Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Drama of Dice

Why board games over computer games? Why bother with board games at all? I think a lot of it is that they're an excuse to hang out, to enjoy face to face interaction. But its also the bits, some intangible quality of the physical components.

I've been reading this book about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, with these impassioned descriptions of how certain fuzziness was achieved using analog techniques, how acoustic guitars trump electric, how lo-fi can be better than polished. I think a lot of the appeal of board games lies in the same subtle corners of "realness".

In particular, dice. There was this geeklist a while back where someone was saying what was wrong with American-style board games. Dice was one of the problems, too many dice. But it made me realize how much I *like* dice. Here was one of my responses, about the appeal of an important die roll.

They bounce and rattle and tease you with the face you need, spinning on end, your mind grasping for the first moment when the result is rendered, eyes darting across the seven settling cubes; a five! did I see a one and a two out of the corner of my eye? I swear that was about to fall a six! Everyone's eyes fly about, trying to be the first to declare the result. And someone yelps, and a ripple runs through the players, a mere half-second in length as everyone sees the result - success!

That dulcet anticipation of the result is terribly underappreciated, and terribly lacking in other mechanisms.

Its just not the same as flipping a tile, looking up a result on a chart, or your opponent revealing a card. The die has been cast, nothing can be done now, but to watch and hope, and try to figure out the result as soon as possible. Its like a basketball shot flying through the air, as you try to determine whether you think its going to go in, as all has been done, and soon physics will tell you the outcome.

Here's another example, from a Battlestations session report I did (that, by the way, was featured on their official site, for some reason). Note that all rolls are two dice in this game, needing a total of 8, in this case:

At this point, despite having the “lucky” perk, Leonov was completely out of luck. The ship was size 4, the speed was 6. Leonov had one point of piloting skill, and he had prepared. He *needed* a natural roll of 8 to turn the ship.

We made this clear, and got ready for the roll. We psyched ourselves up and leaned forward on the couches. Nate readied himself, and rolled the dice. The first die came up a 2. Immediately. We all agreed afterwards that there was a subtle but distinct backward motion in each of us, as we slouched backwards in defeat and disappointment. It was just instinctual, you see a 2, and its over. 2’s are really, really bad. But that damn second die just spun on its corner, I can still see it now. It spun and tumbled and came down a flippin’ 6. We totally lost it.

That actually happened that way. So strange, that the low number slapped down right away, while the other die spun for so long. The odds of all of that coming together for maximum drama are ridiculous.


So I like dice. As an actual game design post, what is the conclusion? Well, its made me realize the importance of the pieces you use. I've long considered the relative merits and abilities of cards, tiles, dice, discs, etc., but another dimension is the psychological impact of the actual physical objects that are at play.

And when it comes to dice, how do you use them to determine outcomes? This came about when I was designing this superhero game today, which is really more of a candidate theming of a mechanic I like, rather than a theme I'm married to. In any case, I wanted a simple die roll to determine the outcome of a crime-fighting activity. At first I considered a single die roll + modifier check. But then I considered, this is a simple roll that will often have a very big impact on things: it needs to carry as much drama as possible. From that perspective, rather than looking at the result of a single die, it would be more exciting to have that brief moment of uncertainty as you roll. Its that moment when the two samurai have run past eachother, and you wait to see which generates a jet of blood indicating he had already lost.

So maybe two dice, as in battlestations. Or maybe a number of dice equal to your skill, requiring a particular number of successes, as in Arkham Horror, Betrayal, etc. I think its telling that those two games, theme-rich as they are, both use that mechanic, and I certainly have gotten some good drama out watching those die rolls unfold.

Plus, double counting makes it tougher to pin down the actual odds at play, vs needing a given number on two dice.

My point is, I had often seen randomization mechanisms purely in terms of the outcomes they could produce, and in what proportions. But there are also implications to the user experience of actually handing those components, and using them to determine the results of their actions. What kind of physical drama does that create, in the real act of playing the game? Its a subtle issue, and not one that I've seen get much overt attention from the game design community.

No comments: