16 January, 2013

Game Mechanism of the Week [Neo-Redux] 1: Custom Symbol Dice

I've just finished playing our second session of the new beta test Fantasy Flight version of Star Wars.

In our first session (last week) we played the standard characters from the beta test play kit. This session some of us made some differences to our characters (the Wookie and the Human pilot changed a bit).

The game mechanisms are actually pretty good, they drive the story in clever ways with an innovative use of symbolism on dice rather than numbers. That's led me to consider a game mechanisms of the week series again for this year. Perhaps a bit more formal than the way I've done it in years past.

The Custom Symbol Dice used in the new Star Wars game are divided into two general categories. Good Dice and Bad Dice, each have a range of symbols on them. Good dice generally have successes and advantages on them, while bad dice have failures and complications (these aren't the specific terms used in the rulebook, but they give the right general meaning). If you roll successes, you get what you want, if you roll advantages you don't necessarily get what you want but it pushes things in the right direction. If you roll failures, you opponent gets what they want (or your successes are cancelled out). If you roll complications, the situation shifts against you (or your advantages are cancelled out). Every roll uses a combination of these dice and every situation has a chance where anything could happen. In this system it's very rare for nothing to happen as a result of a die roll.

The basic system has character rolling a number of basic positive 8-sided dice equal to an attribute they are using in the task. If they have skills appropriate to the task, the may upgrade these basic dice to advanced 12-sided dice with better chances of producing successes, and even critical degrees of success.

These are opposed by a number of basic 8-sided dice equal to a difficulty factor (or an opponent's attribute), certain situations (or an opponent's skill) upgrade these dice to advanced 12-sided negative dice with better chances of producing failures and possibly critical degrees of failure.

You add successes and cancel out with any failures...any that are left determine your outcome in the situation. You add advantages and cancel out with any complications...any that are left modify the situation to provide bonuses or penalties to the die rolls of those around you.

It takes a few rolls to get used to, but the system is really clever. You can quickly learn to play symbiotic games with your allies. This becomes especially clear at the end of the starter scenario where one character pilots the ship, and their actions often apply modifiers to the characters who are acting as gunners. One play might not seem to do much, but their advantages reflect as bonus dice to their allies, and their complications reflect as penalty dice.

The interplay of dice almost reminded me of the climactic scene of the recent "Avengers" movie where the action did not focus on one character for too long and everyone's actions seemed to impact on the success of the characters around them. Having the in-game effects of the Advantages and complication narrated by the players makes them feel a part of the action even if their characters didn't specifically succeed or fail with their action.

The thing I really like about the system is that it takes a lot of the numbers away from the mechanisms, instead of comparing figures and tables, it provides a direct means of relating to the story.

The biggest con I see with this system is the fact that you need to specialised custom dice provided by Fantasy Forge. Apparently the new Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses a very similar dice mechanism, and I've heard that it hasn't seen the uptake expected (which is a bit of a shame). It's also annoying that for some starting characters, the starter kit doesn't provide enough dice to roll the whole lot in one go. With three basic dice of each type, characters who an have attributes up to level 5, and difficulties with up to 5 dice, we found a few times when players had to roll sets of dice multiple times and keep track of accumulated successes, failures, advantages and complications before results could be determined.

There is a table in the rulebook showing how to convert standard dice to match the system, but this is a bit unwieldy. (You could always buy stickers to convert regular dice, but this really restricts the ends to which these dice could be used).

A dice app was a nice addition to the website in an attempt to combat this.

This mechanism has given me a lot of food for thought with regards to Walkabout. It draws from the story, with scenic elements adding and modifying dice, and die results instantly feeding back into the story. I'd consider using a system just like this if it were a bit more easily accessible to new players, the starting investment is a bit prohibitive for most indie game developers.

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