Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The value of bell curves

A while back I started talking to some friends about starting up a regular game again. To fill some time, after realizing that it would need some discussion to find a game everyone agreed on, we picked a game we had played before as a starter. 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars was that game.

For those who have not played this game, I can summarize a key point of the rules system. All rolls are one 1d10, roll under but high is good, against a Trait. I guess you see what this means. Right. No bell curve.

We started to play and since it is very much driven by black humour and creative narration by the players, it worked quite fine with some cynicism and beer. But, after a few sessions a pattern started to emerge. One of my players rolled really shitty. Like some of us say, he storked it, repeatedly. The thing is, he rolled maybe 10 dice rolls a night and missed all but one. Even after changing dice, we are not superstitious, he kept rolling like that in session after session. It just was not fun any more. In the end the game was not just a chore, it was actively un-fun to roll dice for him.

Now, I guess you have all heard of games where the narrative is as much in the hands of the players as the GM? You would imagine that maybe that would alleviate the problem, maybe? The problem here is that 3:16 is just such a game. I as the GM could only limit the stiffness of the opposition, and the players still had to sit there and narrate the hell out of repeated failures. Kind of sucks after a while.

We decided to fade to black after a few missions, and now I had pitched a new game which all seemed to like. It was all down to the weird imagination of Ken Hite, since who can resist a game with both nazis and the Midgard Serpent? Savage Worlds it was.

I guess you see one thing that differs from 3:16? In Savage Worlds you roll multiple dice, and if you fail you can spend a token and roll again. Once again you roll multiple dice. Multiple dice, i.e. more chances to succeed, since you get to pick which to use.

That choice of game system was intentional.

As you probably know, there are more than one way to skin a cat. The cat I wanted to skin was player enjoyment. While I do not subscribe to the school of design that say encounters should be "balanced" and that the players are entitled to this or that, I do believe game system matters for how much fun you can have.Clearly linear probabilities do have some potential to screw up your game night.

Savage Worlds and Fate are two game systems that have decided to let you have all that wild and intense fun you get by rolling dice, but have also included some way to take the edge of Those Nights(tm). I think that is good game design for a game for modern adults, for whom game night is time you clawed back from all the necessities of family, work and other obligations. Narrative control is one thing, but getting to describe your failure yourself over and over again does not make it more fun. Maybe the first time. I think some game mechanic that works as a "safety net" should be in your mind when you design a game for my kind of gamer.

Are there other ways? Let's go back to those dice, and our subject line.

I know I am not the first one to notice that some games are really swingy, and D&D with its d20 based to hit roll is one of those. As those of us than own a AD&D 1st ed DMG know, there are more ways to roll dice, and one of them produce a bell curve. Such a probability distribution skews towards the middle, making it harder to get those extremes. On the other hand, it also makes it likelier to get above that first hump of lower target numbers. Is this possibly the way to increase player enjoyment? I will leave off dice pool systems, since I find the probabilities of those headache inducing, instead focusing on rolling multiple dice and adding them before comparing to a target number.

Strangely enough, there are few games I can think of where you roll multiple dice of a similar kind and add them, as a basic mechanic. Sure, it's used for damage, but more seldom for other things. Off the top of my head I can only remember five game systems that use this, and two of them are closely related.
  • The Fantasy Trip (TFT) - roll 3d6
  • GURPS - roll 3d6
  • Traveller - roll 2d6
  • Tunnels & Trolls (T&T) - roll 2d6 for Saving Rolls, in combat roll weapon dice and add stat bonus.
  • HERO - roll 3d6
Maybe these games are actually kinder to gamers who just want to succeed once in a while?

Next topic: Are these thus newbie friendly games?


  1. I'd also point out West End Games' Ghostbusters and Star Wars, Atlas Games' Over the Edge and S. John Ross's Risus as games where the central mechanic is summing the total of 2 or more similar dice.

    I don't know if this makes the mechanic 'newbie friendly' on the whole. Some players I've known have trouble adding up quickly, for example.

  2. Thanks for the reminder! I should have remembered OtE and the D6 System. I actually don't know much about Risus.

    I'll expand a bit about newbie friendliness in my next post.


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