Thinking about RPG Dice

Obviously most RPGs use some sort of randomizing technique to determine the outcomes of actions that could fail in some interesting way. Most systems leverage the randomizer to give advantage to skilled actions and disadvantage to unskilled ones: generate a random total, add your skill, compare the total to some target, maybe.

  • FATE
    You roll four Fate dice. Each one is a special d6 with 2 faces showing a plus (+), 2 faces showing a minus (-), and two blank faces. Pluses count as 1, minuses as -1, and blanks as 0. Total ranges from -4 to +4, with 0 being the most likely outcome. Adding this total to your skill gives you a minimum of Skill value -4, potentially a negative score. The possibility for a negative score is brutal. However, by rolling 4 dice you increase the likelihood of an average roll, meaning your most likely score will be close to your skill value.
  • D&D / Pathfinder / D20 systems
    Here you roll just the one d20 and add your skill value. The minimum score is skill value + 1, and you are equally likely to get an average roll, a very high roll, or a very low one. This maximizes randomness, but we are all so accustomed to rolling d20s, that who would really notice?
  • Percentage systems
    You roll d100 and try to roll UNDER the target. Still basically the same as d20, as far as I can tell.
  • Burning Wheel / Mouse Guard / Torchbearer
    You roll a number of d6s equal to your skill value. Each d6 that shows a certain number or higher is a success; other dice are failures. Your score is the number of successes. Minimum score is 0; Most rolls will come out to roughly 1/2 the number of dice you roll. These systems rely on an objective sense of how a given task is to set a target number, and assert a certain level of mastery for each skill rank. If polished work is difficulty 3, then to reliably DO polished work you need to roll 6 or more dice. These systems allow you to use extra dice by spending points that you earn through roleplaying. This indirectly means roleplaying improves your chances of successful action.
  • Dice pool systems
    Sometimes you just roll a number of dice and add up all the pips. Usually a higher skill value means you roll a higher number of dice. In this case, your minimum value would be equal to your skill number, and the results curve would be steeper the more dice you roll – the chance of getting your minimum on a single d6 is 1/6; the chance of getting your minimum on 2d6 is 1/36; on 3d6 it’s 1/216; the more dice you roll, the less likely you are to get an extreme roll. Of course, the size of your average roll also increases, so that’s nice, too.
  • There’s no reason you couldn’t design a system that always rolls 5d6 and adds the total to a skill value. this would be effectively equivalent to d20, but the distribution of scores would be more predictably average the more dice you roll. And the more dice you roll in such a hybrid system, the less impact your skill value would have.
  • Savage Worlds
    If you are good at a skill, you roll a bigger die; if you are bad, you roll a smaller one. Minimum score is 1, regardless; the reward of being skilled is in the higher maximum. If you roll your maximum on the die, you get to reroll and add the totals together, and you repeat this as long as you keep rolling the max on each die. PC/hero characters also roll a d6, so I guess the minimum is really 2. Notice that your chance of rolling the max value on a die decreases the bigger the die is. It’s ok, though. To get an 8 rolling a d8, you have a 1/8 chance. To get the same 8 on 2d4, you have a 1/16 chance. This system has a lot of volatility, maybe more than d20. Roleplaying can earn you bennies in this system, and these can be used to improve your action outcomes.
  • Cortex
    Games using the Cortex system (Firefly RPG, for example, or Castlemourn) also reflect higher skill with a larger die, but you roll TWO varying dice rather than one varying die and d6 as in Savage Worlds. For example, to fight with a club, you would roll your Melee Combat die and your Strength die, so if you are weak (d4 strength) but highly trained with the club (d12 Melee/club) you roll a d4+d12. Depending on your intention you might roll a different attribute; for example, if you were trying to use your club with FINESSE, instead of your strength die, maybe you roll your agility die and your melee/club die. If you are less clumsy than weak, this could improve your outcome substantially. This flexibility of choice emphasizes player choice and role playing in a way that interests me. Drama points also available to improve outcomes here. Not sure how they are earned.
  • Clockwork: Dominion
    This system also asks you to choose a skill and an attribute, but instead of dice rolling, you add the two scores together and draw a card that could be any number from -5 to +5. I’m not sure the distribution of the cards, so I don’t have anything useful to say about the results curve, but I like systems that allow the player to choose HOW to execute the action by specifying which combination of skill and attribute to use.
  • Torg: Eternity
    You roll a d20, reroll 10s and 20s and add them to the total. Compare the total against a table to determine the relevant bonus, and add that bonus to your skill value. This is unnecessarily complicated. It’s designed to create a LOT of volatility in the outcomes. Minimum outcome is still your skill plus 1, though, and you can spend possibility points to increase your total. I feel like possibilities accrue automatically, though, without regard for roleplaying. This system is a refreshment of the 90s Torg. I wonder if Luke Crane saw possibilities in Torg and said “I can do more with those! and then wrote Burning Wheel. I should look up the relative publication dates.



A Tale of Two Dwarves

A few years ago, I helped publish WTF?!, my favorite anthology from Pink Narcissus Press. We built the collection around two truly excellent stories, each so peculiar and idiosyncratic that it would be difficult to publish through more traditional channels.







One of those stories is “A Tale of Two Dwarves,” by Peter Berger. Pete’s story is based on the ascii-graphics world-simulator game Dwarf Fortress. It involves pomagranates.

Here’s an audio of me reading A Tale of Two Dwarves. I hope you like it! If you do, feel free to buy the anthology! And thanks to Peter Berger, for permission to do this!

A Dream of Climbing

As a kid I had a recurring dream of climbing. Sometimes I was climbing our basement steps trying to reach the kitchen, and sometimes I was climbing a fire escape. I had never seen a fire escape in person, but I had seen “Sesame Street,” and trust me to have nightmares from watching “Sesame Street.” Regardless of what I was climbing, I was always climbing to escape, and I always experienced gradual paralysis. It’s not that I fell down, though; it was more like trying to run upstairs through thicker and thicker air, until my legs just weren’t strong enough to push me any further, and the air was thick enough to keep me from falling backward. At this point, the Count would catch up to me and push me down over and over, counting each time I got up and he pushed me down again. “One! Two hahaha! Three pushes!” etc.

So today a passage from Lovecraft’s “Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath” really resonated with me, super creepy. Randolph Carter has just asserted his acquaintance with the ghouls and resolved to call out in their language for help getting out of the pit where ghouls from all over the world throw the refuse of their grisly meals.

For the record, Randolph Carter also knows the ways and language of cats. Dreams are cool when you know how to work them. Also, what a great setting, the pit where ghouls all throw the used-up bones they’ve been gnawing. Wow!

Anyway, here’s the quote:

As he pondered he was struck by a flying bone so heavy that it must have been a skull, and therefore realising his nearness to the fateful crag he sent up as best he might that meeping cry which is the call of the ghoul.

Sound travels slowly, so that it was some time before he heard an answering glibber. But it came at last, and before long he was told that a rope ladder would be lowered. The wait for this was very tense, since there was no telling what might not have been stirred up among those bones by his shouting. Indeed, it was not long before he actually did hear a vague rustling afar off. As this thoughtfully approached, he became more and more uncomfortable; for he did not wish to move away from the spot where the ladder would come. Finally the tension grew almost unbearable, and he was about to flee in panic when the thud of something on the newly heaped bones nearby drew his notice from the other sound. It was the ladder, and after a minute of groping he had it taut in his hands. But the other sound did not cease, and followed him even as he climbed. He had gone fully five feet from the ground when the rattling beneath waxed emphatic, and was a good ten feet up when something swayed the ladder from below. At a height which must have been fifteen or twenty feet he felt his whole side brushed by a great slippery length which grew alternately convex and concave with wriggling, and thereafter he climbed desperately to escape the unendurable nuzzling of that loathsome and overfed Dhole whose form no man might see.

For hours he climbed with aching arms and blistered hands…

Transcending Pickman’s Frames

“Pickman’s Model” is not a dream vision. However, it invokes the image of the dream in a way that sets it parallel to the other framing devices of interest to the story: paintings and photography.

This story is structurally a bit of a departure for Lovecraft, since it is told almost as a dramatic monologue, with the first-person narrator, Thurber, describing some experiences to a listener, Eliot. In the process, Thurber defends his decision to stop socializing with Pickman, and is very firm that it was not a moral objection to Pickman’s subject matter.

It is crucial that Pickman is a painter, because paintings are artifice, isolated from reality literally by the frame (either in the form of the edges of the canvas itself or by that and the addition of a physical picture frame) and figuratively by being an invented image. Thurber asserts himself sophisticated enough that he is adamant he does not condemn Pickman on moral grounds for subject matter, which reinforces his belief in this division of painted horrors from the real world. Paintings are fancies, they are dreams, so they do not matter in a way that requires moral condemnation. Thurber asserts part of his aesthetic theory here:

You know, in ordinary art, there’s all the difference in the world between the vital, breathing things drawn from Nature or models and the artificial truck that commercial small fry reel off in a bare studio by rule. Well, I should say that the really weird artist has a kind of vision which makes models, or summons up what amounts to actual scenes from the spectral world he lives in. Anyhow, he manages to turn out results that differ from the pretender’s mince-pie dreams in just about the same way that the life painter’s results differ from the concoctions of a correspondence-school cartoonist.

In particular, notice the words vision and dream in this passage, and the way vision implies something more true than dream, for that odd definition of ‘true’ whose more optimistic usage we inherit through Emily Dickinson and John Keats and others – artistic truth. The idea of some dreams being valid and others false dates back at least to Homer, who describes the gates of horn and ivory through which dreams descend. True dreams enter our realm through the gate of horn, and false through the gate of ivory.

For Thurber, visions are created by true artists, great visionaries, and mere craftsmen create dreams. Even in our own contemporary conversation, consider the difference in tone and meaning between ‘visionary’ and ‘dreamer’.

The thing is, as much as Thurber respects visions more than dreams, he considers that both are fictions. The figurative frame “painting” provides a buffer for Thurber between the subject of the painting and what he considers real. This should inspire anxiety in the seasoned reader of Lovecraft, since several of his other stories argue that dreams are real, that in dreaming you simply achieve an extra-dimensional perception of things that are present always and everywhere, even though you cannot see them.

Some kinds of painting are more realistic (as distinct from real) than others, as in the passage above. The realist paints from life models, photographs, etc, and attempts to depict some curated subset of reality as closely as possible, where the fantasist invents whimsical, disturbing, unrealistic images from the imagination and renders them concrete on canvas. One of the reasons that Thurber had continued socializing with Pickman even after many others had stopped, was his conviction that Pickman must be a fantasist, who conjured horrors from his fancy – that Pickman’s visions were nevertheless fictions, however visionary.

That conviction shatters:

It was not any mere artist’s interpretation that we saw; it was pandemonium itself, crystal clear in stark objectivity. That was it, by heaven! The man was not a fantaisiste or romanticist at all—he did not even try to give us the churning, prismatic ephemera of dreams, but coldly and sardonically reflected some stable, mechanistic, and well-established horror-world which he saw fully, brilliantly, squarely, and unfalteringly.

At this point, though, being a realist could just mean Pickman is that much more disturbed, that he wishes to impose the TECHNIQUES of realism on his horrific fantasies; since Thurber has already asserted he doesn’t care one way or the other about Pickman’s moral failings, the possibility that Pickman is more disturbed than he previously seemed doesn’t cause Thurber to falter for long. He can still reassure himself that Pickman is creating fictions, even if he uses real men and dogs and places as models.

Pickman’s use of photographic models hints at further degeneration in the effectiveness of frames as a way to create distance between horror and reality. But at least photographs are curated – you don’t get the WHOLE truth from a photograph. Within the frame of a photograph light and shadow can distort truth, and of course just outside the boundary of the picture might lurk some image that changes the meaning entirely. And, again, Pickman can be using the features of a man or a dog or a building and imposing them on some context other than that which they inhabit by nature. So Thurber continues along his path, still confident that Pickman is a moral degenerate genius painter, intent on upsetting the viewer of his works, but nevertheless crafting fictions, however ingenious.

The final fact that convinces Thurber to avoid not just Pickman, but also all underground places like the subway and basements, is the revelation that the photograph shows the complete image of Pickman’s painting in progress,
not just some element of it waiting to be inserted into its gothic context. Thurber is broken by the destruction of the final frame, the final belief that divides horror from truth.

Thurber had persisted in his friendship because he was convinced that Pickman’s images were dream visions. His departure from the friendship occurs when he learns the truth that Pickman’s horrors are real. When all the frames break, so does Thurber.

Hypnosis and Higher Math

The narrator in “From Beyond,” comes to wish that he could believe his doctors.

I did not tell very much of what I had seen, for I feared the coroner would be skeptical; but from the evasive outline I did give, the doctor told me that I had undoubtedly been hypnotized by the vindictive and homicidal madman.
I wish I could believe that doctor. It would help my shaky nerves if I could dismiss what I now have to think of the air and the sky about and above me. I never feel alone and comfortable […]

It’s critical that he should “never feel […] comfortable” because that’s a key part of the Gothic project that Lovecraft pursues. The Gothic, among other things, attempts to undermine the things and ideas that give us comfort. Ghosts, for example, fulfill this purpose in at least three ways:

  • Dead things are not supposed to have agency at all, let along malevolent agency
  • We prefer to think of our dead loved ones as benevolent
  • The presence of dangerous ghosts means that these souls did not go to Heaven – what if there is no such place?

In “From Beyond” this Gothic project is expressed explicitly in the narrator’s wish that he could believe his experience to have been induced hypnotically, which would relegate the extradimensional monsters to the realm of dreams. The alternative, which he feels obliged to believe, is that these creatures are real, and constantly around us, and that only their (and to a lesser extent our) inability to perceive beyond certain geometrical/geographical dimensions prevents them from making us their helpless prey.

Consequently, the alternatives are

  1. We share our waking world with unimaginable horrors, and we must be very cautious not to learn too much mathematics lest we accidentally expose ourselves to their influence, or
  2. The dream world, which in “Polaris” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” have been viewed as better than the waking world, is in fact the home of these unimaginable horrors, so we must be careful about sleeping.

Notice how these options undermine OTHER concepts in which we take comfort: knowledge and its pursuit should lead to progress, not peril; sleep should be rejuvenating, not dangerous.

It gets even worse, though. In “The Dreams in the Witch House,” the extradimensional space that hosts the horrors is directly associated with dreaming, so we are denied even the illusion of alternatives.

When the Dreamlands are better

I really need to account for Lovecraft’s treatment of dreams for this larger project about latter-day dream visions. Since there’s quite a lot of Lovecraft, in addition to looking at the particular Gaiman-introduced volume of Lovecraft’s dream stories, I’ve been asking around for recommendations.

In particular, for this project, I need texts that either

  • follow a Waking – Dreaming – Waking structure explicitly, in which the main thrust of the story is in the Dreaming section, or
  • somewhere in the course of the story hint at the idea that this might all have been a dream.

I was pretty confident that whatever stories settled out of my inquiries, they would be creepy. My job is to figure out how.

One such inquiry netted me

  • Polaris
  • Beyond the Wall of Sleep
  • From Beyond
  • The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath

It’s not entirely clear that these all fit my paradigm, but it’s a good place to start, anyhow.

So far I’ve spent some careful time reading “Polaris” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” and they both fit, in their way, into my project.

In both of these stories, Lovecraft undermines the idea that waking is real and dreaming is fake by presenting a dreamland that is preferable to wakefulness and explicitly questioning which state is real. In “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” he even associates the dissonance with madness – the dreamer can’t endure being restrained by the waking world, and he ends up in an institution where the narrator, an intern, comes to experience a similar dream life.

In “Polaris” the dreamer dreams of his responsibility to defend a perfect nation and considers his wakeful life to be an abrogation of that responsibility.

These two stories also demonstrate the two poles of Lovecraft’s racism spectrum: He fears invasion and infiltration by outsiders, by foreigners, which is typical of his fear of miscegenation; but he also looks down on inbred hillfolk, so he fears the logical consequences of his xenophobia.

Next I need to reread “From Beyond” and “Dream Quest.” If I remember correctly, these are both stories in which figures from the Dreamlands influence the waking world?

After the Silent Planet

The closing section of Out of the Silent Planet supports my dream project. After an anxious, nearly-unsuccessful trip home through space, Ransom awakens alone in the space capsule, which he promptly leaves behind. There’s no need for him to confirm his experience with Weston and Divine, which leaves open the possibility that he has been dreaming without forcing him to face that possibility directly. Similarly, rather than witnessing the dissolution of the space capsule, which would confirm his experience as real, he leaves the landing site behind and resumes his walk-about. He sees a flash of light and assumes this is the expected un-bodying of the capsule, but he does not investigate or confirm it. This allows him to continue believing in the reality of his experiences on Malachandra while leaving room for the possibility of dreaming.

The final, extranarrative section of the book, in which the Lewis narrator interjects his own voice, supplements the very brief events that conclude the adventure itself and offers some guidelines, in the form of an epistolary debaat between Ransom and Lewis, about what themes they consider most important. In particular, Ransom laments the need to truncate the description of his philological work when composing the story, but acknowledges that the truncation is useful in support of more important issues.

I’m thinking at this point about Russell’s book The English Dream Vision, which takes a deconstructive approach to dream visions, concluding that several of them are about discourse itself. Lewis is careful to set the issue of philology itself as secondary, allowing readers to focus on the lessons Ransom learns by exercising the tools of philology rather than on the process or the resulting glossaries.

Of particular interest to me is Ransom’s insistence, in this post-narrative text, that the inhabitants of Malachandra are not homogeneous, that, for example, Hrossa come in many colors and live in many places. He insists that he has not seen enough of Malachandra or the cultures and species it hosts for his experience to be representative.

We are warned not to be distracted by our tools, and not to overgeneralize about Malachandra. Practically, each adventurer’s assumptions about civilizations and intelligence informs his experience and his approach to Malachandra. Weston insists in Oyarsa’s court that these are savages, and approaches them, disastrously, with attempts at intimidation followed by bribery. Divine’s complete focus on acquiring wealth leads him to sit down and ignore the entire proceedings, when he is not actively attempting to convince Weston to give up and just go home with what gold they have already loaded onto the spaceship.

Meanwhile, Ransom’s training as a philologist leads him to learn enough of the Hross language to understand that these people are not primitives at all, and his interactions with them are much more successful. The difference in outcomes is based on the difference in approach – Weston and Divine are motivated respectively by a devotion to scientific progress and a devotion to financial increase regardless of the consequences on existing individuals, whereas Ransom is motivated to make the best of his situation by learning what he can of the unfamiliar cultures that surround him. He is motivated in substantial part by empathy.

I won’t claim that Ransom has no interest in financial or technological concerns. He spends some time planning to write a dictionary of the Hross language, for example, which he considers will improve his standing in academic circles, a step forward for his career. And he offers his wristwatch as a gift, thinking that the unfamiliar technology will please his host. Also, description of the space ship itself serves as a second frame, suggesting that technology as interesting enough to Ransom that he wants to describe it in a very prominent way. I’ll want to analyze the particular motifs within that secondary frame in relation to parallel motifs in the waking frame and in the episodes on Malachandra.

Tentatively, I want to posit a theme related to how people ought to treat one another, in particular, that those in positions of relative power ought to consider the needs of those under their influence.