One of the topics of discussion that came up during our developer chats this past week was in how CoreStep compares to other systems. It started out looking at things from a marketing standpoint, but also with regards to what the current gaming market seems to be looking for in their games. Earthdawn first debuted the CoreStep mechanic when it came out in 1993, and of course we’ve applied the same base mechanic to 1879. Though we’ve been through a lot of revisions over the years to streamline things and make it more accessible, let’s be honest, it’s still got a LOT more crunch to it than your basic d20 systems that hold a lot of the popularity through out the market. So, why is that the case? What drives the market to simpler systems? What would we need to do to make our system more like that, and what’s more, should we? There’s a lot of aspects to consider with game design with regards to mechanics, and as this is my forte, I’m planning to stretch this out into a multi-part series of talks. For this first one, I’m going to be talking about dice.
First, full disclaimer: I am a math nerd. I keep whiteboards up on the walls in my house and do calculus recreationally. As a result, that’s going to give me a bias when it comes to looking at system design, and I actually do draw opinions when I look at the mathematics behind the mechanic. While I will try to keep the high level stuff down in my discussions here so that anyone can pick up and join in the conversation, just be aware that my opinion on things is skewed as a result.
That said, let’s begin by looking at what we’re comparing against. As mentioned above, most popular in these systems is going to be any number of the d20 games that exist today, so that’s the main one I’m going to be picking on here. At its heart, it’s very simple to figure out. You pick whatever test you’re looking to make (skill, attack, special ability, etc), roll a d20, and add on whatever bonuses or penalties you have to that particular roll, and compare it against the difficulty number. Your difficulties scale in linear progression; if your Game Master wants the difficulty increased, it’s usually as easy as adding five or ten to the target number. You’ll gain special abilities that let you make different rolls for certain situations, sometimes with point pools or uses per day to limit the more powerful ones, but in the end, they all pretty much boil down to the same basic dice mechanic.
Keeping your system simple like this does have several advantages. First, it’s very easy for new players to pick up. Sure, it still takes time to read through rule books in order to find the most powerful combinations of abilities (I’m looking at you, power gamers), but your average newbie can still very easily roll a single die and add numbers to the result. Your modifiers generally only change when you level up, which makes the math even easier as you can just remember the modifier until it changes. Second, it’s very action oriented. The simpler your system is, the less time you spend bogged down in strategy, figuring out obscure rules, or just doing math. You roll your dice to swing your sword, it either hits or misses, and you move on accordingly. Third (there are of course more aspects than this, but these are the main points I’m going to be going over) it’s very easy to predict the likelihood of success or failure if you know the target number. If you are trying to pick a lock with a difficulty of 30, and you only have bonuses that add up to +5, since your dice range only goes from 1 to 20, you know you’re going to have to either find some other sort of boost or keep rolling until you get lucky with a critical success. This is mostly an advantage for the Game Master, who knows all the target numbers, but can also be an advantage for the players in cases where they do know the target so that they’re not wasting time on actions that have practically no chance of success.
So where do the problems lie? Well, let’s look at that last point a little further, particularly in the limitations of having everything determined by a d20. Regardless of the system, the range of possible outcomes for your actions are determined by the dice you roll. How relevant your dice are depends on the scale of their possible range versus the modifiers you are adding. In the early game, when you have only have a +1 or +2 to a lot of your rolls, that d20 provides a massive spread by comparison. The results of your tests is largely determined by the result of the d20. As you start getting into the mid game, your modifiers keep increasing, and by the late game, making die rolls often becomes pointless, because your modifiers are so large you can succeed even without the dice. Of course, you can keep following the scale of difficulties to try and keep the dice relevant, but then you’re trapped in only what fits within those challenge levels, limiting you from balancing things out in other ways. For example, an angry mob of low level peasants would present absolutely no challenge for a character of sufficiently high level; the peasants are almost never going to roll high enough to actually damage them no matter how many you throw at them (unless one gets a critical hit), and the high level character is almost never going to miss and can just whittle them down one by one. This also makes it harder to throw something higher leveled at the characters for a greater challenge for exactly the same reason; no matter how good a strategy they can come up with, the players just aren’t going to be able to leave a scratch on the big beastie unless they get a critical.
As a last point outside of mechanics, but still one relevant for a lot of people; you don’t get to use all your dice! If you’re only ever rolling a d20, plus whatever your main damage dealing dice is for your particular specialization, then what’s the point of having all the shiny click-clack math rocks?
So let’s compare this to the CoreStep dice mechanic. First, to cover the basics for anyone reading about the system for the first time: You add your Attribute, Rank, and any other modifiers you have to get your Step, then consult the Step chart to find out what dice you roll, then you have to add the results of the dice (and depending on the situations you are playing in, may have other modifiers to add afterward to the result). Dice are open-ended high, which means if you roll the highest number on a particular die (like rolling 6 on a d6), you roll again and add to the result (this is called a roll up). You can speed things up by having your Step and dice written out with whatever ability you are rolling, but because you are frequently rolling multiple dice with every roll (at least once you start advancing), it will quickly give you more numbers to add together than just a single die and a modifier, especially if you get roll ups. I will admit, this is a bit more challenging for new players to pick up, compared to the straight forwardness of rolling a single die for everything. The extra math that is required can also slow down the action, as you have to take time to figure out the results as you add the numbers up. It may not seem like much, but when it’s with every player on every roll they make, it quickly adds up.
As for predictability, that becomes an interesting prospect, due to how roll ups figure in the mechanic. There have been other discussions on this before that go into a lot more depth, so as promised I will avoid the higher order mathematics talk for this post, but in short the Step you roll is generally the average result you will get with those dice. So for example, if you’re rolling a Step 10 against a difficulty of 8, on average you will succeed. While this is fairly simple to figure out, it’s not as accurate as having a fixed range like you do rolling in any closed ended system. The open-ended dice system of CoreStep means that even a low level character can get an insanely high result if they are lucky enough. Contending with the possibilities of those results can be tricky for both players and Game Masters, particularly because it works the other way as well; no matter how good your defenses are, as a player you have to accept that there is always the possibility, regardless of how slim, that even the most insignificant of opponents could get a massively lucky shot at you.
In short, because the dice system is open enough that both success and failure (outside of a critical result) are always possible, every dice roll counts. Sure, trying a to do a Master Tier feat when you’re an initiate is probably going to fail, and doing a basic task as a Journeyman or Warden is most likely going to succeed, but the outcome is not predetermined by the test, which means making the test stays important through out the scale.
So what does all this mean for your game? In the end, your game is telling a story. The players control their individual characters who play the protagonists in the story, the Game Master controls the antagonists, bit parts, and the rest of the world around them. The system you use, including the dice, are the rules that both sides must play by, to ensure that things remain balanced, fair, and interesting. Your dice end up becoming the impartial arbiters of fate that decide what succeeds and what fails. As such, it’s important that they stay relevant, and consistently relevant, through out your game. If you’re playing a system that is simplified to the point where your modifiers can end up determining the outcome more than the dice, then what’s the point of playing the game?
Alright, I think I’ve gone on long enough for this particular blog post. Don’t worry though, I’ll be expanding these ideas out further in the next several editions coming out ahead, so stay tuned!