Cinemechanix Design Journal 13: Dice Effects

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 08 April 2016 Written by Steve

Before I get into the blog, a couple of notes. First off, we just released a new QAGS sourcebook called And One For All by Ian Engle. As you can probably guess from the title, it's a Three Musketeers sourcebook. Also, round 2 of the Thought Eater contest at Playing D&D With Porn Stars has begun. I can't tell you which essay is mine, or even whether mine has been posted yet, but I encourage you to give them a read and vote for the ones you like.

Since I like to focus on storytelling and character development in RPGs, the thing I like most about dice is their ability to send the story off into unexpected directions. I've always liked critical hits and fumbles, wild dice in the d6 version of Star Wars, and other rules where the die roll can result in more than just a number to compare to a stat or difficulty number. In QAGS, which as you probably know is a roll-under system, we have Lucky Breaks (critical successes, when you roll your target number exactly) and Bad Breaks (critical failures, when you roll a natural 20), and Quirky Successes (weird things that happen when you roll a "1").

Naturally, I wanted the same kind of thing in Cinemechanix. Since Cinemechanix is a roll-high rather than roll-under system, the good thing was that I could use the more traditional "1 bad, 20 good" standard, which just feels better. The tricky thing is the fact that Cinemechanix is a dice pool system where you use the best die from the pool for your roll. The "20 is good" part works fine, since you're always going to pick the 20, but unless you're only rolling 1 Die (PCs tend to have at least 2 for most rolls), you're never going to choose the 1. If you're left with a 1 and a 17 in your dice pool, you're going to take the 17 and probably succeed at whatever you were doing. One option would be to make a Bad Break happen when you roll mostly 1s or nothing but 1s, but that means critical successes and critical failures have different rules, and I want to keep exceptions to minimum. 

The solution was ultimately to do something I'd already mostly done in the descriptions: divorce the Lucky Break or Bad Break from the action being attempted. Instead of the character succeeding really well or failing really hard at whatever he was trying to do, a Lucky or Bad break just means something good or bad happens to the character. It can be related to the action the roll was for (you roll a 20 on an attack roll and get an instant kill), it can be tangentially related (you take the 17 and chop the bad guy, but your axe breaks because of the 1), or unrelated (You roll a 20 and do regular damage, but the bad guy you hit flies into the wall and hits the trigger that opens the door to the secret treasure room).

So, if any 1 or 20 in the remaining dice pool causes a special effect, what if you get a mixture of 1s and 20s? Since the "1 bad, 20 good" scale doesn't leave room for the QAGS quirky success, let's put it there. A dice pool with a 20 and 1 means you get a Fluke, something weird and unexpected happens: innocent bystanders wander into the fight, a freak tornado hits the battlefield, whatever; the odder the better. Multiple 1/20 pairs means multiple Flukes, and any leftover 1s or 20s are Bad or Lucky Breaks. If your dice pool comes up 20,20,20,1,1, you get a Lucky Break and 2 Flukes.

But why stop the fun at just the Bad Breaks, Lucky Breaks, and Flukes? With dice pools, you can add all sorts of special effects. As the title of this blog suggests, in Cinemechanix they're called "Dice Effects," and the GM and players come up with them when they put the game together. You can have universal Dice Effects that apply to all rolls, Dice Effects that only apply to certain types of rolls or situations, or even Dice Effects for a particular character, monster, spell, ability, or whatever. Here are a few examples that I gave in the book or have used in the sample game set-ups I've written:

  • If you're playing a Lovecraftian horror game (or any game with dark magic), rolling three 6's when using magic means you inadvertently unleash Dark Forces Beyond Your Control.
  • When you're rolling to see how well your rock band performs, each "11" gives you a +1 bonus to the Effect.
  • When The Human Lava Lamp rolls doubles on a superpower roll, his skin changes color.
  • Discordian Saints are allowed to re-roll 5s, but aren't required to do so.
  • If I was running a Scooby Doo game, Velma would have a character-specific Dice Effect (double 13s, maybe) that causes her to lose her glasses. 
  • In the Team Force Alpha 37 Dark Age Supers game, whenever a player rolls triples, his character is involved in a crossover with another comic between issues and begins the next session with some kind of baggage from the crossover. Some of the characters also have special Dice Effects for their powers. For example, when A.X.X.E. rolls doubles on a roll for his mech suit, the suit malfunctions and has to be rebooted. 
  • Hobo superstition has several lucky and unlucky numbers, but I decided to just use two of them (33 and 9) for Dice Effects in the Hobomancer write-up. 33 is a lucky number, so a dice pool with double 3s means a Lucky Break. 9 is unlucky, so if the dice pool has a third 3, you get a Bad Break (regular 9s don't have a special effect).

In the last one, I chose to use triple 3s for a Bad Break instead of 9s to keep the dice effect from happening too often, and also because I like the idea of using the same roll for both the good and bad effect. You can key Dice Effects to any number or combination of numbers and kind of use the number of dice required to control how common or uncommon the effects are, both because of the probability math and because of how the system works. Everybody gets 1 die for anything that's at least theoretically possible, so a Dice Effect that happens on a single number will come up most frequently. Most PCs will get a Concept bonus for the majority of things they do during a game, so Dice Effects that require 2 dice are possible for most rolls. For effects that require 3 or more dice, a character will need either appropriate Trademarks or a situation that grants him Bonus Dice. The more dice required, the rarer the effect will be and the fewer characters will even have a chance of rolling it. 

That does it for this week. If you want to check out the full Cinemechanix rules and get a chance to earn or win fabulous prizes and bragging rights as a playtester, join the playtest group.

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Cinemechanix Design Journal 13: Dice Effects.
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