Thursday, 8 October 2015

Races and Funny Hats

One of the mainstays of roleplaying games has been the use of races to provide options at character creation. While this fits in well with the history of fantasy RPGs and to some extent Sci Fi ones, it may not always be appropriate to the setting. Likewise, there are some arguments to whether players should be limited to playing only humans even in a fantasy setting and we shall look at these below.


To race or not to race


The first question to ask is do you need them in the setting? This should be a fairly simple question to begin with, as your setting (or scope for settings) coupled with your game vision should tell you this. Regardless of the genre, only you can decide if you want different humanoid species wandering around your world, but if you do, the next big question is whether your players should be allowed to use them.


The reason to ask this question comes down to what has been termed 'funny hat' roleplaying. I won't go into the details on this, but essentially the danger with well known races is that players fall into the trap of stereotypical roleplaying that has no depth. How often do you see the dwarf warrior who loves to drink, runs into battle without thinking and has a Scottish accent? Similarly, a haughty elf who loves nature, dancing and singing. These things won't necessarily be untrue of some members of these races, but surely not all of them, and that can't be all there is too them. For more on this argument, it's worth looking at the many RPG forum discussions out there and The Games Master by Tobiah Panshin where it is explored in much more detail.


If essentially your races are in the game just to provide mechanic bonuses and penalties, then do you really need non-humans at all, or could have options for your human races. There are many ways to do this, you could simply have racial bonuses for humans from particular regions or heritages, or alternatively, have an advantage/disadvantage style pick system to tailor your character based on how you feel they have developed. This could perhaps link in some way to character background during character creation, but the specifics are less important than the principle question. Do you need these other races?


Fantasy Races


In a fantasy setting, races such as elves, dwarves and orcs are iconic and the temptation will be to always add them. Thinking about the section above, this does also make them the most at risk of falling foul of stereotypes. This does not mean you shouldn't have them, you and your players may be more than happy to have such stereotypes, and indeed it may be what makes it fun for you, but if not, then beware this pit fall.


One way to avoid it is have these races in your game, but not as playable characters. This would still allow these cultures to exist, but players would be humans observing them from the outside. This could allow the referee to maintain the mystique and alien nature of the non-human races, while keeping to the standard fantasy expectations. That is, if you want to keep to expectations.


In your game, you don't have to conform to such norms. If you have a unique setting, why not shake things up a bit. You could have evil, tribal elves who war against humanity, or peace loving dwarves who are at one with nature. It really is up to you, and sometimes putting things on their head like this can be fun.


Another great option that may require more work, but could be very rewarding, would be to create your own fantasy races. If you avoid trying to make them stereotypical, and instead highlight facets of their culture, you could free your players to do something different, and even start to contribute to the make up of these races.


Fantasy races can be fun, but always link back to what you want, and how you want your players to roleplay in your game.




Some would argue that fantasy races are aliens in a way, as they're not human, but here I refer to aliens from a Sci Fi perspective. If you do intend to include them in your game, then again consider if you want them as player characters or just as NPCs or monsters. Here more so than fantasy races you could run into problems with roleplaying. Aliens by their very name are alien to us. Having come from other worlds or even dimensions, would we really have any understanding of what was going on inside their minds?


In a way, you may not care. You might rather have them as Sci Fi versions of the fantasy races (and some games do just have elves, dwarves and orcs in space) and that's fine if you want it. Again it's about the type of game you want, and what's important to you and your players, not what other people tell you about roleplaying aliens.


Depending on your setting, you also might fall foul of stereotypes if you use, or are inspired by, a well known setting. You only have to look at Star Trek to see the many put falls there with stereotypical Klingons or Vulcans. Again, if that's what you want in your game, then don't let anyone else put you off.


Human races


At first it may seem counterintuitive for me to say that humans can be races in of themselves. If you think about it for a moment, however, then this is what we see in the real world. Humans exist as a species, but there are many races with their own cultures, languages and religions. Now you may not want to assign racial bonuses to humans of different races (although you can if you're happy to have human racial stereotypes), but it does give you scope for roleplaying and background opportunities without having to introduce alien races such as elves or Klingons.


You only have to look at George R. R. Martin's world in a Song of Ice and Fire to find a fantasy setting in which we don't really see non-human races (Children of the Forest and the Others aside). Despite this, we see a wide variety of races and cultures that provide a plethora of roleplaying opportunities. So, as I said at the beginning, consider if you even need these races at all.


Personal Experience


Personally I don't mind the cheesy stereotypes of traditional fantasy games. I've not worried about the fact they may be a bit cliché, or that my friends and I don't make them alien enough. They add a bit of variety to our games, and give us some prompts to roleplay with, even if they are well used. That being said, I have run games with a all human cast, and these have worked really well too. You don't need a half-Orc race when you can have a 6 1/2 foot tall human with bulging muscles, so look to the rules that can free up your human races to fill those needs.




The use of non-human races can add an interesting element to any roleplaying game, but beware the risk of stereotypes arising, or races simply being used as a mechanic for stat raising and possibly abused by powergamers. There's always the possibility of making non-humans non-players, but consider how this will sit with your players and the ethos of your game. If in doubt, add them in and see what comes out during play.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Getting dicey

What I intend to do in this article is look at the very basics of the different dice systems that are out there, and could be considered when developing your own RPG. This list is by no means exhaustive, and may (okay, definitely will) be biased by my own experience and feelings. I will however try to stick to the facts and leave my own experiences until the end of the section.

When looking at dice systems there are essentially two basic models. The linear model and the bell curve model.

Linear models

The linear model is the kind most popularised by games such as dungeons and dragons and other systems like Chaosium's percentile system.

In these systems, a single dice (or dice type in the percentile system) is rolled which produces a random result along a number line. The success range of this number line can be altered by modifiers, but essentially you always have the same chance to roll any one number on that line.

A classic example of this is the core mechanic of the D20 system, and indeed the resulting Dungeons and Dragons system since 3rd edition. Here, most actions involve the rolling of a single D20, with the result and/or target numbers being increased or reduced by modifiers. The target number (or difficulty class as it is identified in D&D) is set by the situation or obstacle that the character is trying to overcome. In percentile (D100) systems such as Call of Cthulhu or Rolemaster, a similar system is in play, but in these cases the target number is often the character's ability or skill number, again altered by any system modifiers.

Regardless of what the actually mechanics of the system are, the nature of the linear roll mechanic is the same. That being that you have a flat distribution of results across the die range and you can always have quite 'swingy' results. For example, in the D20 system, a natural 20 is always a success (5% chance each roll) and a natural 1 is always a failure (again, 5% chance each roll) and these numbers are just as likely to come up as any other.

Bell Curve Distribution Models

Bell curve normal distribution is a term that may not be familiar to you unless you've already seen some basic statistics in your life, but the concept is essentially simple. In a system where you roll more than one random die and add them together then, on average, you get more results towards the middle range of possible rolls than you do your outliers (i.e. more average, less critical successes or critical failures).

Two good examples of such systems are Dragon Age and Dungeon World which use a 3D6 and 2D6 system respectively. In these core mechanics, you roll the dice as indicated, plus or minus and modifiers and compare it to a target number of some description. While this may seem similar to the D20 style systems above, there is a very significant difference.

If we look at rolling 3D6 for example there are two differences to rolling a single D20. Firstly, the range of 3D6 is 3-18 which is narrower than 1-20 generated on the D20, so the result is always going to be across a smaller range (and therefore a bit more predictable). Secondly, it is made more predictable still by the 'averaging out' that results from rolling multiple additive dice. Essentially, you are more likely to end up with a result around 10-11 (12.5% for either or 25% for both) than you are to hit any of the far outliers like 3 or 18 (0.46%). Compare this to the D20 system where any number has a 5% chance of coming up each time, and then you might start to see how different the gameplay could become.

A 2D6 system has a smaller range (2-12), but the outliers come up more often (e.g. 2.78% chance of a 12). This is an important consideration if you increase the number of dice rolled in your system. For example, if you used 5D6, you would increase your range of results (5-30) and your average (17-18) but your odds of ever getting the big outliers really drops (i.e. only a 0.01% chance of getting a 30). However, due to the way normal distribution works, you still have about the same odds of seeing the average come up. For systems where this could come up more, see the dice pool systems below.

A bit of a quirky system that also falls into this category is the Fate/FUDGE system. Here dice are six sided but have two sides blank, two with a '+' symbol and two with a '-'. These essentially give values of 0, +1 and -1 respectively. In the Fate systems, the standard mechanic is to roll 4Df (or 4 Fate dice) and apply the result to a skill or approach. What this essentially generates is a bell distribution curve that averages around out getting a modifier of zero (23.46% of the time), but ranging from -4 to +4. It's also worth noting that you usually get a result between -2 to +2 (88%) of the time, which is why Fate revolves around +2 modifiers so much. What it essentially boils down to, despite the symbols, is a 4D3 system, hence why I have included it here, and not in the next subsection.

Other Distribution Models

Most specifically in this section I'm going to discuss dice pool systems. These tend to be more complex and less intuitive than your roll over or roll under systems; however, depending on the complexity of the system and the experience of the player, they can be quicker to factor in modifiers.

Dice pool systems such as those used by the White Wolf Storyteller system (and the 1989 Shadowrun system) might need a bit of explaining outside of the bell distribution category as the distribution of the results vary. Here multiple (or rarely a single D10 is rolled), but these generate a secondary result based on what are called successes. In this system, a roll of 8 or above (edition dependent) on each die generates what is called a success, and the number of these successes is what's important.

Again with such systems, modifiers can do things like change the number needed to be called a success, or the number of dice rolled, but essentially, you still have an equal chance of generating a success on any single die, however, he more you roll, the higher your chance of succeeding, and therefore the distribution curve shifts.

These systems can be further complicated by rules for things like botches (e.g. 1s take away from successes and could make failures worse), exploding dice (e.g. a roll of a 10 lets you roll another dice to add to the poll). Therefore, I don't want to get into the statistics of these systems as I want these notes to be as simplistic as possible.

An alternative, but less complex version of a dice pool system uses an additive system rather than the 'successes' style model above. Here they stick more closely to the roll over model, but the number of dice you roll is increased or decreased based around your character's abilities and other modifiers. In some ways these systems could fit into the bell curve distribution model, but I have kept dice pool systems together, as the distribution size shifts significantly with dice pools compared to the other examples in the previous section.

A good example of such a system would be the D6 system popularised by West End Games (most notably for Ghostbusters and Star Wars RPGs). Here players used a number of dice based on characteristics and skills that were rolled, the results added together and compared to target number. Increasing the number of dice rolled in these systems increases the mean result, and the maximum result, but does push the probability of your actual result towards the mean. A small point, but one worth considering.

Other dice systems

There will be many other systems out there that I haven't covered, but for the sake of my sanity as well as your own, I'll only touch briefly on one other variation I have come across. Both savage Worlds and Deadlands RPGs utilise multiple die types in their core mechanic. Simply put, one ability or skill may use 3D6, while another may use 4D4 and so on. I won't spend time on these, as although the use of differing die may add to variation in the results, essentially the systems still follow the basic principles of those outlined above.

Personal Experience

By way of getting my own opinions off my chest, I do have experience with many of these systems and strong feelings around some of them. With respect to the general D20 vs. 3D6 vs. Dice Pool systems I have enjoyed them all, although I do prefer D20 or 3D6 models more than dice pool systems. I think it's more that I find messing around with dice a bit tiresome and, to me at least, not what I want to spend time doing in game.

To that end, I always found Deadlands RPG highly irritating. While it may seem cool to use all those many dice you have collected over the years, it was a colossal pain having to round up enough D12s or other dice for different abilities in game. I'm just not sure it adds enough to the game to justify the hassle. I should add that I have never played Savage Worlds, so although the dice system has put me off for now, I wouldn't want to say it would be the same for me as Deadlands.

With respect to the D20 vs. 3D6 systems, I do at times quite like the randomness of the D20 over 3D6. While a normal distribution can be fun, the excitement of going from miserable miss, to critical hit does have its moments and certainly fits in with the pulp high fantasy of games like D&D. However, for Systems like Fate where narration and competence are favoured, then normal distribution works well.


As non-committal as it sounds, it's safe to say that there is no perfect system. Each has its own merits and its own drawbacks, and really it depends on how you want your games to be. As my experience hopefully shows, 'swingy' results can be fun, but normal distribution results will be more predictable. Dice pool systems can be faster, but complexity can slow them down, and inexperienced players may find them less intuitive. It really is up to the referee and players to decide which they prefer. Or even if they want to use dice at all...