Wednesday, February 5, 2014

VSd6, a System for Narrative Leverage

For years, I had players roll a variable amount of dice (2d6 for easy, 3d6 for average, 4d6 for difficult, etc.) trying to hit their character's ability score or lower.  If they did, success.  If they didn't, failure. Not very dynamic.  

What I've created here - influenced by what must be over a hundred different d6 game mechanics - is a system of narrative leverage.  Instead of pass/fail, there are interesting shades of grey which a competent GM can use to his advantage, improving the roleplaying experience for all.

The VSd6 system can be used anytime an action is attempted outside of conventional combat maneuvers.  That means if a character wants to use a skill, lift a portcullis, or kick the sorcerer's wand out of his hand before he blasts you again, this can be your go-to game mechanic...


 Roll a dice pool of d6’s.  Only take note of the single highest number rolled, except in cases of critical success. The GM and relevant player(s) should calculate each dice pool together.  Traditionally, the lion's share of calculation falls upon GM shoulders but players are encouraged to negotiate their dice pool based upon prevailing conditions.  Excessive whining, bitching, and complaining, however, may provoke a -1d6 penalty [cue Evil Laugh!].

 If the highest number rolled is a 6 that means “complete success”. 5 means “mostly successful” or “success but with a minor complication or catch”. 4 means “partial or half success”. 3 means “mostly failure” or “failure but with a silver lining”. 2 means "unsuccessful", the attempt did not succeed. 1 means “Disaster!"; not only does the attempt fail but, additionally, something unexpectedly bad occurs.  Multiple 6's means "critical or outstanding success!"

To put things in simple terms, let me present the system's essence:  if a character should have an excellent chance of success, have the player roll 3d6; if a character should have a moderate chance of success, then 2d6 should be rolled; if a character only has a slim chance of success, then reduce the player's dice pool to 1d6.  That's it.  However, if you want more - subtlety, nuance, intricacy, and options - everything that follows should suffice...

• If there are two 6’s rolled in the dice pool that means a critical success: you make it look easy, accomplish it in record time, or do it with stylistic flourish. Three 6’s means super-critical success: above and beyond expectations resulting in more than you thought possible. Four 6’s means hyper-critical success: all of the aforementioned benefits plus the next time you attempt the same action under similar conditions, you get an automatic 6 in your dice pool.

• Take 5! Characters with a dice pool of 4 or more can accept a result of 5 instead of rolling. 

•  1d6 is standard.  The average character attempting an ordinary action under normal circumstances without any special skill, training, background, experience, or aptitude will only have 1d6 to roll. Characters who find themselves with an empty dice pool (0d6) must work a little harder to at least have something to roll. Ingenuity! 

[Optional rule #1] If the action is exceptionally innovative and well described, GMs may grant characters a 1d6 minimum dice pool to at least have a chance at success.

[Optional rule #2]  A character with a zero dice pool may roll 2d6, discarding the greater of the two. 

• If a character attempts something having relevant skill, training, background, and/or experience, then add a d6 to the dice pool.

• If the character has a relevant ability score of 7 or lower (well below average), then subtract a d6 from the pool. If he has a relevant ability score of 15 or higher (well above average), then add a d6.

• If the character is being aided by someone (or something), then add a d6... provided that aiding character has some skill, training, background, and/or experience relevant to the task at hand.  Same goes for characters aided by an appropriate tool, device, or apparatus.  Normally, these bonuses are not added together or "stacked", but the GM is the final arbiter in this matter.

• Awesomely imaginative/inventive actions that are outside the box and described by the player add a d6.

• Relatively easy actions add a d6.

• Subtract a d6 if there’s overwhelming force working against the character.

• Subtract a d6 if the attempted action is particularly challenging.

• Subtract a d6 if the character is in a debilitated state, handicapped in some way, or is suffering from a major wound.

• If the active character wishes to make a quick, fast, simple, or minor action (one that doesn't require its own roll), in addition to the one he's attempting in a single round, he must declare his intention before rolling his dice pool, as 1d6 should be taken away to allow for the extra, albeit brief, action.  Quick actions might entail: drinking a readied potion, dodging a bullet, parrying a sword thrust, shouting for help, moving 5', or taking the safety off a handgun.  

A standard action (standard in length of time and scope of tactics, yet effortless or reflexive to perform) should reduce an active character's dice pool by 2d6 - this is no different than two quick actions in the same round.  Standard actions might include swinging a sword, casting a spell, firing an arrow, firing a laser pistol, reading a scroll, or moving more than 5'.

Actions substantial enough to require a dice pool calculation reduces a character's dice pool by 3d6 (also equal to a standard action and a quick action or three quick actions in the same round).  The player may decide how to allocate his 3d6 reduction between both actions.  For instance, a PC who wants to bullwhip a thug around the throat and throw a ruby the size of a monkey's head across a chasm in the same round might have dice pools of 3d6 and 4d6 respectively.  The player could choose to reduce his whip action by 1d6 and his throw by 2d6 leaving him with dice pools of 2d6 for each. 

• Characters can save up their dice for a rainy day!  Simply keep a d6 or more of your dice pool in reserve until you really, really need it.  However, a dice pool modified by reserved dice cannot be more than double the original dice pool.  Furthermore, reserving dice cannot reduce the current dice pool below 1d6.

Let's say a PC is about to shoot a phaser at the mirrored surface of a black pylon in order to hit an enemy hiding for cover behind an Ancient Wyrm skeleton.  Based on the GM's calculations, he has a dice pool of 4d6.  However, the player feels that's over-kill, so decides to only roll 3d6 and keep 1d6 in reserve.  Later in the session, the PC tries to figure out the symbols on a high-tech scrying device.  He gets a 2d6 dice pool, but isn't really that interested enough to give it his all.  He decides to roll 1d6 and save 1d6.  Finally, at session's end, the PC attempts to hurl his sword into a cyclops' eye.  In this case, the dice pool is set at 2d6, but the player wants to "cash in" that extra 2d6 for a total of 4d6 (giving him the option to "take 5"). 

If the player wanted to improve his character's last action to 5d6 (assuming he had enough dice in reserve), he wouldn't be able to because the original dice pool cannot exceed twice that amount.  GMs should watch out for "juicing".  Intentional or not, players might have their character attempt an inconsequential action just so dice can be saved for later.  If the action attempted is relatively meaningless, then forego rolling, simply have the inconsequential action succeed.  No dice pool, no opportunity for juicing.  

Also, at the end of a session, any unused reserve dice are divided in half (round down) in expectation of the following session.


The above is still in its workshop phase, but I like how it's evolving.  What's it for?  Ideally, I want it to support all the RPGs with awkward, clunky, or inefficient task resolution mechanics... giving the GM his much needed narrative leverage and the PCs a decent chance to do something original which any given set of rules couldn't begin to imagine, let alone cover.  

Maybe the VSd6 system is right for your own RPG?  Even if game rules could be copyrighted, I wouldn't care to with these.  Everyone is free to use VSd6 or modify it as they wish (as if I'd be able to stop them - Ha!).  Some small credit or attribution would be nice, assuming you include them in your own published work, but not required.  Do as thou wilt!

There must be literally a thousand different paper & pencil, tabletop roleplaying games in existence.  Does the world really need a new one?  Sometimes, I feel that my efforts are better spent improving the RPGs that already exist, either thematically or mechanically.  Nevertheless, I'm working on a gonzo scifi-fantasy mashup with Mike Berkey in the spirit of Encounter Critical, Extreme Vengeance, and Gamma World.  VSd6 will be the core mechanic... possibly in conjunction with a percentile-based skill system. How that's going to work I have no idea!  Additionally, VSd6 will be included in The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence.

One last thing... your feedback is appreciated - especially if you're one of the few, the brave, and the awesome who actually sit down and use this in your game.  If you do try it, please let me know your findings.


p.s.  By now, there's a long and winding list of individuals who improved VSd6 with their comments, questions, criticisms, and suggestions.  Thank you!