Saturday, 9 January 2016

Dice Clocks

This is inspired by three different systems:

This is how combat works in Carcosa:

  1. The hit dice are rolled when the combat starts, on both sides
  2. When damage is dealt, it comes off each die, starting with the highest
  3. If the monsters go down first the combat is won. If a PC’s hit dice go down before that, they’ve been reduced to 0 hp.

In Carcosa the dice shape is randomly determined (so you could be rolling d4 or d12). I prefer Necropraxis’ stabilised hit dice where the dice are d6 all the time.

pool 2

Dice Clocks

So, for a more general application, any time there’s a threat or obstacle, throw down a pool of dice representing that obstacle that the players have to knock down. The players also have their own pool of dice and if those get knocked out, they take the consequences.

Dice Clocks are progress bars. They make sense when

  • you want to track an extended action (making your way through a castle, picking a lock, ingratiating yourself to the locals) or note the change in a global state (alert state of the castle increasing, which will cause problems)
  • there’s something competing with the PCs (e.g. while the PCs are trying to stay hidden, they’re also trying to complete their mission in the shortest possible time)

It may make sense to have only the GM having a clock, or the players only having a clock.


This would work a lot like the clocks in Blades in the Dark, with about as many permutations.


  • When the PCs are infiltrating a castle, they have a collective pool for their stealth. Blow a stealth roll and the clock goes down; when they have no dice left, the castle is on alert.
  • When the party are trying to investigate a set of murders and stop the murderer before they strike again, they are trying to knock down the GM’s pool which represents how well the murderer is hidden. The GM rules that they roll once per night, and if they haven’t cleared the pool in three nights there will be another killing.
  • A PC is under cover at a party, trying to seduce a NPC. Both the GM and the player have a pool of dice, and if the GM’s pool goes down first then the PC succeeds; if the PC’s pool is knocked out, they get booted out of the party.

The stealth and combat examples are fairly narrowly defined. The others are a bit broader, abstract and freeform — e.g. the murder enquiry would traditionally be a constructed investigation with a trail of clues (Cthulhu, etc.) but in this case the players are rolling to get a clue, and the GM is making up the clues as a response to the dice results.

Using the dice like this mean that more than one kind of roll can be used to knock down the clock, if you want to play like that. Both stealth (dexterity) and misdirection (social) rolls could be used to avoid detection in an infiltration or heist. Just be clear on what skill rolls will affect what clocks.

Knocking the dice down

How do dice get knocked down?

  • By rolling a success. In a d20 system, if the PCs are “attacking” the GM’s dice pool, they knock out a number on the dice equal to the margin of their success (so a 17 vs a target of 12 knocks out 5 points on the GM’s dice).
  • By failing. If the PCs are rolling to keep their cover and they fail, their dice pool goes down by the margin of failure (e.g. rolling 8 vs. a target of 12 means they go down by 4).

This system works with both roll-over and roll-under. If it’s roll-under the margins of success have the potential to be big and the margins of failure are limited by the maximum on the dice (20).


Just as in AW and BitD the clocks can be knocked down by more than one kind of action, encouraging teamwork. If the team were working together in a heist, they might overcome the bank’s defences with a combination of subterfuge, stealth, technical know-how and even brute force. All qualifying actions count for knocking down the dice clock. Using the clocks like this injects a bit of narrative woo into the typical d20 style games, if you like that sort of thing.

When the clocks are rolled, the GM should (normally) be clear and up-front about what the GM’s dice mean, what the players’ dice pools — or collective dice pool — mean, and what actions will result in pools being under attack (e.g. for combat the only thing that can knock each side’s dice down are direct attacks).

Some permutations:

  1. Change the die shape.
  2. Only allow one die to be knocked out in one action…
  3. …except for certain types of actions by certain classes (e.g. the Fighter can knock out a second die if they have excess points)
  4. …or on a critical (knocks out two dice, whatever happens)
  5. Set all dice to 1

This system could eliminate separate damage rolls. Instead, use the margin between the target and the actual number rolled as the damage inflicted (so a roll of 15 vs AC 12 is 3 points of damage).

Between combats or stressful situations, hit dice come back. The rate of return depends on the GM, and healing rules. If all the dice come back it will be more cinematic. It makes sense if no dice come back (because it’s luck) or if all the dice come back (because it’s experience).

Hit Dice

HD are a combination of experience, capacity for fatigue, will to survive, and luck. They can go down without causing a problem until you hit zero.

Traditionally they’re just used to track personal (and physical) hurt. With a broader interpretation they’re the character’s safety net in any situation. Why not use Hit Dice in social situations, or infiltration, or magical duels, etc.? Doing so requires a couple of changes:

  1. If HD are a more general resource, how are wounds dealt? How do characters die?
  2. If you have a class-based system, how do you make sure the fighter can take more punishment in a fight than the magic-user — especially if you’re rolling the same shape dice for everyone?


Going beyond death (or dismemberment) — the MC moves from Apocalypse World are good for some ideas about consequences when the dice clock goes down to zero:

  1. Deal Harm. I like the idea of applying damage directly to stats (i.e. the Classic Traveller way). Optionally, require some kind of saving throw to avoid permanent injury or death. This would mean healing spells work a bit differently.
  2. Announce “future badness” or make a mental note of some complication for later use.
  3. Shut off a course of action (e.g. stealthy action, seduction, research)
  4. Take something away (a skill, an item, magic, contacts) either temporarily or permanently.

Character Classes

How many dice for each character class? If this were combat only, you could start fighters with three dice, rogues with two and mages with only one.

Another way to do it: start everyone with a base number of hit dice (say two, increasing with level), but each class has extra dice in certain circumstances:

  • Fighters get 2 extra dice in combat, every time. So even if they’re down on their hit dice, they will start any new combat with two new dice right there. Other classes don’t get that.
  • Similarly Mages get 2 extra dice in psychic or magical combat, every time.
  • Rogues could get 2 extra dice for social situations. Or they could get a floating pool of one-use dice that other classes don’t have.


In no particular order, here are some other permutations of dice clocks.

Pooling Hit Dice for a Global Clock

If teamwork is needed, the party can pool their dice together into one big pool, representing a common action (e.g. stealth). If this happens, make sure everyone who’s in the group rolls dice. Those characters who are bad at stealth actions should be a liability and knock everyone’s clock down.

More than one clock

If you have more than one threat clock, use two different colours of dice, obviously. This would work if the party were, say, fighting a whole bunch of goblins and one powerful sorcerer.

Two Colours

The Dice Horde

For combat the GM can roll one big pool of dice to represent a horde of monsters. Just decide how many attacks or actions that horde can take at one time.

Clock Priority and Interference

When the dice are rolled, highest numbers are knocked down first. So if you roll a 6, 4 and 3, the 6 needs to go down before you tackle the other two.

You could use this rule to create interference. In the above example if the goblins’ dice are higher than the sorcerer’s, that means they’re getting in the way and the party must deal with them first before they can knock the sorcerer down.


This could also be used for the party. Let’s say all the players put down a separate group of dice for each characters; even if the Fighter should be in the front line, if the Magic User has a higher Hit Die, then they might cop an attack first. Offset this by letting the fighter actively sacrifice their dice to protect the MU.

The Sacrifice

Sacrifice one of your own dice to protect someone (say, prevent a consequence landing on another character) or to do something cool (maybe even a narrative control mechanic). Bid your dice like poker chips.

The ability to sacrifice under certain conditions could be class-dependent (fighters to protect, rogues to do stunts, etc.)

Staged Events

If you have stages of effect (say, stages of alert in an infiltration) where at certain points something happens (the guard is doubled, the score is moved to the vault, etc.), represent with two different colours of dice in two pools. When all your orange dice get knocked down, that’s a stage 1 event. When the purple dice are gone too, that’s a stage 2 event.

This process probably doesn’t with the interference option, however — the pools are knocked down sequentially.

Dice in the open

By default, roll the dice on the table and let the players see them and decide how to handle them. Be clear about what those dice represent, e.g. how close the guards are to sounding the alarm, luck running out in a chamber full of traps with pressure pads, etc.

Hidden Dice

If you keep dice back it should be because there’s something the PCs haven’t seen yet that you want to keep track of. Roll that dice clock behind a GM’s screen or something.

Final Remarks

I’m not sure yet if this system has legs, or if it’s another fantasy heartbreaker. Certainly running OSR combat Carcosa style but with the stabilised hit dice has a couple of benefits: one, the dice on the table are a stake and something nice and tactile, and two, book-keeping is easier with low integers.

Appendix: Summaries

Provided for context in case the reader isn’t familiar with the various sources.

Carcosa’s Hit Dice

Carcosa handles Hit Dice like this:

  • at the start of any given combat, randomly determine your dice shape (d4 to d12)
  • then roll that many dice and leave them on the table
  • damage then comes off each die, starting with the highest
  • and at the end of combat lasting harm is counted in the number of dice you’re down.

The benefits of doing it this way are

  1. it frames the combat and puts something physical on the table, like Lace and Steel’s duelling minigame
  2. it reminds the players and GM that something is at stake right now
  3. it keeps lasting wounds between combat in low numbers, which is tidier.

Otherwise it doesn’t change much function-wise.

If you don’t care for the dice randomness this post (Necropraxis) suggests flattening this out to d6s for everyone.

Blades in the Dark’s Clocks

Blades in the Dark expands on Apocalypse World’s clocks for a wider range of situations including:

  • Danger (the clock advances as the situation gets more dangerous, the PCs are at greater risk of detection, etc.)
  • Races (two clocks ticking towards a common objective; use when it matters who gets there first)
  • Mission counters (time sensitive stuff)
  • Tug of War (one side advances the clock, the other winds it back)

And so on. Interesting that John Harper doesn’t use a personal clock to measure character damage, as is Apocalypse World’s way. Note also that Harper uses the clock as a variable count where zero represents the change of state, rather than having something happen at each segment per the advice in Baker’s book.

I love the concept of clocks, although I’ve never been satisfied with their explanation in AW, and while BitD’s kickstart gives a lot of options it doesn’t give enough examples of play. It’s not clear in either game whether the clocks are meant to be in view of the players — that would make sense, right? Otherwise, what’s the point of ramping up that tension if the players don’t feel it, and take steps to address it? But AW is clear that clocks are a prompt for the MC, not the players.

Hollowpoint’s Catch

Hollowpoint is all about the dice — the core of the game is a dice conflict where matched sets of d6 are used to attack each other’s dice pools. One of the mechanics is the Catch, which is a pool of dice that represent a mission objective (steal a thing, get some information, assassinate someone) which can only be knocked out by one skill.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Breaking Waves

I’ve been thinking about this “wave” business a bit more. Not with the view to putting things in boxes, but more what it means as a pop-sociological analysis.

  1. Waves of things are characterised by peaks and troughs; they’re frequently discontinuous (q.v. first, second and third-wave feminism).
  2. Waves mean a resurgence of interest, after a period of low activity. The OSR itself is a second wave.
  3. A wave can be a response to the deficiencies of the previous wave (or the trough that came after it).

It looks like the “second wave retroclone” monicker was coined as early as 2011.

‘Second-wave’ retroclones is a name I made up for those systems that a) are built on the work of the original wave, which used the OGL and reverse-engineered the d20 SRD to make it possible to publish stuff that emulated older editions and b) are now focused on supporting a specific style of play rather than a particular edition. I will repeat this term until it sticks.

(Matt Finch’s article appears gone but a lot of the other links work. Later Tavis Allison calls back to this post here)

Anyway, if you want to stick to this kind of “wave” analysis, the period we’re looking at is around 3 years for the OSR. Compare that with the 5 year cycle of design evolution proposed by Vincent Baker (Narrative Control ep. 82). Compare that with how long games are generally in development.

What is the rate-determining step for these changes? Games aren’t designed in a vacuum, so it may be the social component — how quickly ideas propagate through forums, get support and willing playtesters. That’s a separate issue from the logistics of getting the thing made.

Who benefits from calling these first, second and third wave products? Allison is an advocate of the transition from first to second wave products, with the benefits of better product definition, commercial focus and higher professional standards. But if the design cycle’s rate determining step is social propagation then talking in these terms is also likely to reduce those barriers, lubricating the wheels of design and shortening the interval. By that analysis, a 3 year cycle may be a credible proposition.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Third Wave Things

Third Wave Feminism is a topic I know little about, but thankfully there’s Wikipedia.

Third-wave feminism refers to several diverse strains of feminist activity and study, whose exact boundaries in the history of feminism are a subject of debate, but are generally marked as beginning in the early 1990s and continuing to the present. The movement arose partially as a response to the perceived failures of… second-wave feminism during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s [which focused on] the experiences of white, middle-class women and was not a proper representation of all women. [The third] wave of feminism expands the topic of feminism to include a diverse group of women with a diverse set of identities. Rebecca Walker coined the term “third-wave feminism” in a 1992 essay.

Emphasis is mine.

What this tells us is that it’s perfectly legitimate to coin the term as a forward-thinking exercise; although obviously to be credible your peers must agree.

(there’s a payoff for being the one who said it first, of course)

The other point is that by the Third Wave it’s much more likely to diverge to many points than converge to a single one. The reason for this should be plain to see — increases in diversity with expanding audiences and advocates.

That doesn’t mean that when one person says “the Third Wave is this” they’re wrong; just that it’s only their singular vision.

With that in mind, this is my alternative, slightly more diverse vision. The Third Wave of the OSR, if such a thing is even a thing, will be characterised thus:

  1. a divergence of intent through system. Some games like Into the Odd refine the perceived experience of dungeon crawling by cutting out the fat in the system. Others like Beyond the Wall refocus the kind of narrative or genre, while keeping the advantage of compatibility, etc.
  2. a divergence of format that challenges established formats — production values, artwork, products that look good on the coffee table, zines, even digest sized products as an alternative to traditional formats. All this means is, people are more and more open to different content delivery methods.
  3. a divergence of experience. These are the settings and adventures, which are already present as the true OSR brand ambassadors; this has been diverging ever since the so-called First Wave.

Claiming that something is Third Wave anything is fair game; it should be debated and challenged constantly, and we’re better off for those discussions. Not as an exercise in cultural demarcation, but to show us where the gaps are and what new territories remain. Just be wary of someone using the term for marketing purposes.

Monday, 4 May 2015

On Violence

Guy Windsor has been thinking about violence lately.

I’ve also been thinking about violence. I started when Jeremy Clarkson punched Oisin Tymon; before Ken MacQuarrie’s findings on the incident around the 25th of March, even before the petition to reinstate Clarkson passed the million mark on the 20th.

I have no opinion on the BBC’s handling of the case. I don’t care if the BBC used this altercation as an excuse to rid themselves of Clarkson; it’s far more likely that they tried everything they could to avoid sacking him, given his export value.

These are the interesting facts:

  • 1,000,000 people demanded Clarkson be reinstated before they knew the facts
  • Clarkson showed almost immediate remorse, took responsibility for his actions and took steps to make amends
  • Oisin Tymon offered no resistance, and afterwards wanted to put the whole thing behind him
  • Before the full facts were known The Times ran a lifestyle article on celebrity meltdowns and how Tymon’s case wasn’t unique… and how any producer worth their salary would have a contingency plan — by bribing a chef to stay late, etc. (unfortunately I expect the link is behind a paywall. But here’s Katie Hopkins blaming Tymon and telling him to “man up”)

What was in the minds of Clarkson, Tymon, the Times editors, and the 1000000 people asking for Clarkson to be reinstated?

(I won’t ask what goes through Hopkins’ mind)

Windsor’s thought experiment considers three different instances of a broken leg, where the emotional response can be neutral, negative or positive; he then applies this logic to Buzz Aldrin’s punching of a certain conspiracy theorist:

I suggest that your emotional response to the injury is at least as important as the injury itself. Deciding whether Buzz Aldrin’s punch was right or wrong requires that you take the context of it into account (I was careful to link to the version of the video that shows the build-up); and determining the damage done necessarily entails finding out how the prick (I will not call him a victim, because he was the victimiser, neither will I mention his name) responded emotionally to the violence. Did it give him nightmares? Probably not. He probably went back to his posse wearing his aching jaw as a badge of pride.

Those involved in the Clarkson case will also have gone through this process of wondering whether the violence against Tymon was justified. In that process some people downplayed the severity of the attack — James May called it a “dust-up” and “not that serious” but that was probably because he’d been doorstepped and sensibly avoided saying something inflammatory. But what about the 1000000 who petitioned for Clarkson, or The Times, or Katie Hopkins? Do they really view physical and verbal assault as the cost of doing business?

And of course we don’t have Tymon’s view on it. He just wants to put it behind him; no doubt it’s been remarkably stressful on him and his family, no doubt it was a horrible incident both physically and psychologically, no doubt he’s wondered if the violence he suffered was somehow justified because of a personal failing. Of course we don’t think about these questions — because he’s a man and men should “take it”, because it’s “not that serious”, because he’s in the realm of Celebrity and Celebs… just do that kind of thing.

And that’s also the Clarkson Effect. People justified on his behalf, even without the full facts, because of his following, and they blamed Tymon and the liberal BBC, not him.

Back to Col. Aldrin, I don’t like to think about whether the punch was justified. That’s a matter for the law. But as Windsor puts it “the person who got punched was using our culture’s restrictions on violence to get away with a different kind of violence”, and I’d probably want to punch him too. Nevertheless I’m glad Col. Aldrin did and not me.


Recently Ione Wells spoke out about her sexual assault in an open letter that made national news.

Ms Wells’ letter talks about the way violence is an attack not only on persons but their communities.

I don’t know who the people in your life are. I don’t know anything about you. But I do know this: you did not just attack me that night. I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am a girlfriend, I am a pupil, I am a cousin, I am a niece, I am a neighbour, I am the employee who served everyone down the road coffee in the café under the railway. All the people who form those relations to me make up my community, and you assaulted every single one of them. You violated the truth that I will never cease to fight for, and which all of those people represent – that there are infinitely more good people in the world than bad.
This letter is not really for you at all, but for all the victims of attempted or perpetrated serious sexual assault and every member of their communities. I’m sure you remember the 7/7 bombings. I’m also sure you’ll remember how the terrorists did not win, because the whole community of London got back on the Tube the next day. You’ve carried out your attack, but now I’m getting back on my tube.

I wouldn’t dare compare her ordeal with a celebrity punch-up. But the responses to #NotGuilty say a lot about the culture of entitlement and tolerance for psychological violence towards — which is I think exactly the same root as dismissing the violence towards Tymon and telling him to “man up”, because 1000000 people feel entitled to Top Gear.


I was going to say something about martial training — which is necessarily violent, but the intent is not to terrorise or cause injury. At least, not in any decent school. But this post is already a bit long so I’ll save that for another day.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Nixian

The word “Nixian” turns up plenty on a google search, but to my knowledge has not been used to describe Garth Nix in the same way as, say, Lovecraftian or Moorcockian or Dickensian. Of course for the -ian suffix to work you need to either

  • have an uncommon name, or
  • have gotten there first.

If you’ve got a bit of a boring name then there’s less chance of it becoming the one-word definition of your subgenre, no matter how interesting your writing is. And as for the second, the fact is a lot of the people who got there first are male and white (q.v. my three examples above). LeGuinian is definitely a thing (see Leguinian Jump in the SF Dictionary of New Criticism), and I kind of feel Butlerian should be wrestled away from Frank Herbert on principle. But that’s for another time…

Anyway, “Nixian”. Using it because it’s useful, because I feel it has more depth than just being yet another fantasy setting. Consider this:

In the Nixian genre, Death is about fear and about regret and clinging to life and being unable to move on. Everyone has to go through Death to move on, regardless of how good or evil they were in Life. And there are terrible things that lurk in Death, the Greater Dead which may waylay and subjugate souls and absorb or control them. Death isn’t restful, it’s the start of another fight. It’s about being caught between the horror of what comes next and the horror of eternal slavery to the Greater Dead. There is no benificent lord or master in Death. You die, you’re pretty much on your own, and if you can’t get through the Ninth Gate in time you’re subject to the whims of necromancers and the Abhorsen and Fifth Gate Resters.

Also in the Nixian genre there are a great many beings branded as “Free Magic” creatures who the Charter claim are inimical to human life. Many were subjugated by humans in the forming of the Charter, and bound into things or locked in glass cases or forced into bottles wrapped with golden wire. The humans insist it’s because those Free Magic creatures were wild and dangerous and inimical to life that they had to be locked up for good. Yeah, right.

So the Nixian genre is all about humans who serve the Charter and its fragile hierarchy, and are therefore afraid of everything the Charter says is bad, including dying, Death, the Free Magic creatures they don’t understand, and other Humans who reject the Charter as a Bad Thing.

None of this should be a surprise — as everyone knows, the Shadows were the good guys all along.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Musings on Hollowpoint


Before I started gushing about Beyond the Wall my best buy of 2013 was Hollowpoint. But now it’s 2015 and honestly, I haven’t been playing it nearly enough. So, while trying to draw up a last-minute scenario for Concrete Cow I started thinking about what makes Hollowpoint work. These are my thoughts in no particular order.

It’s a game about bad people killing bad people for bad reasons, which gave my friends very specific pre-conceptions about what you actually do. It’s easy to think this game is all about high-functioning sociopaths killing everything around them in a sort of ultra-violent Feng Shui, based on the cover. It isn’t. The most important thing about it is each character

  • is so supremely good at their job that they live in a different world to normal people
  • thinks they’re the best
  • likes to work alone, and hates to have to ask for help.

What this means is when you have a mission, each and every character should feel they would be able to do the mission solo, if they had the right resources. Of course they don’t, because the mission is just a bit more than any one character can handle. But even though they’re painfully aware that they need to work with others to get the job done, they don’t like it.

In other words each character should have a strong opinion on how the mission gets done. And more to the point, when it comes to players declaring which skill gets used in a conflict, that’s an open declaration of this is my plan and it’s the best plan. At this stage players should not be negotiating on how to tackle the mission together. Asking for help comes later, and has its own mechanics to make the PCs feel uncomfortable.

But in order for each player to have a very clear view of what their character thinks is the right thing to do, they must have a clear view of the mission objective. At this point it’s OK for the characters to negotiate and argue about where they are collectively going to go; those discussions will help focus on the objective. But if the objective is ambiguous, that’s a problem because this isn’t an investigation game of gathering clues, it’s a game of taking action and overcoming obstacles. Of course you can run investigations using the Hollowpoint rules, but that just makes the objective “get this piece of information” and whatever skills the players feel are right get applied to getting that information — stealing, conning, killing, intimidating, seducing.

So yeah, the operative word in the strapline isn’t bad, because you don’t need the PCs to be bad. It isn’t even killing, because you can use this system with no KILL skill. No, the operative word is reasons. Reasons and objectives drive the character forward.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

d100 Hate

There’s a debate going on somewhere about whether the mechanic of roll under percentile (as used by BRP, RuneQuest, CoC, etc.) is “disdained”. And on this rare occasion the forum debate is enough to inspire a post…

To clarify roll-under: you get your dice and try to roll equal to or less than your skill. This is compared to roll-and-add where you roll dice, add a modifier and try to hit a target number.

Some of the cited detractions of roll-under percentile are:

  • No bell curve (inferior to 3d6, which is also a roll-under for GURPS)
  • No range of interesting results (binary pass/fail)
  • Confusing bonus, e.g. is +20% a benefit (applied to skill before the roll) or a penalty (applied to the roll itself)?
  • Subtraction is harder than addition
  • Roll under a modified value is less intuitive than roll and add

I’m not going to talk about bell curves. Bell curves are useful in considering a range of performance over a group of people; applying them to individual skill rolls makes sense if you don’t know who is going to be performing the task (maybe your PC is a gestalt?), otherwise it’s a matter of taste, and less transparent than a linear roll.

The other items are worth considering, because they all represent some kind of cognitive load on the player. This includes the “fix” for the binary pass/fail in d% which I and plenty of other people house rule as

Pass = full %

“Success” = half %

“Expert success” = one fifth %

“Critical” = one twentieth %

Of course you need to attach meanings to Success, Critical, etc. (and add fails, fumbles). But, as long as the player knows the order of desirable outcome, everything’s fine.

Really there’s two objections:

  1. Whether d% is aesthetically pleasing to the players (and I think that has as much to do with percentiles, as contending with long lists of skills; see below)
  2. Whether d% actually causes more of a cognitive load than other systems.


Can d% really be aesthetically pleasing? A pleasing RPG design is going to be one where the player can visualise what they are going to do in the game.

  • At the iNtuitive end of the scale, there’s an appreciation for the character as a rounded individual and their sense of place within the game world. This is helped by pretty character sheets and meaningful names. This is probably not helped by long lists of narrowly-defined skills, particularly if they have obscure names.
  • At the Sensing end of the scale, there’s the effect the character can have on the game world, and therefore what they should spend most of their time doing. Having a system where skill aptitude is declared absolutely is beneficial here, and you don’t get more absolute than a percentage.

You can overcome the long lists issue by chunking the information. ORE games like Reign do this by clustering skills under headings. RuneQuest 3 did this as well. If you do this you may please your iNtuitive types but the Sensing types would rather have an alphabetical list, thanks.1

There’s one other aesthetic consideration: roll low may give less of a sense of achievement than roll high for a success. I think that’s down to the norms of the group. People learn that they want to roll low fairly quickly.

Cognitive Load

First, consider the granularity of success; if you apply the fix above to the % roll, you require the player to make some mental division to establish whether they’ve achieved an extraordinary success. A linear die roll with adds makes things easier.

Well, maybe not. On one side you have the effort of division, and on the other side you have the need to keep several factors in working memory. Typically roll and add systems involve adding two or more numbers together before the roll is made (e.g. Unisystem, Interlok), and once you factor in additional bonuses, time to scan the character sheet for the right stats, and the GM’s time to think of a target number, you probably have around the same amount of effort.

It may even be more effort. In a d% system where rolling under 1/5 of the skill is important, that calculation will be done after the roll and only when the player thinks there’s a chance they qualify.

Roll and Add Roll Under %
  1. GM declares stat and/or skill, may declare difficulty
  2. Players and GM negotiate bonus/penalty, apply as needed
  3. Player retrieves information from character sheet and rolls dice
  4. Player sums up result.
  5. GM compares result with their difficulty.
  6. Outcome is declared.
  1. GM declares skill for roll
  2. Players and GM negotiate bonus or penalty, apply as needed
  3. Player retrieves information (single %) and rolls
  4. If the roll is significant (e.g. near a point where under-1/5-skill is a consideration) player then makes calculation. Otherwise, dice stand.
  5. GM compares result with their difficulty.
  6. Declare outcome.

Let’s ignore steps 1 and 2 for now, and assume it’s no more of an effort for the GM to declare “roll $ATTRIBUTE plus $SKILL” than it is to declare “roll SKILL%”. Let’s assume any negotiation step will take the same amount of time (mostly dominated by players arguing if they’re in cover or not, etc.)

Let’s also ignore step 3, and assume it takes the same amount of time for players to scan their sheets and get the information they need to make the test. Not always true when the player needs to retrieve 2 pieces of information vs. just one, but we’ll forget that now.

The real load comes at steps 4 and 5. In step 4, on the left the player has to add several numbers together (easy, but harder with more numbers). On the right, the player has to divide (harder), but not always; when they do roll, it’s because they’re motivated to make the calculation because they might get a better result out of it.

OK, what about the load on the GM? On the right, the GM has to contend with a limited number of outcomes (“Fail”, “Success”, “Critical”) and the meanings of those outcomes will be established in the norms of the group and in the rules.

On the right, the GM has to go through an interpretive step (comparing how much better the player rolled than the number the GM has in her head; is it one point better, 3 points better, etc.). That’s a load of arithmetic you’ve heaped on the GM. The only way the GM can get away from this burden is to accept a binary pass/fail as the only outcome, something which d% is criticised for.

Arguably the d% system presents less of a burden than additive systems, even simple ones. Why then do some people react badly to d%? I propose that the strength of d% is exactly the reason some people can’t stand it: some players don’t want to know how likely an outcome is. If there’s only a 30% chance of success, why make the attempt? But if there’s an unknown but slender chance, choosing to blindly roll is seen as heroic, rather than tactical. Furthermore the promise of some open-ended rolling is alluring and optimistic, whereas the chance of rolling 5% or less is pessimistic.

So that’s it, then. This isn’t to do with cognitive load at all, it all swings back to aesthetics. Gamers who hate d% are incurable optimists and fantasists, wilfully ignoring realities and probabilities, and gamers who embrace d% are realists and pessimists. It would explain why d% works so well for Cthulhu.

  1. INtuitive types probably don’t like the Big List of Skills approach (myself included). Each skill is of very precise function, and there’s not much room to interpret experience from one skill benefitting another skill, and for some of us that doesn’t make much sense. But that’s not a problem, that’s the game. If you don’t like that play a different game with broad-brush characters like Everway or Over the Edge or Summerland or Ghostbusters.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Troll and Hollowpoint Probs

A brief nod to the fantastically useful Troll, a dice roller and probability calculator. I used it to estimate the probabilities of rolling matches in Hollowpoint or a similar D6 mechanic. Brief summary in a not-very-pretty table:

  2d 3d 4d 5d 6d 7d 8d 9d 10d
Nothing 83 56 28 9 2 0 0 0 0
Anything 17 44 72 91 98 100 100 100 100
One Set 17 44 65 64 43 20 7 2 1
Two Sets 0 0 7 27 52 62 51 33 18
Three Sets 0 0 0 0 4 18 40 54 54
Four Sets 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 11 26
Five Sets 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1
At least triple 0 3 10 21 37 54 71 84 93
At least two sets 0 0 7 27 56 80 93 98 99
At least double+triple 0 0 0 4 17 40 64 82 93
At least three sets 0 0 0 0 4 18 42 65 81
At least quad 0 0 0 2 5 11 18 28 40


p>Interesting outcomes there. If you want to have a system where PCs get more than 1 set per round the sweet spot is a pool of around 6 dice. If triples are significant then they start to appear around the same time; and if quads are significant, you get one about 1 time in 20 for a 6d pool, but they stay relatively unlikely up to 10d.

The thing about Hollowpoint is that burning a trait automatically bumps up the threshold by 2 dice, but the probabilities just shift 2 columns to the right. Also for info, Hollowpoint base dice pools are 1 to 6. To be continued. 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Gaming in the Gibson Continuum

The Tears of Envy blog has a project on called Cyberpunk 1984 (not Orwell, but the year Neuromancer was published) capturing Cyberpunk as an artistic movement.

Cyberpunk has been and gone. The successor to cyberpunk is–what? Transhumanism, I suppose, given the promise of GURPS Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase.

GURPS Cyberpunk

GURPS is all about the cross-genre toolkit, of course; so it’s not surprising that the Cross-Genre Cyberpunk sidebar in GURPS Cyberpunk (1990) mentions GURPS Space, with this rather prescient statement:

“The big thing to remember about far-future cyberpunk is that it will be truly ultra-tech.  The mind and body changes available to a 23rd-century Solid Citizen would probably amaze, disgust and frighten that 2050 netrunner!”

Cyberpunk Gaming

The first edition of the Cyberpunk rpg is set in 2013. The future is here, with chrome, shoulderpads and big hair.

Interface Zero is purported to be an updated Cyberpunk for our wireless, overlayed augmented reality HUD world. From what I know of IZ it appears to embrace transhumanism as well as updating technology to include wireless communication, etc.

But what if that’s not what I want? What if I want to run a truly anachronistic CP2013 (or 2020) game? Something that harkens back to the unbelievably dated 80s premise, big hair and corporate greed and all? That would require quite a suspension of disbelief. Off the top of my head a few features of a “Gibson Continuum” are:


1. Always plugged in. There is no wireless in the Gibson Continuum. Manual emergency disconnects from a cyberdeck before black ICE hits may result in physical damage to the cranial sockets. It’s going to be a PITA for Solos with smartlinks to their weapons, too–they’re likely to snag that flying lead on every doorknob and coat hook. Unless it’s 2013 and there are no more coat racks, punk.

2. Tiny screens and massive storage. That’s right, the highest tech computer uses a 14in green-on-black CRT. At the same time, information storage is on good old reliable standard: VHS. Or maybe Laserdisc, if you’re lucky.

3. Stuff is heavy; that Cyberdeck weighs at least 8lbs, and your VHS video camera is huge. Cybernetic eyes may require hardware exernal to the eye socket. Overall the Gibson Continuum’s encumbrance rules eclipse the cyberware humanity rules.


4. Kibble.

5. High profile body-mod labs with brand-name flash (Sendai dermatrodes, etc.)

6. Exotic locations with portmanteau identifiers, e.g. San Angeles.

7. Neon and chrome.

8. Literal mapping in Cyberspace where nodes correspond to virtual 3D space–so if you want to shop online, you need to enter the virtual store and go to the correct shelf for your goods.


9. Relative ease of living “off the grid”; satellite imaging is behind our current tech, personal GPS doesn’t exist.

10. Orbital communities.

11. Vector graphics.

12. Rockerboys, Fixers, and Solos, oh my.

That’s all for now. The list will grow and be refined–especially after mining the visual media list for inspiration.

Visual Media List

A brief list of media for visual style cues. Most of these come from the GURPS:CP list, though a couple (Until the End of the World, Wild Palms) post-date the book.

Until The End Of The World

Wild Palms

Max Headroom

Total Recall

The Running Man



Overdrawn at the Memory Bank


Blade Runner


Strange Days

Johnny Mnemonic

Afterword: Essay List  


p>A Cyberpunk Manifesto

Notes Towards a Post-Cyberpunk Manifesto (Slashdot; linked from the Tears of Envy blog post)

Eutopia (sic) is Scary (uses the same quotation I used above from GURPS Cyberpunk) and the (maybe a bit more relevant) follow up essay, Why is the future so absurd?

Two mentions of The Gibson Continuum: this blog post and this Science Fiction Studies essay by Thomas A. Bredehoft