Braving the Depths of the Dice Pool – PDQ#

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I finally cracked open my copy of Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies that I came with Diaspora and SotC in an excellently priced bundle during Evil Hat‘s February sale. Pressed for time, I admired the depth, breadth, and tone of the book’s content (especially enjoying the aeronautical terminology and flavor) but quickly turned to the freebie PDF outlining the game’s core rules engine: PDQ Sharp (PDQ#) by Chad Underkoffler.

After a first read, PDQ# has a lot that grabs me, and I am eager to try it out. It’s light, fast, interactive, robust, dripping with flavor, and looks highly entertaining. It gives players the narrative freedom I appreciate most about Cortex Plus, and does an admirable job conveying the genre’s tone of swashbuckling, larger than life heroes. I’m trying hard not to immediately jump to hacking it before playing it first. The speed and tone inherent in PDQ# may also be a better fit for a One Piece RPG than hacking Smallville, and not only because it’s already pirate-themed.

I’d like to explore a couple of PDQ# mechanics that jump out at me and what I can take from them for mechanics design in general: First a part of the Duel mechanics regarding Attack and Defense, and in a follow-up post using Good Form Gifting and Style Dice in general.

Attitudes of Approach

In PDQ#, conflicts with significant characters (Duels) are resolved using a dice pool of 3d6 + a relevant Forte and any other bonuses. “Low-drama, low-threat” conflicts (Challenges), like those with impersonal entities (ie scaling a wall) or single insignificant characters only use 2d6 instead of 3d6.

What catches my interest here is that both sides of a Duel divvy up their 3d6 into Attack and Defense pools for each round of combat (or aggression/caution pools or equivalents in non-combat conflicts). Then the characters clash, first with one character on offense, then the other.

For example, in a classic duel between the fencer Henri and the Dread Pirate Rodney, each man chooses one of four attitudes (or stances or approaches) for the ensuing round of combat:

  • All-out Defense (Negligible Attack) =
    • 0d6 attack, 3d6 defense
  • Strong Defense (Weak Attack) =
    • 1d6 attack, 2d6 defense
  • Strong Attack (Weak Defense) =
    • 2d6 attack, 1d6 defense
  •  All-out Attack (Negligible Defense) =
    • 3d6 attack, 0d6 defense

Having heard the Dread Pirate is infamous with a cutlass, Perhaps Henri chooses Strong Defense, and the Dread Pirate chooses All-out Attack in response.

Since he currently has more Style Dice available, Henri attacks first, rolling 1d6+4 (for his Fencing Forte) against the Pirate’s pool of 0d6+6 (for his Pirate Forte). If Henri rolls a 3 he gets a total of 7 (3+4), which beats the Pirate’s result of 6, so Henri’s player narrates how Henri jabs the pirate in the shoulder thus inflicting one rank of damage. Although his attack was successful, it doesn’t look like it will stop the Dread Pirate.

On the Dread Pirate’s turn on offense, he rolls 3d6+6 for a result of 17 (4+5+2+6) against Henri’s 2d6+4 getting a result of 11 (5+2+4). In the end then, Henri gets 6 damage and only inflicted 1. There is more to Duels than this, but I’m narrowing in on the Attack/Defense mechanic.

If one character faces multiple characters, he rolls attacks against each enemy, but only rolls defense once which then applies to all incoming attacks. If multiple Duels are happening at once, each Duel plays out one of these back and forth turns before shifting focus to the next Duel.

What can I learn from this?

The back and forth attack of each combat turn, like everything in PDQ#, reinforces the swashbuckling genre of duels of rapiers, wits, and repartee, where risks are often well-worth taking. The hacker in me wonders how well this mechanic works in other genres, but that’s a separate topic.

It may just be that I’m nerdy, but deciding how best to divide 3d6 between aggression and caution in all important actions excites me. That simple decision split between equally valuable options not only allows for many tactical possibilities, but is also personally compelling.

As a player, I make a gamble when making an all-out attack that mirrors the character’s gamble. Meanwhile, if I have a bad time in my first round, but my allies are busy, I may need to take an attitude of all-out defense until backup arrives, possibly feinting, disarming the opponent, or employing parry-riposte or dirty tricks in the meantime. Each of these tricks (presented as advanced options) forgoes dealing damage this turn to either disarm the opponent or gain the margin of success as a flat bonus on my next turn’s attack instead.

Furthermore, having choosing how I approach a threat causes the threat to feel more dangerous, if only because I am more responsible for any defeat that comes my way; I chose to take the risks.

Compared with 4e D&D combats, meanwhile, defense is rarely worth considering over offensive potentials. Indeed, players decide whether to take cover, provoke OAs, use defensive Stance powers, or, if absolutely necessary, (and usually only if no attacks are possible due to range or conditions) sacrifice an entire attack to take a Full Defense Standard Action. I prefer to PDQ#’s more graduated scale of Attack and Defense achieved by combat style alone over 4e’s more binary decision with additional crunchy bits like cover/OAs/Stances. Of course in 4e, using Action Points with Full Defense produces a similar result to the PDQ# mechanic, but you can only do that once per encounter.

I have a feeling this idea of dividing a static 3d6 dice pool into Attack/Defense could produce interesting effects with Cortex Plus pools of varying sized dice, but that might also slow down the action since players have more options and probabilities to weigh before acting.

Remember also that these Duel rules apply to social, mental, or professional conflicts as well as physical.

What do you think of this mechanic, in PDQ#, in other systems? Have you played games that use something similar? Do you think Stances, shifting, and Full Defense in 4e represent this element of combat well enough? PDQ# has been out a few years now; Are there discussions about this mechanic buried in forum threads?

About Adam

I'm a husband, father, explorer of the inexhaustible, and synergy cultivator. Starting with D&D, my explorations into role-playing and game design have brought me to savor mining diverse systems, initially Cortex Plus, then PbtA, ORE, Forged in the Dark, and now anything I can get my hands on.