Boons & Banes

The effects of dice modifiers on common Traveller 2d6 rolls

The normal odds of a 2d6 roll versus the default target of 8+ in Traveller are well known by players as being just under half, or 42% to be exact. The use of dice modifiers (DM), such as +1/-1, etc, are commonly used to reflect ability and conditions related to the task. On the surface it would appear a DM of +1 adds an equal benefit as is taken away by a DM of -1. As can be seen below, this is not quite true.

The cold, hard math of it all

Due to the use of two dice, the choice of 8 as a target and the inability to roll a 1, the odds are actually shifted slightly towards favoring the positive DMs over the negative DMs. A +1 grants an extra 17% to the chance of success while a -1 lowers the chance by only 14%. This trend continues all the way to a 50% increase for a DM of +4 with only a 39% decrease for a DM of -4. The returns diminish with each further step, a DM of +2 is not twice as good as +1 and so on.

The end result of all this gives the players a bigger bump up when they have an advantage but doesn’t cut them down as much when they have a disadvantage. This tarnishes the games’ reputation for ruthlessly punishing players but is an acceptable result when you consider that failure is frustrating and good gaming often gives the players a ‘heroic edge’.

In 2nd Edition Mongoose Traveller a mechanic was added called Boons and Banes that allowed another type of modifier, a third d6. The Boon condition allows players to keep the best two of the three d6 rolled while the Bane does the exact opposite and forces keeping the lowest two. So what does this do to the odds in the end? As can be seen in the above image, it is similar to adding a DM of +1.5 or -1.5 to the baseline 2d6 roll. So is best used when a DM of +1/-1 is not enough to represent what the referee wants and a DM of +/-2 is just a bit too much. A similar result would occur when using both the Boon/Bane system with another normal DM such as +1/-1. The result would shift up in the middle of the next range.

The takeaway? Don’t be afraid of negative DM’s, they might sting a little but they are really just moving the needle back towards neutral more than inflicting serious punishment when viewed across the number of rolls in a typical game.

Classic Old School Gaming

They share themes of simple, hackable rule mechanics that trust in referees to make judgements rather than exhaustive pages of unbending rules. If there are pages of rules, they are guidelines for the referee not weapons for the players.

So what differs between classic old school gaming and the old school revival [OSR] role-playing game movement you ask? Well, like most things involving more than two people, opinions vary.

The OSR RPG movement tends to stick to an end point defined by the Moldvay/Mentzer editions of Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1980s. This generally allows the original versions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest and Traveller to join the B/X or BECMI D&D sets on the OSR roster. They share themes of simple, hackable rule mechanics that trust in referees to make judgements rather than exhaustive pages of unbending rules. If there are pages of rules, they are guidelines for the referee not weapons for the players.

That cut-off point in time excludes some great classic games that I enjoyed thoroughly in my youth so OSR doesn’t exactly describe what I’m going for here on the blog. I’m therefore defining classic old school gaming [COSG] as expanding to include excellent RPGs first published in the 12 year span known as the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan presidencies. For those of you not familiar with the chronological mile markers of the “Peanut Farmer” and the “Gipper”, it is a period of time starting in January of 1977 and ending in January of 1989.

Jimmy Carter
Ronald Reagan

This time period contains both the great first generation of games but also the remarkable second generation that was built on the shoulders of the first with interesting mechanics and new licenses from Marvel, Star Wars and Middle Earth IP holders. I enjoyed many games of both generations with my personal list of memorable titles below. There are of course other games that fall into the time period like Victory Games’ James Bond 007, Columbia Games’ HarnMaster and Palladium’s Robotech, but I am keeping the list to ones I personally owned and played.

  • Role-Playing Games
    • Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert [Moldvay] – TSR 1981
    • Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert [Mentzer] – TSR 1983
    • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons – TSR 1977
    • Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Ed- TSR 1987
    • Gamma World – TSR 1978
    • Star Frontiers – TSR 1982
    • Top Secret – TSR 1980
    • Call of Cthulhu – Chaosium 1981
    • GURPS – Steve Jackson Games 1986
    • Middle Earth Roleplaying – Iron Crown Enterprises 1984
    • Traveller – GDW 1977
    • Twilight 2000 – GDW 1984
    • Traveller 2300 – GDW 1986
    • Star Wars – West End Games 1987
    • MechWarrior – FASA 1986
    • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – Games Workshop 1986

Many of these classic titles have gone on to have multiple successful editions over the decades, a testament to the charm and uniqueness they brought into the gaming landscape.

Unfortunately, not all my original copies of these games successfully made the move with me from the Midwest to the South in the early 90’s while attending college. I am still mad about not having my original Ravenloft isometric map over 30 years later. The recent establishment of the PDF marketplace for out-of-print games and print-on-demand has luckily allowed myself, and many other gamers/collectors, to reacquire these classic old school titles.

So that’s my take on what classic old school gaming is in a nutshell. The same nostalgic Carter-Reagan period can also be used to capture classic old school movies (Escape from New York, Aliens, Blade Runner), television (Battlestar Galactica, Miami Vice, Magnum P.I.) and books (The Shining, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Name of the Rose). So while I can’t promise not to color outside the lines on this blog, this period in time defines the culture that influenced a lot of the entertainment I consumed so I’m using it as a handy reference. Plus I’ve never seen anyone else define their gaming using Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan so I’m hoping for points for originality from the judges.