Mar 09 2012

The Dice

I’ve been reading the new Marvel RPG by Margaret Weis Productions, and I’ve found the dice mechanic to be interesting and engaging for the player. This is only conjecture as I haven’t seen it in action yet but I’m hopeful. This thought has got me thinking about dice mechanics in other games and how they help enhance the play experience.


In d20 all you do is roll, add a modifier, and see if you beat a number usually called the DC (Difficulty Check). This is a pretty simple dice mechanic. You either pass or fail. There’s no choice and the mechanic can fade into the background. It’s just a randomizer for the tough decisions you make. It’s like a logic switch. Pass or Fail. On or Off. All the d20 games I’ve ever liked had a bunch of other stuff going on which affected the d20 roll or had nothing to do with it. The most interesting thing about the D20 dice mechanic is the critical hit and critical miss. Roll a 20 or a 1 and something interesting has the potential to happen. Sometimes this is mechanized; in D&D a 20 means you do extra damage where a 1 is always a miss. This can become more interesting if you start adding in rules like the Piazo Critical hit deck. The critical rule also matters because one of these numbers is coming up ten percent of the time. That means one out of ten rolls something interesting outside of the expected should happen. That’s a bit nifty.

Savage Worlds

The Savage World dice mechanic gives the players a d6 wild die to roll with their test die and you choose the higher of the two results. It’s a target number game like d20 but the target number is usually 4 unless it’s an opposed roll. There are a couple more things going on here.

  • Catastrophic failure: If you roll a one on your wild die and trait die you’re pretty much at the GM’s mercy and it won’t be good.
  • Exploding dice: If you roll the highest number on a die it explodes, which means you roll it again. If you roll and get the highest number again it explodes again.
  • Raises:  If you hit your target number by four or more it’s called a raise and you get some extra benefit.

I like this dice mechanic even though there are things I don’t like about Savage Worlds; you get to roll two dice, they can explode, there’s a moderate and major success level, and the probability for catastrophic failure is related to your characters skill. Skills are rated to dice type so it’s more unlikely to fail catastrophically if you have a high skill level. It’s kinda nifty.

Dice pool mechanics

This is a little weird to talk about because I’ve seen dice pool mechanics used in a couple different ways. In the newest edition of Shadowrun you roll a dice pool equal to the characters skill plus relevant attribute modified by any modifiers. Hits are equal to the number of fives and sixes rolled. If you get enough hits to equal the threshold you succeed. Any hits beyond the threshold make whatever is being tested a more extraordinary success but the rules are a little vague leaving effect up to the GM. On the other side if more than half the dice rolled are ones you’ve glitched and something bad happens and the GM has the final say. That’s Shadowrun but Mouse Guard is similar with some interesting additions.

Mouse Guard builds a dice pool from the skill in use but this game is a team game. The first person to speak has to make the check, it’s actually a rule. Everyone who wants to help can give one of their own dice to the player but they must narrate how they help in relation to the skill they’re using to help. Very cool and engaging, everyone can participate in every check if they’re clever.  This game also has counts successes on a d6 roll of 4+ and has the threshold success mechanic found in Shadowrun. Furthermore, if you fail in this game the GM has the option to give you some kind of stress or twist the story to create some complication. I know, it’s not really a dice mechanic but it’s a neat idea.

The New Marvel RPG

Now we come to the Marvel RPG. This game uses Cortex plus as the engine. In the past Cortex used the take your skill and attribute die, (This game had skills and attributes equal to die types similar to Savage Worlds) roll them, add them up, and see if you beat a target number. The Cortex plus engine takes this idea and messes with it. In Marvel you build a dice pool based on what your character is trying to do. This dice pool is built from your character sheet which has a bunch of things on it like distinctions, powers, affiliations, specialties, power stunts, stress, scene distinctions, scene attributes, and a few other things. All of this stuff has dice type ratings which you build your dice pool from. Then you roll it, set aside any 1s for the Watcher (Marvel’s GM) to use as opportunities, which could also gain you plot points (One of the storytelling currencies of the game), choose two dice as your effort, then decide if you’d like to spend plot points to add more dice from your dice pool to your effort. On top of that, if you beat opposed roll number by 5 you can step up your effect die. Your effect die is chosen from what’s left. It’s important to note the effect die is the die type and not the number rolled. For example, if you rolled a 2 on a d10 it can still be used as a d10 effect die. You can also spend plot points to add more effect dice, but you can’t ever cause the same effect to the same target twice. It’s a neat option when you want to take out a bunch of mooks. This becomes even cooler when you get to your specialties because you can trade dice down. For example you can convert a d10 Master specialty into 2d8 or 3d6. That’s kinda nifty.

To end this though about dice I want to ask you folks out there if the dice mechanics in your game are interesting to you? Do they enhance your gaming experiences or do they just fade out of the way? I’d really like to hear from someone who plays GURPs or Hero and people who play Vincent Baker games like Apocalypse World and Dogs in the Vineyard. How do the dice mechanics enhance play in those games?

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