On Dice


Our roleplaying games, Five Cities and Third Order, use a unique dice set system called the Optimal System. In addition, we are working on a simplified version for After the Silence. I thought I’d give a bit of info on why we have gone with this particular mechanic over any other. There are many ways that dice are involved in roleplaying and tabletop miniature games. Some rpgs have tried to avoid dice altogether.

Personally, although diceless can work, I feel that dice are a key part of a roleplaying game (not sure there are any wargames that are diceless – might check on that). There’s nothing quite like that moment you make a critical success on a roll, just when you need it. Likewise a critical failure just at the worst moment can create a great degree of tension in a game.

What dice a game uses and how the player rolls differ quite a lot between systems. There were three main styles we looked at before developing our dice set system for roleplaying games. Now, I’m going to give my opinion on these other dice mechanics. This is not an exhaustive list, or a complete pros and cons. This is just a thought process I went through in reaching our system.

Dice with Modifiers, where the same dice are rolled, but a player adds their characters skill/attribute modifier to the roll and tries to hit a target number. This is a good solid system and used by many games (not least D&D). However, with this style there can be a long list of specific modifiers for many different factors. Weapon, position, weather, sunlight, racial mods, class mods and more. The downside is that it can sometimes be tricky to add all this on the fly and can often feel like factors beyond the player are controlling things. The upside is that the Gamesmaster can take all the situational bits and add those on to the difficulty the player needs to roll, so their almost hidden.

Dice Pools, where a player builds up a ‘pool’ of dice by combining relevant attributes and uses all of them to hit a target number. This is a popular system (World of Darkness) as it allows people to combine different stats or skills together in a roleplaying (explain it to the Gamesmaster) kind of fashion. Some games have adapted this system to allow others (PCs or NPCs) to add or subtract dice from the pool. The downsie is that unless the game is min-max proof you can end up with 30 dice in your hand for each roll, some dice pools can be TOO big (Exalted – I’m looking at you). The upside is the newer blend of the rule with affecting others pools and the roleplay edge this can give to a game.

Dice as Attributes, where a character’s attributes are represented by a die or dice – players then use this die for appropriate tests against a target number. This is often a setting related choice or used as to bridge the usual attribute -> dice -> target compact. It can be a very quick play way of operating as the player doesn’t need to convert from attribute to dice with a modifier or a dice pool. The downside is that there are simply limited dice to use to represent attributes, meaning there is not a lot of difference (and advancement) between a d6 and a d8 in an attribute. The upside is the ease of play and if combined with a pool mechanic can lead to a small selection of dice to beat a target number.

I like all of these mechanics to varying degrees and have played in games that utilise all of them. It was my experience (and personal preference) that led me on a journey to the end result of the Optimal System.

The Optimal System is unique in that the characters skill/attribute score (which is a %) is the target number and the dice used to hit the target change depending on the situation. I don’t want to give too much away (a magician never reveals all his tricks), but the situational modifiers are combined into the difficulty rating that is assigned by the Gamesmaster. In this way its easy for the player, the gamesmaster can influence the roll and their is a great potential for developing the character (every 1% counts!). The dice will remain a secret for now. If you get one of our games you’ll find out everything!

Also as a final note, a key element of the Optimal System is the ability for the player to make things more difficult for themselves in order to acheive a better result. This is called ‘Opting Up’ and forms a key part of the game. Combined with simple rules for taking your time (Extended Rolls), competition (Opposed Rolls) and helping others (Combined Rolls) we feel this is a strong system.

At the moment this is no more than talk, a conversation about dice, but once our games are out there we hope you’ll have a look and enjoy our system (and our settings). Otherwise pop by the St Albans Roleplaying Club and have a try, Third Order is played there on a regular basis.

Archalofax, Lord of Garblag

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