Saturday, July 11, 2020

Who Were The Orcs?

No matter what anyone deep inside the D&D dice bag seems to say the world has latched onto the idea that the D&D Orc is a punching bag for white people to take out their hatred of black people on. Which is utter bullshit. Unfortunately, it is a very pungeant bullshit, so much so that Hasbro - the current creator of D&D - has latched onto it and is currently concocting a plan to protect the tender sensitivies of todays youth by slapping warning labels on their older digital offerings.

Granted this statement is not wrong. The product MAY contain yadda yadda yadda in the way that a package of hot dogs may contain rat feces and insect parts. That doesn't mean that it does, but do you really want to see it when you are hankering for a hot dog? 

Remember when D&D’s creators came out in defense of the game against allegations that it promoted Satanism. Remember when they held their ground like a beholder and did not burst like a gas spore at the slightest provocation?


Anyways, I’m tired of discussing it, but there is one more thing I’d like to bandy about the orc before all of this becomes just more sewage under the bridge. And that is a quandry. If the orc was not meant to represent black people then who was it meant to represent?

There is a very good chance that it is not meant to represent anyone or anything other than a somewhat generic bad guy. But. The orc is not exactly generic. According to the Monster Manual from 1977 it has two features which separate it from being just another run of the mill subhumanoid.

The first are its porcine features. As far as I know this doesn’t come from Tolkein. It probably comes from just how much Orc sounds like Pork, but it’s good to remember that the game was being written in the mid-70’s and that it eagerly tried to incorporate anything from the youth culture of the age. The Monk was inspired by Kung-fu movies. All the devil imagery likewise came from music and film. Satan was big in the 70’s. There’s no getting around it. In the 1970’s a Pig was slang for a cop, specifically an intolerant white cop, such as these guys from the movie Fritz the Cat.

The big bad guy of the Dukes of Hazzard is Boss Hogg, a fat intolerant white guy who owns everything as well as the police and has a penchant for dressing all in white.

Are orcs cops? They are lawful evil so they could represent bad cops, but orcs are known for going against the law and not enforcing it so it is a bit of a stretch.

That second unique feature of the orc is its tribalism. While nearly everything in D&D which does not exist on its own follows some kind of tribal structure, only the orc provides us with a list of names for its various tribes…

Vile Rune
Bloody Head
Death Moon
Broken Bone
Evil Eye
Leprous Hand
Rotting Eye
Dripping Blade

If you need more orc tribal names, you would do well with some of these.

Devils Disciples
Grim Reapers
Head Hunters
Hells Angels
Laffing Devils
Top Hatters

All of which belonged to outlaw biker gangs from the 60's & 70’s. Gangs that were notorious for rolling into small towns on their hogs (yet another pig reference) terrorizing the residents and having numerous b-grade grindhouse movies made about them.

Kill the Pigs! Is their battle cry. I wonder what that is a reference to? I doubt it means black people. 

So how did we go from orcs representing this...

to this...

Well. We didn’t. Politics did. Our age is more politically charged than I have ever seen it and one tactic that both the right and the left revel in is what I like to call the Cult of Victimization. I don’t watch Fox News but I do occasionally listen to NPR (which is rapidly becoming the Fox of the Left) and they are broadcasting just a non-stop drumbeat of victimization stories. If current history cannot provide them with their beats then they will dig into past history to find it. Anything to keep that galvanization going through the election season. Like obsessed people everywhere, if you don’t find what you want where you want it then you tend to find something that works well enough.

In this essay I have done just that. Hopefully I have stuck in your mind the idea that the orc represents bad cops or biker gangs. Do I have any shred of evidence to back up this claim? No not really. But you have to admit that it is far more likely that orcs represented white people than black people.

When I was in college in the early 90’s our DM was black and he was pretty good at it. Reggie was also convinced that the Drow by being of evil alignment was evidence of racism being edemic to the game. At the time I didn't have an answer for him. The idea of the Drow being anything other than the Drow had never crossed my mind, and yet I did have to admit that it was strange that anything living underground should have dark pigment in their skin. Aside from earthworms of course. If I remember correctly, I think I thought that it was more of a stylistic choice, that the game was setting up the Drow and the Grey Elves (who were resoundingly white) as pieces on a chessboard caught in some great eternal secret war against each other. 

Which now that I’ve written it does sound a bit racist. Talk about missed opportunities, if TSR had only made the Grey Elves evil they could have had a lot of fun in a Spy vs Spy kind of way.

A thing about white people which many people of color cannot wrap their heads around is that we just don’t think about skin color all that much. It is just not on our radar. Maybe the youth of today are different, but for us older generations you can bring it to our attention and it will stick for a little while, but soon a chessboard is just a chessboard, the black spy is the same as the white spy, an orc is just an orc, and an office full of white people is just an office full of people. It's not that we choose not to see color, we just generally don't pay much attention to it. And those who do are often the worst among us.

So, sorry about any percieved slight, but if it is not there then it is not there. Do you know what black people are supposed to be in the realm of D&D? 

They’re human! 
They always have been and in my D&D they always will be.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Orcs, Ancestry, Racism and Ugh.

It's true. We demonize our enemies. The purpose of propaganda is that it makes it easier to dispatch those you do not approve of into the great unknown. But! If you were to go back in time to the very white and unenlightened age of 1982 and asked my group of D&D players what race a black person was or an Asian or Native American. We would have looked at you as if you were stupid and said, "Ah, human. Duh."

Subhumanoids existed as punching bags so we didn't have to deal with the moral complexity of attacking other humans for XP. Believe it or not, but in my gaming group there was an unwritten rule that you did not kill other humanoids, not unless they were truly asking for it. Subhumanoids were a dime a dozen. You could stack up their skulls and not feel bad about it. The orc in particular was an embodiment of everything puerile - stupidity, viciousness, meanness, disgust - it felt good to rid the world of them. Evil incarnate was a big part of the fantasy of the game.

Saying that subhumanoids are a stand in for ethnic minorities, pretty much dehumanizes everyone. It tells ethnic minorites that they are little more than monsters to be dispatched for the entertainment of ethnic majorities. Is ethnic majority even a term? Okay - white people - and it tells white people that if you enjoyed nearly any fantasy from before the 21st century you were revelling in a genocidal dream of wiping out anyone who does not resemble yourself.

You love Tolkein? Surprise! You're a racist!
And isn't that what the world needs now? More racists?
Because eventually that is the end result of such thinking. Just like any slur, you can only use it so many times against your enemies before they embrace it as their own.

The same peril seems to follow the matter of removing the word Race from the game. Sure - Race - is an ugly word, but removing it doesn't actually solve the problem of racism. If anything it may make matters worse. Sure it sanitizes the look of the game but it also removes that baseline which qualifies all humans as being equals and deserving of preferential treatment over subhumanoids. Changing race to ancestry only tightens the barriers which separate people. According to (which my sister put me up to) I am...

  • 50% Irish/Scottish
  • 42% English/Wales/Northwestern Europe
  • 3% Swedish
  • 2% Baltic
  • 2% German
  • 1% Indigenous North American

If I were to fixate on any one of these ancestries - historically speaking - it would put me bitterly at odds with all the others. On the whole, I'd rather just be human.

So how do we deal with orcs?
How do we deal with this which has been blazing around the internet recently...

Well, I'm not sure where it came from but I'm guessing it is 5e or possibly 3e from the layout. I also suspect it was written with the best of intentions, somebody trying to figure out a way of turning the orc from a monster into a playable race. Indoctrinated is a key word here. It implies that the orc is a victim of its culture, a bit like a pit bull who has been trained to fight but could actually be a sweet loveable dog if raised right. The second paragraph is the problem child. This one harps on the idea that breeding is largely inescapable, that even with the best of intentions it is hard to change the nature of the beast.

Welcome to the world outside humanity.

In theory, any wild creature can be domesticated, but not over the course of one lifetime. Foxes can be turned into pets, but it takes three or four generations to breed out their vicious feral nature. Doing so also turns them into something other than a fox. Physically they change. If I remember right, their legs get shorter and their faces less angular, the fur poofier. Dogs are already domesticated, but they are not free from their breeds and it is absolutely uncanny how accurately a breed description can predict the personality of a dog. I own a westie, I didn't teach him how to be a stubborn yet loveable well-spring of attitude. That came with the package. Everything written about westies fits him perfectly and I had nothing to do with it. So there is some truth to the impact of breeding. Humans, however, I like to think are different. We have intelligence on our side. Unlike canines we have the capacity of self-change, complexity, of turning ourselves into something vastly different from what we were over a couple of years rather than generations.

(any excuse to pop in a picture of my dog)

Orcs are not humans. They are not supposed to be smart or domesticated. If anything, orcs should be like foxes who will continue to be just what their nature demands of them until somehow that nature is bred out or they become intelligent enough to change themselves. To turn an orc into a playable race which isn't the embodiement of evil, you literally need to create a new race. For me, this is what the half-orc should have been.  Not necessarily a human/orc hybird but a species of orc which long ago separated from its porcine kin to become something different, something obviously related and yet still quite distant.

In truth, the more I think about it the less problem I have with "Roleplaying An Orc." It reminds me of B'Elanna Torres from Star Trek Voyager who if you know was half-klingon.

 (and if you are reading this blog, yeah you know :-)

Orcs and Klingons. Klingons and Orcs. They're basically the same thing, although I like to think that Klingons are smarter and with better sanitary habits (yet somewhat lacking in the pig-nose department). But was it so wrong that B'Elanna often struggled with her warlike Klingon heritage? It did make for a couple of interesting episodes. Likewise, it could also make for some interesting games. Who are we to say that she should not exist? That klingons and humans should not mix? Or that klingons should not be allowed to be what they are and be offensive in appearance only?

Of course, that is not what the internet is about these days. This latest outrage really seems to be about people needing to vent their frustrations by revelling in some morally justified hatred.
Let's hope they don't burn down the house while doing so.

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!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

TMDM, Pt 3: The Original Risk Roll

A roll of the dice is the matter of uncertainty being resolved, and one of my biggest problems with the 1d20 roll is that it provides a static amount of chance. There’s no gradation involved. You go from a world of perfect certainty where the player says “I do this thing” and the GM says “ok, sounds reasonable, you do that thing” to one where you stand a 1 in 20 chance of having the earth open up beneath your feet and suck your character into a volcanic vent (figuratively speaking, of course).

(never trust a smiling volcano)

So with my first attempt to deviate from the standard d20 roll I focused on giving it some gradation. First off the abilities were changed from scores into modifiers. Subtract 10. A Strength 14 becomes Strength +4. I also turned Strength into Muscle so as to free up the word. I do have a few hang-ups one is making sure that a term is not used more than once per thing. So Strength now refers to the sum total of your modifiers and die roll. It is literally “the strength of your action” a measure of how well your character did with whatever you were doing.

I also changed the score value structure to use just one range of numbers for explaining everything.

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

Average is the success point, so you need a 9 or better to succeed at what you are doing. A Half success is exactly that. You partially succeeded. You jumped the abyss but are now dangling on the other side by your fingertips. The single numbers next to the descriptions are success counts. A great success is two times better than an average. Terrific is three times. This becomes more obvious in combat where they multiply the damage done.


Risk is something you take with the hope that it will make you perform better but understanding that there is a good chance it will make you do worse. The greater the risk the greater the glory but also the greater the chance of utter failure.

Every action a character makes ends with a risk roll of the player’s choosing. BTW, a critical fail happens when the dice roll the lowest number possible. A critical success happens with the greatest. A roll of 3d6 crits on a 3 or 18, not a 1 or 20. Special thanks to for the probability app these screen snips came from.

Low Risk = 3d6 = Most people take little to no risk in doing what they do on a day to day basis, and this is what they use. 3d6 has a nice probability curve which will do a lot to make sure that a 9 or 12 turns up with only an occasional surprise venture out towards the edges of 3 and 18.

Medium Risk = 2d10 = This is the adventurer’s roll, the one recommended to new players. The curve on a 2d10 is more of a pyramid than a bell. You will most likely roll somewhere between 7 and 14 with a better possibility of rolling a 2 or 20.

High Risk = 1d20 = And this is the wild die. This is a character risking it all to succeed. With a 1d20 you have an equal chance of rolling anywhere between a 1 and 20.

Lazy Risk = 4d4 = And this is what utter slackers roll. Just kidding, although the curve would fit in as something less risky than a 3d6. Asking anyone to roll 4d4 on a regular basis? That’s just cruel.

No Risk = 10 = This option is for GM’s only. You take a 10. No risk is taken, nothing gained and nothing lost. It is not very believeable but it does help when dealing with huge hordes of creatures.


Actually, it is not all that different from the standard 1d20 roll.

1.) The character does something.
2.) The GM asks for a check (the GM can impose a modifier to make it harder or easier).
3.) The player chooses the risk they want to take.
4.) The dice are rolled.
5.) Everything is added together.
6.) The adventure changes course depending on the action strength.


This is actually a pretty good alternative to the 1d20 roll which does not totally abandon the 1d20 roll. It gives players the option to take less risk when they feel the need to but it also imposes “a no guts no glory” aspect on the matter of dice choice.

I think I dropped it because the system just did not deviate enough from the norm. You can tell people to always end their action with a risk roll but you know that force of habit will bring us back to starting our actions with a die roll and wasting too much time deliberating over modifiers afterwards.

There is also the matter of the die rolls themselves. They sound great in theory, but rolling 2d10 and 3d6 on a regular basis becomes quite tedious quite quickly. The math is simple and small but the repetitive nature gangs up against it.

(trust me, I know all about the basic math)

From a player’s perspective there is not a whole lot to be gained from rolling 3d6 or 2d10. Sure you are better protected from critical fails and failing in general, but players don’t often think in that direction. When we roll the dice we want to win and win big. A 5% chance at rolling a critical success sounds a lot better than a 1% or a 0.5% chance which is what you get with the other rolls, even though it also means running a 5% chance of a critical fail.

Another problem is that you are a little too protected from failure. Granted the goal is to be as successful as possibly, but all you need is a Ability +4 or better and you will never fail at anything you do.

And so the original risk roll was abandoned. It wasn’t bad, much in the way that the traditional 1d20 roll isn’t all that bad either. It just wasn’t a whole lot better. Change is so hard to bring about that anything less than significant change isn’t worth the work.

Up next, a second and exceedingly different take on the risk roll. Stay tuned….

Saturday, November 9, 2019

TMDM, Pt 2: What's Wrong with the d20?

This seems to be the week where everyone is venting their unpopular opinons about D&D, so what better time is there to dive into the heart of my search for a new die mechanic and talk about all that is wrong with the d20 roll?

Enlighten me oh blogger! What is wrong with the d20 roll?

Nothing actually. If it works it works. The d20 roll is tried and true and accepted by millions as the standard for role playing games.

  • You roll 1d20.
  • If it’s not an obvious fail you add a bunch of modifiers.
  • Think about it, add in a bunch of other modifiers.
  • Eventually call it quits with the modification and present a total.
  • If greater than or equal to the number you need to beat you succeed, otherwise you fail.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing could be simpler!

Designing a dice mechanic is a bit like designing a vehicle. It’s hard to screw it up. Four wheels and a platform gets you a go-kart. It will send a kid flying down a hill screaming with joy and/or fear, but it is nothing anyone wants to drive to work in. Making a dice mechanic better is the hard part. Creating something that takes people where they want to go, as quickly and efficiently as possible, but with a ride so comfortable they barely notice they are in a car? That is the challenge at hand! Of course, to face such a challenge we need to take a shrewd look at the d20 roll and see where it could use some improvement.

(Cup holders. It needs more cup holders.)

This is one of the most insidious of problems because once you get over it you stop noticing it. You forget about your own struggles to learn the game and start to wonder why others cannot see something which to you now seems so obvious.

Consider this - in D&D - how good is a 10?

As an ability score it is completely average.
As an ability modifier it is off the charts.
As a difficulty class it is pretty easy.
With ascending armor class it is so-so.
With descending armor class you are standing naked on the battlefield.
With hit points? _Nobody really knows._ In a game like B/X D&D you are a competent fighter. In D&D 5e you are a total push-over.

And now explain all of this to someone who has never played the game. Toss in a bunch of strange looking dice which have no consistent scheme of use as well as a slew of tables to consult while playing and….

Simple right?

A number by itself is meaningless. It needs something to measure and those measurements need to follow a predictable method of incrementation. Is a 2 twice as important as a 1 or is it just a nudge in the right direction? Is a 2 the right direction? Or is this one of those times where it is better to roll low than high? Multiple inconsistent number systems are a serious barrier to entry when it comes to recruiting new players. The fewer a game uses the better.

A perfectly average character with an ability score of 10 and a 1st level +2 proficiency bonus will only succeed at what they are doing 60% of the time. Imagine hiring a plumber who only fixes your busted pipes 60% of the time. Or a dentist who sends you home with a throbbing toothache 40% of the time. Or that guy you hired to mow the lawn finishing about 60% of it before failing somehow.

(I mowed a 1!)

Maybe it happens, but most people when they set about performing a task do not simply pass or fail. They perform at a fairly consistent level of ability. Occasionally, luck will have them doing a bit better or worse but for the most part they do what they can do and hope it fits the bill. Failure happens when the goal they are striving for hangs too far out of reach. At that point they could try harder to make it work but that isn’t what the d20 roll is about, now is it? Actually, can you name a system where a character can simply “try harder” to make it work? Hmmm. A glaring oversight there. Somebody ought to do something about that.

So anyways. What does the d20 roll represent?

We don’t know.

Like the hit point, it is one of those things most people would rather not discuss. Rolling the dice is just something you do in a game. The best guess is that the d20 roll represents random chance and all the unseen influences at work which could sway an outcome one way or another. If true then it has a problem because not everything your characters will do in a game will come with the same amount of random elements.

I have two dwarven characters, Ralph Cabbagehammer and Grudge Orcslayer, who have been arm wrestling each other to test out dice mechanics since the late 1990’s. Don’t tell them, but they both have the equivalent of Strength 14 making them evenly matched in the muscle department. They kind of suspect this to be true, but characters can't see their own stats and so they keep arm wrestling each other.

The thing about arm-wrestling is that unlike normal combat there are few to no random elements involved. How do we test it with a d20 roll? The correct answer is - we don’t - not with arm wrestling. You compare strength scores and whoever has the greater score wins it (yawn). In the case of Ralph vs Grudge every match ends with a tie. They could arm wrestle for hours on end and never get close to slamming a fist to the table. Use the d20 to settle the matter the exact opposite happens. Ties become rare and the outcomes wildly unpredictable.

Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world, but what if our two characters were not so evenly matched? What if Ralph’s strength suddenly dropped to 3 and Grudge’s strength amped up to 18. There should be no contest. Grudge should beat Ralph every time. Yet, according to standard d20 rules, Grudge with his 18 would gain a +4 to his roll while Ralph with his 3 would suffer a -4. Grudge would still win most of the matches but not all of them.

Ralph rolls 16 and Grudge rolls 6? Ralph wins!
Ralph rolls 18 and Grudge rolls 9? Ralph wins!
Ralph rolls 20 and Grudge rolls 11? Ralph wins!

(Probably not how Over The Top was meant to end.)

This is what people mean when they talk about the d20 being swingy. That randomness makes it untrustworthy and hard to plan around. A case could be made that random is random. D&D is a fantasy game. It shouldn’t be realistic. Yes, but RPGs are powered by the imagination and despite its penchant for unicorns and rainbows the imagination did not evolve to keep us amused while waiting in check-out lines. The imagination exists to help keep us alive against all the terrible possibilities of reality. That is its primary concern. That is the reason why so much of entertainment is centered around characters experiencing the absolute worst that could possibly happen.

The imagination is only interested in fantasy insofar as fantasy can challenge us with a more intense reality than everyday reality. A fantastic reality still needs a foundation of real reality to stand on. Without it a game will become plagued by doubt, leaving people thinking, “Yeah, that’s what the rules say, but if it were real that's not how it would play out.” And nothing sucks the interest out of an RPG quite like that.

This is part of being human. Physical actions are rife with importance. If you look at a role playing game with the sound turned off, what do you see? A bunch of people sitting around a table, chatting it up, occasionally scribbling notes on paper, maybe moving some minis. The one notable physical action involved is a roll of the dice.

This could be why diceless role-playing never caught on. On the lower end of the brain stem, rolling the dice is that thing that you do, that material assertion of your mojo into the unfolding story. Yet the d20 roll does not happen at the culmination of an action. It happens at the beginning. You do not roll the dice, look at what it gives you and instantly know how well you did. Instead, the die is rolled and a lot of jibber-jabber follows. You add modifiers to the roll, compare it to another number, modify that number, remember some other modifier which should have been added in but weren’t (can’t we add it in? Pleeeese?). If we ever get to the end of this, the totals are judged and then we figure out what actually happened.

I think this is why people like rolling for damage as much as they do. While it does slow a game down a bit, rolling for damage gives players something physical and immediate to end their action on. It helps bookend the action, giving us two solid points to know where it all begins and ends. Of course, you are not always rolling for damage every time you roll the dice, and there is nothing more disappointing that a terrific hit roll that ends with a roll of 1 on the damage die.

Not to beat a dead horse to bursting, but this could also be the reason why people love the idea of critical rolls happening on a 20 or 1. It pushes all the math aside and as soon as you see one of these numbers turn up the dice tell you that something interesting and unexpected is about to happen. Wouldn’t it be great if all the numbers on the dice worked that way?

This last one is more subjective if not downright superstitious than the rest, yet it is no less daunting a force to consider.

The roll of a single die feels weak.

We have a long history of divining the will of the gods through random things: drawing Tarot cards, reading tea leaves, cutting the head off a chicken and looking at the blood it splatters as it does its final dance (not recommended for RPG’s btw), but presumably no divination technique has been with us longer than the rolling of bones, the casting of lots, the reading of runes. Call it what you want but cleromancy - divination by way of dice - has been with us longer than civilization itself. Some of its superstitions are so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche that we naturally heed them without even realizing that we know them.

Blame it on the cajones, but a perfect roll of the dice is a two die roll. Three dice is acceptable. Four dice is passable. Five or more is just a mess. But a single die roll is unforgivable. Dice need to make a sound when they roll. We need to hear them clatter in our hands before they hit the table. This wakes them up to our presence. We also need to roll our own dice for ourselves. In Original D&D only the DM was supposed to roll the dice. The DM was essentially a game console you fed commands to and it returned the results of. All number juggling was hidden under the hood / behind the screen. This method was quickly dropped and never explained, but I believe it had something to do with people being irked by an inability to roll their dice for themselves. As if we actually have some kind of control over the numbers that turn up.

Maybe we do. Out loud we have to admit that chance is purely random. The dice produce numbers with utter indifference to our needs, just like the random number generation machines that they are.

And yet….

In the quiet of our minds, slithering down around that brain stem we know that there exists a greater truth. The dice are an extension of our bodies. It’s our touch which causes them to roll more often in our favor than not. It is God or the Gods working through us which causes the dice to roll what they roll.

(But he does love to mess with those who do.)

Look at the game of Craps sometime. The amount of superstition which surrounds it is astounding. An RPG is not a game of craps with characters, but it does primarily use dice and dice come with rules of their own which might as well be etched in stone. One of the biggest being that you never roll just one die by itself.

I’m sure I could dig up more, but the point wasn’t to condemn the d20 roll but to figure out what needs fixing. In short…

  • Limit the number of number ranges the game uses, and make sure their patterns do not conflict with each other.
  • Make action resolution better resemble reality, even though we are dealing with fantasy.
  • Turn the die roll into the dramatic end point of an action, or at least do a better job book-ending the action between two related die rolls.
  • Roll more than just one die.

And that is what is coming up next with a look at the Risk Roll. My first attempt at creating something better than the d20, crafted so many years ago.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

A Tale of Way Too Many Dice Mechanics, Pt 1

Normally I make New Years Resolutions and drop them by February just like everyone else. This year I’ve decided to do something different. I have made a resolution I want to finish before New Years instead of after it. By Jan 1st 2020 I will have finished the rules of the Agama, and released a working prototype of the game.

What is the Agama?

Funny you should ask…

The Agama is the latest and hopefully - last - incarnation of something I have been tinkering with since the day I came back from Gencon ‘93. I had just graduated college and spent most of the summer sending out job applications. Thanks to a recession I was also getting nothing in reply. Some old friends from high school had decided to go to Gencon. They said they thought about inviting me but knew I was also busy looking for work and probably wouldn't be interested. Then someone dropped out at the last minute, a seat in the car opened up and (possibly even more importantly) they needed another person to help split the hotel room bill. After chewing them out for not giving me any time to register for any events, I said what the hell. I needed a break and a road trip did qualify.

Despite going to Gencon and not playing a single game, it did prove to be  a fun trip. I wandered the convention hall. I made friends with a cute girl who was stuck waiting in the hall while her boyfriend played games. We went to the Milwaukee Museum of Modern Art and made fun of the exhibits.

(A bit like this but with less punk, less rock and more Milwaukee.)

I also looked at the state of gaming. DOOM had just recently exploded onto the scene and the wargamers among us were going nuts over first-person shooters. Meanwhile, the drama majors had abandoned the tabletop for LARPing and were going gaga over White Wolf games. What did D&D have? TSR was trying way too hard to build up scant interest in DragonStrike a VHS powered fantasy adventure game that people were stopping by the booth to laugh at, not with. There is a difference.

(Or is it a crime against humanity?)

TSR had finally and irrevocably lost touch with one the best things about the tabletop RPG and that is the ability of its players to imagine the game as they wanted to see it. With Dragonstrike it felt as if someone in the corporate board room had read the latest spreadsheet, looked at what they were producing and decided that D&D was suffering from a failure of imagination on the part of its players. Their problems had nothing to do with the game itself. THAC0 was a perfectly fine concept that anyone could grasp. It had to be the players not seeing things correctly.

Anyways. The weekend ended. We all returned home. I went to the bookshelf in my room, noticed how my gaming books had been collecting dust and had to wonder - why was it failing? - why was something which once held our rapt attention now just barely grabbing us?

The obvious answer was that times had changed. Computer games had grown too good. The internet was spreading across the world and blowing people’s minds with its infinite (albeit dial-up speed) possibilities. But that was nothing I could do anything about. I started to wonder about the game systems. AD&D in particular was a game we loved but almost hated to play because of how often the game would melt down over some dispute over the rules. I started to wonder what could be done differently. What could be changed to make things better. Because of my group’s many problems with the rules, house-rules had come to be abhorred, yet since we had also moved on to other things I figured no one would care if I dissected the games we loved and cobbled together something made from their best parts. The tabletop rpg was dead wasn't it? Nobody would be playing these things in a world with DOOM in it. Come on. Who are you kidding....

Without even knowing a word for it existed, my first game was a Frankensteiner based on Gamma World and set in our home town a few hundred years after the fact. It wasn’t bad. It almost even got played, but that’s a story for another time.

Although my game design failed, through it I caught the design bug. By the mid-90’s I had created a stand-alone system called Theater of the Absurd. It was essentially a way of playing Pacesetter CHILL but with better mechanics. Or at least, what I had hoped would be better mechanics, the name partially referred to just how weird and wonky everything turned out to be. This would later be shortened to the ToAd, because it was kind of ugly and covered in warts, but it could take you to amazing places if you dared lick it. What no takers? The ToAd was also more of a universal GURPS-like system that could be used with anything. Just as soon as I brought one of those anythings into existence.

(Not our actual mascot but you get the idea)

Around 2000 the ToAd was re-invented yet again to become Tales of Adventure. I had learned website programming and for a while hosted a fairly popular website where you could create and store characters and equipment and pretty much everything including your own worlds. Suck it D&D Beyond! The ToAd was there first. Unfortunately the web technology of the day was a pretty crude affair and using the site proved to be far more work than it was worth. A few years later I demolished it and rebuilt both the game and the website from scratch to create the Model Reality Kit or MRK.

Then 2008 hit. Things got crazy and I pulled the plug on the MRK. I also came to the realization that trying to build a support website for a game that was still in development was like trying to frost a cake before baking it. The website idea was chucked and the next few games would all be on paper starting with an OSR inspired return to fantasy adventure called the Komodo. Because it’s a dragon. A real dragon.

(Get it? Get it?)

Well. It doesn’t matter. The Komodo morphed into the Komo Dosr and I simply didn’t like it. It wasn’t just a return to the games of the past but also a return of all their problems. I pushed it aside to work on something totally different, something light and fast called the Red EFT. It was fun but it was so outside of what I knew, I wasn't sure if I trusted it as the foundation I was looking for. I returned to the Komo Dosr, broke it down and rebuilt it from scratch to create the Agama. Which is where I’m at now.

(Have you noticed a pattern yet? A borderline fetish?)

So what took so long?

Game design, I learned, is a lot like playing Jenga. It’s not enough to stack up a bird’s nest of rules. You also need to carefully remove as much from it as possible without knocking the whole thing over. To some degree it is harder than Jenga, because once you have reached that point of perfect lightness you need to start stacking books of stuff on top of it - representing the imaginary world itself - and hope that it all holds together. The perfect game system is like a geodesic dome. The concept is simple and it can be built using ordinary items, but by a trick of geometry the dome is also strong enough to withstand a hurricane.

I just could never get the foundation right. Every time I poured the concrete it would crack as I discovered something new that would work better or faster or more imaginatively. Eventually that innovation would push me to the point of ditching everything and starting over from scratch.

And here I am again. The Agama is mostly written. What is keeping it from being completed is an inability to decide on its die mechanic, that all-important kernel of any RPG system. Currently, I have too many choices and no desire to throw it away and start over from scratch. Like Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies I’m getting too old for this shit.

So with this series I’ve decided to do an in-depth analysis of the primary contenders, pick one and try to be happy with it. Who knows, maybe by New Years the conundrum will be solved and I will have actually finished something. Which ironically is what most people would consider the starting line of game design.


So consider this the start of a bunch of related blog posts looking back on my favorite die mechanics from the last few years. Not all of them, just the good ones.

What’s up next? First a look at the venerable d20 roll and whether or not it actually needs to be replaced. Stay tuned....

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


I hate to say it but it seems as if RPGs these days are chock full of art which is technically astute but as sharp as a wad of old chewing gum. Flip through the 5e D&D Players Handbook and it is character in armor, character in armor swinging weapon, characters in armor sitting around a campfire half of them apparently asleep, character in armor, scattering of tools, butterfly, spider, encephalitic halfling playing a lute that is thankfully mute, character in armor, character in armor, wizard casting spell of some sort, character in armor.

Ugh. Snore. Yerk! (Sound of my head suddenly jerking awake)

That is some damn dull art. Sadly, it almost seems to prove my suspicion that art in RPGs is like grammar. It is something that needs to be there to prove that someone cares about what we are reading. On the whole, after the initial purchase we stop noticing it. The art becomes a layout device to break up text walls and does not much else.

Since Halloween is almost upon us, I thought I might take a look at a game which I think does have good if not great art in it, and that is the original CHILL from Pacesetter which came out back when I was a kid circa '84.

CHILL has been and still is a spotty affair. It had great creative writing, crappy mechanics, and a slew of follow up editions that should never have been made. I'm sorry if that trods on any toes but Mayfair Chill looks like someone pulled it out of a dumpster dive and 3rd Edition, while doing much to improve the rules is just a strikingly dull affair. Sometimes it almost feels as if CHILL is a cursed property that no one can seem to do anything with. Or at least, nothing that improves over the original.

One of the reasons for this may have something to do with the excellent artwork of Jim Holloway. Most of it is done in stark black and white. It is not edgy. It is not extreme. It often looks like stills taken from a Hammer Horror film, but it is a whole lot of fun. This is what I mean about being sharp. A decent amount of thought was put into each of these images, probably well before pencil was ever put to paper. So let's take a look....

No snoozing around the campfire here. This guy is screwed! He is in a dark cemetery at night with at least two beasts to content with (probably werewolves, Pacesetter CHILL loves its werewolves). Oh yeah, and he has a single shot pistol. Is there a silver slug in that gun? Let's hope so.

Holloway loves to put a sense of direction and depth into his art. This one starts in the lower right corner of the foreground, shoots through it to the fearful expression on the guys face, and then goes beyond it to the red eyes he is blindly running towards. We are seeing this scene from the point of view of the creature which heightens the tension by implying that there is no guarantee mutton-chop man is going to survive the night.

GyaAAAAAAAAH!!!!! It's hard not to jump a bit when seeing this classic pic. This is no character in armor standing around waiting for something to happen. This is a guy in a suit who has probably fallen while fleeing a cemetery and hit the ground in the worst of all possible places. That arm is shooting up out of the ground, implied by the small bits of dirt hanging in the air around it. Once again we get a great use of perspective with the head stones adding to its depth. Holloway loves to use the moon as a back light, allowing him to highlight a face while still using a perfectly black sky.

"You Cowards!" You can almost hear her shout as the men in the room faint and flee around her. Once again, Holloway isn't interested in an unexpressed face and neither are we. It's also interesting that he doesn't care much for drawing furniture. He can, it shows up in other pics, but if the room is dark then why bother with anything but darkness? You can pretty much guess that there is a werewolf standing in the doorway but because all we are given is a silhouette we don't know for sure and that adds to the tension of the scene.

You never want to let the viewers eye fall on an image and go thud. This one has a great swoop of motion funneled through the big areas of black in its corners. The interest begins in the upper right hand corner, moves down over the werewolf, follows the creature's gaze in the direction of the girl moves up her dress, over her hands to her face and then follows the gnarled branch back onto the werewolf, or possibly off to somewhere else. Does he know she's there? Has she hidden herself well enough? Roll the dice...

Another great thing about this pic is its use of shadows. Hiding half of her head in darkness but showing us the whites of her eyes truly makes them pop.

Speaking of popping eyes, this is another great pic which has nothing over the top happening in it. The PC's are examining a skull that has been shot in the head. That magnifying glass blows the guy's eye way out of proportion. It says to Look! Look here! Look closely! There is something important to be found.

An interesting observation. Sherlock isn't looking at the bullet wound in the skull, the most obvious point of interest. He's looking at something else about it, possibly its teeth. What it is we will never know.

Be careful what you read in Chill. There is no telling what it might summon. In horror, you never want to show the entire creature. To know everything there is about a beast defines it, encapsulates it, limits it. Leaving it partially hidden erases its parameters. In the darkness there is no telling where its horror actually ends. But....

It's a werewolf. It's always a werewolf.

Want a great depiction of fear that doesn't involve chainsaws? Put Ben Franklin on a horse which is so spooked it is beyond control and running as fast as it can across the moonlit countryside. Ben is saying, "Whoa! Whoa! Nag Whoa!" but the horse knows better. It knows the headless horseman is charging up behind them, flaming jack-o-lantern in hand.

Once again, this is not just a picture of a thing. It is a happening. It's a big complicated messy misunderstanding just about to break. Isn't it great! So often adventurers get to run around doing whatever they want, but in CHILL the world still is as it is and for the police that five hundred year old vampire is just a kindly old, slightly eccentric, gentleman who is having his rights violated by a bunch of mutton-chop bearing hoodlums.

More fun with vampires. It's not enough to show us characters standing there. Everyone is doing something in this scene, even the vampire himself who we somehow know is summoning up the swarm of rats squeaking behind them. Another thing Holloway loves to do in his pictures is put a frame around the image and then break it (look for the torch and flying rat) to provide an extra sense of depth.

Is it me or does this one seem a lot like the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima? Either that or a deleted scene from The Breakfast Club. Speaking of eating....

Even by Florida standards, that is one hell of a roach. I love the guy about to chuck a squab at it. When was the last time someone in one of your games chucked a squab at something?

Once again, the picture is not just about having something happening but also capturing everyone's reactions to the happening. It makes one wonder, if something is happening and the characters are not reacting to it then does it actually happen at all?

Probably one of the most bad-ass images in all of classic gaming, nothing says Chill quite like a werewolf battling zombies in a decrepit old graveyard full of gnarled trees and with a big bloated moon hanging on the horizon in the background.

It makes me wonder about what else might be going on behind the scenes of all these pics. Could it be that the guy who fell in the cemetery before the up-shooting hand is actually a werewolf? Is the werewolf a villain or a hero? The world will never know.

With all of these works, it is also good to pay some attention to what is not in them. There is worry, fear, rage, concern and disgust, but there are none of the truly negative aspects of horror. No one is being tortured. No one is reduced to tears and begging for their lives. This is fun horror. Terrible things happen but no one's soul is ever being crushed beneath the heel of the bad guys. If anything, this is fight or flight horror. It brings out the best in these characters, forcing them to do more than they ever thought they could.

Ultimately, CHILL is an excuse to have characters run around screaming their heads off and occasionally hacking apart some ghoul with a shovel. Thanks Jim Holloway! There is just so much to love here. Happy Halloween!