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Luck Vs. Data

I recently got into a discussion with a friend who had started playing in a Call of Cthulhu game and had some issues with the BRP system. I normally don’t get into system vs system discussions but this time I charged in.

He prefers d20 and doesn’t care for percentile systems because “if you fail a single roll l, you’re screwed and whether you pass or fail is just luck”. He says in a d20 game you get skills, natural abilities and attributes to add to your die roll and that is “hard, fast data”.

I understand there are some fundamental differences between playing Call of Cthulhu and D&D, but my take is that you normally build characters in BRP or D20 with a goal in mind. With BRP your skills, natural ability, and attributes are already in your percentile number. With BRP and d20 you can add items to increase skills and you can increase skill numbers through normal play. With that in mind, my thought is that the numbers, while shown and calculated differently in BRP and d20, are essentially the same. They just use different mechanics to get there.

I also think that no end result is “hard, fast data” when a die randomizer is added in. Granted, the +12 you get to add to your roll is good data in and of itself. In d20 if you need a 19 to succeed and then roll a 3 and add your +12 in skills, abilities and attributes, you have failed by the luck of the die. In BRP if you need to roll 60 or lower and roll a 75 you have failed by the luck of the die. The only hard, fast data in either case is that you’ve failed your roll.

I also take issue that a player(s) are more likely to get screwed by one bad roll of the dice in BRP than in any other game, at least as it relates to combat. If you fail a jump check in d20 or BRP and land prone in front of a group of 5 hostiles, that one roll has left you in a bad situation regardless of system.

As it relates to the story, ff you miss a huge clue because of one failed dice roll and then you’re entire party is just doomed, I’d have to wonder why the GM didn’t find a way to give the party another chance at it. Aren’t GMs supposed to expect the players aren’t going to do things by the book? And that they might just fail a roll on something they absolutely NEED to know to progress the story? In my book, a GM needs to be prepared for that.

That doesn’t mean they need to give them a second chance at every clue however. If they fail to find a book that would tell them that knife they found 2 scenes ago will damage the big bad better than their guns, I’d let that slide as long as they still have a chance to survive. Now, if that was the ONLY way to damage the big bad, I’d find a way to get them that clue. Maybe the old professor they visited early was doing some more research and lets them know some kind of ancient knife is said to deal heavy damage. He wouldn’t give them everything, just enough to get the PCs thinking there might be a bit more to that knife they found. It would still be up to the PCs to investigate that lead.


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Living in his secluded mansion off the coast of Iowa, JimTo often spends evenings reading, role playing, and writing for DoucheyDM. His best qualities are being loud, rude, and obnoxious, but for some reason, people still love him.

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6 Responses to "Luck Vs. Data"

  1. BrianNo Gravatar says:

    I would have to lean on the DM/GM a little here. If there is one person at the table who should never and I mean never act as a RAW gamer it is the DM/GM. We have tow critical ends of the spectrum in both systems. Either a nat. 20/01 or a nat. 1/100. These are the extremes of success or failure in their respective games. So, given that the DM/GM is the arbitrator why can you not have degrees of failure or success? Better yet, if the die roll is within a given tolerance.

    Let’s say you are engaging an antagonist. You fail the roll by 1 / 5%, the DM/GM asks, “You will succeed if you take a complication”. In physical combat this could mean that you slip and fall prone. In a social situation you manage to get the information you needed from the NPC but, they way you were asking for it pissed them off.

    I do agree that when the party is looking for clues there should be more than one way to find them. However when it comes to the binary Pass/Fail mechanic, if the situation is not accounting for it, the DM/GM needs to be a little more creative in arbitration.


    I have finished the backlog, nutty though it was to do so. I would not enjoy HappyJacks as much as I do.

  2. AzuretalonNo Gravatar says:

    After speaking to said friend in the Call of Cthulhu wrap up, I THINK the issue really boils down to BRP is a deadlier and lower power system.

    A 5 foot leap in Pathfinder was/is our base scenario so I’ll stick with that. A first level character with Acrobatics as a class skill, with 1 skill point, a +3 bonus for Acrobatics being a class skill, and a 1 from the d20 roll (which is not an automatic fail on skill checks) would ALWAYS succeed. A BRP character in a similar situation and build could still roll a 100 and fail. I can see the point that you are leaning more on luck because it doesn’t give you static levels of instant success.

    That said, I think that such a thing is a feature of BRP and a bug of the particular player type. Him and others are definitely of the sort that enjoy empowerment over disempowerment.

  3. JackNo Gravatar says:

    First, I’m going to echo Brian: if one bad roll screws over the party, it’s because the GM let that bad roll screw over the party. Even if you play RAW, failing a roll just means you don’t succeed in your action, the rules don’t dictate (generally) what the consequences are or how events unfold from there.

    Now, I’m don’t hold the opinion that anything should be so critical that the players must succeed or the adventure’s over — sometimes the heroes fail, and sometimes that means terrible things happen. But even if you believe that the players need to do X or the game is over, you have the choice to simply grant them success on X (no roll required) or to give them multiple avenues to success in case they fail one (or more). Not sdoing those isn’t a failure of the system, it’s a failure of the GM (or at least the module or scenario being run).

    To Azure’s point, I’ve always run d20 so that a atural 1 is an auto-fail (though not an auto-fumble), and I thought that was a commonly held convention. In that vein, BRP (which I’ve never played) seems a lot more forgiving than d20 because it only has a 1% auto-fail rather than a 5% auto-fail (BRP allows a 99% success rate, d20 only offers up to a 95% success rate). Aside from that, I think it’s apropriate that Cthulhu (a game based on regular people fighting against unknowable realities) would be a dealier, lowwer-powered game than d20 (generally assumed to be heroic stories of mythic characters).

  4. Andreas DavourNo Gravatar says:

    I think said friend need to learn math. You roll a die, you try to beat a target. Same thing.

  5. Philo PharynxNo Gravatar says:

    One difference is in games that use a die pool instead of a linear roll. In linear systems, your performance is all over the place. Let’s take the Pathfinder long jumper. No matter his skill level, he’s going to have a 25′ variability in what he jumps (okay, sometimes on a 20′ variability depending on his total before the die roll).

    A die pool game gives a bell curve result. The high jumper will usually jump about the same distance. Every once in a while they’ll do unusually good or unusually bad.

  6. JuberBerryNo Gravatar says:

    Now, it’s been a long time since I played another system then D20 (blame a long hiatus)

    I agree that if a die-roll is involved then there is no “hard data”.

    The “hard data” that the person was talking about is the +12 that was mentioned. The thing is, BRP accomodates this by an easier roll based on your skill does it not? The more skilled you are – the easier the roll?

    GBP “pads” the difficulty in either direction by making the target number itself easier or harder.
    D20 “pads” the difficulty in either direction by giving the player bonuses or penalties to their die result.

    It is the same thing – just a different mechanic.

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