WFRP Design Discussion with Jay Little and Daniel Lovat Clark
The inclusion and use of custom dice is perhaps the most immediately recognizable new feature of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. The brightly colored dice not only attract a player’s attention, they’re a pivotal part of the game. The dice mechanic is the core engine, the rules system that drives the game – but the dice also fulfill a significant role in the overall gameplay experience.
Joining me for this Designer Diary is Daniel Lovat Clark, one of the key members of the WFRP design team. We both put a lot of hard work, energy, and decades of GM and play experience into the project. In this Designer Diary, we’re going to take a closer look at the dice, the design and theory behind their development, and a few of the (often subtle) effects the dice pool system has on the game.
Deciding On a Dice Pool
Jay: Since the dice have become one of the signature attributes of WFRP, a lot of people have wondered how we arrived at the decision to use a dice pool for this game. Over the course of the development of the new edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, more than a dozen different core mechanics for task resolution were designed, evaluated, and tested – including some more traditional task resolution models.
These early designs ultimately ended up delivering predictable, static, or traditional results. Early on in the development cycle, the design team came to the consensus that a dice pool offered the type of organic feel we wanted from task resolution, and multiple dice generated the type of results we were looking for.
From there, a number of different dice pool models were developed and tested, until we settled on the the system that combined the engaging play experience we wanted with the mechanical results that could drive the system’s engine. We wanted to deliver a new, refreshing take on roleplaying games. To do that, we knew we would need to develop a new approach to task resolution, and dice pools comprised of custom dice was the answer.
Dan: Dice pools in general have a notably different “flavour” from more traditional resolution mechanics. Percentile or roll-and-add systems are quick to learn and implement in play, but dice pools have a number of desirable characteristics. The most obvious for our purposes was the ability to have much more nuanced results than a simple pass/fail (more on which later).
Another is that the results are more transparent – counting and canceling is a more visceral and immediate activity for the player than adding or subtracting numbers (just last night I caught myself struggling to add two numbers together accurately in another system, and it’s embarrassing how much difficulty I have determining degrees of success in Rogue Trader).
The final key advantage of the dice pool is reliability. Rolling more dice means that the results trend towards an average, giving us a bell curve. The easy stuff is easier; the hard stuff is harder.
The Cool Factor of Custom Dice
Jay: One of my top design goals was to create a fluid resolution system that could become intuitive very quickly. Additionally, I wanted to build a system that offered a wide variety of results in a single roll. Along these lines, it was important to me to have mixed results allowing “Pyrrhic victory” style outcomes – you could succeed and still have something bad happen… or fail, but still have a silver lining.
This is where the development of banes and boons (and to an extent Sigmar’s Comets and Chaos Stars) really started to take off. By evaluating these results separately from the default “success-or-failure” results, we’re able to deliver a number of different outcomes. Dan’s work with expanding and refining the action card system took this another step further, allowing the results to not just vary based on the environment and the story, but also based on what the character is doing at the time.
From a GM and storytelling point, I was interested in exploring the possibility of breaking down tasks into their core elements – the individual factors contributing to the task. By developing different types of dice, and having different symbols associated with each die, we were able to create very distinct types of “effort” that characters can apply toward a task resolution, and different types of obstacles the GM can introduce to challenge the players.
Being able to look at a dice pool and see exactly what part of your character's makeup is contributing toward a task (and to what extent) is an interesting and immersive part of the game. Seeing that the harsh environment or skill of your opponent is adding black misfortune dice, or that your sturdy Toughness is adding blue characteristic dice… the visual nature of the dice and identifying these factors helps create more context for what’s going on in the game. Even if that context isn't articulated out loud, it helps players visualize what's going on, by offering lots of juicy tidbits for their imagination.
Personally, my favorite part of the different dice is the rich narrative food for thought they provide. As a GM, if I see that the beastman succeeded in his attack by virtue of successes on a lot of blue characteristic dice, I can narrate the outcome based on his brute strength and brawny, bestial nature. If he fails due to misfortune dice introduced by the character dodging or parrying, then I can narrate how the character turned aside the blows at the last minute. Rather than making arbitrary interpretations, there are prompts available to help out -- the dice and their results have real in-game relevance.
Even better is the fact that all that information is right there, unobtrusively, in the pool. If the GM and players want to dig in and use that extra layer of flavor provided by the dice -- great! If not, it fades into the background, ready to be called upon when needed.
Dan: I love dice. I can’t resist them. I have a pretty big collection of dice at home, and I keep several on my desk and sometimes I roll them for no reason (much to the annoyance of my co-workers). When I’m playing roleplaying games that use traditional dice, I try to pick my favorites out of my selection, or dice that fit the character in question. (I keep a bronze and a red d10 aside for my Adeptus Mechanicus Rogue Trader character.) I love War of the Ring and Kingsburg not just because they’re great games (which they are), but because I get to roll dice and then use them in interesting ways.
So, a bunch of custom dice with interesting symbols, in a variety of eye-catching colours? Yeah, I’m helpless to resist that. And I wanted to make sure that they were as appealing as possible to players.
I spent some time thinking about what each individual die means. The prime example is the expertise die. It’s the bright yellow one, and it has lots of great stuff on it. Notably, it is the only die that currently features Sigmar’s Comet. Rolling the expertise die is a hard-won privilege, a reward for dedicated training, and it should be awesome. Sigmar’s Comet should be awesome. So I tried to be generous with my use of Sigmar’s Comet effects throughout the action cards, and to make those effects really feel awesome.
If I’ve done my job right, you will all feel about the expertise die the way I feel about all dice, all the time. I’m gonna go roll some dice now. Just ... to roll them.
Success & Failure
Jay: One thing that players may realize soon after a few sessions of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, especially if they played earlier editions, is that (for the most part) starting characters feel more competent at a lot of their initial tasks. While this is an intentional and important part of the design behind the dice system, success and failure are not just binary outcomes in WFRP. There are shades of grey, different magnitudes of effect, and various possibilities with each and every task.
On the surface, a player may be tempted to think that a dice pool result which yields the most success symbols is the best possible outcome. That’s not necessarily the case. With the ability to generate a variety of results, the best possible outcome can easily change from task to task, from action to action.
Often, the best possible result will be the dice pool that generates a combination of beneficial results, allowing the player to trigger both a high-yield success line from an action card, as well as possible boon or Sigmar’s Comet results that augment, magnify, or improve upon the overall effect of the card.
This is especially clear when players realize that many actions only have one or two possible success lines available – the rest of the action’s results are often realized by other factors: additional effects provided on the action itself, by a talent, a special career ability, the group’s party sheet, an ongoing spell, a special item, or possibly even the location in which the story is taking place.
So coupled with the design of the cards and rules the dice interact with, success ultimately comes down to “what is the best possible combination of effects I can get out of this task based on my current situation.” Since this can change from scene to scene (or even from round to round during an encounter) this helps to keep task resolution engaging and interesting every time the players grab dice to roll.
For some tasks, especially easy tasks or tasks for which a character is well-equipped, well-trained, or well-prepared, the dice pool’s function is less about determine whether or not the PC succeeds – it’s real function is to describe how, why, and to what extent the PC succeeds.
Dan: Some matters of game design philosophy have to be decided on very early in the process. For us, one of the core decisions was that, in general, something should happen when you roll the dice. This is reflected in part with the generally higher success rates in this edition when compared to previous, but also in the diverse array of boon, bane, Chaos Star, and Sigmar’s Comet effects.
Another of our philosophies is that bad things happening to your characters can be just as fun as good things, especially when the two happen in concert. So, for example, we wanted to make sure that Chaos Stars, while in some ways the “worst” symbols, didn’t affect success or failure.
We wanted those extra bad effects to happen on top of the rest of it. A Chaos Star on an otherwise excellent Charm roll? You certainly impressed the shopkeeper into giving you a discount! In fact, maybe you impressed her so much that her husband wants to have words with you later. In a dark alley. With a truncheon.
Subtle Side Effects
Jay: As characters become more advanced and the size of their dice pools grow, it can be easy to think that individual dice matter less and less. What help will one fortune die add to my Daunting skill check? How will dodging to add one misfortune die help against a Chaos Warrior’s Ruinous Attack?
Again, since baseline success is only one of the outcomes the dice pool resolves, a single die can dramatically influence an action’s results. While the general effect listed by an action’s success line often has a significant impact, it usually has a number of possible “upgrades” based on boons, additional successes, or other effects.
When you’re being attacked, for example, canceling out even one enemy boon could be the difference between suffering normal damage or critical damage! Keeping them one success symbol shy of their three success line could prevent extra damage, a debilitating status condition, or some other nasty upgrade over a baseline success.
Dan: One of the things I like the most about the new system is the fortune/misfortune dice. The existence of these “minor” dice gives us a great deal of freedom to manipulate the dice pool, either for strictly mechanical reasons or for creative and narrative-driven effects. Want to reward a player for creative thinking? Throw a fortune die into the pool. Think attacking in the mud should have a penalty, but not sure how big a penalty it should be? Sling a black die in there.
However, the ubiquity of these dice can lead to some players undervaluing them, particularly in large dice pools. And we’ve all had the rolls where they all come up blank. But we’ve also had those rolls where they really, really don’t. And anyone who’s seen a fatal strike turned into a glancing blow, or a glancing blow turned into a near miss, by a simple untrained Parry or Dodge knows not to underestimate the humble misfortune die…
A neat side effect of the dice pool system is knowing what did what. If an orc tries to choppa me, and I parry, and he misses because of a challenge symbol on the misfortune die, then I know that my parry just saved my head! If a fortune die from an ally’s assist manoeuvre gives me that one extra success I needed to deal extra damage to the big bad, then I know who to thank.
Howl of Chaos? Da' Brainbursta'? What are those all about? ... They're a sneak peek spoiler at some of the things PCs may be facing in one of their upcoming adventures..!