Re: ICONS #1

I can’t speak for other game designers but, if it weren’t for deadlines and the need to produce, you know, an actual product at some point, my game designs would never truly be “finished.” Instead, they would just undergo more and more playtesting, revision, minor tweaks (and sometimes even major revisions), and then spin off entire other ideas, leading me to put aside that game for a while and go through the process all over again with another design, until I came back to the game with a fresh perspective to start running and playing it again, ad infinitum.

Because I’m always looking for ways to make things “better”. I put that in quotes because it does not necessarily mean objectively better (although there are ways to do that to writing and game design, too) but better in my own esteem, closer to “finished” than it was before, even if finished is a value of infinity I can never completely reach. A lot of that “better” is purely subjective, different ways of describing or approaching things with different esthetics.

So it is with Icons, amongst many other projects. Since the game was published, I’ve continued to tinker with it. I’ve run it. I’ve played it. I’ve set it aside. I’ve watched and listened to others do so and, of course, I’ve thought about it, sometimes even when I should have been thinking about other things. As a way of processing some of those thoughts, getting them out of my head and down in words, I’ll be blogging about them on here. So…

Playing at Dice

One of the things I’ve considered about Icons is the dice. The game uses 2d6, one die designated positive, the other negative. The player rolls them and subtracts the negative die from the positive die to get a value from –5 to +5 as a modifier to the character’s ability level for a test.

Overall, I like the probability curve of the dice, and I like the accessibility of using two standard six-siders (despite my fondness for Fudge dice): who doesn’t have a couple of d6s hanging around? So I haven’t thought so much about replacing the dice. What I’ve thought more about is how the dice are rolled.

The existing system is fairly simple. Still, the player has to differentiate between the positive and negative die, and has to subtract one from the other before adding the result to the ability level. This is a bit more complex than die rolling in, say, Mutants & Masterminds, where it’s a single d20 roll + trait rank.

One option is the “high-drop” variant: essentially the same except, rather than adding the positive and negative die, you drop the die with the higher absolute value and just use the value of the lower die as the result. So if you roll +3 and –4, you drop the 4 and the roll is a +3. Doubles cancel out to +0. The probabilities are actually the same, but there’s no subtraction involved, although the player still has to differentiate the two dice.

Another I like is to “split” the dice: rather than having the player roll both (and in Icons, only players make die rolls) have the player roll the “positive” die and the GM roll the “negative” die, but rather than subtracting, the negative die is rolled and added to the difficulty set by the GM. Again, the net probabilities are the same, but this way the player only rolls and adds one die and the subtraction occurs as part of the regular effect vs. difficulty comparison.

Example: A player rolls a Coordination test for a hero to clear an obstacle. The player rolls 1d6, gets a 3 and adds it to the hero’s Coordination of 5 for an 8 effort. The GM has set the difficulty for the test at 4 and rolls a 2, for a total difficulty of 6. That makes the outcome of the test a 2 (8 effort – 6 difficulty), a moderate success.

This option is a bit more like M&M in that the player rolls and adds only a single die. I’m still not sure if the 1d6 roll feels too simple: there’s an argument to be made that a fistful of dice feels more “powerful” or “heroic” (it’s the premise Hero System has operated on for decades). This approach also gets the GM rolling dice, which can be seen as a bug or a feature depending on how you feel about the only players roll approach. It does, on the other hand, make everything an opposed roll, which makes PvP stuff easier.

As with a lot of system tweaks, it’s not necessarily that any of these alternative approaches make the system objectively “better” (in purely mathematical terms, they’re actually all the same) but they do have slightly different feels to them which can affect the experience of game play. If you’re in an Icons game, feel free to try them out and, if you do, drop me a line and let me know how they work out for you!