For this series of articles, I’m interested in actively trying to repurpose ideas from other kinds of games into RPGs in the hopes of discovering some new and interesting mechanics. It doesn’t mean something good will come from it, or that the idea is totally worth using but at least a few interesting new ideas will arise.
So for the first idea, I’d like to take a look at push your luck mechanics from board games.
Push Your Luck
Push your luck mechanics are all about the excitement of “maybe a little more.” They’re about gambling. The thrill of potentially enormous success, and the devastation of losing it all. Prime examples of push your luck games include Can’t Stop, Zombie Dice, Formula D, Dungeon Roll, and Wheel of Fortune.
Most often in RPGs, “push your luck” mechanics actually are mostly about the fiction. You push your luck by doing a crazy thing, and either it pays off, or it blows up in your face. Powered by the Apocalypse games are, to a certain extent, all about that fictional press your luck, where each move has the potential of leading to enormous success or terrible disaster. Don’t Rest Your Head actually provides a great example of the primary RPG implementation of push your luck mechanics — you can always take more dice, increase your chances of success, but at the risk of having horrible consequences, too.
But relatively few RPGs* (that I can think of, at least) actually use press your luck mechanics the way they are used in games like Zombie Dice. Most RPGs use them so that what you’re doing is risking some nasty fictional consequences in exchange for fictional good stuff, but within a single one and done roll. That makes these mechanics quick and effective, while also tense and interesting, but it means they miss whatever the thrill of the push your luck mechanics in Zombie Dice in might be.
In Zombie Dice, you take 3 dice from a can filled with 13 dice, and you roll. You’re hoping to roll brains, but you might also roll footsteps or shotgun blasts. You set aside any brains or shotgun blasts you roll — you won’t be rolling those dice again. If you ever have three shotgun blasts in front of you, your turn is over and you get nothing. After that first roll of three dice, assuming you didn’t roll three shotgun blasts, you can choose to stay or keep going. If you stay, then you score however many brains you’ve rolled so far, and your turn is over. If you keep going, then you take back into your hand any footsteps you’ve already rolled, and you fill out those dice with more from the can until you’ve got three in your hand. Then you roll again, setting aside brains and shotgun blasts, and as long as you don’t wind up with three shotgun blasts in front of you at any time, you can keep rerolling, trying to get more brains on a single turn. The only other wrinkle is that the dice are different colors. There are red dice, yellow dice, and green dice, with each color of die having a different probability for the results. Green dice are most likely to roll brains, and red dice are most likely to roll shotgun blasts. You can see what color dice you’ve rolled so far, and use that knowledge to decide whether or not to keep going.
It’s a solid little game for what it is. The key takeaway here is how it does die rolling, though. You roll, see what you got, and then decide to keep pushing, or take what you already have. If you keep pushing, then you have the chance of losing everything, but you also have the chance of coming away with tremendous results. That right there is the thrill of gambling.
Using It In An RPG
This move, based on the Powered by the Apocalypse engine, is my concept of how to use the Zombie Dice style push your luck mechanic in an RPG:
“When you attempt something risky, roll 2d6. If you roll a 6 or lower, stop rolling — you have a miss, and the GM can make as hard a move as she likes. On any other result, you may choose to reroll the two dice and add the next result to the first. If your next result independently totals a 6 or lower, stop rolling — you have a miss, and the GM can make as hard a move as she likes.
On a 7-12 total, you have a near miss — you will accomplish your ends, but at a very high cost. On a 13-17 total, you have a partial hit — you will accomplish your ends, but at a cost. On an 18-21 total, you have a full hit — you will accomplish your ends without cost. On a 22-25, you have a strong hit — you will accomplish your ends, and achieve greater success beyond them. On a 26 or higher, you have a home run — you achieve your ends, and any result you choose will ensue.”
So just to test out what this move would do, I used the Wizards of the Coast die roller. Here’s the situation: My character, a thief, is trying to escape the police who are after him because he tripped an alarm in the jewelry store. He’s currently trying to scale a fire escape from the ground level, vaulting up from dumpsters and racing to the top, where he’s hoping to race across rooftops to get away. The GM says it’s pretty risky to do this, especially with the cops pulling up just outside the alley where I’m climbing. So I roll 2d6. My first roll is a 5 and a 4, so that’s a 9. I could choose to stay there — I haven’t rolled a miss yet — but I’d only be getting a near miss. I’d get a very high cost with my escape, meaning maybe my pouches get torn open and all the jewels I stole would fall out to the ground below me. That won’t do. So I choose to roll again. This second time, I get a 6 and a 3, so that’s another 9. Added to the first, that’s an 18. A full hit. I’m willing to let it lie there, and the GM narrates that I clamber up the fire escape with tremendous skill, and flip onto the rooftops. The cops haven’t given up the chase yet, though, and they know I was in the area, so it’s not guaranteed I make it home safe yet.
Here’s another example: I’m taking on a small horde of ghost-possessed orcs because reasons. I have my battle-staff, bladed on both ends, held in my two hands before me, but the ghost-possessed orcs feel no pain and don’t stop, even as the life’s blood leaves their bodies. I’m in trouble, but I refuse to back down — I will defeat them. The GM rightly calls this risky, and so I roll 2d6. I get a 4 and a 4, for a total of an 8. A near miss. High cost in this situation could be pretty bad — I’d take all the ghost-possessed orcs down, but I can see the GM grinning with the thought of being able to say that the ghosts, without orcs to possess, pour into my own weakened frame! No, no way I let that happen. I roll again. 5 and 2, this time, for a 7, and a total of 15. Grr. That’s going to be a partial hit, which means I’ll still get a cost. Maybe my staff breaks, or I’m near battered pretty hard…or more ghost-possessed orcs appear over the nearby hill. Yeah, I don’t imagine that ending well for me. I’ll roll again. And on this, my third roll, I get a 1 and a 1. Crap. That means I stop rolling, and it all counts as a miss. I get a hard move. Well, shit. Here come those possessing ghosts.
This move might be best supplemented by saying that we have to attach some fiction to each roll of the dice, so we know what it looks like as I continue to push my luck, but the mechanical element works the same. I’m getting the rush of gambling, and every so often I will have spectacular success that makes me feel I earned it. And sometimes I’ll get hosed, and the mechanics will make me feel like I deserved it for pushing my luck. It captures the enjoyment of the push your luck board game mechanics.
First and foremost, it’s a mechanic, and while it produces a sensation in the player, it doesn’t necessarily have as strong a tie to the fiction as an RPG mechanic should have. Furthermore, the math here has to be absolutely precise for the mechanic to work, and I can imagine people who are particularly mathsy taking time to master the odds of the system. I have a feeling that as written, you’re much more likely to have success than not (which is okay, but since I think PbtA games thrive on the misses, it’s not necessarily the best). Finally, it loses speed. The mechanical part might be satisfying, but any time spent making the decision of whether or not to roll more dice is time not spent seeing what’s happening in the fiction. Roll 2d6 and add a stat, the basis for this move, is much faster for obvious reasons.
I think what this mechanic makes me focus on is the visceral effect of resolution mechanics, and it makes me think most directly of Dread, by Epidiah Ravachol. Dread uses a Jenga tower for its primary mechanic. You have to pull a block from the tower when you do something risky, and if the tower falls, your character dies. Straightforward and excellent. Dread is a horror game, and the fear you feel while playing Jenga connects you directly to the fear of the game, not least because your character’s life is on the line. So the resolution mechanic is more than just a means to figure out what happened — it is, itself, enjoyable and capable of producing an emotional reaction.
Using the push your luck mechanic here is basically designed to be an enjoyable thing for players to be doing, in and of itself, but it might not contribute to better stories. It raises the interesting question of how RPGs work and what they should be focused on. For the players at the table, it might be fun to mess around a bit with this mechanic, and there could be interesting additional little rules exceptions that could make it even more interesting (when you are using a specialty skill, replace a d6 with a d8; when you are using a weakness, replace a d6 with a d4). But if it doesn’t directly contribute to the storytelling side of things, then is it a mechanic we’d want? I’m not sure. I’d definitely love to see this thing in actual use, though.
*EDIT: James Stuart rightly pointed out that Mars Colony, an excellent little RPG for 2 players by Tim C. Koppang, is all about pushing your luck. It has a fantastic set of mechanics that bring together the thrill of pushing your luck with fiction — basically, one player plays the “savior” style politician who has come to Mars to “fix” it, and they can keep pushing and rolling the dice to generate more points to actually solve problems, but every time they do, they risk losing it all and even potentially turning their “fixes” into lies, fake fixes that just patch things over. It deserves a great in-depth look. I highly recommend checking it out.