Our group has been taking issue with traditional systems for rolling and resolving skill checks/skill encounters, and we were wondering if there are more dynamic and realistic options out there.

Most games (in my experience) are some variation on [skill + misc bonuses + your roll vs. difficulty] trying to roll "high" (or low, same thing really). Even GURPS falls into this category ([roll vs. skill + difficulty]). I understand that this model is simple and adding bonuses and penalties and getting clear outcomes is really easy, but there are major problems with this model:

  1. It's Swingy. Sometimes, regardless of your skill level, you roll great, or terribly, and this may happen consistently or randomly, and you get situations where low-skill characters consistently roll high, high skill characters consistently roll low, etc., and so much of the time your skill checks (especially with plot-relevant skills like diplomacy) are really crucial.

  2. Bonuses and Penalties Don't Actually Matter as Much as Rolling High. This is an extension of 1). Take DnD, or any other example like it: What does a +1 really mean? All it means is that, in the exceedingly rare case that you missed your roll by 1, instead you pass. +2 means that if you missed your roll by 2, you pass. Etc. In order to have consistent effects from a skill bonus, that bonus has to be pretty high, to the point where you just start auto-passing stuff, and then the DC gets raised, and things are still just as swingy.

Solutions that Don't Work

Some people have tried to get around this by building in a re-rolling mechanic, and others (like Steve Jackson) have brought in a bell curve for their die rolls. I think these solutions are real attempts to solve the problem, but they seem to me more like curing the symptoms and not the disease, which sort of leads me to the question, "Why are we rolling dice at all?" or "why are we using dice in this way for skills?". I know things like Amber's Diceless attempts to do away with the whole problem, and I'm not really convinced that that's the right option (I'm open to hearing arguments, though), since it precludes all the excitement and fun of Skill Challenges (like DnD 4th, which we really liked).

What We Do Want

The ideal skill system,

  1. Doesn't have the above problems (swingy, bonuses and penalties don't matter as much as rolling high, isn't just a "patch" over this kind of broken system).

  2. Can handle simple, non-critical skill checks without much fuss or fumbles or absurdity (i.e., cooking a meal, walking a tightrope, piloting a ship).

  3. Can enter into robust skill challenges (a car chase, heated negotiations, a formal debate, trying to out-hack another user on a network) that are a substantial as combat and aren't just a series of swingy rolls.

  4. Is pretty clean and elegant, without a ton of crunch.

Any recommendations?

Clarifications and Definitions

A couple folks have asked about some clarifications on these terms.

  1. "Realistic" doesn't translate to "exactly how it would be in real life, down to the precise percentage." Because roleplaying games are simulations and only aim to present a model of reality, a system where character aptitude varies wildly and arbitrarily regardless of skill doesn't model the world we live in very well.
  2. "Robust"/"engaging"/"dynamic" just means that the system can actually handle describing a level of intricacy and complexity in character actions. Compare "Roll a diplomacy check to see if you convince him" to DnD 4th edition skill challenge with variable actions you can take such that there are different strategies and variable outcomes other than binary pass/fail.
  3. "Not a ton of crunch", as someone pointed out, is somewhat contradictory with 2. I understand that this is subjective to your level of comfort/love of math, but I think a good definition of "too much" crunch is where the calculations and steps are too numerous and/or too complicated either for the characters to easily grasp strategies about how to proceed, or playing the game is bogged down by what is essentially a convoluted mini-game that distracts from progressing the action of the game.

Hence, the ideal skill system falls somewhere between the extremes of 2 and 3 (one-shot resolution with no strategy other than rolling high and a highly convoluted system that bogs down the entire game).

PS. Don't worry about recommending a whole system, we're just looking for recommendations for a skill system. Homebrew solutions welcome.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Cool, okay. So for dice pool systems, you don't mention them in the question; are they in the "we don't want" section, the "don't work" section, or are they not relevant? Any why, would help too. Right now I have no idea how to vote on dice pool answers. :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 2:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ If by dice pool you mean rolling many dice and counting successes (Mouseguard, Shadowrun, White Wolf, etc.) then I really don't have a preference about them. That's why I initially tagged the post as "system-agnostic." I imagine that dice pool systems could equally satisfy or fail to satisfy the given criteria. \$\endgroup\$
    – doctorw0rm
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 6:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ About "What We Do Want" item 2: No sane GM wants a roll for cooking breakfast, if the player wants to demonstrate skill then maybe. Most RPG Rules have this written somewhere: "Only Roll dice if the outcome is not trivial". So i think Wishlist item #2 is irrelevant. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 8:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Knartz. You're right about 'cooking a meal', but I just mean that there are times when skills are tested more simply than a whole skill challenge, and a system needs to also be able to do that. \$\endgroup\$
    – doctorw0rm
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 19:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I recently stumbled over a game that may be relevant here: Faith. I haven't played it so I can't add an answer. Suffice to say that it doesn't use dice but cards; players choose when to play which card. \$\endgroup\$
    – Raphael
    Commented Sep 7, 2016 at 14:38

9 Answers 9


Try Fate Core.

Fate (Core and Accelerated) is available for free download here and are online here. It's a setting-agnostic engine (invent your own setting in collaboration with the group), which uses a small set of skill-based options to resolve nearly every action.

Swingy: No. Fate uses Fudge dice which provide a strong bell curve between -4 and +4, with most raw die rolls being between +2 and -2. There is also a currency of narrative control (gain it when bad things happen to your character, spend it to help your character succeed later) which can be used to modify rolls.

Bonuses and penalties don't matter: No. Because the majority of rolls are only 1 or 2 in either direction, this makes skill modifiers the most important part of determining success in a character's specialisations. A character's highest skill is usually +4 at the beginning of play, which turns even the lowest possible die roll into a mediocre success.

Non-critical actions are handled simply: Is built into the system's ethos! You only ever roll the dice if both success and failure would be interesting. Otherwise, just go with whichever is interesting (often failing a simple check results in just trying again, or in the story coming to a halt--so just assume success and move on).

Robust skill challenges: Are part of the system. When you're trying to achieve something, it can range from a simple opposed roll to a contest (everyone makes a series of non-opposed rolls against the same target numbers and the person with the most successes wins), a challenge (everyone makes a series of opposed rolls to compete for success), or a conflict (opposed rolls in a more "traditional" combat system style). Each is well-suited for particular kinds of opposition and the choice is always driven by the narrative. Regardless of the mechanical framing used, resolution of opposition is often much less clear-cut than "win and lose," as "success at cost" is a common option for avoiding total failure, while the system's narrative currency means failure is designed to contain the seeds of future success.

Clean and elegant, not a lot of crunch: Yup! Aside from some default examples, Fate Core is an engine that encourages players to design the level of crunch they're comfortable with for their own characters, and gives clear guidelines on how to do so without major imbalance. Fate Accelerated is a 75-page pared-down version of the engine, while Fate Core includes more "dials" to turn to the complexity your players want.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ +1. Bell curve rolls go a long way in favoring modifiers; Fudge/Fate favors them another order of magnitude. \$\endgroup\$
    – Wyrmwood
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 22:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've been thinking of checking out Fate for a while. This pretty much seals it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sandalfoot
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 18:30

While it had a whole host of other problems, I found QED's Marvel Universe RPG to have an excellent skill resolution mechanic that didn't use dice at all. Characters had an energy pool, and all tasks had a Difficulty and a Resistance. If your relevant Action numbers were high enough to overcome the Difficulty, you could attempt the task. You'd attempt the task by expending energy from your pool, and once you spent enough energy to overcome the Resistance of the task (which wasn't necessarily the same as the Difficulty), you succeeded... with the caveat that you could only expend enough energy in a round ("panel") as your rating in the skill, or occasionally in the skill plus the relevant ability, if the skill had it as a bonus.

Opposed tasks were either directly against an opponent's relevant stat or against their own energy expenditure, and it was possible to Specialize in a task that would make it require less effort. There was a chart with various benchmarks on it so you'd know how to price D&R for a task, and the fallback was always "Resistance is the same as the Difficulty" in all other cases.

Although diceless, it meets all of your requirements IMHO.


Black Cat needs to crack a safe. Her Thievery is 5, and a standard safe has a difficulty of 4, so the safe isn't too difficult for her to attempt; if it was 6, it would be beyond her. Its resistance is normally 20, but since she has the Safecracking specialty it's only 18, and she's limited to spending 5 stones a turn out of her pool of 10. She needs a minimum of 4 rounds to crack the safe (or longer, depending on her energy regeneration rate and whether or not she wants to exhaust herself doing this task).

Further information on the system's basics can be found in the following introductory threads on the Unofficial Marvel RPG Fan forum, specifically the threads on System Basics and combat.

  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a fantastic alternative answer. I have three questions for you, though: 1. In your experience, did this involve characters spending all their points on a task and then being useless the rest of the scene/panel/session? 2. Alternatively, if 1 wasn't a problem, did you have the opposite problem of characters just always being able to do stuff and it not mattering how much energy they spent? 3. Was characters hitting a wall of "no, your score is too low" frustrating or halting to gameplay? \$\endgroup\$
    – doctorw0rm
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 23:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ 1. Balancing their energy pool/regeneration vs. completing the task in an acceptable amount of time was part of the strategy of the system, as the player needed to decide "how fast do I really need to do this?" - valid question when, trying to defuse a bomb while being shot at. Also, as a panel is equivalent to a combat round in other systems and you get two actions a panel, being useless for the rest of the panel is a non-issue. 2. No, the philosophy of the system was "If you expend enough effort, you succeed." 3. No, because it's the GM's responsibility to scale the adventure properly. \$\endgroup\$
    – Sandalfoot
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 23:46
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, expanding on #3 a bit, it's the GM's responsibility to make sure any mission-critical tasks he puts in the adventure are attemptable by the players. But if Black Cat decides for whatever reason to try and lift a tanker truck, her Strength is too low to attempt the task so the GM says "Sorry Felicia, leave that to the Hulk." \$\endgroup\$
    – Sandalfoot
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 0:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ That makes more sense about the panel length (I thought "panel" meant scene). So is there any long-term exhaustion, as in, attempting lots of different skill checks per scene and getting worn down by them? Or is energy just a per-encounter thing and the system is set up to basically tell you how long things take to do? \$\endgroup\$
    – doctorw0rm
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 0:08
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Resource managing RPGs are very interesting. I played another Marvel RPG game which used cards for energy pool and it was really cool, although explosive draws made it less realistic. But the point is, resource management is a very good alternative, and extending to the skill challenge make managing your resources for every 'roll'... well very challenging \$\endgroup\$
    – Dargor
    Commented Aug 15, 2014 at 10:07

DISCLAIMER: In a way, mine is not a direct answer to your question, because it's not a game recommendation. However commenting policy in this SE is strict, so I have no option but to put forward my opinion like this.

Let's get to it then. What I meant to suggest is: how about changing GMing style? First RPG I played was DnD, and I hated it because the GM would make us roll for the most trivial tasks, sometimes with heavy consequences. This was not simply dull, it was utterly frustrating, and after a few games I figured RPG wasn't my thing. I didn't notice at the time, but there were also other problems going on in that table: all of the PCs were psychopaths and raised by ninjas, which is specially annoying to me when they want to play mr self righteous paladin who kills everything in sight.

This was a real pity, because a few years (!) after, a few friends invited me to play, they said it sounded unlikely that I wouldn't like it. I was really reluctant, but agreed to watch one session—ultimately, I played with them. It was GURPS, and they were just starting a new campaign. And it was simply amazing. Here's how:

  • The GMs created a facebook group to organise everything. There were two of them, because it was a large group and they planned to break us up in smaller groups in certain moments.
  • A few days before, they asked everybody (including me, just in case I decided to join) to read a whole description of the setting they created, including geography, some politics, religions, technology—all I could think of was accounted for, and they still told us to ask about any other details that we might want to know.
  • They also asked that everyone, especially new players, post their character's sheet as soon as possible. They had played with most people before, and made comments like "hey, you're a smart guy and your character is really dumb. can I count on him not having any brilliant ideas?" or "your character seems to have a lot points in useful skills, but in their story you wrote they live alone. Don't you think they should have more housekeeping related skills?" and "you put in 'has alien arm syndrome' as a quirk, how are you planning to roleplay that?" They made sure everyone created realistic characters within their abilities to roleplay, to the point that, later, some people ended up spending more points in their hobbies than in "actually useful" skills.

At this point, I was really enjoying, and put great effort into making a character, which didn't escape them. So they asked in the group if anyone opposed him giving me a few extra points or some cool item if I agreed to play. I thought it was because I was a noob, but later I realised they frequently did things like this to reinforce attitudes that they approved of.

  • The night before the match, they had sketched a few previous relationships within the party—who knew whom, why did they know each other—and encouraged the players to read the sheets of the characters their character knew, and to talk to each other and get to know their characters. They also asked that we do this in private, not in the group, and that we didn't read all the sheets, so that we didn't know the characters that our characters didn't know.
  • The session was a long one (some 8h). It started with one of them explaining what we must absolutely do in the first session—get to know each other, decided who we like and do not like, walking around town to find out what we wanted to do. They sketched a few possible scenarios, and created several NPC sheets with some details to whom we could talk.
  • They tried to avoid dice in favour of roleplaying. For example, if someone said "I'll try to arm wrestle that guy to show off", one of them would actually arm wrestle the player, or ask a volunteer to better represent the strength gap between the PC and NPC. After, he'd ask players with PCs in the same room to describe their PCs reactions.
  • Dice rolls were restricted to combat and to more subjective settings: if someone tried to convince an NPC of something and the GM was unconvinced, he'd allow a roll if the character actually had better convincing skills than the NPC. And to be honest, combat seems a natural setting to roll, but I'm pretty sure if two players were willing to enact it, they'd probably allow it, as long as no one got hurt.
  • Crafting was especially fun, we had to actually create something: for a character to craft/possess a non-trivial object, a player had to either draw it or write a description of how the character went about it or actually craft that object (combinations encouraged). Dice rolls happened anyways, but the descriptions/drawings/photos of the objects were kept in the facebook group for future reference. We could ask other players to help, and if their PCs had relevant skills to the crafting in question, they gave a bonus to the relevant rolls.

All of this made my gameplay much more enjoyable than rolling dice to see if I can open a door. I barely used dice at all, and we all had lots of fun watching each other roleplay, even though most of us were terrible actors. It helped that most of us made funny characters, either voluntary or involuntarily. Some roleplaying highlights:

  • a girl that built armour out of aluminium foil and a cardboard box, and actually put it on every time we went looking for trouble, even though it was just a box with holes for her head and arms (she had beautifully drawn what it was supposed to look like and written a description of the history of the family heirloom). She would then try to avoid fighting not to get it scratched.
  • alien arm guy, who was playing a shy sweet person trying to act badass, and whose arm would hit him anytime he tried to look cool by doing something he subconsciously felt was wrong. This meant roaring laughter every time we went to a tavern: "Look at that hot piece of-SLAP". He actually slapped himself a good dozen times every day.

Things like these were encouraged by giving extra points at the end of each session, which I believe is accounted for in the GURPS mechanics, by means of XP. Ours was different: we had a "people choice awards" in which players voted for the best RP, and the GMs also picked one or two players. Prizes were in the form a few XP, skill points directly assigned by the GMs, opportunities to re-roll botches in combat etc.

I'm not sure if this is the kind of experience that you want, I just wasn't very satisfied with my first experience for the same reasons as your group seems to be unhappy, and this absolutely fixed it.


Some Common Home-Brew Solutions

These are just solutions I've seen people implement before. Almost all of them require some statistics and some common sense. They're not foolproof, either.

Rolling Different Combinations of Dice Instead of 1d20

This is among the most common homebrew fixes to this problem. It is good, because you're on a curve, and bonuses will really change how well you do, and it doesn't change the process that much. Which dice you choose to roll, though, is up to you.

For instance, the 2d10 distribution has a standard deviation of 4.06. This means that every bonus of about 4 or so puts you in a new class of people. It reduces the swingy-ness, but maybe not enough for you. It fits very well with most versions of DnD, though, and therefore considered a generally good option.

On the other hand, the 5d4 distribution allows for 20's to be rolled, but it has a standard deviation of 2.5. This means that almost any bonus will be felt, and felt hard. There will be almost no swingy-ness but the faint glimmer of a chance to do unexpectedly awesome things. General ability score bonuses (assuming DnD 3, 4, or 5) play a HUGE role under this curve!

Most people don't like these because it eliminates total failure. On the contrary, some people like them because it eliminates total failure. This approach requires another step of addition, and some people are unexpectedly bad at adding more than two things at once.

Non-Universal Scales

It is easy to recognize that variance within a particular field varies less as people progress in that field. For instance, you would never expect an experienced pilot to crash a plane on a clear day, but an inexperienced kid stands a much greater chance of smashing the same plane into the ground. To reflect this, you put them both on different scales.

Using our example, the kid piloting check rolls a 16, which results in him being able to land the plane safely, albeit in a rocky way. The pilot, however, rolls a 10 on his piloting check. The result is: he performs a perfectly average landing. The high and low rolls are relative to the expected performance of the individual, not some absolute scale like DnD generally uses.

Don't Roll Easy or Regular Tasks

This rule is simple; if it's an everyday task, or something is considered regular for that person to do, they auto-succeed.

Stricter Interpretation of Dice Checks

This one mostly applies to DnD 3.X, Pathfinder, DnD 4, DnD 5, and other systems which rely on a d20 roll. Very often, groups interpret the raw value of their role as degrees of success, saying a 20 succeeds better than a 16 on a DC 15 check. You can simply count these checks as boolean answers to the "did they do this?" question; their roles do not reflect how well or poorly they performed on their checks.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the suggestions. Do you have any examples of systems that successfully implement the Non-Universal Scales you mention? \$\endgroup\$
    – doctorw0rm
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 20:53
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @doctorworm Sadly, no systems which implement it. All of these are solutions are strictly homebrew; the exact implementation will be up to you. Some common sense and whatever math you do will be your guide. \$\endgroup\$
    – PipperChip
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 22:20
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @doctorw0rm Actually, plenty of systems implement a version of non-universal scales! They just don't frame it exactly that way. Pop into Role-playing Games Chat for more free-ranging discussion on such topics. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 22:39
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @doctorworm - FUDGE and derived systems work exactly like the non-universal scales described in this post. \$\endgroup\$
    – Peteris
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 22:50

The problem you're pointing out is that randomization (the die roll) overshadows the difference in ability (stats, skills, etc.). A lot of this is carryover from very old expectations ("well, a 10% difference will show when we have 100 units vs. 100 units") which doesn't apply so well when you have single characters in action.

The Shadow of Yesterday

TSOY is an example of a very strong bell curve set up - the difference in power shows quickly, if you don't have a bunch of bonus dice to help you out. It has a secondary rule that favors the stronger side - "Bringing Down the Pain" - the loser of a conflict can instead move that conflict into an extended conflict, which favors the side with the bigger ability by nature of multiple rolls.


Albedo assumes everyone has an equivalent of the D20 "Take 10" and that, unless you are pushing yourself, you're going to get an average result based on your skill level every time, all the time. Despite it being a furry sci-fi game, it has pretty solid rules for emulating realism without bogging down in heavy crunch.


Poison'd has a pretty interesting set of rules for combat - everyone has a "Profile" - a score of how dangerous they are in a fight. That's humans, that's entire ship crews, that's entire ships with cannons, that's fortresses. The rules state that if something has a Profile of 4 or higher than another, they just automatically win in a fight, no dice rolling needed (in that case, if you are the weaker side, your best interest is not to have an open fight - run, bargain, do anything, just don't fight them). This could be extrapolated to other systems or things other than fighting.

This might be the best answer for you. You can stick to a game you're familiar with, just tack on some rules about outclassing, or outclassing in certain conditions and go with that.

As you've mentioned D&D Skill Challenges, I will often look at a player's suggestion and if that action is perfect or great for the Challenge, count it as an auto-success (one of however many are necessary) and not roll the dice.


Here are two systems I have used. I'm not sure either solves all your problems but they might offer some interesting food for thought.

Das Schwarze Auge

DSA (The Dark Eye) is a German system that tends towards the simulationist end of the spectrum. Every character has eight basic stats and 30+ talents (different styles of weapons, knowledge, crafting, ...). Each talent is associated with three stats (need not be different). A talent check consists of one d20 per associated stat; if all roll less or equal to their stat, the check is successful. If you roll more, you can compensate each point over the limit with one point from your talent score. The number of remaining talent points determines the quality of the check. Modifiers (virtually) affect all three rolls.

Example: Alrik has to check for Healing Wounds; his talent score is 12. The associated stats are Intelligence, Charisma and Dexterity (12,13,15). Since the wound is complicated, the GM assigns a malus of 2; that is, Alrik's player has to roll 10,11,13 (or lower). She rolls 12,7,10 and compensates two points on the Intelligence roll with her talent score, resulting in a quality of 10 (very good).

Now, this is quite complicated (becomes easier with practice) but also very versatile and expressive. One thing that has always annoyed me but seems to be what you want: it's hard to ever fail if you are somewhat skilled.

In the talents you consider the core of your character, scores around and way over ten are common. If you do the numbers you see that even at ten (assuming somewhat normal stats 12,13,14) you success likelihood is over 90%. Hence, chance mostly influences outcome if your character is skilled (and there are no high situational mali); unskilled characters have a harder time even succeeding and can never achieve high quality even with good rolls (if your talent score is two, that's as high as quality gets even if you roll 2,2,2, houserules aside).
I ignore critical and fumble rolls here; roling at least two ones or twenties makes things interesting.

For the sake of completeness, there are also checks against base stats (lifting a rock vs Strength, for instance) and you use different checks in fights (you compute base numbers for attack and defense from several stats, add/subtract skill, weapon, situational and maneuver boni/mali and roll one d20 against that one number). That evens the (battle)field somewhat.

Cypher System

The Cypher system used in Numenera and The Strange is a lot simpler. See here for a good introduction. Basically, every check has a difficulty from 0 to 10. You have to roll 3*difficulty or more in order to succeed. This is swingy but I think that the way character differences factor in here is interesting.

  1. If you are Trained/Skilled, you reduce difficulty by 1/2.
    So each level of training awards you a 15% improvement in chance.

  2. You can invest (a limited amount of) Effort in order to reduce difficulty more.

    The allowable amount grows as the character progresses. Also, each point of Effort costs you stat-resource points (Might, Speed, Intellect); having an Edge in that stat can reduce the cost. These pools have to regenerate. If they become empty, you get progressively weaker overall and, eventually, dead.

  3. Assets such as items, help etc can influence difficulty (and in a few instances the die result) even more.

Example: scaling a difficulty 7 wall is impossible for your average dude (you'd have to roll a 21; again ignoring potential effects of a natural 20). If you are, however, Skilled at climbing (-2), have climing gear (-1), a Cypher that makes you lighter for a short time (-1) and invest one point of Speed Effort (-1), the difficulty is a mere 2 -- unlikely to fail. If the same character encountered the same wall in a more exhausted state (no Speed left for the Effort) and lacks a fitting Cypher (which are one-shot), it'd be a difficulty 4 task -- still doable but not certain.
Hey, it's a tough wall; roll and be lucky the GM does not throw a GM Intrusion your way and has thugs shooting at you while you climb.

This system certainly is simple and elegant (imho). Even though it is swingy in the middle difficulty range, skills and assets influence the numbers enough to matter. In addition, many tasks are only possible with some support.


Dice Pool Systems like Shadowrun and The Void

One thing I'd suggest is considering a system like Shadowrun or The Void (which is free and practically identical to Shadowrun mechanically), because they both have a system based on giving a number of dice based on skills and attributes, and then using each of those individual dice's results to count toward a pool of successes. They tend to have a very sharp success curve at early levels that sort of levels out as characters get more powerful (i.e. rating 2->rating 3 is a huge jump in success rate, rating 6->rating 7 not so much), but you can't say that they're not based on stuff.

Note that my suggestion applies more to Shadowrun 4/5 than the earlier Shadowruns, in which roll amount tended to matter more (because you had floating target numbers and stuff that's too complex to get into here). Here's how I think it rates on your criteria:

  1. Modifiers and Penalties versus good rolls: You'll still get that one player with three dice who needs three successes and gets all of his dice (normally a 33% chance each) to come up successes, but it'll be a lot rarer; both these systems allow you to remove dice or increase the number of successes required, which can be very powerful and versatile and allows for an accurate simulation of characters being under duress (lose dice) or trying something hard (more successes).
  2. Simple, non-critical tasks: The Void is a little better at this than Shadowrun, which has loads and loads of rules, but typically you can do things with a single roll.
  3. Meaningful non-combat tasks: This is where Shadowrun edges out The Void, simply because it's longer; both have in-depth rules for certain activities that go beyond simply "roll to succeed" and can be quite interesting of themselves. Shadowrun traditionally has highly fleshed out social interactions, vehicle rules, and stuff like hacking.
  4. Neat and Simplified: Well, I can't say this about Shadowrun, but The Void is pretty clean. Shadowrun tends to be very crunchy, but most things come down to a single roll or a series of simple to figure out rolls (i.e. check for attack, try to luck out of getting hit, resolve damage) and is pretty good about keeping the same pattern across a lot of events.
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'd argue that Shadowrun fails miserably with the 'no crunch' and 'elegant' criteria \$\endgroup\$
    – Wibbs
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 21:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ The criteria was never "no crunch", and if it were there wouldn't be a single rules system that would qualify. It certainly fails the elegant criteria, but I also recommend The Void, which is significantly better for that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 22:09

I wonder if "Dynamic," "Engaging," and "Realistic" are all possible on one system. Here is one I have used a lot, which I think definitely hits on the first two and more important aspects.

"Dogs in the Vineyard" is an indie game with a thematic conflict resolution system using a series of Raises and Sees. Players have Attributes, Traits (which are skills and some advantages), Possessions, and even Relationships, all rated as a number and type of die (d4, d6, d8, and d10). All of these carry the potential to influence a conflict.
Dice from these are rolled into pools (luck), then used a few at a time in a series of bids to push toward your goal (strategy) while you describe individual actions or in-character statements (role-play). Escalation is a key element here. Conflicts usually begin Verbally, and escalate through Physical, to Fighting, to Gunfighting. At each step, players have to decide if the increased risk is worth the static reward.

A conflict begins when a player wants something and the GM doesn't feel like just saying yes. The player will name the stakes of the conflict in the form of a yes/no question which describes what he hopes to gain from the conflict. The question should say why this needs to happen to provide more urgency. For example, the goal of a conflict should not be to hit the guard. The goal it why you need to hit the guard. Clearly you need to get past him for some reason. Perhaps you can even state that in the stakes. I must get inside in time to stop the assassin!

The player and GM (or both players in a PVP) roll dice for relevant attributes. You don't add these up, or look for a certain number. Instead, you hold them in a pool to use. You'll roll a few up front for Attributes, then roll more as needed any time you use a trait or possession you have not already used, or when you escalate and need to roll new attributes. Regardless, each Attribute, Trait, Possession and Relationship can only be rolled once per conflict.

The first player uses exactly two dice to make a total. He presents this total along with a statement intended to work towards his goal. This is called a Raise. When you raise, take care here not to accidentally escalate to another level of conflict. If you're only talking and you pull out your gun, you might be escalating. You CAN escalate any time. However, you can't de-escalate without giving in.

The player affected by the Raise uses one or more dice to match the total of the Raise. He presents this along with a statement indicating the outcome of the Raise. Yes, you the player say what happens to the Raise. However, you're guided by the number of dice used.

  • If you can do it with only one die, you soundly rebuff the Raise and get a bonus: You keep this die and re-use in in your next Raise.
  • If you use two dice, you avoid the Raise and discard the dice.
  • If you use three or more, you accept the consequences of the Raise, and will take Fallout after the conflict.

Fallout offers both possible experience and growth, and negative consequence. Fallout is potentially worse the further up the escalation sequence you are at the moment. You gain a number of Fallout dice equal to the number of dice you used to See. The type of die is d4 for Verbal, d6 for Physical, d8 for Fighting, and d10 for Gunplay.

The strategy element is found in choosing which dice to use in your Raises and Sees. A common tactic is to use more dice than you need early on, taking Fallout when the risk is low and saving better dice for later on.

Now the player who just did his See has his chance to Raise, exactly as above. The other player will have to See. Then a Raise and a See, and a Raise and a See, back and forth until one side Gives. You may Give any time you like. Giving means you lose, and whatever what at stake goes to the other player. However, Giving also means you avoid the immediate consequences of the current Raise. You MUST Give if you don't have enough dice to Raise or See.

Escalation is the best part of the system in my opinion. Escalation asks how far you're prepared to go. What will you risk? What's worth dying for? What's worth killing for? Either player (or the GM) can escalate whenever he likes.

Fallout. Once the conflict ends, Everyone rolls all their fallout dice. If you roll a '1', you gain experience, once per conflict max. Then you also add together the two highest dice and compare them to a chart I won't replicate here. But with d4s, d6s, d8s, and d10s, there are obvious breakpoints. Rolling higher is worse, and consequences can range from very minor short term penalties, to permanent penalties like reduction in abilities, to possible death.

There are a few complicating factors like when there's more than two people in a conflict, or when the "opponent" is something inanimate, like the impassable mountains you need to cross, but that's the core of it.

The game as written carries a heavy element of Authority: PCs are people of authority who can expect most people do just do what they say, and who have the legal authority to do pretty much whatever they want to achieve their goals of protecting the community. The system seems to work best with this is part of the system. However, I've used it for other games and settings. The back and forth of the system can be very fun.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Re your first sentence, they exist. The combat die mechanic in The Riddle of Steel is dynamic (varying effects possible depending on how a roll is set up and executed), very engaging (much of tactics is in judicious dice manipulation before the roll), and arguably realistic as a deliberate model of historical sword arts as designed by a modern master and RPGer. Sadly it's limited to just weapon rolls and not a useful answer to the question, but it demonstrates such die systems exist. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 22:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie. I knew about Riddle of Steel, but the way you're describing it is different than what I remember. I'll have to look at it again. Thanks for the reminder. \$\endgroup\$
    – doctorw0rm
    Commented Aug 14, 2014 at 23:13

Opposing dice rolls

Rolling opposing dice rolls of variable number of dice creates some wicked chaotic results. For example: 5d6 vs 4d6. Ties always to to the defender. In skill checks vs a door, ties go to the door trying to defend itself by staying closed. Some doors are stronger so they roll more dice.

Modifiers and penalties

Add (or subtract) one or more dice. Bonus dice are more valuable (have a greater impact) to those rolling less dice (because they having a lower skill rating). For someone already rolling 12 dice, adding one more dice provides very little benefit.

Home brew game system

The two comments above define the foundation upon which my entire game has been built. I distribute it as a free PDF, so feel free to download a copy and use the bit and pieces you like.

My own game, BRUTAL: Big Bad Ball Busting Bloody Battles.


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