Friday, May 20, 2011

Rules that make great games even better

I might have mentioned it before, but the 1st edition d6 Star Wars RPG by West End Games (circa 1987) is my favorite roleplaying game. It was the third one I ever purchased, right behind the Red Box and TMNT, having saved up lawn mowing money for a month to do so. I'm not going to get into the reasons why I like the game so much (maybe tomorrow..?), but needless to say there is a lot to like about the 1st edition. The 2nd edition, much like AD&D 2nd edition, sucked a little bit of the flavor and is definitely less palatable to me; 2nd edition revised is irritating but has some decent additions.

Anyway, one problem with being a kid is that you never have enough money for all the things you want. This would be the case even if you were an 11 year old Bill Gates because I'm pretty sure the US Navy wouldn't sell him, much less me, an aircraft carrier. The Space Shuttle is probably out of question, too. Consequently, I never did get all the 1st edition releases I wanted. As time went on, my gaming habits changed and I never got around to purchasing all those books. A few weeks ago, I decided, what the hell, let's complete the collection. The Internet is a wondrous invention, and in a short span of time I got a bunch of SW books. One of which is the Rules Companion, a book I expressed little interest in even bothering with, but decided I might as well for the measly price of $2 plus shipping (which was $4, by the way...yeesh). I figured I'd just throw it up on the shelf, never even bothering to look inside. Last night, as I was unpacking boxes of books, I saw it sitting on the table, just having been opened earlier in the day after the USPS was kind enough to deliver it to me. I browsed through it, found some interesting things, and then a rule that struck me as great, and exceedingly easy to implement.

One of the problems with keeping mystery in rpgs is the tendency of the gamemaster to tell the players how difficult a situation is in quantifiable terms. This isn't a knock on anyone in particular; this sort of thing is unavoidable due to the fact that it's a game. To use a D&D analogy, the characters shouldn't know their chances of success to hit an orc (armor class), but the players generally do need to know if they hit. Sometimes the DM has an orc with better AC, and the player might think he hit the orc, but the DM informs him he didn't. This allows the player to become a bit more immersed in the action, and creates a bit of drama. But, again, most of the time a DM has a lot to worry about and sometimes they might just say, "the orc has an AC of 6", letting the player roll and figure out if they hit. In a game like GURPS, the player rolls under his skill level. There's absolutely no mystery here: the player immediately knows if they succeeded or not (if there aren't any hidden modifiers). In this case it's harder to keep the player in the dark.

SW uses die pools, rolled against Difficulty Numbers. Han Solo has something like 11D in Piloting, which means he rolls 11d6 whenever he wants to do some fancy maneuvers. Most great pilots have around 5d6, which means Han is probably the best pilot in existence. It's true. The difficulty to do a simple barrel roll might be 5, perhaps 10. Han would need to roll at least 10 on 11d6 to succeed, which means he'll make it every single time barring any external factors (some loud-mouthed princess complaining about his cavalier attitude). To navigate an asteroid field in a beat-up freighter, the difficulty is around 30. Almost impossible for even the best pilots who would have almost no chance of making it, but Han...he will, on average, make impossible rolls a routine occurrence. Han rolls the dice, gets 42 and knows he succeeded. In Empire, he didn't display a lot of confidence in his roll, though. In fact, he was extremely worried at one point, thinking he had made a mistake. The rules really don't help in these situations, relying purely on the roleplaying ability of the players. Which is fine. But sometimes the players need to be in the dark, just like the characters, to help simulate cinematic play. At least I think so.

The Rules Companion introduces a mechanic called Uncertainty Dice. Basically, the GM decides that an asteroid field has an insane amount of uncertainty, so therefore 4d6 Uncertainty Dice are assigned to Han's roll. Han uses 15d6 for his skill roll, the GM rolls 4d6 secretly. The GM's total is subtracted from Han's total, giving the resulting skill roll. Suppose Han rolled 51, the GM 21 (loaded dice perhaps). Han's total would be 30, which is a success. But the player doesn't know Han made the roll. He realizes his roll could be as low as 27, which is a failure. The GM says the freighter is traipsing along the asteroid field, everything seems to be going okay with a few close calls. The player isn't buying it due to the GM's fixed grin and the situation just got a lot more tense for the *player*, not just the character. Cinematic play is helped along from a simple die mechanic.

This is the sort of rule that makes a game even better, and it's extremely easy to implement. It proves, at least to me, that simple additions to already existing game mechanics can lead to more exciting play without forcing the players to do anything. The Uncertainty Dice don't force the players to treat a roll any differently, but the psychological effect does just that. Sure, the difficulty level could just be kept a secret from the player, but even then, if they're rolling 11d6, they'll still have a really good idea if they made the roll.

In closing, this rule alone is worth my $6 (with shipping).

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