Dice: not just for breakf- er, rolling?

As the new game continues to take fitful shape in my mind, I’m in that fun portion of the creative process during which ideas will assail me at all hours. If you’ve ever had to get up as you’re drifting off to sleep to write something down so you can safely nod off without fear of losing the idea, then you know what I’m talking about. The newest mechanical twist for the game came about during one such moment of reverie.

It started by thinking about the Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game (which is the diceless previous incarnation of the property, not to be confused with the present iteration, the superb Marvel Heroic Roleplaying currently out under the aegis of Margaret Weis Productions). In that game, resource management was the core of the game play: characters generated points of energy each turn, and would have to allocate their points to different actions based on what they wanted to accomplish. The amount that could be diverted into a power or skill or action was partly based on the numerical rating of that trait, so your potential may be higher than the effort expended, such as Spider-man not swinging at full speed unless he chose to. Some traits earning free points of energy applicable only to its use (e.g., Wolverine’s claws, which only require a point of energy to “snikt!” into place but garner three more points of energy for purposes of attacking), but for the most part the choices involved in a given “panel” (action) were a matter of dividing up a known and finite amount of power.

Wanting to keep attributes and skills light (I prefer a skill-less system when I can manage it), I like the model of having a certain amount of attention that can be paid to all of the things that are going on in a scene. One of the advantages of the MURPG diceless approach is that some actions don’t require conscious attention to be functioning, or perhaps only require an initial invocation in a scene to become relevant. In my game, specifically, I’m thinking of social status: there are noble houses and elite organizations, and I don’t think a full-fledged die roll is necessary to tap into membership in such a group to get the benefits, but neither should it be available for free without any sacrifice on the player’s part – we’ve all seen inadvertently imbalanced systems of merits and flaws where the right combination yields a character that is brokenly effective over the course of the game.

Which leads me to the Fudge dice being used in the game: they’re typically present in a set of four. It’s a die pool… but also a pool of tokens, if you think about the overlap in those terms. Since I’d been looking for a way to mechanically regulate tapping into keywords for their powers, this may serve as my solution. Tentatively speaking, a character can opt to fully commit to an action, rolling their dice and adding their trait rating, or can at any point in a scene decide to invest a die in a keyword, setting it atop the keyword on the sheet. If a noble character decides to show their crest and name their family, they can put a die from their four on the keyword “Noble” in their character description and gain the standing benefits. These advantages would be lesser than a full die roll: investing a die would perhaps get you social advantage over character of lower status, while making a die roll using one’s Noble keyword is reserved for trying to pay for an armada or seize a rival’s position in a coup. In short, die rolls are for big things.

The potential is intriguing: our Noble, attempting to leverage her rank, does suffer a slight impairment to die rolls while one or more dice are tied up powering a keyword, and can choose to drop the scattered minor benefits of several different keywords being activated if need be. On the one hand, it seems to be counter-intuitive from a purely abstracted perspective; after all, one would think that being openly recognized as a member of the aristocracy wouldn’t make one worse at swordfighting. But looking at it from a fiction POV, let’s say that the character is so invested in maintaining a noble image that her fencing suffers slightly because she doesn’t want to be seen fighting dirty or using less refined techniques. She can drop that facade, freeing up the die associated with it, and get in a good kick to her opponent’s nethers, at the cost of the “aura” benefit of nobility she had been drawing upon. A constant balancing game emerges from the mechanical options, which becomes compelling game play based on the details of what those keywords on hand might be.

This can even apply to the magic system, since it’s an axiom in the game that all player characters, at least, have magic: you can pull off minor effects simply by having a die invested in one of your five element keywords, whereas working a major and complex spell requires you to resort to a die roll.

The underpinnings of what the traits are and do is almost fleshed out, and I’ll talk about that pretty soon.