Wonky Dice: Why WHFRP 3rd Edition is Better than Star Wars

If you read my previous article on Advantage in 5e, you can probably guess that I have “opinions” on Fantasy Flight’s cute little dice systems. Opinions one might describe as “unpopular” or “hateful.”

Look, I’m not going to lecture you on why these dice are badwrongfun / not much of an improvement over binary dice systems (That’s the Angry GM’s job, and he already did a better job than I could), but I will point out how the disconnect between dice mechanics and game design made the new Star Wars FFG games take a major step backwards from where the system was at with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying 3rd Edition.

For the uninitiated, both WHFRP and Star Wars are made by the same company, “Fantasy Flight Games.” In many ways, WHFRP was the precursor to Star Wars. It was in WHFRP that the colorful, symbol-driven dice were first introduced. They were essentially the same as Star Wars dice, and worked in the same way. Players gathered up a dice pool of “good” and “bad” dice, rolled them, then scryed the symbols on them for portents of good and bad fortune.

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Borrowed from a great article with more detail on how these little bastards work.

See, when you roll these dice, you can get three axes of results. Success and Failure, which determine if you did the thing, Boons and Threats, which tack on extra stuff that may help you or ruin your day, and Triumphs and Despairs, which are essentially crits and fumbles.

Now, in WHFRP, the entire system was designed around these dice. The designers knew that using these dice meant two things:

  1. Resolution would take longer. Rather than a simple binary die roll, players had to gather a pool, negotiate it with the GM, roll it, and interpret all of it’s symbols.
  2. Not everyone would always be able to agree what the symbols meant, or exactly how to figure out their mechanical impact in game.

Now, to fix problem 2, they came up with a very cool, novel solution in terms of their user interface. WHFRP also used “ability cards”: playing-card sized rulecards that told you what your abilities did in various situations. They also gave you didactic explanations of what you could ‘spend’ your symbols on in the action. Roll 2 successes? Maybe you deal some extra points of damage. Roll some boons? You can spend ’em on getting extra dice on your next attack, or maybe imposing a condition on your enemy. Roll threat on a Ranged Attack? Well guess what? That baddie you were shooting at is now all up in your grill.

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Awww yissss. That’s some beautiful UI Design.

Fixing problem 1 tied into the solution for problem 2. WHFRP combat is short by design, barely going over 3 turns in most encounters. It’s also fast and deadly. Take a solid hit? that might be half your health, boyo. Get a nasty roll in on an enemy? You’re liable to take them out of the fight in one shot. Because the outcomes of rolls were explained clearly on the cards, the designers were able to make it so that the advantages (or disadvantages) gained from all three axes would all “speed up” combat, making it deadlier, faster and more exciting.

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A game where a player’s abilities are represented by cards, huh? Man, I sure wish I had come up with that!

…And then Star Wars threw all that in the garbage. Oh, they kept their finicky little dice of course. But they threw out the cards, and with it, all the work they’d done to make the game design fit the mechanic. So now, you have a situation where Star Wars combat just drags like nobody’s business, no one is able to agree on what the dice mean (most of the time relying on GM Fiat or discarding the tertiary outcomes in favor of moving the game along) and just generally letting the game fall apart.

Star Wars threw out some other good stuff too. A solid relational distance system and physical rules to accurately represent it on the table. “Profession” cards and simplified advancement. Other examples I can’t think of right now.

My point here isn’t that Fantasy Flight is a terrible company or that you shouldn’t enjoy their Star Wars games. If you’re into the dice and appreciate the multi-axis resolution, then cool. Don’t let me harsh your buzz. Rather, my point is that a good designer considers the interactions between their mechanics, dice, and other parts of their game. Ripping out a single mechanic without considering all the other stuff that made it work in it’s original system is a recipe for disaster.

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One thought on “Wonky Dice: Why WHFRP 3rd Edition is Better than Star Wars

  1. This is a good post! And you know what, I agree with it. And let me add one more: using the dice of WHFRP steeped you in the lore of the game. Sigmar’s Hammer, the Chaos Star, all of that s$&% was part of the game world. When the Chaos Star came up, it was a disastrous omen – which is exactly what it was in the world. When you talked about the dice, you were talking about the world. If you’re going to spend a lot of time touching dice and talking about dice, it’s really smart to have those dice emphasize the themes and feel like a weird sort of part of the world.

    Just what the f$&% are the symbols on the Star Wars dice? What do they mean? What are they called? Well, they are called Success and Triumph and Boost. F$&% that. Could it be any more pedantic.

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