Otherkind Dice

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“Otherkind Dice” is the casual name of a resolution system I came up with about two decades ago. Otherkind dice underpin a lot of my design work and — through PbtA — they’ve influenced a lot of the design work in indie rpgs today. It’s high time for me to lay them out for you in an updated, accessible, and relatively complete form.

The Core Idea

Use these rules to resolve sequences of action, challenge, danger, risk, confrontation, and/or conflict.

First, assemble a set of outcome cards that apply to your situation. Each outcome card represents a range of partial outcomes:

  • Do you achieve your goal? (Yes / no)
  • Do you get hurt in the process? (Yes, badly / yes, but not badly / no)
  • Do your friends suffer? (Yes, badly / yes, but not badly / no)
  • Is there an unwelcome side effect? (Yes / no)
  • Do you get even more than you hoped? (Yes / no)
  • Etc.

Assemble all the outcome cards that apply, so that taken together they cover the whole range of possible outcomes. Lay them out on the table so you can see them all.

Next, gather your dice. Start with a set number of 6-sided dice. Add more dice for your strengths and advantages, and take dice away for your weaknesses and disadvantages.

Once you’ve gathered your dice, roll them all. Assign your rolled dice, one each, to your assembled outcome cards. Discard any extra.

You decide how to assign them. You (probably) have a mix of high dice and low dice. Which of your outcome cards get your high dice for good outcomes? Which ones get your low dice for bad outcomes?

Finally, following the outcomes you’ve chosen, describe with the GM and the other players what’s happened, what’s happening, and where your character and the other characters are now.

Outcome Cards

You’ll need a number of outcome cards, enough to cover all or most of the situations possible in your game.

Each outcome card includes:

  • Its name;
  • How and when to include it in a roll;
  • A table of outcomes, by die roll.

For example:

Do you achieve your goal?
Include this card when you’re trying to accomplish something immediate, specific, and concrete. What’s your goal, and how are you trying to accomplish it?
On 4–6, you accomplish your goal. The GM has first say: What happens as a result?
On 1–3, you don’t accomplish your goal. You have first say: Where and how do you fall short?

Include as many different outcome cards as you want and need for your particular game. You’ll need at least 4 or 5 for the system to work, but you can include a dozen or more if it serves your game.

For instance, if your game is going to include exploring unknown and treacherous terrain, you might include this one:

Do you get lost?
Include this card when you’re exploring unfamiliar and treacherous terrain.
On 4–6, you don’t get lost. You have first say: You can return safely and directly whenever you choose.
On 2–3, you’re turned around, disoriented, at an unfamiliar place. The GM has first say: Where are you now?
On 1, you’re profoundly lost. The GM and other players have first say: How long are you missing before anyone takes action to find you?

If it includes spellcasting, you might include this one:

Do you control your magic?
Include this card if, to accomplish your goal, you must cast one of your spells. Which of your spells are you casting?
On a 4–6, you cast your spell perfectly. The GM has first say: What does it do?
On a 2–3, your spell challenges your discipline, misbehaving in small ways. The GM has first say: What does it do?
On a 1, your spell overcomes your discipline, spilling into the world out of your control. The GM has first say: What does it do?

If it includes pursuit by shadowy forces, you might include this one:

Do your shadowy pursuers gain on you?
Include this card when you’re being pursued by shadowy forces. How many scene-locations are they currently behind you?
On 4–6, they don’t gain on you.
On 2–3, they gain on you by one scene-location.
On 1, they gain on you by two scene-locations.
If they reach or overtake you, they appear in the scene now. The GM has first say: Who are they? How do they appear? What do they do?
Until then, the GM tracks their position, but no one needs to say anything.

…But if getting lost, losing control of your magic, or getting pursued by shadowy forces aren’t going to be big parts of your game, you wouldn’t include them at all.

The more specific your outcome cards, the more they emphasize those particular features of the game. Those three cards, for example, are all variations of this more general card:

What are you risking?
Include this card when there’s a risk, danger, or possible downside to your action. What’s the risk? If it comes true, what’s a relatively mild form it might take? What’s the worst possible form?
On 4–6, the risk doesn’t come true. You have first say: How do you avoid it, or why doesn’t it come true?
On 2–3, the risk comes true, in relatively mild form. The GM has first say: What happens as a result?
On 1, the risk comes true, in its worst possible form. The GM has first say: What happens as a result?

By including the more specific versions, you’re making more specific choices about the details of your game.

Ultimately, create the set of outcome cards that best serves your game. You’ll need a minimum of 4 or 5 at the most abstract, and more the more specific your game.

Here’s a good working set you can start with. It doesn’t have much character, but it’s just fine for a straightforward, action-y kind of game.

Here’s the set that our game Psi*Run uses, a game of psychic superheroes on the run from a mysterious government agency. (You can get Psi*Run here.)

Resolution

Use dice and outcome cards to resolve action sequences, challenges, conflicts, risky actions, confrontations, and/or dangerous situations.

  1. Assemble your outcome cards.
  2. Gather your dice.
  3. Roll and assign them.
  4. Describe the full outcome with the GM and the other players.

1. Assemble Your Outcome Cards

Whenever you need to resolve an action or situation, before you roll dice, quickly go through your game’s set of outcome cards and narrow it down to the ones that apply to this particular action, this particular situation.

Make sure that at least three apply. If only one or two do, you’re trying to resolve the situation too narrowly. Expand your attention, think about the implications of the action and the concerns of all involved, and let the situation develop until a third outcome card applies.

Depending on your game, there might be outcome cards that you always include.

2. Gather Your Dice

Once you’ve assembled your immediate set of outcome cards, gather your dice.

You need at least 1 die per outcome card. It’s better for you, the player, if you can roll more dice than you need and discard the ones you don’t want to use.

Here’s the simplest rule we’ve used for gathering your dice:

Gathering Your Dice
Gather 1 die per outcome card.
If you’re unimpaired, unexhausted, and free to act, add 1 die.
If you have any particular strengths or advantages that apply, add 1 die. (If you have more than 1, still add only 1 die.)

…But your game might call for a different system.

3. Roll and Assign Your Dice

Roll your dice all at once.

If you rolled more dice than you need, discard the extras — presumably, the lowest!

Assign one die to each of your outcome cards. You decide how to assign them. It’s easiest if you can physically place the dice on the cards, so you can see at a glance what you’re choosing. You can move them around and try different possibilities until you have the best combination of outcomes you can get.

4. Describe the Outcome with the GM and Other Players

Once you’ve assigned your dice to your outcome cards in the way you like, or for a low roll, in the way you can best stand, get together with the GM and the other players to say what happens in total. Just answer the questions and follow the rules and prompts on the outcome cards.

You don’t need to come up with elaborate descriptions or narration. All you need to do is say what happens and where things stand now, so that everybody knows.

Aside: First Say vs Final Say

When we first published Psi*Run, the going fad in indie rpg design was to write rules that assign who has the final say. Psi*Run doesn’t do that; it assigns the first say instead. At the time, a number of people struggled to understand the difference, or didn’t see what having first say would even mean.

If you imagine a group that takes turns choosing movies to watch, games to play, or restaurants for takeout, though, it’s easy:

When someone has first say which restaurant to choose, they make their choice, and if it works for everyone, it stands. Otherwise, it’s the opening of a conversation, and the people who have particular needs, concerns, or wishes otherwise, get to weigh in and help make the group decision. Only when everyone’s on board has the decision been made.

When someone has final say, though, their role is to end the conversation, not open it, and if they choose to ignore someone else’s needs, their choice stands anyway. Once the decision’s been made, the rest of the group has to get on board, or else refuse to.

These rules follow Psi*Run’s convention of assigning first say, and leaving final say to the group, not to any one player.

Framing a Whole Game

Otherkind Dice don’t need elaborate surrounding systems to make a whole game. They need:

  • Strong characters…
  • …In an unstable situation…
  • …Who have no choice but to act.

Psychic superheroes with amnesia, on the run from shadowy forces!

A village’s warriors descending into a sorcerous dungeon, which has been spilling malignancy out into the world!

The workers and families on an asteroid mining station, resisting violent takeover by an exploitative Terran corporation!

A cell of galactic rebels trying to bring down the war-machine of a merciless galactic empire!

A team of investigative journalists following a trail of police corruption, murder, and community violence!

Begin the game by describing the situation and inventing the characters locked into it, and end the game when the situation’s resolved. Play to find out how it resolves and how the characters come through it, or how they fall.

Using Freeform Traits

You can use freeform traits to invent the PCs. This is a functional and satisfying minimal character creation system:

Each player simply lists 3 or 4 traits that their character has, that might help them get through this unstable situation. They can be points of character history, skills, inherent qualities, special equipment — whatever fits the situation.

When you gather your dice, if any of your traits will help you, you get an extra die.

Creating More Elaborate Systems

You can, of course, build out more elaborate systems for your game. The minimal game works well, but might not fully capture your vision for your game. Especially important, if your game’s GM is responsible for a specific structure (like a dungeon) or adversarial force (like shadowy pursuers or a galactic empire), develop the systems you’ll need to direct and support them.

Psi*Run, for instance, has a GM-facing system called Chase, which tracks your shadowy pursuers’ progress through the scene-locations on the PCs’ trail, and a group-facing system called Reveal, which lets the PCs recover memories of their lost past and ultimately triggers the end of the game.

When you create a more elaborate system, be sure to hook it, some way some how, into the outcome cards.

Psi*Run includes unique outcome cards for Chase and Reveal, but this isn’t the only way. You might have a system for equipment, for instance, that appears on your general Goal card, or a system for spellcasting that has its own outcome card and appears on your Goal card as well. You might have health, exhaustion, and injury systems that interlock with your dice and outcome cards in different ways. Any approach you can think of, you can try.

The Dice Are Not Your Friend

If you’re looking for rpg rules that respect your character, highlight your character’s strengths, and help your character triumph, Otherkind Dice aren’t the rules you’re looking for.

Otherkind Dice are designed to challenge your character’s strengths and ideals. They put your character — and you as a player — in terrible positions, where you must choose between everything you value. Every time you roll the dice, you really might find yourself in a worse position than you were before.

You’ll sacrifice, you’ll compromise, you’ll fight and struggle, and you won’t know whether it’ll be triumph or tragedy until the bitter end. Tragedy really is on the table.

When you create your outcome cards, you can mitigate this effect somewhat, if you choose. But the system’s designed to give you hard choices and a genuine possibility of tragedy. If that’s not what you want out of the game, or if any of the players aren’t fully on board, Otherkind Dice probably aren’t the right choice.

…But You Aren’t Powerless, Either

So here you are holding the dice in your hands, right before you roll. The roll is a genuine risk and it feels like one. The range of outcomes possible is pitched in your favor, what with discarding the lowest die or two, but it’s not safe, and when the dice come out low they’re absolutely unforgiving.

It’s possible that you’ll get all high dice, and that’s what you’re hoping for.

It’s most likely that you’ll get a mix of high and low dice, so you’re thinking about what you’re risking — particularly, what you’re willing to sacrifice if it doesn’t go purely your way, and what you’d really prefer not to sacrifice. And you know that it’s possible that you’ll roll 1 1 1 1 1, it’s always possible, so you’re hoping you don’t!

Here’s the power you hold: before you roll you’re focused on what you’re risking, how bad it can go, how much you might have to lose, but after the roll it’s not as bad as you feared. Even on a terrible roll, like a 1 1 1 1 2, you get to mitigate the disaster! Though the costs are high, you get to preserve a measure of whichever thing you value most. You still have a say. It’s a bloodbath for your side and your enemy is unharmed, for instance, but at least you held your ground.

When a bad outcome happens, or even when a terrible outcome happens, you get to make it the bad or terrible outcome you can live with.

(From lumpley.com: 2013-10-21 : The Magic Trick: Otherkind Dice)

Variations

Scales of Success

Each of your outcome cards has its own table of outcomes. You can standardize these if you choose, but a good and easy way to highlight your game’s themes or features is to adjust the outcome ranges of the different cards.

Compare these, for example:

  • Equal Odds: 1–2: Worst / 3–4: Middle / 5–6: Best
  • Safe Odds: 1: Worst / 2–3: Middle / 4–6: Best
  • Dire Odds: 1–4: Worst / 5: Middle / 6: Best

You can also create outcome cards with only two possible outcomes, or with four, or even with six!

When you create your outcome cards, choose how difficult, how dangerous, or how easy, how safe, each card should be.

Limited-use Dice

By default, as designed, any die you roll, you can assign to any outcome card you like. However, you can include dice in the roll that aren’t as flexible, that can only be assigned to certain outcome cards.

Imagine a game with a focus on fighting and combat, for instance. You might have the characters’ weapons give them 1 or 2 extra weapon dice, which they can only discard or else place on their attack an enemy or defend yourself cards.

You can use color coding (“your weapons give you red dice”), numbers-vs-pips (“use dice with pips for your normal dice, and dice with numbers for your weapon dice”), or physical dice sizes (“these mini dice are weapon dice”) to distinguish them.

Dice Modifiers

Another easy way to include weapons or special equipment is to add a system of outcome-specific dice modifiers.

For example:

Attacking an enemy
Include this card when you’re attacking an enemy.
Before you roll, compare your weapon’s rating with your enemy’s armor’s rating:
• If yours is higher, whatever die you assign to this card, bump it up by +1.
• If they’re equal, the die stands.
• If yours is lower, bump it down by -1.
On 7, you kill your enemy outright. The GM or the other player has first say: How do they die?
On 5–6, you wound your enemy badly. The GM or the other player has first say: What do they do?
On 3–4, you wound your enemy, but not badly. The GM or the other player has first say: What do they do?
On 0–3, you can’t land a solid blow. You have first say: How does your enemy stand you off?

No-die Results

If your system for gathering dice doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always have as many dice as you need, you should add the possibility of “no die” to your outcome cards:

What are you risking?
Include this card when there’s a risk, danger, or possible downside to your action. What’s the risk? If it comes true, what’s a relatively mild form it might take? What’s the worst possible form?
On 4–6, the risk doesn’t come true. You have first say: How do you avoid it, or why doesn’t it come true?
On 2–3, the risk comes true, in relatively mild form. The GM has first say: What happens as a result?
On 1 or no die, the risk comes true, in its worst possible form. The GM has first say: What happens as a result?

Carryover Effects

You can build carryover effects into your outcome cards to represent long-term efforts, accumulated advantages, exhaustion, etc.

For example:

Do you finish your project?
Include this card when you’re trying to achieve something substantial and long-term. What’s your project, and how are you working on it?
On 7, you finish your project. The GM has first say: What happens as a result?
On 3–6, you make progress. The GM has first say: What progress do you make?
• Each time you make progress, add +1, cumulative, to the next die you assign to this card.
On 1–2, you don’t make any real progress. You have first say: What stymies you?

Permission To Use Otherkind Dice

You’re able to create and publish your own games that use Otherkind Dice.

If you want to publish recognizable passages of our text, you need our permission, so drop us a line. This would be, for instance, if you want to include a close version of our outcome cards, any of the text in Psi*Run, my explanation of first say above, or anything like that. Just let us know what you’d like to use so we can give you permission to use it.

You don’t need our permission to publish your own original game, of course, but it’s appropriate to give credit. A note as simple as “this game uses Otherkind Dice by Meguey & Vincent Baker” or “this game was inspired by Meguey & Vincent Baker’s Otherkind Dice” would be perfect.

(This is simply our read of copyright law, by the way.)

Thank you!

Questions and observations very welcome, as always!

Author:

He / him.

6 thoughts on “Otherkind Dice”

  • Mark Cleveland Massengale says:

    Long time fan, rarely a commenter. This is a fascinating article for me though, so I just had to! This topic has been on my mind a lot recently. I found myself having a bit of dissonance partway through though – just a teeny bit.

    My observation is that what you say is very on point. Do you have any comment on Blades in the Dark and how it handles this? IMO, this game really got this first/final say thing Right in my opinion. On page 1 (basically; of the Core) the rules make it clear that the game IS a Discussion; between people, who are also players, but in a very real game, about a fictional story. In other words, the rules established from the get-go that AnyOne might get the first say on anyThing; if they just say it first. It then moves on from that to establish Judgment Calls and “final says” as an explicit tool in the game’s fictional world, to bring the fictional truth to the fore of gameplay. Some things are final say for the player, others are final say for the GM; but all of it is can be discussed if so desired.

    To me, this seems preferable to a “first say” without a “final say” – since it neither provokes an immediate discussion as a specific rule, nor prevents one from happening. Instead, discussion arises naturally. Further, I now realized that the interactive tools provided are avoiding a potential issue you describe above. Rather than players potentially being in a “I refuse to” dilemma, or a player not wanting to “get on board” so to speak, with no way out, the game gives two tools to more easily express this: “I Resist” (if the player doesn’t like the negative outcome happening, but the person is still on board) or “Let’s revise” (if the person is not on board). I think this is a beautiful part of what make the game so different, and wonder if you are familiar enough to comment on whether this falls under an exception to your statements in your aside on the topic, or?

    • I’ve played Blades in the Dark but it was years ago, so no, I wouldn’t remember the details to comment. I can say that John was involved in all those old discussions, and I’m positive he thought about it carefully and made good decisions in Blades’ design. I don’t have any reservations about it.

      There’s nothing wrong with giving someone the final say in your game, when they should have the final say!

  • Hello, and thank you for bringing back Otherkind Dice to the light.
    They’re not for everybody but I love them. I have fond memories, both dry and fresh, of Psi*Run, Ghost/Echo, Danger Patrol and Mesopotamians, all games that I like to call the OtherKindred 😉

    I found Levi Kronelsen’s Stakes a good choice of issues to work with. https://levikornelsen.itch.io/ but, I’m confident any reader will see in their favourite “GM advice” and “how to make combat interesting” a good source of narrative complexity.

    I’m so happy I want to do the OK dice dance!

  • Otherkind was one of the initial games of yours I ran into, Vincent. I was enjoying the narrative system of Donjon and somehow ran into Otherkind and I quite thoroughly fell in love with the concept being clean and simple and compelling. I still have the PDF around here somewhere in my stack of “formative RPG design” games.

    Thanks for not only bringing this back, but for using each of your games as a stepping stone to the next one.

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