One of my biggest pet peeves is when people are talking about game mechanics and someone breaks out a calculator. They have to calculate the odds, and state what percentage of the time a character would succeed under that system. Because, you know, we need our games about elves, vampires, and superheroes to be believable. These are the same people, incidentally, who will complain that their dice are rolling like crap. Pick a lane, Captain Probability.
I know my attitude will make some people scream, but I laid back about that stuff. Does it feel right? As in, regardless of statistics, does a protagonist in this setting succeed most of the time, but fail enough to keep it interesting? Close enough, then. We’re here to tell stories and have fun, not analyze data.
The Joy of a Static Target Number
This is one of the things that I love about Savage Worlds. The target number is static: roll a 4 or better. I remember reading forum posts where people used to escalating target numbers as the standard lost their damned minds. “Are you saying that this task, which is objectively easy, has the same target number as this other task, which is objectively quite difficult?”. Yes. Yes, that is exactly what Shane Lacy Hensley is saying. In The Making of Savage Worlds he even spells out why: because it made the game flow better.
That’s the best reason to do anything in game design, really.
Charts, tables, calculations, that stuff just slows things down. I say this as a person who for the better part of a decade played (and loved) West End Games’ DC Heroes RPG and Victory Games’ James Bond 007 RPG almost exclusively. The former came with a trifold screen for the action and results tables, which were based on a logarithmic progression of character attributes. The latter required you to multiply the primary chance of success by the ease factor to figure out what percentage you needed to roll, and then the roll determined the quality rating of your success. It is the only game that I can think of that had the table printed on the character sheet.
Yeah, I’m the kooky one. Lighthouse System has you roll high/low and even/odd. Results 10 or less fail. Results 11 or higher succeed. I’m a monster. It’s fast, though. The game keeps moving, and you can focus on making decisions, playing in character, and telling the story.
Like Savage Worlds, Lighthouse System provides flexibility through modifiers. Is this task objectively easy? Give the player a bonus on the roll. Is it objectively hard? Well, does the character have special qualifications to make the task easy for them? No? Give the player a penalty on the roll.
To keep things simple, I limit the modifiers to +1, +3, and +5 (or, going the other way, -1, -3, and -5). If it’s a slight advantage, +1. For a clear and definite advantage, +5. Anything in between that you’re not sure of, +3. There’s no stacking, so you don’t get to add a bunch of stuff. A lot of advantages is one clear advantage, +5. A few little things is a +3. The guide gets to go with their gut. If it’s the wrong call, discuss it after the game and make a house rule about that situation if you feel the need.
What’s more important to me is the risk system, which allows you to determine the degree or success or failure, and the shared narration. You get to make choices about how spectacularly you’re willing to win or lose. The person who gets to narrate the result, which might be you or the guide, can interpret what that means. You might tell the tale in a way that makes your failures less painful. The guide might downplay your success. That’s far more interesting, and collaborative, and creative, than calculating the probability of success.
Besides, statistics don’t matter if your dice are rolling for crap.