Dice for Specific Purposes

March table from Trajan: Ancient Wars. Note die result is the fifth line of the chart.
March table from Trajan: Ancient Wars. Note die result is the fifth line of the chart.

When I return to Nine Rabbit Heads in a Box (9RHiaB), sometime in Spring of 2017, I want to keep in mind dice for specific purposes (DSPs?). The example above is taken from Joseph Miranda’s Trajan: Ancient Wars. I made it from an 18mm blank wooden die and sharpie markers. TAW, like so many of Decision Games’s offerings is an ergonomic nightmare. The layout looks more like a rough draft. When tables arise in play it is always a jolly ol’ fox hunt.

A player:

  1. Declares a march after counting movement factors along a desired route;
  2. Checks the terrain table;
  3. Rolls a d6;
  4. Hunts for the movement table (on a bi-fold where the theme is vaguely logistical);
  5. Finds the result line;
  6. Consults the code;
  7. Looks back to the map;
  8. Moves.

My die above seems complex. In practice, using it increases the enjoyment of the game. The two terrestrial modes of movement are in black. The two amphibious ones are in green (river) because rivers are green and blue (sea) because this is the Mediterranean we’re playing in and the Med is always blue. Yeah, you still have to look up the effects, but the die rewards you for memorizing them by increasing enjoyment of the game. Learning the effects makes you a better player, too. Don’t be the kind of player who has to look up to a chart and then look up to a definition and then to the rulebook; everybody just tolerates that guy.

A high-speed player of TAW:

  1. Declares he is marching after counting movement factors along a desired route;
  2. Rolls the die;
  3. Moves.

Not only does this save five steps, the player barely takes his eyes off the game. Go listen to chess grandmasters hash out championship conditions sometime if you think visual ergonomics is a minor factor. Fortunately, wargamers are more agreeable pedants. Mostly. The ones I know love to constantly teach each other the game. Game calculations are performed in an incantatory murmur as a courtesy to their opponents and because they like to get things right. If this isn’t the case for you, either you play with brigands or wargames aren’t for you.

The gaming public whines for dice to be included in games. The gaming public, such as it is, needs to cowboy up and make simple components that increase enjoyment of the game. Dice like mine increase concision in rulebooks and player aids. They cut down on copyediting churn and lower errors. Part of good design is doing everything you can to increase your game’s enjoyment — words I’m certain to eat down the line. But I believe them right now. I’m not alone in this. Naw, naw. Command and Colors anyone? Anything by Fantasy flight? And these guys get it in a big way.

Here’s a picture of the discipline die [!] I made and the table it demolishes:

Discipline Table TAW
Column two. Black is “Imperator” because black is bad ass. Blue is veteran because blue is the color of US infantry. Green is green because it is green. Red is the color of rabble. Red underscored is Conan with red nails and veins in his teeth. Everyone needs a system and that is mine.

On Killing: Getting beyond One Step, One Hex

It takes a stone killer to kill a stone killer.
It takes a stone killer to kill a stone killer.

Here’s a partial response to Lewis Pulsipher, designer of Dragon Rage and Doomstar, about dicey wargames and deterministic euros. Occasionally Mr. Pulsipher floats a taxonomy he is considering to see what it provokes. Mr. Pulsipher associated dice and wargames with an historical approach, an association which I challenged, citing the necessity for designers of professional wargames to hide coarse-grained (non digital) randomization from military clients who really don’t appreciate it. You gotta pocket your dice if you want credibility with some soldiers. There is a huge reluctance to be seen taking chances in armed conflict. I’ve witnessed this myself. Leadership means certitude. Dice are the physical manifestation of incertitude. Better not to touch them.

As for wargamers, they only think they want control — what they really want is plausible rationalizations for failure at the right moments. A lot of so-called serious gamers are completely full of shit and need to be called on it. Not necessarily a winning commercial strategy, I’ll grant you. I’ve talked this over and over with every designer and player I respect and who will give me the time of day. After I finish my big project [FTGU] (which is deterministic move/randomized combat and a good system designed by Jim Krohn) I want to do a grand tactical system that I’ve outlined called “Nine Rabbit Heads in a Box”. My idea is to allow everything to be deterministic to better get at the differences in the fluidity of operational rhythm by emphasizing time and attrition effects. A “move” will include maneuver and combat in the same go. The objective is to create a game I could use for a staff ride and resolve in an hour or so, reliably evoking C2 and terrain challenges.

To which Mr. Pulsipher reasonably responded:

If they want rationalization for failure, surely they prefer games with uncertainty, not games where they feel in control (and consequently have to blame themselves, in two-player).

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. That’s my take on wargamer psychology, anyway. And why I responded to the initial post so enthusiastically. I think the most psychologically desirable outcome on a classic CRT is a “Defender loses one step and retreats one hex.” Resolution systems which deliver too many outliers too frequently beyond this outcome raise hackles. Everybody thinks they’re awesome at probabilistic analysis even though research shows otherwise– which is certainly true in the heat of the moment. This human weakness seems absolutely true considering historical contexts for warfare.

A little about humanity. In sports like tennis and fencing it has often been remarked that the most successful contestants will despatch the adversary without a second thought, something that most people — even good players — naturally hesitate to do. A winning mindset demands that sympathy be the opponent on the other side of the net more deserving of annihilation. Hence my notion that one step, one hex is the outcome that both attacker and defender find easiest to accept. This is the psychological norm for an attack on a given position. This psychological subtext demands that an attack, which is a rational, calculated decision — better that it have some effect, after all — but the attacker’s humanity in turn depends on sparing the defender’s ego. Or honor or whatever. The dice are there to take the heat for outliers to this yearned for outcome. They spare players’ humanity. Gamers of any sort don’t suffer violence to this notion well.