Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Frostgrave and the Shortcomings of the D20

I was about to write that I've had a slow week, but that would be a lie.

On the one hand, I've got work done on four separate systems - though I haven't got many finished models to show for it, having focussed on preparatory stuff - and on the other, I've played both Eldritch Horror and Frostgrave.

So I'll write about why I'm reaching the end of my foray into Frostgrave.

Frostgrave - an introduction
Frostgrave is a 25-30mm scale skirmish game. Each side has between ten and fifteen miniatures maximum, and the game is played on a three-foot by three-foot board.

The artwork is intentionally (I assume) retro.

The game has a couple of interesting mechanics, one being the interaction of the Wizard, Apprentice and the turn structure. Frostgrave has a form of semi-alternating activations, meaning the players alternate activating groups of miniatures, with each turn consisting of three such groups. Each model still only activates once in a turn, and each model's position in the activation order is determined by its interactions with the Wizard and Apprentice.

The other thing that sets Frostgrave apart from most games I play is the fact that it uses single D20 dice - with hefty modifiers - to determine the outcome of basically everything. More on this below.

All in all, though, the chief draw of Frostgrave has been its simplicity. With under twenty different available standard miniatures, with few special rules, and a simple objective-based type of gameplay, games can be finished in an hour and a half even at a leisurely pace.

My gripe with D20s
As I said, Frostgrave uses single D20s. Infinity also uses this type of dice, but allows you to gather up a small pool.

Roughly 3.33 times as evil as a D6.

I have several problems with D20s. Partly, these are inherent and partly they are created by the game systems mentioned above.

The first is the range of outcomes. On a D6, you have six outcomes. Your chance of a specific result - on a single dice - is never worse than one-in-six. On a D20 you have - wait for it - twenty different possible outcomes, which brings the likelihood of a single result down to one-in-twenty.

What this does is narrow the extreme edges of the bell curve (assuming you roll enough dice to actually create a bell curve; when you roll one dice, there's no curve at all). While - and because - it is much less likely that I roll a 1 on a D20 than on a D6, it is much more frustrating to do it on a D20. The likelihood shrinks much faster for additional D20s, too. The chance of rolling two ones on D6s is one-in-thirty-six, on D20s it's one-in-four-hundred. But, and this is the nature of random chance, that means that once in every four hundred chain of two-dice rolls, two D20s in a row will come up 1s. And because the likelihood is so small, those two 1s tend to be much more devastating than they would have been with D6s.

This is still not enough to condemn the D20; it does in fact mean that you can nuance the results of a roll more than with a single D6. And to some degree, this is done in Frostgrave (see the Summon Demon spell, for example).

XKCD. Always delivering when I need a picture to break up a Wall'O'Text.

Where it becomes a real problem is in conjunction with the fact that Frostgrave (and Infinity, which is the only other pure D20 game I've tried) uses two other mechanics that compound the problem. These are opposed rolls and small dice pools.

As I mentioned, Frost grave uses single D20s. No way of getting more. Infinity uses slightly more, but never truly large pools - because who has thirty D20s lying around, not to mention hands large enough to roll them?

This is a problem because the usual method of minimizing the impact of dice on your game is to make sure you roll enough dice for chance to start planing out. It's not a perfect method, but it does away with some of the randomness. This is often where a large part of the tactics in a miniatures game comes from - trying to set up situations so that you 'beat' chance.

With a small dice pool - the smallest one possible being one - this is less of an option. Say I need to roll anything over a 1. On one D20, this is always going to be a nineteen-in-twenty chance. If I need one result over one on two D6, it drops to one-in-thirty-six. With more dice, it drops even more. Frostgrave doesn't let me do this, and Infinity only allows it to a small degree.

The last thing here is opposed rolls. What this means is I roll my dice, you roll yours, and then my success is dependent on your rolls. This system works well with Malifaux, where results can be manipulated in retrospect by expending resources. In Frostgrave, there's no such possiblity.

I Googled 'Opposed roll'...

Unlike when one player rolls more dice, these opposed rolls mean more randomness, not less, because it means that the truly high results have even more impact. If I roll a twenty, I am much more likely to succeed regardless of your roll than if I roll a seventeen.

Since Frostgrave also includes a flat target-number, this actually means success becomes much less likely, since you have to beat two separate numbers (both the target's armour and your opponent's roll). Since Frostgrave uses the result of the winner's dice with no regard for the opposing roll, this has a tendency - especially when it comes to damage, which is what we're mostly talking about here - of radicalizing the results. Since you are much more likely to hit with a high number than a midling one, you are actually more likely to cause large amounts of damage than you should be.

What all this boils down to is that some games will be immensely frustrating. Your positioning might be perfect, every modifier in your favour, but if your opponent rolls that twenty and you that one, you're almost always going to be rutted. Maybe you roll high, but your opponent keeps rolling higher on the important rolls, making your seventeens and eighteens pointless. Maybe your opponent rolls low, but only when you fail to beat his armour. And then a single bad combination of results leaves one of your important models dead.

Or, on the other hand, you could have five good combinations of results in a row, leaving your opponent crippled, and killing the game on a few dice rolls.

My other gripes with Frostgrave
A large part of my frustration with Frostgrave is the D20, but it's not all.

The campaign reward system is highly random. A game that ends in a draw can easily (by which I mean possibly) generate five times as much resources for one player as it does for the other.

The campaign losses system is very random. Every one-in-five soldiers taken out will die? Of course this will take differently depending on your dice. To be fair, this is often the case with campaign systems that include death and injury, but it feels like the D20 system compounds it (though at this point I might just be biased).

I used to be a Barbarian...

The likelihood of a draw is very high. We've played maybe ten games in the current campaign - with six to eight players, making it well over fifty games in total  - and I think there have been a grand total of ten games that didn't end in draws. Half of those came in one of the few scenarios available that (almost) can't be drawn.

The simplicity of the game reduces its replayability. When the structure of the game makes it difficult to create models that are unique and interesting, this will bore me personally after a while.

All of this adds up to a situation where I'll finish the current campaign, and then move on, away from Frostgrave.



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