Ein Klein Nachdesign

Sometimes we get half an idea and feel like hashing it out on paper. Eh… digital pixel-paper. Whatever. Sometimes we get half an idea and want to hash it out, and perhaps the public deserves to be privy.

One of the funky things about the early editions ofthe World of Darkness was botching, the process by which a roll would fail Dramatically and make Everything Worse Forever. Holding off for a moment on the issue of whether critical fails are a good thing*, the particular mechanics led to a situation where, at high difficulties, the more dice a player rolled, paradoxically, the greater the chance they would critically fail. Of course, more dice also mean greater odds of rolling successes but… you know… at the expense of a greater chance to screw up royally. If you were up against a difficulty-10 task, you were better off, on the whole, using skills you didn’t have dots in, and the Storyteller throwing you some bonus dice was absolutely not in your best interests.

Enter an idea, which (as far as some limited Internet research can glean) hasn’t been used before… why does a die pool need to track successes? Generally, a dice pool (or other randomizer) can be seen as assuming failure unless proven otherwise… you do not accomplish your goal UNLESS you can collect enough successes. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but can it be flipped on its head? You accomplish anything you set your mind to, UNLESS you accrue too many failures.

Specific example? Okay, let us suggest you have a pool of d6s… a good die type to have. In most cases you roll five of them, but when performing Feats of Strength, you roll 2. Now, whatever you’re rolling for is assumed to succeed, provided you don’t roll any ones. You roll a one, that’s a problem… something has gone wrong and, for the moment, we assume that you fail. A little math will suggest about a 40% chance of performing most tasks, and a 70% chance of performing a feat of strength. But, oh no! You have sweaty hands while you’re trying to lift this car, increasing the difficulty! You add another die to your pool! Now you’re rolling three, and the odds of success are about 58%… a non-trivial spike in difficulty!

Okay, ignore the numbers for now, they’re just placeholders, but the core is there: mo’ dice, mo’ problems. The question attached here is why… what makes this a useful method of randomization?

Well. There are a couple of ideas which are tickling us at the moment.

  1. Assumed success. Nothing new here, really… the principal of “you succeed at anything you try unless the GM/ a player raises an objection” is ancient, and even “Anything you attempt, you will succeed at, because you are heroic like that, so you’re rolling for problems that might occur” has been done before, but it’s a keen idea, and I’m sort of digging the mechanical application of it.
  2. Potential for a fine gradient of failure. A roll which fails will, ultimately, come up with a specific number of Points of Failure… you roll two ones, then your action fails in two ways. No critical failures, but the potential for a difficult plan to go awry in a number of ways. More to the point, if we’re working on an ‘assumed success’ rubric, these points of failure could be interpreted as interferences that complicate, rather than prevent an action, each one being a separate problem. In narrative terms, you succeed at whatever you attempt, but if you are trying something dangerous or foolhardy, you create problems for yourself by making the attempt.
  3. Easy assignation of difficulty. You’re ready to roll, feeling good, and the GM hands you three dice… oh man, this is going to be harder than you thought. You get hit by a curse or put off balance… you’re given a die and told to roll it with your next action. Et cetera. Tying difficulty and misfortune to a very specific action… there’s a bit of ritual to it, potential for well-played emotional beats attached to it. The moving of dice back and forth has a pleasant physicality to it.
  4. Lots of potential for additional wiggles. Color-coding of dice, for instance… a failure on a “body” die and a failure on a “mind” die and a failure on a “difficulty” die might be mechanically equivalent but narratively distinct. Or the complications for each color of failure might vary somewhat, with “body” failures costing a measure of HP on “difficulty” failures actually meaning the attempt fails or something along those lines. This too isn’t anything spectacularly new; Don’t Rest Your Head does something similar, but is a worthy note to keep in mind.
…interesting stuff. A notion we’re pleased to have kicking around in our brainpans. Of course, if we were to play around with this idea… and we might… the next question we’re asking ourself is one of setting**. An ‘assumed success’ rubric speaks to a pulpy, high-adventure setting, maybe one of your finer [thing]-punk universes? Alternately, the nature of problems spontaniously arising as one attempts to fix other, different problems might be selling a Space Opera, with a technobabble focus. Hmm…
Clearly, we’re still cogitating, but we feel good having taken some time to hash this all out.

*Not generally, would be our off the cuff opinion.

** We’re not huge fans of generic rulesets without a world attached to them. They CAN be done well, but… eh. More interesting, and more helpful for us as writers, is a setting and mechanics which play off one another.

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