Usage Die — when a rule is clever and popular but…

So in The Black Hack 1e (I haven’t read 2e yet, it just came out) one of the most popular mechanics was the usage die.

Here is how it works. A quiver of arrows has a d10. When you use an arrow, you roll the die. If it’s a 3 or higher, the die stays the same. If it’s a 2 or lower, the die “shrinks” one size, down to a d8. And so on, until the d4 eventually shrinks down to nothing.

Now, three things jump out to me.

  1. Oh, what a fun and interesting little lotto game! Really would be tense & scary like Dread or russian roulette and thus looks appealing to play

  2. Oh and the character sheet has spots where you physically place those dice, that’s super cute and would save on all the scratching out & book keeping

  3. Oh what a unique and innovative and unusual mechanic, really good design

But then as I thought about it some more…

I realized that it’s was one of those killable darlings you hear about. It’s clever but it doesn’t really improve the experience?

  1. It adds a layer of murk. I know, I know, D&D already is a whole mess of murky “what does hp REALLY mean” abstractions. But here we take an aspect of the game that had been super concrete&tangible (how many arrows are in my quiver? how many torches are in my backpack?) and drapes it with a super thick layer of fog and abstraction and lack of clarity.

  2. It doesn’t really make anything simpler. You still have to remember to tick down your torches or arrows, just as you had to remember it before. It doesn’t add any new clear & unforgettable “hooks” into the procedure. It only adds an extra step on top of having to remember to do it.

Now, in The Cthulhu Hack, instead of something physical torches & arrows, the same “usage die” mechanic tracks a super abstract resource (named “flashlights & smokes”) that is used more as some sorta abstract clock. There, I could see the point. Where The Black Hack is needlessly abstracting something that was concrete; The Cthulhu Hack is using an abstraction for something that is abstract. (I think the insight die in Cthulhu Dark works better than the smokes&flashlights dice in TCH but that’s a story for another thread.)

Taking something that was simple and concrete and turning it into something abstract and complicated isn’t always bad. I did the very same thing with my chases rules. We had feet speeds, simple, and I cooked up a heady brew of “escape points” on top of that. Because I had so many intersecting vectors that I wanted to strip away, adapt to a more TotM or “radio play” style of playing than minis. (Or maybe those chase rules also suck and are doomed.)

But I see people using the usage die form TBH in other games. It obv struck some sorta wide appeal. I’m just trying to say… hold on, are we sure that this makes sense?

Comments

  • I agree with this in most respects. I also have mixed feelings about the Usage Die.

    Having said that, I do think that it’s ok for people to have personal preferences for what kinds of abstractions you enjoy and what kinds you find annoying. For example, someone allergic to arithmetic might find it much easier and more pleasant to roll a die and tick it down occasionally. And it simplifies buying equipment, I suppose (e.g. 10 gold to upgrade your Usage Die, compared to deciding exactly how many arrows to buy, how many your quiver can hold, and so on).

    An interesting alternative is the Hazard Die (developed by Brendan S., who writes Necropaxis - unless he got it from somewhere else that I’m not aware of). It’s inspired by the random encounter check, which involves the GM rolling a d6 for each turn that goes by.

    However, it adds meaning to each possible Die roll/outcome. So, one outcome is “resource depleted”, which might mean “your torch goes out”.

    It’s kind of an algorithmic version of AW’s “MC moves”, in that it instructs the GM when to make the move. (“Use up their resources”, in DW speak, I think.)

    Kind of an interesting middle ground.
  • edited April 10
    I think you're right, in both of those points. Wrt the first one... using the usage die mechanic is just plain fun. It's just that it goes against my other design goals.

    That second one sounds like it really can simplify the proceedings which is great because there's a lower chance of mistakes. I also love how it's gloracular and algorithmic. However, it also takes away agency and choice? Like, do we stock up on healing potions or on lamp oil? Whoops all random

    I want to add that I think The Black Hack is a gorgeous book, really really well laid out, I love the look, the writing is super tight and concise while still being clear. It's just that I hate every rule in it
  • I agree with your negative assessment of the rule -- it doesn't simplify things!

    FWIW, my D&D house rule is as follows:

    When you fumble with a bow (i.e. roll a natural 1), it either means the bowstring snapped (your first bow attack in a given combat only) or you have spent or dropped a quiver worth of ten arrows (all later attack rolls). Quivers are assumed to be re-filled after combat is over (because of collected arrows etc.).

    Nothing to track except the number of quivers, which is usually a semi-permanent encumbrance choice (one or two with all PCs so far).

    In special circumstances, we count arrows (during a siege or with magical arrows) or don't allow refills (e.g. in the swamp).

    Probably too abstract for some people's tastes, but it works for us.
  • edited April 10
    I like the d6 table outcomes a lot. I was glad to see it in Blades in the Dark entanglements. The objection of no agency doesn't hold too strongly : either what the characters have in huge stock (a significant expanse) or haven't can't be depleted ; or the table hints at how depletion occurs, like in Torchbearer : damp, broken, stolen, which is enough to decide the target... (and could start a "last one feeds the sharks" trend).
    I thought the usage die was for a general level of access to resources. I find it strange to use a number of them for one kind of resource each. I guess they provide a recycling circuit for all the dusty funky dice.
  • It occurs to me that a person might prefer the usage die because it removes the need to make real-world evaluations on how much arrows weight, how many fit into a "quiver" and in general how many you can expect a character to have access to when the push comes to shove. That rule saves the player from having to decide how many arrows they'll carry.

    If that seems like a trivial matter, think of how many similar decisions a suitably abstract D&D game might require - not as many as one might think. You don't often need to care about how much anything weights, how it is carried, whether it's accessible during a fight, or whatnot. A GM who requires a magic potion to be accessible to be used is actually pretty hard-core already. Many groups play quite happily with no encumbrance rules at all.

    So maybe that's where you find the target audience for that rule: people who are more comfortable with an abstraction than a short treatise on the minutiae of arrow-carrying, but who still want the idea of running out to be present in an abstract way. Without the rule they might be stuck having to answer questions like "how many arrows can the archer carry without taking encumbrance penalties", which might seem like quite a hassle.
  • Johann, the problem with fumble rules is that the better you are at fighting (more attacks) the more likely you are to fumble…?

    DeReel, I guess maybe I misunderstood the d6 table rule.
  • It occurs to me that a person might prefer the usage die because it removes the need to make real-world evaluations on how much arrows weight, how many fit into a "quiver" and in general how many you can expect a character to have access to when the push comes to shove.[...]So maybe that's where you find the target audience for that rule: people who are more comfortable with an abstraction than a short treatise on the minutiae of arrow-carrying, but who still want the idea of running out to be present in an abstract way.
    You're right in that this is an additional appeal of the rule.
    In our system, the entire package of bow + quiver + 20 arrows count as a medium thing, taken together. I also printed tiny little check boxes to keep track of the arrows.

    Our house rule is that arrows that actually kill enemies (i.e. when you get in the "last shot" at an enemy) are not recoverable and that every other arrow is. But, we made that house rule before realizing that the 5e PHB actually has a rule (the RAW is that you recover half, and it takes a full minute of searching to do so). While I like our house rule I might switch to the RAW just so that there is one less house rule to worry about.
  • The 5e RAW is so dumb…
    it takes 1 minute to find 10 arrows if I shoot 20. It takes 2 minute to find 1 arrow if I shoot 2. it's super lossy to shoot an odd number of arrows.

    :bawling: best game of all time sucks
  • edited April 10
    Sorry, it's a tangent. I'll try to be brief.
    Party packs high quality rations : that's an insurance that a result of "short on rations" is neglected. (result specifies targeted resource: BitD, Entanglements)
    Mage takes great care to protects vials. A result of "most fragile item breaks" is applied to the thief's mirror. (result specifies cause of depletion: Torchbearer, failed camp roll outcomes)
  • Sandra,

    Under your rules for arrows, how can you ever "miss" a target? Don't all your shots basically "hit"? (Or do all non-killing shots miss, or something like that?)
  • edited April 10
    Sorry, it's a tangent. I'll try to be brief.
    Party packs high quality rations : that's an insurance that a result of "short on rations" is neglected. (result specifies targeted resource: BitD, Entanglements)
    Mage takes great care to protects vials. A result of "most fragile item breaks" is applied to the thief's mirror. (result specifies cause of depletion: Torchbearer, failed camp roll outcomes)
    Oh, yeah, but the type of damage to "insure" against is random. If the various resources are independent factors there can be more strategy in where you place your "insurance"…?
    do all non-killing shots miss
    What I want is that those shots represent you not even letting go of the arrow.
    The compromise with my player base is that non-killing shots are recoverable after the fight. That way they can still headcanon that the arrows are fired. I hate that I acquiesced to that and it's been so far impossible to put that particular genie into the bottle again.

  • Oh, haha! That's really funny. You've found a compromise that pleases no one, it sounds like.

    It's funny how different abstractions bother different people in different ways. For example, I agree that the abstract nature of hit points implies something like what you're suggesting. On the other hand, I find the idea of battles where no one ever fires an arrow until the killing shot absolutely ludicrous, as well. :)

    As for the Usage Die, I agree with you that the abstraction means that a lot of fictional ideas and strategies become irrelevant. As you say, what's the point of buying a waterproof sack for your bow (for example) if a random die roll determines when your bowstrings snaps, anyway?

    Not too different from my complaints about hit points, in essence. That can make the game less skill-based as well as mess with our understanding of the fiction.

    Eero makes a good summary of how a Usage Die might feel good to people who want to avoid/ignore those particular fictional details. That's exactly right; it allows us to interface with the game in a different way.
  • edited April 10
    I kind of like it as an abstract risk mechanic, similar to the clocks in AW and BitD, because it works as a downward spiral and player will never be fully sure when will the danger escalate. Several d10 rolls might be above 2, but when the dice gets to d6, players know the danger got real. Even better if something happens in the fiction every time the die shrinks in size.
    I don't know if I'd use it for arrow management unless I wanted to run a detail heavy dungeon crawl.
  • Oh, haha! That’s really funny. You’ve found a compromise that pleases no one, it sounds like.

    Oh, the players are perfectly happy, it’s just me that’s unhappy.

    On the other hand, I find the idea of battles where no one ever fires an arrow until the killing shot absolutely ludicrous, as well.

    I’ll listen: What would be an appropriate amount?

    The reason I went in this direction in the first place was that at the time, I saw a lot of AP reports and AP where it looked like it was more slapstick than fighting for as much people “missed”. I swing my sword at them, rolls a low number, and WHOOPS I ACCIDENTALLY THREE SQUARES OVER HAHAHA

    and I was like: that’s not what I wanted, that’s not who I am. I am a ballerina – graceful, delicate – they had to go.

    This came up a lot in the context of d20 is so swingy, rolling several dice is the way to go b/c curve. And I’m like… it’s a binary outcome and you have X% chance of it happening and 100–X% chance of it not happening. Neither is “swingier” than the other (unlike things like damage die or rolling on a table, where the specific number is relevant.)

    People were like “Ah shit, a nine, I just missed”, and “whoops a four i’m so goofy!” and then they got sick of it and then they blamed the d20 for making them roll so many fours-and-under (20%) compared to 3d6 (2%). They also felt (rightly) that it made the natural, unmodified die roll number matter way more than their character’s skill stat.

    So what I wanted to do was to cut out on “misses” and get rid of the semantics inherent to the rolled number. Instead, a high roll means you advance your position (and roll the damage die to see how much – if they get down to a low enough HP, they are hit) and a low roll means you don’t; maybe they have armor or are agile or can parry. You’re not clumsy, they’re just that dangerous & skilled.

    (I don’t like fumbles for that reason. Not that I think fumbling 5% of rolls is particularly high though… I just really like stories about competence.)

    Not too different from my complaints about hit points, in essence. That can make the game less skill-based as well as mess with our understanding of the fiction.

    I would really want to rename them, and rename “damage dice”. HP = “danger clock”, damage = “threat”, damage dice = “threat dice”.

    Eero makes a good summary of how a Usage Die might feel good to people who want to avoid/ignore those particular fictional details. That’s exactly right; it allows us to interface with the game in a different way.

    Right, but it gets rid of detail by adding an even more detailed layer above it which is weird to me.

    I kind of like it as an abstract risk mechanic, similar to the clocks in AW and BitD, because it works as a downward spiral and player will never be fully sure when will the danger escalate. Several d10 rolls might be above 2, but when the dice gets to d6, players know the danger got real. Even better if something happens in the fiction every time the die shrinks in size.

    Yes, it really plays well in that regard. The EV of each usage die is right there on the DM’s screen (it seems to be the sum of the 1 3 6 10 15 series and the 1 2 3 4 5 series, i.e. 1d4 = 2, 1d6 = 5, 1d8 = 9, 1d10 = 14, 1d10 = 20 etc. I haven’t double checked that so I’m not sure, that’s my guess from seeing those numbers listed. I, uh, I do a lot of integer sequence puzzles) but things can drastically diverge from the EV in dramatic ways. Your quiver lasting much longer or much shorter than expected. Again, I think it’s fine for more abstract features such as smokes&flashlights in The Cthulhu Hack or team utility in The Bat Hack. I especially like the mechanics for smoking since I can’t smoke in real life (I have A1AD). OTOH I don’t like it because maybe the easiest way to cope with not being able to smoke is to not be reminded about it through games.

    It’s just that I don’t see how an added abstraction layer makes sense in a supposedly easier game.

  • Note that, if we’re talking about ammunition, the usage die is rolled after combat it settled. (This is unclear in the 1st edition of The Black Hack, but made explicit in 2nd.)

    So on the one hand, it’s a bit simpler than ticking off each arrow, because you only have to do it between combats.

    On the other hand, this means you can’t run out of ammo mid-combat, which is a dramatic and interesting thing to have happen.

    I’d be tempted to add a rule that lets you rapid-shoot arrows, doing extra damage if you hit, but requiring you to roll your usage die right away. But there’s the complexity creeping back in.
  • Oh, OK. I had 1e as implying that you make the check the next exploration turn.
  • I think one pro with this is that since the mechanic is different and gamey and interesting to engage with, that motivates you to actually use it. If you think just scratching off torches from a list is boring
  • edited April 11
    +1. Luggage managing is best postponed from action to downtime
    +1. For some people it looks like having the die is visually, tactilely engaging, so they don't forget, and that's the point.
    "get rid of the semantics" : clever analysis leading to "low energy" solution = elegance.
  • (This is a bit of a tangent, but I wanted to say that I agree with your assessment of the Black Hack, Sandra. Lots of things to like on paper, but I'm not particularly interested in playing it. Many of the rules do things in ways that I can't use to get the kind of play I want out of the game.)
  • The rule in 2nd edition says to check after combat is resolved, which I now realize gives no guidance for whether to roll when using an arrow outside of combat. (Like, shooting one arrow to try and set off a trap from a distance.) I guess the GM is expected to wing it.

    Anyway, the usage die can get awkward for tracking physical objects for just this reason. Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, a swords & sorcery game derived from The Black Hack, uses the usage die for several things, but one among them is a class-based luck mechanic. I think this works better, because luck isn’t tangible anyway, yet the idea of someone’s luck “running out” is a pretty common metaphor.

    Macchiato Monsters, yet another TBH-derived game, really picks up the usage die mechanic (renaming it “risk die”) and runs with it. There’s a clever money system where you track “bags” of different metals separately (you might have a d10 bag of copper and a d4 bag of gold), and a chart that tells you what each type of money can get you (copper will buy a knife, or sleeping space on someone’s kitchen floor, or information from a beggar; gold will buy you fine weapons, a luxurious hotel room, or let you bribe an official), and you roll after each purchase. There are rules for splitting and combining bags that, sadly, don’t work out mathematically.
  • The rule in 2nd edition says to check after combat is resolved, which I now realize gives no guidance for whether to roll when using an arrow outside of combat. (Like, shooting one arrow to try and set off a trap from a distance.) I guess the GM is expected to wing it.
    Please tell me that you're joking here.

  • Page 14: “USAGE DIE & AMMUNITION — When tracking the Usage Die for ammunition such as arrows and bullets, roll the Ud after the combat is resolved.”

    That’s it. I suppose one could argue that, since the ammo-specific rule assumes combat, then outside of a combat situation the general rule for Usage Dice (“When that item is used its Usage Die should be rolled”) should take precedence, but it’s not clear.
  • Why would you roll for anything if only one unit of whatever was being used ???

    That's straight out bonkers. Even in RPGs with fairly specific rules, some human judgment, especially on the part of the GM, is assumed still, right?

    If a GM required me to make a usage die roll for using one arrow, I'd think either they were wildly inexperienced in the GM role or one of those old skool Killer GM types.
  • Since it’s an abstraction, it would depend on how many units in total we are imagining are available in the fiction, right?

    If we imagine an archer with a quiver of a hundred arrows, then rolling for shooting one is a bit silly.

    However, if we’re imagining an archer who carries eight arrows and carefully collects unbroken arrows after each encounter, then rolling the Die after shooting one is quite reasonable.

    (Does someone want to do the math on how many units, on average, a Usage Die of d8 would “represent” if we rolled it each time a unit was used? My guess would be in the 5-8 range.)
  • edited April 13
    Each die size in the usage die sequence has a geometric distribution: the question is how many rolls you get out of it before you hit a "miss" and have to go down a die size. The failure probability 'p' for a single roll is 3/d, where 'd' is the die size.

    We know that the expected number of successes before a failure for a geometric distribution is simply (1-p)/p. For example, on the d8 this would be (1-3/8)/(3/8) = 1.7. So that's how many arrows you get from the d8 before you roll a miss and have to go down a die step. Because you also get an arrow as you move down, the real answer is 2.7.

    Here's what the different dice give you before (and as) they run out, on average:

    d12 -> 4 arrows
    d10 -> 3.3 arrows
    d8 -> 2.7 arrows
    d6 -> 2 arrows
    d4 -> 1.3 arrows

    Thus, the answer to Paul's question: a d8 quiver gets you an average of 6 arrows before it runs out if you check the quiver for every arrow. If you only check after every battle, you get 6 battles out of it, of course.
  • (Thanks, Eero! Looks like my guess was pretty close.)
  • Fails on a 1-2 though, not 1-3.

    d4: 1/(2/4)=2
    d6: 1/(2/6)+E(d4)=5
    d8: 1/(2/8)+E(d6)=9
    d10: 1/(2/10)+E(d8)=14
    d12: 1/(2/12)+E(d10)=20
    d20: 1/(2/20)+E(d12)=30
  • Right. I read the initial description wrong.
  • edited April 13
    Bayesian analysis is a bit longer but...
    Did it occur to someone to adjust the roll or grant a reroll in favourable or adverse situations ?
  • Adjust, reroll... that's what I like best about systems with wacky knobs. :D
  • I'd use the rule only after each battle, but when you're on d4 of arrows the GM may rule that you run out of them as a failure consequence, so that it might still happen in the middle of a combat.
  • I'd use the rule only after each battle, but when you're on d4 of arrows the GM may rule that you run out of them as a failure consequence, so that it might still happen in the middle of a combat.
    Hm. Generalizing a bit, stepping down a usage die could be a consequence of failure at some relevant task, or success-with-cost. It might be too small a cost, though, especially if you’re currently at a large die size.
  • edited April 14
    Why would you roll for anything if only one unit of whatever was being used ???

    That's straight out bonkers.
    Preaching to the choir♥♥♥
    Right. I read the initial description wrong.
    I also already wrote it upthread

    Edit: I had the wrong quote, I should've had:
    Does someone want to do the math on how many units, on average, a Usage Die of d8 would “represent” if we rolled it each time a unit was used? My guess would be in the 5-8 range.
    To me it would've been completely unintuitive if a d8 would be less than 8; it's 9. That's actually one of of the things I don't like about the usage dice; they feel like safety nets upon safety nets upon safety nets. Not that 9 is a lot (or 14, which is the EV for a d10 ticking down in this way, and a quiver arrows in TBH give you a d10), it's more the mechanical feel of it.
  • That’s right! Sandra got to it first. :)
  • Hahaha now that I've submitted to the One Page Dungeon 2019 and David is one of the judges I'd have to say something nice about this wonderful game that I hate.

    I think the armor system does make sense, both the one in 1e and the one in 2e. It's a big change from D&D's classic boat fighting based rules but I can dig it.
    I love the art & typography & the disposition of 1e.
    I love the one-number monster stats (basically HD says it all).

    The only thing I hate is the milestone XP, the roll under, the OofA system, the usage die, and most of all the "powerful opponents" equation (roll 1d20+enemy hd under your stat + your level vs more powerful monsters). But peeps already know that I like the ACKS style "THAC10" rolling the best even though I teach my players the 3e/4e/5e style [to make it the least dissonant from the text] albeit with "the d20 vs target number minus bonus" shortcut. Hey I should ask them today if they would be into switching over to the ACKS style; just replace every number on their sheets with the tens complement and I'll give them DCs that fit that (DC 16 becomes ob 6, DC 30 becomes ob 20. it's minus 10 pretty much). However since they have a bunch of druid forms and summoned/conjured beings maybe that's not the best idea since I can't really ask them to make this change for the entire MM! (Which I what I did, using the SRD, back when I was rolling the dice as DM.)
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