Game Design Wickedly by John Wick – episode 2

Heroes Don’t Need Dice


Last time we talked, you and I went over the goals Jessica and I have for our urban fantasy RPG. We also talked about how those goals serve as a compass when we got lost in the morass of game design. Well, one of those goals is about to take physical shape. That’s the goal of making the characters we play in the game heroes.

When talking to Jessica about what kind of game she wanted to make, there was one thing we agreed on: we wanted the game to be about heroes. Yes, they could be flawed heroes–in fact, we wanted flawed heroes; no Mary Sues allowed, thank you–but we wanted the players to be people who were trying to make the world a better place. They may disagree on how to do that, but in their hearts, everyone knows that everyone else has the same goal. That couldn’t just be a philosophy, it had to be a mechanic. Something the players could interact with.


We’re going to accomplish this goal with three important mechanics: Risks & Challenges, the Hero Pool and Plot Points. I’ll tackle each in turn.


In most roleplaying games, you’ll hear something along the lines of: “If your character takes an action that isn’t risky or dangerous, he doesn’t have to roll dice.”

In other words, if you are tying your shoes, there’s no need to roll dice. There’s nothing at risk, therefore, you don’t need to roll dice.

Well, Jessica and I wanted to take this a step further. We wanted our players to feel like heroes, and with that in mind, we decided to put a mechanic in place that would do just that.

When your character takes a risk–an action that is dangerous–and she has dice, she doesn’t have to roll. You’re a hero. You don’t need to roll dice.

Need to defuse a bomb before it goes off? You do it.

Need to skydive from one building to another? You do it.

Need to pick a lock before the vampire gets his hands on you? You do it.

Now, some risks might take time, and others might be more difficult than others, but the system is always the same: if you have dice, you don’t have to roll.

Degrees of Success

Of course, if one player attempts a risk and has only two dice and another player attempts the same risk and has five dice, one of these characters is more competent than the other at the same task. Jessica and I talked about that and agreed that the number of dice a character has should influence his degree of success. Therefore, the more dice you have, the better the result.

And after playing so much Houses of the Blooded (and other games that give players narrative control), Jessica and I wanted to include a (limited) element of that kind of system in the game. Therefore, we agreed that for every five dice a player has, he can modify the result narrated by the GM. Every five dice allows the player to add one element or description to the success.

In other words, let’s say your character is jumping skydiving from one rooftop to the other. After you have counted up your dice, you see you have a pool of six dice. You inform the GM and he says, “Your character successfully dives from one roof to the other.”

Because you have six dice, you can add one element to that success. So, you say, “And when I land, I don’t alert the guard by the rooftop entrance.”

Every five dice you have allows you to add one element to the GM’s narration.


Some risks have “difficulty.” That is, some risks are more difficult than others. So, when the player says, “I want to skydive from one building to the other,” the GM says, “That has a difficulty of -2.” That means, the player deducts two dice from his pool.

After the GM assigns the difficulty, if the player still has dice left, his character succeeds in his risk without complications. However, if the difficulty removes all the player’s dice, the GM gets to add a “complication” to the success. That complication could be as simple as, “You fail,” or it could be more… complicated. Either way, if you run out of dice because of difficulty, something bad is going to happen.

However, the player still counts his dice–before difficulty–to determine if he can modify the result. So, if you have five or more dice, you can modify that failure in some way.

So, using the skydiving example above, let us say that the GM announces the difficulty for such a risky action is -6. You take a look at your dice pool and see you have exactly six dice. That means the total dice you have is zero. That means the GM can add complications to your risk. He says, “You fly across the sky, but can sense you might not make it to the other side. You try to gain altitude, but you slam into the side of the building, your fingertips clinging to the edge. On the other side, the guard looks in your direction…”

However, because you had six dice before the difficulty was assigned, you can modify (or “mod”) the result. You can’t use your mod to cancel out something the GM said, but you can say, “… and,” “… or,” and “…but.” So, you decide to say, “That’s when someone calls the guard’s name from the other side of the door.” That buys you enough time to pull yourself up and find some place to hide.


Now, risks are when a character tests his own skill. Defusing a bomb, picking a lock, jumping across rooftops: these are risks. A challenge is when your character tests his skills against another character.

For a challenge, both players count up their dice and roll. Whichever player rolls higher gets his intention (narrated by the GM). Of course, the number of dice they have determines how many mods they can use once the outcome has been determined.

For example, if two characters want to seduce the barmaid, their players both count up their dice and roll. The player who rolls highest gets his intention and the GM describes how the barmaid is now looking their way. But each player can now use their mods (starting with the winning player) to modify the outcome of that challenge.

One of the more common kinds of challenges will be violence… but we’ll talk about that another time.

* * *

And that, in a nutshell, is how the basic system works. I’ll cover the Hero Pool and Plot Points next episode. Until then, keep the comments coming and I’ll see you in seven days.

John Wick



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