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I am currently making a sci-fi biopunk TTRPG system. In the system, attack rolls are made by rolling 4d6, then adding together either the 3 highest or the 2 highest rolls, depending on the weapon. If the result is equal to or higher than the weapon's success range, the attack hits, and deals that much damage.

Accurate weapons have lower attack dice, but lower success ranges, making them more likely to hit but with less damage. Inaccurate weapons have the opposite; higher attack dice, and higher success ranges, making them less likely to hit but with more damage.

This leads to the problem at hand. Accurate weapons feel very similar, due to their attack dice and success ranges being the same to support that playstyle (reliable vs risky), leading them to feel like they're the same guns with different concepts or flavour.

While there are weapon properties, I don't want to make too many of them, as that leads to content bloat. I have also struggled to think of many that would be significant enough to include.

Note that the game is supposed to have high lethality; dying is not very uncommon.

How can I make weapons of the same playstyle feel more distinct mechanically?

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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify, you mean accurate weapons - like dagger and shortsword feels too similar because they have same/similar attack dice and success range? How many weapons do you have planned? There are not so many standard weapons in 5e, with only up to 6 (CMIIW) weapon properties and they feel quite distinct from each other \$\endgroup\$
    – Vylix
    Mar 25 at 8:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Important note: reliable vs. risky is not a neutral trade-off. Reliable weapons are objectively better than risky weapons. Risky weapons therefore need to do higher average damage, or have some other advantage, to compensate for the drawback of being risky. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 9:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @JackAidley until you start factoring in other boni which tend to favour unreliability because they negate it much better than damage boni for accuracy tend to (in most games). \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Mar 26 at 17:41

6 Answers 6

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Let me start by noting something that you probably already know, but which probably still bears repeating: "having lots of mechanically different weapon options" is not your end goal.

"Making a fun game" is an end goal. "Having lots of mechanically different weapon options" is, at best, a step in that direction. And it's only a step in the right direction if that's actually what your players want and find enjoyable to play.

Also, "having lots of mechanically different options" and "having simple, quick and easily memorized game mechanics with few details for players to remember" often tend to be mutually exclusive goals. If every roll works the same way, and players only need to remember if their weapon is "reliable" or "risky", the rules will be easy to learn and gameplay will likely be fast paced, but detailed mechanical simulation will necessarily suffer. Conversely, if players have lots of mechanically different weapon options to choose from, combat will likely slow down (at least initially) as players flip through the rulebook and consult their character sheets to figure out how to roll and determine damage for each attack.

That's not to say that you can't try to optimize for both variety and simplicity, but at some point you're likely to find that further improving either aspect will necessarily require compromises in the other.


The reason I wanted to point all that out is that your current dice mechanics seems to be heavily skewed toward the "keep it simple" direction, with your weapons basically having only two properties:

  1. type ("reliable" vs. "risky"), which controls their maximum damage (12 for "reliable", 18 for "risky") and damage distribution; and
  2. success range, which controls how high the rolled damage needs to be for it to be actually applied (all lower rolls being considered misses and dealing no damage).

In particular, your attack mechanic does not have:

  • any separation between hit and damage rolls: If you would deal enough damage for your weapon, you hit; if not, you don't. In particular, weapons with a high success threshold always either deal high damage or miss entirely; there's no such thing as a "grazing shot" with such weapons in your system.
  • much variation in maximum damage: All weapons of the same type ("reliable" / "risky") deal the same maximum damage in your system.
  • many tradeoffs between damage and accuracy: Within each of the two types, a weapon with a lower success threshold is always strictly better than one with a higher threshold, both hitting more consistently and having higher average damage per round. In fact, no matter what the player rolls, it's always the case that either both weapons would hit (and deal the same damage), both would miss (and deal no damage) or only one with the lower threshold would hit.

So, basically, your game currently has two types of weapons and a strictly monotone "quality" ranking (= success range) within each type that makes some weapons better than others of the same type. And that's it: if two weapons have the same type and quality, any other differences between them are just fluff (unless, of course, you add extra rules to make them mechanically different somehow).


And that could be perfectly fine for some games, particularly ones where weapons and combat don't play a big role, or games that are narrative-heavy and rely on the players and/or the GM to layer lots of situational modifiers on top of deliberately simplistic base mechanics.

For example, I could totally see something like your mechanic working in, say, a Wild West themed game, with your "reliable" and "risky" categories reskinned into "handgun" and "rifle" (OK, maybe there should be third category for shotguns) and your success range (probably with a character skill modifier) denoting how good the gun's aim is. And as long as the game wasn't mainly about detailed simulation of gunfights, but more about general life on the lawless frontier, with guns just as the ultimate fallback when negotiation (and intimidation and fast talking and running away and hiding) fails, it would probably work well enough.

But that doesn't seem like the kind of game you're trying to make. (Or, if it is, you may want to rethink whether you really need so much mechanical variety in weapons.) So you might want to take a step back and consider some fundamental modifications to your system, or even replacing it with a different combat mechanic entirely.

One modification I'd like to suggest would be separating the hit and damage rolls. This would let you have a meaningful tradeoff curve (with more than two steps) between weapons that deal consistently low damage vs. ones that deal more damage but have a higher miss rate. As a side effect, it also lets your players occasionally deal only a "grazing shot" even with a high-power / low-accuracy weapon, adding a bit of variety to possible combat outcomes.

Whether you do this or not, I'd also consider some of the following ways to differentiate weapons further:

  • variable range: You can implement this either with distance penalties to accuracy and/or with an absolute maximum range of effectiveness. Which one makes more sense depends on the type of weapon: swords and cruise missiles have basically constant accuracy out to their maximum range, whereas bullets and lasers have a lower chance to hit (and may deal somewhat less damage to) more distant targets.
  • limited ammunition at least for the higher-damage weapons: even if, say, your basic hand-blasters have (effectively) unlimited ammo, you could still have the equivalent of grenades or anti-tank rockets with limited ammo for special occasions where your players may wish to deal extra damage to a target.
  • variable time between attacks (due to reloading / recharging or just the general bulk and unwieldiness of the weapon): This can be tricky to implement well in a turn-based game, but if you can do it, it adds yet more variation between weapons. Again, you might want to consider this at least for some specific weapons (sniper rifles, rocket launchers, siege engines) that need an extra drawback to compensate for their high damage per attack. Don't overuse this, though, as tracking reload times can easily become annoying to play.

All of these add extra dimensions to the basic one-dimensional damage/accuracy tradeoff, thus giving your players more options to consider and letting you have more weapon types without making some strictly inferior to others in all situations.

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    \$\begingroup\$ lots of mechanically different weapon options ==> "Shivers with repressed trauma of Rolemaster's crit tables." \$\endgroup\$ Mar 25 at 16:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ There are simple options for Reload mechanics which do not involve significant tracking across turns: (1) two hands are necessary for reloading, even if one can shoot one-handed or (2) weapons with Reload mechanics can only shoot 1/turn, whereas others can shoot multiple times per turn (and possibly on different targets). \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 11:02
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Use the dropped dice to add spice

When they roll the 4d6, they use the 3 or 2 highest to determine their success, but what about the rest? The 1 or 2 dropped dice count for something too!

Here are a few examples:

  1. The reliable weapon that jams sometimes: Attack roll 4d6 keep top 2, success range 7+. The third time you drop a 1 when attacking, this weapon jams, this weapon won't fire again until you spend your turn unjamming and reloading it.
  2. The risky weapon that jams sometimes: Attack roll 4d6 keep top 3, success range 10+. The second time you drop a 1 when attacking, this weapon jams, this weapon won't fire again until you spend your turn unjamming and reloading it.
  3. The reliable weapon that overheats: Attack roll 4d6 keep top 2, success range 6+. Whenever you drop a 3 or higher when attacking, this weapon overheats you roll 1 less d6 if you fire next round.
  4. Reliable feedback weapon: Attack roll 4d6 keep top 2, success range 8+. Whenever you drop doubles the weapon enters a feedback loop and deals 8 damage to you, if you hit your target, it deals double damage.

Adjust for balance of course, these "Drawbacks" for instance would need to be offset by decreasing their success range to make them more reliable at dealing damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Additional use of the "dropped" dice: Maybe some weapons allow 1 2 3 of the dropped dice to be used as extra damage (or the highest dropped as reducing damage that much). That allows for a wider variety of similar weapons without too much extra math \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 26 at 8:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Tracking "the x-th time" is tedious. Instead consider jamming if 2 1s are rolled across both top & dropped dies. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 11:06
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Your combat rules currently are very streamlined, with a single roll to determine hit and damage, and (it seems) consistent rules for a weapon for all characters who use it. This suggests that the choice of weapon isn’t where mechanically significant variability comes into play. And it needn’t be; 13th Age and other games do away with this, with a character’s class or abilities deciding the damage they do, leaving their specific choice of weapon largely a narrative one. Others have just a small number of categories of weapon (big melee, small melee, ranged etc) with much the same result.

So, like Ilmari in their excellent answer, I think you should look to the goals of your game. We don’t know much about it, other than the genre (sci-fi biopunk), that combat is meant to be dangerous (“dying is not very uncommon”) and that you have some other variability through weapon properties but don’t want to add too much more.

Is it really a problem that my character’s eXistenZ-style teeth pistol feels very similar to my fellow PC’s neurotoxin needler, if they both feel about right in how likely they are to kill someone? The weapons may be fine as they are. The complexity of these rules don’t suggest heavy combat mechanics are something you’re after. Plus combat being likely to kill player characters is another reason not to go too deep into it - you’ve built in a “don’t get into fights” mechanic that should be telling players to find other ways to solve their problems. If this is correct and combat isn’t a focus of the game, you may have enough variability.

And you don’t have zero variability; if you have even just three weapon properties, plus accurate and risky types, that’s at least six different kinds of weapons, more if the properties can be combined. If those types are abstract (e.g. “big gun”, “knife”, “bladed weapon” etc) then players can describe them as any weapon they choose, allowing for non-mechanical and thus narrative variability as well.

That said, there are plenty of low-complexity additions to be made:

  • Damage types: it’s bio-punk, so weapons could be serrated, venomous, acidic or spiny, to name a few. These don’t have to be complex with their own rules, but could interact with antagonists or their protective clothing with a system as simple as 5e damage types. Just four types gives you four times as many weapons; if we’re talking guns, then it’s not a stretch to imagine bio-tech weapons that produce their own ammo being restricted to one type.
  • Vary the dice rolled: just roll one or two more or fewer dice, while keeping the same number. This is effectively a damage boost or penalty and would work like advantage, improving or worsening the chance to hit. It gives some room to go up or down from four dice, but the general rule would be the same: roll X, keep Y. As an alternative, you could vary the size of the dice if your game already uses other die types; 4d6 keep 3 is going to feel different to 4d8 keep 2.
  • Interaction with player abilities: assuming player characters have unique abilities, granted via a class or otherwise, if any are combat related then specific weapons may be able to enhance or use those powers.
  • Other uses: leaning into the bio-punk again, can some weapons also have other uses? The small knife can also be used for surgery; the pistol can also fire bio-trackers that do no damage but mark a target; and so on.

Whatever you choose, listen to your playtesters - not just what they say, but what they do and don’t do. Specifically if no-one ever complains about this, then you’re probably fine leaving weapons as simple.

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Embrace them all being the same, and let the players define the specifics

If the main choice is just between reliable and risky, you don't need to explicitly define samey-feeling weapon categories (SMG is slightly different to carbine because...) and can leave those open to the players.

To define a weapon, choose:

  • Accurate (Roll 4d6, keep top 2, deal damage on 6+) or Inaccurate (Roll 4d6, keep top 3, deal damage on 10+)
  • An optimal range (melee, near, far). Roll with +1d in your optimal range.
  • A positive attribute (explosive, armor-piercing, silenced).
  • A negative attribute (unreliable, loud, life-draining).

Give your weapon a description, a designation (like AM-2, DAW-99, or THOR) and a nickname (like needler, minigun, or Suzanne).

This seems especially useful in a sci-fi/biopunk setting, where if a player says "yeah, so my character attacks with a plasma blaster/flechette drone/swarm of radioactive bees" or something, they don't have to choose if that's a SMG or a sniper rifle, they just have to decide whether it's accurate or not.

(I'm not sure exactly what games pioneered this style of tag-based weapons rather than an explicit list. My guess says Apocalypse World, but I'm sure there was something earlier.)

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A simple solution would be to have a different minimum (floor) and maximum (ceiling) on the final result for each weapon.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This actually seems like a simple and decent modification for adding some more variety to the OP's current system. No idea why it's getting downvotes. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26 at 21:05
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Since your combat system seems very simple currently I guess that you want to keep it simple.

Things you can put very simple as weapon stats:

Different dice:
having "2d6 and 2d8" or "3d4 and 1d20" instead of always 4d6 can make weapons feel very different and add another layer of reliable vs risky. Alternatively (with a bit investment) you could make your own dice and have "blue dice" which have no 6 but two 4s. Or "red dice" which have the 1 replaced with a zero. Go crazy and color code them. Just remember to make enough of them so your players do not have to pass them around constantly. Both approaches are very straight forward and simple to understand.

Crit range:
Another very simple numerical stat you could give your weapons would be a second critical threshold in addition to the normal hit threshold. One weapon (highest 2) might have a hit threshold of 6 and a crit threshold of 12 and another could have 8 and 10. Making one hit more often but crit very rarely and the other hit not as frequently but have a good chance for a crit. Another option would be to tie the crit stat to the dropped die/dice. like "whenever you drop a 1 you crit". This would also give an interesting advantage to those weapons that only keep the highest 2 rolls instead of 3.


In case you don't want to keep it simple here some suggestions for weapon mechanics which can be described with a keyword and tie nicely into your dice pool mechanic.

Full auto:
You can fire your weapon multiple times in one turn at the same (or close by) target. However each additional shot has one less die than the one before (simulating recoil).

Scope:
You can aim for one turn to have 5d6 instead of 4d6 on your shot. A sniper could have Scope(2) or even Scope(3) indicating that you can aim for more than one ound in order to get more dice and have a better chance to reach the very high success value.

Unrealiable:
a rolled one can not be dropped

Reliable:
A rolled one can be rerolled once

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