Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Little Gods of Chaos

No, not this one, I'm talkin' 'bout dice.
 Chaos. Fate. Luck. Call it what you like but the majority of games that have conflict in them need some way to represent the vagaries of battle. There are no sure things in war. History is full of lucky shots, missed shots, heroic stands against all odds, and attacks that should have been a pushover, fail or turn into a meatgrinder. How best to simulate this? H.G. Wells, considered to be the father of miniature wargaming, used a small projectile firing cannon to knock down the enemy troops in his wargame rule book, Little Wars. But this was an imperfect solution as it depended on the shooting skill of the player and could not address the difference in quality of troops and/or equipment.

Some Naval wagames of the same time used straight statistics: Gun Size A beats Armor Class B at 4,000 yards and does 5 damage points. Effective but turns a chaotic swilling battle into chess. No choking at a critical point, but no amazing heroics either. Not bad for game, but real world combat does not follow set conditions. Some way was need to represent the "friction" of warfare.

Enter our little six sided friends and tormentors. The Prussian Army is credited with the first use of dice in a wargame, Kriegspiel, used to train the officer corps. Wargaming did not really catch on in the public sector for entertainment until the 1960-70s. It became popular, followed by role playing games (some of which used dice with more or less than six sides!) And now here we are with our game of toy soldiers in the Grim, Dark future. And throughout it all dice are the way to determine chaos and uncertainty in battle.

How people deal with their dice is a very personal thing. Some days the dice just hate me, and I am okay with that. I have had more than my fair share of awesome dice. But why do dice seem to act up at just the wrong times? Are they just randomly generating numbers based on the spin and velocity of your throw plus whatever manufacturing defects they were produced with? Or can you exert your will upon the cubes of doom?

 I don't know. Both seem true, depending on how the game is going. I do like watching people's (myself included) dice and rolling rituals. Throw lots of dice at once or just a few at a time? Do you "sit out" the ones that roll badly? Run through the whole pile of dice then start over? How often do you buy new dice? Someday soon I am going to track the dice rolls in a game and see what the distribution is like. I am curious if some dice tend to roll certain numbers more than others, and if so by how much.

As we play in a decidedly non-competition fashion we have come up with a house rule for these little random generators of fate. Borrowed from some game you play outside, we use the Mulligan rule. One fine day many years ago, Wolf Lord Jeff was falling before the horror of my Tyranids. His elite Wolf Guard Terminators unleashed a hail of storm bolter and assault cannon fire into a swarm of Genestealers that were way too close for him. He missed with every shot. We were both dismayed. I remembered a rule that my grandfather had demonstrated while we played a round of golf. I told Jeff to take a Mulligan, and re-roll the entire attack. He did and it went much better, though he was still wiped from the field a turn later. The point is you get a chance to change fate, the one time you just need those wounds on the Hive Tyrant, you have to stop that Leman Russ, that Guardian unit must not break and run, you have a second chance. The cinematic element is a strong reason I play this game, so it is nice to get that heroic second effort, even if it fails. Because after all, the dice always know.

 Mulligan: This allows each played to re-roll all the dice in one instance. For example, a unit of fourteen Genestealers attack in hand to hand and only get three hits out of twenty-eight attacks. The 'Stealer played may opt to take their Mulligan and re-roll ALL the to hit rolls. The instance may be twenty attempts to wound or a single leadership test. Usable once per game by each player.