Warhammer Quest used to have an interesting mechanic surrounding its “wandering monster” encounter system. Every turn, the player with the wizard character rolled a die to determine his available Power (the magic resource) for the turn. On a roll of 2-6, the wizard has that much “mana” for the turn. On a 1, however, the wizard has no mana — and a random encounter occurs.
This is pretty consistent with the Warhammer world. That is, when something kind of bad happens, something god-grindingly awful usually piles on top of it. As a pacing mechanic, though, it’s neat game design. It makes for spikes of “SWEET MOTHER OF CRAP WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE,” which is the sort of thrill that makes a game that has randomness as such a central element exciting. It’s way more engaging than rolling poorly in Settlers of Catan — 2 or 12, nothing happens, because nobody bothers building on those number distros unless they have to.
I used to employ on one of these “trouble spots” during convention and demo games of Vampire I’d run at shows. (I always create pre-gens for convention games, since for a demo people won’t have their own, and because the scenario construction for Vampire relies a lot on the types of characters undertaking it. I didn’t want to take the chance of having a political mystery scenario written and have to shoehorn trenchcoat katana mirroshades Kindred Braveheart into it.) I’d dole out characters by whatever method — one of my favorite methods is “give me three adjectives that describe the character you’d like to play” — and then I’d have each player roll a 10-sider for his starting blood pool. And then, to illustrate the potential of the system, I’d have each player spend a blood point at the beginning of the session to reflect the mystic consumption of vitae.
The results were what you’re dreading: Someone inevitably rolled a 1 on that blood poll roll, and upon spending that first blood for the night, awoke into a ravening frenzy. This was a convenient, exciting, in medias res method for illustrating the blood mechanics, the Beast, and frenzy (and probably Humanity and the Masquerade…) all at once. The game got started with a holy-smokes action sequence, but still got to hit the thematic high points of Vampire.
The system I lovingly know as “roll one and die” makes for a fun and thrilling tipping point, but it’s not universally employable. The drawbacks to using it as a common design principle are few, but can be significant.
- It can’t prevent a character from participating meaningfully. If all the player does once he’s rolled his one is sit there and wait for his next turn, that’s not an engaging design. The Warhammer Quest rule, for instance, lets the wizard character continue to play his turn, whether by using magic items, attacking with a physical weapon, etc. The Vampire example places the character front and center in a dramatic scenario, and gives him a handful of situational escape or conclusion possibilities. Both of their outcomes engender clever thinking and force accountability.
- To that end, it doesn’t port well to a solo environment. If the only player who has any input suffers the double-whammy of something bad appearing, and the resource to be used against it is absent, well, that’s trouble. (Of course, Warhammer’s propensity for piled-on catastrophe often turned up triple-whammies, in which the players, already beset by monstrous hordes, are ambushed by an EXTRA BONUS monster horde, oh, and the wizard still has no mana to sling into the fray. Good God, loving this game was masochism.)
- Players are a cowardly, superstitious lot, and the guy who rolls a one — even though he’s the only guy who ever has to roll that die, so it’s bound to happen eventually (one time in every six, actually) — becomes a veritable Jonah when the inevitable finally happens. This isn’t a problem in most cases, but with particularly salty groups, it’s no fun to be That Guy.
- If “roll one and die” occurs too frequently, it ceases to be exciting and instead becomes tedious. The Vampire example (even in a non-sadistic convention environment) lets a vampire watch as his precious resource (blood) dwindles, but allows him to choose when her replenishes it. Warhammer Quest balances roll one and die with the presence of the other characters, and the options of items and melee.
- It’s dangerous to rely on this as a balance mechanism. WQ flirted with this, because the wizard is a powerful character class, but in general, a system that depends on randomness to enforce balance is going to face trouble in the long run. Most cases with play out according to the balance, but statistically, what about those poor slobs at the low end and the lucky stiffs at the low and high ends of the probability distributions? “Wizards suck! All they do is cause problems,” and “Wizards rule! Nothing bad ever happens to them and they always have more than enough Power to face the enemy.” You have to be a hardcore fan of randomness to enjoy the highs and lows of this feature type as a character trait.
What do you think? What games, whether tabletop RPGs, boardgames, or video games, use a system like Roll One And Die to good or bad effect?