Under the Hood – Complicating Matters


Complicating Matters
By The Warden

PREVIOUSLY: Here we go! After a couple of weeks of speculation and theorizing, last week’s post saw the first rough preliminary early concept draft for the core mechanics of what is currently known as Phoenix. If you haven’t seen it yet and are about to get started on this week’s latest update, I’d highly suggest clicking on this here blue text to get up to date. Pay special attention to Complications. Now it’s time to complicate things… so to speak.

Complications-ahead-road-signAfter drafting up the initial core mechanics last week, there was something crucially important to knock out of the park before going any further: rolling bones and seeing how things would play out if the game were a finished product. Very basic situations, absolutely basic characters, nice and simple dice rolling. For these mechanics, what I was really testing out was not average roll results but frequency of odd vs even numbers because they’re fundamental to this game’s signature: Complications.

To quickly review, Complications occur whenever someone rolls an odd number on their die, regardless of success or failure. Succeeding with a Complication creates a Minor Complication; failing with one brings on a Major Complication. Knowing the exact frequency that these Complications will arise in gameplay is about more than simple probability. I mean, it’s all fine and dandy to know the probability of a Complication to pop its head (50%, really), but how do they come into play and how often. I’ve never been a gospel thumper for probability in RPGs. They serve a purpose in game design, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel comfortable to simply rely on any math. I want to find out at the table the old fashioned way: by playing.

I recruited my wife to help me test out Phoenix and after explaining the basics (which she pretty much knew already because I wouldn’t shut up about it during these past few weeks), we went to the table with a simple one hero with four stats (one at d10, another at d8, two at d6) against four ninjas (two stats at d8, one at d6) and simply went to town with a heavy emphasis on the descriptive benefits. We ended up replaying the fight scene three times with the hero wiped out during the first battle and rising up to win in the second fight.

While I’m not going to regale you with the breakdown of dice rolls (mostly because I didn’t bother to write them down on this one – it slowed down gameplay’s goal of 30 second turns and my second purpose was to ensure if this game was fun to play as is), I can tell you of the frequency of Complications in the game. More importantly, the frequency of Minor Complications facing the hero. It came up a lot during this demo play and where my initial expectations for Minor Complications broke down was in how they initially functioned.

Major Complications were always an easy aspect to build into RPGs because they typically involve damage and conditions. They only come into play when you fail a dice roll with an odd number and instead allows a defending or obstructing character to be more in control of their outcome through the roll of their dice and yet unannounced point-based mechanics allowing players to thwart Complications when they occur. Minor Complications, on the other hand, are trickier because it happens when a character succeeds. Major Complications are intended to punish and that sense of punishment cannot go down with Minors because that will leave a bad taste in players’ mouths. Minors need to compliment the success while simultaneously adding that extra challenge to a player’s choices and outcomes. Therein lies the challenge. So how do I do this?


My initial thought for Minors was to invoke a simple, low key penalty to the character’s follow-up dice roll or an increase to the follow-up Difficulty. For example, a hero attacks a villain and gains a Minor Complication with a successful attack roll. Because he used his Strength stat for the attack, the next time this stat is used, it suffers a -1 step penalty and then it’s all over. Or if the hero was trying to kick down an iron door and did so with a complication, he has to do it against a +2 Difficulty increase the next time he tries to kick down a door.

Do you see the problem too? This reserved stacking of penalties and increases goes against the easy part of the game’s intention. Am I expecting Gamemasters to keep a long-term note to add +2 when a particular character wants to kick down a door or use Strength on any other solid, inanimate object? Doesn’t work. More importantly, forcing a player to drop the size of their dice by one step is penalizing their theoretically successful dice roll. What may have been good on paper definitely stumbles during play and that’s exactly what happened during the demo test fights because Minors can occur back-to-back-to-back within a single skirmish, and that can instantly eliminate the use of a player’s single best source for dice in this game. If we assume a character’s best stat starts as high as a d12, three unresolved Minors will reduce it to a simple d6, merely one step above the absolute basic level of a d4.

There are some who may see this as an opportunity for instituting a cost to the use of something as high as a d12 and I’m sure there are many ways to incorporate such a concept into a game using such a step-based dice mechanic, but this is not what I’m aiming for here. What I want is something that accentuates extra-human ability and training and that means keeping the dice above average (typically from d8 and above in some, but not all, cases).


With these rough results in mind, I needed to take the concept away from penalizing and towards the original intention for Minor Complications – to create a helpful boost to taking combat out of the tried-and-true method of your typical RPG scenario. Where players and their characters need to tackle unexpected outcomes and find ways to thrive over them rather than knuckle under. Sometimes, discovering the best way to make things work is to trust your instincts at the table.

By the fourth or fifth Minor Complication tossed onto my wife’s hero, I was drawing blanks on providing an effective and appropriate reason for placing a penalty on the fight and simply had the involved opponent roll around behind a tree, taking cover from her next shot. It happened a couple other times too. Looking back on my mental notes, I think I was on to something there and now I’m considering – strongly considering – using that application as the default, if not sole, delivery for these Complications. When you end up rolling a Minor, heroes are not afflicted with something; their opponent gains a tiny advantage to… well, complicate the hero’s efforts.

We’re talking simple benefits that would require the player to adapt their next move with an added description to the next action or force them to incorporate movement or conditions if they want to counter that Complication. Using the previous example, the hero must now change their position to get a better shot at the opponent or else allow that added step up in defence rolls from the next shot. Depending on how certain Minors are played out, it’s basically the same effect as before, just with an automatic means of eliminating the problem. Even if the Minor allows an opponent to roll back a bit and forces the hero to include a jump in their next action, that jump will eat up one step of what could have otherwise been a crazy double-axle kick to the throat.

OK, so that deals with opposing rolls, but what about those made against Difficulties. How does this new approach work when a hero (or any character for that matter) wants to leap across rooftops, cross electrical wires to unlock a computer-controlled door, or steer their car sharply into a narrow alleyway? Once again, we provide the means for the hero’s efforts to require that extra little bit of attention on their next action. Perhaps that successful leap was only successful enough that they didn’t fall five stories to the ground below and leaves them hanging by their fingers off the edge, the door can only open half as much so that the hero must squeeze her way through, and the skidding tires have alerted pursuers or previously unaware cops sitting in a nearby parked squad car. Nothing that impedes the success, but introduces a new or upgraded element of danger to the current scene.

It’s an incredibly successful concept introduced to the roleplaying community by games such as Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, one that I’ve taken note of in the past and more importantly, one that really stands out as a fitting application to this game. If players get to describe their way into rolling a higher die value, why can’t Gamemasters simply whip up a fitting complication without getting into mechanics every single time. If our heroes can perform a triple kick simply because the player wants them to, it’s surely feasible enough for the GM to limit how wide a door can open, how frequently cops appear on street corners with very alert hearing, and how easy it is to underestimate the distance from one rooftop to another. Yet just as players are limited into how much they can pile on, the GM must also have some restrictions to keep the game fair that is both functional and effective while simple and quick to implement at the same time.

For that, we will need to look at action types for Phoenix. Next time.

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