Stepped Dice Game of Raising Stakes

While designing the Cortex Plus version of Jadepunk, I stumbled upon an attractive dice mechanic that I want to explore. It’s inspired by Cortex Plus (naturally), as well as Chronica FeudalisSavage WorldsFate Core, and Marvel Universe Roleplaying (the terrible old one with the stones of effort, only to some degree, but still awesome that I can include that here).

Design Goals

I believe every good design needs a reason for being: something you want to achieve or a problem you want to solve. Without this you are just spinning your wheels, creating for the sake of creating (not bad, as an exercise, but not helpful for serious design sessions). In light of that, here are my design goals for this system:

  • Create a tension-filled, story driven conflict mechanic.
  • Leave room for tactics, both inherent in the mechanic and from special abilities.
  • Make “giving in” increase the tension.
  • Do away with “action rounds,” but don’t leave it quite as freeform as the Conversation of World games.
  • Have enough space to play with multiple genres, from the mundane to the superhuman.
  • Give one player a moment to shine, even if they fail (make their moment longer than a single roll with some math, but not so long that the rest of the table gets bored).

With that in mind, here’s the mechanic I came up with:

Stepped Up Dice Mechanic Thingy

(You all can draw straws to help me find a name if something comes of this.)

The Dice Pool

Every person at the table has a personal dice pool, which functions similarly to the Doom Pool from Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, but everyone at the table has one. It starts at 2d6 for players, while GMs get 2d6+1d6 per player in the group.

For players, the dice pool represents their character’s luck, conviction, plot influence…whatever you prefer. For GMs, it represents the danger of the adventure, the forces of evil, conviction of bad guys…also whatever you prefer. (Themes would depend on setting and this system becoming a big enough thing to worry about it.)

You can spend your dice pool to add dice to your dice pools or avoid setbacks.

Players also have resource points they can spend on events that take place after a roll happens. (This is an area that might become another option for spending dice from your personal pool, but, for now, the mechanics are kept separate.)

Character Traits

Characters have a core trait rated in a number of d6s (probably 4-5). Special qualities, powers, weapons, and the like would add additional traits in the form of stepped dice (d8, d10, and d12).

When you roll, you form a dice pool with a core trait and any applicable special traits. The average dice pool is expected to be between 4-6 dice.

Taking Action

Character actions happen in a game of raising stakes. Both sides roll against each other, continuously raising the stakes until one side fails to do so. The back and forth of raising stakes is called an exchange.

Rolling Dice

When you declare your action, you form a dice pool with your character traits and any additional dice you decide to add from your personal dice pool (probably need to modify those names to avoid confusion). Then the GM will tell you what the ante is (default of 4, unless traits change it). The ante is the number you need to beat to set the stakes. The GM will also tell you what your opposition does and form a dice pool for them.

Since you declared an action, you roll your dice pool. You can decide to keep any die that beats the ante (5 or higher).

If you succeed

If you’ve raised the stakes, you’re winning; the narration should describe how you’ve gained the upper hand. Your total represents the stakes that your opponent must beat.

If you fail

If you failed to raise the stakes, then you’ve lost. Your opponent gets what they wanted, and you lose a “health point” (we’ll decide what those look like – stress, trauma, etc. – later). Most characters would only have 1-2 health points, and minions would have zero (each win in an exchange takes out a minion – a healthy exchange would take out three or four minions while your friends are struggling against a single bigger villain).

You can avoid failure by spending a resource point to keep another die and add it to your total. Doing so can be a dangerous prospect, however, as kept dice can not be rolled later in the exchange. It’s better if you can beat the stakes with one die, but the stakes will eventually become higher than any single die can beat and you’ll need to spend resources if victory is important to you.

You can also accept a setback to raise the stakes. Setbacks should be reserved for when you’re out of resource points, as they add a d6 to your opponent’s personal dice pool, and the narrative goes against you somehow.

An Exchange

Let’s say you beat the ante and raised the stakes. Then the GM rolled and raised them further (possibly by spending resource points or accepting setbacks to add more dice to the total).

Now you have two options:

  1. Roll again, but with a reduced dice pool (minus the dice you kept in the last round of the exchange) and against a higher difficulty (the stakes set by your opponent).
  2. Give in.

Rolling again is preferred, provided you have enough resource points to win (this is a prime time to add dice from your personal dice pool). However, if defeat looks like a foregone conclusion, you can “give in,” but only before you make your roll.

If you give in, you get a resource point and a setback, but get to determine where you end up in the story (the GM gets to embellish, just to make sure you don’t go too easy on yourself).

Multiple Opponents

If you decide to help a friend in an exchange (typical against prominent opponents, like dragons), then you combine your dice pools and can spend from either resource point pool, or use dice from either personal dice pool. The group effort still only gets to keep a single die (but the chances of that die being higher are better, and you’ll have more resource and personal dice pool dice to apply to the rolls). Both sides can also use their special moves on the rolls, which could make all the difference.

There is a danger when joining your friend, however: you accept the consequences of defeat, whatever those might be; if your friend would lose a health point when losing, you both lose one.

Quick Example

This play style would work best for groups that like to mimic fight scenes from movies like The Avengers, where the heroes are fighting different opponents, and when they team up against a single opponent they tend to dominate them. So it makes sense to use a fight scene from an Avengers movie to demonstrate the system.

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Captain America has declared an action against Ultron and forms his dice pool (4d6 from his core trait, 1d8 for his enhanced strength, and 1d10 for his shield). He rolls against the ante (4), and one of his d6s beats it (5). He sets that d6 in the middle of the table to set the new stakes (5).

UltronCap'sShieldAfter a combination of acrobatics and martial arts, Cap throws his shield at Ultron.

Ultron responds with a total roll of 9 (for the sake of brevity, we won’t detail Ultron’s rolls – this post is long enough already). Ultron sets the dice he needed to roll to get the 9 in the middle of the table, establishing the new stakes; Cap’s d6, that previously set the stakes at 5, is set out of the play area.

Ultron throws Cap’s shield away and charges in to attack. (This is really just fluff, and should probably be the result of a setback, but it happened in the movie, so we’ll go with it as narrative.)

Cap is still fresh, and a 9 isn’t that hard to beat, so he rolls again, but is down 1d6 because he kept it last round (dice pool = 3d6, 1d8, 1d10). He rolls, getting a 9 on the d10 and a 5 on one of the d6s. That 9 doesn’t raise the stakes (something should happen on ties, but we’re not there yet), so Cap spends a resource to add the 5 to it. The new stakes are 14, established by Cap’s dice being placed in the middle of the play area and Ultron’s being removed.

Cap isn’t deterred by losing his shield and returns with a powerful hand-to-hand attack.

Ultron manages to raise the stakes again but had to spend two resource points to do so (adding two additional dice to get his total). The new stakes are 16.

Avengers_AoU_trailer-4-6_stillUltron gets a grip on Caps throat, holding him over the side of the moving train.

Cap only has a 2d6 and a 1d8 left in his pool. He could give in, probably describing how he gets thrown off the train, but doesn’t get hurt in the process (he would still be able to come back). But Cap shines in dire situations like this; he’s not going to lay down. He spends a d10 from his personal dice pool, increasing his rolling dice pool to 2d6, 1d8, and 1d10. He rolls and gets enough to beat Ultron…if he spends two resource points, but he’s only got one. Cap decides to spend that resource point and accept a setback (Ultron adds a d6 to his dice pool) but sets the new stakes to 21.

Black Widow retrieved Cap’s shield for him (again, not necessary just because he added a d10 back into his pool, but it’s cool, so why not?) and Cap uses it to break Ultron’s grip, but in the process Ultron blasts him through the roof of the train. Cap is on his back and in trouble.

With the stakes so high, it’s unlikely that Ultron will win, and he doesn’t. He rolls three 6s (18), not enough to beat a 21, even if he accepted setbacks galore. Ultron loses a health point.

avengers-age-of-ultron-2015-004-quicksilver-running-through-train_0Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are inside the train, and they turn on Ultron. They’re combined might is too much for him, and they throw him off the train.

Conclusion

That was an extreme version of a fight against two characters with high dice pools. I envision dice pools being much smaller.

Some balancing needs to take place, but this is the system in a nutshell. Any thoughts?

7 comments On Stepped Dice Game of Raising Stakes

  • Idea for spending personal dice pool dice to enhance a roll: Tag an aspect/distinction. You’re in trouble and not sure if you can raise the stakes on the next roll, throw a dice pool die at your favorite catch phrase or important story trait.

    With the way exchanges work here, it might feel even more evocative than it does in Fate, which can sometimes feel like hunting for bonuses. (Admittedly, this may well feel that way, too – it has yet to be tested.)

  • I like it. I will give it a try for sure if you polish it and release a final version.

    • Glad to hear it! I’m a little skeptical about how the multiple rounds in an exchange would work out in play, but I think I scared myself with the Cap vs. Ultron example. Most characters exchanges would probably be only two or three rolls before someone decides it’s not worth spending more points on it anymore.

      • It works perfectly for duels. In the case of multiple rounds and multiple oponents… why not roll your dices and add them to the pool? The one/ones setting the new stake get to describe how their characters perform the team move.

        • That’s actually a pretty good concept. Everyone rolls, and the one that rolled the highest number is the primary narrator, but each person who spends a resource point to add one of their dice to the total gets to embellish the narration.

          That could make from some interesting “side vs. side” (mass battle) mechanics. That deserves playtesting.

  • Terminology changes: “personal dice pool” is simply “your dice pool” and the pool you roll with for your actions is the “action pool.”

    I think the dice pool should start somewhere higher, like 5d6. When you add a die to a roll, you can either the number of d6s you want, or you can combine 2d6 into 1d8 (or 3d6 into 1d10, etc.). So you never have to worry about stepping up your dice pool dice. You just keep adding d6s to it and decide when you use it what it represents.

    Maybe…

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