Worlds of Design: Making Mechanics Match

Is frequently rolling lots of dice good design for an RPG?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Board vs. Role-Playing Games​

In my opinion, the less dice the better. Keeping the game’s mechanics simple is good for everyone, players and GM and observers. My design motto is “a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Complexity is usually desirable in puzzles, yet RPGs are less puzzle-like, on average, than board games.

I emphasize RPG because board games are different. I didn’t mind having large numbers of dice rolled in my game Britannia for a couple reasons. First, they’re spread over a game that lasts four to five hours, and help keep people “in the game” because both sides roll in a combat. (Dice are rolled only for combat.) Second, I wanted to avoid using any kind of combat table, because many board gamers don’t like to lookup tables whether for combat or anything else. But you rarely roll more than two or three dice at a time.

But Our Game is Different!​

Some designers want to use different dice to differentiate their game, which may be where some of the complex mechanics in tabletop role-playing games come from. In some ways it’s an attempt to use mechanics to surprise players. It's better to have the game itself be interesting enough to not need quirky dice mechanics. In my experience, few players care about innovation like this, particularly if it hinders or slows down gameplay.

Do the rules fit the rules the purpose of the game? Don't worry about whether they’re innovative, worry about whether they fit your game's setting and style of play. Complex dice mechanics should be included if and only they fit that purpose.

The Power of Dice​

There is an argument that players feel powerful when they roll lots of dice. This comes from Dungeons & Dragons, where more dice is indicative of more damage. In these instances, power scales with dice. The higher the power level of the character, the more dice they roll, so it is immediately evident during play that characters are more powerful by the number of dice they roll. This is meant to be outside the power curve of traditional play however, and is perfectly acceptable because players look forwarding to rolling more dice as they level up.

Conversely, some games are all about the dice, such as Yahtzee. There are certainly gamers who like to roll a bunch of dice at one time. Dicefests like Risk and Axis & Allies are popular mass-market games, after all. But that doesn’t mean designers should make their tabletop role-playing games a dicefest.

When Do You Roll Dice?​

A good general game design principle is: keep the administrative part simple. Administrative parts tell you whether something happens or not, yes-no questions. What's important, though, is what happens in the game as a whole: should dice rolls be the focus of that?

In traditional fantasy RPGs, players roll dice for skill checks, and attack or avoidance is a form of a skill check to see if you’re skillful enough to hit the target. Players also roll dice for damage in most games, although there are exceptions where hits and damage are combined. Different checks create different results. Unless a skill is meant to be complex, you don’t traditionally roll “skill damage.” A simple mechanic (like exceeding a difficult number) makes for a quicker resolution. This tells you something about the focus of a game.

Conversely, damage is where dice are rolled most often. There is something very tactile in rolling a lot of dice, and damage is one way to express a character’s power. This applies to all kinds of games, but especially RPGs.

Match your mechanics to what you're trying to represent and keep it simple, and most players will enjoy the game more. More dice are not always the answer.

Your Turn: Gamers love collecting dice, but do you need to use them all in your games?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Laurefindel

Legend
i agree with the OP on most things, but I do like games that try to gain a distinct identity through quirky game mechanics. The games I prefer are those where the game mechanics convey and support the themes of the game (or the setting it is based on) in clever ways. This usually narrows the scope of the game but that’s ok with me. I’m easily turned off by games that have promising premises but fall flat of supporting them in game mechanics.
 

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RareBreed

Adventurer
I'm definitely in the mechanics matters camp. Different die rolling conventions lead to different probability densities and distributions. This not only simulates actions better, but evokes a different experience for the player. This is why I am vehemently against shoe-horning every genre under the sun into a d20 based system.

I will start off here saying that to me, dice mechanics aren't just the type and number of dice being used, but how often they are being used and by whom.

Take for example rolling a d20, or even rolling a d100. It's very intuitive and very simple. Perhaps that's why D&D and Call of Cthulhu are two of the most popular role playing games around. But, both of those die rolling mechanics are linear in nature. You are just as likely to roll a 1 as a 20 (or 100). However, most things in life are not linear. They follow Gaussian or some other curved shape (perhaps parabolic, sigmoid, logarithmic, or heck, even sinusoidal). Life follows deviations from a norm, but in a linear system, every outcome is just as likely as every other.

However, the advantage of a linear system, is that simple addition/subtraction is easy to reason about to modify die rolls. Adding a +2 to a 3d6 changes the odds more significantly than a +2 in a d20 system. This is true for other systems too. In pool based systems, how does it affect the odds to take away a die from the pool? How much does it change the odds to change a target number? Now, it's no longer easy to reason about. I believe this is the biggest detractor for non-linear die mechanic systems: they are no longer easy to reason about when applying modifiers to the roll.

Other mechanics can change things too. I personally have never liked passive defense systems where it is only the attacker who gets to make a die roll to determine a hit and the damage done. So, a player who is not helpless doesn't have a skill involved in defense? Certainly, it cuts down on dice rolls, and makes games go faster. On the other hand, the defending player loses a certain amount of agency, and this isn't fun either. Yes, one can claim that a single die roll abstracts both the attacker's skill in offense, with the target's skill in defense. But whomever rolls the dice feels like they have the agency...the power....to determine the outcome.

Some games like to make the determination to hit and the damage done in one roll. And this makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the more precise the strike, the more likely it was a solid blow or landed in a critical spot. But how exactly do you calculate a "magnitude" or "margin" or success? When you have a passive system (only one die roller), then the margin is often calculated as the difference between the target number/difficulty check and what was rolled. But these passive systems usually don't take into account defense as an active participant too.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Some games like to make the determination to hit and the damage done in one roll. And this makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the more precise the strike, the more likely it was a solid blow or landed in a critical spot. But how exactly do you calculate a "magnitude" or "margin" or success? When you have a passive system (only one die roller), then the margin is often calculated as the difference between the target number/difficulty check and what was rolled. But these passive systems usually don't take into account defense as an active participant too.
Squishing hit-miss determination and magnitude of hit into one roll closes off a fair bit of design space for variability, I think...unless the one roll is a d% and everything's on a 100-point table. Come to think of it, this could be a 198-point table ranging from "roll 99 too low" to "roll 99 too high", with different effects listed at each point e.g. miss-by-57 has one effect, miss-by-14 has another, hit-by-36 has another, and so on; with special occurrences on any natural 01 or 00. Hmmmm.....

But looking this up on a table for every attack would get tedious pretty fast, so we're back to using two rolls instead of one.

If two dice are to be rolled - one for attack and one for either defense or damage - it's more efficient to have the same person roll both, therefore having a damage roll determine the magnitude of success rather than separate attck and defense rolls is IMO the way to go.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
While having a lot of dice in use is not an automatic virtue, it can allow you to make one roll serve functions that are not served by a single die roll (though you can cram a considerable amount into a percentile roll, but at the price of requiring a fairly careful read of of the roll). I don't think the world of useful resolution begins and ends at binary yes-no results.
 

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