Talking Tabletop RPGs

A Fistful of Dice Pools

I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs a long time. I remember when adventures of imagination and dice rolling were relegated to childish fancy, and those that played them were stigmatized by society and their peers. Before I rolled my first d20, they were saying Dungeons & Dragons was a fad, and that the rise of video games harkened the end of the hobby. But Tabletop RPGs didn’t go away. D&D is on its 5th Edition.

There’ve been a lot of games released in the last 30 years; some great, some terrible, and some that have fallen into obscurity. Each month, I’ll pick three. So whether you’re just getting into gaming, or know what THACO stands for, let’s delve into the realms of Tabletop RPG’s and take a look at what’s out there. This month we’re talking dice pools.

So what’s a dice pool? Dice pools are where you roll a number of similar sided die to accomplish one action. Yes, it is a system for people who don’t want to let their fates rest with the roll of one die, but several. While successes vary based on the game, dice pools are not a matter of triumphs or failures, but by how much you triumph or fail miserably. The big thing about dice pool systems is they are skill based, not class based, and in my opinion they add a bit more depth to character creation than d20 systems. You roll a target number of dice, usually a stat and a skill, and aim to achieve a number of successes based off your role. Bizarre combinations of stats and skills will arise, and there will be math.  

Shadowrun

Where Hanna played a corporate troll and remembered to never trust a word her teammates told her. Especially the mage. He had issues.

Shadowrun has been around for a long time. First edition came out in 1989, which is when I received a copy of it in my grubby mitts. That poor book didn’t stand a chance against my nine year old enthusiasm. Held together by duct tape and hope, it fell to pieces shortly after Second Edition came out, where it was unceremoniously disregarded for the bigger, more colorful book. In gaming, Shadowrun was my first love, and with taking a look at the world and the expansive amount of lore, it’s easy to see why.

Set in the not too distant future, Shadowrun merges a bleak, corporation controlled future with wild fantasy creatures and magic. Think of it as if Tolkien got together with William Gibson and wrote a high octane, 80’s action movie. Yes, it’s a world where dwarves in black trench coats weld shotguns, and cyberwared elves upload their consciousness into a virtual reality internet. You and your team fight corporations, governments, and dragons, or in one specific case, a dragon who owns a corporation and a government. As a setting, Shadowrun is fantastic, though the earlier books are definitely written through a late 80’s lens of what the future might be.

As a system Shadowrun uses d6’s. A lot of d6’s. We’re talking huge amounts of d’6s hitting the table like thunder and rolling your fate. For accomplishing actions, you roll your stat and corresponding skill, and then start adding or subtracting dice based on situational modifiers. Your goal is to roll a number of 5’s and 6’s based on the action’s level of difficulty. So yes, you might end up rolling 20 dice to see if you can plink that armed, orc gangster in the back of the head from a building across town, but you’re going to need 13 of those dice to hit.

For a GM, Shadowrun can be a little overwhelming. There’s a lot to keep track of, especially during combat, but there are alternate rules for more cinematic, or streamlined, combat. Character creation is a little time intensive. It goes deep, helping players flesh out their characters, for which they might need to make several. Oh yea, did I forget to mention Shadowrun can have a high mortality rate? My bad. This game is deadly. When things go bad, and trust me, something always goes bad, suddenly there’s not enough d6’s out there to save your ass. While potential character death is frustrating, it adds an entire dynamic to playing, with big rewards requiring big risks. So, “watch your back, shoot straight, conserve ammo, and never, ever, cut a deal with a dragon.”

World of Darkness

Where Hanna played a high school sophomore in service to the Norns, and learned that the players’ worst enemy is sometimes one of their own. They did get a nifty iPod out of it.

In the late 90’s, everyone I knew was playing a White Wolf game. Vampire: The Masquerade was huge, even garnering its own short lived, terrible tv show. Ask Brad about it. World of Darkness was the umbrella system for a unique group of standalone games set in the same universe. At its core, all the World of Darkness games were about walking the line between man and monster, and retaining your humanity while facing tragedy and insurmountable odds. This appealed to my alienated, misanthropic, teenage sensibilities, and being a misunderstood, blood sucking hellspawn was strangely cathartic.

Games set in the World of Darkness rely on a d10 mechanic, either called the Storyteller System, or the Storytelling System depending on the game and year of publication. Functionally they are similar, and revolve around rolling dice pools comprised of your stat and skill to meet a set criteria of hits. A set of ten d10’s gets you by in most situations, but you might want to have a few extra on standby. While there is some math, the game runs pretty quick unless you’re in combat. Fighting isn’t encumbering, but it is time intensive, which honestly is pretty standard in most games you’re going to come across.

Setting wise, there are an insane amount of lore books. The designers went deep with the world building, with sourcebooks brimming with history, traditions, and extra character options. As weird as it may sound, a series of games about vampires, werewolves, and mages, offered some of the most diverse character building options. Like Shadowrun, it was a twist on the real world, so your character wasn’t limited by race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. In a game about confronting the darkness while retaining your humanity, they created a world about what actually brings humanity together. This was the 90’s. Tabletop RPG’s didn’t necessarily do that.  

7th Sea: First Edition

Where Hanna played a battle maiden and a mystic warrior, and learned the most important rule of gaming; never, ever, trust the GM.

I love running games full of fast action, topsy turvey plots, dastardly villains, and insane heroics. As a GM, I can craft those kind of scenarios and adventures into any system, but for me, 7th Sea was a ready made environment to make those stories fly. Not only were heroics encouraged, but there was a reward mechanic in place that directly benefited the player for their swashbuckling. Gaining a drama die was such a monumental thing that it became part of my group’s real world lexicon. I still say it to people. Some of them look back at me funny.

The setting, while rich with history and mythology, suffers from a diversity problem. The world itself focuses mostly on a parallel to 17th Century Europe, and while there were a handful of sourcebooks devoted to other regions, they were rushed, underdeveloped, and in one instance, unplayable. These flaws can be rectified by the players and their GM with a little bit of world building, and have been addressed with the forthcoming second edition. Don’t get me wrong, it is a really cool setting. It just could have been better.

That all being said, character creation is pretty damn fantastic. There are a wealth of options to fine tune and develop your character, and a cool, tarot card inspired fate draw for additional benefits and hindrances. Actions in 7th Sea are determined by rolling dice pools of d10’s based off your stat and skill. Unlike other dice pool mechanics, instead of looking for a number of successes, you’re adding your results together to try and reach a target number. Yes, it’s more math. It’s not complicated math, but it is time consuming.

I run 7th Sea a lot, and am currently in the middle of GMing a campaign now. It’s my favorite system, and has been ever since I discovered it at a time when I was burnt out on tabletop RPG’s. It not only reignited my imagination, but opened up a world of possibilities to what gaming could be. Games are supposed to be fun. Playing in them, or running them, should never be regarded as a chore. For me, gaming is a means of group storytelling, and like with any good story, there needs to be the potential character growth. Systems with dice pools feel like you’re doing huge, monumental things, and when you fail, and you will fail, that failure is meaningful.

Have a dice pool system you love? Hit me up in the comments. Have a tabletop RPG you’re dying to discuss? Drop me a line. I’ll take a look at it, and chances are it could make an appearance in a future column.