The Dice Are Dead!

by Karl Brown

Still rolling dice? Many of us now have ‘dice rolling apps’ on our mobile phones, tablets and laptops. Dice rolling apps are random number generators, a class of programs almost as old as computing itself. What is new is the near ubiquity of these programs, mobile phones and other portable computing devices among gamers. This has the potential to change the landscape of tabletop gaming. Here are some tentative predictions of what might be in our near future.

Buckets of Dice

One possibility is ‘buckets of dice and add’ systems like the old Tunnels & Trolls will come back into vogue. With an app the attack roll of a T&T dragon of 26d6+250 is now quick and easy; your phone ‘rolls’ the dice and does the addition in less than a second.

Unlimited Savagery?

Savage Worlds assigns attributes dice d4, through d6, d8, d10 to d12. After d12 the system resorts to adding a modifier for super human strength. Dragons are d12+9. Some ‘die rollers’ like Dice Ex Machina (by Toby Coulstock) allow for ‘dice’ of any number of sides. You could use these to continue the progression through d14, d16, etc. A dragon might roll a d22. Of coarse this makes the dragon a little more likely to slip up occasionally.

The same kind of system could be applied to Earthdawn as well.

Ubiquity/Hollow Earth Expedition

Ubiquity, the system powering Hollow Earth Expedition and the less well known Leagues of Adventure, also uses buckets of dice and count the evens. Emulate this with xd2-x where x is the number of dice. For example if required to nine dice roll 9d2-9.

It is only a matter of time before a major rpg producers has the same realisation I had this week: random die rollers free up a whole class of new game mechanics. Think about it, even with polyhedral dice we have seen roll under, roll over, roll a bucket of d6 and count the 6’s, roll any a bucket of any dice and count the evens, etc. I don’t think we have exhausted all the ways to use solid dice yet and now we have another tool.

I’ll sketch out one example of a game mechanic now feasible because of this technology. I’m sure there will be many more. Say, I want to design a simulationist game that will include a realistic portrayal of animals genetically engineered to near human intelligence (see my article “Biophysics for gamers” and the errata for more on animals in RPG Review 9 and 11 respectively). So starting from scratch…

To begin I need a good range of values so I set typical human strength to 50. This number has a familiar feel to many gamers used to d% games and allows to much weaker creatures. It’s also a good approximation of the maximum an average human could lift and carry at a stagger. I decide to cap skills at the PC’s associated attribute and create a Strength Feats skill.

Since I want to deal with non-humans I need the system to be open ended. So tasks are given difficulties you must roll over. For example to lift 50kg, Difficulty=wt/2=25.

All pretty standard stuff so far but here’s the tricky bit. The system is truly open ended with a linear probability profile. In linear open-ended systems scores are intuitive, strength 96 really is twice as strong as 48. Such systems enable you to realistically score humans, apes, even jet liners for strength, speed etc. on a single scale with a unified mechanic. You can use this type of mechanic to forge relationships between real-world measurements of mass, speed, temperature etc and task difficulties. A d20 SRD game can’t do this because the importance of the random element diminishes at very high values. 1d20+2 is more random than 1d20+15. A roll under with d% game has a better spread but is capped around the 100 mark and has trouble with super human power. Our new example system is dX where:

X=attribute + skill. X can be any whole number plugged into a dice app.

Our first character Jane is a rather dull clerk with strength 48 and no skill in strength feats. Jane’s player plugs 1d48 into his app and rolls 31. Jane lifts the 50kg tree branch.

Our second character is Bill the Olympic weightlifter. Bill has strength 96 and strength feats 96. Bill’s ability to lift a 50kg rock is rated at 192 and he is very likely to succeed. Any failure should be interpreted as a slip or other fumble.

Charles is an uplifted full-grown male chimp he has strength 240 and strength feats 22 for a total of d262. Charles’ hands slip as he grasps the 50kg anvil but he rolls a 41 and manages to win his wager with a gullible backwoods human.

Our final character is K’crk a genetically engineered intelligent giant squid with strength 528 and no skill. A simple d528 roll determines success or (unlikely) failure.

All these characters can be represented by a simple unified mechanic without cludges like the GURPS 3rd ‘rule of 12’ or the way GURPS sometimes requires very weak characters to multiply their Strength before rolling.

Custom Dice Apps

Some games such as The One Ring already use custom dice it is only a matter of time before some creates an app for their game. Freed of the constraints of physical dice the apps could have unusual features. For example a die that rolls numbers 1 to 8 but 3% of the time comes up the ‘evil eye sigil’ and the player is in for terrible bad luck. What about a d20 that randomly changes colour? Roll to beat AC, if you do and die is white gain a momentary advantage modifier to your next action, red do damage, black demoralise, or if blue do subdual damage. The possibilities are endless.

A wizard did it!

Another potential use of mobile computing technology is to automate random elements. While programs to automate portions of tabletop games already exist they have never become common at the gaming table; relegated to the role as referee’s helper between sessions. Anywhere a series of defined random rolls is used a program with an interface much like an installation wizard for your PC could guide you through the process pausing whenever a human is required to make a choice. Hours of work could be cut down to minutes. You could generate your Classic Traveller characters in a few minutes at the start of a session and get playing sooner.

Going a step further game mechanics could become more complex, possibly to better simulate ‘reality’ or to use those detailed characters generated by Char-gen apps. Tasks could be determined by multiple ‘rolls’ factoring in skills, skill synergies, attributes, environmental conditions, equipment bonuses, magical effects, etc. and the result spat out of a mobile app in less than a second at the game table during play.

The genie is out

I’m sure that my feeble guesses will fall short of what the interface of mobile computing and tabletop gaming will give us in the future but one thing I am certain of is that the hobby of table-top gaming will changed by the availability of portable computing devices.