Saturday, November 23, 2019

TMDM Pt 4: The Sign Die Risk Roll

I really don’t remember how the Sign Die Risk Roll came into being, but I think it was an inversion of the original risk roll. With it we return to standard ability scores. Muscle 14, Wisdom 10, etc. Modifiers are added as needed and at the very end of the action the dice are rolled for one final modifier. Everything is added together and that is the strength of your action, measured using the success table mentioned in the last blog post.

29 – 32 = 6 = Amazing
25 – 28 = 5 = Fantastic
21 – 24 = 4 = Incredible
17 – 20 = 3 = Terrific
13 – 16 = 2 = Great
9  - 12 = 1 = Average
5  -  8 = ½ = Half
1  -  4 = 0 = Failure

What is different is the die roll itself. It is made using two dice rolled simultaneously. The risk die and the sign die.

The first die is called the Risk Die and it is any single die you have in your dice pile, with the exception of percentile dice.

The second die is the Sign Die and it is an off-color six-sider. What it rolls determines if the risk roll is a bonus or a penalty.

1 2 3 = Penalty.
4 5 6 = Bonus.

You could also use a Fudge die providing you sharpied in an extra + and - on its blank sides. Or you could just get a blank die and paint an equal number of + and - signs on its sides. Which I did. Since I had to buy a whole pack to get one blank and because I had my paint out, I did a whole lot of them. Just in case.

If you have Muscle 14 and risk roll a d6 then you have an equal chance of rolling anywhere from Muscle 8 to Muscle 20. Risk roll a d20 and it expands that range to a ridiculous extent, stretching from Muscle -6 to Muscle 34. For this reason rolling a 0 or less is a Critical Fail and hopefully a decent deterent against using dice that can roll ridiculously high.

This turned out to be a whole lot of fun. The gratification of seeing a bonus or penalty turn up so suddenly almost feels like playing Operation.

The Sign Die Risk Roll may be a mouthful to say but the system itself is simple, quick, elegant and easy to understand. It gives you two dice to roll instead of one. You don’t have to add the dice together, just understand what you see. Most of all, it gives you the ability the throttle the amount of risk your character is taking. If stuck in a situation where you are on the winning side then just risk roll a d4. When stuck in a bind there is the d12, possibly even risking a critical fail if that’s what it takes to succeed.

(That sign die packs a helluva punch.)


As much fun as it is, it is hard to criticize the d20 roll for being swingy and then create something even swingier. A risk rolled d20 creates an unthinkable _forty point spread_. Even with the threat of a critical fail hanging over a player’s head you know some jerk is going to do this over and over until they can declare the system broken. At one point I was almost tempted to say that there is no critical fail. Roll less than zero and your character dies. Grabs his heart and keels over.
Thunk! End of story.

It also feels as if there should be a curve to the risk roll, meaning it should be far easier to roll a +1 or -1 than a +6 or -6 as opposed to an equal chance up and down the range of numbers.

And yet! There is that matter of reality vs fun. I could have easily solved the problem of the original risk roll by having all rolls be 3d6, but what fun would that be? It makes you wonder about the nature of fun. Maybe fun has a lot more to do with our ability to defy reality rather than conform to it.


The design process never really ends. At least, not until something is published. While writing this essay I was conversing online with Emmet O’Brian and we stumbled upon the idea of using a d20 in place of a d6 for the sign die.

(sure glad I painted all of those dice)

A problem the d6 sign die is that it has no way of rolling a critical. Aside from the possibility of rolling a massive +20. The critical failure is also something that doesn’t hit you immediately. Critical fails need to have that quality of popping out of nowhere to put a whammy on your action.

But if you use a d20 in its place you could say….

20 = critical success
10 - 19 = bonus
2 - 9 = penalty
1 = critical fail.

The d20 is now the designated sign die so naturally your choice of risk die tops out at d12. This is still a bit swingy with a 24 point spread but at least it’s not a 40 point spread.

Another cool thing about this is that you don’t really need to read the number on the sign die to understand what it has rolled. A single digit number is a penalty. A double digit number is a bonus. I also like how the physical size of the numbers on the d20 are smaller than the numbers on the other dice, making it seem less consequential.

(Okay, maybe I didn't actually roll that last one, but it could happen!)

Now if only I could find a d20 covered in + and - signs. And no I am not going to break out the paints.

Honestly, the sign die risk roller could be a strong contendor for the Agama’s dice mechanic. I like the inherent optimism of this roll. Most of the time we look at an ability score and consider it to be the upper limit of a character’s ability. The sign die risk roll says you can do better or possibly worse, if you’re just ready to take that risk

The only thing it lacks is the truly immediate gratification of the dice trees - which you have yet to read about, but are coming up next!

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