To Roll or Not to Roll
By The Warden
PREVIOUSLY: After establishing a signature mechanic for the Phoenix Project (yeah, I’m still playing around with the codename for this game) where characters receive Complications when rolling an odd number, the issue of Complication frequency – particularly with Minor Complications intended on a successful roll – and the need to provide a form of control twisted it around and made it work as a personal choice to gain the benefit of a bonus action on the same turn. For the complete step-by-step process to date, check out the Phoenix Project tag.
With such a lofty goal in mind – I mean the bonus action for the PC, as this is something many games require expenditures and enforce limitations – the role of dice rolls in Phoenix are rather significant. They do in every game, don’t get me wrong, it’s simply the fact that every successful dice roll in this game can lead up to a very lengthy turn and this flies right in the face of its Primary Objective: All turns must take an average of 30 seconds to resolve and move on. Too many bonus actions and suddenly a player is looking at 30 seconds in the rear view mirror.
I need to establish a purpose for Phoenix’s dice rolls; a reason why they are required in the game. It’s a bit harder than it sounds because you’re basically defining when skill, natural aptitude, and luck can help characters beat the odds and, more importantly, what they can perform without a thought or concern. It’s about setting down guidelines for when players roll dice and when they do not. But first, I need to lay down the absolutes for how players can describe their actions and determine what they’re rolling for.
THE CORE DETAIL
For a high-combat game like I intend for Phoenix, all this can get really tricky. Not just because combat automatically implies rolling multiple times per skirmish (a safe average is seven rounds, I always assume) with players making one per round and GMs dropping dice in multitudes at a possible rate of at least one per PC, but because of personal design choices. I’m a sucker for the “every roll is a single strike” theory of design; I’ve always pictured any RPG battle I’ve been in as a single swing, shot, or body flip to cause damage. Many games and individual GMs take efforts to explain your dice as a flurry of attacks, each one wearing down the opponent until one cuts its mark and brings those hit points down a notch. I have no intention of going this route with Phoenix.
Then again, it’s not going to be in my hands, is it? Let’s recap the inclusion of descriptive benefits to building the die applied to the action for a moment. Players add narrative details to their action and gain +1 step – one level higher, such as a d8 to a d10 – until they reach their character’s Potential. And if I want to keep this game simple and quick-to-learn, it’s best to allow players to run with it as they will. If a player wants to offer up a series of spin kicks and punches to the face of her opponent, no problem. If a player goes with a long build up involving a slow-motion boost from the side of a wall before spinning sideways in the air and bringing down her fist diagonally across the opponent’s jaw, bring it on. Either way should be applicable for this game to meet all its goals and allows everyone a chance to set the tone and use combat as a way to express their personal style and vision for their characters.
The difficulty in setting our dice needs is when does a failed roll fail? When the PC steps off the adjoining wall, in the middle of a spin kick, or when the diagonally-approaching fist is intended to strike jaw? It all depends on the overall goal of a dice roll. If it’s all about causing harm to an opponent or busting down a door (wow, I really use that example a lot), the objective is fairly simple and so we can look to that for defining when players will roll. An attack roll is meant to cause harm; all the flips, jumps, and fanciness is just icing on the cake, making the failed roll something like the cake crumbling off your fork and leaving you with none of that chocolatey goodness in your mouth. All those extra add-ons continue on as normal and the PC doesn’t have to worry about looking like a fool AND missing the attack. It’s how the action comes to an end, that final descriptive element before the player rolls the die.
Now we have something that is key. If the PC’s action ends when fist connects with jaw, that character is now adjacent and exposed to their swollen enemy. At a moment like this, having a bonus action would be very helpful to get away, even if it’s just enough to slide an inch back from any retaliation or provide the player with a chance to really jazz it up. She can use a bonus action to attempt to land gracefully on one foot before flipping over the opponent’s head, landing behind him and finishing this worm off with a snap kick to the back of the head. Or the player could use any remaining automatic action, such as basic movement, to complete the same thing but that normally indicates an end of turn entirely and without any flourish or coolness, let alone another attack. This final component of an action is what provides the opponent with the means to deliver retaliation on their turn. For example, our hero shoots at an enemy from across a room full of wooden crates. Since the hero had to move out of absolute cover to make that shot, the enemy can take advantage of this exposure – no matter how little – to return fire and potentially hit our hero.
If I were going for a much more complex ruleset, there could be a lot of possibilities to account for here as this concept of finalized details can easily be torn apart and redirected. Luckily, there’s a way to keep it all simple. All actions must conclude with its core purpose as the last detail. If your goal is to jump over the speeding car coming right at you, then the jump must be the last detail you provide before rolling dice. ‘Nuff said, to quote Stan the Man. To keep it basic, something like this needs a term and I’m going with the core detail, that which is the essential element to your character’s action.
All this is fine and dandy, but now I need to assert when anyone needs to roll dem bones in the first place. When do players or Gamemasters need to roll dice for their characters?
As I mentioned above, simply allowing dice rolls whenever can quickly sway the scene to one side through bonus actions. Even sticking with the standard principle of rolling to determine success or failure is a little too loose; it’s always possible to fail at opening a normal door by pulling instead of pushing. Should someone have to roll dice every time their character stands in front of a door? Nope. Will there be times when they need to worry about whether or not they can get a door open? Sure, whenever there’s an unwanted outcome associated with failing to open it or opening it quietly or opening it quickly. Simply wanting to avoid looking like an idiot because you don’t know how to read the sign on a door doesn’t cut it for avoiding an unwanted outcome, and expressing that fine line is key to allow everyone to get to the task of playing this game.
In adventure design, every action has an anticipated reaction that can be written into the text or simply implied by common sense. If you simply walk into a room without being able to hear the orcs chattering on about their day from outside, they instantly notice your party’s approach and engage in combat. No one has to roll to notice a group of armed intruders standing right out in the open. When characters wish to avoid that anticipated reaction, they will attempt a different approach, such as listening for any signs of life in the next room and/or sneaking inside undetected. This principle can apply to many common dice rolls in RPGs: if you don’t want to fall, you jump; if you don’t want to fall victim to a medusa’s gaze, you try to look away first; and should you want to avoid getting hit by that ogre’s club, you get the hell out of the way.
That last example is fundamental for combat because Phoenix provides two means of rolling actions: against a static target number or against an opposed roll. In combat, it’s always opposed rolls. (See the same link as before regarding this decision.) Unless the impending victim of an attack is willing to accept getting hit in the head with a sword, bullet, or ball of flame, she will want to change the outcome to her favour and will roll dice to oppose the attack. If not, weapon will strike flesh, crack bone, kill enemy. Done and done.
While time may yet reveal some fundamental flaws in this approach, I think working off the idea of changing unwanted outcomes as the main factor for when players roll dice is a good enough starting point. It also fits handy in a single paragraph, maybe even a sentence or two. “Don’t want that to happen? Roll dice to change it!” What do you think?