Cinemechanix: What Rolls Mean

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Friday, 08 February 2019 Written by Steve

While the dice are different, the interpretation of rolls in Cinemechanix has so far been exactly the same as QAGS, with the difference between the character’s successful roll and the target number (whether it’s a static difficulty number set by the GM or another character’s opposing roll) representing the extent of the character’s success. One thing I want to do with these rules is to encourage players to use that success number (called Effect in Cinemechanix) to do cool stuff, whether it’s making an attack with special effects or putting some of it toward some goal that takes place over multiple actions (for example, backing an opponent into a corner or hacking your way through a horde of mooks without having to kill them individually). So far, every attempt has been either so vague it’s practically useless or so crunchy that most people won’t bother with it. 

I think one of the real problems with turning the Effect into something useful is that the numbers are too high for the kinds of things they need to translate into. This is a problem with QAGS as well, which is why damage is so deadly if you don’t understand that you have to use Yum Yums to stay alive. That’s a system eccentricity that most people can pick up pretty quickly, but every other time I’ve tried to turn the Success Degree (which is what Effect is called in QAGS) into a concrete mechanical effect, it’s gotten clunky because it usually requires dividing the number by some factor (the superpowers rules in Weird Times at Charles Fort High are probably the clunkiest example) in order to make the number usable. I can bullshit away 17 points of damage by claiming bennies fix it, but a -17 modifier on a d20 just doesn’t fly. 

So far with Cinemechanix, I’ve been trying the same kind of tricks that I never quite got to work with QAGS. The only real improvement is that with Cinemechanix I can use Hero Factor as a go-to divisor, which seems less arbitrary than 4 or whatever number I used to kick down the numbers in various QAGS systems. But you’re still doing division, which brings up rounding questions and feels complicated even though you’ve had most of it memorized since grade school. No matter how smooth you try to make it, it’s still going to feel clunky. 

One solution might be to dial down the dice to something with a smaller range, but I like the general range that the game operates on (somewhere in the 10-25 range for a typical PC roll) because it lets the GM to hand out small bonuses and penalties without skewing the outcome. A +1 for describing the action in a cool way or delivering a good one-liner with the punch isn’t going to have a huge impact if the final roll is between 10 and 20, but if you’re rolling a d4 that +1 is a potential game changer, meaning the GM has to be stingier with the positive reinforcement that bonuses can provide. Lower dice also mean lower differences between the winner and loser, which (as we discovered in the original “roll a bunch of d20s and keep the best” mechanic) can result in contests that take forever because the rolls are so close the characters are just swapping small changes in advantage (or in combat, tiny amounts of damage). So no, I like the dice we’re using (whatever those are this week). 

So maybe the best plan is to look at the Effect differently. If we just need a general idea of how successful an action is, we can stop at the Effect value, but if we want to translate Effect into other game mechanics, let’s treat the ones and tens digits as separate numbers with different meanings within the context of the roll. This is an idea that usually shows up in d100 systems (I think Unknown Armies uses it), but I think the concept works pretty well here, especially if the 10s digit is used for things where a little goes a long way (since it’s usually going to be 3 or less). What I’m thinking is that the 1s digit is your level of success and the 10s digit is a combination of overkill and stunt points that allow you to do cool stuff. 

For combat, the application is easy if we assume a damage system with two types of damage, Stamina (exhaustion, cuts and scrapes, aches and pains) and Wounds (lasting damage). The ones digit is Stamina damage, the 10s digit causes wounds. For every point in the 1s digit, you can also do something cool, like try to disarm the opponent or knock the opponent down or whatever. Some options might make you trade the wound for the cool move, but I think in most cases you’ll get to cause the wound and do something. One reason is that the 10s digit will usually be a low number. The other is that getting players to trade actual damage for cool combat effects can be a hard sell (even when it doesn’t require the players to do math that simple bloodshed skips right over). Giving an opponent a penalty by using a cool move or dirty trick might allow you to win the combat faster, but knifing the fucker seems like a surer path to a quick victory. So screw it, why not both? 

Outside of combat, the same basic idea applies. If you’re questioning someone, a 10s digit higher than 0 means the witness reveals additional things the PCs didn’t know in her answer. If you’re shooting pool, the 10s digit is the number of extra balls you sink in one shot. If you’re doing a high dive, the 10s digit is how many somersaults you pull off before hitting the water. In general, every point in the 10s digit lets you do 1 more thing to make the action cooler or more useful. 

The 10s digit can also be applied toward goals, which is an idea I’ve only touched on previously but really want to expand on. In addition to letting characters accomplish tactical goals (herding the monster into position to spring your trap, cutting through big piles of mooks without having to personally kill each one, etc.), the basic concept can replace the (currently way too crunchy) rules for extended rolls, especially if you use the 1s digit as a bonus to the next roll in cases where the individual rolls don’t need mechanics. When it comes to Goals, I think the player does have to give up the extra cool thing if he wants to add to the gaol. 

Example: Agent Booth is chasing Paulie Walnuts. Paulie has a bit of a head start, so the GM decides he needs 2 successes to get away from Booth. Booth needs 4 successes to catch him. 

  • Round 1: Booth rolls 14, Paulie rolls 8, so Booth’s Effect is 6. That doesn’t give booth any successes, but he gets +6 on his next roll. 
  • Round 2: Booth rolls 20, Paulie rolls 3, so Booth’s Effect is 17. He scores 1 success and gets +7 on his next roll. 
  • Round 3: Booth rolls 10, Paulie gets really lucky on an exploding die and rolls 21, for an Effect of 11. Instead of putting a point toward his Goal, he uses his success to blend into a group of senior citizens on their way to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The GM decides Booth will have to burn a success to spot him. 
  • Round 4: Booth rolls 12, Paulie rolls 6. Since Booth doesn’t get a success to burn, he temporarily loses Walnuts, but he does get +6 on his next roll as he scans the crowd (Paulie’s not moving too fast in the middle of all those old people). 
  • Round 5: Booth rolls 20, Paulie rolls 8, so Booth has an Effect of 12. He spots Paulie by burning his success and gets a +2 to his next roll.
  • Round 6: Booth rolls 25, Paulie rolls 4 (Effect 21). Booth now has 3 successes and gets +1 to his next roll. 
  • Round 7: Booth rolls 7, Paulie rolls 17 (Effect 10). Paulie scores 1 success, meaning that the next success will decide the chase. Since Paulie’s 1s digit is zero, neither character gets a bonus to the next roll.
  • Round 8: Booth rolls 15, Paulie rolls 10 (Effect 5). The chase is still on, but Booth gets +5 to his next roll. 
  • Round 9: Booth rolls 23, Paulie rolls 5 (Effect 18). Booth is now close enough to tackle Paulie Walnuts, and the GM rules that he can add the +8 to his attack roll. 

The same basic pattern can be used for any kind of roll that you don’t want to resolve with single die roll: research, negotiations or persuasion attempts, science and inventing, etc. You can also slightly switch it up  slightly to provide a countdown clock. For instance, if the players are doing a break-in, the GM may rule that the countdown clock starts at 5 and decreases by 1 per round. When it reaches zero, the guard patrol will pass by the safe the players need to crack. The players can use success to add to the clock. Depending on what actions the players are taking, these additions to the clock could represent the burglars either working faster, getting lucky, or slowing down the guards in some way. 

As usual, math and playtesting will be required, but if it works this scheme may get around a wall I’ve been banging my head against for quite some time.

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