I was chatting with +Peter V. Dell’Orto and +Tim Shorts last night online, walking them through the basis of my Heretical DnD project. 

We were talking about the consequences of taking wounds, or having had your Stress Points worn down. Just brainstorming in an idle fashion, tossing out ideas, and someone, I think Peter, mentioned that if things were in a really bad way, that you could pick up Stacked Disadvantage.

Hmm, we said. What would that be? Well, probably taking the lowest result of more than 2d20. But does that look interesting compared to regular Advantage/Disadvantage?

Turns out it does.

Really Disadvantaged!

The first question is whether stacked disadvantage has enough mechanical utility – does it actually drop the chances of being successful by enough to matter?

Turns out it does.

I’ve created two new categories of being disadvantaged, called “Stacked Disadvantage” and “Tim Shorts.” The first is lowest of 3d20, the second is 4d20.

You can see from the probability of exceeding a given difficulty number that the Stacked Disadvantage is significantly less favorable than picking the lowest of 2d20, and the Tim Shorts level approaches the actual probability of Tim rolling higher than a 1 on any important combat task.

So that’s one way to look at it. Another is to look at the equivalent probabilities of meeting or beating a target number – basically take all the modifiers that go on either side of the equation and make it 1d20>N. So if you normally roll 1d20+5 vs. AC 16, this becomes 1d20 greater than or equal to 11 (which should be, and is, a 50% probability).

That chart shows what simple mental calculation shows too: the odds of rolling a good roll with Stacked Disadvantage are really bad.

Risk Assessment

Finally, another simple way to get a feel for what’s going on here is a risk-based one. What number can you expect to roll under X percent of the time? That’s a way of asking how concentrated towards the bottom of the target number range the dice will be, and as you can see, it’s pretty ugly.

Again, as you expect, with a straight-up roll, half the time you’ll roll 10 or less, and 90% of the time you’ll roll 18 or less. That’s a boring flat distribution, but that’s 1d20 for you.

The rules-as-written disadvantaged mechanic concentrates it more tightly. you’ll be rolling 10 or less 75% of the time, and you have only about a 5% chance to roll 16 or better.

Stacked Disadvantage has 90% of your rolls being 11 or less. And 19 times out of 20 your best roll can only be a 12. Note that rolling 1d20+5 vs AC 16 only really requires an 11, but that means Stacked Disadvantage takes that chance to pretty low – about 12% in fact.

Equivalent Penalties

One last way to look at this is that given Disadvantage, Stacked Disadvantage, or Tim Shorts, what’s the equivalent penalty?

This method of looking at it has its limits. Your odds of rolling (say) a 20 are only 5% with 1d20, and saying that you are at -1 because your success chances go from 5% to 0.012% really, really understates how unlikely the die is to come up 20 on all three (or four, if you’re Tim) dice. But the depth and breadth of the valley of doom is illustrative of how deep in the trouble pool you are.

Parting Shot

Stacked disadvantage may well have its place in the pantheon of elegant but effective mechanics. And that, of course, means that stacked advantage has its place too.

As much fun as it is to bust on Tim for the frequency of his rolling a 1 at exactly the wrong time, in reality, going to the fourth d20 doesn’t really buy you much. Unless the player is attempting a ridiculously easy task – rolling with proficiency and/or expertise and an attribute bonus against a DC 10 or lower target (so net difficulties of 3-5), there’s so little probability of success that the GM might as well say “nope, can’t roll.” Also, the difference between lowest of 3d20 and 4d20 isn’t that much: never more than the equivalent of another -2 tossed on top of everything else. 

So I’d leave the “lowest of 4d20 “level behind, but Stacked Advantage and Disadvantage may well find their way into my stable of things to use when GMing 5e.

Oh: I don’t expect I’m the only one to think of this (and in fact, Peter was the one that did), but it seemed cool enough to write up anyway.

Follow-up and Commentary

Well, this looks like it’s going to be a popular post, or perhaps notorious. I’m getting a lot of feedback, especially on Reddit, but it’s good stuff.

1. Stacked disadvantage is meaningless; Disadvantage is bad enough
Disadvantage pulls in the median by 4 (as you note); stacked yanks it down two more, from 6 to 4. That’s not that big of a deal.
However, what Stacked does do is pull in the tail further. The 90% for Disadvantage relative to a straight roll drops from 18 down to 14, and then Stacked drops it further down to between 10 and 11, which is about the same oomph as Disadvantage.
Beyond Stacking once, I agree: no profit in it.
2. Why not do advantage too?
A good question, and while I address it in my closing, a G+ commenter made a great point:

Also is the stacked dis/adv something that the DM holds onto until times where it is called for(kind of like handing out inspiration) or is it something that is always in play? If it is always in play I think it can really break the game once you start building characters to take advantage of the rule. Right of the top of my head I could build a straight up human variant barbarian who would have stacked advantage on almost, every attack. I think this is the reason WotC decided to not make dis/adv stackable right out of the gates.

Yes, quite – I’d not considered that one fully. That point about a double-stack adv/disadv by character design is a good one. My mental image was that this sort of thing would be only applied based on conditions. So that (for example) if you were, um, grappled AND on ice, yeah, that’s doubly sucky. 

But the probabilities invert for advantage, and you’d be rolling 10+ 95% of the time, and a 20 about 19% of the time. The good news is that that sort of skew is still inherently capped at 20, which is the awesome part of the mechanic – no automatically rolling a 40 or something.
3. You’re going to turn the game into 3e/Pathfinder (or GURPS, for that matter)
I think that rolling 3d20 and picking the lowest (or highest) doesn’t run into the Death by Modifier problem that some don’t care for in games that feature a heavy dose of such things. GURPS is a bad one about this, to the point where I wrote a post about trying to cut down on modifier-driven game delay. Pathfinder does have a component of bonus-hunting to it, and furthermore, the bonuses get very large.
I don’ t believe this to be the case for this method, because it still is contained within the core concept of “bounded accuracy” in 5e. The worst you can roll is a 1; the best is a 20. No matter how many stacked ads/disads you do, that’s still true.
It does compress the probability distribution a ton, ’tis true. But modifiers are still there, and if you’re a high-level character with STR 20 and +4 for proficiency, even with stacked disadvantage you roll between 10 and 29 . . . though 90% of your rolls will be from 10-20  (and half of them will be 10-13). So it’s a real crimp in the style of a high-level character, but you can still thump a guy with chain mail and a shield 22% of the time.
I got some fast and valuable comments yesterday on the post on initiative and the OODA loop that I want to tackle in the harsh light of day, so to speak

As always, the commenter’s thoughts are indented, purple, and italicized.

Also note that alternate initiative concepts have been done before. +Christopher R. Rice did one on Reordering Initiative in a prior Melee Academy post, and +Peter V. Dell’Orto followed up with a spin-off concept over on Dungeon Fantastic. Both are worth reading.

I first want to deal with Raymond’s comment, because it gets to a bit of what I was thinking, and why. It’s the OODA loop part of the discussion.

I think the simplest change would be to allow the “initiative order” to change—currently it stays in Speed-order regardless of what happens. If you allow it to change, I would re-order someone when they act on a wait, and probably on certain “aggressive” defenses (like Aggressive Parry or Grapple responses like Arm Lock/Throw), which would make things make more chronological sense. I would also allow it to be changed on an Evaluate or Do Nothing maneuver. Doing so would mean that sometimes a guy ends up acting twice before another one, but that’s not necessarily unrealistic.

Changing the initiative order – which is currently descending order of Basic Speed, ties go to DX (I’ve also seen ties go to skill, but that’s into house rule territory), and further ties broken by something else – is fraught with peril in GURPS. So I’d not do that.

Kromm Speaks: 

Agreed. If the order is always ABCD ABCD, then everybody gets a “reset” after all possible rivals have had a chance to act. Unrealistic? Maybe, but GURPS is a game and fairness trumps realism for the majority of the customer base. 

If it’s possible to end up with ABCD DCBA, then A could get pounded on six times instead of just three times, B could get attacked four times instead of three, C would have to deal with just two possible attacks, and D would be free to All-Out Attack without consequences. This evens out after several turns . . . but there won’t be several turns if C and D are aggressive, especially if C and D are on the same side: A acts, B acts, and then C and D beat the jelly out of A and B using unanswered All-Out Attacks that saturate defenses. 

To make this work, you would have to rewrite much of the combat system. You would have to posit a universal turn and define what occurs at its outset — not just initiative rolls, but also duration countdowns and defense refreshment. This would insert bookkeeping phases between bouts of action. You would have to consider declarations, so that D’s intent to All-Out Attack has an effect, and/or make acting first a significant advantage. And so on. You would end up with a game that’s far more like a tactical boardgame or a wargame than like an RPG that prioritizes the Rule of Cool and player agency.

Beyond that, there’s the fact that some characters pay serious points for Altered Time Rate and Extra Attack so that they can gain benefits that the luck of the dice could give to anybody. So those traits would need rewriting, too, and there would probably need to be a “realistic” version of such abilities . . . which would then become the gimme trait that the Speed attribute is in the Hero RPG. So rewrites would spread to the character-creation rules. While a few diehard realism nuts like that idea, they aren’t even close to the majority.  

While I agree that having a fast, prepared guy go twice before another can react is not unrealistic, that’s not really the problem I’m trying to get at here. The key for me is offensive/aggressive action as opposed to defensive/reactive action. This is “what maneuvers will I use?” rather than “do I go first?”

The conceit or general idea here is that even if you’re the quickest (in speed order, which speaks to a point below), if you’re not mentally prepared to attack, then the more-aggressive options will not be on your list of things to do.

Kromm Speaks Again 

It’s worth pointing out that though Basic Speed is (DX + HT)/4, it *is* meant to represent mental preparation as well as reflexes. There are a lot of places in the rules — starting with “Mind vs. Brain” (p. B296) and treated in much more detail in GURPS Bio-Tech — that suggest that DX is partly or wholly a mental attribute, and represents the “acting” side of the brain rather than the “contemplating” side. The fact that so many IQ-based skills are floated to DX for action tasks is a further hint. I’m not sure I could successfully argue against a claim that DX and Basic Speed calculated from it are measures of aggressiveness and preparation. 

Honestly, I think that an Action Points system (now who do we know who has written one of those?) is the optimal way to handle ebb and flow. More prepared fighters have more AP. More aggressive fighters tend to spend more AP per turn, and if there’s a cap on how many you can spend per turn, they might have a higher cap. People who run out of AP can’t do as much. But everyone spends what AP they have *on their turn,* any refresh happens *on their turn,* and turns always cycle in the same order to remove a bookkeeping headache. The effect of taking two turns in a row, or taking and holding the initiative, comes from outspending your foe in AP, either on a per-turn basis (higher cap) or in absolute terms (more AP).

Initiative is such a loaded term for RPG use, that perhaps I should use a different one. Aggressiveness, perhaps. You may go first, but if your aggressiveness score is lower than your foe’s, you’ll take more defensive-oriented actions. Evaluate. Wait. All-Out Defense (Parry, Dodge, or Block). Or if you are going to attack, it will be a Defensive Attack. You’re more worried about him hitting you than you are about hitting him. 

So to the direct point: no, I’d never rearrange turn-order in the middle of the fight, because GURPS turns are not “second 1, second 2, second 3” on an absolute basis. Though sometimes I wish they were.

So, on to another commenter’s notes, with occasional reference to the prior issue and comment as well . . .

First, adding another die roll–especially one with so many potential modifiers to be calculated on the fly–could serve to bog down play.

This is absolutely true. The key, always, for new die rolls is whether they actually improve the game. Where possible, roll once strategies are better than “roll each turn,” if nothing else, it reduces book-keeping.

This is an issue particularly if you’re suggesting new initiative rolls before each round, which I assume is the case in light of your goal of simulating the ebb and flow of combat.

I could see a roll each round, but thinking about it, that means every character and NPC will face an extra die roll each round. That’s less cool than I’d like. That observation makes me think that a re-roll should be a side effect of an Evaluate action, or occasioned by a mid-combat Tactics or Leadership roll. Or even a Wait that is not triggered. This may not improve your situation, of course!

Or perhaps the penalties and bonuses for intimidation, wounds, stunning, etc. are enough to achieve this; it just seems a little luck (the die roll) would be welcome as well.

Many of the permanent  bonuses for things like combat reflexes will be fixed factors, serving in their own way like the permanent initiative bonus you get in D&D. The ebb and flow for wounds and stunning should provide the adjustment I need.

Again, as this idea develops, what I think would be useful is an Aggression score. If I did it right, it would be centered around zero, so that unless you had a positive Aggression number for the fight, your choices would be limited. 

Oh, but that goes against player agency! Yes it does, so instead of “you can’t do that” you’d wind up saying “do what you want, but pay for it.” So maybe if the normal bound of aggressiveness is -8 to +8, that you take a penalty to any aggressive actions equal to (say) twice the difference between your aggressiveness and the guy you’re fighting. His total is -2, but yours is 0? He is at -4 if he tries an Attack, Committed Attack, or All-Out Attack. If he chooses Defensive Attack or All-Out Defense, he’s fine.

Some of this could actually be a good thing. GURPS has so many options that having guidance as to what you’d do is not a bad thing, especially for the GM who might be controlling many characters. Oh, Bog the Barbarian’s aggressiveness is 6 this round, and his foe is at -2. Another All-Out Attack (One Foe) for him! Or something like that.

Secondly, besides “quickness of mind” and experience (tactics, combat reflexes), a characters quickness isn’t really considered, marginalizing a character’s attributes. An easy way to work it into the formula is to simply add a character’s BS to the initiative roll as well.

I disagree here, in that quickness is accounted for in the turn order itself. A fast character with a (perhaps temporarily) low aggression score might well act first and nail his foe with a Defensive Attack. This will impose shock penalties and such on his foe (lowering Aggressiveness) and provide a bonus to the successful attacker (raising his Aggressiveness). His foe, who goes after him in the turn order, may wind up facing a case where that first defensive attack puts him back on his heels, restricting his actions.

Turn order, and striking first, still matter here, I think.

Third, the influence of leadership makes sense, but would you add it in the case of single combatants?

No, I probably wouldn’t. A Will roll (or a Will-based weapon skill roll) might be the better call here, or even Tactics. I’ve written about other things that Tactics might be used for before.

And if one character were being ganged up on, would you still use leadership for the “gang,” with none for the “gangee?”

If it’s truly a gang, as opposed to a unit, perhaps leadership might not apply. But certainly a lower Aggressivness score would be appropriate if you’re being dogpiled. That being said, using the tentative ideas on an aggressiveness number above, it might be that a strong, skilled, Overconfident PC has full choice of maneuver in that situation. And there are going to be cases where dropping back and trying to defend is a terrible idea – taking the fight to the enemy is the right call. I’m not sure that’s something that you want to interfere with that much.

It would seem to emphasize the nature of initiative you’re trying to recreate.

Lastly, it seems that modifiers can potentially add up to a point where the roll of a single die wouldn’t matter. Do you think making the roll 2d6 would randomize initiative too much?

You may be right. the modifiers I tried to sketch out go from -7 to 14 with a 1d6 roll. With a 2d6 (and penalties/bonuses from -8 to 8), then the values go from -6 to 20, with a potentially much wider range for a particular fighter. I’m not sure that’s a good thing either. I would tend to want who has initiative to initially be determined mostly by the fighter himself, and then by the circumstances. The large range in a 2d6 or other roll doesn’t speak to me as favorable, but it’s the sort of thing that only playtest can tell.

Parting Shot

Ultimately, the concept here is to use something that measures the ebb and flow of the fight. What you don’t want to do is track it every single round. Getting wounded or driven back, or seeing a friend disemboweled should drive a change in Aggressiveness. But not something you fiddle with every turn. That way lies GM and player frustration.

What I would want to do is have a badass-o-meter ranking that helps the GM and player decide what tactics (specifically: maneuver selection between AoA and AoD, in the usual five steps) are on the table for a given exchange. This might even include something like “if Aggressiveness drops below -5, the combatant will seek to withdraw.” That’s something that is right now (usefully) left to GM fiat in most cases, but guidance is a good thing.

You can also differentiate fighting styles this way. Overconfident? Berserk or Combat Fury? Combat Reflexes? Fearlessness? Yeah – Aggressiveness likely goes up. Pacifism? Easy to Kill? Lower.

You might also use that sort of aggressiveness tally as a good way to gauge fear checks and pre-combat posturing. Think the muster of the Uruk-Hai in The Two Towers. Having that many orcs screaming for blood with high aggressiveness numbers is going to make for a very intimidating initial encounter. Until you get the “If it bleeds, we can kill it” rationalization going on. (Though that only worked out well for Ah-nold, in the end . . . )

Finally, a counterpoint on fair and unfair and realism and game-balance, from a professional instructor for firearms, self-defense, and use of force. He addresses the topic that it’s possible to go first (or not go first) and have a whole bunch of people pound you into a wet prune before you get the chance to go again.

Shawn Fisher speaks: 

Generally, this is not unrealistic. Is it unfair as hell? Yes. That’s why striking first is such a huge advantage. It sucks to get pummeled and never be able to seize the advantage. GURPS bakes in the first strike as a power you buy at character creation, and also through various stunning effects from hit locations and damage. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it’s equally possible to play without that. Instead, as you point out, you may be buying the right to strike first most of the time, but not all the time. As it is there is no ebb and flow, just first strikes all the time, if you choose. This is also the problem, if you will, of omniscient PCs who know where the enemy is, know the ammo count in their guns, know the ranges and mods and calculate them perfectly to avoid wasting a shot, etc. Can you critically fail Basic Speed? No. You can invest in DX and HT, which are uber important in combat and the by product is you get to whack the guy first. Every time.

This is why making a roll works. FWIW, I think even a (1d/2, or something) would be fine. That way Move 6 guy is probably safe from Goon with move 5, but not necessarily. He could roll 1 and get an order of 7 and the Goon could roll 3 and get 8. The ads might be +1/-1 for Combat Reflexes or Combat Paralysis, and that’s it.

Big follow-up post for me, with no fewer than seven people’s ideas being represented, including myself. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed compiling it!

Thursday is GURPS-Day, and running up to next week’s Melee Academy topic on disarming, my friends and I are passing back and forth videos of violence. This led to a discussion of movie violence vs. real-world violence, and the differences between the two. The discussion came up for GURPS, largely because it has the depth of detail  that allows the discussion to be had at all.

Suffice it to say that when you look at real-world violence, one of the things that seems quite apparent is that “roll for initiative,” or “make a morale check!” isn’t just a suggestion, it’s the law.

This leads me to wonder if in more gritty games, it would be a good idea to separate Initiative and Speed. You still go in speed order, but there’s a moral/aggression factor that is different than who’s quickest.

What’s this?

Again, in movies, you see a lot of well-balanced fights. Two fighters trading blows more or less equally. You also see a lot of “this is the hero’s moment to shine!” fighting, where the Director, acting as GM, has decreed that the Mook is Just Going to Take It. If you’re watching the movie Equilibrium, this can be between the same two characters, in different parts of the movie. 

I won’t spoil it. But go watch.

In the real-world, what one tends to see other than in very circumscribed situations is that one fighter has the initiative, and the other reacts. This can change – and it’s often the goal of the one that doen’t have the initiative to make it change – during the fight.

GURPS “initiative” is really the order in which actions are declared. But fast on your feet doesn’t necessarily mean you’re controlling the course of a fight.

In the real fights I’ve seen, usually there’s someone who’s driving the action. They make a series of All-Out or Committed Attacks. The other guy is back on his heels. He’s either making Defensive Attacks or even taking All-Out Defense. 

This continues until the fight is over, or initiative somehow switches.

What are the rules supposed to do?

I got a note from Kromm on this one, which is worth reposting here to see just how far I’m going to deviate from the rules as they’re supposed to be:

“Surprise Attacks and Initiative” (p. B393) was *NEVER* intended to be used when two mutually antagonistic parties can see the other before hostilities begin! An initiative roll for partial surprise is made only in the two situations spelled out in paragraph 1 of those rules:

  • A party on alert (the “defender”) is engaged by a previously unseen party (the “attacker”). The defender was expecting hostilities but not necessarily from the attacker, who only just appeared. The initiative roll determines if being initially unseen gives the attacker the edge (attacker wins) or if the attacker fails to account for the prepared defense — in effect, the *defense* is unseen — and suffers a reversal (defender wins).
  • Two sides that were previously unaware of each other suddenly come into contact. The initiative roll determines who gets organized first and does something about the hitherto unknown threat. 

If the defender wasn’t expecting hostilities, there’s no roll at all that’s total surprise.

If each party could see the other before anyone got violent and each recognizes the other as hostile, there’s no roll — that’s standard combat, and who acts first is a function of the combat sequence.

Corner cases where two parties sight each other but don’t immediately go to fighting are best resolved by treating everyone as having taken a Wait and using “Cascading Waits” (GURPS Martial Arts, p. 108).

An Initiative Number

I’m wondering if this could be represented by some sort of initiative number. If as a fighter your initiative number is lower than your foe’s, you may only choose defensive attack or All-Out Defense. This is a variant on Untrained Fighters from GURPS Martial Arts (box on p. 113).

Rolling for Initiative is actually a thing in GURPS, as part of Partial Surprise (p. B393). The guidance for total and partial surprise is deliberately vague; there’s room for fiat and interpretation here. But some good examples for triggering it for the purpose of looking at initiative using the alternate rules would be:

  • An aggressor makes a successful Intimidation check
  • A defender is ready for trouble but fails a Perception check
  • During a fight, someone gets punched
  • A leader fails a leadership test
  • A fighter sees one of his side get thwacked hard
Looking at the YouTube stuff, you will often see that one fighter starts to dominate, and the other gives up. I saw this personally in several fights I’ve observed – at some point, one of the combatants just rolls over and gives up. You see this all the time in dominance displays in animals, of course.
Roll the Bones

Let’s use the same 1d6 roll from Partial Surprise. I’ll change the modifiers a bit:

  • If you have Combat Reflexes or Enhanced Time Sense, you get +2
  • The winner of a Quick Contest of Leadership gets +1 for their side (only one group qualifies here)
  • A successful Leadership roll by the side’s leader gets +1 (both can qualify for this)
  • If you have one point in Tactics, you get +1 for you
  • If you or your side are victorious in a Quick Contest of Tactics, your side gets +1
  • If you or your side are victorious in an Intimidation Check, you get +1
  • If you got hit last round, you’re at -1; if you were hit and injured you’re at -2; if you failed a Fright Check, you’re at -4, unless you were also . . .
  • If you were stunned, you go last, but you might figure the number in case one has to decide between multiple people who’s the least last
  • If you have to attack through a forest of high-reach weapons, you’re at -1 per each hex of Reach you’re down on your foes. Knife vs Reach 3 polearm? Yeah, -3.
  • If you don’t see any good way to hurt your foes (look! a shield wall! crap!) you’re at -1
I was just rattling off a bunch of modifiers, but let’s see if we can sum up.
  • Some advantages and disadvantages will give you permanent bonuses or penalties for the roll (0 to +2)
  • Leadership, Tactics, and Intimidation will impact the roll (0 to +4, perhaps)
  • Your perception of your ability to hurt your foe will impact the roll (0 to -2)
  • If you believe your foe can hurt you or just did, this will impact the roll, perhaps severely (-4 to +0)
  • If you think your side is winning or losing, that will impact the roll (-2 to +2)
I’d call for a re-roll of the dice if the “lower” initiative person actually manages to land a defensive attack against his foe – that’s a morale turning point that should be recognized. The total bonuses/penalties above could conceivably stretch from -8 to +8 with a d6 for randomization, so that’s a range of -7 to 14; plenty of room for all sorts of wiggle and interplay.
Parting Shot
This is just another aspect of morale in gaming, but with mechanical weight. The fact that you might “go first” because your fast, but be limited to less-aggressive options because you’re afraid or uncertain is just part of real fighting.
Now, stuff like this is a huge denial of agency to PC types. This restricts maneuver choice in GURPS to a degree that is intermediate between “you’re stunned, you must choose Do Nothing” and “you’re not stunned, do whatever you want.” It may strike people the wrong way.
That being said, such options do exist elsewhere – if you want to Aim and you’re using the rules from Tactical Shooting, you must All-Out Attack. I allow for a Committed Aim in On Target (Pyr #3/77), but defenses are always compromised.
The inability for an aggressor to choose Attack rather than only Committed or All-Out is maybe taking things too far, but again, usually one is either pushing the defender, getting pushed oneself, or has disengaged and is circling. 
Tying initiative and aggression to a Contest of Wills might be fun, too, where if you win the contest by a certain amount, you roll iniative and the winner will likely attack. Tie, and keep circling. 
It would involve more Intimidation, Tactics, Leadership, and evaluation engagement, which is good. 
It could also be something that’s just applied to NPCs (though I’m not a huge fan of such asymmetric rules, they have their place), which would give a “tide of battle” feel that is a real thing in conflict, but doesn’t jump out organically from the rules as they are now.

We didn’t have enough people to run Majestic Wilderlands today, so we yakked a bit about magic items and game design. 

One thing that came up was a rules variant, based on the “you got your GURPS in my D&D” concept. But not even really that. The basic philosophy was that of the OSR and the games run before rules were fully codified:

Anything can be attempted.

This is something that GURPS does well with the current combat system, and since +Rob Conley+Daniel McEntee, and I were all quite familiar with the system, it was natural to make analogies. 

Edit: And Rob amplified on his on takeaways from the discussion in a post on Combat Stunts for S&W over on his blog.

But simply: anyone should be able to (for example) trip anyone else. Battle Masters (a Fighter archetype) should be better at it than anyone else. But anyone should be able to try.

I more or less have a theory about combat mechanics. Use what’s there.

Right now, a lot of the maneuvers seem to be “make an attack roll, and add the superiority die to your damage roll; the foe makes a saving throw against the damage roll.

Huh? I mean, I suppose. Most damage rolls are 1d4 to 1d12 plus about 0-5. Sometimes a bit more or less, but that gives a range from 1 to 17 or so. 1d8+6 isn’t too far wrong for a duellist with STR (or DEX for a finesse weapon) 18. That’s about a 10, so not too hard. The 1d8 you add as a Battle Master makes that save closer to 15. Tough but not crazy talk.

This was just a miss on my part. The Battle Master has a saving throw value against which the maneuvers are judged, and is has nothing to do with damage. It’s equal to DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Strength or Dexterity modifier (your choice)

But what if everyone could try this stuff, but the Battle Masters of the world just did it better

That superiority die allows that with no mechanical help, though I think rolling a saving throw against damage is . . . weird.

Alternate Mechanics

There are two parts to this – did you hit, and do you achieve the desired effect. This is akin to an attack roll vs your foe’s AC, followed by a damage roll. So given that we’re used to making two die rolls, we can try and keep it that way. 

On the offense, I’m a big fan of keeping it an attack roll. This is why when +Peter V. Dell’Orto and I did our alternate grappling rules treatment for D&D games, we kept it as an attack vs. AC. It’s simple, it’s precalculated, and everyone gets it.

Should it be harder to trip someone in plate armor and a shield? Probably not . . . but you can deal with that too.

On the defensive side, you’re going to want a fixed target number, so

  • Keep it based on Armor Class. This doesn’t really fit for all situations, but it’s simple.
  • Make it as 15+an attribute modifier of your foe. 
    • Why 15? These “special” attacks should be more difficult to pull off than bashing someone with a sword, and typical AC for a dude in armor is probably more like 16, not 11.
    • What attribute modifier? That depends what you’re doing! A trip or disarm might be resisted by STR or DEX, whichever is better (or see below). A feint might be resisted by WIS.
    • Do you have a special feat? Unarmored Defense should allow adding CON or WIS to your DEX or STR as befitting your class abilities. Alternately as well, martial stuff could be resisted by STR unless you have Martial Arts, in which case you can use DEX if its better (and Martial Arts would make a great independent Feat)
For the special consequences, I think Saving Throw. But what DC?
  • A flat value. 10 or 15 are typical choices
  • The way it is now: DC for battlemaster is 8+Proficiency+Attribute bonus. The way to make this class-specific would be to allow proficiency OR attribute bonus, but not both, for combative characters (those with STR and/or maybe DEX as a primary attribute), and neither proficiency nor attribute bonuses for non-combatives. You could get proficiency and/or attribute bonuses for non-combative characters via Feat selection.
  • A scaled value: 10 plus your foe’s proficiency bonus, so it would vary from 12 to 16
  • A margin of success: 10+ however much the attacker made his roll by! That’s not very D&D-like, but a really good attack roll would have some benefit
If the saving throw is failed, Bad Things Happen. Trips would knock you prone. Disarms . . . well, there you go. Menacing Attacks (a CHA-based or Intimidation-based attack roll?) impose Frightened. A Goading attack would give your foe disadvantage, while a Feint might give you advantage, and a Districting attack still gives a friend advantage – excellent for setting up your friendly neighborhood thief for a Sneak Attack.
Some things might be harder. A Lunging Attack goes for an extra 5 feet. That can be bonus enough – so maybe a Lunging Attack is at a penalty (-5) or at disadvantage (which is more usual for 5e). The expenditure of the superiority die would then put that attack back on even odds with a normal attack, but damage would be unchanged (presumably there’s a reason to extend your reach. 
Parting Shot

I feel the same way about the Battle Master maneuvers that I feel about the -5 to hit in exchange for +10 damage you get from Sharpshooter or Great Weapon Master. This is the sort of trade-off that any character should be able to attempt . . . but those with a Feat (or superiority dice) should be better at than usual.
It makes combat more interesting, more varied, and provides more choices. What should I give up in order to gain somewhere else?
With D&D, you give up something (or gain something) on the hit roll. I take a penalty to hit, or accept disadvantage, in order to gain some other benefit. I can boost my Armor Class (a bonus to defend) or take a penalty to it, but will suffer on my offensive abilities. Dodge already does this – all attacks against you have disadvantage if you give up your ability to attack at all. I can get a boost to damage by taking a penalty to hit. I can do more damage if I spend HP of my own, giving up staying power for myself to take a foe out of the fight faster.
Choices make for fun, varied combats. They can also lead to decision paralysis, which is where one has to be careful in offering up too many – or too complicated – options. But a few simple trades are good. 
And where you have a situation where if you want to get fancy, you can, but if you want to be good at getting fancy, you need to be trained at it (a la Battle Master or the Martial Adept feat).

I got to thinking: How did the Standard Array come about?

I figured they did some sort of simulation. Take 4d6, drop lowest, sort them in order, and take the mean, median, or mode of each row. 

I wondered, though – what that would look like, and how much variation would there be. I mean, just in my recent character generation forays, I’ve had some really good rolls, and some bad ones. Also, Order of the Stick style, what if 4d6/drop lowest was a metagame universal rule? So that each person that lived basically had that die total. So if you looked at “the upper 20% of adventurers,” you’d see one stat block, “lower 25%” would be the underperforming bandit cannon fodder of the world, etc.

Let’s hit it one thing at a time.

4d6, Drop Lowest: The Simulation

Not being a random number purist, I used RANDBETWEEN(1,6) in Excel to make my die rolls. I took four “dice,” added them together, and subtracted the smallest one. 

I did this about 160,000 times. That should force the system to get close to constant values as possible. To the right is what AnyDice says about the distribution from which we’re picking:

So, what does that look like? Interestingly enough, it’s not quite what the book gives you.

Mode 9 11 12 13 14 16
Median 9 10 12 13 14 16
Average 8.5 10.4 11.8 13.0 14.2 15.7
DnD 5e  8 10 12 13 14 15
Mode: This gives the number that appears most frequently out of 160,000 rolls. Compared to the 5e norm, it is one point better on the bottom two rolls, and you pick up a 16 instead of a 15 for your best. The mode of the full distribution is 13 (from the graph).
Median: Line up all 160,400 trials, and give me the average of trial 80,200 and 80,201. The median is also the 50% percentile. This matters a bit because 4d6 drop lowest is going to be weighted slightly to the higher numbers. The median of the distribution itself is 12.
Mean (Average): Sum of everything divided by number of trials. The mean of 3d6 is 10.5, the mean of 4d6 is 14. The mean of 4d6 drop lowest is 12.24. You can reproduce the standard array if you assume you round up numbers that are 0.75 or higher, and round down lower than 0.75. Strict truncation would give you 8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15. Strict rounding would be 9. 10, 12, 13, 14, 16.
That last 16 that appears in all of the above except the actual standard array is important, because in nearly all cases, you can choose your highest stat so that you’re beginning the game with your primary attribute at 18. You may not want to do this, but you can – at least for anything but Wisdom, which for some reason is the only stat you can’t start with a race that gives you a +2. 

So, if 4d6 drop lowest were a universal law of some sort, what would our percentiles look like?

First, why do we care? It’s a tool for GMs to tweak their campaigns. If you think the standard array is too stingy or too rich, you can adjust it. If you don’t want the girl who really lucks out on her rolls (it’s no surprise that out of 160,000 rolls, you can find an array like 16, 16, 16, 17, 17, 18) to overshadow completely the poor schlub that rolled 6, 9, 10, 11, 11, 12, then you can give the same array – for good or ill – to everyone.

So, here we go:
10th Percentile 6 8 10 11 12 14
25th Percentile 7 9 11 12 13 15
40th Percentile 8 10 11 13 14 15
DnD 5e  8 10 12 13 14 15
50th Percentile 9 10 12 13 14 16
60th Percentile 9 11 12 13 15 16
75th Percentile 10 12 13 14 15 17
90th Percentile 11 12 14 15 16 17

As it happens, the D&D standard array can be matched by assuming that you’re taking the 45th percentile of the array I lined up. So 5% below the median is the “tax” you pay for avoiding the possibility of hitting the 10th percentile.
10th and 25th percentile characters would make good hirelings. Those not quite good enough to venture out as superlative adventurers on their own, but honestly not that bad, either. A 4th level Champion Fighter with 10th percentile stats and the right combo of Feat and Archetype is hitting twice per round at 1d20+5 to hit, 1d8+3 damage each, with AC 17 (chain mail and the boost to AC from Dual Wielder) and 36 Hit Points. That’s a credible mook right there.
What does the 90th percentile get you? Mostly, not much – it shores up weaknesses rather than give extra strengths. AC would stay the same (it’s gear-based), throw down half-orc instead of mountain dwarf, and you’re still looking at two attacks, 1d20+6 (only a 5% difference) twice for 1d8+4 (one more point of damage each). You’ll get a slightly higher initiative. Your saving throws will be better across the board. You have 44 HP instead of 36 (that right there might be the biggest difference).
But in a game that works fairly hard to mostly make your best two, maybe three, attributes the only ones that matter reliably, the difference you’re looking at is probably summed up as “three attribues will have +1 or +2 relative to the 10th percentile guy.”
Parting Shot

In many cases part of the fun of character generation is the choices you’re forced to make. Do you suffer with a -1 or -2 penalty in anything you happen to roll in your “dump stat,” or do you shore up your weaknesses by offsetting them with racial modifiers. If you’re a 90th percentile array human with your worst stat of 12, and highest of 18 – is that fun for you? I can see it either way, and there’s no question that with the proper GM and group, either one could be fun.
Overall, I was curious to see how the standard array was calculated. I suspect they picked about the 45th percentile of the 4d6 drop the lowest distribution. 
Looking again at the 90th percentile human, it would mean you start with a minimum +1 bonus to everything you do . . . and will max out your primary stat at 20 early in your adventuring career if you choose. Even the variant human would start with 11, 12, 14, 16, 16, 18 plus a Feat and an additional Skill – a very satisfyingly awesome character. 
Though again, getting to high level with some great stats, and some still-poor ones seems like a good “you can’t have everything” challenge. Kinda old school, if you would.

3d6 Pick Your Order

Which reminds me . . . what would 3d6 drop-nothing look like by this method?
10th Percentile 4 6 8 9 10 12
25th Percentile 6 7 9 10 11 13
40th Percentile 6 8 9 11 12 14
45th Percentile 7 8 10 11 12 14
50th Percentile 7 9 10 11 12 14
60th Percentile 7 9 10 12 13 15
75th Percentile 8 10 11 12 14 15
DnD 5e  8 10 12 13 14 15
90th Percentile 9 11 12 13 14 17

So for +Jeffro Johnson and the 3d6 (in order, no less!) crowd, the current attribute array represents top-quartile type die rolls, and a 3d6 array that mimics the 45th percentile perch of the 4d6/drop lowest method has some tough choices to make . . . and classes that have additional Attribute Increase/Feat options will make a larger difference than those that do not.

4d4+2 – Request from a Redditor

Because it’s easy, I was asked to drop in 4d4+2. That one will cluster around 12, with more dice providing slightly more variation, and of course a hard minimum of 6.

10th Percentile 7 9 10 11 12 13
25th Percentile 8 10 11 12 13 14
40th Percentile 9 10 11 12 13 14
DnD 5e  8 10 12 13 14 15
45th Percentile 9 10 11 12 13 15
50th Percentile 9 11 12 12 13 15
60th Percentile 10 11 12 13 14 15
75th Percentile 10 11 12 13 14 16
90th Percentile 11 12 13 14 15 17

SJG published GURPS Social Engineering: Back to School not long ago. I’m a credited playtester, and one thing I can tell you about the playtest was that it was . . . lively.

I’ve not yet reread the draft since it was published, though that’s on my to-do list. The book does tackle one of the areas of the GURPS rules that causes no small amount of angst, in my experience – the 200 hours of out-of-adventuring study per character point “equivalency.”

I use “scare quotes” and I shouldn’t, because I don’t much care for scare quotes. Or air quotes. But I digress.

Still, the point of that rule is very diode-like: yes, if you go offline and bury your nose in studies for a while, you can turn that into character points. But the other way, that the only or primary method of increasing character ability is tied to a 200 hour per point metric just ain’t so.

Perhaps that view is only prevalent on the forums, but it’s one of those guidelines that seems to cause as much trouble as help.

Even so, working through the playtest draft, one of the things that came up was that at a strict 200:1 ratio, a full-time job will net you something like 10 character points per year, so (for example) someone like myself that has been working in a technical field since 2000 should have something like 150 points solely in job-related skills. 

We know this isn’t the case. Even were I dividing up all that time amongst Research, Administration, Savoir-Faire (My Company), Rank, Engineering (Materials Science), and various skills that might be called Professional Skill (Engineer), there’s likely no way I’ve put that time evenly and effectively into six to twelve different skills.

More likely is that in a 2000-hour work year, perhaps 500-750 hours of real challenging work is actually done. The rest is . . . from a GURPS point of view . . . wasted time. Those meetings you sit in doing information sharing and Power Point status updates? Yeah. They don’t count. That at least takes my total down to 40-75 points or so. Likely still too high.

The real kicker is that in all of that time, you’re really looking for growth opportunities. It’s why the first five years at a job are the most interesting and important, as you’re often exposed to the widest variety of opportunties to actually experience something new. I’d considered basing the time-to-learn progression on the Size and Speed/Range table in the past. What follows was a loosely-formed idea of taking a different route – one that I remember was used in RuneQuest.

Roll to see if you don’t learn nothin’

So . . .back to GURPS. What can we do to the metagame equivalence that is off-screen learning to make things more interesting?

The “200 hours of experience” thing is no longer a 1:1 basis for exchange for character points. Instead, it’s the basis for a skill roll. You may roll for taking more or less time, using double the size/speed range progression, but treating less time as a bonus, not a penalty (you’ll see why soon). So 150 hours is +2, 100 hours is +4, 50 hours is +8, etc.

After studying for X time, make a skill roll. If you MAKE the roll, everything you’ve encountered in the last X hours has been within your current realm of experience. You gain nothing from that time, and don’t bank it for anything, that time is lost, etc.

This is basically the RuneQuest mechanic.

If you fail the roll, you’ve encountered something new, and with a second roll – a Will roll, perhaps – you may be able to leverage this challenge into learning, and gain a point in the skill.

Using two separate rolls here is one way to go. Another would be to look at the relative skill level of Will compared to other quantities, or heck, just making a Will-based skill roll instead of two rolls. That being said, hopefully the frequency of rolling is low enough that burning two rolls here isn’t terribly onerous.

Intensive training or routine job work would also modify the roll. I didn’t flesh this out at the time.

Why bother?

Here are several purposes to this concept

  1. Low skill levels, such as defaults which will often be in the Skill-4 to Skill-6 range (or as high as Skill-8 for IQ/DX of 12) will pretty much get the benefit of frequent opportunities to increase skill. Skill-6 will find something new almost always, even with short exposures to the material. Experts at Skill-14 will spend about 10x as long before encountering something new enough to merit a point increase through study or routine training.
  2. It makes the 200 hours thing a guideline or norm, rather than a rule. It’s possible, though unlikely, that you can study for 20 hours (-12 penalty to the effective roll!) and earn a point. 
  3. It provides motivation for getting out there and adventuring, since that’s a great way to encounter crazy situations out of your experience. And of course, you don’t count hours adventuring . . . you just spend earned points with GM permission.
  4. If you don’t mind the die rolls, the secondary Will roll to see if you can assimilate the experience into skill provides another way to emphasize the importance of mental grit.
  5. The role of teacher can be played with. It might guarantee (provided the teacher has the right materials and experience herself) that the student is exposed to things they have never seen before, or at least enhance the probability. MoS on a teaching roll might go directly into lowering the effective skill for the purposes of “was this something I already knew?” THEN the student might have to roll on their own for Will, or at best the teacher’s skill gives the +1 for a success, +2 for a crit. I think that’s in line with Shawn’s observation that integrating presented material is mostly a function of the student.
  6. The dual element of risk (did I encounter something new? is my Will high enough to actually learn the offered lesson?) again provides more incentive away from sitting in a library and reading books, and more stressful and interesting conditions.

Even if you’re defaulting to a skill level of 6, spending only 20 hours gives you a bonus (remember, you’re looking to fail the roll) of +12, or an effective Skill-18. Odds are, you need to study long enough 30 hours instead of 20 to bring that down to at least a roll vs. Skill-16 before you even have a small chance of finding something learnable in that little time.

Parting Shot

Overall, I think this mechanic – or something like it[1] – would achieve several goals that might be desirable in a time-to-character points metasystem. 

  • Provides for more rapid initial learning. 
  • Prevents everyone that has been in a job for 10 years (and that person could be in their early 20s in some skills) from having very high skill levels. 
  • Allows dedicated learners with high Will to still become prodigies in a short time. 
  • Someone who does have Skill-14 may well take two years, on the average, per point of skill (400 hours, but only 10% new stuff), which means about eight years to get to Skill-15 . . . unless they find a new role outside their current experience. 

On the other hand, I didn’t really playtest this or throw scenarios at it. Things would likely need to be adjusted to make them work just right, and “just right” may well be campaign dependent. But it seemed like a neat little concept, which had been exercised in at least one other RPG, that would take the focus off of clock-punching by adding elements of risk to the learning process.

[1] Instead of “you fail a skill roll,” which is a bit opposite the usual GURPSy way of doing things, you might borrow from Divine Favor and invoke some sort of reaction roll instead, with better and better reactions giving benefits. 

In the previous post, I noted that roleplaying combat can vary from storytelling to a pure tactical exercise, but that in all cases it is important that both the player and the GM have a reasonable idea of how skillful their character actually is. In short, and to invert the title of the post: you have to know the odds – even in a basically dramatic system.

Beat-Downs, Mechanics Style

Part I of this post dealt with D&D, Savage Worlds, and Night’s Black Agents. All use “roll vs. a fixed target,” and don’t encourage much active participation on the part of the defender. This article will discuss the two remaining systems (of the five on which I’ve chosen to focus), both of which do feature active defenses on the part of the target: Fate and GURPS.

Almost Certain to Succeed

More than once as we look at game mechanics, the concept of “almost certain to succeed” will appear. Somewhat arbitrarily, if a task has a 90% chance of success or better, the player will usually feel pretty confident in attempting the feat. As a result, the 90% breakpoint, as well as the 50% probability point where you will succeed as often as you fail, will be used to look at the influence of mechanics on success.


Keeping with the flavor that we left off with in the example of Night’s Black Agents, Fate is another strongly narrative game, but differs in many ways from the previous three systems, even as it comes to mechanics.

Firstly, Fate rolls special dice – specifically Fudge dice – which can have a value of -1, 0, or +1, with equal chances of each. These dice, which I’ve seen abbreviated dF, are rolled four at a time to judge a task, and added together – this produces a bell-shaped curve with the most likely outcome being zero, and varying from -4 to 4. The odds of rolling exactly a 3 (or -3) are about 5%, so it’s as likely as rolling a 1 or 20 on d20, and the odds of rolling 3 or 4 are 6.1%, so more or less one chance in 16.

Success comes in levels in Fate, but can also be treated as numerical results. I will tend to do that here, but there are four classes of outcomes. If your roll, adding skill and subtracting any opposition (which may be treated as a numerical penalty, or may be the result of a die roll from a foe) results in a negative number, you fail. If you wind up with zero, you tie. A positive number is a success, while success by 3 or more is “Succeeding with Style.”

Without getting into too much “this is how to play Fate” detail, the key bits are that if you’re using a skill on your character sheet (and assuming the basic character design method from Fate Core), you’ll have a bonus from +1 to +4 in it, averaging (in the skill pyramid version of Fate Core) +2. If you invoke an Aspect, you get another +2. As an example, Thor, God of Thunder, Worthy Wielder of Mjolnir (an important Aspect for the character), Self-proclaimed protector of Midgard, and Battle-Lord of Asgard might have +4 in Fight. If he wants to, as it might be said, put his hammer down, he will likely be rolling 4dF+6, since he’ll be invoking an aspect and is using his best skill. He will roll between 2 and 10, centered on a very, very good result of 6. This is a huge bonus – befitting our Thunder God.

The other major difference between Fate and the prior three systems is that each attack is assumed to be countered with a defense action. In fact, of the four principle actions in Fate Core (Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, and Defend), two of them are obviously related to combat and always occur unless for some reason your foe cannot defend himself. This will usually be the same skill as used to attack – and in Fate Core, “Fight” covers an awful lot of ground! Differentiation can be found in the mixology of the narrative facets of the game, including Aspects and Stunts.

Probability-wise, though, the opposed 4dF rolls provide a range of outcomes from -8 to +8 – a very large (in Fate) swing in “shift” levels, but about 90% of the time, the results will wind up between -3 and 3. So, the odds of you getting a better die roll than your foe are determined – on dice alone, you’ve got about a 40% chance of actually getting a leg up on your foe.

How Awesome am I?

What that distribution implies, though, is that an awful lot depends on the absolute skill levels involved. If Thor (with a base +6 with Mjolnir in most cases) is fighting someone without much ability, say, +2 skill and not able to invoke an aspect, the basic difference translates directly into the results – the absolute “4 shift” delta between Thor and his foe means that the values work out well for our Thunder God: -4 to +12, and 90% of the time he’ll be +1 to +7. This translates into “smackdown imminent,” and suggests a final way to look at the results: Look at the difference in skill, and plot the chances of failure by 3+, success by 1, and success by 3+. As noted, skills will range from 0 to 4 during character creation, and Aspects can give a boost. I’ll focus on the range from -6 to 6 for skill delta, from “totally outclassed” to “you own the place,” more or less.

Every shift you can get from an Aspect, Boost, or skill delta counts, and counts huge. If you can outclass your foe on an attack by two shifts (say, the bonus you get from invoking an Aspect), you have more or less eliminated the chance of the defender succeeding with style, and you’re hitting more than two times in three. At four levels of difference, it’s all over but the bleeding.

Critical Thinking

Succeeding with Style is about as close you’ll get to a critical hit, and the benefits you get from multiple shifts are inherent – the result of your die roll is also your effect roll.

Parry! Dodge! Duck! Weave!

Fate Core is the first system of those considered where the foe’s opposition is active. You roll dice, and these influence the outcome. Roll well enough, and you can negate an otherwise successful roll on the attacker’s part. The book even suggests certain Stunts, such as a Riposte, where if you succeed with style on your defense, you can actually inflict two shifts of injury on your foe.

So defending, and defending well, can have both mechanical and dramatic consequences in a fight, and players can invoke Aspects, perform Stunts, or even go full-on defensive for +2 to the roll. And as noted, a two-level shift is a big deal when looking at the 4dF-4dF curve.

Mechanics aside, this (forgive the term) aspect of the game – actively responding to a threat with mechanical and narrative support – is a big boost to player agency. The feeling of being able to ‘do something’ rather than just stand there and take it is either loved (because it works out well for the players) or despised (because it can take a player’s perfectly good hit and invalidate it) it seems, but it’s definitely a distinguishing feature of the game.

That being said, having the defender roll his 4dF while the attacker rolls her own 4dF would be exactly the same as the attacker rolling 8dF, adding the skill delta, and then looking up the result. Minor shifts in skill delta, caused by invoking aspects or boosts, will shift the centerpoint, but there is no difference in the distribution of 4dF+4dF and 4dF-4dF. The inverse of a dF, or {1, 0, -1} is simply {-1, 0, 1} – that is, the exact same result.

So Fate provides a bit of the illusion of agency in randomness, simply by giving the same number from the dice pool to each player.


The primary dice mechanic in GURPS is rolling 3d6 under a target number, which is the attacker’s modified skill. Sometimes heavily modified, since the dice themselves are not modified. This means that if you know the final skill or target, you know – exactly – the probability of success. The basic skill roll is based on 3d6, providing a range of rolls from 3-18. The bell-shaped curve will look familiar to that of the 4dF roll from Fate.

GURPS is a “roll-under” system, which means that rolling low for skills tests is a good thing. The higher the skill, the better the odds of rolling under that value on 3d6. There are few enough target numbers, and their probability is symmetric around 50%, that it’s pretty easy to memorize should you choose to do so.

Combat in GURPS uses two separate mechanics, and the most important of the two is the attack-defense pair of rolls. These are mostly independent, but not entirely. The basic method is that the attacker chooses the kind of attack he wants to do – and there are lots of options – and the defender chooses the kind of defense she wants to do. Each participant makes a choice and an independent skill roll.

As it happens, the attacker has lots of options. The player can choose on a spectrum (if he wants) from All-Out Attack, which gives a significant bonus to hit, at the cost of being unable to defend, to All-Out Defense, which (obviously) doesn’t allow attacking at all, but provides significant options for improving defenses. Even within something like All-Out, or if you’re using GURPS Martial Arts, Committed Attack lets you choose between options within that. A Determined attack gives a hit bonus, a Strong attack gives a damage bonus, and there are options for extending reach.

The key to all of this is that you can get very specific about what you’re doing. The system differentiates mechanically between (as examples) thrust and swing, different hit locations with unique effects, the spectrum of attack vigor between All-Out and Defensive (plus All-Out Defense, which of course isn’t an attack at all), plus the ability to layer options such as Rapid Strike (throw two attacks while maintaining defenses) or Deceptive Attack (take a penalty to your hit roll in exchange for a penalty to your foe’s defense roll).

And that matters. Because though each one carries a modifier to the character’s full skill, impacting the target number to roll under, your foe still mostly will get to roll his defense. The key concept here is that if you make your attack roll, you have thrown a good enough blow to hit your target – forcing your opponent to do something or take the hit.

Which he will certainly try and do.

Parry! Block! Dodge! Retreat! Sideslip!

In order to prevent smackdown, the defender gets an Active Defense roll. He can choose between getting out of the way (Dodge based on his Move score), a block, which is warding off a blow with a shield, or a parry, defined as using a weapon (or your arm!) to deflect the attack. The probabilities of a successful defense follow the same pattern as attacks – because the die rolls are never modified themselves.

That being said, the target number – that is, the adjusted skill for defenses – is quite different than on the attack. For one, it’s based on 3+Skill/2 for defenses, which for all skill levels higher than 6 will favor attack over defense. Dodge is a bit different, but ultimately, it’s a number, usually lower than raw attack skill, that can be used to counter an attack.

This Active Defense score (and we’ll focus on weapon and unarmed Parry here, but the general principles are the same for the other defenses, Block and Dodge) can be modified in similar ways to the attack. Backing off and giving ground gives a bonus. Too much carried weight gives a penalty to Dodge. A shield, in addition to enabling a block contributes a bonus to all active defenses. Certain Advantages can give bonuses to defenses, such as Combat Reflexes and the aptly named Enhanced Parry.

Importantly, if you have a lot of skill, the Deceptive Attack option allows you to lower your foe’s defenses. This is important, because as you might imagine, combining high skill (say, Broadsword-20) with lots of goodies can push defenses very high. Broadsword-20 has a base defense of 13, boosted by +1 for Combat Reflexes, and (say) another +2 for a medium shield . . . now you’ve got Parry-16, and the odds of rolling 16 or less on 3d6 is something like 98.1%, significantly above our “almost certain to succeed” threshold. If you get a chance to roll, you’ll succeed. Deceptive attack lets high skill counter high defense (though in this case, defenses will still be very high no matter what) to a certain extent.

So ultimately, for straight-up bashing someone else with a stick or sword, a fighter’s chance of a successful blow is her odds of a successful hit roll multiplied by the probability that her foe fails her defenses.

The last interesting thing here is that in many cases, multiple defenses are penalized. While your first parry might be 16, your second is 12 and your third is 8. Unless, of course, you have wicked-cool BMF Advantages that make you more awesome.

How Awesome am I?

In GURPS your awesomeness is only somewhat in your own hands. That being said, if you’re looking at a 98% chance of hitting, you’ll strike home 90% of the time if your foe’s net skill is . . . Parry-6. That’s pretty low, and by and large you won’t find that in a stand-up fight.

What you will find is plenty of opportunities to weaken or lower your opponent’s defenses, and to some extent, your ability to do that is also part of your awesome. Leveraging a Judo Throw or Sweep to knock your foe prone for a -3 to defend is a big deal. Backing them tactically into a corner to deny a Retreat? Also good.

Critical Thinking

The other thing that high skill gets you in GURPS is the ability to roll a critical hit, which is always a roll of 3-4 regardless of skill, and can be a 5 at Skill-15 and 6 at Skill-16 or higher. If you roll a critical hit, not only does your foe not get to defend, but there are special effects, from double or triple damage to your foe dropping her weapon or falling down. Critical successes on defense rolls exist as well, and force your opponent to roll on a critical miss table, with anywhere from minimal to comical results.

Options, Options Everywhere . . . but gank him in the back!

The key bit of the mechanics from a “what are the odds” perspective is that, to some extent, trying to bludgeon or shoot your foe into oblivion is the not-so-gentle art of maximizing your bonuses while piling up penalties for the other party’s defenses. Or even better, arrange it through surprise or positioning, to eliminate the ability for the foe to see an attack coming at all.

Many Blows, Few Hits

The reason for this is simple, and important enough to mention in a post largely centered around dice probabilities and basic attack mechanics: A single hit can put you out of the fight, often regardless of skill.

There are no “levels” in GURPS, though there are point totals. If your super-experienced Navy SEAL gets shot in the vitals with a 9mm pistol, he’s human and he may die. Likewise with a sword or axe blow.

The key in GURPS is thus to not get hit (or have enough armor to ignore the hits!). This is accomplished tactically, by the use of active defenses with many options for making them better (or giving them up for other benefits, sometimes questionable – All-Out Attack, I’m looking at you). Getting hit a few times in GURPS with a real weapon (bows, guns, spears, cutting blades) will by and large render you incapacitated regardless of the skill level of your foe – if he can hit you, you’re in for it. This alters play dynamics quite a bit, especially combined with one-second turns.

But more on that in a different post.

Finish Him!

The two systems looked at today are based on actively defending against attacks.

In Fate, a system whose crunch is directed at narrative outcomes, the defense roll could potentially be lumped into a simple 8dF roll instead of two 4dF rolls (but it’s more fun to split the rolling), and a good roll on the defender’s part can impart significant negative consequences to the attacker.

In GURPS, a solid defense (or the inability to get attacked in return) is vital to survival, and a few actual telling hits will pretty much spell the end of most “mundane” foes. Sure, the GM can throw a Giant Bag of Hit Points at you, but real humans and animals tend not to be that way – and even a T-Rex (or more pedestrian, a Cape Buffalo) will die if you can reach the heart or vitals. GURPS allows the invocation of a vast sea of options – enough to surf on, or drown in, depending on comfort level.

To Each Their Own

I write for GURPS, and am, unsurprisingly, very comfortable with the system. When I GM, it’s my first choice. The depth of detail in description and the mechanical weight that can be brought to bear can make plausible verisimilitude soar to high heights. (Apologies to Dr. Seuss.)

That being said, I can easily see enjoying the heck out of all of these, in their own way. I play in a D&D5 game, and the new edition has managed to retain a lot of what I remember positively from far-too-long-ago, while streamlining the game and giving roleplaying mechanical weight. Night’s Black Agents is a few hundred pages of Ken Hite awesomeness, with fantastic tools for developing your campaign that can be ported, folded, spindled, and mutilated. The innovative part of the GUMSHOE engine has little to do with combat mechanics (and simulationists will run from the lack of resolution), but when played with an eye to “screen time” and cinematic flash can be fully engaging and engrossing. Fate will handle a degree of vagueness in character ability – for example, the ever-changing power lists of four-color comics characters – with a panache that most other systems that define abilities more precisely can’t quite manage. I’m the least experienced with Savage Worlds, but there’s always room for tactical play with a roll-and-shout feel. I got the same experience with the old d6 Star Wars system by West End Games (still one of my favorite game engines, and probably why I enjoy Fate as a concept so much). Each of these can be tremendous fun.

But you better know your odds.

Roleplaying combat can be about telling stories through the medium of action and physicality. It can be a pure tactical exercise, driven by achieving the best outcome (say, “crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women”) at the least cost. It can also just be fun fantasy wish-fulfillment, where you get to act out the role of your favorite Chop Socky star seen through the lens of a paper avatar.

One thing that is important for all of those things is that both the player and the GM have a reasonable idea of how skillful their character actually is.

In short, and to invert the title of the post: you have to know the odds – even in a basically dramatic system.

Part I of this post will deal with three systems that use “roll vs. a fixed target,” and don’t encourage much active participation on the part of the defender. Part II will discuss the two remaining systems (of the five of which I’ve chosen to focus), which feature active defenses on the part of the target.

What Happened to “Never tell me the odds?”

Ultimately, when it comes time to exercise your right to fight, you need to know how good you are – or at least how good your character thinks he is. Your tactics, not to mention your confidence in the outcome (or in dramatic terms, the tension caused by an unknown result) will probably depend on what you can pull off.

This isn’t just about gaming, either. If you’ve been training in Tae Kwon Leap for twenty years, you’re going to know pretty much what you can do. Whether it’s a quick kick to the knee, a jab to the solar plexus, a (jumping!) boot to the head, or a complicated arm lock and throw, the serious practitioner of applied violence will know what she can and can’t do. If they’re really serious about it and have made an effort (or had effort thrust upon them) to obtain a degree from a branch of the school of hard knocks, they will probably have a fairly good idea of what works and what doesn’t, and what works particularly well for them, and what doesn’t.

But that visceral knowledge of skill isn’t necessarily present when what you have on your paper is Level 7 Thief (D&D), Judo-16 (GURPS), or perhaps Fighting d4 (Savage Worlds). That leaves you reliant on math and a feel for the resolution mechanics.

That’s not always easy.

Beat-Downs, Mechanics Style

How you approach a fight in an RPG depends on many things, but one of those things is a level of appreciation for how skilled you are at fighting relative to your foe. That appreciation will rest to some extent on an understanding of the basic mechanics – usually dice mechanics – in play. This post will look at the mechanics in my five example game systems.

Almost Certain to Succeed

More than once as we look at game mechanics, the concept of “almost certain to succeed” will appear. Somewhat arbitrarily, if a task has a 90% chance of success or better, the player will usually feel pretty confident in attempting the feat. As a result, the 90% break point, as well as the 50% probability point where you will succeed as often as you fail, will be used to look at the influence of mechanics on success.

D&D Fifth Edition

The basic mechanic for how you hit and hurt your foe in Dungeons and Dragons has remained more or less the same through all its editions: Roll a 20-sided die plus bonuses against a target number. If you meet or exceed that total, you hit, and roll some other dice for damage.

This mechanic is common for unarmed and armed melee combat, as well as ranged combat with muscle-powered ranged weapons. In the d20 Modern SRD, the basic concept is the same for shootin’ folks.

The basic die roll is

1d20 + B ≥ Armor Class (or Difficulty Class)

which can also be written as

1d20 ≥ Armor Class (or Difficulty Class) – B (and your Target Number is AC-B).

 Why the pedantic math? Just to emphasize briefly that the basic probability distribution is that of a 20-sided die roll, a uniform distribution where you have a pretty easy grasp of the odds of success. It’s a roll high system, so bigger is better, and your odds of success are 5% * (Target Number -1). So if you have a +5 bonus and your foe is sporting AC 16? Your target number is effectively 11, and you have a 50% chance of success. Easy to understand, with the straightforward linear probability curve shown below.


One of the neat new (to D&D at least, other games may have used it first) mechanics for D&D5 is the concept of the advantaged (or disadvantaged) roll. Basically, roll your die twice, and take the most favorable result if you’re advantaged, and the least favorable of the two if you’re disadvantaged.

It saves a lot of time and mechanical effort to lump a whole lot of things that could be treated with flat bonuses into one category – advantaged – that basically skews the results to higher values. The amount of skew depends on your target number. With a flat roll, you are almost certain to succeed if your adjusted target number is 3 or lower (for example, 1d20+7 against AC 10). If you have advantage, your adjusted target number can be 7 or higher – someone with advantage with a to-hit roll of 1d20+7 (say a +3 proficiency bonus for level, and +4 from a relevant statistic like STR 18) can now hit AC 14 as frequently as he could normally target AC 10.

The break-even target numbers for a regular roll and an advantaged roll are 11 and 15, respectively . . . but don’t think that it’s always a +4. It’s not. As your target number goes up, the advantaged roll is always better, but gets much closer to the unmodified probability.

How Awesome am I?

This depends mostly on your level, which sets your proficiency bonus (which ranges from +2 at Level 1 to +6 at Level 20), and your attributes, which can contribute a bonus of up to +5 for an attribute (usually STR or DEX) of 20. There are some powers that allow extra bonuses, like a Paladin’s ability to boost hit rolls for a minute using Sacred Weapon by his CHA bonus. That means you will be looking at bonuses from about +2 on the (very) low end, to as high as about +15 – perhaps more with magical items and other boosts. Still, with AC in the 20-22 range still being fairly high-end, you will rarely be almost certain to succeed vs a reasonable opponent (say, medium armor and a DEX bonus for AC 16) unless your target number is 3, which means a huge +13 bonus. That’s a 17th level character with maxed-out stats and a +2 weapon!

That doesn’t much matter, though. D&D combat features wars of attrition in many respects, as the combatants’ ablate each others hit points until they exhaust them, which brings the fighters from “fully functional” to “incapacitated” with a jolt and audible squelch. The key here is “hit more, do more damage, more frequently,” and that’s aided by high level fighter types getting as many as four or five attacks, depending on your level and how you’re armed.

Critical Thinking

Finally, D&D allows for “critical hits,” which double the value of the dice rolled for damage – this includes spells, melee, sneak attacks, whatever. Most people score a critical if they roll a natural 20 on the die roll, but some classes get Feats that allow a critical on 19-20 or even 18-20. So the basic chance for an unusual event is 5% (almost 10% with advantage!), but it can grow to 1 in 10 or even 1 time in 6, which makes a critical unusually usual.

Parry! Dodge! Duck!

In D&D, there’s really no such thing as a defense roll – the best you get is a Saving Throw, and that’s usually against attacks that don’t roll themselves: “The Magic User casts his spell. Save and take half damage, or fail and take full damage,” or the ever popular “Save or Die!”

But in hand-to-hand combat, all defensive actions are subsumed into a combination of Armor Class (“the blow thrown was good enough to be effective and reduce hit points”) or Hit Points – which can represent exhaustion, shock, and defenses as much as bleeding, bruising, and evisceration.

The two options that are present are a defensive dueling feat, which increases your AC (raises your foe’s Target Number), or Dodge, which gives your foes Disadvantage when attacking you.

Savage Worlds

This system also embraces the concept of rolling polyhedral dice, and in this case, it’s taken to a bit of an extreme. Your stats and skills are rated by die size – having a d6 is considered average, d4 is poor, and the highest die type in the Deluxe game is a d12. So an amazingly strong, agile, and skilled fighter might roll Fighting d12 to hit, while an untrained, unskilled NPC might only roll the lowest d4 with an additional -2 for being untrained. The basic target number to hit is the foe’s Parry score (2+half your Fighting die, so a number from 2 to 8) for melee, and 4 for ranged combat – longer ranges subtract from your roll, rather than increasing the target number. If you exceed your target number by 4, it’s called a Raise, and nice things happen. Note this means if you’re striking untrained (d4-2), you’re effectively rolling 1d4 against a target that will range from 4 to 10 depending on your foe.

Two things are key about success rolls in Savage worlds. One is that maximum rolls on dice “explode,” referred to as an Ace in the game, which means you get to roll them again and add the result. So even a 1d4 roll can (in theory) roll a 20, or even 200, though the probability of that event will be exceedingly low. The other piece is that the probability of success is different for each unique combination of dice. Dealing with d4 through d12, adding from nothing to another d12, results in 20 unique probability curves.

That being said, the basic die types show strong differentiation in probability for that first success level of a 4+. A d4 will only succeed 25% of the time, while the d12 is 75%. Going from d4 to d6 is a big deal.

However, and somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, is that it can be better for basic successes to roll two small dice than it is to roll one large die. The d4+d4 is better than even a d12 until you hit a target number of 5. To get your first Shooting Raise at 8, d4+d4 is basically as good as d10. It also does funny things to the probability curve to roll two exploding dice, as the d4+d4 line on the plot shows.

If one were to make a full plot of all possible probability curves for one or two dice, it shows that – at least to me – it’s doubtful whether anyone could ever know exactly what the probabilities of success might be. The best you can really do is get a feel, generally, that the higher the sum of the maximum die face types, generally the better, though there can be some odd behavior for any given target. Since most targets seem to be low, basic success and even a Raise or two seems likely. Basic success is often 2-6; does one really ever need a success and six Raises? Maybe, maybe.

In fact, if we look at it just that way, looking at the chance of getting a 4, 8, or 12 – a success vs a 4, plus 1 or 2 Raises, you can see that it’s just good to roll two dice. Once you’re fishing for a Raise, the odds of getting one go up about 5% for each +1 to the maximum total. So going from d8 to d8+d4 should increase the chance of you getting that Raise by 20% (exact value is closer to 30%). Two Raises is pretty improbable until you’re rolling a pair of d8s or so.

Complicating this for player characters and important NPCs – Wild Cards in Savage Worlds’ lexicon – is the Wild Die. Wild Cards roll an extra d6 – the Wild Die – and take the better of that die and the die you usually roll on any Trait test (a roll against an attribute or skill). That does odd things to the probability chart in some places.

How Awesome am I?

Generally, then, bigger is better. The target numbers for at least basic success are low enough that, including the effects of the Wild Die, even if you’re rolling a d4 you’ll still succeed about 60% of the time. Even with a d12, though, you’re not quite hitting 90%.

That being said, with a d12 (which is really the max of d12 and d6), you’ll get a Raise 50% of the time. A quirk of how the dice explode makes a d6 and d8 (plus Wild Die) equivalent for getting the first raise, so having a d10 in a Trait is probably the entry level for being awesome here.

So only if you’re rolling a d12 plus a Wild Die are you almost certain to succeed. If you ever get the chance to roll more than one die and add them together (like damage rolls), your ability to get multiple Raises goes way up. That’s a strong post-success incentive.

Critical Thinking

One very interesting thing about the exploding dice is that they can be (not should be, can be!) used to simulate events of vanishingly small probability. As an easy example, you can actually stat out a “one in a million” event by setting a target number of 54 on d4, or 80 on d10. Why you would do this, I cannot say, but if you’re rolling d10 to see if a one in a million event occurs, it will if you get a success and 19 Raises.

Savage Worlds is – by self-declaration – a “roll and shout” system, designed for fast and loose play. It has, however, the finest resolution of any of the systems examined here.

You can critically fail, though – if you roll a 1 on both the main die and your Wild Die, the GM gets to do something evil to you. There’s no unique “critical success,” since multiple levels of Raises take care of extraordinary outcomes on the positive side.

Parry! Dodge! Duck!

As with D&D, Savage Worlds represents defenses with an increase in target number. There is Defend, which raises your target number by 2, and Full Defense, which actually allows you to substitute a Fighting roll at +2 for your normal 2+half of Fighting as a target number. So if you have a d8 (normal Parry 6), you roll d8+2. On the average, you’ll increase your defense by 1/2, but with the exploding dice, defenses can get very high.

Night’s Black Agents

D&D and Savage Worlds both have something in common: rolling polyhedral dice against a target number. D&D uses the d20 for hit resolution, while Savage Worlds uses exploding d4 through d12. Night’s Black Agents, a genre-specific treatment of the GUMSHOE engine, also rolls vs. a fixed target number – but the only die you roll is a single d6, and the target number is either 2 or 3 (for mooks), or 3 or 4 (with Athletics at 8 or higher) for major humans. Target numbers for nasty critters can be arbitrarily high.

The way combat works in NBA is really one of dramatic emphasis. It’s a skill test – roll 1d6 and if you want, you can spend from your pool of Hand-to-Hand, Weapons, or Shooting. Pool spends take some mental adjustment. A high pool (a level of 8 or higher) is typical for the better abilities for a character in NBA, whose premise is “Jason Bourne fighting vampires and their minions.” But even though the odds of hitting a mook with a TN of 3 are 66%, that’s not necessarily very Black Ops, since you can do that with or without training. But you can spend your points and get success – even guaranteed success.

But you can run out pretty fast. At a two-point spend for an automatic success, you’ll exhaust your pool in four blows, and have to refresh somehow. After that, you’re no better than an untrained person when it comes to exchanging blows. Sort of.

Player-Facing Combat

One of the key bits of the rules that also speaks to “I’m awesome” is that against certain kinds of opponents – namely the faceless  mooks and guards that, by definition your Bourne-esque character is mind-bogglingly better than – the combat resolution system changes. Explained in a box on p. 64 of the Night’s Black Agents hardback, the resolution mechanism is simple. Make an appropriate “I’m sneakier than a black bat on a dark knight” skill, but if you fail, you can spend some of your “I’m awesome” general point budget to succeed anyway. Then make a single attack against your foe’s usual target threshold. Thus far, that’t not really that different from the regular mechanics. The difference is that the “effect roll” is more or less bypassed; the mook goes down in as dramatic (or dramatically quiet) way as the player wishes them to. A silenced sniper shot, the knife-thrust to the neck or heart that manages to instantly drop and incapacitate a foe, the single arrow shot that manages to do the same thing. Basically, the staple of every commando movie ever, given mechanical weight. This is, quite explicitly, to keep the drama high and not let a die roll ruin a perfectly good plan.

How Awesome am I?

The real key is not thinking of point spends as ability level – what they represent is screen time. In an action-adventure movie, when you’re spending points, you’re basically swinging the camera your way. You can do that a few times per scene, and if you reach a Haven, you can fully refresh three general abilities. So you can shine more often than others in any given scene, and do that repeatedly during an adventure.

But that’s really it. The mechanics aren’t truly success-based, in the way that the other games are – though of course you are, in fact, rolling for and buying success. They’re drama-based, focused on how often you’re doing something great on camera. Thus the player-facing combat option, which keeps the spotlight squarely on the PCs doing awesome things with little resistance from foes that are merely scenery. Maintaining that perspective, in combination with a firm grasp of the narrative role of your character, is where it’s at for Night’s Black Agents.

Critical Thinking

You can roll a critical in NBA. A natural 6 on 1d6, plus exceeding the target number by 5, gets you double damage. For a target of 3, the only way to secure that is a 2-point spend, so you roll 8 total with a 6 on 1d6.

Parry! Dodge! Duck! Weave!

The game provides several defensive options, all of which boost your hit number. Since the die roll is always 1d6, even a 1-point boost is a significant change in the odds, but if you’re fighting someone with a high point pool, you’re going to run out first.

Finish Him!

All of the games presented here take a fairly straightforward approach to the basic theme of beating the snot out of someone. On your turn, roll against a target number, and if you succeed, you inflict damage. Any skill or ability to fend off blows tends to be wrapped up into an adjusted target number. D&D is explicitly this way, with extra-thick plate armor giving a higher Armor Class. Night’s Black Agents and Savage worlds have variable target numbers based on fighting skill to some extent, but within that range, your target is what it is, subject to player choices to exercise certain defensive options.

Once you get used to this – and if you started in D&D, anything else often feels more than a little odd – the potential lack of agency in having to be a PC-shaped training pell or reactive target fades into the knowledge that your foe just gets to sit there and take it on his turn as well.

Who’s Ready for Round 2?

Next week, this post will continue, looking at Fate and GURPS. These are a narrative, or fiction-forward system in Fate, and a second-by-second tactics-focused engine in GURPS. Both provide at least the illusion of enhanced player agency in the form of defense rolls.

Or do they?

I’m curious as to what people think of Savage Worlds.

It’s one of the systems that seem to have been adopted somewhat broadly, and people say good things about it. I downloaded the 16-page Test Drive v6 and read through it.

I definitely have opinions. But . . . I’ve never played, and you can’t usually fully judge a system without playing it.

So, when I asked about it, some things that came up were:

  • It rewards co-operative tactical play, and strongly encourages inter-party assistance 
  • It plays fast and encourages having side-kicks, etc. 
  • Well supported both by third party license and the company. 
  • Fairly simple but colorful (lots of advantages/skills/powers) while also supporting tactical play. 
  • Multi-genre, albeit in the form of numerous ad-on sourcebooks rather than unified concept. There are plentiful and interesting sourcebooks and world books. 
  • Decent production values in most cases 

I’d be very interested in actual play anecdotes, pro/con style feedback that’s constructive and well informed. If you think it sucks, fine – but please tell me why, and tell me where you ran into issues in actual play (or if it’s a mechanics issue that can be underpinned with math, that’s OK too).

The Responses
Most people respond on Google+ instead of commenting on the blog; no problems there. But I wanted to collect these in one place, as well. They’ll get long, so I’ll put a “below the fold” break in there for readability’s sake.
I’ve never GM’ed it, but I’ve played it a few times under a very good GM expert in the system, and the games were excellent because we had a very good GM who was expert in the system. The system mostly stayed out of the way except in combats, which (despite the exclamatory claims) weren’t notably fast (slower than most systems we were used to at the time), and were conspicuously fiddly, with cards and stuff yanking us pretty hard out of character perspective compared to what we were used to with other games. Overall: A good, but basically unremarkable, multigenre rulekit with some fiddly bits.

I have called it “B/X to GURPS AD&D” more than once. It has some really interesting design ideas that I like a great deal, but sacrifices a great deal of granularity for speed of character creation and play.
The use of playing cards, which was thematically awesome in Deadlands, feels off in almost every other genre (though a nice tarot themed deck might help with a fantasy game).
The community around the game is very active and very creative.
It serves best in a game of cinematic heroes doing awesome things right out of the gate rather than remotely a “start at level 1” style of play.
I’ve played it a lot and run it a lot. In fact, I gave up on GURPS for SW. Mostly, this is because of prep time. GURPS is wonderful at detailed world building, but I have kids now; no time to build anymore. I DO find SW faster in combats than GURPS. And the cards don’t seem to get in the way. It’s not my end-all, be-all system, but it is my go-to when I want to hit the ground running. Plus, the support is amazing, with creators being available to answer queries online and many, many choices of games to play (some amazing, some terrible, most at least okay). The community is also very friendly and the games tend to fun. I still reference GURPS books when I GM, I just use the ideas in SW nowadays.
It’s a point build system like GURPS but greatly simplified. It is light, loose, and great for pulp style adventures. You are meant to be bigger than life and do awesome things. The initiative system works great especially with large numbers. But if you want a lot of crunch, this is not the system for you. Every thing from skills to abilities are archetypical and as light as possible. But if you want to play a Firefly style game, Indiana Jones, high fantasy, works great for all of those. 
It’s not my go to system, nor likely will be, but it is a good system for what it wants to be. 
It is fast on the table, with huge swings in momentum, but assumes you are playing with miniatures. There is no good way I’ve come up with to play online or in the “Theater of the Mind”. Prep super easy! That is probably one of the biggest advantages. It is also a little quirky for players who cut their teeth on other games. Lots of small rules that have a large effect. The shaken rules always seem to stump new players. The dice mechanics are fun. I heard Shane was asked one time why they added the “wild die” and exploding die mechanics and his answer was simple; “players like to roll dice, and it is fun”.
Simple to teach generic system that’s pretty much good at anything. Great for con games and new gamers. 
Rules: You need a 4 or better. The better you are at something the bigger the die you roll.
I’m always amazed by how well it handles a variety of settings. I’ve seen ghostbusts, cthulhu, spys, Tron and Transformers and all worked just as well.
My personal experience: I had been hearing about it on and off for about a year, poked through the book at the local game store finally and it looked interesting. So I said “heck, it’s only $10, why not?”
It sat there for about 6mo untouched (time constraints, real life, what have you)
Finally picked it up a few (2, maybe 3) months ago, gave it a quick read through (maybe 2 hours tops). Unfortunately my group was already running a game and had 3 more games lined up, so their interest was basically non-existent.
Last month I decided to heck with my gaming group and asked my GF (who’s got only about a year of tabletop experience) if she was interested in running a small game to test out the system.
15 min later we had her character finished. Note, that this is with neither of us having any of the skills and whatnot memorized, so there was quite a bit of flipping back and forth in the book and we STILL had characters done that fast.
Then we dove into a game, we had a blast playing for about 90min and had a fulfilling and complete adventure that left both of us wanting to play more.
We played a 4-adventure fanatasy SW-introduction-campaign (that unfortunately is available in German only).
It is an expansion of the Socath-adventure (the old starter-adventure).
This campaign showcases all rules – from skill checks (first adventure) to combat (second) to chases and mass-combat (third) to a full dungeon adventure including a “boss fight” (last). Boss fights do not always “work well” in SW, though.
SW indeed plays fast and fun – we especially loved the initiative by drawing cards and the benny-concept (already integrated in other systems we play right now). “Exploding dice” (i.e. re-roll on max number and add the numbers up) also are a fun concept, if you are not used to it from other systems.
The mass combat rules blend seemlessly with the rest of the system, with the player characters actions really making a difference (if you want).
We’ve used SW as system for a setting we wanted to play, but where we didn’t like the original system.
We also will replace Shadowrun’s system with SW next time we play Shadowrun.
SW’s rules are actually quite “slim” – no huge number of rulebooks required (although there are some available, like the Fanatasy- and SciFi-companion).
There are also countless “savaged” settings to be found on the internet – Fallout(!), Shadowrun, you name it.
Eric Simon explains on his blog why he chose Savage Worlds as his core system

+Dave Sherohman 
It’s a good system.  It’s a fun system.  It’s just not a system for me.

Savage Worlds is designed primarily for pulp, action movies, etc. and it’s really good at that.  It’s not so good at gritty, low-powered gaming.  It’s difficult to strip away enough of the plot armor to give PCs a more-than-minimal chance of dying.  Because of exploding dice, there’s always a non-zero chance of death, but it remains minimal even when the PCs are outclassed.

It does extremely well with situations where the PCs are supposed to be blowing through mooks with minimal (but not zero) resistance, and even more so if the PCs have a squad of good-guy mooks beside them.  It can also do enemies that are nigh-untouchably tough who you have to set up just the right situation with all the advantages on your side, plus have some good luck (or enough bennies to spend on rerolls) to be able to beat them.  It has trouble with anything in between, though, because the margin between these two extremes is rather thin.  Because of this, standard advice for Savage Worlds is not to even try to do “one big boss”-type fights – someone will get a lucky roll and one-shot him, so give the important bad guys a bunch of mooks, too.

Most importantly, it’s an inexpensive game.  If you think there’s any chance you’ll like Savage Worlds, buy a copy (or I think there’s a free quickstart version you can download) and try it for yourself.  Even though I ended up deciding that it doesn’t do what I want from my RPGs, I’m glad I tried it and I had a lot of fun in the process of determining that.  (I ran SW for about a year before finally realizing that my differences with the system were too deep to easily houserule around them.)

+Charles Saeger (from the comments section)
It plays fast and has loads of options. It’s kind of a rules-lite GURPS. It has a good selection of foes in the main book, which is something SJG should have heeded. I played in a fantasy game that had converted from Labyrinth Lord (B/X retroclone) and the characters all had sweet powers fast, with good characterization. I wouldn’t go for it as my main system (obviously GURPS) or anything really serious, but it would work great for things that are fast. Star Wars springs to mind as a good fit. You don’t have a lot of tactical options, unlike GURPS; it’s kinda like D&D here. Like D&D, no defense rolls. 

We follow the underground pathway for a bit longer, and eventually come to a small building area known as Crossroads. We’re met by a gnome in armor, with a golem of some sort, 10′ tall or so. For moral support.  

They discover (because we tell them) that they’ve come home, to Crossroads. A celebration must ensue! 

They take us to their main city, PrinceTown, which +Ken H lovingly rendered in full detail. The primary city is under a large metal dome – defensible and artistic. It is smooth, with no visible seams or joins. It looks like one piece of steel. Each door can be seen opening and closing, but the doors themselves are quite thick, and seem to open themselves, automatically.

We had a party, and the mayor gave a speech. The Hobgoblins came, stole their friends, and these heroes, (for a healthy price), rescued them, yea ha! Bless this food, this gathering, and these heroes, etc. Amen.

+Daniel McEntee arrives. We tell him we’re at a Gnome feast. He asks if we’re on the menu. We say no, and continue.

We gain some knowledge about the map of the Gnome’s territories, a large land, and note that we came through Benn’s house. The map shows Benn’s House to Princetown, and that was about 94 squares. Um. Rough guess about 30 miles, making the extent of the Gnome lands about 10 miles by 6 miles. Making it larger than Rhode Island (kidding. Mostly.)

In any case, we gain knowledge abut the Dwarven Exploration, and the Gnomish History.

Summary of Dwarven Exploration Notes 

The dwarven engineers, builders and miners associated with the Elementalist Monastery left their
exploration notes with the gnomes. Here is the summary: 

  1. The elementalist monastery is 5 levels deep. 
  2. There have been at least two previous settlements of dwarves: 
    • There are remnants of a dwarven city that lie below the fifth level of the elementalist
      monastery. There is no records of this in written dwarven history and the elves simply
      say that the dwarves were stupid to mine and build in such a cursed area. 
    • There was a later influx of dwarves. They avoided the ruins of the dwarvish city and
      mined extensively throughout the area. They were a large but disorganized group,
      which many of them eventually ending up quite deep in the earth. They were able to
      mine significant amounts of gold and silver, but it was a dangerous place. The smart few
      left and most of the rest died. There is some belief that dwarves continued to migrate
      deeper and they are still down there somewhere. 
  3. The dwarves involved with the elementalist monastery discovered a distant gold mine and, with
    the help of the gnomes, built wagons riding on metal rails to transport themselves and their
    gold. The elementalists discouraged this worldly pursuit of wealth, but some in the monastic
    order began to enrich themselves. 
  4. The dwarves discovered several places that were created by outsiders. The first was an area of
    obelisks. The dwarves were banished from this area by the elementalists. Some dwarven
    explorers discovered an area with some of the outsider creatures in tanks near an ancient
    dwarven mining area. This was seen as a very dangerous area and the dwarves destroyed the
    ancient bridge that crossed the chasm, thus severing access from the elementalist monastery.

Summary of the Gnome Chronicles

The gnomes wrote a chronicle of their escape from the elementalist civil war. This is a summary: 

  1. The human monks in the elementalist monastery fell apart into three factions. One faction had
    grown rich by stealing from the dwarven miners. Some within this faction fell into the practice of
    demon worship. A second group was enticed by the powerful magic left behind by the outsiders
    who had once inhabited this area. They used this power to bend the universe in unwholesome
    ways. They also became cannibals. A third group wanted to remain faithful to the elementalists’
    beliefs and practices. They were quickly wiped out, despite the capable leadership of Cassius. 
  2. The dwarves and gnomes fought alongside Cassius. They were able to drive the demon
    worshippers off, chasing them to the dwarves’ ancient gold mining area many miles to the east
    of the monastery. 
  3. The victory had weakened Cassius’ group. He released the gnomes and dwarves to flee for
    safety. Despite overwhelming odds, Cassius and his group was almost successful in their attack
    against the cannibal faction. The cannibals had progressed quickly in their knowledge of alien
    magic and with this magic they defeated Cassius and his followers. 
  4. The gnomes fled through the ant colony to their garden area and then down. The dwarves
    helped them flee, but the dwarves were hunted down and eaten. The gnomes who were
    captured were sacrificed in a secret magic ritual known only to the cannibals. 
  5. The gnomes descended deep into the earth until they found a large cave filled with a forest of
    mushrooms. They carved a small farming community at the western end of the forest. 
  6. Sometime later, a group of stone giants, who also followed in the elementalist way, settled in
    the remaining portion of the forest. They and the gnomes developed an understanding that was
    to their mutual benefit.

The mayor notices that Duncan the Gnome has a hat that gives him a royal countenance. He doffs his hat and bows, revealing the crown of the gnomish king! General amazement ensues, and the gnomes ask if Duncan has returned to be king. 

The mayor leans in, and offers 10 gold bars as a reward for returning the gnomes, but he’ll personally double it if we leave and not come back.

“Oh, well, we didn’t have enemies until you guys showed up.”
“That you knew of. Your people were getting eaten.”
“We have strong allies in the Stone Giants. We give them food, they give us stoneware.”
“But they were eating your people.”
“We had no enemies until you guys showed up.”

I start to wonder if we’re going to have a re-run of “how many five-year-olds can you beat up?” Do you know how mayors and other politicians react when you threaten to take their power away?


There are wood golems and guys in armor around too. The conversation starts to get heated, pointed, and Luven starts sizing up the opposition. There are about 25 gnomes in armor, in groups of 3, each with a construct per group. . 

Duncan offers that we can ask for the current offer plus a few constructs to help us remove the “menace” and ask if any young gnomes would like to enter service to “our royal self”

Duncan stands up, exposes his gnomish crown, and offers up a mighty speech. He totally nails his Charisma check, +2 for leading gnomes, as the gnomes rename the town Kingstown. The mayor takes off his sash, goes down on one knee, and offers up his sash to Duncan.

“OK, we’ll finish the feast and hold court in the morning! Where can we sleep?”
“Somewhere with really thick walls and squeaky floors,” says Nosphryc, sotto voce.

All hail King Duncan! And Queen Breena! (Wait, what? What about the bear!)

“Yay! We have a king! That’s come to stay with us! Forever.”

We keep expecting Ken to ask us all to roll up new characters. You didn’t get a TPK, it was a TPP – Total Party Politicization. Keeping the TP in politics, as if it needed the help. “If you have an election lasting more then four hours, you should seek Clerical help!”

Duncan decides to retire and become king! First time we have a mid-game character loss due to becoming royalty! He decides to make up a Eldritch Knight at 5th level.

“I want to go to the crappy town where I’m a hero.”  – Hoban Washburne

We each get 3,900 x.p for delivering the rescued gnomes…Duncan gains an extra 5,000 for becoming king
 Nosphryc is about 1200XP shy of next level; a T-shirt appears on the screen: