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Thursday, 5 December 2013

No dice: rules mechanics for non-random combat

I’m often having a go at dice in digital gamebooks. It's a legacy feature, like having section numbers displayed. Might as well have the reader rub out text with their thumb. (Hey, that might actually be a cool thing on an iPad. Not in e-gamebooks, though, thank you all the same.)

Assuming a gamebook has skill checks and combats (and that’s an assumption worth challenging) the question remains: if not dice then what?

In an earlier post I talked about the combat mechanic in Inkle’s digital adaptation of Steve Jackson’s Sorcery books. This is similar to the system used in classic boardgame Apocalypse – and seeing as Steve is a hardcover boardgamer, and such a fan of Apocalypse (née The Warlord) that he published it in 1980, I wouldn’t mind betting that he came up with that.

The way it works in Apocalypse was that one territory attacks another. The attacker hides a number from 1 to 6 (not exceeding the number of units in the attacking territory) and the defender makes a guess. If the defender guesses the number right, the attacker loses that number of units from his territory. If the defender guesses wrong, he loses one unit from his territory and the attacker gains a reward (a segment of missile) for use later in the game. Also, if the defender’s territory is now vacant – that is, if he just removed his last unit there – the number the attacker selected is how many units he gets to move in and take the territory. A high number is good for holding the territory, but the defender knows that so it’s a will-he-won’t-he puzzle.

Nick Henfrey and I used a similar mechanic in our Lord of Light boardgame for Games Workshop. Oh, you don’t remember that one? That’s only because Workshop lost interest in it a few minutes after our first meeting. Nick and I didn’t get the memo, so we completed a rather good boardgame and if anyone would like to publish it (perhaps with Kirby concept art) the email address is right there in the sidebar.

Rather than waste a neat game mechanic, I recycled it as the Spiral of Gold, a pastime of the Magi in The Battlepits of Krarth. Here’s Grandmaster Klef explaining how it works:

The being spreads his hands over the surface of the table. As he draws them back, fourteen gleaming gold coins are revealed - seven in a line in front of him, seven on your side of the table. Beside each line of coins rests a six-sided die. All the coins are showing heads.

‘I am called Kief,’ says the mysterious being. ‘I am Grandmaster of this game, which the True Magi called the Spiral of Gold. Pay close attention as I explain it to you.

‘We play in Rounds, called Spirals. In the first Spiral I shall secretly select a number on my die, placing it under my hand with the number I have chosen uppermost. You do the same. Then we reveal and compare our chosen numbers. Suppose that I have the higher number. In this case you would lose some of your coins - equal to the difference between our two chosen numbers. I do not get the coins you lose; they just vanish. All right, so in our example you’ve lost some of your coins. I wouldn’t lose any, but the number I displayed on my die is the number of coins I have to flip over from heads to tails. So if I displayed a 4 and you displayed a 3, you’d lose one coin and I’d have to flip over four of my coins from heads to tails. 

‘We then start the next Spiral by recovering – that is, if either player has any coins showing tails, he can flip one of them over to heads again. Then we select numbers as before, and play proceeds until one player has no heads showing at the end of a Spiral. Then he’s lost.

‘There are three other rules you must remember. You cannot choose a number on your die that is equal to or greater than the number of heads you have showing. That means that we can each put any number from 1 to 6 on the first Spiral, since we start with seven coins, all heads up. But if at some later point in the game I had only five heads showing, I’d have to choose a number from 1 to 4. Secondly, if we both choose the same number then that Spiral is a draw and neither player loses anything. Lastly, when you have to lose a number of coins you must take them from the heads, not the tails, among the coins you have left.'

All of which goes to show you can have a combat system (or any conflicting skill resolution) without going to the fuss of having virtual dice rattle around on the screen of the phone, tablet or PC you’re running your digital gamebook on. If Jamie and I get around to doing digital versions of the Blood Sword books, that's how we'll work it.


  1. You were (briefly) working on a Lord of Light boardgame? I'll confess that's one of the few Zelazny books I haven't yet read. I'd imagine it'd be a lot of fun, though. The Amber Diceless RPG - another diceless combat system - was also inspired by Zelazny's books, and the Amber campaigns I played through were fantastic.

    1. You got me there, Paul. I've read a lot of Zelazny but only one Amber book. And I haven't played the Amber RPG so forgot that it would have made a lot of sense to discuss it in this post! I shall try to find a copy to rectify that.

    2. The mechanics for combat in the Amber RPG are very simple. If, for instance, two characters are duelling with swords, then all things being equal, the character with the highest Warfare stat will win. Period. If there's a big difference between stats, he'll win really quickly. If it's a close match, then the Endurance stat may come into play too, to see who can last longer without getting tired out.

      In practice, you really have to think about how you're going to attack your enemy. Feeling out his skill level is usually wise - an aggressive attack against a much better enemy is a quick way to get killed.

      Is it possible to beat somebody who's better than you? Yes. But you have to cheat. In the second of the Amber books, The Guns of Avalon, Benedict is a much better swordsman than Corwin - but Corwin manages to beat Benedict by leading him into a patch of strangling grass, which holds him in place.

    3. That might prove a little too basic for most campaigns, I think, but a brave attempt from the late Mr Wujcik.

  2. In the Amber campaign I played through, it was rarely as straightforward as that. One of the trickier characters in our group was a shapeshifter who could survive the odd impaling with impunity. When that same character attempted to mow me down with a machine gun, he discovered that my own character had been infused with sorcery enabling him to resist all but really catastrophic damage (something that he'd picked up in childhood - a little like Asterix's pal Obelix).

    Several times in Zelazny's books it really comes down to 'the best duellist wins'. But in the RPG, when you take into consideration all the Logrus powers, magic artifacts, psychic abilities and whatnot that can come into play, it's seldom so cut and dried.

  3. Problem is, you should pretty much always always begin with a 3 in the Bloodsword variant of the game. And I don't mean when you know the number Keif begins with (in this case, another number is better), I mean always! Then the Golden Spiral pretty much happens to the other guy, and it's a downward one.
    Extending the number of faces would go a long way towards improving that, though.

    1. Good point, Asen. In the Lord of Light game we had characters with variable numbers of "hits" and they could go a lot higher. For the Battlepits of Krarth, though, I had to restrict it to a low starting number so as not to fill up the entire flowchart with this one game. Hmm, we can fix that in the app.

  4. I'm not sure I understood the central question of this post. Certainly you don't have to have "virtual dice rattle around on the screen" of a digital gamebook.

    But you can use randomness for a similar effect, at least in gamebook apps. Or you can use a static secret target number, which is what we almost always use at Choice of Games. Your skill must be greater than the secret target number to succeed, but the reader can't see the target number, so there's an element of risk. (Static secrets are not really feasible in paper gamebooks, plus cheating is trivial.)

    Or are you referring to ebooks published for e.g. eInk Kindles, which don't allow the author to write code? If code's not allowed, I don't see much of a distinction between the digital product and the paper product. The player is still forced to do all the math by hand, and is therefore allowed to cheat on all the math.

    I suppose an exception could be made for ebooks like The Intercept, which are automatically generated to include thousands or even millions of pages. Then you can ask the player to choose a random seed and use a pseudo-random number generator in all future cases where randomness is required. (Or ask for a different seed in each random case, to give the reader the feeling of influence over a random result–the feeling of rolling the dice.)

    1. I should have begun by restating the problem as I see it. In brief: when sitting around a table role-playing (assuming you're not playing Amber) everyone is happy to roll dice to check if they succeed in using a skill. Functionally it would be exactly the same if the referee had a list of pre-generated random numbers, consulted that, and just told me if I succeed or fail. But we wouldn't find that very satisfying, and it's the same with having an gamebook app just announce the result. "You failed! You fall off the cliff and die!" Well, I can tolerate that if I rolled the dice myself, but otherwise it really rubs the passivity of the situation in your face.

      So the alternatives for a designer of gamebook apps are (a) let you shake your tablet to pretend you're rolling dice, or (b) find a system that involves tactical decision-making (or the illusion thereof) rather than pure randomness.

      Among many reasons I hate the former are that it draws attention to the artefact of dice, which we notice more overtly in virtual form than when handling them as physical objects.

      As Jon Ingold has pointed out, the tactical systems discussed here are not completely lacking in randomness. But having any degree of choice mitigates the sense of being at the mercy of bare statistics.

    2. Ah, now I get it.

      Yes, if you want to use randomness to drive combat (though we prefer non-random secrets), all you have to do is put in an arbitrary choice. Ask players to select a random number, or an attack strategy, or whatever.

      You don't even have to honor their random selection (though it's probably a bit more honest if you do); just throw the number away and tell them what they won.

      (To be honest, as a dungeon master, I was never really rolling my own dice, anyway. I just rolled some dice behind the DM screen to simulate the effect.)

  5. A lot of RPG referees say they don't actually roll the dice, though I don't approve of that at all. For the same reason, I don't like terms like GM or DM - I think the role is to moderate and catalyse the story that the players are mutually creating, not to impose one's own story.

    (Of course, I get to write stories as a day job, so that's probably why I don't insist on doing it in the evenings!)

    Paul Mason and I used to describe the autocratic style of refereeing as "Thatching" - a reference that this blog's younger readers will very happily never need to experience first-hand.

  6. Necroposting a bit, but the Spiral of Gold system is brilliant. Totally love it.

    1. Thanks, Brent. I'm quite pleased with it myself. It was based on the combat system I and Nick Henfrey used in a Lord of Light boardgame that we designed in the early '80s for Games Workshop. Never used, like most of our work for GW. It was quite a pain to flowchart, though!