[Game Dev] Hacking the WFB Magic System for Party Pools in Roleplaying

Blame Andrew (who runs Halfling Caravan, they make Beta Maxx, it’s pretty neat) for this one. He and I were chatting about Warhammer and its bucket-o-d6 appeal and I mentioned how utterly perfect the sixth edition WFB magic system is, and then I realised it could hack really nicely.

Let me explain why it’s perfect first. Firstly: the dice are the most important thing, not chains of hidden modifiers. There’s the occasional bonus or malus of 1 or 2 from a magic item or special rule but mostly it’s all about showing the target number, which you know going in. Secondly: the impact of character level is managed really well, because higher level characters can throw more dice at a problem, which means they’re more likely to cast the big spells and less likely to fail the little ones (i.e. to meet high and low target numbers). Thirdly: there’s a cap on the number of dice involved, which puts a stop to the weird probability loops you get in dice pool systems where throwing more dice makes you more likely to botch than succeed. Fourthly: players choose how many dice to bung at a particular spell, which also helps to manage that problem and also emphasises agency and resource management in a really elegant, direct way. Fifthly: Irresistible Force and Miscasts, on a double 6 and double 1 respectively, provide that same hit of raw fun chemical as the natural 20 and natural 1, but exist at either end of a bell curve in which the median result comes up far more often, and thus exist as the outliers they should be.

I joked that I should just hack that system for absolutely everything, but then I thought about it and realised it might actually work for party-based play. Let’s express it in terms of combat, since this is very much post-wargame design, but I’m pretty sure this hacks to any kind of collective activity pass/fail situation.

The party generates a pool of dice equal to 2 plus 1 per character level involved.

The referee generates a pool of dice equal to 2 plus 1 per character involved.

The encounter has a number attached to it, let’s call it Challenge Rating because I haven’t had enough coffee to think of anything more fun right now. (Gloss: different approaches may have different Challenge Ratings associated with them, in the same way that the spells you attempt to cast in a WFB turn have different casting values.)

The party can choose how many dice to throw at the encounter, up to a limit of the highest character level in the party plus 1. (Gloss: this can be finessed into particular approaches taken, as the highest level character is presumably leading the attack, so if it’s a wizard they’re casting a big spell while others run interference.)

If they beat the Challenge Rating, they win the encounter, unless the referee can match or exceed their roll with ref dice.

If they fail, they can try another approach, with a different character leading. (This character’s level will determine the maximum number of dice to be rolled, as well as setting the tone for the descriptions and so on.)

A double 6 is an automatic victory, ref dice be damned. A double 1 is an automatic failure which knocks a character out of action and leads to a roll on a Nasty Things Happen To You table.

It may help veterans of the RPG form to imagine that the party’s dice are divided between the characters in play, representing the characters lending each other assistance in the pursuit of a deathblow. An example may also be of value here.

aN exAmPlE

Khairan (level 4 wizard), Nivienne (level 2 monk) and Myra (level 1 priest) are fighting a terrible bosom monster or something.

They generate nine dice between them (two for turning up, plus one for each character level involved). Their ref has five dice (two for turning up, plus one for each character).

The terrible bosom monster has a Challenge Rating of 11.

Khairan can bung up to five dice at a problem, so he represents the nuclear option. Nivienne can bung up to three dice at a problem, so she has an average chance here. Myra can only bung two dice, so it’s highly unlikely that she’ll beat any bosoms by herself.

The party elects to let Nivienne take the first swing, in an attempt to dummy out some ref dice. Sadly, Nivienne’s player just misses, with a total of 10. Oh no! A +1 against bosom monsters would make all the difference here.

Khairan’s player throws four dice, because they might just need that third attempt after all, and scores a total of 12. The referee giggles inanely and flings all five of their dice, because they don’t expect Myra to achieve much of anything. The ref’s dice show a pair of sixes and that’s enough all by itself.

It’s all on Myra. And because we’re rolling this example out live, there isn’t one of those contrived endings where the babiest character gets a double six and wins the day. It’s a four and a two and the round is a wash.

No bosoms are punched, immolated or… what does a baby priestess even do to a bosom? The tempo for the description is set, though: Nivienne can’t land a decisive blow, Khairan’s efforts are met by some quivering defence, Myra is clearly overcome by the whole business.

Further Observations on Challenge Ratings

Another great thing about the WFB magic system is how setting the right casting value for a spell makes it seem more or less routine. Take Invocation of Nehek, the baseline spell of the Necromancy lore. Its casting value of 3 means that for a level 2 Necromancer, only a Miscast will result in failure. On literally any other outcome of a three dice roll, this extremely routine act of sorcery will succeed. At the other end, the Curse of Years, a devastating bit of offensive wizardry, requires an 11. Our level 2 Necromancer can take a shot at it with their three dice, but the law of averages is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the attempt. Such is entirely befitting of a spell which will probably wipe out a whole regiment if it’s allowed to go through. By careful consideration of the minimum and maximum values required, ‘brackets’ of Challenge Rating can emerge in which characters of a given level are more or less likely to succeed. A 5-11 range was normal for WFB spells: only the most necessary of incantations or spectacular of maledictions fell outside this scale range.

Equipment should provide small bonuses and maluses, or allow for the generation or banking of dice. Such things make all the difference, as with this party who are one die shy of everyone being able to work at full efficiency. Character type could allow for an additional ‘free’ die in particular situations, such as combat or stealth or acquisition of lore.

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