

  • Pieces, a bureaucrat who has repeatedly foiled the plans of the other bosses, either in defense of the Elder or in the furtherance of her own convoluted interests. No one trusts Pieces, and often she is infuriating, but she also has a unique power to sequester resources, and some say she alone still holds influence over the Elder as he slides into senescence.
  • Jared, the hated kingpin who rules his minions with viciousness and spite. Nobody wants to deal with Jared, but some number of the People recognize his leadership style may triumph, because he is willing to cross any boundary, and trash any tradition, in the pursuit of power
  • Bloody Jack, the revolutionary, a PC, who alone thinks of the future, and preaches visions beyond the hard scrabble of daily survival. Bloody Jack commands only a small faction, but she is also more willing than other bosses to take risks outside the Ark, and may yet be able to unite the independent forces amongst the People in pursuit of a new vision. The other bosses watch her, and act against her schemes where they can.

The bosses in the Ark have set up their lairs in the old bars and rooms in the levels under the bleachers of the stadium, laying down barriers to block hallways and building throne rooms in old abandoned changing rooms. They gain power by asserting control over a section of the higher bleachers, and grabbing the pure water that flows there. As the Elder weakens and food supplies run low, the power of the bosses grows, as does their conflict, and the independent members amongst the People begin to think about which boss to side with when the food runs out.

Population

The Ark has a population of 174 people at the beginning of the campaign.

Water Source

The Ark’s water source is the Tarp itself, the covering of battered blimp-cloth that drapes over the roof of the stadium. Every morning mist condenses on this tarp and runs down to drip into the high bleachers, and when rain falls it drains across this tarp and onto the bleachers. Here the People have set up a complex system of buckets and plastic containers to catch the water, which they run down to large vats held under the bleachers on the higher levels. Some bosses have sectioned off parts of the bleachers for their own use, giving them control of pure water, but other areas are free for anyone to grab water to trade for bullets and grub. No one has developed a perfect method for catching this water, and some runs down the bleachers onto the grounds itself, where it is captured and used to grow food in the scrappy allotments around the central Gondola of the Elders. The bosses hoard water and watch those farms greedily, knowing that one day they will need help, perhaps in a dry spell, or after a heat wave, and the boss who cuts the best bargain will gain control of the Ark’s only renewable food supply. Other bosses – and some independent folk too – run missions into the area around the Ark looking for food from the Old Times, but this food is growing rare, and as the easily accessible remains of the ruins dry up everyone in the Ark begins to worry about where their next meal will come from and what they will have to pay to get it.

But at least they have fresh, rot-free water.

Development levels

At the start of the campaign the Ark is in a state of crisis, forgetting its past, with no hope for the future and little food. Only its defenses are in any kind of reasonable state, and even those need work. Its development levels are:

  • Food 2
  • Culture 2
  • Technology 2
  • Warfare 6

The ability to barricade the entrances to the stadium and the open area around it make it a highly defensible Ark, but the barricades are makeshift and in reality there are not enough People to guard all the doorways. The Ark needs brave souls to venture further afield, scout out the threats it might face, and bring back weapons, food and new tools. If someone does not act soon, the People will descend to barbarism and worse. The crisis will soon be upon the Ark, and the People cry out for help.

Help the Bosses do not give. What are the People to do?

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Thongor say smash!

Thongor say smash!

Late last year I ran a one-off session of Barbarians of Lemuria, a simple and stripped down sword and sorcery RPG. The session report for that adventure is here.

Barbarians of Lemuria is intended to provide rules for sword and sorcery adventuring in the style of Conan, the Lankhmar series, and Thongor, in a light and easy to play style. The game comes with its own setting, the mythical land of Lemuria, which has a long tradition in fantasy writing and film and is also the name of a great southern continent that the Victorians imagined existed somewhere in the southern hemisphere. This land is mentioned in the Strange Tales fantasy magazine and is the setting for the books about the barbarian Thongor by Lin Carter. Barbarians of Lemuria expands on these vague historical and literary references with a map and setting information, so that in addition to rules for a quick and simple sword and sorcery RPG it comes with background information on a classic setting sufficient for running a whole sword and sorcery campaign.

The game is definitely light on rules and written for brevity and ease of use. In just 211 pages it manages to encompass all the usual RPG rules plus wargaming rules, setting, monsters, a brace of sample adventures, a random adventure generator, summary tables and character sheets. All the rules for task resolution and combat are squashed into 8 pages and are perfectly sufficient to cover most scenarios you need them for. Sample adventures are typically 2-3 pages including maps and background, and are really only rough sketches for a wide array of free form approaches to the general ideas laid out in them. Wherever possible the game attempts to capture the seat-of-the-pants risk taking approach to adventure from the sword and sorcery setting through loose rules and quick and dirty approaches to problems. For example, in the section on equipment they write:

… there are no rules for encumbrance. Heroes can go around with what they can carry. They live for the day. You never know what you will need on an adventure and you can’t take everything, so why bother? Use your hero points instead. That’s what they are for. If you want backpacks full of adventuring gear, a weapon for every occasion, three spare suits of armour and a pack animal to carry it around on, then play another game. If all you want is a breechclout and a sturdy blade, play on!

I think that might be the best encumbrance rules I have ever read, and it gives a good summary of how normally picky technical details like armour, healing and so on are handled in this game. It’s a game to unleash your barbarian on the world, not to fiddle with spreadsheets.

The rules are very straightforward. Your PC has four attributes and four combat attributes plus four careers, all of which are ranked from 0 – 3 at the start. Skills are resolved with 2d6+attribute+career vs. a target number of 9 with simple difficulty modifiers; combat is the same with combat attributes in place of careers. Careers are things like slave, noble, barbarian, hunter, priest etc. and offer a bonus equal to the rank of the career in attempts to perform activities that can plausibly be related to the careers. PCs also start with a boon and if they want flaws and more boons; these give a bonus or penalty die on the 2d6 roll (like advantages/disadvantages in D&D5e), and Hero Points that have a versatile range of possible uses to make your character more effective. Some of the boons are classic sword and sorcery – for example Battle Harness turns your loin cloth or chainmail bikini into medium armour without the combat penalties of medium armour, while Missing Limb is exactly that, and comes with the rule “the game master will penalize you where appropriate.” In combat weapons do d6 damage, sometimes with a penalty or bonus die, and armour absorbs a bit of that.

Those are the whole rules – now you don’t really need to buy the book. Unless you want to enjoy the full richness of the boons and flaws and the deeply entertaining magic system, which really makes this game stand out. Magic is divided into four levels: cantrips and level 1-3 spells. Wizards have about 10-14 arcane power to spend, and spells come at increasing cost, ranging from 1-2 points for cantrips up to about 15 for level 3 spells. Wizards can reduce the cost of spells by meeting requirements, such as visible technique or taking a wound. These requirements grow in seriousness as the level of the spell increases, until at level 2 they encompass things like human sacrifice and serious injury. Level 3 spells (which can include making mental slaves and causing earthquakes) require a permanent point of arcane power to be lost. The spells themselves aren’t described – they’re up to the players and GM to negotiate – but examples are given to help with deciding the appropriate level of the spell. Also different levels of spell recuperate lost power at different rates – cantrips twice a day, level 1 spells at midnight, and level 2-3 spells just once a lunar cycle. This means that a wizard can start the game with a stupendous amount of power, but can’t use it often across a campaign. In my adventure our wizard used a couple of cantrips, one level 1 spell, recovered some of those points at midnight, then burnt all remaining points on a single level 2 spell. This means that having started the adventure with 14 points of arcane power he finished it with 0 points, and would only regain 8 of them within a day – another four would take up to a month to come back, and the remaining two up to two months. He also finished the adventure with the name of a demon tatooed on his chest and arm, seriously wounded and guilty of human sacrifice – all to power a great spell that failed.

There are also similarly simple but flexible rules for alchemists (who build things) and priests (who get divine favour). It’s perfectly possible to play these classes together too, so you can be a priest of some dark god, conjure evil magics, and build fire oil all at the same time. Monster rules are simple enough that four or six monsters can be fit into a two-page spread, including pictures and descriptions, and they are super easy to grasp. This makes the game really easy to pick up and run with in a short period of time – we started at 1pm, created characters from scratch and got through the entire adventure by 5:30 pm or so, going at a leisurely pace with lots of description and fluff.

This light-hearted and concise approach to rules really forces GM improvisation and encourages players and GM alike to plunge into the heroic, fast-and-loose style of sword and sorcery adventures. With very little time devoted to calculation, dice rolling and rules-faffing (even when new to the game) there is a lot of time and space for players to describe and improvise their PCs actions, and lots of time also for them to make heroic failures, make mistakes and retry things or go on different routes through the adventure. It really is a very good rule set for sword and sorcery, and a really good example of a game in which the rules, the writing style, the graphics and the setting all work together very well. This makes it a completely useless game if you want to pick it up and use the rules for anything else – you’d need to do some significant work to make a different setting feel right – and definitely not a game for people who like lots of crunch and detail in their gaming. But if you simply want to get rolling on an adventure with a barbarian, a druid and a beastmaster, then this is the game for you. It’s a refreshing, exciting contribution to the RPG world and a great sword and sorcery game, and I definitely recommend testing out if you want to play a swashbuckling barbarian campaign in a classic setting.

6HPs each, or 7?

6HPs each, or 7?

My Spiral Confederacy campaign is heading towards its conclusion, which means bigger battles and more annoying enemies, which (just as happened in Cyberpunk) inevitably requires rules for handling minions. Combat in Traveler tends to be quick and brutal but it also involves a lot of tricky management of attributes and penalties as the damage grinds through Endurance, Agility and Strength. We don’t want to have to go through this when we’re fighting large gangs of minions, and we don’t want to have to consider all their possible different skills, so we need a set of rules for handling multiple enemies. For Traveler we will call them Grunts.

Basic grunt attributes: Level and squad size

Grunts are defined entirely in terms of their squad size and level. Level determines their basic armour, attack bonus, and HPs, and squad size determines how lethal they are given their level. I envisage levels ranging from 1 to 4, with 1 being your basic gang member and 4 being a Confederate elite space marine. For each level I imagine a gang of three should be roughly equal in lethality and difficulty to kill as a single boss-level opponent of a roughly equivalent degree of nastiness. An average human has physical attributes of 7, which means that you basically need to deliver 14 points worth of damage (on top of armour) to knock them out (reduce two attributes to 0). So we should say that a squad of three level 2 grunt require about this much damage to eliminate. This means that each grunt at level 2 should have 5 hit points, and the size of the squad is reduced by one for each 5 full points of damage delivered. Grunt squads can then be tracked in sets of hit points separated by slashes. So a level 2 grunt squad with four members would have its HPs written like this: 5/5/5/5. Grunts are degraded from the right, with squad size dropping by 1 for each 5 hps of damage done.

Grunt hit points are thus set at 3+level.

The grunt squad will have a total attack bonus equal to its level plus the number of members. Remember in Traveler the amount you exceed a roll by is extra damage, which will make large squads very dangerous. For a squad of four level 4 space marines attacking with a basic bonus of +4, you can expect them to add 8 to their rolls and get very large effects every time they attack someone. This is to be expected, since you’re being shot at by four highly skilled soldiers at once. Better thin out that herd early!

The grunt squad’s armour is determined by its level, ranging from 3 (flak) at level 1; to 8 (cloth) at level 2; 10 (vacc suit) at level 3; to 13 (combat armour) at level 4. Since you need to exceed the armour to deliver damage, you’re going to need a very high powered weapon to chew through a large squad of space marines.

Grunt damage is 3d6 for level 1 and 2 grunts, 4d6 for level 3, and 5d6 for level 4.

For other skill or resistance checks, the squad uses its level with extra benefit for squad size only where the GM sees it fit (for example, resisting an area level psionic attack would get no benefit, but breaking down a door would).

This means that an entire grunt squad can be expressed in terms of its level, squad size, hit point block, and armour. So for example

Space Marines (Level 3; squad size 3; 6/6/6; armour 10; damage 4d6).

This squad would attack at +6 at the start of combat, and would require 7 points of damage to be reduced in size by one. Attacking at +6 it is highly likely to have a large effect, and will probably kill the first person it shoots. Best to get a grenade amongst this squad real fast.

Autofire, grenades and grunts

The autofire rules work slightly differently for grunts than for normal enemies, and are slightly more effective. The special considerations for each of the autofire modes are listed below.

  • Burst: If a PC attacks a grunt squad with a single fire weapon they can only kill a maximum of one grunt. If they use the burst setting of an auto weapon they can kill a number of grunts equal to the ROF of the weapon
  • Autofire: The damage of all successful attacks is applied simultaneously to a number of grunts equal to the ROF of the weapon. For example, a weapon with ROF 3 on autofire mode that successfully hits twice will roll the damage twice, and apply this damage to the same 3 grunts simultaneously. Thus the weapon may be able to kill all three grunts if it does enough damage over the two shots.
  • Blast: Weapons with the Blast property apply their damage to all grunts within range (and thus may kill all of them)
  • Shotguns: Shotguns are considered to have the blast effect when applied to a group of minions, though the grunt’s armour value is still doubled

Because grunts in large numbers are very dangerous, PCs will want to go full Leroy Jenkins on them early in the battle.

For simplicity, grunts are assumed not to have the auto X property, since this requires tracking ammunition. The GM may wish to add this property to some groups to make them particularly troublesome, but it is probably better just to give the existing group a higher level.

Leadership and grunts

Grunts can have their actions coordinated and improved by people with leadership. A successful leadership check by a grunt’s designated leader can be used to enhance their attack bonus, damage or armour for the duration of a combat (or until the leader is killed), up to the effect of the roll. This can be spread amongst multiple grunts. This leadership check has a DM equal to the group’s level (since the benefits of higher level grunts include some degree of internal coordination).

For example, Rear Admiral Ahmose, in charge of a squad of four level 2 marines, must make a leadership check against a total difficulty of 10. She rolls 12, getting an effect of 2. She chooses to put 1 point of this onto attack bonus, and one point onto armour. The marines now have a base attack of 3, and armour of 9. This means that in the first round of combat they attack at +7, and to kill the first one will require a minimum damage roll of 15 (to do 6 points of damage above armour).

Tactic skill can also be used by the grunt’s commander. In this case the roll has the same difficulty as leadership, but can boost the next single action by an amount equal to the effect of the roll. Note that the leader needs to forego their own action to make this check.

Psionics and other effects on grunts

It may be possible for a psion or priest to apply an effect that paralyzes or confuses a grunt. In this case the individual grunt should be assumed to be killed outright. If the effect can extend to more than one target, it may be possible to wipe out an entire group. If the effect is a domination or control effect, it should be assumed to affect the target grunt and one additional grunt, who will be effectively neutralized by having to deal with the target grunt. If it affects the whole group, then the GM should switch the grunt squad to the PCs, and put it under their control.

Summary

Grunt level: 1 to 4

Grunt HPS: 3+level

Grunt Armour: 3, 8, 10 or 14 (by level)

Grunt attack bonus: level + squad size

Grunt damage: 3d6 for levels 1-2, 4d6 for level 3, 5d6 for level 4

Leadership roll (DM=level): Distribute effect of roll across attack bonus, damage and armour as desired for one combat

Tactics roll (DM=level, forego action): Bonus on next action equal to effect of the roll

As always, the idea with grunt rules is to make them as quick and easy to use as possible, so try not to add any special effects or abilities to grunts that are not immediately manageable, and scalable with the group size. And don’t ever give grunt squads portable plasma guns.

They all look the same to me

They all look the same to me

I have begun a new campaign with a new group, playing The One Ring. This is Cubicle 7’s Middle Earth role playing game, which seems to have been broadly well-received and is certainly a thoughtful and beautiful work. We’re playing on Wednesday nights for about 3 hours, and so far we’ve only managed to complete character creation, so I can’t say anything about game play, but I can give a brief description of character creation.

Basically in this game you make three choices: your culture (i.e. race); your “calling” which is some kind of aspect of your character determining things like what skills will advance fastest and (from memory) your vulnerability to the shadow; and your background, which is effectively your character class and further refines some aspects of your character. After this you get 10 points to spend on skills (advancing at 1 point per rank, cumulative), weapon skills (2 points per rank, cumulative) or a few other things. Characters have a bunch of traits that determine aspects of how their personality will affect play (e.g. brave, foolhardy etc) and also some special properties that are determined at one of these three stages. Character creation is relatively quick and involves no dice rolling: in fact nothing about it is random at all.

This character creation system has made some interesting decisions that clearly break with standard RPG character creation practice. In particular:

  • All your starting skill and weapon choices are determined by your race. Your skills are fixed and immutable – every elf or woodman starts with the same set of skills – and you have a choice of just two weapon sets, with no variation. You can use those 10 points to modify these but these 10 points are a tiny portion of the total skill allocation. You start with at least one skill at rank 3, for example, which would require almost all the 10 points to acquire. Effectively your starting abilities are entirely determined by your race
  • Your starting attributes are determined by a combination of race and background. Most backgrounds appear to be similar across the races (I didn’t get a chance to look in detail but e.g. Woodmen and Dwarves both get “Slayer” as a choice) but the attributes will be distributed differently for two races with the same background. For example I have 2/4/7 in the three attributes, while a dwarf might get 4/5/4, for example. You get to add “favour to these” but this favour amounts to just 6 points spread over the three attributes, and is only used under specific conditions, so it’s not the main determinant of your attributes
  • The majority of your starting personality traits are determined by your race. There is a list of perhaps 12, and you can choose two from a sub list of 6 that are specified for your race

Because of the combination of calling and background it is possible for two characters of the same race to differ slightly from each other in outlook, wealth and attributes, but they will essentially have exactly the same skills and almost the same attributes at the start of play. It’s not like D&D where you slightly modify the base random distribution of attributes, and skills are entirely class-based; it’s not like warhammer where attributes have a slightly different base and level of randomness and there are some additional talents. Everything is determined by your race.

What a remarkable coincidence! How amazing that a game that attempts to faithfully recreate the world of Lord of the Rings should choose a character creation system in which your race determines everything that we normally accept as mutable about a character. I have said before that Tolkien’s work is heavy with racial determinism and the race-as-destiny theories of the era in which he wrote, and I have received considerable pushback for it. I have previously adduced as evidence of this Tolkien’s attractiveness to fascists. I’ve also said that his work has undue influence on other fantasy writers and casts a shadow of racialism across the whole hobby. Well, what a surprise then to discover that a game attempting to recreate the world puts this aspect of it at the centre. And in case one were inclined to suspect that this is just a coincidence, here is the creator of the game on this issue:

The main reason behind the majority of the design choices in The One Ring is faithfulness to the sources. In Middle-earth, culture is the main defining element in an individual, and by limiting the choices in that regard help us attain a genuine ‘in-world’ perspective

Notice what that blog post adds: culture determines one’s virtues and rewards. And in this comment, “culture” is simply code for race. In attempting to recreate the world faithfully, anyone who delves into it immediately notices that they need to privilege race over all other aspects of background as a determinant of not just physical attributes but also psychological and moral attributes.

I have skimmed a few reviews of this game and the completely non-random aspect of character creation doesn’t seem to come out as a big issue for anyone. I have a suspicion that if someone tried such a tactic in any other setting their game would be viewed the worse for it, but in this case the game gets a pass. These reviews have generally also talked about how this game really is an immersive Tolkien experience, to the extent that they can’t imagine the system being used for anything else. I can’t give my opinion on that yet, since we haven’t started playing, but it certainly looks like there are many aspects beyond the character creation that imbue the game with a strong Tolkienesque flavour – the special rules for travel and fellowship and the Hope/Shadow mechanic, for example. I’m not sure if I’m going to like the system, but it looks intriguing and possibly very very good (the reviews suggest that people who play it really like it). I’ll review that when I have had a chance to test it.

I guess it’s not obvious from my critical review of Tolkien’s work but I am a real sucker for his world – I love it and have gamed in it extensively using MERP. I think The One Ring could be a vast improvement on MERP and offer exactly the right flavour of gaming that I have been looking for in Tolkien’s rich, detailed and beautiful world. But I go into that world with a clear understanding of what it is – a scientific racist, authoritarian conservative fantasy of a dead past that we can all hope will never come back to life. This game is another example of just how powerful the racial underpinnings of the world are, and how hard it is to genuinely appreciate the world without accepting that aspect of its creation. And I present this game as further evidence of my claim that whether anyone wants to admit it or not, no one can conceive of Tolkien’s world without accepting the deterministic and moralistic nature of his racial heirarchy.

While we enjoy this world and all its descendants, we should also remember that fantasy needs to be about so much more than this, and that while its creative, lyrical and mythical influences on fantasy have been huge and beneficial, the overarching influence of its scientific racism and conservatism have not done this genre – or our gaming world – any favours.

It's just how I roll...

It’s just how I roll…

My gaming group has begun a short Vampire:The Masquerade mini campaign, which I haven’t yet joined, but I happen to think that the World of Darkness system is quite terrible. At the same time we’ve all been yearning for some classic fantasy, and the manifold shortcomings of Traveler’s system have become obvious, even though I think it could be quite good with some tweaks and have suggested it as an alternative structure for Warhammer 2. This has led to some debate about which dice systems and basic mechanics are best – not which systems, because systems load a whole bunch of other non-dicey stuff on top of what they do, but just which basic mechanics. Most of my group are very fond of the World of Darkness (WoD) basic mechanic, but in my opinion it is terribly flawed to start with, and handled very badly by the designers. During this debate some alternatives such as the Warhammer 2 system or d20 system were discussed and generally dismissed as terrible. At the same time I downloaded a cute Steampunk game called Mechanika which uses FUDGE dice, the core mechanic of the Fate system. Some of my group have previously shown an interest in the Fate system, and one of them recommended Mindjammer as a basis for the Spiral Confederacy campaign, so I thought they might be interested in that system as an alternative for use in a classic fantasy setting. However, when I googled FUDGE dice I was taken to the Wikipedia page, which includes the probability distribution for the dice. This distribution has its most likely value at 0 and ranges from -4 to 4, which means that if you add 6 to all the numbers, the FUDGE dice are almost exactly the same probability distribution as 2d5 (check yourself if you don’t believe me!)

This debate made me realize that there are essentially only three key canonical dice structures that almost all RPGs follow, and aside from some extra weird systems, they basically only follow these three possible structures. I will describe each of these here and outline why I think most systems can be reduced to them.

Uniform distributions

These are the classics of d20/Pathfinder, Cyberpunk and Rolemaster. The primary difference between the mechanics of individual systems is how they assign difficulty – by a simple flat mechanic like d20, with a variety of arbitrary subsystems like Cyberpunk, or with some godawful sprawling complex of tables like Rolemaster. With these systems the main determinant of how much fun they are is the relative magnitude of the range of random values to the modifiers, and all the other things attached to the system. So for example d20 has a very wide random range that allows for a lot of nuance of ability differences between characters, and lots of nuance in defensive and attacking differences too; while Cyberpunk has only half as much random range, and the modifiers are generally much larger, so that success or failure become baked into your character design rather than having much to do with the dice. These systems are old classics and for good reason: they’re easy to understand and very simple to use.

Some of these systems, like Talislanta and Cyberpunk, allow the defender of a skill check to set the difficulty randomly. For example in Cyberpunk melee combat the difficulty to hit someone is d10 plus their escape/dodge. This means that the difficulty target can be random in some cases, but on average it still means that the difficulty will be 5+escape/dodge (in this case) on average. If you did this in d20, for example, the difficulty of hitting someone on average would be 10+AC, even if they rolled a d20 +AC every time. This process of rolling for difficulty like this is not a waste of time, however – it actually causes the random distribution of the sample to become approximately equivalent to rolling the sum of the two dice being used. To see this, consider the example of a Pathfinder attack in its most basic form, where we allow the defender to roll d20 to set the difficulty of the attack. Then denote the attacker’s dice roll result by A, and the defenders by D. We have A+attack bonus vs. D+AC, where the attacker wins if A+attack>=D+AC. This is equivalent to A-D+attack-AC>=0. But the distribution of the difference of two uniform distributions is a triangular distribution across their range, centred at the middle of all the possible values of the difference (see this pdf for the case of a uniform distribution on the interval [0,1]). In the case of A-D described here, the peak would be at 0 with values from -19 to 19, and it would look very much like a normal distribution. So in fact, if you allow both attacker and defender to roll their attack and the target difficulty, your system will converge in those cases to the second kind of canonical dice system, the additive dice pool.

Additive dice pools

The classic additive dice pool system is Traveler, which uses 2d6 +skill+attribute vs. a target difficulty of 8. The alternative Cyberpunk system uses 3d6, so is effectively the same. I think there are a few other systems like Numenera that also use summed dice, and I ran a whole campaign using 2d10 instead of 1d20 for dice mechanics on a d20 system base, so that campaign would have been in this class too. As discussed above, the FUDGE dice effectively produce the same distribution as 2d5. These distributions all have the property of being approximately symmetric, with the peak probability in the middle of the distribution (typically at the median) and very low probabilities in the tales. From the Central Limit Theorem, the more dice in the pool the more normally distributed it looks, but even with 2d6 or 3d6 you are looking very close to normal. This makes it very easy for the GM to understand probabilities, though not as easy as the uniform distribution because specific values vary, and you know that half the probability lies to the right of a fixed number, and half to the left. In the case of 2d6 there are only 11 unique values so it is easy to memorize a few key numbers: 8+ has a 42% probability, 12 and 2 have 3%, and so on, so working with these dice is easy. This was the basis of my recommendation of 2d6 for Warhammer 2. The only thing that makes these pools less useful than uniform distributions is that you need to add up the dice, which takes a moment longer.

Additive dice pools are also internally consistent if you choose to use opposed dice tests where your opponent rolls the dice pool plus skill/attribute to set difficulty. By the same logic as for uniform distributions, this is equivalent to generating a difference of the two dice pools. If we approximate the dice pools as normally distributed, then we can say that the resulting distribution is the difference of two normal distributions (approximately) – and this is also normally distributed. So in this case the result of the roll becomes effectively another additive dice pool, centred at 0 but wider and more normally distributed than the original.

There is another type of challenged skill check which both uniform and additive dice pools can use. In this case both people roll, and the attack only works if it succeeds against some target number and the defender fails against some target number. I think this sometimes happens in Traveler (though I don’t remember specific cases). If you use this mechanism, you no longer produce an additive dice pool mechanism. Instead, you have produced a special case of the third class of dice structure: counting dice pools.

Counting dice pools

Astute readers will have noticed that I haven’t included Warhammer 2 in the Uniform distribution category of systems, even though it uses percentile dice against a target threshold, and percentile dice are uniform. This is because rolling a percentile dice against a threshold probability is effectively equivalent to rolling a d10 and trying to get a number smaller than the threshold divided by 10 and rounded up. In that case, Warhammer 2 is effectively a game where everyone has a dice pool of one, and their die has a hundred sides, and the difficulty changes according to the attribute used. i.e., it’s effectively a variant of WoD with a single die in the pool. This is also the case if you use the success-conditional challenged skill check for either uniform or additive dice distributions – you’re really just constructing a really complex opposed dice pool. The Warhammer 2 system does this – you need to succeed against your attribute, and then your opponent has to fail their defensive check, in order for your action to work. In this case this is basically equivalent to a 1D vs. 1D WoD dice pool. This is particularly true at first level where most people’s attributes are between 25 and 35, so effectively what you’re doing is, to close approximation, rolling a d10 and trying to get over an 8. It’s WoD! Where everyone has one point in every attribute and no skills for most of the campaign, but once they’ve leveled up a few times maybe they can reduce the target to 7. WoD allows modification of difficulty targets for dice, so basically in essence Warhammer 2 is a game of WoD where every PC is completely useless at everything.

Who wants to play that?

Other dice pool systems are mostly variants on WoD, which is maybe not the original (I think Shadowrun might have been a bit before WoD but can’t be bothered googling). They all effectively use a variant of either dice pool vs. a fixed required number of successes, or dice pool vs. dice pool. I have shown here before that dice pool vs. dice pool opposed checks massively penalize the person who initiates the action vs. the person who defends against it, and I have also described how it is extremely difficult to design a consistent rule for defining target numbers and constructing dice pools based on attributes and skills. The only way appears to be to use (attribute + skill) to set dice pools and then divide (attribute + skill) by some number to set targets, but I have shown that this produces horrendous results in practice. I think the only solution that doesn’t produce these horrendous results is to have a table that relates the attribute+skill to a specific difficulty, and to have very large dice pools.  But… very large dice pools effectively converge to a normal distribution (based on the normal approximation for the binomial distribution), so in effect if you use very large dice pools you’re producing an asymmetric version of an additive dice pool. So Exalted, for example, with its very large dice pools, really is just producing an asymmetric and needlessly complex version of an additive dice pool.

Dice pools will retain their flavour primarily if they are at around 3-12 dice, which is perhaps normal for Shadowrun but probably mostly below the numbers you might expect in WoD. Dice pools of this size are fun to fool around with – they feel hefty but aren’t insanely hard to calculate, and they produce some successes most times. The big disadvantage of dice pools though is that their probability distribution is fiddly and changes with every dice pool, and as a result judging and setting difficulties is extremely hard. WoD provides many examples of this. For example, I recently read a Vampiric mesmerize type power that uses a dice pool equal to some attribute plus some skill, which one might expect to be around 9 in a good campaign for a relatively tough vampire with attribute of 5 and skill of 4. Its difficulty is the target’s willpower, and the magnitude of the effect is determined by the number of successes. So against a person with willpower 3 you will need 4 successes to achieve anything – but getting 4 successes from a dice pool of 9 is difficult. So someone with quite an epic attribute and skill combination will fail to produce an effect against someone with just a slightly above average willpower on most occasions, and will almost never achieve a strong outcome. This means that the dice pool and the difficulty have been poorly fixed. But how would you fix the difficulty in this case? It’s not clear that there is a functioning method for doing so.

Conclusion

I have missed talking about a few systems, such as Warhammer 3 with its insane mixture of dice, Seventh Sea with its complex rules for balancing breadth and width of dice pools (I don’t remember details now) or Double Cross with its insane maximum value and exploding dice system. These don’t fit the standard categories, which makes them fun but also impossible to get used to for most gamers. But for most non-insane systems, they will either be directly or mathematically equivalent to one of the three canonical structures described above. For play I really like to construct and roll large dice pools, but I think I have made it clear by now in this and other posts that dice pool mechanisms are fundamentally broken. I think the only viable, operative and relatively easy system to use is an additive dice pool with two fairly simple dice – so 2d6, 2d8 or 2d10. They’re boring, but they consistently work. The challenge then is to produce a game that properly adjudicates difficulties, has interesting character creation and makes all the other aspects of the game work well. Traveler almost gets the dice mechanic working (almost!) but as my players have repeatedly told me, the rest of the system is boring due to lack of abilities and special crunch. Perhaps the only game that does all these things right, then, is Iron Kingdoms.

And the three games that do everything wrong are Shadowrun, WoD, and Warhammer 2. The classics, my friends, are irreparably broken!

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