The Cowardice of Incremental Modifiers, Jenga Dice, and Some Other Design Thoughts

Art By Yoshitaka Amano

This isn't going to be anything long (Narrator: It Would Be) but just wanted to jot down some design thoughts that have been rattling around in my skull unceasing, drowning out all other musings, dreams, and flights of fancy with their noise, dry and deathly, like a hanged rattlesnake in the first gusts of a windstorm.  I'm still working on assembling a coherent setting from this nonsense so if you're looking forward to that, it'll likely be my next post.
In any case, I present for your consideration some design related ideas:

The Cowardice of Incremental Modifiers 
  • I'll say it, I don't care. Representing fictional advantage, disadvantage, improvement, danger, etc. by 5% increments in the positive or negative direction is cowardice, and I'll stand by it. Nobody reads stories to appreciate how the heroes and villains are slightly better or slightly worse at something then the average joe, dangerous situations are not best modeled by slightly reducing the odds of success or slightly increasing the odds of peril, and however realistic, it's simply not interesting for a character wielding a magic blade to be slightly more likely to hit, and if a character goes through a brutal training regimen and comes out slightly stronger then they went it, who gives a fuck? We're in it for stories of "gigantic melancholies  and gigantic mirth" (or at least I am, and if you're not, I don't know, play GURPS?), not stories that hinge around a 5%-10% increase or decrease in the odds. 
  • "But what about balance?"
    •  It's the OSR, to hell with balance. Or rather, to hell with balance at the expense of excitement. Balance your game around things being intense, don't mitigate intensity for the sake of balance. 
  • "But how?"
    • I think it's going to look different across different tables, but for my part I've started to do away with both ability scores and modifiers altogether. At my table characters are defined by a series of traits, stuff like "Slender" "Brawny" "Quick Hands" "Dull Wit" etc. When rolling, you're trying to beat 13 on a d20: if the task is easy for you, beat 9, if the task is hard, beat 17.
      • Ironically, I have scaled that probability up and down by 5%: previously I've had players beat 10 for easy rolls and 16 for hard rolls, but I found 9 and 17 to be a bit more fun. 
    • The key to the system described above is that the rolls should always be in the context of the character: what is an easy roll for someone might be a hard roll for someone else. Traits don't get numbers added to them when they level up, they become new Traits with new capabilities: an "Athletic" character would have to make a hard roll to kick down a locked door, a "Brawny" character might be able to do it with an easy roll and a "Hulking" character might not have to roll at all. 
  • You could also get a similar effect by assuming that the default character is really, bad at everything, and that any positive traits represent the things they're good at. So your character is weak unless they are specifically strong, is dim unless they are specifically bright, etc. There is a place for nuance, but that place is not defining what a character is capable of. Save your shades of grey for a character's morality, for their backstory, for their interactions with other characters, for who they are as people. Paint what they can do in bold, bright colors, and as a result, the things they do will be bolder and brighter.
Jenga Dice
  • I've been reading a lot of the Worlds Without Master zine, particularly the games by Epidiah Ravachol, creator of storygames such as Swords Without Master and Dread, both of which are very well respected both by me (which is high praise, there's not many storygames I can get behind) and by the community in general. It's been a bit of a white whale for me to combine the narrative "Tone" mechanics of Swords Without Master with an OSR design sensibility, and while I'm still nowhere near figuring that out, I had a thought while reading over The Dread Geas of Count Vulku, a Ravachol game that uses the Dread Jenga Tower as its resolution mechanic that I think is interesting in its own right and may in the long run help me tackle the problem of Tones. 
    • (An aside for those who might be interested in what the hell I'm talking about with this Tones bullshit, Tones in Epidiah's games are loose connections of associated words, phrases and images that preside over a given scene, lending direction and constraints to the narrative at any given time. Swords Without Master, for example, uses the Tones Glum and Jovial. Glum consists of things that are cold, quiet, melancholic, lethal, secretive, subtle. A Glum scene for example, could be a bitter, windswept night on a lonely watchtower by the roaring sea, and a Glum action could be a cold blade drawn across the throat of the one who trusted you most. Jovial, in contrast is hot, bright, joyful, violent, colorful, brash. A Jovial scene might be a caravan across a sunblasted plain, pennants waving from flashing spears, and in the distance, dust from approaching bandits, and a Jovial action could be flinging open the doors to your enemies feasting hall and bellowing out your name and titles.  The fact that the game mechanizes these Tones using dice to randomly assign a Tone to each new scene and action means that Swords Without Master perfectly captures the swing of the Swords and Sorcery genre and its heroes of again "gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth." The problem is that part of the magic of Swords Without Master comes from the Tone being decided before the players declare their intent or their actions, and because of this all actions taken uphold and are constrained by the Tone. While this is a really excellent method to "stay within genre" as it were, it is in direct conflict with the OSR philosophy of always encouraging players to do whatever the hell they want at any given moment. The reason I want to combine the two at all is first, I love the OSR and Epidiah's games both and I think that there should be more space in the OSR for narrative mechanics, and second, creativity within interesting constraints is a staple of OSR gameplay and with a lot of elbow grease I think Tones can mesh well with that. Anyway, back to my original point.)
  • The Dread Jenga engine (there's a good album title for you) has players pull from a Jenga Tower to determine the outcome of their actions. Topping the tower results in character death, insanity, or whatever badness the game has deemed appropriate. Pulling from the tower however is usually not required to accomplish an action: your character can generally do anything the GM judges in within their capability. However, pulling from the tower is often the only way to mitigate unpleasantness from happening to your character, or undesired outcomes from occurring. In addition, pulling from the tower can offer your character additional advantages within the fiction.
    •  Sneaking past a guard, for example, would not call for a pull from the tower if your character had some aptitude for stealth. The GM might tempt you to pull though by informing you that if you do, you'll be able to snatch the coins from his purse. Of course, if you topple the tower, you'll suffer serious consequences, so its a risk/reward decision point. 
  • There's a number of reasons why I think this is pretty clever game design: it makes each "pull" into a player driven decision point rather than just having the GM call for a roll, it gives the players more information: "you can get this benefit or avoid this consequence if you pull" while still retaining an element of the unknown: "if you fail the pull, the consequences are dire and in the hands of the GM". 
  • I'm sure you can all see where this is going. Long story short, I think taking some cues from the Dread Jenga engine and applying them to more traditional dice based resolution mechanics could create something really interesting. 
    • As a rough sketch, I'd imagine something like the following:
      • Characters are defined by Traits: things like "Bulky" "Slender" "Sly" "Innocent" "Quick Hands," you get the drill. 
        • If you want to do something and your Traits or the circumstances would make it easy/safe for you, you can just do it, no roll, though the GM may offer you a roll in order to gain some advantage 
        • If you want to do something and your Traits or the circumstances would make it a moderate challenge/somewhat dangerous to accomplish, you just do it, though you'll suffer consequences as a result. You may roll in order to avoid those consequences. The GM may offer you further rolls in order to gain advantages. 
        • If you want to do something and your Traits of the circumstances would make it very difficult/dangerous, you must roll to accomplish it at all, and you'll still suffer consequences. The GM may offer you further rolls in order to avoid those consequences. 
      • This does a few things that I like a lot:
        •  gives rolling the dice a lot of weight, forces the players to consider ways to make things easier for their characters in the fiction rather than risking a roll
        • makes the GM into a very active figure, always tempting the players to push their luck, to grab the dice and try to snatch another advantage 
        • allows for different playstyles: do you play it safe and avoid rolls through clever fictional positioning, or do you let it ride and take the good with the bad?
      • There's still some stuff to consider:
        • what exactly happens when you fail a roll? Having clearly defined consequences for failure is a must: keying different results to different failing rolls could also be interesting 
        • does the GM make the consequences that can be avoided by rolling in a dangerous situation explicit? Like, if you're swinging over a pit and it's a moderate challenge, does the GM tell you "You can do it, but you'll lose an item as it slips from your pack, do you want to roll to avoid that happening?" Or do they just say "You can do it but it's risky, do you want to roll to avoid danger?"
          • I think perhaps letting the bad thing almost happen in the fiction and then offering the roll might be the way to go: "You swing across the pit, but halfway over your sword slips from your belt! Do you want to roll to grab it, or let it be lost?"
        • Combat will be interesting to tackle as well, though I think there's potential for real dynamic interactions: most foes would be "moderately challenging" to hit, with minion type foes being "easy" and really difficult enemies being "very dangerous". So you can hit most foes automatically, but the GM can offer you a roll to avoid their counterattack or offer you a roll to perform a combat maneuver, etc. 
          • I think player facing combat might be the way to go with that, weirdness could result from asking players to defend themselves: you defend yourself automatically but have to roll to avoid consequences? Seems a little strange.
          •  Player facing combat could maybe be alright though: "I swing" "do you want to roll" "Nah" "your blade connects, but too late you see his spear, and it bites into your side" "I stagger back, and thrust at him" "do you want to roll?" "yeah... I failed" "He swats your blade aside, and his spear rips into your flesh once again"
          • So you automatically take damage from your opponents counterattack unless you roll... if  you do roll and fail though, your own attack does no damage and you take damage. 
          • You can make additional rolls for combat maneuvers: if you fail, your maneuver is reversed on you.
        • Wounds/disadvantage etc would be pretty easy to handle I think, simply requiring the player to roll whenever the wound/disadvantage comes into play: "You can leap the pit, but you'll have to roll on account of your dislocated kneecap"
        • I don't think I want players to be able to modify their rolls. Rolling should always be scary, and character capability should be expressed in terms of things that the players don't have to roll for, rather than improving the odds of the roll succeeding.
          • I may go back on this, I'm not fully satisfied with either direction right now.

To Hit vs. To Damage
  • I've mentioned frequently that I'm a big fan of Chris McDowall's Into the Odd, and one of the things specifically that I think it does a fantastic job of doing is in simplifying and increasing the intensity of combat. 
  • Into the Odd eliminates the "To-Hit" roll: the attacker simply rolls damage, which is dealt to the defenders HP. HP in Into the Odd represents one's ability to not get hit meaningfully through a combination of luck, grit, agility, etc. Once one's HP has run out, damage is applied to a characters attributes, and saves vs serious wounds must be made, etc. It's simple, makes sense in fiction, reinforces that combat is not an ideal state to be in, eliminates the frustration of combat rounds where everyone misses, and is in general a really good idea. 
    • It's such a good idea in fact that my past 3 or 4 games and hacks have stolen it, or versions of it, and its the combat system that I use at my table with my own homebrew mess. 
  • However, recently, and with some feedback from my players, I've found myself growing a bit discontented with it. The thing is, everyone always hits, but since damage is still a variable, some hits do less than others. And while it isn't any trouble to narrate a low damage roll as being deflected, or being only a glancing blow, or some such, my players consistently feel low grade frustration about a system supposed to emphasize the high points of combat (hitting shit) while minimizing the low points (not doing anything on your turn because you missed) leading to a sort of unsatisfying lukewarm experience, where its not that you didn't have an impact, but your impact wasn't very noticeable or significant. Sure, you hit the guy, but when you hit the guy you want a spray of blood, or a desperate backstep, neither of which mesh very well with the reality of taking 3 points of someones HP. 
    • At least when you miss, you miss: you were parried, the foe dodged under your blow, it glanced off of their armor. The foe has demonstrated its superiority towards you, your blows have no effect, and now their blade crashes earthward towards you. 
    • When you hit, you want something to happen, the aforementioned blood spray, or something: hitting a foe means you've proved yourself better than them, and when HP is just a "didn't hit" number that ticks downward until it reaches 0 you "can hit" you spend a lot of time not hitting, working your foe into a position where you can finally get them.
      • This isn't to say that that style of combat isn't good: I think it offers a lot, and can play into fantasies of wearing a foe down through clever strikes and maneuvers until you can deliver the killing blow. But it's been a bit lackluster for me, and doesn't jive exactly with the way my players and I narrate combat in the fiction. 
  • So what with one thing and another, I decided I'd try to fix that problem, and here's what I've produced:
    • Handling damage with "Hits."
    • In combat, the "to hit" roll is retained. 
    • Taking damage means you take 1 hit. 
    • Each "Hit" is a significant one, a serious wound or injury. A character can take a certain number of hits before death. 
  • Let's talk about that a little bit. A "hope I do anything" roll (a "to hit" roll by any other name) seems very anti-everything-I-was-talking about. Fair enough. Having a character simply not be good enough to hit a foe is not very interesting. Let's replace it then. Have the defender roll. If you don't hit its because your foe outclassed you in this moment. A shield was shifted, a blow avoided or absorbed. There, that's back in line with the fantasy I'm trying to capture. 
    • I like having the defender roll for a few reasons, chief among them being that my players really like to say what they're doing before they roll, rather than checking to see if they succeed and narrating a successful action. If forced to, they'll declare intent "I attack" before they roll, then check the dice to see how far they can go with their description, but really, who can blame them for preferring to say "I thrust my sword up and towards his gut," and who can blame them for feeling a bit silly when they roll a 1 and are forced to say "never mind, I swing comically wide, missing them altogether." Having the defender roll to defend means that they can direct all their animosity towards the foe for besting them, rather than towards the dice for failing them.
    • In addition, I like to telegraph enemy attacks: "the sword races towards you" "its claws sweep down" etc. and having the players roll for defense puts them back in the drivers seat and lets them feel like successfully avoiding damage was as a result of their characters skill, rather than their enemies incompetence. A fight between two foes who struggle to hit each other, and even if they did hit each other they might not do much damage is not very interesting A fight between foes who constantly parry, block, dodge and parry blows that would almost certainly cause lasting wounds is thrilling. The difference between "He swings at you... you step aside and his sword narrowly misses" and "He swings at you.. what do you do?" "I attempt to catch the blow on my shield and force it down" is, in my experience, vast.
      • You could point out that there's nothing stopping me and my players from interpreting a failed attack roll as the fault of the enemy, that rolling a miss is a result of a clever parry from a foe rather than a failing of the attacker. But here's the thing: it doesn't feel like that. Rolling the dice feels like an oracle determining the results of your characters action, and because you are rolling the dice, not the game world, the results of the die roll feel like they should manifest in the game world as actions your character takes, not as the actions of a foe or the whims of the environment. 
      • So why, in that case, not simply have both the attacker and the defender roll? Lots of games do that. 
        • Three reasons: 
          • 1, because it's not very fun for most people to play a game about a jackass who keeps whiffing her sword swings,
          • 2, because as I've said, my players like to just say what they're going to do in the fiction before consulting the dice, and it feels shitty to have fate spit in your face all the time,
          • and 3, because I want to streamline things and cutting a die roll speeds combat up.
  • Okay, but if everything is just 1 hit, what's the point of different weapons? 1 hit from a knife and 1 hit from a greatclub shouldn't be represented the same way, right? And if we start making big weapons do more hits of damage, then you're just doing things the old fashioned way but boring because everything deals static amounts of damage!
    • Fair enough. Keep your damage dice. 1 hit is still 1 hit, but when when you hit someone, roll your damage dice. The higher the number, the gorier the hit. Use a table to reference or let the GM improvise the results of the dice roll. 
    • So getting stuck in the gut and getting your arm hacked off are both 1 hit? Higher damage rolls just maim you more? You can't get 1 shot?
      • Yeah, more or less. But sure, you want higher rolls to have more killing power, try either of these on for size: 
        • On a max damage roll, roll the damage dice again and total the rolls. If you roll max damage again, your foe takes another 1 hit, and you roll the damage dice again, etc. 
          • This lends some meaning to weapons with smaller damage dice as well, which I like. A sword's more likely to chop your arm off with a high damage roll outright, but a few good rolls from a d4 dagger and that blade dealing 2 hits way up in guts, tickling your organs.
        • Alternatively, just get rid of the hits system and rely purely on the wound table. When you get hit, roll on the wound table. If you get the same result, take the next result down. The higher results are worse, with the highest being deathblows. 
    • What about glancing blows? Scratches, etc? 
      • Frankly, they don't interest me that much, but sure, let's go ahead and make it so armor is subtracted from the gore/wound roll. If your armor reduces a roll to 0 or less, you still take the 1 hit, but you're not maimed or anything, just rattled and bruised and breathless. 
        • You still take the 1 hit? Isn't that a bit harsh?
        • Well, yes and no. You were still hit, and I think it's fair that being hit, even in a less brutal fashion should reduce your fighting competency. However, I think it's reasonable that a hit reduced to 0 by armor can't be the hit that kills you. If you get hit in the armor and then stabbed twice, sure, you're dead, but if your armor's been blocking blows all combat, it'll take a hit in the meat to drop you. 
      • Shields can and should be splintered and sundered in good old OSR fashion in order to prevent damage altogether. I'd extend that to helmets as well, and maybe even breastplates if I was feeling particularly fancy. I'd rule that it can only happen once per combat though, to prevent the constant swapping of helmets mid battle. 
  • How many hits can a character take anyway? 
    • Totally dependent on the game. I run a "3 strikes and you're out" type of game most of the time anyways, so I plan to roll with 3 hits per character, but a more plot driven game might call for 6 or something. 
    • If you're forgoing hits in favor of just using the wound table, then so be it. 

And that's about all I have for now. Hopefully some of this proved interesting to somebody: I plan on running a few games making use of these changes, and perhaps I'll type of a session report at some point. Ciao.


  1. I find your game design work really interesting. Even before this post, it felt like you were trying to apply the mechanics of "storygames" to OSR, something I am very much in support of (, so I'm glad to see that confirmed here.

    To me, the Traits and Hits really don't sound that different from Aspects/Skills and Stress Tracks in FATE, mainly just changing the dice probabilities and tagging the aspects/skills in a more "gamist" way, which is what I suggested in that article I linked haha.

    A couple other systems / mechanics you may be interested in or that may be applicable to this way of thinking about game design:

    1. I love Cypher System! Everything is a d20 roll against some difficulty level, and rather than modifiers, you can use skills or spend points to lower the difficulty. I think the cost-benefit analysis involved in the resolution mechanic of Cypher is really under-appreciated. Many people struggle to wrap their head around it, or dislike the idea of spending what are effectively the equivalent of HP to do stuff, but once you start thinking about it as cost-benefit analysis I think it becomes much more engaging, and in that way the process itself becomes engaging, I think, more engaging than just a dice roll with pre-determined modifiers. Also, even though Cypher is arguably more mechanical than it needs to be, I think it can be stripped down to a similar FATE-like set of traits.

    2. Tunnels & Trolls. It's very rules-light, even more so than (or at worst equivalent to) old-school D&D. One thing that I like about it is that combat resolution is simultaneous, so both sides roll their dice, and the difference determines who takes how much damage. It's fast, flexible, and because there are a few kinds of damage that can bypass the opposed roll, there is interesting tactical complexity. While the approach of everyone on both sides rolling at once might not be quite what you're looking for, if you were to do it on a 1-to-1 level I think that could be interesting. And in such a case, rather than having damage, you could make it binary, where the loser of the opposed roll takes a Hit.

    Anyway, just food for thought, but I look forward to seeing where this goes.


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