|Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay | Published 04 February 2010|
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..!
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is a roleplaying game that sets unlikely heroes on the road to perilous adventure, in the grim setting of Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy world. Players will venture into the dark corners of the Empire, guided by luck and Fate, and challenge the threats that others cannot or will not face.
Agree 100% with the comments you have made (and yes, same id on rpg.net *wave).
I meant to write that the prevalence of the specific, card-defined actions led to questions whether there was a general mechanic. That is an accurate summary of some discussions I have read on fora here and elsewhere. (I'm pretty sure I've seen you contribute to these discussions on rpg.net if you post there under the same handle.) That there is a right answer out there doesn't diminish the prevalence of the questions.
I agree that this topic is mentioned in the rules, but the tension with the specific actions is not resolved and a lot of people seem to be confused. (The organization of the rulebook doesn't help.) There's also uncertainty about use of specific actions outside encounters.
This is a truly interesting and novel feature of the design I would like to see discussed. A designer diary on this topicwhat actions are, when they are used, and when generic resolution is appropriatewould also help with actual play.
vad - yes you can roll against your skills in a social encounter - you don't need a specific card - and there is a generic one to support you if you need it. Makes me wonder if you have played the game at any length or read the extensive discussion in the rules for GMs on how to handle these sorts of situations.
And K - I didn't 'miss the point' - I made my own which was a little at variance with yours.
FFG seem to be continuing with their policies from the past when we often only found much out about games when they hit the shelves - Android being one case in point. Whether this marketing will be effective with WFRP 3e is a different matter - they may well be happy with sales to date in which case we will have to suffer from more spoon-feeding of small morsels of info. I think we are almost on the same page - I would like to see more info sooner as well.
Stating 'this information should be made available through ...' is presuming that your preference is the way things should be. Now - stating 'I'm not keen on the way they do it because in my opinion ...', well, I think too many of us on the internet make claims for what is / should be when what we are really saying is this is the way we would like it to be.
Kaihlik is right. Here's why. The design choices FFG has made mean WFRP3 is going to require quite a lot of support. If it doesn't sell, FFG will have to stop supporting it, leaving us with part of a game. Creating cards and dice for this game will be a pain, so people who want to roleplay in the Warhammer setting will end up playing different systems. Right now it's hard to even guess what advanced careers will look like.
So, FFG, please show us that you really are going to support the game. Don't keep up the pretense of mystery. Referring to the cards in this article as "spoilers" betokens utter wrongheadedness. A "spoiler" is information that ruins surprises. A "spoiler" is that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. Gamers don't want to be surprised like that. Quite the opposite; we need to know that's coming or we'll lose interest. Knowing you've designed a magic system for monsters makes me believe you have a plan. That you are hiding it makes me wonder if you know how to carry it out.
And please don't pretend you have some great new information about the universe. This is Warhammer. It's been around. Enemy Within, you know? I can read a lot about the Warhammer universe.
I hope that this design diary on dice was not hard to write. That's because the dice system is not hard to sell. It's 2010. We've been using dice to generate things other than raw numerical results for like 20 years (World of Darkness, Shadowrun). You didn't invent this, although we're aware of what you did with Descent. So, good job, I like it, but you don't have to convince me. If I thought the system were stupid I wouldn't be reading your design diary.
You also don't need to explain why you put information on cards. Hex-and-counter wargames have been doing this for years. D&D has this. Please don't run that designer diary, if it's coming up.
If there's a design choice you need to justify, it's why you decided to make characters act through a host of different actions with their own rules rather than devise a single mechanic for failure or success, which is the way rpgs have worked beginning with Traveller. (You could have layered the boon/bane mechanic on this by providing generic results, but you didn't.) This decision is almost anachronistic (it's like AD&D), requires lots of support (more cards for you to print so characters do cool things), and leads to lots of questions: can I just roll against my skills in a social encounter or do I need an action card?
I like the dice system. I think there's probably a good argument for the particularization (which you should make). I think there's a lot of potential. But show us what the potential is.
TonyACT - You miss the point, this information should be made available through interaction with the fans, by pushing interviews on fansites or by setting up a question thread on the forums not by posting the designer diary. By posting this here, like this they appear timid and not sure of themselves, I know its probably not the case but how things are percieved are important.
By posting their future intentions and providing a look at upcoming mechanics they would show confidence in their own lineup and ideas by opening themselves up for critism early. Holding back so much information makes it seem like they are trying to hide things away in case they get a bad reaction. I know this wont be the case but you have to think about impressions and how people percieve you. I think at this stage being as transparent as possible is the best thing for the product due to the number of people who aren't sure about the game. There is no need to preach to the converted, a better strategy for people who already have the game is to attempt a dialogue with them and make them feel involved in the product.
This game really should have been held back until the toolkit and the extra dice were available to buy, the extra time until release should have been spent on more designer diaries like this. The whole marketing angle of the game has been pretty disasterous IMO and I think they seriously need to reconsider how they are approaching marketing the game because its not getting any better.
"and it’s embarrassing how much difficulty I have determining degrees of success in Rogue Trader."
wow. didn't realize adding 10 or subtracting 10 was such a chore.
Nice explanations and hopefully these new things will come before my players reach rank 3, so we can continue playing. But I would much rather have some honest information on the future in terms of mechanics, because as it is now it seems everything past rank starts to get seriously unbalanced.
Kaihlik et al - many of us ARE excited about the game. While I would also like to have greater visibility of upcoming products - and think the campaign set should have been available shortly after launch - I am still OK with designer info on key topics such as this - especially given some heated forum debate over success rates.
I completely agree with Kaihlik on this.
This article is great in detail and reasoning, but it should have been one of their first DD entries when 3E was announced. And now? The people who are already playing the game know all this stuff now, so the article is pretty useless to them. The people who don't know it aren't playing for a number of reasons, but I doubt it's because they're unaware of the nifty aspects of the dice pool system.
I can't help but feel the people responsible for the marketing of this game don't know what they're doing. All their "clever" attempts at stirring up interest by being coy and dropping hints and promoting fake products makes it feel like they don't want to be honest about their product. I have still not heard an official statement regarding why they decided to 2E and develop 3E. Now don't get me wrong, maybe they had a great reason! I'd just like to hear it.
Anyway, I think Kaihlik's right. Give us some full disclosure without all the obfuscation.
Looks interesting, I guess the action cards would be used by “Nemesis” advisories that look like they are going to be as fully fleshed out mechanically wise as characters.
Orks the main threat in Gathering Storm?
Kaihlik: Well said... very well said... I am still an unconverted skeptic... at $140 CAD, it is very hard to justify bothering to buy this... especially without being able to support 6-8 PLAYERS from the base set (my gaming group)... seeing all that 2nd had, 3rd needs to come a HELLUVA long way and FAST to get any of my Shillings...
I am still skeptical that it will be able to fly at all from where it is... while from a consumer marketing perspective their gaming model is genius (cards needed to play the game= easy to put out more cards in the expansion... hard to copyu as PDF etc), I doubt it will fly with the RPG'ers out here... without a pissload of immediate support... and inexpensive too BTW... c'mon... damn near $40 CAD for the character pack???? WTF... that only adds 1 player to the frakkin game... the price to something reasonable so us fence sitting skeptics may consider picking this up and deciding it does not suck balls after all...
This is a message to the FFG guys. Stop trying to "justify" the system to the players, you have made your choice and seem happy with it. Whats more important than the reasons behind the choices is where the system is going to be taken in future.
The game is only half there, we have the basic rules but half of the options are missing, the setting needs a good treatment and the players need to see that they have invested wisely by buying the WFRP 3 coreset. Start laying out your plans for the future, get people excited about what is to come instead of going over what we already have.
This is what in my mind WFRP 3 has done the worst, get people excited about it. I have said it before but the game should have been announced way before it was and WFRP 2 should have been announced as dead when the Careers Compendium came out. That would have prevented people becoming hopeful for something that was never happening and would have allowed you to introduce the mechanics over time and get people interested in them. Its ironic because in my mind thats what the 40k roleplaying is doing the best, getting people excited about each new release and letting them know exactly what to expect from each release.
This isn't time for cryptic clues and looking at one release at a time, state your grand plan, tell us how you are going to make the Warhammer world come alive. Let us know what mechanics are going to feature in the future so that people can get excited about them, so they can make their own versions and get the fan community mobilised instead of sitting in thier hands afraid to do things that may be contradicted in future.
This [the news item] sort of thing should be covered in interviews on the fan sites which you should be going round constantly. Open up a forum post allowing people to ask questions, take the best ones and answer them. Posting this hear makes you look unsure of yourselves, like you feel the need to justify your design choices, the justification for those should be in how the game comes together.
Hopeing WFRP 3 turns out a success.