Funny Dice

Wednesday, May 19, 2004


Despite my disdain for overly-specific rules, they still exert a strange power. I spent a good half-hour after my last post working out a table for precisely how many worshippers a deity would need to achieve each rank of power, with a smoothly-scaling rate of increase from 250 to 5 million over 20 ranks. It was immensely satisfying. (True gaming geeks who desire a copy of this table may request it via comment.)

But we'll never get anywhere that way. What's needed is a way to describe deities that is entirely separate from the regular system for mortals -- a way that focuses on how players actually interact with them. Robin's reference to Greek mythology made me think: what are the truly salient facts about a deity? Never mind its combat statistics; the outcome of a fight involving one or more gods should be determined by what's dramatically appropriate, not by who has more pluses. Here's the Funny Dice-approved Alternate Deity Reckoning System:

First, decide what the god cares about, i.e. what it is the god of. Let's use Poseidon as an example. Poseidon is the god of the sea, and also the god of earthquakes and horses. List these in order of their significance.

Second, decide the god's attitude toward mortals. Choose a few adjectives and the groups to which they apply, or a general description (or both). Poseidon is Lustful towards Beautiful Women, Angry towards the people of Athens, and generally Prone to Violent Mood Swings.

Third, decide how often the god interacts with mortals. Does the god act in the mortal world every day, week, month, year, decade, or century? Or practically never? What is the god's typical interaction? Does it dispense wisdom or strength in battle, or does it skip right to the fire and brimstone?

Fourth, decide the god's relationship with the other gods and whether it is superior, inferior, or equal. You don't need to chart this connection to every god in the pantheon; in Greek mythology, Poseidon and Hera don't interact much, so don't worry about whether they're equal or not.

So far, we have:

God of:
  1. The Sea
  2. Earthquakes
  3. Horses
Lustful towards Beautiful Women
Angry towards Odysseus
Enemy of the Trojans
Prone to Violent Mood Swings

Interacts Daily by:
  • Causing and Calming Storms
  • Pursuing Women
  • Aiding Soldiers (sometimes)
Brother of Zeus (inferior)
Brother of Hades (equal)
Rival of Athena (equal)
Lover of Demeter (superior)
Father of Polyphemus the Cyclops (superior)

Mystery of the Divine

One of the nice things about Dungeons and Dragons / d20 is that all the basic rules are available online for free in the System Reference Document (aka SRD). The only difference between these rules and the rules you can buy in slick hardcovers that cost $30 a piece is that 1) there's no art, 2) there's no fancy descriptive text, 3) certain proper names, gods, and monsters have been removed. It's a very handy way to keep up on the rules without laying out loads of cash.

About a week ago, a new section on divine entities (57K zipped RTF) was added to the SRD. "Divine" is one of those words (like "strength", "level" or "spell") that has a precisely defined meaning in D&D, which is perhaps necessary for game play. Still, the wonder and awe of the Holy get lost somewhere when you use the same statistics (or even the same categories) to describe gods and people. Consider these two statements about God or gods:

Your right hand, O LORD, was majestic in power.
Your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy.
In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble. (...)
Who among the gods is like you, O LORD?
Who is like you -- majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory, working wonders?
-- Exodus 15:6-7, 11

Divine Characteristics:
Most deities are creatures of the outsider type (usually with 20 outsider Hit Dice). All deities that are outsiders have all alignment subtypes that correspond with their alignment. Unlike other outsiders, they have no darkvision unless noted in the deity description. Deities’ physical characteristics vary from deity to deity. A deity’s outsider type, along with its class or classes, determines its weapon proficiencies, feats, and skills. Deities have some or all of the following additional qualities, depending on their divine rank.
-- "Divine Ranks and Powers", SRD

Reducing deities to game terms (which bear a striking resemble to legal language) is a sure way to suck all the life and mystery out of an encounter with the divine. For a certain style of play, this degree of specificity can be useful -- but I vastly prefer the approach that says, "The gods work in mysterious ways. Mortals cannot fathom their powers and practices."

More on this later.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Fantastic economies

Clive Thompson has an article up this week titled Game Theories that explores the creation of economies within online MMORPGs such as Everquest and The Sims. I'd heard of this before, but the writing here is top-notch and the implications of owning virtual property worth real dollars are nicely thought out:

This debate may appear rather abstract right now. But, sooner or later, one of these game companies will start losing money and decide it can't afford to keep its virtual world. (Many observers expect at least one major world to go bankrupt this year.) If a game shut down, it would instantly destroy hundreds of thousands — perhaps even millions — of dollars. The homeless woman with the virtual mansion, for instance, could probably sell her goods for several hundred dollars; she would lose her single most valuable possession.

Fluff and Crunch, part 2

Another way to think about fluff and crunch is as story and rules. Sometimes the rules can overwhelm the story and the goal becomes "winning" rather than having a good time. It can get so bad that players feel the need for a strategy guide:

You're looking at the first strategy guide for the revised edition of the world's most popular role playing game. Let's be real -- the game's about combat, not charisma! This strategy guide gives you the strategies and techniques you need to win. It's like a football coach's playbook, or a video game champion's cheat codes. Feat combos, sneaky skill uses, multiclassing secrets, and abusing the rules: that's what it's all about.

Other times it's the other way around: the design becomes so atmospheric and subtle that the game cannot be played, only experienced. Role-playing as dream. Case in point: Lacuna.

Nine pieces of information. No names, no dates. Each one labelled with a coded phrase. These are the LACUNA DOCUMENTS, listed in order of release from our archives.

Good Complications

Monte Cook has a good column up today about the considerations of simple vs. complex game design, drawing from his own experience as a designer of Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition. For the uninitiated, saving throws are a core mechanic of the game -- it's how characters resist or avoid harmful magic, dragon breath, poison, and other Bad Things.

The opposite of "simplistic" is not always "complicated." "Simple" is a word probably overused in game design circles. It's almost always a goal and, while not a bad goal by any means, simplistic game mechanics sometimes can lead to a shallow play experience. ... The opposite of simplistic can, in fact, be robust. "Robust," in this context, is a word we used to describe a rule system that offered DMs and players plenty of opportunities for differentiation and varied play experiences.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Random thought for the day

I received this in a spam today, a quote from George Leonard. Oddly appropriate:

In terms of the game theory, we might say the universe is so constituted as to maximize play. The best games are not those in which all goes smoothly and steadily toward a certain conclusion, but those in which the outcome is always in doubt. Similarly, the geometry of life is designed to keep us at the point of maximum tension between certainty and uncertainty, order and chaos. Every important call is a close one. We survive and evolve by the skin of our teeth. We really wouldn't want it any other way.

Fluff and Crunch, part 1

Most games can be described at two levels, known as "fluff" and "crunch" in the d20 community. Crunch is the mathematical underpinning; in Risk, the dice mechanic of attacking and defending armies would be crunch, as would the map of paths between territories and the relative value of different sets of territories. Fluff is the story that's laid on top of the rules. In Risk, the idea that you're taking over Europe or Australia or sending massive armies into Mexico, instead of moving abstract units across anonymous nodes, is the fluff. Crunch makes games playable, fluff makes them fun.

Notably, one can match different kinds of fluff to the same crunch. The Risk rules could work just as well for a game about colonies of ants taking over islands in a river, or intelligent software taking over servers on the Internet. To make a computer analogy, it's like the difference between software and hardware: a rules set can support many different scenarios, just as a PC can support different programs.

Monday, May 10, 2004


Welcome to Funny Dice! My intention is to make this blog a place for thoughts about games, game design, and random game ideas, some specific, some not so specific. I might as well start by listing some of my gaming interests:

Enough for a first post. Watch for more gaming goodness in days to come!