Overcoming the Tyranny of Dice

17 04 2011

Someone once asked Napoleon what trait he most looked for in his generals.  His response says a lot about what war must have been like in the 19th  Century.  “Luck… Let my generals be lucky”

In games with random elements (such as dice) its very similar and I have only seen two strategies that work to mitigate this:

    1. Reduce the range of effects of a random event.  That is to say, make both the worst and best possible outcomes of a randomizer so near the same that no one really gets bent out of shape when the dice go cold.  Close Action does this pretty well.  In ten years I have never seen a game broken because someone was unlucky.  Quite the contrary… the game only breaks when someone is dumb.  Which is always.

  • Increase the number of dice rolls.  On a long enough timeline randomly generated numbers form beautiful and predictable curves.


I should take a moment and say that Jeff Hunt (the man, the legend) and I have spent quality time discussing this problem.  If you’ve ever seen Jeff roll dice when the chips were on the line, you would understand why dice tyranny was such a hot topic for him.  Besides being  a great advocate for reducing consequences for rolling dice (option #1 above) Jeff used to always point out how bizarre it was that there was no way to challenge the luck gods to a best two out of three.  If the fates have decreed that my battleship should be sunk on the rolling of a “one” on a six sided die, I should at least be given a second chance even if I should have to give up a couple of Victory Points or have to buy the next round of beers.  Fate should have to show up or shut up.

Introducing… Battle Karmatm

As we have previously discussed, Generals give orders.  Good generals are able to give lots of orders.  Once all the troops have been ordered what’s a good general to do?  Get some Battle Karma!

Battle Karma

Battle Karma represents some of the intangibles of a general.  On many occasions during the war, disaster was averted (or caused) because the seeming mere presence of one of the wars great men.  A cursory look at some of these events might lead you to believe that they where lucky or that they simple had superiors troops because nothing on the battlefield could explain what happened otherwise.  Perhaps nothing on the battlefield did explain it.  Perhaps the commanders and their subordinates had established trust and anticipated or discarded orders as the situation demanded.  Perhaps a general thinking ahead remarked to a lieutenant, “watch those trees… that’s where I would attack us from.”  Perhaps a general expecting failure went back to his tent and got drunk.  Shit happens.

A general may take one check per activation to get Battle Karma as one of its orders.  If successful, the general gets a token that my be redeemed later for a reroll.  A general may only check for  Battle Karma if he has less tokens than his Command Rating.  These tokens are kept near his stand on the table along with his influence dice

To be eligible for a reroll, the die roll in question must be made:

  • By the general himself
  • By a subordinate unit in the command structure of the general (a regiment of the Brigadier or Lt. General spending the Battle Karma)
  • By a unit in direct opposition to the General spending the Battle Karma.  These rolls should involve some interaction with units commanded by the general requesting the reroll.

This last bullet is really fuzzy and deliberately so.  Some actions are inherently interactive such as fire, reaction rolls and assault.  Others like finding improvised cover, rallying, and improving command efficiency are not.  Play testing will draw a better line here.

Why make fate repeat itself?

I imagine that a really common reaction to this rule will be “why take the odd results out of the game?”  I do not think that I am.  The net effect of the rule will not be the elimination of “the unlikely”.  In fact the opposite.  While bad generals will think twice about taking chances against the very capable, good generals won’t hesitate to take advantage of their less skilled opponents.  A one in 8 chance of success becomes a 50/50 with three Battle Karma tokens .  A good general may rely on an unlikely result.

Some other interesting dynamics will occur in game.  For instance, a general will not use his tokens to reroll a fail when there was only 1 in 20 chance that he would succeed.  On the other hand, if he should succeed then his opponent would undoubtedly challenge the roll.  The result will be to enforce that smooth curve that comes with lots of dice.  If a general does not like a bizarre result then he need only challenge it.  This will at a blow remove the “sunk battleship” result that drives the luck challenged to the point of despair. All you have to do is not run out of Karma.

Some generals will have spare Karma and will force rerolls on 50/50s just to burn through the opponents Karma.  It will become an interesting side game on its own.

There are a couple of historic-like results here but none more than the representation of generals “getting ready”.  In many games it is possible that a unit can not move but it is rarely explained and never feels satisfactory.  With Battle Karma, delay is explained as a general running around trying to make sure everything is just right.  There is a tangible benefit to sitting and doing nothing.


I used 20mm wide, 3mm thick round bases from Litko, along with a graphic a made myself to make the tokens using the same process I used for the Activation chits in my Bag o’ Destiny post.