Monday, February 14, 2011

No Upper Limit

An interesting component of a game I’ve been playing in a system called Savage Worlds is exploding dice. The only DnD equivalent being the critical hit system. The basics of exploding dice is this, If I roll the maximum number on a die, then I get to roll it again and add the result together with the original roll, indefinitely.

This system brings an interesting mechanic into play, the idea of no upper limit. Strictly speaking we may be playing the game somewhat inappropriately as some of the veterans are rusty, but as we’re playing it a huge amount of diversity is added to the game. Potentially an unskilled person could seemingly succeed on an extremely difficult task, and not only that, do it very well.

Thus the title, No Upper Limit. Theoretically the player could roll an infinite number, and while the system does not necessarily have no upper limit to the degrees of success (defeating the target number by 4 in most cases being the limit) it allows a crippled, inexperienced person in extremely unkind environment manage to do something amazingly well.

Most systems place a limit, sometimes a high one, but still a limit to the reach of the player’s success. For instance 3rd edition and 4th edition DnD offer a d20 + X to a roll. 1-20 doesn’t matter for a skill check, so your upper limit is 20+X, some DMs offering explosions, but officially none. In combat, a critical officially has a single explosion limit. GURPS 3rd and 4th editions also offer only rolling 3d6 and comparing to a stat offering only success or failure. Apparently the World of Darkness d10 system recently officially added exploding dice as well allowing a “10 again” system.

An interesting note on both systems that use this explosion method and the systems that don’t. Relatively speaking from my mediocre experience with different systems, and with exception to the recent 4th edition DnD, the more complicated systems with less generalized abilities have upper limits. The systems that generalize things such as shooting skills and athletics don’t. Does this lead to more powerful generally able players? I think definitely, is this desirable? Perhaps not for my system, but I do think it allows for a great deal of tension, allowing everything to hinge on one player’s unskilled attempt at something VERY difficult. Our party was saved last night from imprisonment and torture due to unskilled attempts.

The blind warrior used an unskilled lockpicking attempt on his cell door while I distracted the guard with an unskilled taunt. This followed with an unskilled stealth check as the warrior approached the guard followed by my barely skilled attempt to help subdue the guard with my strangling them with shackles… And so on… Without weapons, companions, and my case even my spells, the night was a long series of unskilled checks we could all have a chance to succeed at, and in many cases did so. Of coarse, when our true power was unleashed, we finally became competent and powerful, the encounters cleverly scaling up. Maybe the GM was just realizing our characters were perhaps too powerful and throwing everything he could at us.

No upper limit, or perhaps, always a chance to succeed. Something to think about.


  1. I suppose, then, that the trick to making an exploding dice system work is either a) accepting that ordinary individuals may routinely do extraordinary things or b) putting the target number that one needs to roll high enough away that while anything is possible, probability for the truly extraordinary things is slim enough to satisfy the simulationists. Not being familiar with Savage Worlds, which is it in practice? Is it like 3rd edition where the DM prescribes a target number or does SW maintain a 1-20 (or 1 to whatever range) and just allow for spectacular results beyond that?

  2. Generally there is a target number. Most often for common tasks it appears to be 4. Modifiers are applied to your roll for wounds, exhaustion and other issues and bonuses are applied for various other character traits and conditions. Skill increments d4-2, d4, d6, 8, 10, 12 then 12+1, 12+2, 12+3 and so on, however those +x can't be reached naturally.

    I haven't been behind the DMs mask, but the game feels a lot more cinematic than simulationist. So I guess one could assume that nothing out of the ordinary happens unless the wildcards (players and tough bosses) are around. Then all kinds of spectacular things happen.

    I wonder if that could be an interesting plot in itself, kind of a wild plot aura around characters causing extreme things to occur, sort of like weirdness magnet in GURPS.

    In some cases the target number varies, but 4 is used commonly as in basic conditions the player will have a 87.5%, 75%, 66%, 50% and so on odds of failing.

    Like I said though, usually it doesn't account for anything more than beating the target by 4, but as players, we have to see how far that roll will go. As a DM we don't want to reveal the target and it also gives him an opportunity to describe some interesting effects from the result. Usually just flavor, but when rolling a 36 on a target of 4 a little more than flavor can be warranted. I should really count the raises above 2 per action in the next session.