Rolling What You Risk

[Yesterday, Josh Rensch and I were talking about this idea. He wants me to expand on it, and I figured it’s blog material.]

Don’t Rest Your Head was one of those games that blew my mind. Anyone who’s known me for any length of time lately knows this. Fred & I have geeked about its Point of Tension concept in Master Plan #33 [1]. I’ve been intrigued with the elegance of that design and what it does for years. I’ll break down where it’s hot for me:

  • When you roll dice to determine how you impact the story, you get to choose whether you want to better your chances by risking your sanity and/or risking further fatigue.
  • Success or failure on the roll is separate from whether what you risk is affected.

To take the idea out of DRYH a bit and put it in an adventure gaming context, imagine this mechanic for the fictional game OMG SWARDS!!!1:

So you want to hit an orge in the face with your sward?

Fuck yeah you do! Grab two white d6s, roll them, and add them together. If it meets or beats the monster’s Armor number, you hit!

But Armor numbers are at least 9 or higher. So you’re probably screwed normally. But you can risk your equipment to give yourself bonus dice. Any piece of equipment you have can be worked into your action, granting one or more red bonus dice. Add those dice to the result of your white dice.

If any of those red dice come up a 6, you’ll lose that piece of equipment temporarily, and will need to spend an action to regain it.

Example: Hrorthgarr totally wants to stab a Medusa in the face, but her Armor number is way high! Like, 11! Dude! So he works in his SWARD OF AWESUM, which gives him a bonus die. He rolls a 4 and 3 on his white dice, and a 6 on his red. The totally is 13, enough to hit the Medusa! But he also loses his sward in the process. The Cockbite narrates Hrorthgarr’s sword getting stuck in her head and she screams and rears up. Now if he wants that sward back, he’ll have to make a Recovery action.

(Okay, writing that was just way, way too much fun. And calling the GM “The Cockbite” made me giggle.)

The point is, you get a matrix of four outcomes:

  1. The character wins and keeps what’s risked — Hrorthgarr hits the Medusa and keeps his sword
  2. The character wins but loses what’s risked– Hrorthgarr hits the Medusa but loses his sword
  3. The character loses but keeps what’s risked– Hrorthgarr misses the Medusa but keeps his sword
  4. The character loses and loses what’s risked– Hrorthgarr misses the Medusa and loses his sword

Of course, if doesn’t have to be that simple. From here, any number of exceptions can be added. For instance, losing what’s risked could be very different between outcomes 2 & 4, rather than just being the same sort of loss. In #2, Hrorthgarr could have the sword stuck in, and thus needs to make a Strength-based Recovery action. But in #4, the sword is knocked out of his hand, and needs to make a Dexterity-based Recovery action.

Now, to bring this back to hippie indie land, instead of an item to risk, we can look at emotion and hit-point mechanics. And that’s where DRYH comes in. With you risk Madness, you risk one of your few Flight or Fight reactions, and if you’re out and lose, you get closer to permanent Madness. But, you’re also coloring what you’re willing to role-play at that time. If I don’t feel like I want to risk losing my shit against a nightmare right now, I don’t add those dice. I might lose the challenge, but I’ll keep my sanity.

And that’s where we get to the point of this mechanic. Yes, I could always risk everything and be awesome and successful. But because losing what I risk isn’t related to my overall success or failure, I’m going to screw myself. So, at a given moment, I the player am telling the GM what I’m interested in and what I want on the line. I’m not just risking what I roll, but by choosing what I’m rolling, I’m choosing my risks. And I’m having to make hard choices about whether the risk is worth the reward — whether losing what I risk is an acceptable price for gaining my success.

Story juice there, yo. And that’s why I keep coming back to DRYH as an RPG paradigm. It is constantly successful on that front.

– Ryan

[1] It’s been six months since I put out an episode of the ‘Plan. That’s podfading territory. Damn it.


9 Responses to Rolling What You Risk

  1. Rob Donoghue says:

    I had not thought of it in those terms but loosely that speaks to what I like about complications in Leverage: you risk everything all the time.

    -Rob D.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      True. Though, in that case you’re not choosing a specific thing to risk. Similar, but I don’t think totally the same as what I’m talking about. However, the outcome matrix is totally a toy for the players.

      – Ryan

  2. This is precisely the kind of tension that I want out of my Rebuilding Vampire project and why I set out with an initial dice mechanic design where Humanity dice and Beast dice are added to the dice pool of an action separately by the player. Some actions will have minimum Beast dice requirements (vampiric powers, for example) which means you are messing with what could eat your Humanity. The counterpart, actions with minimum Humanity dice requirements, is what I’m still working out.

    But yeah, it was out of the discussion on your episode of MP on DRYH that I fell in love with the “rich rolling” scheme of this game, and which I now have the opportunity to use in my project.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Same with Mythenders tapping into their mythic heart and using raw power. There’s a sweet, sweet reward for rolling that Power Die.

      That is, if you don’t mind risking that little thing called your free will.

      – Ryan

  3. Josh Rensch says:

    My concern is using this to take away a player’s choice using this model. In the game I am working on characters try to overcome emotions using their ideals. But if “emotion” dominates then the character needs to act with that emotion in mind. This article gives me an idea though and I am working through it now. Thanks Ryan.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Awesome, glad to have helped. Remember the key principle in this paradigm: the players are offering that thing that’s being risked. If they felt so strongly about not having it risked, they can choose to hold it back. Thus, player buy-in.

      – Ryan

  4. Guy says:

    There’s an idea in the anime Code Geass: Only those willing to put their life on the line should be allowed to take lives.

    The concept makes me think somewhat of Grey Ranks?

    Also, interesting, how many dice do you get to risk? As many as you wanted, limited by the EQ, do you get to go under minimum? Also, here’s a question, and I guess this depends on what you want to happen, how acute the risk: The dice you roll always help, but only 6s hurt you. No strain or anything to show for it if you didn’t roll a 6? Might be worth looking into that?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Um…are you actually suggesting that I make OMG SWARDS!!!1? Like I don’t have enough to do. ;P

      (Of course, I’ve already been thinking about it. Damn it.)

      – Ryan

    • Guy says:

      1. Yes.

      2. It can probably be plugged in into several games, as a module.

      3. I’m not a bastard :P I just tell you what you want to hear, but don’t want to admit ;)