Design Diary: Resolution Mechanic

This is another post about my work in progress, Quintessence of Dust, where I lay out the game’s resolution mechanic and how I’ve gotten there. The first post and starting point on this topic is here.

I started out just wanting to experiment with something other than D&D Next’s d20 + modifiers, or the d20 + skill die + modifiers model used in an earlier playtest packet. Replacing a d20 with 2d10 isn’t rocking anyone’s world in itself, but I thought about the Injuries and Wounds system in SIFRP. It’s great and all, it really gets the grittiness across, but maybe I could make it easier to track if I trimmed out either Injuries (-1 to the roll) or Wounds (-1 die to the roll). Death-spiral mechanics are a Very Dangerous Idea in tabletop games, but I think there’s a right way and a wrong way. More on that in a second.

Another not-new idea is a roll-and-keep die mechanic – roll however many dice, keep some equal or smaller number to total up your score. L5R/7th Seas does it, WaRP does it, Iron Kingdoms does it… it’s one of the main techniques. I can’t think of a system that has treated the unkept die as something worth using, but there are a lot of systems out there, so if I’ve overlooked one that does pay attention to an unkept die, please let me know. I occasionally have original ideas, but I feel like my strong suit is in stitching together other designs and ideas in a new way.

I first adopted the idea of not keeping all of the dice because, while a skilled character can do better than an unskilled one, I wanted to confine them to roughly the same band of success/failure outcomes, and govern the finer differentiation some other way. To put that another way, I think bounded accuracy is an incredibly useful idea for avoiding some of the long-term problems found in tabletop games.

My phrasing may make it obvious enough that the dice pools I’m working with don’t add an ever larger number of dice to control their scaling, as in L5R or WaRP. The baseline dice pool is 2d10 + ability modifier (typically a range from -3 to +3). The third die comes from your skill training – for example, you might have a d4 in Stealth. Now, a d4 could roll higher than a d10, but the odds obviously aren’t great. The skill die improves, though. The 2d10, on the other hand, are called “core dice” in the system, and they are mostly fated to go down over the course of an encounter. One of your core dice represents your physical capability, while the other represents your mental and spiritual state. This is where my death spiral mechanics come in – when you decide to take a Wound in order to mitigate hit point damage, you step down your physical die, in exchange for shaving a few hit points off of the incoming damage. There are also mechanics to demoralize opponents or magically assault their mental stamina, stepping down their mental die. The intention is that, since the mental die is seldom stepped down and the skill die never is, there’s a significant mitigating factor to the death spiral.

Players also receive a flat-add bonus from training in specific tasks – specialties within a skill, that is. A complete die pool expression, then, is (core dice + skill die + ability score modifier + task bonus). A low-powered character (or just one acting outside their specialty) might roll 2d10 + 1d4 + 2, while a top-end character who has taken a physical beating might roll 1d6 + 1d10 + 1d12 + 6. The target number, which Quintessence currently calls Action Difficulty (AD), ranges from 5 (easy) to 21 or higher (legendary difficulty). (Short of being unconscious, the worst available case is 2d4-3. I am compelled to admit that that guy is completely hosed.

There’s a bit more messing around to do with dice results, though. You always want to roll high, but there are good reasons that your kept dice might not be your two highest dice. If your kept dice are doubles, you have a critical opportunity; if the roll comes out to a success, it’s a critical success (critical hit, in combat). If the roll comes out to a failure, it’s a critical failure. Since the person rolling the dice has such an ability to manipulate results, critical success and failure improve on the outcome, but not by radical degrees. The person rolling the dice – player or GM – chooses the effect of critical successes from a short list, while the GM always chooses the effect of a critical failure (from a short list written to invite more range of interpretation).

Request: If you’re the kind of person who can figure out the odds and help me crunch the numbers, I wouldn’t turn down some help here. I don’t quite know how to get my head around that part.

There’s no payoff for exceeding the AD – Quintessence doesn’t handle degrees of success that way. Instead, many situations involve benefits for the value on the unkept die. This is how better results trend toward characters with superior skill. Additionally, the best ability modifiers and task bonuses (maxing out at +6, a little higher if you can apply Contacts, Fame, Lore, or some magical bonuses) give you the opportunity to reach the AD without spending your best die results, and allow you to keep lower-value doubles, such as succeeding on double 4s where a lower-skill character would fail. I haven’t yet created all of the applications of the unkept die, but that’s sort of Phase Two; first I need to get the bones of the system on the page.

Combat and Magic are skills like any other, though Combat is the only skill that all characters get at d4 for free (spellcasters get Magic at d4 as part of buying their header). They resolve success and failure more or less like other skills, except that upon succeeding, there’s a damage roll to resolve. The damage roll is much more like traditional combat rolls in D&D: the weapon or spell’s damage di(c)e + ability modifier + any additional bonuses from magic or special abilities. All of these are kept dice, but the defender can negate some or all of the incoming damage with armor, reflexive defenses such as Giving Ground, and the like. The defender doesn’t roll a check to defend, but the dice result reduces incoming damage directly. All defenses either cost something (possibly including “battlefield position,” in the case of Giving Ground) or have a chance to degrade to a lower level of protection. Armor, for example, has a chance to be damaged, as part of the same die roll. Heavier armor protects against more damage, but has a greater chance to degrade to the level of protection offered by lighter armor. The lowest grade of armor (the level where Light Armor starts, and the level where Medium and Heavy Armor wind up) offers limited protection, but might keep offering that minimal protection for a long time.

There’s a real possibility that the whole deal is too complicated. There’s no question that (d20 + flat add vs DC) is simpler, though enough juggling goes on with numerical scaling, conditional modifiers, and the like that it’s nowhere near as simple as it seems on its face. It would be a major setback at this point to discover that this resolution mechanic is actually miserable and needs to be scrapped, but better to learn it now than five minutes before release.

Thanks for reading about my continuing work on Quintessence of Dust!

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