Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Opaque Mechanics

There are plenty of times when transparent mechanics are good for roleplaying games. For example, I generally like to give the dice chances for any escapade not encompassed by the rules. I also usually prefer single die throws over bunches of dice for a lot of resolutions mechanics because there are plenty of players who find it difficult and/or tiresome to estimate their chances of rolling a 14 or lower on 4d8 or whatever. Mechanical transparency is one of the key virtues of many universal resolution systems. (But not all such systems. James Bond 007 from Victory Games has a pretty robust universal mechanic but it baffled my high school rpg group.)

But I think that opaque mechanics have their uses as well. The other day I was re-reading White Box, a perfectly serviceable little retroclone that I briefly reviewed here. One of the mechanics I can’t make my mind up about is the default single saving throw mechanic. On the one hand, I generally believe that simpler is better where basic resolution mechanics are concerned. On the other hand, saving throws are one of those places where a little mechanical opacity adds to the frisson of the game.

There have been plenty of times when a situation calls for a saving throw and I say something super explicit like “44 points of fire damage, save versus breath weapon for half.” But other times, when I want to ratchet up the tension for an extra beat or when I am just feeling ornery, I say “I need you to make a saving throw.”  The inevitable response is “versus what?!?”, often as the player scans their charsheet to see what category they save best against. A single save system tidily eliminates that extra moment of terror in the face of the unknown; the momentary opacity of the mechanic serves my agenda of making the players fear for the lives of their precious PCs.

I think this issue is why, after all these years, I still prefer Dave Hargrave’s Arduin critical charts over later, arguably better crit charts. Dream Weaver Dave’s disordered charts flummox players who ask “Is high or low good?” before rolling on it. Additionally, the results are sometimes nonsensical, like the preposterously high chance of slicing off someone’s butt cheek. I don’t want a more organized, more realistic crit chart, as this semi-broken old junk from the dawn of the hobby does a superior job scaring the bejesus out of the players.

PS: You really want to scare some players via mechanical opacity? Put hit points in a black box. Track HP and damage secretly and only vaguely describe how wounded the PC feels.


  1. Beylasoul8:32 AM

    That insistence on “do I want to roll low or high” has frustrated me no end when my players would treat price is right style systems as completely incomprehensible. I felt like it had to be intentional since so many other systems were easy for them to grasp

  2. People get weird when dice become involved. Some players seem to think that if they know a die roll must be high that they can will the die to produce higher results. Other seem to just feel a better sense of control over the situation if they know what they are supposed to be rolling. A third group have dice that (they believe) roll high or low and switch depending on need. That last group are a shade too close to being cheaters for my liking, if I believed them. Which I don't.

  3. Anonymous3:28 PM

    (this is Calithena) one of the best games I ever ran was actually a blind stats game. people knew their equipment, history, got a rough description of what they were like (stats/hp), spells if they had them, but everything was interacted with descriptively. Most of the players were D&D players and knew we were playing some kind of D&D, so they knew generally what the d20 rolls meant and so on, but we handled everything via fantastic description and I just told them what they needed to roll (based, generally, on the usual mechanics).

    My goal as DM at the time was to get them to just engage with the fantasy. Their job was to imagine, interact, and strategize "in character" as it were. I can argue about the pros and cons of this approach; for now I merely report that it was one of the more fun campaigns I've run.

  4. My rule is that players know the mechanic in any situation where their characters would have a reasonable change of estimating risk, and making decisions based on it.

    For situations where there is no choice to be made, if knowing doesn't impact the decisions to be made *after* the roll, I will tell them. It placates the superstitious and the ones who just want the feeling of control.

    If it would affect gameplay if they knew, such as knowing that a trap didn't trigger, or that they didn't find a secret door, for instance, I keep it hidden.

    I have had DMs who would ask for a number of die rolls at the beginning of the session, to apply to secret rolls as they came up. It placated the people who really want the control of rolling for their destiny.

  5. I run White Box. I have a card with my PC'S stats and saves. Sometimes I just tell them to roll a d20, don't tell them what mods I'm using, but make show of making some sort of calculation, then I either use their save or a stat check. Keeps them guessing. For crits and fumbles I have 2 very old d6's, one has body parts, head, right and left arms and legs and torso, the other has fumbles. Fall, weapon breaks or is dropped,or gets stuck, trip or a cloud around the head which I interpret as confusion or indecision. I just roll them both and then wing it based on the situation.

  6. Our friend Shade Structure continues to suffer from dice anxiety to this day... Dice Rolling

  7. You can just say it say it "Dream Weaver Dave's disordered charts flummox Zak specifically"

    1. You are but the latest, my friend.