“Well, I don’t know what to do, you tell me.” We were playing DragonQuest, an older pencil-and-paper RPG which I was helping develop for SPI. A good friend of mine was playing an RPG for the first time ever that Sunday. He and I had forged our game-playing friendship over Strat-O-Matic Baseball, a dice-and-cards centric baseball simulation, and he wanted to try this ‘fantasy’ thing with me. He knew I designed games for a living, was willing to give anything I was working on a try, but fantasy wasn’t normally his cup of tea.
This game session, however, was a particularly bad one to serve as his introduction to the world of fantasy role-playing. The party had encountered a troll, the negotiations had gone badly, one of the group had decided to take a swing at the ‘big ugly,’ and a couple of fumbles on their part later, the only party member left standing was the character run by my newbie friend, and all he was armed with was a dagger.
My friend (Todd by name) understood the dynamics of baseball sims; he understood odds, and even though he didn’t quite know for sure what a ‘troll’ was, he had just seen it wipe the floor with the other party members, and he also knew the character he played was about as green a character as he was a player, it being the first game session for both player and character. He tried to come up with a baseball metaphor to describe the situation his character was facing, one that he and I would both understand.
“This is kinda like Koufax against Choo-Choo Coleman, right?” (Koufax is, of course, Sandy Koufax, the all-time great Los Angeles Dodger lefty pitcher who mowed down batter after batter during the 1960‘s, while Choo-Choo Coleman was a starting catcher on the 1962 Mets, they who still hold the all-time single season record for least wins as a team in a season. Coleman epitomized that team).
I thought for a second. “Well, while it may look that way, I think you have a better chance to suceed than Coleman did.”
“That’s not saying much,” he whined a bit. Todd never liked to lose.
“In Strat,” I continued, “Koufax dominated lefties, and since Coleman batted lefty, he’d have absolutely no chance of hitting a homer against Sandy.”
Todd looked glum. “Don’t I know it.”
“However, DragonQuest has a system that does allow you a chance, albeit a small one,” I said.
“What’s that?” Todd looked up.
“We have a Critical Hit System. If you roll really, really well, you can do a hit that avoids the troll’s natural armor and you can do a lot of damage,” I explained.
Todd brightened. “Well, that sounds like I should stay and fight this guy,” and he started to shake the two D10s in his hand.
“Whoa,” I cautioned. “Before you choose to stand your ground, let me explain your chances. First, you’re rolling D100.”
“You explained that already.” Did I mention Todd was impatient?
“Hang on. You need a 02 or less to do a Crit.”
“That doesn’t seem like much of a chance.”
“You are only a new character, remember?”
Todd just stared at me silently.
“Ok, so IF you roll an 02 or an 01, you do a Crit, which does max damage for that dagger.”
Todd thought a sec. “That still wouldn’t kill him, would it?”
Todd was getting frustrated. “Well, so even if I do hit him with a Crit, then he’s gonna take a swipe at me and I’ll end up like so much hamburger!”
I sighed. “More than likely.”
Another player, Steve, chimed in. “Wait, wouldn’t Todd then get a roll on the Critical Hit Table?” That table was one of my favorite toys in DQ. In addition to just doing max damage that avoided armor, when you generated a Crit, you rolled D100 and looked up a viscerally descriptive additional result on this table. Most of the time, the table added flavor to the result, such as “Your blade has caught in the target’s right elbow joint and been ripped from your hand. You are now without your weapon but the target’s right arm is totally useless for the remainder of the fight.” or “Your attack found a particularly vulnerable chink in your opponent’s armor, the damage done from the blow is doubled.” Nasty stuff.
However, in addition to these descriptive results, some results were based on the type of weapon used (crushing weapons might break a bone, stabbing weapons might injure an internal organ) and these results were particularly effective but very rare.
“Let me see that,” Todd asked. He skimmed the table, skimming some of the more lurid descriptions, and handed it back to Steve. “That seems pretty cool, let’s just have at it.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yup,” Todd replied. “And, after all, I can always just create another character, right?”
“Right,” I said. “Roll.”
Todd shook the two D10s in his hand. They were read sequentially, with the first die (numbered one to zero) read as the ‘tens’ digit and the second die (also numbered one to zero) read as the ‘units’ digit. So, rolling a ‘4’ and then a ‘6’ was read as a ’46.’ If the first die read a ‘0’, that meant the second die was just read as the single digit, with a ‘0’ and a’7’ being read as ‘7.’ If, however, two zeros were rolled, that result ’00,’ was treated as ‘100.’ So, Todd needed to roll a zero (‘0’) on the first die and a ‘1’ or a ‘2’ on the second die to generate a Crit in the first place.
As he always did, he rolled to two dice one after the other rather than at the same time (a habit that most players found annoying but this time added to the suspense). The first die read ‘0.’ “Whoa, cool,” he said. Then rolled the second die and his face lit up. “Two!” Indeed the second die read ‘2’ which meant he had rolled ’02,’ or a Crit. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he yelled. “How much damage does that do?”
“Well, the max damage of the dagger is 8 points, so all of that counts against the trolls’ total hit points.”
“And after this, he goes, right?” Todd was hoping I’d reply in the negative.
“Uh, yeah.” I tried to say that in as hopeful a way as I could.
“And that means he’s gonna kill me right?”
“Oh, well.” Todd began to crumple the character record. Steve chimed in again. “Man, don’t forget your roll on the Crit Table.”
“Whatever,” and Todd grabbed the two D10s and just tossed them carelessly across the Battlemat. They stopped rolling.
We just stared. The two D10s came up “0” and “1”. Steve was quiet “I think that’s a good thing.” I looked at the table. It read:
“01: If weapon is a stabbing type, the attacker has managed to lodge the blade in the eye of the target, driven very deep with great force into the target’s brain, killing the target instantly. Target is dead.”
Todd screamed. Steve screamed. I beamed quietly, knowing that this singular event had created a gaming memory for everyone at the table, and cemented Todd’s participation in the campaign for ever more. To this day, when we see each other and we talk about gaming, Todd doesn’t talk about Strat-O-Matic (well, not TOO much, anyway) but never fails to bring up that Sunday afternoon at my gaming table in Elizabeth, NJ. The drama, the impossible odds realized, the improbability of the event, all combined to cement the memory in all those present. Forever.
One of tools for evoking player emotion that modern computer RPGs have taken away from game designers is the ability of the player to directly manipulate, understand and experience game systems themselves. The physical interaction of player and the game systems, if those systems are designed well, induce emotion in the players just from the way they work and how the players use them. In this essay, I’d like to discuss and analyze examples of this effect: the effect dramatized in the actual events depicted above. Yes, while embellished slightly (the event happened in the summer of 1982, almost thirty years ago, so the dialogue is dramatized), the details of the event are as they actually happened. This event underlines my premise, and allows me to discuss this player/game system interaction in detail, because the easiest game system with which to show this effect is to use the way dice systems work in roleplaying games (RPGs).
RPG dice systems have a particular bonus in the way they invoke player emotion, as those dice systems determine success or failure of the player’s actual alter ego, his character. In the best of those designs, dice not only provide randomized conflict resolution, they also provide a foundation for the emotional experience; tangibly manifesting the world to the players as they manipulate the world’s totems - the dice.
Like most things, game design is cyclical. The passions and likes of the gamer audience wax and wane with time, often coming back to enjoy popular motifs heretofore out-of-fashion time and time again. My roots as a game designer are in the fertile turf of board/pencil-and-paper game design, and I migrated into computer/video design more to make a living as a designer, rather than from a particular passion for that style of gaming. Don’t misinterpret me; however, I enjoy playing World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Railroad Tycoon and SimCity just as much as the next geek, but there is something ‘visceral’ to me about boardgames and their younger, geekier sibling, roleplaying games, that always have a soft spot in my heart.
Part of this fascination, to my way of thinking, resides in the physicality of the game props and systems, including lovely printed four-color game boards, cards, pieces, and, the focus of this essay, the dice. While one could debate with some validity the impact of images appearing on the screen of a video game as opposed to the impact of printed game parts, the dice to me have a particular fascination as they do not have a direct equivalent in the video game world. Part random number generator, part talisman, these objects viscerally connect the player with the game systems, precisely because the player manipulates the outcomes of these systems by rolling the dice. Talk all you want about digital media being ‘interactive,’ I posit that there is no greater degree of interactivity than the kind a player gets when they have the dice in their hand and are trying to manifest a particular result to appear, face-up, on any particular throw of the dice.
One reason for the power of this activity, I believe, is a kind of ‘head fake’ where the player, because she is holding the random number generator in her hand, believes that they can affect the roll in some fashion. While the left-brains amongst us would claim they don’t really believe this is possible, almost every game player I’ve ever met feels as if they can, indeed, affect the roll. I happen to believe that you can affect the result, but that belief does not affect my game designs and is a topic for another discussion.
Owing to this feeling of connection, the act of rolling dice carries with it an emotional charge which, if the designer is aware of it, can be leveraged to deepen the game experience. Additionally, if the designer is a master of this game prop, the actual use of the random properties inherent in a random result generated for the audience to see can also aid in telling the game story.
In order to illuminate my point, this article will describe the mechanics of a simple thirty-year-old RPG system, the D100 system used by Chaosium’s games, called Basic Role Playing (BRP). It was used specifically in Call of Cthulu and RuneQuest, and the rules have shown a remarkable resiliency even in this day of the ‘D20’ system made ubiquitous by Wizards of the Coast. The rules are still in print and available here: (http://www.chaosium.com/article.php?story_id=246). While possibly not the most elegant RPG dice system ever invented (Greg Gorden’s exponential dice system he created for Mayfair’s DC Heroes might win that award if I were voting), I used the D100 system for a very long time in my RPG campaign, I adapted it (er, was ‘inspired by it’) for the dice system I created for the James Bond 007 game I designed for Victory Games, and was always cognizant of the impact dice systems had on players. BRP was very flexible (Chaosium used it for more than a dozen titles over its long life) but when WOTC made the D20 system openly available in the 1990s, it was all-but abandoned as a viable RPG system.
The D100 BRP system was born in an era when D&D was the newly crowned king of the gaming world. D&D’s original dice system, in case you were unaware, introduced many new exotic kinds of dice to the world: D4s, D8s, D10s, D12s and D20s. These new (to most gamers) dice were part of what gave D&D its appeal, and some of the ‘magic’ of that game was the ‘ooh, cool dice!’ factor for players. One of the things you could do with the D10’s, however, was roll two of them and read the pair sequentially, thus generating an equally weighted number from 1 to 100. If the first die read ‘0’ and the second die read ‘1’, this was read as ‘01,’ or simply ‘1’. If the first die read ‘0’ and the second die read ‘0,’ that was read as ‘100.’ First die ‘4’ and the second die ‘5,’ and you had ‘45.’ D&D used this D100 system mainly with random lists of up to 100 items. Each entry on such a list would have a 1/100th chance to being generated, which facilitated long detailed lists of esoteric objects. Lots o’ fun.
While I’m not exactly sure whether the events occurred in this sequence, my memory is that after D&D was released, the people working on RuneQuest took the ability to generate a number from 1-100 and built their conflict resolution system around that pillar. While RuneQuest (hereafter RQ) included D4s, D6s and D8s (you almost had to include those kinds of dice in role playing games published around 1978 in order to be taken seriously as an RPG), none of those dice were used for combat resolution in BRP. Instead, they were all used to calculate the amount of damage done if you did hit. To see whether you did hit or not, you rolled a D100. Your chance to hit something was expressed as a 1-100 number as well -- for example, ‘67.’ Thus, if you roll a 67 or less with your D100, you hit. Rolling a 68 or greater meant you missed. This kind of system emulated the state of the art at that time in D&D, where they used a D20 to resolve the ‘hitting’ thing, generating either success or failure.
Degree of Success
To this basic system, however, the RQ designers added what I later called ‘degree of success’ (I’m not sure whether they gave it a name quite like that). The dice system not only determined success or failure, but how well or how badly the player succeeded or failed. Two layers of success were added: ‘Critical Success’ (hereafter referred to as a ‘Crit’) and a ‘Special Success,’ hereafter called simply a ‘Special.’ Failure had only one additional layer, that of a failure so bad it was termed a ‘Fumble.’
The D100 roll needed to achieve these results were calculated as a percentage of the players’ original success chance: a Crit was determined by multiplying the Success Chance by 5%, and a Special was determined by multiplying the Success Chance by 20%. Crits were better for the player than a Special, and a Special was better for the player than a Normal success. Success in combat was measured first by hitting the opponent, and then additionally by the amount of damage done.
For example, if the player’s Success Chance was 60 (rolling a 60 or less on D100), 5% of that was a Crit (rolls 01, 02, and 03), while 20% of that was termed a Special (rolls 01-12, with 01-03 being a Crit and 04 or above being a Special). If the player rolled a Special, more dice were rolled for damage, and the blow was harder to Dodge (in fact, it needed a Special Dodge on the defender’s part). If a Crit was rolled, the maximum possible damage was done and the defender only avoided being hit by rolling a Crit Dodge. In that game system, a Crit was a devastating blow indeed, because the character did maximum possible damage AND all the defender’s armor was ignored.
Fumbles were calculated as were Crits, but the dice range was placed at the other end of spectrum and was calculated from the Failure chance. So, if the player’s Success chance was, say, 20 or less, his failure chance was 80, and his Fumble chance was 5% of 80 (or 4 chances out of 100), thus the failure roll was 97-100. This may sound complicated, but there were look-up tables to handle the calculations.
It is important to understand that the very fact that ‘success’ was placed at the low end of the dice result possibilities and ‘failure’ at the extreme high end also expresses my theory. Players would desire to ‘roll low’ to get a good result and they would try to avoid ‘rolling high’ so as not to get near a fumble.
That note actually brings us to the reason why this system was troublesome for some players: the math. The feeling the game system delivered to players worked just fine, thank you, but the simple mathemetical manipulations needed to get there were problematic. Intellectually, the system seemed fine; a 1-100 system gave the GM the opportunity for fine gradations in success chances (“hmm, I’ll give you a +8 to your success chance for coming up from behind him, but he gets a -6 for his Sixth Sense, so that’s an overall +2 for you, your adjusted chance to hit goes from 57 to 59.”) That seemed like an advantage, but in practical terms there was a lot of adding and subtracting.
As a little generational observation, the system worked a lot better ‘back in the day,’ as players of my generation handled the addition and subtraction in their heads with a lot greater ease than do the ‘youngun’s’ of today do (perhaps not as used to having to do that kind of math on the fly). I GM’ed a campaign using this system in the 2007-2008 timeframe and players in their mid-20’s really enjoyed the visceral nature of the system (the ‘emotional manipulation’ the system delivered as described in this essay) but they relied on us ‘old-timers’ at the table to handle all the math. That campaign had a little bit of ‘oldtimer’ cool to it; I GM’ed while Zeb Cook (of AD&D fame) played.
Anyhow, I digress. The point of the system is this: players really enjoyed rolling for the goals they knew to be present and visible. “What do I need for a Crit and what do I need for a Special?” were often uttered just as the players were shaking the two D10’s in their hand prior to their roll. And, if the roll was just short of a goal, there was a very palpable feeling of being ‘almost a crit.’ If the player needed a 15 for a Special and rolled a 16, cries of agony rose from the table, even though the system resolved the 16 identically as a roll of, say, 47 (assuming both were a success).
Let me just amplify this a bit: having the dice system deliver a described result (Critical, Special, Normal and Fumble) not only enabled and encouraged the players to visualize what those results might be in their noggins, it allowed the players to translate dice results that almost reached one of those thresholds and enjoy the drama of the ‘not quite’ nature. Knowing what they had to roll, and knowing how close (or far) they came, increased their visualization of the gameplay.
Now, if the player rolled a Fumble, well, the pain and anguish were tangible. It was more than simply the fact of failure; when the description of the fumble was read to the player (example: “adventurer slips on the blood-covered floor and his weapon is thrust into the leg of the nearest companion, impaling them”) this act of ineptitude begat a legend of its own (assuming the players’ characters survived the evening, of course). These incidents created much more than the math and damage done would simply generate numerically. They created drama.
While the D100 system functioned well enough as a game system, the drama that came as a result of understanding (and pre-visualizing) the potential outcomes and how to maximize success, combined with the always-present potential for outright disaster with a fumble (regardless of how high the player’s chance of success might be) as well as the glorious success of a crit, gave every single roll a sense of the dramatic that the players enjoyed. All of this drama came from the simple fact of life in these games: the game system was visible to the players, they generated the random numbers needed to make the system work themselves, and thus ‘created’ the game as they played. They did not just watch as a computer resolved every swing and applied the damage. Designers of those systems didn’t need to search for ways to make the players feel more involved; those players were involved from the word go.
Using Dice Systems to Tell a Story
In addition to the simple resolution of combat, the Chaosium systems have also used dice to help players visualize the action in a visceral way as well as to deliver the world story to them. I’ll describe both of those facets now.
RuneQuest Hit Location System
RuneQuest’s Crit system, combined with a Hit location system, delivered a distinct flavor to the gameplay. The Crit system basically communicated that at almost any time, with a series of very good dice rolls, anyone could kill anyone else. Thus every combat had drama built in. Their Hit Location system, which was based on research done by one of their designers into the way sword fighting was done in Society for Creative Anachronism battles, also added a degree of the visceral. But, it also altered strategy. In typical D&D battles, where an opponent was viable until dead, every fight lasted until one side or the other reached zero hit points (dead). With the RQ system, a viable strategy was to just ‘take out the legs’ of an opponent, because once they went down, they couldn’t follow you any longer, and you could move on to another opponent. Certain types of wounds were as good as a kill. The result in play was that the battlefield was littered with wounded characters and monsters instead of piles of dead. It just ‘felt’ different, and thus the kinds of adventures you created as gamemaster differed as well.
In another variant of the BRP system, Elric!, certain types of armor a character could wear were imbued with the power of a chaotic demon. This power gave the armor more protection points than a set of comparable normal armor. The system stated that when damage was applied to a target from a successful hit, the armor protection rating was subtracted from the damage first before it was applied to the target. So, if your character did 8 points of damage but the monster was wearing 3-point leather, you did only five effective points of damage (8 - 3) = 5.
However, if a demon inhabited the armor, the exact amount of protection the armor afforded was determined at the moment of impact by a die roll. For example, a suit of leather demon armor might protect for 2+D4 points. When an attack hit the armor, you rolled a D4; the armor (for that hit only) might protect for 3 (2 + a roll of 1 = 3) or it might protect for 6 (2 + a roll of 4 = 6). You couldn’t tell. More powerful demons used larger dice to determine their possible protection, but also more chaotic demons had a bigger swing of protection values.
So, one demon might have an armor value of 5+D12, a range from 6 through 17. Another demon might have an armor value of 5+2D6, also a range from 6 through 17. The first demon’s range had an equal chance of a 6, an 11, or a 17. However, the second demon’s distribution, because the 2D6 roll was a bell curve, had a much greater chance of a 12 (right in the middle of the distribution) than it did of generating a 6 or a 17. Thus, the second demon would be viewed as more ‘predictable’ while the first demon would be viewed as more ‘chaotic.’
The D20 System: Simpler, but less drama?
Once RPGs proliferated, the challenges of the genre for the gamer became the expanding variety of systems. Just because you know how to play, say, West End Games’s Star Wars, didn’t mean you know how to play SPI’s Universe, or GDW’s Traveller (even though all these games were science-fiction RPGs). Players would play one system, begin to know it intimately, then perhaps a new system would arrive and the gaming group would discuss the option of giving that system a try. But someone would bow out because they just didn’t want to invest the time to learn something new. Game companies were aware of this, especially Chaosium, who proposed all their games use a similar system so players might move from one game system to another as painlessly as possible. All the Chaosium game systems (Elric, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulu) had similar conflict resolution systems (married to slightly different skill lists).
As long as you were a fan of Chaosium’s product line, and stayed there, the system switches were relatively painless.
But many companies tried to distinguish themselves with innovative game systems. The hobby market has faced this problem over and over. In response, Wizards of the Coast created the D20 system. Well, they didn’t create it so much as make the system ‘open source.’ The D20 system was at the heart of D&D, and what Wizards did was say “hey, anyone can use the D20 system if they want to, all they need to do is acknowledge that the system is ours, and that they are using our system, and they’re home free.” And many companies, seeing the economic advantages of using the system, adopted it. The advantages were numerous: RPG players wouldn’t need to learn multiple systems, just one; adventures published for one system would, with a little tweaking, work for other systems; and those companies wouldn’t have to invent their own systems any longer, they could just co-opt the D20 system. But the sense of the dice design embodying the essence of the IP of the game world evaporated with these advantages. That facet of RPG game design lost its steam, and, in my opinion, also lost much of the possibility of dice systems evoking emotion in gameplay.
Today’s computer games hide all the calculations from the player. This can be an advantage, in that the designer can utilize calculations of much greater complexity than ever before. This allows a greater range of game possibilities. But designers struggle to find ways to weave back into gameplay some sense of the dramatic. Luck isn’t the only thing that drives a dramatic conflict resolution system. Doing exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment is crucial for great storytelling. But knowing what that moment is, and how slim your chances really are, can be challenging for videogame designers.
I recently spoke to a colleague working on an MMO, where small, almost undeterminable ‘adds’ are the way most of those games are designed. This is almost required, as players desire to accumulate pieces of armor and such as they play, and you can’t max out the system too easily by this kind of accumulation. The downside of this is that no ‘magical’ aid is very dramatic, and at the end of the day everything just tends to fade into the background, and nothing seems to matter. At least to this observer, nothing seems to matter.
My colleague complained about this very issue, as he is also a dramatist and a writer, and yearns for those moments as well. His staff systems designer, an MMO veteran and someone who revels in those minute differences, can’t see what the big deal is about my colleague’s concerns. He worries about ‘balance’ and ‘max/min’ play styles, and in his job, I suppose he should. But something is lost, and my colleague and I both sense it.
Visible, rolled-by-humans dice and the ability they bring to add the unexpected, definitely add drama to games. As someone who came of age playing games where I could tell how tough or easy something was, I desperately miss that kind of drama when I play computer or video games. I always try to figure out a way to add that back into play. Games sometimes can be shallow experiences without that kind of drama.