SIFRP: The Heart of the Game

“When you play the game of thrones you win or die, there is no middle ground.”

—Queen Cersei, A Game of Thrones

One of the primary concerns in the SIFRP game design was to keep the mechanics and game play simple, to make sure gaming veterans and folks new to roleplaying games alike can pick up the rules after a few minutes and jump in to tell stories of their own in the Seven Kingdoms.
We kicked around a lot of ideas at the start, with different die-sizes, dice pools, die plus modifiers, and a bunch of other mechanisms, and while we were tempted to explore using different-sized dice—such as bunches of eight-siders—we eventually retreated from the more arcane concepts and embraced the simplicity of the classic six-sided die. Using the old six-sider removed the barrier of components from the game, since just about everyone has a pile of these lurking in boardgame boxes and, if not, they can find them almost anywhere, from drug stores to hobby shops. Plus, it’s a lot easier to add up six-siders than a bucket of twenty-siders, and so it was a fairly easy decision to build the system around these tried and true cubes.
The Roll of Dice
Whenever you roll dice, you test an ability. A test is successful when the sum of the dice equals or beats a difficulty, and is a failure if it is lower than the difficulty. (There are margins of success and margins of failure, but that’s a discussion for later.)
All tests relate to one of your abilities. The number associated with the ability (called its rank) tells you how many dice to roll. So if you have rank 2 Agility (average), you roll two dice, or rank 5 Fighting, you roll five dice. These dice are called “test dice” and when you roll them, you sum the numbers shown on the dice to arrive at the test result.
So, let’s say you’re going to climb the wall to get to the top in the hopes of finding the mechanism to throw open the castle’s gates. The Narrator suggests Athletics is the most appropriate ability, so you roll a number of dice equal to your Athletics rank. In this case, you have a 4, so you roll four dice. Say you get a 6, 5, 3, and 2. Adding them up results in a 16.
Bonus Dice: In addition to test dice, you may also get to roll additional dice called bonus dice. These extra dice differ from test dice in that they aren’t added to find the test result, but instead improve your chances at getting a better test result. You roll bonus dice along with your test dice and keep the highest dice equal to your test dice. So, let’s go back to the previous example. Say you gained two bonus dice to your Athletics test to climb the wall. In this case, you’d be rolling a total of six dice and keeping the best four rolled. So if you get a 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 2, you drop the 2s (the lowest two dice) and sum the rest for the result of 18 (a bit better than the previous 16).
Modifiers: Sometimes you have modifiers to your tests, bonuses or penalties applied directly to the test result, rather than the number of dice you roll. Modifiers come from circumstantial or situational factors. You might gain a modifier for poor vision, being injured, or having help from an ally.
Penalty Dice: Finally, there are penalty dice, a drawback imposed by wounds, flaws, certain actions, and so on. Having a penalty die forces you to drop one test die when you are adding up you test result, starting with the lowest remaining die. You apply the penalty die after you roll and after you drop any bonus dice. So, using the bonus dice example, if you also had a penalty die, you’d have to drop the 3 die on your roll, reducing your result from 18 to 15.
The Role of Dice
As mentioned, whenever you attempt something with dramatic consequences or when the outcome of the action is not certain, you test your abilities. A test is a roll of the dice with the aim of exceeding the action’s Difficulty. The number of dice you roll is determined by the most relevant ability, so if you try to stab a Gold Cloak with your sword, you use Fighting, or if you’re trying to scale a keep’s wall, test Athletics. Testing abilities is easy once you get the hang of it, with a few simple steps.
1. Declare the Action
Before you roll the dice, decide what it is you want to do. The Narrator determines whether or not the action even requires a test. As a rule, if the intended action has no significant risk or no consequences for failure, there’s no need for a test, though the Narrator is the final word on what requires a test and when. Actions that might require tests include—but are not limited to—fighting, climbing, jumping, recalling a bit of useful information, addressing the king, sailing a ship through inclement weather, and so on. In short, if the action’s outcome isn’t certain or may have dramatic consequences, it probably requires a test.
Example: Nicole’s character, Lady Renee, happens upon a pair of conspirators discussing their plans to kill her father, Lord Tybalt. Clinging to the shadows, she strains to hear their whispers.
2. Choose the Ability
Once the Narrator decides if a test is necessary, determine the appropriate ability. Abilities are flexible, allowing both you and the Narrator to use a variety of methods to overcome challenges in the game. A particular action may use one ability in one set of circumstances, and another in a different environment. For example, you might use Persuasion to bluff your way past a guard or Status to fall back on your notoriety and standing to remove the guard from your path. Even though these are two distinct methods, the intended outcome is the same—getting past the guard.
Generally, the Narrator determines the ability, but you do have some say in what ability you’d like to use. Just state what you want to use and how you intend to use it, and, if reasonable enough, the Narrator ought to allow it. Obviously, using Language to scale a wall or stab an enemy is ridiculous, so common sense must prevail.
Example: Since Renee eavesdrops on the conversation, the Narrator decides the relevant ability is Awareness.
3. Set the Difficulty
Once the ability is determined, the Narrator sets the test’s Difficulty. The Difficulty describes the complexity and challenge of the action. To help assess how hard a task is, a Difficulty number has a descriptor, such as Routine for Difficulty 6, Challenging for Difficulty 9 and so on.
Example: The Narrator considers the scene. It’s dark so Renee can’t see the conspirators, can’t read their body language. They’re also a bit distant and whispering. The Narrator decides the Difficulty is Formidable (12).
4. Roll the Dice
Knowing which ability to use and the Difficulty of the task, you roll a number of test dice equal to the ability. Many times, you may roll additional dice in the form of extra test dice or bonus dice.
Example: Lady Renee has Awareness 3, giving her three dice off the bat. However, she also has rank 2 in Listening, a specialty of Awareness, so she has two bonus dice. She rolls five dice, but only adds up the highest three.
5. Sum the Dice and Apply Modifiers
Once you roll the dice, sum the highest results equal to your test dice and add or subtract any modifiers. The total is the test result.
Example: Nicole rolls five dice (three test dice and two bonus dice from her specialty) and gets a 6, 6, 5, 2, and a 1. She discards the two lowest dice–the 1 and the 2–since they count for her bonus dice, and adds up the rest, getting a 17 as her result.
6. Compare the Result with the Difficulty
Now that you have a result, compare it to the action’s Difficulty. If the result equals or exceeds the Difficulty, you succeed. If the result is less than the Difficulty, you fail.
Example: The test Difficulty was Formidable (12). Since Nicole beat the Difficulty with her 17, she succeeds!
7. Describe the Outcome
Once the outcome of the test is determined, the Narrator describes the results, providing any relevant consequences of success or failure.
Example: Nicole’s roll was good enough for Renee to hear most of the conversation, which the Narrator summarizes. Although both conspirators are careful to keep their identities concealed, Nicole now knows how they intend to go about their treachery and with this information Renee may be able to stop their foul plan!