This article originally appeared in Penny Arcade Report written by Infinity as a guest columnist.
The Future Belongs To Us: Design Philosophy of the DiceLight system
The Future Belongs To Us started out as a game I ran with my friends called Vigilante or Vigilantes depending on who you asked. It was a modern day setting where the players took on the roles of street level crime fighters that typically dealt with terrorist situations and local stealth espionage type adventures that the police couldn’t handle. As the game evolved and the number of players grew, I changed the campaign setting to a more futuristic one. This allowed for more fantastic elements while maintaining a more realistic feel instead of having a more comic bookish feel where somehow all the technology that the main characters were using never became available to the general population. The futuristic game was known at first as either Earth: 2048 or Reality: 2048 until the setting and the storyline evolved into what is now The Future Belongs To Us. The game mechanics that I designed, which came to be known as the DiceLight system, were developed after much consideration and playtesting, as well as from my own experiences and observations from being a player in other tabletop RPGs. One of the biggest challenges in creating the DiceLight system was finding a way to avoid the pitfalls that so many other tabletop RPGs had made in the past.
Class and Level based systems
When you play an RPG that uses character classes, everybody knows when you are playing a particular class how the character is going to be. Certain abilities are unique to a class or easier for certain classes to use compared to other classes. In 3rd edition D&D, particular feats are best suited for certain classes as you advance along a prerequisite track to make an effective character. Unfortunately, this leads to generic cookie cutter type characters that are uninspired. I wanted a system that would encourage player creativity and give players the freedom to change their characters in unforeseen ways as the campaign progresses. Obviously a class based system was not going to work for me. Another problem I saw with many systems where you advance by level is how you generally always gain hit points every level. This limitation to character advancement customization takes away the ability to have an ongoing story where a player character is not supposed to be particularly tough over time. A problem that I had with using the Open Gaming License of the D20 system that 3rd edition D&D uses is the way it has two separate ratings for each attribute. Having both an ability score and its derivative modifier is redundant and needlessly complicated.
Dice pool based systems
In a Dice pool based system, the more capable your character is in a certain ability, the more dice you roll to use it. A major problem I have with this type of system is that it does not scale very well to allow for playing characters with very high ability scores. In my experience, for most challenges the odds of success are usually too heavily stacked against the person rolling compared to what their character should be able to do routinely. More powerful characters may be able to overcome this, but they are rolling 10, 15, 20 dice all the time which can get pretty ridiculous. You shouldn’t have to roll more and more dice as you become more powerful. I didn’t think that this type of game mechanic would capture the hopeful feel I wanted for a game where the player characters are essentially on their own against the world but somehow still manage to come out ahead.
You shouldn’t have to roll more and more dice as you become more powerful
In designing the DiceLight system, I decided that allowing players to freely choose from a selection of predefined abilities was the way to go. This gave players more creative control over their characters from session to session and allowed them to advance their characters only in ways that they wanted to. If they wanted to play a vulnerable non-combative character, that was fully possible. If they wanted to focus on developing a particular skill or ability and have their core attributes always stay the same they could do that too. There are even benefits to permanently lowering certain attributes at times.
I wanted to keep the game simple by only using a single die. This did in fact make the game easier to understand and shifted people’s attentions more towards what was going on in the story. There was no confusion about what dice to roll and when. Players didn’t have to search through their dice and pick out different dice for different rolls. There was no need to count up how many dice they needed to roll from their dice pools. They just rolled a single twenty sided die for all rolls. It may not seem very revolutionary, but the simplicity of it does make a difference.
The DiceLight system gets its name first of all from the fact that only one die is used. Second of all, because many characteristics of the game do not even use the twenty sided die. A lot of the DiceLight system is more of a “theater of the mind” type of game where instead of rolling dice there is collaborative storytelling between the players and GM. Each Skill has its own rules and scale. This allows you to simply “buy your rank”. You want to invest 75 Extropic Points in a new Skill? That simply gives you a rating of 75 in that Skill. The twenty sided die is not added to Skill ratings the way you make a skill roll in Dungeons & Dragons. The rating stands on its own and has its own unique benefits depending on the Skill. You can use a Skill without having to roll any dice to succeed. For example, you don’t have to make a Security Systems roll to escape out of a jail cell. Based on your characters rating and the demands of the story, the GM will decide what opportunities your character may have to get out of the cell and how long it will take him. The GM may optionally require a Sleight of Hand or Stealth roll to determine how quickly or quietly it can be done. These two abilities are not Skills but optional specializations of the core attributes called Proficiencies. Another example is how you don’t have to roll to give someone first aid. If your character is experienced at it, is it really that important to throw in a chance of failure? I don’t think that throwing in unnecessary challenges really adds much to the story. Sure, it can add a sense of drama when you unexpectedly fail at something. But should you be rolling the dice so often that failure becomes unsurprising? I think in most cases it is better just to give the players a break and save the rolling for dramatically appropriate moments. Even then, in the DiceLight system you are rolling a challenge against your reflexes or sensory abilities instead of against your skill level.
You could also say that the system is DiceLight due to the fact that the GM doesn’t actually have to make any rolls. I made it so the players got to do all the die rolling to make it more exciting for them and to give the GM more time to think about what was going to happen next in the story based on the outcome. While the players were making the required rolls and coming up with their “rolled totals”, the GM could use that time where he would otherwise be making those rolls himself to think about what would happen should the rolls succeed or fail. It may not seem like having several extra seconds to think of an idea while the players are rolling is a big deal, but it really improved the flow of the story. That extra time was also time that the players didn’t have to wait for the GM to make rolls for countless NPCs. The end result was a game that really got players engaged, and a story that wasn’t slowed down too much by the mechanics. There is a synergy where the players are actively engaged in rolling at the same time as the GM is imagining how to describe to the players what the outcome of the roll will be. Having the players wait on the GM to do the rolling and then giving the GM less time to consider what the outcome of the die roll could mean for the story doesn’t make any sense.
In the combat system of DiceLight, damage is not rolled separately per se. It is determined by a combination of the initial attack (or defense) roll and in many cases how much protection you had from armor depending on where you were hit. Ties generally inflict half damage, and rolling 20 on the die can inflict double or even triple damage. The Damage Resistance of the area hit also modifies the amount of damage taken, and the type of armor hit can modify the type of damage. It is a lot more precise than rolling damage dice to come up with an arbitrary figure and can better describe just how the attack affected a target in the story instead of just inflicting random amounts of damage.
Roleplaying game systems will continue to evolve and improve over time. We have come a long way from 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Roleplaying game systems will continue to evolve and improve over time. We have come a long way from 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons. Not to be misunderstood, there are some things that 1st edition D&D did that many systems still can’t get right. Mistakes will be made with each new attempt at a roleplaying system. Some things may improve where other things get worse. But the fact that we gain more diversity in the tabletop RPG ecosystem with each new system that is released can only be a good thing.
See you in the future!