Upside down fairytales
Adding dice and risking failure in Broken Tales
Once upon a time... the world of fairytales was on the verge of ending, forsaken by children who grew up too fast and forgot the value of old stories. Within the void left by failing stories, darkness and oblivion blossomed. All the inhabitants of fairytales wept with fear at the long-dreaded end. “All it would take is one last reader. One single young heart willing to believe in us still,” sighed the weary Fairytale King.
Broken Tales flips the classic stories to “give new life to the rogues, a chance at redemption for every character who has been relegated to the role of villain for centuries.”
What’s a fairy tale, however, without a villain? So in these stories, the heroes are now Shadows: Little Red Riding Hood is now Red-Hood Iskra, and Alice in Wonderland has become Alice — Director of the Wonder Hospital for Children, imprisoning patients in the Hall of the Mind.
Players take on the roles of former fairy tale villains (e.g. Big Bad Wolf) focused on quests of redemption. They are Hunters, tracking down Shadows, protecting the innocent, and restoring balance to the kingdom.
The core book is packed with scenarios that I think would be perfect for one-shots, but could easily be linked together as a campaign.
Broken Tales uses the Monad Echo roleplaying game system:
Monad Echo is a role-playing system that enhances well-structured settings by emphasizing the narrative features of Characters rather than focusing on "crunch." The system promotes a continuous narrative of events and encourages stories with capable and well-developed protagonists.
The system is very clear that it “does not lend itself well to simulative gameplay.”
This means you won’t be tracking 6-second combat rounds or deciding how much resistance steel provides vs. padded leather. In Monad Echo games, a fight is “nothing more than a part of the story during which events are described in more detail than in other types of Scene.”
Instead, you have a narrative system of Descriptors, Gifts (special abilities), Checks, and Wounds. An example of this can be seen in how equipment is handled:
Weapons and armor have no damage modifiers or protection values; this does not make them less effective. The true value of a good weapon is represented by the narrative opportunities that it will give to its owner. In game terms, this means that the Storyteller will evaluate the usefulness of the chosen equipment every time they call for a Check.
Checks (i.e. tests) in Broken Tales are really interesting, so let’s take a look!
Position and Defense Checks
Position and Defense Checks are performed when the Hunter tries to take an action, attempt something risky, or when a threat acts upon the Hunter. Mechanically, they are similar and always performed by the players:
Add Base Successes: If the Hunter has a Descriptor that would help in the specific scenario, they start with 3 Base Successes, otherwise they start with 1 Base Success.
Add Additional Successes/Penalties: Gifts (special abilities) might add additional Successes, or other factors might give a Penalty that reduces Successes.
Spend Soma: Choose to spend Soma (a player resource) to obtain 1 additional Success per point spent.
Roll Dice: Decide to roll one or more six-sided dice (d6), gaining 1 additional Success for each die rolled with a result of 2 or greater. If even a single die roll is a 1, however, the entire Check fails, regardless of the number of successes.
Then you compare the number of Successes vs. the threat’s Opposition Level (OL): Easy (3), Medium (5), or Hard (7). This results in one of four possible outcomes:
Outcome with a Cost: Successes are tied with the OL. The hunter succeeds, but it comes with a cost. They might gain a Wound or have a Penalty on the next Check.
Standard Outcome: Successes exceed the OL by +1. The Hunter succeeds. There is no cost or Wound.
Outcome with an Increment: Successes exceed the OL by +2 or more. Success with an added effect, activation of a Gift, or inflicting a Wound on the threat.
Failure: Successes are less than the OL. The Check fails and the Hunter takes a Wound, potentially impacting what the Hunter can do and the Opposition Level of future Checks.
Most threats will have an Opposition Level of 5, meaning you need five Successes to achieve a desirable outcome. Even if you have an applicable Descriptor and start with 3 Successes, you still need to get three more if you want to avoid a cost.
Most characters start with just six (6) Soma, so it’s a precious resource. You probably don’t want to spend three (half!) of your Soma right away.
Garou the Old Wolf
For example, suppose Garou the Old Wolf (i.e. the Big Bad Wolf) tries to attack a Pig Head (OL Easy 3, 1 Wound) in The City of Pigs:
We’ll assume no Descriptors apply, so just 1 Base Success with no penalties
Garou has one Soma left, and decides to spend it for one more Success
That’s two successes vs. an Opposition Level (OL) of three, which is a Failure.
Just one more success (3 total) would result in an Outcome with a Cost (e.g. a wound, penalty, or some other problem). Two more successes (4 total) would, however, grant a Standard Outcome with no cost.
Garou needs to roll some dice, but how many should he roll?
Adding dice and risking failure
This is an interesting problem:
Rolling dice is a gamble. You can roll as many dice as you wish to reach the Outcome you desire. However, each additional die rolled increases the chances of rolling a 1, even one of which results in a Failure. Even when aiming for the best Outcome (Outcome with an Increment) the total number of Successes needed will never exceed the Opposition Level + 2.
Let’s write some Python and have Garou attack that Pig Head a million times!
Here’s a chart showing the results when you roll each number of dice one million times (i.e. 1d6 x 1,000,000 and then 2d6 x 1,000,000, and so on). Rolling even one “1” causes a complete failure, otherwise it is a success:
Garou only needs 1 - 2 more successes, so that’s an 83% chance of success for one die and 69% chance of success for two dice. Those are pretty good odds, but not being much of a gambler, I’d probably just roll one.
For reference, there’s a 58% chance of success at three dice, and 48% chance at four dice. I doubt any number of dice past that would ever be used, and are just included for completeness.
More than dice rolls
I feel like this creates a very risky system. Sure, getting one success 83 out of 100 times seems good, but that rate drops quickly at 2+ dice. While Soma is recovered during interludes in the story, it’s still a precious resource with most Hunters starting with just six.
Sometimes having a very risky system is a good thing! Interestingly, dice rolling becomes the least desirable thing to do. Where many TTRPGs focus on rolling dice to succeed, gaining modifiers to improve your dice rolls, and using special abilities to modify dice, this system moves away from that.
The sure way to succeed in Broken Tales seems to be pushing the narrative in a direction where your Descriptors provide automatic successes, and where you can use your Gifts. In fact, there’s an interesting discussion of “The Math Behind Checks” in the Monad Echo SRD (p. 38):
By design, it’s tempting for Players to settle for an Outcome with a Cost. For the Player, it is a good way to save Soma and lower the risk of Failing by rolling fewer dice. For the Narrator, an Outcome with a Cost provides an opportunity to generate small complications in the narrative. It’s always more interesting for a Character to succeed in what they are doing, but with contingencies to deal with, rather than simply failing. The chance to roll dice is, of course, always there if you really need it.
Just like when we looked at Honor & Dishonor in The Green Knight Roleplaying Game, the math behind the mechanism was a design choice, and not just the product of chance!
Some things to think about:
Dice don’t have to be opposed to narrative in games. Broken Tales might be a good example of this. It’s worth considering how you can make the story shine while at the same time giving the players a chance to roll some dice.
Not everyone wants to know the odds. I’ve mentioned it before at the end of Peggy Steals an Artifact. While some games like John Company 2nd Edition list the Chance of Success right on your player board, other designers and players feel strongly that it should not be shown.
Incrementally larger dice pools can be an interesting mechanism. We’ve talked about progressive risk systems before in Muffins and the Risk of Being Eaten. Rolling progressively more d6 dice until one of them is a specific value (e.g. any of them are a one) can be one way to accomplish this. This would typically happen within four rolls, but could range from 1 - 12 rolls.
What are some of your favorite ways you’ve seen narrative and storytelling blended with dice mechanisms? Have you played Broken Tales? Let me know in the comments!
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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