Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What Else Besides Dice?


I’m going to talk just a little bit about resolution systems today- specifically using things other than dice. Nothing too deep. I just got back from Forge Midwest and grad school is still swamping me with work. But anyway, I haven’t made a real post in a while, and I thought I it’s about time I did.

First, let me say that not using dice in your resolution system does not automatically make your game cool or awesome. Nor does it instantly garner you some kind of “indie cred” with other designers if that’s the sort of thing you’re after. Choosing not to use dice will not make your game any better if all the other mechanics don’t hold up on their own. Do not interpret this as a call for more diceless games or an article extolling the virtues of non-traditional resolution systems. This is simply an informational post about a certain portion of resolution mechanics I’ve either used, toyed with, or played with in some way. Also, do not mistake this as an exhaustive list of how to use non-dice resolutions mechanics. These are just the ones I’ve considered at some point. Maybe you’ll find them useful too :)

Cards: A deck of cards can be a useful set of randomizers to use instead of dice. Without the jokers, you have 52 possibilities. That’s quite a few, and may give you the range of possibilities you want for your game if a d20 is too few and a d100 is too much. You can also organize cards into various groups. You have 4 suits, 2 colors, 12 face cards (not counting aces, 16 if you do), evens and odds. Depending on how often you want a certain result to come up, you can look at card groupings to get percentages and probabilities. If you decide to include jokers, you have the opportunity to throw in really rare or powerful effects when the jokers do get played that won’t come up so often that they break the game, but often enough that they get noticed. Also, don’t overlook the fact that there are already many games out there that use a standard 52 deck of cards. Games like poker, blackjack, and euchre can all be employed by an RPG designer to act as the resolution system itself. They become a game within a game.

Coins: Coin flipping is a game almost everyone has played as a child. It usually involves very low stakes gambling, and provides binary results (heads or tales). However, coins can be expanded in an RPG to where players are flipping multiple coins and checking the results either against another player’s flip, a table of some kind, or a difficulty rating. Coins are fairly accessible, but can be a pain to keep up with if the numbers coins getting flipped gets too high. But the fact that they are quick, easy to find, and can serve double as tokens or currency markers, makes coins a viable choice for RPG resolution.

Dominos: Dominos are seldom used by RPG designers, but they are just as legitimate as anything else. There are several different sets you can get on the market. Some sets go from double zero (a blank domino) to double 6 (six dots on both sides). There are others that go from double zero all the way to double 18! And, of course, there’s everything in between. Dominos can be used in several ways for resolution, and I’m sure there’s some that I won’t list here. First, you can use random draws w/ a comparison of the totals on the dominos to see who wins. A domino that is 6/8 would beet a domino that is 1/2. You could actually build a train of dominos on the table, and if a player want’s his character to do something, but can’t play a tile, then he is unable to act. The dominos would serve as gate keepers in this sense. Players could also possible build their own trains, then spend the dominos as currency throughout the game to gain the effects they want. And there’s plenty more creative uses for dominos in an RPG. The key to this, however, is to take advantage of the properties of the domino. That is, they are physical object, they have two values, probably have varying colors, and rules for a game that uses them already exists.

Tokens: Tokens can be anything from glass beads to plastic disks to rose petals. Tokens keep track of some resource a player has access to or can serve as a countdown to some endgame scenario. They are physical objects and thus, everyone at the table is probably going to know who has how many tokens everyone has available to them. In resolution, tokens can be used in bidding wars, comparisons, gambling, and spending. In a bidding war, players would go back and forth bidding tokens until one person gives up or they both run out. Comparisons between token pools would put an emphasis only on accumulating large numbers of tokens in order to defeat enemies. The more tokens you have, the stronger the foe you can overcome. Gambling is like a bidding war, but instead the winner would receive some amount of tokens back. The loser would lose all of his. Gambling puts an emphasis on resource management and risk-taking. Finally, spending tokens is the simplest way to use them. A player would simply need to spend X number of tokens to generate Y effect. There is no real randomness in that system unless the X is somehow variable and constantly changing.

Point Pools: Point pools are a lot like tokens, however they are easier to keep secret. Typically, there is a spot on a character sheet to track them. They can be used in much the same way tokens can, but don’t require the players to have physical objects at the table to manipulate during the resolution phase of the game. In fact, this is they system I’m using with one of my games that I’ll link over on my design blog once I get the chance. One nice thing about point pools vs. tokens is that trading points between different pools is quite easy. Shift points from your “Power Pool” to your “Relationship Pool” involves just an eraser and a couple pencil marks. This can be done quickly and easily. Counting out tokens, sorting different colors of beads or chips from each other, and stacking them all in a neat pile can be tedious and time consuming.

Talk: Finally, the last non-dice resolution mechanic I’m going to cover is talking. Of all the gimmicky things I mentioned, talking is probably the most basic. In fact, you probably do this all the time in your group. The GM might say, “Okay, you walk into the bar…” and another player replies, “No wait, I want to get something out of the trunk of my car first…” That right there is an example of talk resolving a conflict. An entire game can work like that, however, there has to be a significant “buy-in” by all the players. You, as the designer, are counting on them not to just run wild and describe themselves conquering the world in a single instance of resolution. You’re also not giving the players much to work with. IMO, people generally do feel more comfortable with some “objective” item telling them what happens. Dice, cards, and points are all popular for a reason. Talk can be tricky to incorporate into the actual mechanics of a game. Use it with caution.

Like I said earlier, nothing profound here. Just a simple catalog of a few non-traditional mechanics. I am neither encouraging nor discouraging their use, but I definitely wanted to get this up on my blog for future reference. It’s good to be aware of the wide variety of possibilities out there when it comes to resolution systems. Take care all! :)




Fang Langford said...

Hey Troy!

One we tried was 'guess what number I'm thinking of.' I even worked out a system based on guess proximity that approximated the chances of rolling a specific number or higher on two ten-siders. I should look that up again.

Fang Langford

p.s. Where did you get the idea to use rose petals as tokens? Is it in a game I could find?

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya Fang,

The idea for the rose came from my Game Chef entry this year called Hunter Rose. You can check it out at: