Yesterday's anecdotal post was intended to be more than just a trip down memory lane. There's actually quite a bit to unpack in it. A lot of good game theorising occurred in the early 2000s to give names and context to what we were doing, but at the time we were just following trial and error.
The main reason I'm thinking about this is one of those many projects I've got that feeds on previous ideas and occasionally rears it's head demanding attention. I'll probably meander back and forth between a few developments where these ideas have manifested through my work over the years, but to keep things a bit more organised, I'll add a few discreet heading categories.
Flat Comparisons vs Randomisers
This is where I was heading with yesterday's post, before I cut things off. Standard Magic: the Gathering uses flat comparisons to determine conflicts. If a creature's power is at least equal to their opponent's toughness, they kill them. If it's less, the opponent resets for the next round. Sure there are quirky effects that modify this, but the base comparison is the benchmark. Instead of die rolls, cards are played to modify the outcome in various ways, the same sort of thing happens in the card game Munchkin (which has it's own issues that I'll address later). We didn't think of it at the time, but it's basically playing in the same conceptual ballpark as Fortune and Karma (these terms came later as a method of addressing the ideas. Yes, these ideas echo back to Everway in 1995, but we didn't really know about this game at the time, except as that quirky game with freeform narrative based on artwork cards... we didn't know anyone who played it.)
Conflicts in most RPGs are basically resolved through a combination of Karma and Fortune. Karma throws weight to the side with the higher skill and the better advantages in the situation, fortune is arbitrary (adding the results of dice or some other randomiser). If your system uses a die roll plus modifier verses a difficulty, the die roll is the fortune element, while the modifier and difficulty are karma elements. Some games place a stronger weighting on karma toward the outcome of conflicts, some place a higher weighting on fortune...and some games add 'drama' to the mix, where the potential impact on the narrative plays a factor in the conflict's outcome.
We were basically adding fortune into M:tG's karma mechanisms.
I don't know exact statistics for creatures in M:tG, and a quick search hasn't revealed anyone who has run the math, but it always felt like creatures with averaged power and toughness around 1 made up about a third of the total, once we combine creatures withe an average score up to 2, that gives us more than half of the total creatures out there... then we get creatures with power and toughness reaching up to 10+, but there get less and less common as the numbers ascend. In most cases, rather than increasing the power and toughness, more exotic creatures are given some kind of quirky ability that manipulates other creatures, or some other element of gameplay.
When we added a die roll to our conflicts, we experimented with using a d6 at first. But we found that the randomness of the die roll overpowered the strategic elements of the card play. Too much fortune, not enough karma. The one point advantage that a creature might have over another one is diminished somewhat when a due is added to the mix, but the bigger the die, the more pronounced the effect.
We play Munchkin in a similar way, but for slightly different reasons. In a two player game, once one player gets ahead it can be really hard for their opponent to catch up, in a game with four or more players the end game can really drag on when three players prevent one from winning, then gang up on someone else the next turn. In this case, the randomiser works to inject a bit more chaos into the mix, but in Munchkin the numbers are more spread out compared to the concentration of 1s and 2s in Magic, so the use of a d6 added to the character and the opponent makes more sense. An increased degree of fortune in Munchkin also fits the freewheeling comedic nature of the game.
A few years ago, I specifically used this "Munchkin + randomiser" concept as the basis for my game Town Guard (which was a finalist in a contest by The Game Crafter), so I know it works in a variety of contexts.
I didn't necessarily tie the idea of bell curves to gaming until I saw it mentioned in various forums in the early 2000s. Despite this, it's exactly what we were playing with.
The chances of the attacker rolling a natural 4, while the defender rolled a 1, were 1 in 16... and the same for the opposite scenario. There was more chance (1 in 4) that equal numbers would be rolled, with other decreasing probabilities of results as they became more extreme. The outliers were spectacular because they came up less often.
If I was doing it again, I'd consider allowing players to roll two dice for their creatures, one added to power, and one added to toughness. Roll the dice, then allocate them...first the attacker, then the defender. It might slow things down a bit, but the added level of strategic thinking would add some interest. Another option might be to roll three dice, discard the highest result, then allocate the others... this would keep the low rolling numbers more prominent, but still allow the occasional heroic die roll to slip through for epic storytelling later.
All these thoughts have come to mind because I've been considering the street gang game that has occasionally demanded a bit of thought. The premise is a pair of decks for each player, one with gang recruits, and one with strategic elements (such as equipment, situational advantages for yourself, situational disadvantages for your opponents, etc.) The first time I remember it appearing as a coherent concept used Goblin mobs in the goblin labyrinth. A player draws the top six gang recruits from their gang deck, then sorts them into two rows of three. The front row of three are face-up and fight against the opponent's front face-up rank. The second rank are face-down, they step forward (and flip to face up status) once a member of the front rank is eliminated.
When members of respective front ranks come into contact with each other, a flurry of cards from the strategic deck affects the outcome. At the end of the conflict both gang members may survive, one may die, or fluke incidents both may die. A survivor might retreat back to the second rank to tend their wounds, or they may return to the deck. A gang member who dies is placed in a discard pile.
One version of the game saw characters roll a die and add the value to the power and toughness analogues in the game. A later iteration saw separate dice added to powet, and to toughness. The current iteration of the game allows a series of dice to be rolled actoss the team, then allocated to specific members as hero points. These points are used to activate powers written on the card and pay for strategy cards in the player's hand.
Now it's just a case of balancing those costs and effects, and trying to work out where a good balance between karma and fortune applies for this project.