Cinemechanix Design Journal 23: More Changes Than That Bowie Song

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 02 September 2016 Written by Steve

Alert readers will notice I didn't post a blog last week. That's because I was re-writing the rules again. The good news is that the characters I posted two weeks ago still more or less work in the new new system. I'm keeping the format, for reasons I discussed in the post before that one, but I'm reworking the core mechanic again, which means that the Trope Numbers (and probably a few character's Special Effects) change. Those stats will actually look a lot more like the original character sheets, with the numbers dropping by half for most characters because I'm getting rid of roll modifiers and replacing them with something more akin to Bonus Dice in the original system.

The basic change to the core mechanic is that we're opening up the system to more dice than just the d20. Now, instead of rolling some number of d20s based on character traits and adding to them, players just roll two dice: A Default Die (which is a d20 if the Character Concept is applicable, a d12 otherwise) and a Hero Die (which is the highest die less than or equal to Hero Factor, so a Hero Factor 3 character rolls d2, Hero Factor 6 rolls d6, etc.). Instead of roll modifiers, you now have Boosts and Drops for things like Tropes. A Boost raises your Hero Die to the next dice up (d12s roll over to d12 + d2, so sometimes your Hero Die is really Hero Dice). A Drop lowers it (and if your Hero Die drops to zero, they lower the Default Die as well). So if youv'e got an appropriate concept, a Hero Factor of 4, 2 Boosts, and a Drop, you'd roll a d20 Default Die and a d6 Hero Die then add them together to get your total roll.

Turning what used to be roll modifiers into Boosts and Drops makes the math work out a lot better. Since character abilities increase (or decrease) the size (and sometimes number) of dice you're rolling, more competent characters are still going to generally get better numbers, but the range of likely results isn't as limited as when everyone's rolling multiple d20s. Also, since more powerful characters aren't just adding a huge bonus to their roll, there aren't cases where a less powerful character is mathematically barred from winning a roll. The guy rolling d20 + 2d12 might still roll three 1s and lose to the d12 Mook's 5. This also makes the arbitrary limit of 10 for Hero Factor less vital to avoid breaking the system. And best of, no roll modifiers. 

Why is getting rid of roll modifiers a good thing? Because adding them back to the system (at least as part of the core mechanic--there will still probably be cases where they're the simplest solution) felt like moving backwards. One of the things I liked about the original dice pool system was that if something helped or hurt a character's chances, you could just add a bonus or penalty die, so there was no need to worry about how much the thing helped or hurt--the randomness of the die determined that. You could theoretically apply that to modifiers, too, but something about giving an ability a concrete numerical bonus or penalty opens up a whole new can of worms and you inevitably start wanting to compare that bonus or penalty to other bonuses or penalties and fiddle with them so they're all accurate. So we're back to a different kind of fiddliness. When the bonus or penalty is variable (even if the range of variation is only 1 or 2, which is what a standard Boost or Drop is worth), the urge to compare it to other modifiers isn't nearly as strong for some reason. 

I probably should have gotten around to this fix sooner, but it was a long time coming because of a block I'd built for myself without even realizing it: The desire to use only a d20. Since QAGS was originally just a simple system I'd come up with for pick-up games, using just one die was to keep the equipment you needed to play to a minimum. Find a d20 and some kind of counters and you're ready to go. During the Open Game License glut, using only a d20 let us make snide comments about how we were the "real" d20 system since we didn't give those other dice the time of day. Somewhere in there, the crude little drawing of a smiling 20-sided die from the first edition of QAGS got redesigned and colored and became our mascot, Happy d20.

Since Cinemechanix started life as QAGS Third Edition, I never even considered using anything but a d20. Josh brought up the possibility when we were working through the second major tweak of the core mechanic, but I dismissed him, in part because of his specific suggestion of replacing the d20 with the d12 as the sole dice would make Happy d20 obsolete. What kind of monster was I dealing with, who could so casually suggest just tossing a loyal, long-term employee like Happy d20 out on the street in this economy? As you can probably guess by my concern for a drawing of a die, I was not in the right frame of mind to make the obvious leap of considering a way to keep both dice around somehow. 

Breaking down the block started on the Cinemechanix Playtest group with the idea of using other dice (which seemed easier to stomach than just firing Happy d20 and hiring some d12 scab) in addition to the d20. I suggested a possible way to do that, but was basically just making conversation. It was more "here's a mechanic that would do that" than "this is a mechanic I would consider using." I still felt like we needed to be a d20-only system. I think the block was in part because the d20 was one of the QAGS hallmarks that's still in the game. The early versions of the system still "felt like QAGS" despite the differences, and I think I was afraid that adding new, strange dice would cause that to go away. But really, if you're defining QAGS by its mechanics and dice rolls, that ship sailed a long time ago, maybe even before the system stopped being QAGS 3E. Also, Cinemechanix is not QAGS. I want it to keep a lot of the things that I love about QAGS, but Cinemechanix is really meant for a kind of game that QAGS can't pull off very well. The more I thought about the mechanic, the more potential I saw in it. By the time I started running the math I'd managed to reconcile any old bad feelings about the dice of my childhood (even that foot-poking little bastard d4). When I saw that the math actually worked better, I was sold. 

All these changes to the central mechanic of the game may seem excessive, but the Cinemchanix system is more about how to use the rules to build a game than what specific rules you're using, so the character trait redesign I did as part of the last iteration was actually more work than the rules changes for either version. The core mechanic is kind of like the engine in your car. It's vital to make the whole thing work, so you want the best you can get. But unless you're a gearhead it's probably not the main thing that made you buy the car in the first place. If all the other parts of the car work and are still in good shape and the engine blows up, most people are just going to replace the engine. The new engine has to be the right size and have all the right options to work in your car, but once it's replaced the fact that the car has a different engine probably isn't going to change your overall opinion of the vehicle. It's not the plank that turns Theseus' ship into a different boat for most people. With me, the core mechanic of a game is the same kind of deal, so I'm going to keep replacing engines until I find the one that works best. 

Replacing game engines is thirsty work. Hook me up with some beer money on Patreon.

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Cinemechanix Design Journal 23: More Changes Than That Bowie Song.
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