6 November 2014

A matter of dice

In which I blether about dice for four paragraphs, and finally get round to the point - some aspects of design philosophy for Knights' Quest, specifically the Combat Dice Track.

Dice are great. Their variety. The way they can be customised to become mementoes of events or gaming groups. The way bags of them are like pouches of precious, fantastical jewels or other treasure. That so much emotion can be caught up on the random result they show you - or even money, if you're a gambler. That they're so old - I've handled 1800 year-old Roman legionary dice.

Yes, dice are great - and their variety allows game designers to subtly influence the range of results that can occur for any given roll, changing the likelihood of how the story of a particular game will develop. The majority of games use the noble six-sided dice, the d6, as their random number generator of choice. In-game effects are modelled then by changing what the target number might be, or whether there are any positive or negative modifiers to the roll. Without a whole book-load of modifiers, however, it can become rather difficult to vary the likelihood of success in different circumstances.

Most wargames choose to have a look-up table which provides differing target numbers for particular combinations of the relevant characteristics of the protagonists. Meaningful variation therefore has to come from the careful deployment of troops, bringing numbers or particular troop types to bear upon your opponent's forces in such a way that a simple d6 roll is given tactical meaning.

Role-playing games (RPGs) have a venerable tradition of using polyhedral dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 - and a whole bunch of new variations), particularly to represent the impact of certain weapons or skills or spells. This finer level of detail is needed when you only have a single character. Often, though, a majority dice type is used for the initial combat roll (for example) and the target number changes with a character's progression. I do remember seeing a game (Savage Worlds?) where a different polydice was allocated to different characteristics, but most use a d20 or d10 as the main dice - a wider spread of outcomes, but still a uniform probability curve. Modifiers shift the curve up or down, but its shape is the same for all characters.

For Knight's Quest I wanted to achieve several aims for combat and dice use, bearing in mind that it will be a very-light-RPG boardgame, of the sort so popular in my childhood and teenage years (yes, Heroquest, AHQ, WarhammerQuest - I'm looking at you) and enjoying a resurgance (Descent, the D&D boardgames) today:
  • minimise the number of dice being rolled, so that each is meaningful
  • no characters are unable to be harmed by any other character
  • change the possible range of results for different characters to give genuine differentiation between them, not just a simple modifier
  • have it possible that no modifiers be used at all in a combat
  • model fatigue and injury so that a character isn't at full combat potential until they're dead
  • incorporate basic equipment effects into a single characteristic without reducing the variation between characters or requiring more modifiers to give flavour
  • incorporate basic character development (XP, in roleplaying speak)
A lot to do, but I think I've managed it in a consistent and (for me and my boys at least) satisfying way. Characters in Knights' Quest, whether "goodies" or "baddies", have a Combat Dice Track which is the key measure of their combat effectiveness. Here are two examples of old character cards, compete with stolen-from-the-internet-pictures. It will only really be the design and art that change, though - the core of it works.
Ignore the dice for movement - fixed moves all the way now!

The dice shown down the right hand side of the cards are the Combat Dice Track which aims to fulfil all six of my priorities from the bullet list above. At the start of the game, each character uses their Maximum Dice in combat. If they lose a round of combat, their Current Dice moves one space down the column. So if the knight were to lose a round of combat, his Current Dice (the one he rolls) would shift down from a d20 to a d12. If the same happened to the considerably weaker kobold, his would shift down from a d6 to a d4. 
Tiredness/injury modelled - aim achieved.

If they were to encounter each other fresh and unhurt, it's fairly likely the knight would easily despatch his foe but not certain. If the knight has been injured in a previous encounter, it's more likely that even a weak adversary could be his doom. 
No invulnerability, all combat carries risk - aim achieved.

As the Current Dice shifts, the balance of outcomes for combat also shifts. It would only take a previous injury and a couple of low rolls for the knight and the kobold to be on an even footing. At full fighting fitness, however, the range of results is radically different. And all without modifying the dice rolls in any way. Part of the reason for the higher Maximum Dice of the knight is down to his training, but also to the armour he wears.
Different ranges of results to give meaningful character differentiation - aim achieved.
Ranges of results not dependent on modifiers - aim achieved.
Basic equipment modelled within Combat Dice - aim achieved.

Heroes (that is, those with the Hero trait) can gain experience from overcoming their foes. They pick up tips and tricks as they go, get a chance to practice in the real world instead of the exercise yard, become more determined to see their quest through, gain confidence from their survival. In a word, they become battle-hardened. So, in the simplest version of the rules, Heroes regain a lost combat dice if they defeat an enemy. For example, our knight has been wounded three times so that his Current Dice is a d8. He then defeats his foe and so moves back up to a d10. An added layer of interest comes with the full implementation of the Hero trait, placing a different value on different foes - collect points equal to your next dice up (ten, in this example) and you can buy back that dice. (These points can also be used on the successful completion of a quest to acquire new skills which often do have a modifying effect on dice rolls)
Experience points are modelled within the Combat Dice - aim achieved.

And all this with each character only rolling a single dice in combat!
Minimise dice rolled to only those that are meaningful - aim achieved.

So, that's why I've done it this way. One of the most obvious changes from Goblinquest to Knights' Quest was the removal of rolling to see how far you moved. This added rolls to every single turn, for every character on the table, for very little or no gain. Thanks to Erny for pointing this out. Removing it not only speeds the game up but also makes it conform more closely to my ideals in the first place - hurrah for capable playtesters!

Roll high, friends, but roll meaningfully,



  1. Tidy! Continuity and streamlining is an important part of developing a coherent rules system (as well as listening to feedback, of course!). I'm looking forward to reading a finished version!

    1. Thanks Gareth - it turned into rather an epic post, but I figured it was good to show I'd thought about it rather than just chucked the game together. You'll definitely get a copy when it's done.

  2. Splendid !I don't know how I missed all of that but this is just too good, simple and yet it makes totally sense !

    Well done, I'm really intrigued about trying that myself !

    1. Thanks JB, I'm glad you like what you've read so far. I'll make sure to include you when I'm happy that I've finished.

  3. Will have an eye on this, it looks very interesting!!

    1. Great! It might be just the game to try out that Reaper dragon your son painted so well earlier this year...

    2. Not sure if he is ready for a game with dices (only three years and a half), but I´ll try it... As soon as I buy him some more Bones figures!

  4. Looks very neat, and a game which uses the full range of multiple-sided dice is always a winner in my books! Will there be other systems aside from combat or is this a straight-up kill 'em and steal the treasure bash?

    1. Thanks Fimm - gotta love the polydice! It's pretty much a straight up kill the bad guys game, but with a specific aim (rescue the prisoner, recover the item, deliver a message), rather than simply treasure accumulation. In fact, as it stands, there are no rules for treasure acquisition.

  5. I think I will have to give these roles a go, one of these days.

    1. I hope you do, commissarmoody! I'll be announcing their semi-open playtest soon, so keep an eye out.