Glenn's Junk Chest

An assortment of Glenn's writings, photography, gaming resources, flash movies, and other creative output.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Gaming: Foundations and Fudge Dice

So, in the near future, I'm going to begin posting (and then revising) the Second Edition of my home rules roleplaying system. But before I get started, I thought I'd lay out some of the history and thinking that went into how it's designed, and talk a little bit about the new core mechanic of the system and its impact.

Unofficially, my system is known as Glennworld. It's intended to be useful for conducting a fairly standard fantasy roleplaying game, and has been revised many times over the years. The oldest version dates back to somewhere around 1988. Originally, the game was heavily inspired by Rolemaster, and reactive to the flaws I perceived in AD&D. I saw in Rolemaster an overly-complicated mechanic that had some basically good ideas behind it, and I tried to capture them.

Since then, there have been two (arguably three) versions of D&D released, and the 3.0 and 3.5 editions have made some pretty radical improvements. Indeed, the system was so improved over the D&D I'd played before that for a while, my gaming groups did little else. At this time I'm playing in one D&D game and running another three (off-and-on), so its impact on my gaming life continues. However, after about a year of play, it was starting to become apparent that several of the problems I'd always had with D&D remained in there. They were just wrapped in such a fuzzy layer of fun and polish that it took a while for the pokey bits to start being noticable.

The main thing that I've always perceived as problematic in D&D (any version) is that it's structured so that power level is fairly linear. In other words, a 1st level character is about 1/2 as powerful as a 2nd level character, and about 1/10 as powerful as a 10th level character. It's not that simple of course, but there's no question that in a typical D&D game, power levels start fairly low and skyrocket rapidly. While 3rd edition has solved many problems with D&D, it explicitly doesn't tackle this one, and this always makes a long-running D&D campaign, while fun, seem a little "power-gamey" to me. It's not uncommon for a player character to encounter an NPC, find them too tough to handle, encounter them again a few sessions later, and find them trivially easy to defeat. Theoretically, I suppose, the GM could have every NPC's power skyrocketing along similar lines to the PCS, but this is both mechanically challenging (recordkeeping!) and makes the already somewhat stilted D&D universe even more so. It seems to me that it pretty much needs to be a baseline assumption that most NPC's "levels" change very slowly over the course of years.

While Rolemaster hardly solves this problem, it did allieviate it somewhat in two ways, only one of which was, I think, intentional. Firstly, because they based everything on percentiles, they could afford to be more granular than D&D when it came to assignment of abilities. As a result, they were able to have the system "taper off" more easily as characters hit higher levels. Secondly (and legendarily) it was so difficult to level a character in the system that GMs did it much more rarely, which certainly put the brakes on the skyrocket. (For instance, I recently played in a Rolemaster campaign for about 2 years, and my character succesfully advanced from 1st to 4th level.)

Informed by Champions, (a super-hero roleplaying game) where characters often start out at 250pts and end up at 280pts after months and months of play, I decided that I wanted to combine that sort of point-based character development system with the percentiles-based rolling of Rolemaster.

The results were good. Anyone who's curious can talk to me and I'll provide you with charts, rules, and sample characters from this 10 year period. However, before you rush to do so, know that they didn't offer anything substantially better than what was available elsewhere. In fact, at the end of this period, I had become convinced that the increased complexity approach I'd been adopting was probably a wrong turn, and found myself gravitating toward the extremly simple mechanics of Feng Shui.

It was at this point that 3rd edition D&D came out, to be honest, it was so sweeping, and fixed so many of the problems with the old D&D systems, that my gaming groups played pretty much nothing else for a year and half. Finally, however, it became clear that fixing all the problems that they had fixed had sort of distilled D&D down to its essence, making a very enjoyable system that had a few clear stumbling blocks.

So about a year ago, I began rewriting the Glennworld rules from scratch. Here's the things I'm trying to incorporate.

No Linear Power Progression.
Like Champions, characters start with a certain number of development points, and as they progress, they get more at the rate of 1-3 a session. The GM can accelerate development by handing out more points, or retard it by handing out fewer, but it doesn't have "level increments" where characters get suddenly sharply better. For low-point characters, progression is fairly quick, as a percentage of their total skill points, for high-point characters, it's fairly slow, for the same reason.

Bell Curve on Random Scheme
Just as I don't want characters to advance in a linear way, I don't really want their abilities, as expressed by die-rolls, to do so either. In D&D, a character that picks up a weapon that's +1 better than their old weapon gets a significant boost across the board. If they had a +7 attack with their old weapon, they could get attack rolls ranging from 8-27 (avg. 17.5) on a d20, and can now get a 9-28 (avg. 18.5). Almost no matter what scheme is used to evaulate the success condition of such a mechanic, there were things they could fail before (something requiring an 8 or better) that they now cannot fail. There are also things that they couldn't possibly do before (something requiring a 28 or better) that they now can do about 5% of the time.

D&D attempts to address this problem with the concept of automatic success and failure on "natural" die rolls of 20 and 1, respectively, but I see this as sort of a band-aid over the problem, because what has happened is that all results, best possible, average, and worst possible, have shifted equally. The larger the differential, the more significant the problem, especially when multiple characters are involved, and their plusses are highly divergent. How do you deal with a fighter who has a +18 attack in the same party as a rogue who has a +8 attack? Any opponent that the rogue can realistically (25%) attack will be hit by the fighter more than 75% of the time.

Results for 6dF
Glennworld is addressing this by using fudge dice. These are 6-sided dice with two "+" symbols, two "-" symbols, and two blank faces. When you roll a group of six fudge dice, you add up the plusses, subtract the minuses, and you get a result from -6 to +6. What I like about this is that it's on a bell curve. You're extremely likely (78.5%) to get an "average" result between -2 and +2. Even better, you can assign +6 and -6 to ludicrously difficult targets, like running along a stream of enemy arrow fire, because they are so dramatically unlikely (0.1%) that it's almost impossible to game the system to make these activities commonplace.

But best of all, I've devised a way to adjust the results of the roll that has a minimum of impact on the extremes of the curve, while moving the "sweet spot" of the curve up or down. Here is the basis of this Glennworld mechanic. The dice are divided into two groups, an adjustable group (light dice) and a non-adjustable group (dark dice), by default, three of each. A player is given a certain number of adjustment points, which they can apply to the light dice on their roll. With one adjustment point, they can convert a blank to a plus, with two, they can convert a minus to a blank. (Therefore with three, they can convert a minus to a plus.) A magic sword that improves a user's skill, for example, might grant an adjustment point, While a spell that calls upon the favor of a deity might increase the user's ratio of light dice to dark dice, thus potentially allowing them to adjust more of their roll. These adjustments can as easily be negative (and applied to the dark dice) as positive.

The result is that a character who is unsuited to a task may actually have a few negative adjustments, be capable of achieving results ranging from about -6 to +5, and likely to get results in the range of -3 to +1 or so, while character with some training or aptitude is capable of results from -6 to +6, and is likely to get results in the range of -2 to +2. Finally a character operating in a speciality with a lot of positive adjustments is capable of getting results from -4 to +6, and is likely to get results in the range of 0 to +4. But very few of these characters are barred from getting any reasonable result, and a magic sword doesn't ever change the outlying parameters of what a sword is or isn't capable of, unless that is the intended focus of the sword's magic.

Fewer Mechanics that Encourage Power Gaming.
In D&D, there are many mechanics specifically included to encourage power-gaming. (For those not in the know, this is the practice of trying to extract maximum mechanical advantage from the rules, regardless of other factors.) I regard RPGs as a story-telling and roleplaying medium, and hate when players feel compelled to compromise these aspects in order to "succeed" under the rules. A good example of this is that in D&D, there are several monsters that require special kinds of weapons, even magical weapons, to be effectively fought. As a result, it's not uncommon for players to feel the need for their characters to tote around several different weapons, and for every member of a gaming group to feel that it's important for their character to have a magic weapon. I don't care for any system that encourages my player with a high elven ranger to feel like he'd better carry around a +2 pike "just in case". The fudge dice system above supports this by allowing magic weapons (and the like) to play a role without having them change the basic parameters of what a character is capable of.

Not Tied to own Game-World or Specific Genre Expectation.
D&D has a lot of history behind it, and a lot of it doesn't fit into my personal takes on the fantasy genre. I don't like having lots of common-place magic weapons, I don't want elves to constitute 20% of the population of most major cities, and I'm not fond of having everyone know exactly what halflings are because they've met several. In many ways, D&D represents the ultimate extension of Syndrome's quote from the Incredibles. "And then, when everyone's special, no one will be." As a result, Glennworld attempts, as much as possible, to free itself from world-building. It's a "naked" gaming system, providing mechanics, and the expectation that GMs will use those mechanics to build their own worlds. As part of this, Glennworld also does away with classes, to extend some of the same genre freedom to the players.

Less Emphasis on Characteristics.
In Glennworld, the basic statistics (Strength, Intelligence, Perception, Determination, Dexterity, and Body) are more measures of potential than they are absolutes. While each statistic does come with specific advantages, they are not generally heavily weighted into how the character conducts other activities within the system, but rather into how many skill points the character requires to gain each new ability. This is done so that one can balance statistics for role-playing and characterization purposes without needing to adjust them in favor of certain mechanical requirements. This is not absolutely true, but it is more true than in many other systems.

I have a lot more to say about this, but this is a pretty good overview of my goals, which you can keep in mind (presuming you're still interested) as I begin to lay out the rest of the system in the coming months.


At 7:37 PM, Blogger Ron said...

I love the idea of using 6dF. The scale takes the standard 4dF and expands it to a finer detail. This truly makes extra ordinary rolls extraordinary. The dnd 5% chance of automatic success and failure doesn't settle well with me either.

Splitting up the dice into light and dark dice make for an interesting mechanic. I may try that with my regular Fudge group, if they'll let me.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger Artillery MKV said...

This may just be me, but wouldn't it be easier to simply do away with a system altogether? Obviously you need rules just so it doesn't turn into a game of Cowboys and Indians, but why worry about dice and junk anyway?

I'm a big fan of the Amber system. A system that can be adapted to any genre, even (perhaps especially) games outside it's intended literary namesake.

It's also ultimately scalable, with powers existing or working at the GMs whim. It's not easy and it diesn't appeal to the number crunchers (Hi Glenn!), but it carries the point cost effect of Champions (oh, how I miss that game!) without its complications, or the even worse complications of Chartmaster (I always enjoyed Role Master, but hated many of the system elements).

To some it would seem that characters would automatically succeed or fail at any task, based on the way the system works. But that's not true. They succeed or fail as dramatically appropriate! And just because an opponent is dramatically overpowered compared to the characters doesn't mean he can't be defeated, or maybe even LET himself be defeated.

There's none of the "Hey, it's monster X, get out weapon Z and perpare spell alpha. It has AC 32, 973 Hit points and the following attacks . . . .." which can be pandemic in D&D.

On the otherhand, nothing's premade, and every game really makes the GM have to wokr the old brain muscle!

But my best campaign ever was one I ran in Amber. And I think it could be again.


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