Friday, December 08, 2023

Game Design Part 6 - The Round Die (Nope! The Scene Die)

To add some more variety to power effects without adding randomness, I am considering the inclusion of a special counter called, “The Round Die.”

I am basing this idea on a rules innovation from what is arguably my favorite fantasy based RPG: 13th Age. 13th Age has this thing called, “The Escalation Die.” The Escalation Die is a D6 that is added to the table starting in the second round of play. The die is placed on the number 1 and all players get to add +1 to their dice rolls. This bonus isn’t for the NPCs. It’s for the players only, making all the players get just a little stronger.

In each subsequent round, the die face on the Escalation Die is increased by +1, to a maximum of +6. In this way, the players build momentum every round. It’s a genius idea. In your RPG of choice, if you find that combat takes too long or seems to drag, consider adding the escalation die. It’s an easy addition to almost any game system, and it’s brilliant.

I am stealing the Escalation Die for my game design, but making it my own. I am going to call it the Round Die because it’s value will count the number of the current round. It won’t provide a flat bonus because I don’t think the math in my game is going to work this way. Instead, I want to use it as a means to control the build of tension within a scene.

In my previous entry, I talked about game flow and I introduced what I think is a really interesting concept for an RPG (stolen from many board games.) The idea that on the active player’s turn that player gets to do something cool, but then every other player also gets to do something too, but that something is a lesser degree of cool. I have the active player controlling the arrangement of the shared dice and taking two actions. Then each other player takes one action.

That’s fine, but in a traditional RPG there is no mechanism to control the number of rounds of play. What if game play is over and some players never got the chance to be the active player? They would feel cheated. In traditional games rounds of combat persist until all monsters are defeated. This is controlled by the number of monsters and how many hit points each monster has, and how much damage each player inflicts, yada, yada, yada.

My game is not going to be a combat game. My game is not going to track things like hit points and damage. So how will I handle the ebb and flow of a scene? When will the players be victorious or suffer a defeat? This is where the Round Die will come in. I want all players to get the chance to be the active player. What if all players get to be the active player twice before the end of a scene? That sounds good to me. I’m going to do that with the Round Die.

The Round Die is always of a die type equal to 2x the number of players. This means that in a two player game, the Round Die is a d4. In a three player game, the Round Die is a d6. In a four player game, the Round Die is a d8. In a five player game, the Round Die is a d10. Finally, in a 6 player game, the Round Die is a 12. (Don’t play with more than 6 players and 1 GM. That’s just too much.)

Step 3 in the FLOW of PLAY would become:
The active player increases the Round Die by +1 (If this is the first turn in the scene, set the Round Die to 1 instead.) The active player then rolls four Action Dice and divides the dice into two sets of two.

I have added the term: Action Dice to differentiate the four six sided dice rolled each round to perform actions as distinctive from the Round Die.

The round die can act as a limiter controlling the flow and progression of the scene.

Round Die Type

Round Die Value


























Green represents the start of the scene. Things are just getting started, and the stakes don’t seem too dire. Yellow represents things heating up. Orange is even higher stakes, and red means the scene has reached critical mass. Certain player powers will only be usable during specific “colors” during the scene, with the best abilities only accessible during the “red” rounds.

Once the Round Die reaches it’s maximum value, the scene ends. This would mean that step 8 in my FLOW of PLAY might read:

The GM provides a scene update, based on the options resolved so far. If the Round Die has reached its Maximum Value, then the GM will describe how the scene ends. Did the players achieve their goals, or do they suffer a setback?


So, I realized almost as quickly as I pressed “publish” on this latest post, that it just isn’t going to work. The idea of everyone getting two shots at being the active player during a scene is cool and all, but the variable scene length across player counts just isn’t going to fly.

In a two player game (with the GM as the third “player”) a scene would reach a conclusion far too quickly compared to a six player game. Scene pacing would end up feeling radically different between the different player counts … too different. That’s a problem.

I am going to use the Escalation Die. My desire to use this mechanism as a pacing mechanic during a scene hasn’t changed. I can still have player options that only trigger when the Escalation Die reaches a certain value. I can still get all the benefits that I want, but I need to retain a more consistent scene length.

I may need to update the "starting player" rules so that whoever ended the last scene as the active player is recorded, and the person to their left is guaranteed to be the starting player in the next scene. This will make sure everyone gets a fair shake by the end of a game session.

One idea might be to structure game sessions with three scenes each. The first scene uses the d4, the second uses the d6, and the final scene the d8. This makes the scenes feel different, but isn't based on player count, it's based on story escalation. (This is a good idea.) It might make sense in this case to rename the "Round Die" as the "Scene Die."

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Game Design Part 5 - Flow of Play

Now that I have a basic idea of how dice work in the game, let’s try to bring game play into a little more focus. I've decided that I don’t like the idea of the GM rolling the dice for the players. Here’s a new approach.

Each round, play moves around the table, with players taking turns. The player, whose turn it is, is the active player. All references to dice, refer to standard cube-shaped dice with six sides.

  1. The GM sets the scene.
  2. Determine the active player through a method of your choosing. (High roll, for example.)
  3. The active player rolls four dice and divides the dice into two sets of two.
  4. The dice in the sets defined by the active player are subtracted from each other. The larger die is subtracted from the smaller die in each set. This will produce two numbers in a range from 0 to 5.
  5. Using the numbers that they created, the active player will trigger two options from their character sheet and work with the GM and the other players to resolve the effects of these options on the scene.
  6. Play then moves to the active player’s left (clockwise) and that player chooses one of the two numbers defined by the active player to trigger a single option. The GM and the other players work together to resolve the effects of this option on the scene.
  7. Play continues around the table clockwise, repeating step 6 until all players (except the active player) have triggered one option.
  8. The GM provides a scene update, based on the options resolved so far. Unless the GM declares the end of the scene, play proceeds to step 9.
  9. The player to the active player’s left (clockwise) becomes the new active player.
  10. Return to step 3 and perform steps 3-10 in order. Repeat this sequence until the GM declares the end of the scene (in step 8.)

(This is the flow of play that I am imaging right now, using the die rolling mechanics discussed in part 4.)

Game Design Part 4 - Seeking Player Agency (Six Key Options)

In part 1 of this series, I stated that I needed to look at the answers to some specific questions when determining the game play for my new RPG. To review, these were the questions:

    •  In what different ways do the dice interact with the game? 
    •  How much agency does a player have to influence the dice?
    •  How tactical are these choices? 
    •  What makes the choices interesting?

In what different ways do the dice interact with the game?
Assigning dice to take action is an okay but singular way to interact with the game. Is it enough? I think the interaction between sets of options is interesting enough that for now, that answer is, “Yes.”

How much agency does a player have to influence the dice?
Currently? None at all. That’s not good. Changing this should be a priority.

How tactical are these choices?
With no agency to effect the dice, I don’t see tactical options either. I don’t want to simply create player powers that enable players to change the face of a die, because that eliminates the tension of the focused choice array. I need something else. Hopefully, finding an answer to the second question will also help to solve this problem.

What makes the choices interesting?
As with the first question, I think the interaction between sets of options will be interesting enough to keep these choices engaging.

My focus, it seems, should be on creating some answers to the question, “How much agency does a player have to influence the dice?” perhaps first refining that question to, “In what ways does the player have agency to influence the dice?”

The first thing to pop into my head is a game called, Can’t Stop. Can’t Stop is a great push your luck style dice game created by Sid Saxon. In the game players roll and match sets of dice in order to race up tracks. The thing I’m interested in is in the agency that the player has to affect their dice roll.

Each turn the GM rolls four dice, then the players match these dice into two sets of two. In this way, the players can create a variety of possible totals. Let’s say that you rolled a 1, 3, 4 and 6 on the four dice. You could potentially create 1+3 = 4 and 4+6 = 10, or 1+4 = 5 and 3+6 = 9, or 1+6 = 7 and 3+4 = 7. You end up with three possible sets of two numbers.

I like this method of dice agency very much. Now, players have to discuss how to arrange sets of dice before assigning them to action choices on their character sheets. Different combinations could mean different things to the group, assuming that the entire group is locked into a single set of combinations.

However, these number sets won’t match the patterns that I found in my previous design. Do I now scrap that design after only having thought it up and written about it? Do I keep it and scrap this idea? Before I choose, I’m going to flesh this idea out a little more fully to see what it might look like compared to the previous design.

In this design players will have a sum of two dice to assign to their character sheets. Specifically, they will have two sets of numbers, representing two actions, to assign to their character sheets, and these numbers will be in a range from 2-12.

How? What do those assignment choices look like? The sum of two dice create a number that belongs to a mathematical property known as a bell curve. It means that numbers in the middle of the array are far more likely to occur than numbers on the ends of the array. You might think that the array is: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. In reality the array is: 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4, 5, 5, 5, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 8, 8, 8, 8, 8, 9, 9, 9, 9, 10, 10, 10, 11, 11, 12. That’s a One in Thirty Six chance to roll a 2 or a 12, but a One in Six (Six in Thirty Six) chance to roll a 7.

This makes distributing dice equally between options far more challenging. I don’t think that the four basic options concept, presented in my previous post, will work with these numbers at all. What if instead of addition we used subtraction, always subtracting the larger number from the smaller number, so that negative values were not possible? That array would look like this: 0, 0, 0, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5.

Looking at this distribution of the numbers, I can more easily even the numbers out by grouping certain numbers together. Adding the 4 set to our 0 set gives the same number of options as choosing 1. Adding the 5 to our 3 set gives the same number of options as choosing 2. This puts me back to a base 4 again.

This is only using number values, but I have a slightly weaker set of two and a slightly stronger set of two. This could work much like my single dice placement mechanism from the previous post. If I add an Even/Odd option to this, I will get a fifth and sixth choice with 50/50 probability of each.

     High Options / Most common (50% likelihood of each)
          Option A: You may assign any even value to this option
          Option B: You may assign any odd value to this option

     Mid Options / Average (28% likelihood of each)
          Option C: You may assign value 0 or 4 to this option
          Option D: You may assign a value 1 to this option

     Low Options / Least common (22% likelihood of each)
          Option E: You may assign a value 2 to this option
          Option F: You may assign a value 3 or 5 to this option

There isn’t much difference, probability wise, between the mid and low options. Only 6 percent, which is fairly negligible. I’ll keep it in mind as I move forward, but I don’t think it’s a feature. On the other hand, the difference between the high option and the others is substantial and should be leveraged in the character design.

I also have some Even/Odd pairings in each of the other option sets. Option A pairs with Options C and E. Option B pairs with Options D and F. These groupings can be made to work together. These are interesting design levers that I can manipulate in order to shape the look of the final design.

This new action economy assumes that the GM rolls 4 dice and then allows players to arrange them into two sets of two. These are then subtracted (larger from smaller) to reach a number from 0 to 5. This provides 2 numbers that players can then assign to actions on their character sheet. I believe this satisfies the requirements for some player agency with the dice without breaking other requirements already satisfied.

(Welcome to the world of “game design maths.” I hope this post wasn’t too boring.)

Game Design Part 3 - Four Key Options

Moving forward and working under the assumption that players will use a shared dice pool, the first question that I have is, how? How are the dice used? I don’t want to create a system where higher dice rolls are clearly better than lower ones or vice versa. If the choices are obvious, then they aren’t really choices at all.

I’m thinking about a core set of four options. That may seem like a small number, but we are just getting started. To expand on this, perhaps each player character archetype has two or three power groups, and this block of four options exists inside each one.

I have no idea what that looks like yet, but I’m going to begin creating a rough framework and then figure out what dressing fits the best on top of it. Here is how I see the four key options thing looking. These assume the use of six-sided dice.

     Option A: Assign a die greater than 3 to this option.
     Option B: Assign a die less than 4 to this option.
     Option C: Assign an odd numbered die to this option.
     Option D: Assign an even numbered die to this option.

In this setup, I feel like there’s some interesting interactions. Options A&B as well as Options C&D are each mutually exclusive with an equal chance of each occurring, but Option A can potentially share its die with either C or D, and the same is true of Option B. However, these pairings aren’t equal. 

Option A creates the array 4, 5, 6. In that array, there is only one odd number. This means that Option A is more likely to share a die with Option D than Option C. We can state that Options A and D are complimentary. Likewise, Option B’s array of 1, 2, 3 has only one even number. Option B’s compliment is Option C.

I not only have four distinct choices, but they are mathematically paired into two sets of two complimentary choices. I like that. Sets and subsets of things are usually easier to grok when people are learning to play a game. They also provide me with focus as a designer.

Perhaps two of the options are based on physical abilities and two on mental abilities. Perhaps two of the options are based on personal values and the other two on personal goals. I don’t know yet, but I have something to think about.

(Once again, I find that the first thing I’ve done is fiddle with the dice mechanic. At least this time, I’m not simply trying to find another way to say, “I roll to hit.”)

Monday, December 04, 2023

Game Design Part 2 - RPG Design Mission Statement

The shared dice pool is a common mechanic in many modern board games. One player rolls some dice, and then all players simultaneously use the results to make choices. In order for individual outcomes to vary, players are provided with a wide array of options.

Imagine that a tabletop RPG uses a shared dice pool for its conflict resolution. The GM and the players set the scene and establish the conflict. The GM rolls some dice, and then the players consult their character sheets to decide how to assign these dice to their actions. Players discuss their options based on the numbers showing on the dice. The variety of options available are diverse because each player possesses a unique character.

In this scenario, the numbers on the dice represent player choice and not probability. In my previous post, I stated that no player’s turn should be wasted. Traditional RPG systems answer the question, “Can I do this?” and then use dice to create suspense. If the answer to that question is “No” then the player’s turn ends and their moment in the spotlight is lost.

The shared dice pool answers the question, “What are my options?” For each option, the outcome isn’t in question. Suspense is created not by answering “yes” or “no,” but by answering “what” and “how.” The focus changes from winning and losing (concepts that never belonged in the RPG space to begin with) to creating diversity of action within the context of the shared drama.

These are lofty goals. My brain is burning just thinking about this, but this is what I want. This is the RPG that I want to design. This is my mission statement.