Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.
This week, I’m going with a Twitter question I received from Twitter and Twitcher @TheRedVipre. Check out his Twitch channel at TheRedVipre for a really broad variety of video gaming and interactive content.
The Red Vipre asks:
What are your thoughts on Star Wars: Edge of the Empire? Particularly elimination of numeric dice rolls in favor of GM/Player interpretation?
I love that sort of question because it’s an easy question to answer. It’s just unabashed opinion. Correct, well-thought-out opinion, of course, but opinion nonetheless. The reason I seized on this question in particular though is because it actually ties into a question that actually really kicked off my entire blogging “career” (I can’t even type that with a straight face) five years ago: the argument about binary resolution and whether you can use it to run a good, story-based game.
First of all, I like the Star Wars games from Fantasy Flight Games. They are decent games. In fact, I liked them before they were Star Wars. See, most of the mechanics – particular the dice pool mechanic – in FFG’s Star Wars actually started in FFG’s Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing Game. That was the third edition of the RPG, the first FFG published (they had previously been published by Games Workshop alongside the table-top war game by the same name and the space version, Warhammer 40,000). And they introduced a lot of really cool mechanics that were so buried under useless and expensive cardboard components and fiddly bits and cards and s$&% that no one liked it and the whole game got scrapped. Which is a shame because you can play the game without all that crap using just the three published hardbacks. But, it’s FFG, and they were trying to publish an RPG with a board-game mentality.
Anyhoo, the core of the whole experience (both the SW and WHFRPG) is the dice mechanic. Here’s how it works. You have a pile of all of these special dice that are color-coded for your convenience. And whenever you have to roll to resolve an action, you build a big ole pool of dice. You add some blue dice for your stats. You add some purple dice for the difficulty of the task. Black and white dice for minor advantages and disadvantages. Yellow dice for specialized training. And red dice to represent significant opposition. Once you fill your fist with dice, you roll them all. And different symbols represent different things. First, you count success symbols and failure symbols. If you have more successes than failures, the action succeeds. Then, you count lucky breaks and sucky bummers, to see if you get a little extra boon or bane. Then you count serious critical symbols, the critically good and critically bad, to see if you get some amazing happenstance or terrible disaster. Then, you interpret all the dice to figure out what the hell ACTUALLY happened in the story.
Now, if that sounds complicated, I’m going to let Star Wars off the hook. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to remember what symbols and what dice mean what. Mostly. It’s a learning curve, but it’s not too terribly steep.
The advantage of that system is that a die roll is rarely just a success or just a failure. You roll the dice and maybe you shoot the Gamorrean Storm Trooper or maybe you miss, but if you get lucky besides, you might force him to take cover and throw a yucky black die into his next attack because he’s ducking down to avoid your shot. Or you might not only miss badly, but explode a computer console and cause all sorts of disaster. And that’s a lot of fun.
At least, it should be.
But the fact of the matter is, given the choice between a d20 vs. DC and that pool crap, I’ll take my d20 every f$&%ing time.
Having run a bunch of Star Wars (and the Warhammer game before it) and also having watched a bunch of games being run, the first and most important thing to note is that the mere act of building the dice pool is a major break in the flow of the game. And I don’t just mean that it’s time consuming. It IS time consuming.
But more importantly, players tend to look at the dice pool and modify their action based on the dice pool. “oh, man, that’s a lot of difficulty dice, I’ll do this to add an advantage die.” There’s a lot of talk about the dice and the action that creates the die roll is constantly being edited until the dice pool is to the character’s liking. Now, I admit that every game has some of that. D&D has its share of “I’ll take a penalty? Then I’ll move over there before I fire” crap too. But gaming the dice pool becomes a MAJOR activity. And that means people are playing the dice instead of the action.
But worse, the dice become the focus of the game another way.
When all I have is a d20 roll that says yes or no, I – as the GM – am encouraged to figure out all of the consequences of the action. That is, if some idiot player tries to bully the king into giving the party some help with threats of violence, I decide how the king reacts to that. Whether the action succeeds or fails, the choice to be a bully has consequences. Whether the king is cowed into submission or refuses to help, the king’s attitude is forever changed by the choice to be a dick. At least, that’s how it SHOULD work. I know a lot of GMs don’t think actions through like this, which is why I wrote thousands of words about How to Use a Skill System and How to Adjudicate Actions.
And that means, the focus is entirely on the choice. The players choose what outcome they are digging for (aid from the king) and how to dig for it (threats of violence) and the story (as dictated by me) determines the possible outcomes (help vs. ejected from the court) and the potential consequences (a pissed off, vengeful king). The die roll is just there to decide the outcome. Everything else is determined by the choices the player made and the world they made those choices in.
I find that all very pure. It minimizes the focus on randomness. The dice can’t do anything. They are constrained. They can only answer specific yes-or-no questions that we – the players and GM – ask them. No more, no less.
Narrative dice mechanics, on the other hand, they f$&% with things. They demand interpretation. I might decide that a particular action doesn’t really have serious consequences that stretch beyond the outcome, like trying to pick a lock vs. breaking the lock, but in Star Wars, if we get a bunch of those special symbols, the system suddenly DEMANDS we add more story elements. Now, some people like that. Some people really like being blindsided by surprise story elements. And I’m not faulting that. But worse yet, what if the players specifically chose to pick the lock instead of busting the door down BECAUSE the consequences for failure are much smaller. That is to say, it doesn’t make noise, it allows them to keep the element of surprise. They can’t choose that. They can’t choose a more difficult, more time consuming path to avoid consequences because the dice will decide when disaster strikes.
Me? I don’t like that. I like the players’ choices to be front and center in determining what can happen. Along with my interpretation of the world and the action of the NPCs. I don’t want a bunch of hunks of plastic suddenly demanding to have a say in what happens. I don’t want random change to reach that far in the game. But that’s just me.
Narrative dice mechanics actually give the dice a lot of power. And they change the focus of the game. Instead of rolling the dice to answer simple questions but mostly writing the story yourselves (as players and GM), the game of a narrative dice mechanic is interpreting the dice and building a story based on what they say. I like a more pure, story-and-character driven experience which, paradoxically, is not what you get from narrative dice systems.
Now, I’m not saying binary dice systems are real role-playing and narrative dice systems aren’t, even though I know a certain number of f$&%wits out there are going to see it that way and start screaming at me over it. They are both different ways of telling a story. And they both have their strengths and weaknesses.
Binary dice systems rely on a GM to use them properly. To understand the difference between consequences and outcomes and to understand how to structure and pace a narrative. They rely on the GM to assess possibilities and to think about how the larger world might be changed by every action. It’s constantly about keeping both a larger story and a larger world in your head and adjusting both according to choices.
Narrative dice systems rely on the GM to improvise on the spot and to invent new story elements whenever the dice demand it. They put a lot of pressure on the GM to think on the spot. And often, to revise an entire scene to include a new consequence or outcome. And, quite frankly, a good GM with a narrative dice system should have some sense of when to ignore the dice. Narrative dice systems aren’t great for newer GMs. They take a level of finesse because all of the things I already mentioned – structure, pacing, tension, and the larger world are still important – but the GM now has a random factor to deal with that also affects all of those things.
Here’s where the real problem lies though. When misused or misunderstood, narrative dice systems convince GMs they don’t have to understand structure, pacing, tension, and the larger world. They imply a crutch. And so the GM never develops the skills needed to handle those things. Meanwhile, when misused or misunderstood, binary dice systems can create a very boring game because story elements are missing, like far-reaching consequences. However, that game quickly becomes unsatisfying and so most GMs in that situation eventually start to recognize something is wrong and try to work around it. Binary dice systems force the GM to become a better GM or run a sucky game. Narrative dice systems allow GMs to just leave out vast chunks of their GMing skill and never realize what they are lacking.
But the whole thing is very much a tradeoff.
As for the fight that basically defined my website. I was talking one day (five years ago) on Twitter about running a good mystery game in D&D. A fellow Twitter GM chimed in with the statement that was IMPOSSIBLE to run a good mystery or even a good story-focussed game using a binary dice system like D&D. I set out to prove him wrong. First, I yelled and sweared a lot. But second, I decided to write a series of articles about running a good mystery game in D&D. But I realized, the first thing I had to do was fill in a gap in many GM’s education because D&D didn’t really explain how to use dice very well at all. So, I wrote an article called Four Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System. And people LOVED it. But not because of the promise of running good mystery games. They loved it because it was the first time any GM had ever sat down and discussed the thought process behind a die roll and how to use them right. And so, that ballooned into five years of articles about how to be a GM. The mystery series never came to be. Maybe someday.
So, personally, I will stick with my binary dice system and my quest to teach every GM in the world how to actually run a game right instead of giving in to letting a random number generator handle the heavy lifting necessary to tell a good story while also running a good game.