Tools for Dreaming: Randomness

This is the all-important chapter on randomness. I feel like it needs more detail and rigor about statistics, but that’ll require me learning more about statistics and probabilities. Right now this chapter is a lot about how randomness fits into the overall experience. There’s a short section I want to do but haven’t yet on “other uses for dice,” with things like using them as counters, stacking, roll-and-spend (a la Dogs in the Vineyard), etc.


The vast majority of RPGs make extensive use of randomness, and most of those use dice to achieve that randomness. Randomness isn’t a necessity, but it’s deeply ingrained and legitimately useful. It introduces a level of controlled unpredictability that can keep gameplay popping. However, it’s important to also think about where the randomness slots into the overall experience, and be aware of what the actual odds are.

Doing the Math

If you’re going to make a game where probability plays a role, you need to understand the math involved and make it work as well as you can before you even begin playtesting. Games tend to have enough moving parts that it’s hard to anticipate everything, but that’s all the more reason to begin with a sound theory. My own preferred approach is to keep the math simple and the numbers low. That’s partly because I don’t have that much of a head for numbers, and partly because it makes it that much easier to figure out what’s going on and fix things that aren’t working right.

A traditional RPG has an action resolution system, which is to say a set of rules to determine whether a given discrete action succeeds. From 3rd Edition onward, D&D’s action resolution system has had you roll a 20-sided die and add whatever applicable modifiers you have, and you succeed if your total matches or exceeds a target number. In the case of an attack, you add your attack bonus, and you hit if you can reach the target’s Armor Class, while for skills you add your skill bonus and need to reach a Difficulty Class. That mechanic itself is simple enough, but the things that go into it get a bit complicated, since a character’s attack bonus comes from a mathematical formula involving around 2 to 6 different numbers. Thus, the designers at Wizards of the Coast have the rather complex task of making sure that the bonuses that characters get add up to something that leads them to have a suitable ratio of success to failure.

There are many different types of dice (and other randomizers) that RPG designers have used over the years. The most important distinction is between flat and curved probabilities. If you roll a single die, each possible result has an equal chance of coming up. On a d20, the numbers 1 through 20 each have a 5% chance of coming up on any given roll.[1] On the other hand, if you roll two or more dice, it creates a probability curve, and results in the middle are more likely to show up because there are more combinations that can produce them. If you roll two six-sided dice, you only have a 1 in 36 chance of rolling a 2, but a 1 in 6 (or 6 in 36) chance of rolling a 7. This is because there’s only one combination of two dice that can add up to 2, whereas there are six different combinations that can add up to 7.

Having the results tend more towards the middle makes them a little more consistent while retaining the possibility of exciting extremes coming up now and then. GURPS uses a 3d6 roll to have a really pronounced bell curve, and Fate uses four of its special dice[2] to produce a curve where the highest and lowest results each only show up about 1.2% of the time. The swinginess of rolling a single d20 can make D&D into a sort of comedy of errors, where regardless of their supposed level of competence, every character will occasionally achieve utter failure or critical success with a 1 or a 20, whereas GURPS and Fate characters are much more consistent in their performance. Both approaches have their merits, but which one you go for should be a deliberate choice. Using a D&D-style dice mechanic is great if you do in fact want even the most skilled adventurer to be a chump once in a while and even the most worthless peasant to achieve a moment of perfection one time out of twenty.

Dice pool systems originated with the Ghostbusters RPG designed by Chaosium and published by West End Games, so that’s another major innovation we can credit to the Chaosium guys. In the version in Ghostbusters (which WEG adapted for their Star Wars RPG), you roll a number of six-sided dice equal to your stat value and add them all together to get your result. Later games gave us the concept of counting successes, so that you roll a certain number of dice, but you just count each die that rolled over a certain amount as a “Success,” and the number of successes in turn determines whether you succeed. Dice pool systems make it a little trickier to calculate the odds, but they also have the visceral appeal of rolling a handful of dice.

Apocalypse World used a 2d6 roll for its core mechanic, and the stats that you add to that typically range from -1 to +2. If you’re used to more traditional RPGs this seems like an incredibly small range, but the game uses those numbers in such a way that a single point can make a big difference.[3] To get a basic success (a “weak hit” in AW terminology) you need to get a 7 or higher. If you have a +1 in that stat, you go from a 58% chance of success to a 72% chance, and if you have a +2 it goes up to 83%. In AW there are relatively few things that provide bonuses or penalties, and they usually amount to either a +1 or a –1, creating a significant but not overwhelming skew to the results.

D&D and Apocalypse World both use “roll-over” mechanics, meaning that your objective is to have your final total match or exceed the target number. The opposite of this is roll-under, where you want to roll less than a particular number (usually your character’s value in a relevant trait). In Call of Cthulhu characters have skills expressed as a percentile, and to make a check you simply roll percentile dice, and you succeed if you roll at or under your skill rank. Roll-under is a perfectly good mechanic, provided you don’t use a lot of modifiers. If players have to make modifications to these, the whole process becomes more cumbersome.

RPGs can (and usually do) involve more complex math than Apocalypse World, but the principles are the same regardless. There was a general trend of prioritizing fuzzy storytelling over hard mechanics, which sometimes resulted in poorly conceived mechanics. The earlier World of Darkness games had a die pool system with 10-sided dice, where the target number of each die varied with the difficulty of the roll. While changing the target number for a die pool isn’t always bad (for example it works nicely in Wushu), the White Wolf designers did it thoughtlessly, without actually doing the math, resulting in a muddled mechanic with unforeseen quirks. One of those was that because the rules said you would “botch” a roll if your dice came up with more 1s than successes, at higher target numbers, characters who rolled more dice for a given action were actually more likely to botch. Later versions got rid of the variable target numbers on the dice in favor of simply varying the number of successes required, which handily solved that problem.

Today technology has gotten better at lending a hand for this kind of thing. There’s an online tool for working out dice probabilities called AnyDice (anydice.com). It’s a dice probability calculator that lets you enter virtually any combination of dice and see statistics and graphs of the probabilities.

Beyond the Math

One thing to keep in mind about going through the statistics is that as important as the math is that just looking at the numbers doesn’t entirely capture the human experience of rolling the dice and having those numbers pop up and change the fate of your game. The statistics of die rolls will point to a lot of things that aren’t likely, but are nonetheless entirely possible.

For example, there are games with what we sometimes call “exploding dice,” where if you roll the highest number on a single die, you get to roll another of that die, potentially repeated indefinitely. It’s not likely that someone is going to pick up one exploding ten-sided die and wind up with a result of 28 (by rolling a 10, getting a bonus die that rolls another 10, and getting a second bonus die that then rolls an 8), but it’s absolutely a thing that can and will happen on occasion. While you can’t account for every eventuality, it’s important to take the outliers into consideration. If the exploding die mechanic ties into damage, do you want there to be a small but very real chance of any given punch being lethal? Maybe you do, but that should be a conscious decision rather than an accidental one.

It’s also good to consider the general feel of the random mechanic. D&D 5th Edition adds the concept of advantage and disadvantage, special conditions that make it so you roll 2d20 and use only the higher or lower of the two dice. Statistically this is roughly the same as a +6 or a –6, but at the table rolling two dice instead of one is more interesting (or daunting), and people can generally compare two numbers faster than they can add or subtract 6.

Finally, statistics alone can’t tell the whole story, because it’s equally important to consider the context in which players actually make the die rolls. In D&D 4th Edition, PCs taking on a level-appropriate challenge will be able to succeed with individual attacks about 2/3 of the time. That’s an important factor in whether they can win a battle, but it’s one of many. The damage from those attacks, what the enemies can do back to the PCs, the terrain, and so on all influence things. The 2/3 figure works reasonably well in a game where PCs make many attacks over the course of a battle, and where players can tilt the odds further in their favor with skillful play. On the other hand, especially in a game where a combat round can potentially last half an hour, it’s a flaw that (depending on the particular character and a host of other factors), it’s not unusual to have a 1 in 3 chance of the die roll dictating that you accomplish nothing on your turn. It would be even more daunting to have a 1 in 3 chance of your character outright dying depending on the result of a single die roll though, and for better or for worse 4th Edition tends to spread out the risks across several die rolls.

Similarly, in Fate when you roll the dice you have a 62.96% chance of your result being within 1 point of your skill rank, but with every roll the player can potentially spend a Fate Point to invoke an aspect and get a +2 to the roll, which is a pretty hefty boost. While the core action resolution mechanic of Fate is an integral part of the experience, Aspects and the process of invoking them are perhaps more important.

Rarity

Wizards of the Coast calls Magic: The Gathering a Trading Card Game.[4] When you start playing Magic there are various starter decks to choose from, and then you buy “booster packs” with a smaller number of cards and do trades and such to eventually arrive at the deck(s) you want. It’s changed a bit over time, but the game divides cards into different rarities—Common, Uncommon, and Rare—and a typical booster pack has 11 commons, 3 uncommons and one rare. One interesting thing about rarity is that the designers found that on a pure game design level it’s a poor balancing factor, especially for the tournament scene. Players, especially the ones who seriously invest in the game, naturally work to filter out the best options and discard suboptimal ones, often while sharing their discoveries online. If a Magic card in the current set is Rare, at most that means that a dedicated player has to pay more to get one. Once that player has a given card and decides to use it, there’s a 100% chance of it being in their deck, and a good chance of them being able to use it during any given game, especially if they use any of the many deck-manipulating cards available.

Early on in Magic there was the Black Lotus and a few other cards that would provide mana points outside the game’s usual economy of playing a single land per turn. It’s a nifty idea to have a zero-cost artifact that you can discard for 3 mana of any one color, but players worked out ridiculous strategies to destroy all of the lands in the game and then use those cards to produce enough mana to decimate a helpless opponent. It was a clever strategy, but also could dominate, and just plain un-fun to go up against. That’s probably why the Black Lotus is no longer a part of Magic, and an authentic Black Lotus card goes for several thousand dollars.

Rarity is an even stranger concept in RPGs, because each group has their own campaign world, and the number of PCs made with a given option has nothing to do with how many are in the group’s campaign. If the book says there are only a dozen of a given species left, I could have a group of 5 PCs of that species, and it wouldn’t mean there are only 7 more slots left for players worldwide.

More importantly, the fact that something happens rarely doesn’t mean you can be lax about how you design it.

Board Game Randomness

Board games are a whole other galaxy of game design with their own issues and arguments and so on, but they potentially have a lot to teach us RPG designers. One that particularly bears examination is the ways in which board games use randomness.

In board games in general, randomness is not a necessity, but rather a way to level the playing field. Chess has no randomness at all, and it’s a game of pure skill. There’s a reason chess has endured for countless centuries, but most of us aren’t going to get to make a game that people will play repeatedly and work at and make careers out of, so it helps if beginners don’t run headlong into a brick wall of difficulty when playing with someone more experienced. At the other end of the spectrum are games like Candyland, where there are no actual decisions to make, and everything comes from a randomizer. In Candyland, the playing field is as level as you can get, since it’s literally impossible to gain an advantage through skill, but the game’s only real merit is as a way to entertain children and teach them the basics of board games and such. Most board games sit somewhere between those two extremes, so that skillful play makes a substantial difference, but isn’t the sole deciding factor. In that respect, RPGs aren’t too different, since although having better stats and lucky die rolls is certainly a big help, it’s still very important to make good decisions.

RPGs were originally an outgrowth of wargames, and one way in which it shows is that even in games that make no use of miniatures or maps, you make die rolls to see if a character succeeds at things. You can draw a clear line from players rolling to see if wargame units successfully attack, defend, maintain morale, etc. to the kinds of action resolution mechanics we see in most RPGs. This also extends into the realm of board games, where it’s a pretty common trait of games made in the English-speaking world in general, so it’s as much a part of Munchkin as it is of Axis & Allies or your average Avalon Hill wargame. It’s a useful and effective approach, but it’s important to put it into context as one of several possibilities.

“Eurogames” is now the common term for a style of board games that originated in Germany and swept across Europe and eventually the world. Those games have influenced board game design in general, so now there are plenty of board games from American (and British, Japanese, etc.) designers that match the traits of Eurogames. Germany has a culture of family board gaming, but where American family board game nights involve trotting out the likes of Monopoly, German families try out different games and seek out new ones. However, for obvious reasons postwar Germany isn’t big on games about war, and in fact doesn’t even go in for games that are especially competitive, which is why you see a lot of Eurogames about merchants and building things and such.[5] This is to such an extent that some of them turn into a sort of “group solitaire,” where your ability to actually affect the other players at all is severely limited.[6]

These games tend to use randomness not to determine whether you can succeed, but the range of things you can do. In Catan you roll two six-sided dice at the start of your turn, but that determines which hexes on the map produce resources. Once you have the resources and meet the other conditions required you can build things, and there’s no die roll to see if you can successfully construct a road. This doesn’t guarantee a frustration-free experience by any means, and Catan is also my go-to example of a Eurogame where randomness can screw you over. But Catan is well-known enough that it shows up at Target, so it’s the better example. Anyway.

What I call “Eurogame randomness” isn’t exclusively a property of European board games of course, and it’s also present in Magic: The Gathering and most other CCGs. Outside of the occasional gimmick card, any given CCG card simply does what it does, and the only randomness is the order of the cards in your deck.

Thematic Randomness

Randomness doesn’t have to just be a means to play with numbers and evaluate outcomes. It can also be a way to inject ideas and moods into a game. One particularly interesting example of this is Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master. Rather than asking you to roll to see if your characters succeed at things, you will periodically roll two six-sided dice of different colors to determine the mood of the scene going forward. It becomes Glum or Jovial depending on which one rolls higher, thus shaping the emotional landscape of the game. It’s a very unique game that I definitely recommend checking out.[7] It’s one of a small number of RPGs that use this kind of “thematic randomness” to keep a game engaging to play, yet don’t involve game mechanics in a traditional sense.

A more common method of thematic randomness is the use of random tables. They were more of a feature of early D&D and other old-school RPGs, but I discovered them by way of Maid RPG. Maid makes extremely extensive use of “d66” tables. “d66” is the term that the Japanese TRPG scene uses for a tens-and-ones roll with two six-sided dice. You get two dice, assign ones as the tens digit and the other as the ones digit, and roll them to get one of 36 possible results numbered 11 to 66. You can make similar tables with different randomizers (percentile dice, playing cards, a d20, etc.). Personally, I think 36 is just about the right amount, but that may be a side-effect of having made literally hundreds of d66 tables.

One of the weirder projects I’ve undertaken is “Ewen’s Tables,” a series of PDFs, each with about 4 random tables for generating things based around a particular theme. To give you an idea of what these tables can be like, here’s the “Anime Character Concept Generator” table from the Anime Stuff PDF:

d66 Part 1 d66 Part 2
11 A bland, average boy who… 11 …becomes a superheroine.
12 A buxom waitress who… 12 …becomes an ace detective.
13 A cunning thief who… 13 …becomes bonded to an artifact.
14 A deadly warrior who… 14 …becomes President of the U.S.
15 A Death Reaper who… 15 …can alter reality at a whim.
16 A faithful maid who… 16 …can’t talk to girls.
21 A famous, eccentric novelist who… 21 …collects creepy dolls.
22 A friendly vampire who… 22 …enters a deathsport tournament.
23 A girl with psychic powers who… 23 …falls in love with a mermaid.
24 A gossipy office lady who… 24 …fights demons after school.
25 A handsome fox spirit who… 25 …has a tsundere younger sister
26 A hard-working father of four who… 26 …has to work an ordinary job.
31 A high school art club member who… 31 …is a highly skilled martial artist.
32 A highly skilled mercenary who… 32 …is actually a robot.
33 A klutzy but cute schoolgirl who… 33 …is actually a space princess.
34 A little girl mad scientist who… 34 …is caught in a zombie apocalypse.
35 A lovely magical girl who… 35 …is forced to cross-dress.
36 A master chef who… 36 …is in search of UFOs.
41 A mean-looking delinquent who… 41 …is on a quest to get a wish granted.
42 A minor goddess who… 42 …is secretly a crazy otaku.
43 A perverted high school boy who… 43 …is surrounded by hot alien babes.
44 A powerful wizard who… 44 …is trapped inside a video game.
45 A precocious little girl who… 45 …must care for an alien princess.
46 A prince of an alien army who… 46 …must fight invading demons.
51 A pure Shinto shrine maiden who… 51 …must play mahjong for the world.
52 A shy ghost girl who… 52 …pilots a giant robot.
53 A space pirate captain who… 53 …plots for world domination.
54 A strange girl from the jungle who… 54 …really just wants to make friends.
55 A street racer who… 55 …runs a small café.
56 A super-strong schoolgirl who… 56 …sees ghosts.
61 A surprisingly weak demon lord who… 61 …starts a rock band.
62 A talented idol singer who… 62 …struggles to live a normal life.
63 A weird shut-in who… 63 …wants to be a great violinist.
64 An adorable catgirl who… 64 …who falls for a popular boy.
65 An up-and-coming manga artist who… 65 …wields forbidden magic.
66 The King of the Netherworld who… 66 …witnesses the end of the world.

For this one, you will need to make two d66 rolls, one on each column. This exercise in combinatorics gives us 1,296 possible results, and since this particular table is one I made to be silly, the real point of it is to provide oddball combinations like “A bland, average boy who becomes a superheroine.” Even for more serious subject matter, randomness can become a tool to provide inspiration and help us break out of old patterns.

In the case of Maid, the first place you run into d66 tables is in character creation, where you make a bewildering number of rolls. Your character may turn out to be a chainsaw-wielding cyborg mermaid who became a maid for bridal training, and it’ll be up to you to figure out how that all works. Perhaps even more important than that are the Random Event rules. The game has several tables of random events, things like ninjas attacking, aliens invading, a sudden storm, etc. The GM can roll on these tables for inspiration or just to spice things up, but the players can also spend points to roll for a random event. This led to a new style of play that is fairly unique to Maid RPG, an entirely random event-driven game session where you stumble from one random thing to the next. That’s not something every game can or should do, but it shows how powerful thematic randomness can be.

Vincent Baker’s In a Wicked Age makes a more measured but no less interesting use of thematic randomness. It comes with a series of “oracles,” which provide an evocative snippet of text for each card in a deck of playing cards. When you start the game, you decide on one of the four oracles in the book, and draw 4 cards. From there, the players take the text of the selected oracles and derive character concepts from them, directly or indirectly. If you pick the “God-kings of War” oracle and get a 2 of Diamonds, your game will include “A cask of honey wine, tribute to a fierce bandit-queen.” You might play as the fierce bandit-queen, but you might equally play an emissary sent to deliver the wine, a brewer tasked with making his finest honey wine, the bandit-queen’s lover, etc. You come back to the oracles between chapters, drawing another three cards to add more content to the game going forward.

These kinds of thematic randomness and certain kinds of creativity tools tap into a similar space, and the kinds of content you see in story generation cards and Rory’s Story Cubes aren’t all that different from what you might put into a random table in an RPG. One of the major things that thematic randomness can do however is to be thematic, to evoke a particular feel throughout. It takes a certain amount of practice to be able to take a milieu and atomize it like that, but the results can be impressive. The contents of the “God-kings of War” oracle in In a Wicked Age certainly live up to the name. They can be a remarkably efficient way to pack a lot of flavor into a game, though it’s important to not let oracles and such be a substitute for other ways of developing a setting and flavor when a game calls for it.

Removing Randomness

RPGs don’t actually have to use randomness. There are a lot of benefits to using randomness well, but it’s not a requirement. The issue with taking it out is that it’s one of the most fundamental changes you can make to an RPG, and it requires a very different approach. The two major types of non-random RPGs are resource-based (where players have some kind of points they spend to do things) and what I’ll call “comparison-based” (where the game defaults to simply comparing characters’ stats).[8]

In a traditional RPG when a player tries something and you use the action resolution rules, the game and the GM in effect ask the player, “Do you think the odds are worth it?” This is a very different proposition from a resource-based game, which says something like, “Do you think you can spend enough to do this?” or “Do you think it’s worth spending as much as you’d need to do this?” Golden Sky Stories is a resource-based RPG, and it manages to do it so well in large part because the focus of the game is so different from that of your typical RPG. GSS is a non-violent, heartwarming game where you’re trying to help ordinary people deal with problems. It makes the ability to succeed at specific actions a bit orthogonal to whether you can succeed at your overall objectives, so there’s less incentive to go all-out on any given action, and less likelihood of a lack of points becoming a brick wall in your way.

One of the biggest and most difficult questions that any designer attempting a resource-based RPG needs to answer is how often players get those points. With die rolls, players have the same chances of succeeding regardless of how many things they’ve tried to do, but in a resource-based game their chances of success depend on how long it’s been since their last point refresh, and how willing they’ve been to spend points thus far. A traditional RPG also can have a wildly varying pace of players making checks, potentially putting a greater burden on the GM to pace the rolls right. GSS confronts this by specifically having short sessions consisting of around 3-5 scenes, with scene changes forming the basis of point refreshes. It limits the kinds of stories the game can tell, but it lets it tell them better.

Amber Diceless Role-Playing is the prime example of a “comparison-based” game. It’s based on the Amber novels, which concern a fractious family with godlike powers. When you create characters, you have an auction to see who is willing to buy the highest rank on each of the stats, and in play the GM essentially compares the two characters’ stats (adjusting according to what they describe their characters doing) to decide who wins a conflict. It’s a very unusual mechanic, and while I was a bit disappointed when I first read it, I’ve come to realize that it’s a brilliant way to handle the particular source material. As with Golden Sky Stories, it’s a realignment of play that makes what might otherwise be a rather flat mechanic work brilliantly.

Other Randomizers

Dice aren’t the only way to generate random numbers for a tabletop game. They do have certain very real advantages, including the audience’s familiarity, the relative ease of statistical analysis, and the way they so perfectly fit the place RPGs have traditionally made for randomness. You absolutely can use other kinds of randomizers, but you need to use them for the right reasons. As with non-random mechanics, it’s difficult to really effectively use other randomizers without a more fundamental restructuring of gameplay.[9] If a randomizer only serves to generate one random number at a time, chances are dice can do it more efficiently. For example, if you take all the face cards out of a deck of playing cards and just draw one at a time to get a number between 1 and 10, you wind up having to periodically shuffle the cards and such, plus some players will inevitably count cards, so it doesn’t give any real advantages over rolling a d10. There are possibilities with other things like spinners, coins, roulette wheels, etc., but everything calls for careful consideration.

Playing cards are an interesting randomizer with a lot of potential different uses, and they have the advantages of familiarity and affordability. People in general are more familiar with playing cards than polyhedral dice, and even if you don’t have any on hand, you can get a deck (which is often enough for an entire group) for as little as a dollar. With the 13 ranks, four suits of two different colors, and distinctions like the number vs. face cards, playing cards are a good deal more information-rich than dice, and it’s easy to devise game effects based on those. There are also numerous ways in which you can physically use playing cards. Players can have hands of cards, you can lay them out on the table (face-up or face-down), you can control what’s in the actual deck, you can find/build combinations of cards, and so on. It takes some work to figure out how to smoothly adapt them to role-playing, but card games have a wealth of mechanics that you could potentially borrow for an RPG.

In Ben Lehman’s game Hot Guys Making Out, each player has a hand of playing cards, and you take turns going around the table playing cards, in a manner somewhat similar to a trick-taking game. What card you play determines what kind of things you can narrate into the scene, and different characters have different rules for what the player can narrate. The result is a simple but subtle game design that is able to use playing cards particularly well because it’s stepped away from traditional RPG mechanics.

Mike Pondsmith’s Castle Falkenstein is a more traditional RPG that uses playing cards in its resolution mechanic. Each player has a hand of cards, and they play them essentially in the place where a traditional RPG would have you roll dice, with the twist that there is a bonus for playing the right suit to match the action at hand.

There are of course other types of cards besides the traditional French style people use in poker and such, but for an English-speaking audience they’re harder to come by. It would be neat to make an RPG that makes good use of Japanese hanafuda or one of those eight-suit decks, but keep in mind that people would have to go out of their way (at a minimum making an Amazon order) to get them. Tarot cards are relatively easy to get, though they typically cost 10 to 20 dollars. They were originally just playing cards (and most Western playing cards are offshoots of these), but today they’re primarily used for divination. Regardless of the usefulness of fortunetelling, tarot cards have a lot of interesting symbolism. A deck consists of four suits, each with ten number cards and four face cards (King, Queen, Knight, and Knave), plus a Fool and a set of 21 trumps with specific names. There’s a huge variety of different designs, including silliness like manga or steampunk decks, though the 1910 Rider-Waite deck is probably the most iconic, and is public domain in the U.S. (but not Europe).


[1] In reality, dice are less precise than that, which is why Lou Zocchi wants to sell you his more accurate GameScience dice. However, the differences aren’t so great that us game designers need to worry about it too much. Even for super-precise computer randomness, you still need to be thinking about the outliers anyway.

[2] Fate dice are six-sided dice with two blank sides, two sides marked with a plus, and two sides marked with a minus. Plusses push your result up a rank, and minuses push it down a rank. The dice were originally called “Fudge dice” because they were for Steffan O’Sullivan’s Fudge, one of the earlier open RPG systems. Fate was originally a Fudge variant in fact, but it’s since grown into its own animal and become far more well-known. Grey Ghost Press still publishes Fudge though, and there’s some nifty stuff for it.

[3] Also, although there are other bonuses that come into play, the de facto range of ability score modifiers in D&D is around +0 to +4, even if it’s derived from a 3-18 score that’s still around as something of a legacy mechanic.

[4] Since they trademarked it, the overall genre is “Collectible Card Games.”

[5] The German/Euro board game tradition also emphasizes simulation far less than the Anglo tradition. At the furthest extreme, there are eurogames where the designer created an interesting interactive mathematical construct, and the theme of the game is little more than an afterthought. There are some drawbacks to having a game where Wheat and Iron might as well be Red and Blue, but there’s also merit to being willing to consider something other than accurate simulation when designing a game.

[6] In my estimation, this is better than games like Munchkin that devolve into a “kill the leader” thing where everyone gangs up on whoever’s closest to winning and the game too often is poised to end if someone doesn’t, but as usual there’s a fertile middle ground.

[7] You can find it in issue 3 of his Worlds Without Master sword and sorcery zine.

[8] You’ll notice that a lot of games include some of these non-random elements even if they also make use of randomizers.

[9] In this respect, we can think of really novel uses for dice as an alternate randomizer, as seen in games like Dogs in the Vineyard, S/Lay w/Me, and Swords Without Master. The same goes for using something like poker dice.

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