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August 19th, 2011

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05:51 pm - Procedures of Play and Streamlining
On vacation in New York with my family recently, I played a bunch of boardgames along with a few RPGs. It has me thinking about game procedures and components of play. My son and two of my nephews were enthusiastic about the PS238 RPG.

In addition, I ran a humorous live-action game with the larger family. Our board and card games included Magic the Gathering, Apples to Apples, Scrabble, Risk, Pandemic, and the D&D boardgame Wrath of Ashardalon.

It has left me thinking some about procedures of play. What follows isn't a soft of stream of consciousness of how my mind considers aspects of play. This is something that I feel is important regardless of the underlying game design. In other words, no matter how you design your game, the mechanics should be handled smoothly and quickly.

Case 1: Pandemic

Pandemic is a fun cooperative boardgame where you move your pawns across the globe in an attempt to keep four diseases under control while you search for cure. Others have lauded its clear instruction book. I would generally agree, but there were some things that struck me.

The first was that the map could be difficult to read. In play, we several times would misread that cities near each other that were not connected. To clarify for my own curiousity, I made a simplified diagram of the cities. This doesn't map global position very well, but has the same rough layout while putting close cities together in a somewhat organized way.

The above still has the wrapping connections from the left to the right. I also made a map that doesn't have this wrapping, putting all connections on as lines. At this point, it doesn't look anything like a world map, but still has the right connections.

The second issue I had when playing it was how to count cards. From the setup, I knew that the Epidemic cards were spaced in blocks of (N) through the Player Deck. However, in play I really wanted some way to count cards so that I knew which block we were in. A few ideas sprang to mind:
  • At first, I put a counter beside the Outbreak track on the board to count up from 0 to 9 for how many cards we were into a set. However, in practice we would sometimes forget that would invalidate the account.
  • I thought a better way might be to put a ten-sided die on top of the Player Card deck. That way, every time you drew cards, you would be forced to remember to update the counter.
  • It's also possible to put in spacers (like post-its or index cards) between the blocks of the Player Card deck, but interestingly my sister considered that cheating even though it was not cheating to explicitly count the cards.

Pandemic is a fun game, and well-designed. I think some of the challenge may be in reading the map. Playing with kids, it has some value in teaching geography. Still, clarifying procedures is something to consider.

Case 2: The PS238 RPG

PS238 is a wonderful comic series by Aaron Williams about a public elementary school for "meta-prodigies" (i.e. budding superheroes and supervillains). The RPG is a mostly verbatim copy of the HERO System Sidekick rules (a condensed version of 5th edition) combined with background on the comic and character sheets for the major figures. I realized that when I wanted to play it with actual 10 to 12 year olds, though, that the core die roll mechanic had a problem. Here, for example, is the verbatim explanation of the Attack Roll:
To determine if an attack hits its target, you make an Attack Roll using 3d6. You calculate the Attack Roll this way:
Attack Roll = (11 + Attacker's OCV - Target's DCV) or less
Example: If the attacker has an OCV of 7 and the target has a DCV of 10, then the Attack Roll is 11 + 7 - 10 = 8 or less.
A result of 3 on an Attack Roll always succeeds; a result of 18 always fails.
To speed play, use the accompanying chart to determine the Attack Roll.

I felt that this was going to be a significant issue. My solution was to instead add 10 to all DCV values. You roll 3d6 and add you OCV, and that is the highest DCV that you hit. (Note that this is the same fix that 3rd edition D&D had for Armor Class.)

To be consistent, skills can be converted from notation like "(13-)" to "(+2)". Add the total, and if the result is the difficulty or better (default 10), you succeed.

Case 3: James Bond 007

I didn't play these on vacation, but that table got me thinking about the James Bond 007 RPG. This was an excellently-designed and ground-breaking RPG in the early eighties, that used percentile rolls that refer to a universal table. In particular, it used quality of success more than almost any game before and since. However, the process of percentile roll and table lookup can be slow. There are potential ways to simplify this in play.

James Bond 007's table is used to classify results into 4 levels of success (Quality Rating or QR).

From the table, QR1("Excellent") is the top 10% of rolls, QR2("Very Good") is the next 10%, QR3("Good") is the next 30%, QR4("Acceptable") is the top 50%. So if you have a 60% chance of success overall, then 01-06 is QR1, 07-12 is QR2, 13-30 is QR3, and 31-60 is QR4. The thing is, this can be exactly matched by rolling a third d10 with the percentile dice. Ideally it would be a die numbered with QR1, QR2, three QR3s, and five QR4s. Just rolling such a die alongside the percentile roll would give you exactly the same distribution with no table lookup.

Case 4: Marvel Superheroes

The TSR Marvel Superheroes game also uses a percentile roll and universal table to determine quality of success (rated as Green, Yellow, or Red). The method doesn't break down quite as easily as JB007, but it is still possible to get almost exactly the same probabilities without a table lookup. I outlined my breakdown of the success chart as part of my series of articles on dice mechanics, specifically at
Marvel Superheroes roll analysis page

The short of it is that the table can be simplified to a d20 roll, where if you beat the target number by 6 or more, you get a Yellow result you roll a d6 to check for critical ("Red").


I don't have a strong conclusion here, except that even in otherwise well-designed games, the mechanical process can often be streamlined. Streamlining designs is generally a good thing, though arguments could be made for the good of extra effort in some cases.

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:August 20th, 2011 02:12 am (UTC)
For the Hero System rules, my mental representation would be "If your OCV and their DCV are equal, you hit on an 11; for each point you're higher or lower, add or subtract 1." They stated it in a very algebraic way that I don't think adds transparency to what's really a very simple rule.
[User Picture]
Date:August 20th, 2011 04:21 am (UTC)
I'm sure that there are better ways to phrase it. However you phrase it, though, the default method involves a mix of addition and subtraction with five or six numbers. The usual way I would do it in my head is adding 11 + OCV , then add up 1d6+1d6+1d6, and then subtract the roll total from the OCV total to find the DCV that I hit. I then announce that "I hit DCV X".

The alternate that I give is adding four numbers (1d6+1d6+1d6+OCV) and a comparison, which I think is definitely simpler.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2011 03:31 am (UTC)
Ah, you're thinking in terms of a different player/GM division of labor than I assume. For me, it would be,

"Fred, what's your OCV?"
(I mentally compare that to the target's DCV of 7, and see instantly that the difference is 2.)
"Okay, 13 or less to hit."
(Fred rolls.)
"12! I hit him!"

Fred doesn't need to do anything but add up his dice, and for me, as GM, figuring the difference between OCV and DCV is so trivial that I don't even perceive a delay from looking at the DCV to seeing the answer. . . .
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2011 07:38 pm (UTC)
Fair enough. My nephews really wanted to do this for themselves, like they wanted to make characters for themselves rather than have me make it for them.

Still, at the least, it is just as easy to use the method I outline with your division of labor as well.
[User Picture]
Date:August 22nd, 2011 02:18 am (UTC)
To me, purely subjectively, it feels less obviously right and takes more thought. But if it's easier for you and your players I certainly wouldn't argue against it; it will produce correct results just as mine will.

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