Stepped Dice vs Dice Pool

One of the things that I noticed when I first read Coriolis was the table that set out chances of success with different numbers of dice in your pool. According to the table, roll one die and you have 17% chance of success. (Let’s ignore for the moment the ridiculous concept of “partial” success, which appears only in only Coriolis – in my games one 6 is s success. That is all you need. With ten dice in your pool (lets imagine a 5 in your stat, 3 in your skill and a couple of business dice from your gear), the chance of success with your first roll is 84%. Which might not seem much, but according to the table if you push your roll you have 96% chance of success.

Yes, yes I have heard all the stories of people rolling and pushing 12 dice or more and not getting a single six, but that my friend, is a thing called probability.

Obviously these tables of probabiltity, which feature in all the books have limited value. The one in Coriolis for example takes no account of preparatory prayer, which grants an extra die or two on the pushed roll. Indeed, I think the table in Coriolis (at least in my early printing) is actually wrong – if I recall correctly this version of the table assumed that 1s would not be re-rolled, and so the chances of success on a pushed roll are slightly lower than they should be. Indeed turning to a more recent version of the year Zero Engine, Veasen, we can see that, though the probabilities for the first roll are the same, the chances of success on a pushed roll are much improved. In Coriolis the table states you have a 29% chance of a success on a single pushed die. Vaesen says it is 31%. And the chance of success on 10 pushed dice rises a point to 97%.

But recently, in Twilight 2000 and Bladerunner, Free League have moved away from d6 dice pool. Instead a player generally roles two dice – each one between varying between a d6 and a d12. The eight sided dice gives you a success of a six seven or eight. The d10 not only offer successes on everything abouve a six but roll a ten and you get two successes. The d12 offers two successes on 10, 11 and 12. How does all this change the odds? 

When we are talking about basic chances of success, not much changes. Let’s look at the tables. Of course the odds on a single d6 remain the same, but what does 2d12 give you? Well that gives you 82% chance of success on single roll and 97% on a pushed roll. That pushed roll is the same as rolling 10d6, but the unpushed roll gives you a slightly lower probability of success. 

That might sound ‘almost exactly the same but not quite as good as rolling 10d6’ but having played in games of Twilight2000 and Bladerunner, I think I have rolled 2d12 a lot more often (proportionately) than I have rolled 10d6. Think about it – even if you are rolling five dice for your attribute, you rarely roll five dice for skills – yes you might get one or two more for gear, but its a stretch to roll ten dice. 

With the stepped dice system, it is possible to end up rolling just one dice – indeed its a lot more likely that with a d6 pool. Unless you are really wrecked in, say, Forbidden Lands you will be rolling 2d6 at least, because that’s the minimum attribute you can have. In the stepped die system, it is possible to have an attribute of just d6. But because one attribute dice could be a d12, you chances are not that bad – 17% as usual for a d6, but of course a d10 gets you a 50/50 chance, and a d12, 58%. And that’s before you push the roll. Then the chance of success on a single d12 goes up to 82%. 

But there is another effect of the stepped die system. While you can end up rolling just one die – you can’t roll any more than 2d12. In the d6 dice pool version, even though the table only goes up to 10d6, a player can end up rolling more than 10. Not often as I have already said, though certain games, like Alien, make that a more likely possibility. If you modify your roll, for example, by getting help from fellow PCs, you might well add 3d6 to your roll. Add that to, say, five in an attribute, two in a skill, and another two from your tools, and you are rolling 12 dice. In the stepped dice system, let say the equivalent o that attribute is A, or a d12, and your midlevel skill is C, so a d8. Your equipment generally gets you +1 in the stepped die titles, and what that does is boost your d8 one step to a d10. Now your three friends offer to help, each helping PC gives you a +1, but that’s one step, not an extra die. You are already at d12 on one die and now at d10 on the other, so the only help you can take is one step putting the d10 put to a d12. In Twilight 2000 you can add ammo dice to shooting rolls, but other than that, 2d12 is as good as to gets. 

I want to conclude this piece with what I think might be the one real disadvantage of the stepped die system, but before I do that I want to explore what the slightly reduced range of possibility (rather than probability) means for character skills. Around our table, I have not noticed very much skill inflation, people spend most of their XP on talents. But the most dice you can have in a skill is five. And the fewest is none at all. Overall there they’re a six ranks of skill. In the dice pool games there are only five. The four dice steps and of course none. The increased chance of success going up one rank from zero to one is the same in both systems. But what is the difference in going from 1 to 2?

Ignoring your attribute for a moment, and pushing, the two dice in the old system give you a 31% chance of success, but a d8 in the stepped system gives 38%. If you are a player, you might be going “woo hoo” but be warned – if you get your skill all the way up to grade A or d12, that only offers you 58% chance of success, while five dice get you 60% in the old system. On the other hand you do spend more XP getting there. On the other other hand (three hands? Are we playing Mutant Year Zero?) you do have that problem of bonuses from equipment and help being stymied, the more competent you are.

In Bladerunner you do also have an advantage/disadvantage mechanic, which I guess you could apply to a situation like two more PCs than you need offered help:  but that opens up another can of worms.

That is about the consequences of pushed rolls.  It doesn’t apply to every game, but a number have consequences based upon rolling ones, including the two stepped die games. If you are are only rolling two dice, then your chances of rolling a one, are much reduced. Given that rolling a one is generally a BAD THING, this might be a feature players like. But for game designers it takes away the potential for using those ones in interesting ways. Variety that makes a horror game like Alien feel very different from the gritty, detailed combat of Forbidden Lands. It steals a tool from the designer’s kit. And that’s the reason I don’t like the stepped die system as much as the original dice pool.

#RPGaDay2022 Why Has My Favourite Game Stayed with Me

I am a bit of a system tart, always attracted by the new. And of course my current favourite, Coriolis, isn’t that old. So what games, even if not my favourite, have stayed with me. Traveller is like a comfortable old shirt. I can just slip it on, pull a character together, and slip into the Imperium, even though I have not played it for years now. I can play with anyone. I think the current integration (2nd Edition Mongoose, not T5) is the perfect distillation of decades of rulesets.

Pendragon is a game that I have played a single campaign of, for over 30, getting on for 40 years. I love it’s generational scope. RuneQuest or rather Glorantha is a world that inspired me 40 years ago, but I only got to experience it properly recently.

But my true love is Coriolis and I guess it stays with me because about five years ago, I started a podcast about it. I am kind of committed.

#RPGaDay2022 Where is your favourite place to play?

I want to let my British readers (or those that can travel) in on a little secret. D&D in a Castle is all very well, but for the price of that event, you can play all sorts of your favourite games in lots of evocative locations. The Lamdmark Trust a conservation charity saves builds ing by turning them into holiday cottages.

On my fiftieth birthday I ran Nights Black Agents for a group of friends at Goddards, an Arts and Crafts house in Surrey. This is one of the most popular houses on the list and phenomenally expensive. A once in a lifetime experience. But other places are cheaper, especially in winter. They are not to cold and many have huge open fires to play games by.

Manor Farm is cheap enough to be an annual occasion for us. But there are other places too and I have just selected few that are big enough to rub games in.

A Victorian fort that I stayed in for an earlier birthday. Lots of tunnels to explore.

Woodspring Priory is another place I stayed in. We didn’t play an RPG there but being of a certain generation, but we did run around playing “war”, shooting each other with finger guns. It also has loads of hiding places for the best game of hide and seek ever.

A lighthouse on an island I didn’t stay here, but in another place on the island. It’s cheaper in winter, but they discount is offset by having to go there by helicopter. None of the places below are places I have stayed, but if you want to play D&D in a Castle, or Horror on the Orient Express in a railway station these are places you might consider.

A 13th Century Fortification

A Castle

A Tudor gatehouse

A Scottish castle

A railway station

Another Castle

Another Castle

#RPGaDay2022 Past. Present. or Future? When is your favourite game set?

Well, my favourite game in Coriolis, that that is set in the future. But there is more to talk about here. I would assume that, given the prominence of D&D, and fantasy gaming in general, that “the past” would be the expected most popular answer. But are fantasy games set in the past? Just because they use mostly medieval technologies it doesn’t mean they are historical. Indeed some, like Numanera are explicitly set in the far future.

I have already said that fantasy settings are my least favourite, but historical settings can be fun. Again, I have already said that I am less keen on supernatural elements in those historical settings, but Vaesen is a favourite, because the supernatural elements are not necessarily the antagonists. Indeed they are often a symptom of human activity in the area. For this reason, if I had to have magical elements in the past, Vaesen would be the game I choose.

I am more relaxed about supernatural elements in present day games. My favourite present day game though, is Unknown Armies, where the supernatural is broadly all the fault of normal, broken, people trying to make the world a better place. So it’s still not externalised, it is still all about people. That said I also love Night’s Black Agents where it is clearly all the fault of vampires. And I am looking forward to giving Rivers of London a try.

But the future is where most of the games I play find a home. Be it Traveller, 2300AD, Firefly and now Coriolis. The beautiful thing about sci-fi is that it can be influenced and product of the past and the present.

#RPGaDay2022 What would be your perfect game?

When Dave and I recorded answers to these questions for our podcast I flippantly said that my perfect games was the one we have written and are looking into publishing. But it’s not so flippant, in creating Tales of the Old West (still possibly a working title), Dave and I really have made the game we want to play – even where the game each of us wanted to play might differ.

So why is Tales of the Old West a perfect game for me?

Firstly it is not about supernatural creatures. For a long long time I have resented how RPGs create some sort of evil “other” as an antagonist. I have always much preferred games where the “evil” is in competing human (or whatever you are playing) agendas. I like my roleplaying to be people vs. people. I don’t want my game to be Cowboys vs. Vampires, or Cowboys vs. Zombies, or Aliens or Werewolves.

Of course one of the reasons why Old West style games create supernatural antagonists is because in the actual history of the west the antagonists were white folk, moving Native Americans on, or killing them, and claiming their land in the name of Manifest Destiny. We are not looking to re-create this with our game, but we don’t want to ignore it either. So our game is about people seeking, and coming to conflict over, opportunity. The antagonists are the environment, capital, and other people.

Our original intention has been to to create a Hex Crawl system to emulate long journeys like the Oregon trail or the cattle drive in Lonesome Dove, but we soon realised that we were most inspired by the development of the town in Deadwood, and especially the resentment of the “civilisation” that comes with development. The Capital mechanic tries to represent that dichotomy – what seems a tool to abstract cash in larger transactions and offer PCs a sort of “credit rating” can work against the PCs too, when a robber baron NPC arrives to buy the characters out of their farm (or whatever) to make way for his railway.

The other thing we want to do is show the diversity of the west. We have two methods of character generation, a quick archetype based system and a more rewarding life-path style random generator, both systems attempt to represent the diverse backgrounds of the people who worked in the west.

Have we got all this right? To be honest, only some of our patrons have seen it so far. You can too if your join our Patreon at Stationary or Privileged level. I doubt it is the perfect game. But right now, it is my perfect game.

#RPGaDay2022 Who would you like to Gamemaster for vou?

I have had the pleasure of playing RPGs with a number of GMs, all of very different styles but all great fun to play with. Andy Brick was, a stalwart GM through what many would call their “dark- or ice-age” – when the teen group scatters around the country and many RPGers find themselves playing not all. Through sheer force of will he kept a group going, inviting us to his house to play Traveller or a World of Darkness campaign. His style was very responsive to players, which was good because we would often “turn left” and do something he had not expected, but he improvised very well and good times were had by all.

The other Andy in our group, Gibbs, does not run often, but he runs well, especially when there a historical aspect to our adventures. His Dark Ages version of Pendragon ran for over 30 years.

More recently (though before lockdown) I have been playing RuneQuest under Nick Brooke, who has been involved in the RQ scene for years, and is now the the Community Ambassador for Chaosium’s Jonstown Compendium. During our campaign, we were playtesters for officially published adventures as well and Jonstown Compendium stuff by Nick himself, but whatever he is running, he runs with the enthusiasm of a teenager and the deep deep knowledge of the oldest of old grognards. It’s a wild ride.

Even more recently I have had the joy of playing games with a global community of GMs from among our patrons, Craig, Thomas, Paul and Toby have all thrilled me with they mastery of the games that ran. Calling out Red Markets, Tachyon Squadron and Harlem Unbound

Even my podcasting partner Dave is an adequate GM.

All of them I would play with like a shot. And many more than I have not called out here (it’s late and my battery is dying). But I feel this call to action seeks a never before played with GM.

In 2020 I ran a panel for the Virtual UK Games Expo, and had the real pleasure of working with B Dave Walters. I would love to play in a game run by him.

#RPGaDay2022 Suggestion Sunday: Roll 1d8+1, and tag that many friends and suggest a new RPG to try.

Well thank the Icons! One rolled, plus one equals two. Just two games to recommend and two friends to tag. My mate Nick Brook, my RuneQuest GM is not huge fan of games by Robin D Laws, so I am going to recommend Laws’ Hillfolk, which I think is the most distilled version of his gaming philosophy.

And while in that circle, my mate Chris Gidlow introduced Nick and I and he hates Dice Pool games. So to him I recommend Alien of course.

#RPGaDay2022 How would you change the way youstarted RPGing?

I think the real difference between when I started playing RPGs and now is that back then, nobody (except a very few thousand people in the whole world) actually knew what an RPG was. Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago my kids were playing with Lego. They had each built a small community of figures (and their houses), who were “mining” the pile of Lego and trading bricks with each other. Eventually a disagreement led to a declaration of hostilities between the two communities, and then between the two children as one of them claimed the other’s action (I can’t recall the specifics) was unfair.

At this point I intervened, explaining that when there is a disagreement in “grownups’ games of let’s pretend” they often roll dice to work out who’s idea gets into the story. And soon I was explaining the basics of Fate Accelerated.

I didn’t create two gamers then. Yes we played a few actual games. But my daughter didn’t carry on. The boy retains an interest, but it’s not as all consuming as it was for me. But what’s important is that it was for him and his sister, presented as something “normal” like, for example, playing an instrument, or football.

Laying games was fun when I was a kid, but as teenagers, my friends and I suffered mockery and bullying from our peers. I could have done without that. And it seems this generation of gamers don’t suffer the same derision.

#RPGaDay2022 Why did you start RPGing?

Start? When you put it like that it makes me think I never started. I was always roleplaying. I was a soldier on the playground, I was a trader in my friends shed, I was a superhero as I walked out of class, I was a starship captain as I sat on the bog.

All RPGs did was add the Gaming, the rolling of dice, the determining success. And all that stuff I did as a kid. I still do it now, even when I am not gaming.

RPGaDay2022 If you could live in a game setting, where would it be?

Burn the land and boil the sea,
You can’t take the sky from me,

There’s no place, I can be,
Since I’ve found Serenity

The Ballad of Serenity, lyrics by Joss Whedon

I thought this might be hard, but my Co-host Dave knew the answer. And I am there. If anyone argues that both of us can’t live in the ‘Verse, then I call dibs. I was the first one raving about Firefly to my friends. It’s said that Joss Whedon based it in part upon a Traveller RPG he ran or played in when he was at school in London. I have no idea if that’s true but when Jayne tried to take over the ship in the second pilot, The Train Job, I immediately recognised John Learner, a regular mutineer with ambitions of leadership in our Traveller campaigns.

There have been two official Firefly RPGs, both from Margaret Weiss Productions. The first was Serenity based on the movie if that name. The second, and my favourite was Firefly. But many other games, including Orbital Blues, and even Coriolis have been influenced by it. And between the Serenity and Firefly RPGs I also converted an adventure I had designed for Serenity to Traveller and then Savage Worlds.

It’s such a pity that Joss turns out to have indulged in some shameful behaviours, especially around women. But I love Firefly, love the ‘Verse, and I won’t let the collaborative efforts of the team behind the show VE forgotten because of accusations against one individual, even if he was a main creative force.

One point though. When Dave suggested living in the verse, he pictured himself on the Serenity with the crew. Don’t kid yourself Dave, if you were that sort of person you would be on an Alaskan crab fishing boat even now. You, and I, would be safety coddled on one of the Alliance core worlds. One of the things I love about the ‘Verse is that the creators never intended the Alliance to be an evil empire. Yes people did bad things in the Alliance’s name, but people on the other side did bad things too.

So, you can:

Take me out to the black,
Tell them I ain’t comin back.