Tag Archives: mechanics

Dice Mechanics Draft for A3.X

Even if it scares the hell out of my current players who think that I have gone insane and will ruin their game, I decided that I will start posting rules ideas here even if I never decide to use them. And at the moment, that mind is slowly but surely moving towards something using dice instead of the current playing card based resolution mechanic for the eventual 3.X Alpha of New Horizons.

Roll Dice, ??, Profit

The reasons behind this are as follow:

  1. Dice are much easier in terms of production values than the custom deck of cards constructed from 3 decks of cards. Unless going for custom ones, but that’s just silly.
  2. The current tokens (that are also cards) lack the tactile feeling you get from fiddling something that’s concrete. And the tokens before this were lacking in meaning – “Why do I have different things in front of me?” “What does this one mean again?”
  3. The damage mechanic from cards lacks finesse.

The big reasons not to switch from cards to dice are:

  1. Cards have a somewhat predictable curve – if you’ve gotten the two Queens in the deck, you know for sure that you will not be getting a third unless the deck resets.
  2. Cards are pretty, and when printed, could allow more custom information on them than just the basic value. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately with my need to come up with a proper corruption mechanic for the game.
  3. And well, all this.
  4. (a bonus late edit thanks to one of my players pointing this out on FB) Cards aren’t as familiar territory for the player, so a card draw creates a much more intense and scary experience than good old dice.

The basic Powered by the Apocalypse mechanic (2d6 + stat) is something that the current card+stat mechanic of +H emulates quite religiously. Thing that I’ve found really annoying with it is that the short scale gets hard to work with in a game that makes the players face the world, instead of other players — teamwork brings a constant momentum to the rolls; the characters get experienced and gain stat bonuses; and the players let the professionals focus on the things that they are good at. And all of this skews the scale assumptions a lot.

Add to this a good season of playing Blood Bowl, a wonderful miniatures board game by Games Workshop, that also loves its 2d6 rolls (even if the dice are wonky-looking) and too many deaths in the tentacles of some Great Old One in Arkham Horror from FFG. And me looking at the probabilities of rolls in those said games. Suddenly I’m thinking a lot of “what ifs?” — The basic scale of PbtA is “nope”, “yes, but…” and “yes.” (with a bit of “yes, and..” sprinkled in between from the 12+:s to basic moves). The probability spread of basic successes is not that far of from those of rolling certain things in BB or AH. I could tinker with the mechanic without losing the effect quite easily.

I thought about dice pools and target numbers. These were always a pain in the butt in Storyteller System games (one of the big flaws they corrected with the future versions was to have a static target number), so the idea was a bit painful. But with a limited amount of dice, it could be manageable, even tolerable. The system version I have in front of me (doodled on a napkin, more or less) says:

  1. Roll 2 six-sided dice.
  2. If you have the advantage die in front of you, roll that as well. (The easiest way to get this is for someone to help you in whatever you’re doing)
  3. If you have a #hashtag relevant to the situation you can spend and roll one of your confidence dice as well. (These are passed around like candy, so it’s more a question of having a relevant #hashtag)
  4. Look at the (2-4) dice you just rolled. Any dice showing a number that is less or equal to your relevant stat is a hit.
  5. Consult your move card to see what your success actually means in this situation.
    • The card will tell you that if you have one hit, you get the “yes, but..” result for the move.
    • If you have more than one, you get the “yes” result.
    • Investigation moves will let you ask a number of questions based on the number of hits you get.
    • No hits means that the GM gets to make a hard move against your team.

Thing to note is that this mechanical chance means switching the stat range from the old -2 to +2 (or -3 to +3 if you’re crippled or really experienced) to 2 to 4 (or 1 to 5, cripples and legends, again). Characters starting with two 2s, two 3s and one 4 for their stats.

Super special advanced and complicated difficult extra rules (only for real pros):

  • If you are damaged in the stat that you are rolling with, roll a special disadvantage die with the other dice, but don’t count it as a hit if it comes up less or equal to the relevant stat. Instead, if it comes up more than the stat, the GM gets to make a soft move (one of these is giving one of the current threats a soft move later, so this doesn’t really mess with the pace of a situation, but can add pressure nicely).
    • If someone helps you, you don’t need to roll the disadvantage die, and probably get an advantage as well.
    • If your damage has been healed in the stat you are using, only a 6 rolled on the disadvantage die counts.
  • If you have trust towards another team member, you can spend it before they make a move. If they get more than one hit, nothing special happens and you get your trust back. If they get just one hit, they get a second hit, and you lose your trust point. If they don’t get a single hit, the GM gets a soft move, you lose your trust point, but they get to re-roll all their dice. The second result sticks.
  • If you have flow, you can spend it after a failed roll to re-roll your original 2 dice (not your advantage or confidence dice)
  • If you have unlocked the possibility of a critical success (a “yes, and…” result, 12+ in ye olde AW) in a basic move, if you roll doubles (two or more of the same number, like two sixes or two ones, disadvantage die doesn’t count) and get at least one hit with your roll, the result is a critical success.

And I think that’s where I am at the moment with the probability mechanic revamp. It is quite player-friendly. Advantage and Confidence are easy to get, and that puts the balance towards the players getting most of the rolls to the “yes, but..” or better territory, but still there aren’t situations where a bad result can’t happen – no amount of bonuses will make it sure that you get a hit.

And even if it’s starting to feel like something that is alien to the 6-/7-9/10+ mothership that is *World games, it still stems from the same basic ideas. I will have to see where this line of thinking takes me, if anywhere.

Things to Fiddle With: The Character Sheet

One of the staples of RPGs is the character sheet. That piece of paper that keeps a record of who your character is. It’s a solid constant that has stayed with us from the beginnings of the hobby.

For more mechanically complex games, you need that spreadsheet of abilities, skill scores and derivatives.But no matter how light the system, the character sheet has stayed there to remind you from one session to the other who you’re playing. Even if you use a system that has no scale of values for things like Strength, you will have it in front of you.

Some games have broken the mold, of course. They might not have a sheet per se or use it for other things than the characters. Building a story on the paper or something like that. These days some people have have gone fully electronic, having 9-page Excel sheets instead. But exceptions aside, the character sheet is one of the main reasons why Tabletop RPGs are called “Pen and Paper” games.

Since New Horizons is on fundamental levels a hack of Apocalypse World, using Playbooks for characters would have been natural. Those are basically a combination of multiple choice questions and all the relevant game mechanics you need to play the game.

But I have a more traditional game, with a character sheet to match. There are no lists from where your character name or gender can be chosen from. Just places to write down things and note numbers.

To keep track of what I’m talking about from this point on, this is the actual sheet (or sheets).

The first thing to note is that the sheet is for the most part written in Finnish, with only some mechanics (all the numerical stuff) in English. This is something I’ve been doing long with games, even before I started hacking them – if it is a term related to a thing that would never get used in-character, then it is in English. That way we don’t have to specifically mention if we talk in-game stuff or off-game things. If I ask “Paljonko sen Strength on?” (“How much is his Strength?”) it’s clearly a mechanical question. Asking “Kuinka vahva se on?” (“How strong is it?”) is clearly another thing, more tied to the in-game narrative.

But the actual character sheet. The first page is very traditional-looking. On top you have things like “Character name”, “Player name” and the various describing characteristics. There is nothing really interesting here from the design point of view. Text fields and free-form answers.

While the top is feel-good for the character concept (and things to use with Confidence), the middle contains the meat of the character. Both the character’s numerical stats and their relation to the team. As keep pointing out, team is the essential unit in New Horizons. You live and die with it, so it had to be a central part of the sheet as well. (BTW. to tell things as they are, I am stealing a lot in the team structure as well as the character sheet’s team representation from Unien Äiti, a campaign a friend of mine is running.)

The bottom of the page is dedicated to various things that affect character in the long term, but which are updated during short-term gameplay. Critical damage (and death), experience points, and the three Degenerations. This is the part of the sheet that has gone through most iterations, and at the moment I’m quite happy with it.

Basically everything you need from the character sheet during the game is there on the first page. The second page steals a lot from the Apocalypse World’s playbook structure – there is the list of the Moves the character has access to (without descriptions though) and the possibilities for experience usage.

The Moves list is half-filled out with the few things that are set in stone, like the common Moves all the characters share and some other small details. All else has to be filled in by the players. Why this is a “long-term” thing instead of important first-page stuff is that the Moves the player has in their use are also written on cards the player has in front of them during play.

The experience part is a straight-out version of the experience tracks in the playbooks. Well, mostly. I’ve made a three-tiered system to slow down the retirement and spread to keep things progressing on a more “old fashioned” speed. This is the spot where each character Role looks most different from the others — every Role has their own progression track that should generate unique game path to each character.

The sheet itself is printed on sturdier paper than regular, 200g/m² (the regular copy paper is around 80g/m²) to be exact. This is an important finishing step in the design. It makes the sheet feel more real. An object instead of just some paper waste you toss around. 200m/m² is quite extreme density, but the difference it makes in the way the players touch and handle the sheets is worth the extra cost and bulkiness (storing them is harder than you’d expect). I was going for 160g/m², but the digital printer was just out of it for the hour I happened to go there, so 200 it is.

Confidence, A Game Mechanic

Most of things in New Horizons are based on Apocalypse Worldthat I’ve been hacking quite extensively to suit my own needs. One of these hacks is the Confidence system, a derivative of Fate Aspects.

My core mechanics revolve around AW’s Moves. Moves, by design, are dramatic moments of success or failure or failure with a price, that get triggered at certain points in the fiction by player character actions. But horror games, with the pacing sometimes coming to an intentional slow crawl, tend to suffer from too big things happening with high-drama mechanics attached to them. I wanted a subsystem for the quiet parts of the narrative and use the Moves for those moments where it’s do-or-die and the tension of the card draw really brings up the drama.

Fate‘s Aspects are a good mechanic I like to use. They are short character descriptions, open to some interpretation, that have mechanical relevance. Apocalypse World doesn’t have anything that. At first I wanted to use Aspects as written, but like Moves, it is a high-end system. They would have ended up competing for the spotlight. The game would have felt cluttered and looked like it didn’t know where it is going.

Confidence tokens

On the character sheet the parts relevant to Confidence look pretty much like Aspects. Characters have a whole bunch of different traits on their character sheet, from their work background, to what their personal dark place is. Any of these can be tapped into for mechanical benefits.

When a situation arises, where Moves would be too flashy, we use Confidence instead. If you’re doing something the Moves don’t fit, I can ask you if you have something that would justify the character succeeding in the situation on your sheet. If you do, you succeed, if you don’t, you can choose to spend a point of Confidence to succeed. No rolling the dice. No chance. Just choice. You can succeed or fail, it’s up to you. And if the thing is more challenging, I’ll can tell you that you have to have both the appropriate thing on your sheet and use a point.

Oh, and failing always gives you a point of Confidence.

Because New Horizons is a team-based game, there are situations where a lot of the characters would be repeating the same Move someone else just made. That slows things down and bogs down the narrative with “ok, you all must succeed in this” or “ok, if one of you succeeds with this it’s ok” checks. I use Confidence to get past this points, picking one character who actually does the Move for the situation, and have the rest handle it as a Confidence “check”.

Another way that’s more tied to making Moves that it inherits from Aspects, is to support a Move with some Confidence. If you have something on your sheet that would specifically benefit your character with this Move, you can use a point of Confidence to gain a +1 to that Move. Simple as that. Once per Move a free +1 if you’re doing character-y things. It is a nice bonus, without being too overwhelming. This makes Confidence mesh up with the Moves system instead of being completely separate from it.

Confidence points are a currency. They started as a Game Master tool – if you do cool things with your character that fits the fiction, I as a GM would give you a point of Confidence. While works just fine in theory, I’m the sort of person who gets quite deep in the narrative flow when running a game, so keeping note of the moments when you are as a player being awesome is very hard for me.

I turned to Fan-mail distribution from Primetime adventures by making Confidence a player-to-player reward mechanic instead of GM-to-player one. The way handing out Confidence in New Horizons works is that any time any player thinks you did something they thought was worth a cheer, they hand you a point of Confidence from the (infinite) pool at the center of the table. Simple as that. Max gain of one point per one thing done. Instant reward by your peers. Also instant peer-pressure to do things that the group deems appropriate, but that’s just an added bonus. Confidence resets at the start of each mission, so there’s no point in hoarding it too much.

I admit that it’s a bit shaky and still hard for everyone to remember, but it’s one of those mechanics that I hope that will balance itself and shine once the campaign progresses further. At the moment, doing flashy things is an instant way to get a reward from the other players. But once the characters become more familiar, my assumption is that it will become a reward more for things like “Well, that was a very Lexi thing to do” or “Oh, I loved how that plays into what your character told her mom a few games back.”

But will have to see how it turns out.

Things to Fiddle With: The 2d6 Card Deck

Tactile components are important for me in RPG situation. There is that feeling to having something to play with while gaming. As a Game Master, I’ve never been the one to build elaborate props, but I have a tendency to make up for that by using a good many physical objects as part of the mechanical system for the game.

Now, as much fun as dice are to use and one can’t deny the gratifying oomph of rolling them, there is a certain acquired elegance in cards that I’ve come to appreciate lately. How they feel in hand and how you usually don’t have to hunt them from under the sofa every second roll. I used a Tarot deck in the previous campaign, and for New Horizons I’m using a deck of (sort of) regular cards as an alternative to dice.

What the look and feel of my deck would be was clear from the beginning – I had participated in the Kickstarter for the Grid 2.0 deck by 4PM Design, and had a nice pile of those decks in my shelf waiting for a project to use them on. They also nicely played in unison with the blue-tinted color scheme I had planned for +H.

Card deck works as a beautiful 2d6 replacement

New Horizons is Powered by Apocalypse, in the most traditional Apocalypse World way. This means that to be a purist, the players should be throwing two six-sided dice around when executing Moves. Luckily, to make a deck of cards that imitates this randomization is not that hard.

I started with a single 2d6 spread – one 2, two 3s, three 4s, four 5s, five 6s, six 7s, five 8s, four 9s, three 10s, two Jacks (11) and one Queen (12). That gave me a very thin deck of 36 cards with the correct probability matrix, but I had to use only a few (4) cards from a second deck, leaving me with one really crippled deck that would be useless for any future projects.

So, to get a bit bigger deck and make use of more cards, I doubled the count. two of 2s, four of 3s, twelve of 7s, etc. That butchered a total three decks, but to a more satisfying results, mostly because of the next steps.

To get an accurate simulation of a 2d6 roll, a deck needs to be shuffled after each draw of a card. While that would work, it would stall the game and feel like a constant magic trick of “pick a card, any card”.

The quick and dirty fix I came up with was adding four Jokers to the deck as “reshuffle cards” – two black ones and two blues (also known as red in other card decks). Drawing one means you need to reshuffle the deck and draw another card to determine the actual result. This makes the reshuffles themselves random, causing a proper enough randomness to the method.

But something was still wrong.

After meditating on the matter, I realized that the game really didn’t need a dice simulator. If I was using a deck of cards, I should really use the deck more. So in the final version of the system, when you draw a Joker, you choose if you want to reshuffle the deck or not. After a pile of Jacks and Queens, you probably would like to. After a streak of failures because of low cards, you’d want to keep going because the deck is now stacked in your favor. And if you draw all the fourth Joker, you are forced to reshuffle.

Another tweak to them was that the Blue Joker should give a +1 to the result and a point of Confidence to the player, while a Black Joker brings a -1 to the result and adds one point of Terror to the pool. This skews the original pitch-perfect 2d6 scale just enough to justify the cards instead of dice.

And as one last detail, I added some imbalance to the blacks and blues of the deck. There are 30 blue cards in the deck (including the Jokers) and a total of 46 black cards. The colors come into play in the damage mechanics, which I will get to in a future posting.

And the good thing here is that the deck feels like a real object. It gets passed around the table and the players draw from it one by one. And the used cards spread around the table, reminders of the past actions. All in all, it has a good feel to it. You know, a solid, tactile one.