Design Diaries: What’s in an Engine?

There has been a project kicking around my head for some time now, something that I’ve come back to time and again with new thoughts and new angles. The key focus around this engine has always been about including Tension as a tangible mechanic in the resolution of scenes and actions, but I was never sure how best to approach that, and nothing has ever seemed to stick. But over the past few weeks of brainstorming, I think I’ve finally hit on something that feels like it might be the angle I was looking for. I’ve since then finally been able to sit down and hash out a couple of details, and have the outline of a game engine that I think may have some legs after testing and development. However, in the spirit that is alpha development, I thought I would throw my musings and brain scribbles up here for you to read and respond to.

The base dice mechanic is relatively simple, and is a highly distilled version of the One Roll Engine mechanic, in which the players will throw two different d10s. One of these is the Power Die and the other is the Finesse Die. Each of them will have different uses in different aspects of game play, but at the core of it, the Power Die represents how well a character performs a task and the Finesse Die represents how quickly a character performs a task. When an action is taken where a dice roll becomes necessary, the player grabs his two dice and looks to beat a total of 10 on those two dice. If he is successful, the action succeeds. If he doesn’t beat a 10, the action fails.

Certain actions are more difficult to perform than others. A lock on a door may be particularly well made, or a wall constructed to be more difficult to climb. These types of actions will be represented by having minimum success thresholds assigned to them. These will either be a Power Threshold or a Finesse Threshold, based on the nature of the task and the action. Picking the lock of a very sturdy door would be an action that carried a Finesse Threshold. Breaking it down would carry a Power Threshold. Thresholds are rated between a 2 and a 10, and in order for an action carrying one to be completely successful, the relevant die needs to equal or beat the Threshold in question. If the Threshold isn’t met, but the action would still have been successful otherwise, the character can choose one of two outcomes. He can choose to have the action simply fail. Or he can choose to have the action succeed, but at a cost.

Let’s look at an example – Jarrek the thief has just stolen a valuable gem from the treasury of a local noble, but managed to raise the alarm. Now he is trying to make good his escape from the manor while being pursued by several of the noble’s house guards. He comes to a locked door at the end of a hallway. He has a small lead on the guards and decides to try to quickly pick the lock in order to hide in the room and throw the guards off his tail. The GM decides that this action is going to carry a Finesse Threshold of 3 since the lock is fairly well made and Jarrek is trying to accomplish the task quickly and under pressure. He rolls his dice and gets a 9 on the Power Die and a 2 on the Finesse Die for a total of 11. Normally that would be a total success, but since his Finesse Die did not meet or beat the Finesse Threshold, he can decide to either have the action fail or succeed at a cost. He decides that he’d rather not let the guards catch up to him, so he chooses to succeed at a cost. The GM thinks for a moment and then describes Jarrek deftly picking the lock, opening the door a crack and slipping through while the guards run past. However, in his haste, he didn’t realize that he was standing at the door to the bedroom of the nobles daughter, who happens to wake up as he steps in the room and sees him…

At the core, I want this to be a very simple system, keeping the actual resolution on the narrative side instead of the narrative side, but I also want to include a sense of… economy for lack of a better word to the game, and as such have devised a series of pools, between which points will flow back and forth in a zero-sum fashion. When points are spent from one pool, they go to another pool. Right now there is the Player Pool, the GM Pool, and the Tension Pool.

The Player Pool is the communal pool of points that the players all share amongst themselves. They can choose to spend points from the pool to do a number of things. The first thing is that they can spend points in order to lower the base difficulty of an action at a one to one rate of exchange. If a player decides to spend two points from the Player Pool on a action to lower the difficulty, he would only need to roll an 8 or higher to achieve success. Alternatively, the player can spend 2 points to lower the Success Threshold of an action by 1. Points that are spent from the Player’s Pool go directly to the GM Pool after the action is resolved. The GM on the other hand, can spend points at the same rate to either increase the base difficulty of an action or to increase the Success Threshold of an action by 1. Points that are spent from the GM Pool go directly back to the players pool. Points can be spent on the same action, and the player and GM can cancel the effects of each other’s actions by spending points, but points do not officially move until the action is resolved.

But what about the Tension Pool? This represents the risk/reward element of the game in such a way that the basic dice system doesn’t. Some actions require the player to “wager” a number of points on it. He moves these points to the Tension Pool and then attempts the action. If he succeeds, he gets his desire. If he fails, the action fails and the points are spent without effect. Certain character abilities will also utilize the “wager” system as an activation mechanic. The GM is then able to spend these points from the Tension Pool in order to increase the danger present in the scene, whether by introducing new threats or by activating abilities in present threats making them more dangerous. He might spend Tension Points to have a monster use a high powered attack. Or he might turn a small fire into a conflagration that begins to envelop the room. Points that are spent from the Tension Pool go back to the Player Pool when the action is resolved.

Tension at work.

But Tension itself is a dangerous thing. The bigger the Tension Pool, the more potential there is for things to go wrong. The following values have not been determined, but for every “X” points in the Tension Pool, the base difficulty of all actions increases by 1. For every “Y” points, the Success Thresholds of actions increase by 1, and actions that didn’t previously have a Success Threshold have one at 2. These uses only affect the players at present, and so they have another action with which they can try to mitigate the effect of Tension on the scene. They can attempt an action directly against the Tension Pool, increasing the base difficulty of the task by the number of points they want to remove. They cannot spend points from the Player Pool to lower the difficulty, but the GM can spend points from the GM pool to increase the difficulty. If the player’s action is successful, that number of points is removed from the Tension Pool and split evenly between the Player and GM Pool, with any remainder going to the Players.

This idea is still very much in it’s infancy, but like I stated above, I think it has some traction, and I’m excited to see what directions it takes me as it grows and evolves. Feel free to leave me comments on what you think works, what doesn’t work, and any other suggestions. I can’t promise I’ll use them all, but I will read and consider everything.

Until next time.


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Filed under Design Diaries, Roleplaying

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