C Series • #10
High action and thrilling feats are inherent in almost all role playing games. Sufficiently advanced characters are able to overcome challenges that would thwart more mundane individuals. But sometimes extra assurance of success is needed and counting on a Natural 20 is too much to ask. Other times, a setting has a pulp-styled vibe and the threats are greater than normal and the cinematic feel of the game is more grandiose. And in still other campaigns, there are those select few who can reach beyond the established baseline of the masses. Cases like these call for a special rule mechanism and this is the use of bonus dice.
A number of rule systems and campaign settings make use of this mechanic. Often called “action dice,” these are used to add points to a roll in combat or even skill checks in the hopes of pushing the results that much further beyond a given difficulty class or target number. It is not uncommon for these bonus dice to be a limited resource in a given game session or day within the game. Depending upon the game, these also can be called “luck dice” or a “fate pool” or even something more flavorfully-specific like “Force Points.”
One of the first examples of this mechanic that I remember was in Star Wars D20. As the Force encompasses the entire fictional universe, all characters could earn and use these Force Points to represent the benefits of all beings’ connection to the Living Force. Every non-droid character and NPC started with one of these points and automatically earned an additional one at every level. Further points could be gained for particularly heroic actions successfully performed without the benefit of a Force Point. Most characters were limited to having a maximum of five such points but any Force-sensitive character could have an unlimited number.
When a character spent a Force Point, they were allowed to roll at minimum an additional six-sided die along with any standard die rolls in that same round. As characters gained levels, the number of six-sided bonus dice they could add increased. Force-sensitive characters had the ability to roll more dice than “normal” characters and if anyone tapped into the Dark Side they got even more. (Doing so earned the tempted character Dark Side points which were measured against the Wisdom score and showed how corrupted they were becoming.) A later version of the system, Star Wars Saga Edition, also was D20-based and a similar system with one interesting addition. The feat called “Strong In The Force” allowed a character to change all of his bonus Force dice from six-sided to eight-sided.
Dungeons & Dragons came to use action dice shortly after the game’s publisher tested the concept in the Star Wars game. The first appearance of the concept was in Unearthed Arcana released during the days of D&D version 3.5 and they came a second time shortly thereafter in the Eberron Campaign Setting. Here, characters started play with five Action Points and gained more as they advanced in level. Spending a Point allowed a player to roll one, two or three bonus six-sided die during a resolution roll but only the highest single die was counted. So, if a 15th level character spent an Action Point and rolled a 2, a 5 and a 1 on three six-sided die, he only could add the 5 to his standard roll. This allowed for a cool nudge to outcomes but didn’t break the standard feel of the genre through high-pulp results.
D&D’s Action Points could be used in more ways than merely modifying rolls. Special character class abilities could be activated and used an additional time through the expenditure of one of these Points. The bonus for Fighting Defensively could be doubled for a round if the character drew from this resource pool. Spells could be boosted or recalled at the cost of a Point. And, often of great importance in a game session, a dying character (one below zero hit points) could use an Action Point and automatically stabilize himself.
Another D20-related game that used Action Points and Action Dice was Spycraft. The pool of dice available grew as the player advanced and the die types grew as well. For every point spent, one die could be rolled. Along with all of the options available as described above, the very high-energy cinematic feel of the game allowed for additional unique uses of this mechanical concept. One of the coolest ones pertained to critical successes and critical failures — those wonderful Natural 20s and 1s — whenever they occur during the game session.
In a combat encounter, when a character rolled a critical success, one Action Point could be spent to turn that threat into automatic critical hit. The game system used a version of Vitality & Wound Points so all hits drew from a target’s Vitality first. But with the use of an Action Point after a roll of Natural 20, all damage rolled instead went straight to the target’s Wound Points. If an opponent rolled a Natural 1, the player facing him could spend an Action Point to activate an error for that foe. This could be some sort of weapon malfunction like a gun jam or a situational disadvantage like falling prone.
In keeping with the exciting pace and thrills of the game’s “movie spy” style, the Action Dice of Spycraft came with some fun bonus features. The normal spending of one of these points allowed the rolling of one die but if the result was the maximum of that die type, it exploded and could be rolled again with its result added to the first. And, unlike all of the other versions discussed, this system allowed Action Dice to be added to damage rolls. Doing this in conjunction with a demolitions-related action yielded the appropriate explosion effects common to the genre while applying it to gun or rifle fire assured that even the biggest of opponents would go down.
The use of bonus dice is a very simple matter even in existing games. No modifications to character are needed and there is very little imbalance brought to the game by them. They simply add an extra degree of heroic success (or tragic failure) to a game session which only adds to the fun. There are plenty of examples out there to study, use or be inspired by if you want to introduce an extra dose of pulp-style action to your game.