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Creating Backgrounds

Started by Filip Luszczyk, November 05, 2007, 10:24:52 AM

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Filip Luszczyk

In the discussion about using Dogs for action-adventure games a question of how the dice were assigned to Backgrounds in DitV and Afraid emerged. I find it interesting - what where the design decisions behind making Backgrounds the way they are? I mean, on a deeper level than the explanation about Trait and Relationship dice already given in the book.

Was there any math behind it, or some specific formula? Or, maybe the numbers were just arbitrarily assigned and adjusted until they proved to work well in playtesting?

What is the specific significance of the starting amounts of dice in Dogs, and of lower amounts in Afraid (about thirty vs twenty dice of varying sizes, not counting Belongings, if I recall)?

Is it possible to say that so and so many dice of size X are roughly equal to so and so many dice of size Y in terms of staying power, Reversals or Fallout potential?

Should one want to create one's own set of backgrounds for a DitV variant, what is there that should be taken into account?

Finally, if someone has experience with The Princes' Kingdom, how does it all relate to that game?


hey Filip :)

to answer just one of your questions: I remember there\\\'s a thread around here where Vincent explained the relative \\\"staying power\\\" of various dice-sizes in DITV

I think it was something like \\\"two small dice are a little better than one big one as far as winning the conflict goes, but the big one will give you more of a chance to force your opponent to take a blow\\\"

hope that helps


It's the "arbitrarily assigned and then adjusted" one. I remember creating the backgrounds as being kind of fun, so go for it.


Filip Luszczyk

Hmm, I kind of expected it was sort of like that.

The lack of formula that could be followed makes it both easy (i.e. the specific route of coming up with the backgrounds doesn't matter) and difficult (i.e. no fully reriable benchmarks) at the same time.


When I created them I started with well-rounded and built the others from there. Create your own benchmark.

Oh by the way, how come you're doing this to begin with? The standard Dogs ones cover the range (stats balanced with traits balanced with relationship dice) pretty well, I think.


Filip Luszczyk

Nah, I'm not doing this at the moment. It recently came up in the action-adventure thread, and I'm just curious.

However, I made my own set of Backgrounds for my tactical hack some months back (as it called for different dice distribution, obviously) and I've been working on one while considering an Exalted conversion. It's possible I'll want to re-define the Backrounds, or substitute them with something else, in the future, depending on what application of the core rules I'll come up with next time.

Basically, it boils down to what the basic template choice would represent in a given variant. I have some potential games in mind for which DitV is probably the best fit, but not in a raw state (i.e. cases when no available system would provide a better alternative, and developing one from scratch just for the purposes of a month or two of play would not be worth it).

In such a case the knowledge of the principles behind the Backgrounds would certainly turn useful.

And it deepens the general understanding of the system, either way.


It's a funny thing. This is one of those design decisions where it worked out very easily, with only one or two small corrections. It was also one of the very last things I did for the game.

It could be that I guessed well, based on my gut-and-bones understanding of the rules. In that case, the principles behind the backgrounds are interesting, potentially very interesting, but they're down in my gut-and-bones and I don't know how to get at them.

It could be instead that the rules are tolerant, so any reasonable set of backgrounds will be fine. Six months ago this is what I'd've said every time, but having played Afraid makes me reconsider. The Afraid backgrounds just aren't quite as good. My instinct to reduce the number of dice didn't quite have the effect I wanted it to.

I dunno. I'm happy to answer questions, but the more direct and concrete the better. (I have a funny picture of you wrapping your questions around a brick and throwing it through my window...)


Ben Lehman

If you want a big lecture on backgrounds, their various utilities, and the mathematics of conflicts in Dogs I could probably provide.



Well I want one for certain!


Ben Lehman

Okay, so to understand the way that the different backgrounds work, we have to take a hard look at conflict in Dogs. I'm going to assume a strategic approach, which is probably not the best assumption, but basically if I want to look at things from a calculated viewpoint it's the assumption I have to make. But do not fear! By "strategic approach" I don't mean anything as straightforward as "trying to make your character as powerful as possible" or anything like that. I simply mean "you as a player have goals, and in playing the game you will advance towards those goals in as direct and logical a manner as possible."

There are, as far as I can see it, six possible goals for entering a conflict in Dogs:
1) You want to win the stakes and have a certain thing happen in the fiction.
2) You want to make a change to your character: i.e. take fallout.
3) You want to force a change on another character: i.e. make that other character take fallout.
4) You want your character to be killed.
5) You want to set aside a useful die for a follow-up conflict, where you have one of the above four goals.
6) You want to make the point that your character disagrees with something, but you don't want to win the stakes necessarily.

1) The #1 from a mechanical approach is really simple: Absent any sophisticated dice tricks, absent caring about any fallout or blows, the character with the highest total sum on all their dice wins any conflict. d4s are really good for going all-in to win: each d4 is worth 2.5, so a 2d4 trait (estimated value 5) is nearly as good as a 1d10 trait (estimated value 5.5). This is provided you don't care about the outcome of specific raise-and-see resolutions, not to mention fallout, but we'll get to that in a second.

What can you do if you're out-gunned in raw numbers but you want the fictional outcome? Well, there's a few things you can do.

a) If you're only slightly behind in dice, there's a lot of tricks that you can pull, mostly involving manipulating what dice are left on the table so that your opponent needs to see with a higher numbered pair than you raised with. The way to do this is to target specific numbers on the opponent's side (so, for instance, trying to get him to run out of 3s or whatever) so that certain pair-numbers are cut off to him. The easiest way to do this is to make a lot of talking raises which are also easy blows to take, so as to suck up a lot of his small dice when he gets greedy going for fallout. You'll need a large number of medium sized dice yourself, as well. Once he's out of small dice, make a lot of raises that require extra value pairs to see. If he still has some ones, make them blows he doesn't want to take (guns help here.)

b) If your opponent has mostly smaller dice than you, but a lot more, keeping a high die on the table is an excellent way to crimp their style: they know that you can turn the blow (effectively doubling the size of your die) if they raise underneath that value. A 9 or 10 goes a long way towards making someone blow through all their dice. I'm going to call this the "high die cap" throughout this essay. Once they've widdled through all their high dice, hit them with some unacceptable blows (see below.)

c) Likewise, if you have a dice pair which they will be required to take the blow on, make it a blow that they can't afford to take. Let's say what's at stake is "do we convince the cult to let go of the girl?" and you're controlling the cult leader (I use the GM here because the GM is most often in this position). You can raise "I say 'she will stay with us even in death' and I cut her head clean off'" with a numer that the Dogs can't block or dodge (higher than their highest pair). Now they have to decide whether to give to get the free block or let the girl die. I'm going to call this the "unacceptable blow" throughout this essay.

d) What about if you're outgunned on die size and also on total number? Sorry, man: you're likely fucked  The only hope is to make a raise that, even though the Dogs can block it, they feel so bad doing so that they give anyway. This is pure fictional strategy: You go "the widow says 'please, please, just leave me one of my children!'" Blocking or dodging that might make the players feel bad about themselves: it's a chance to get the to give, and the only chance you have. This is called the "unblockable blow" and it's a moment of pure narrative skill that I have difficulty giving advice about. Absent an unblockable blow, the best you can hope for is to get a word in edgewise (basically, case #6.)

Now, theoretically, you could want to win but also not want to take fallout. In this case, clearly having higher dice is clearly of more value, but you should be careful lest you fall prey to strategy a) above, which in addition to losing you the conflict will make you look like a moron. In general, you're going to want to want a mix of dice: some small change, some larger whoppers, and a lot in the middle (3-6).

2) In the #2 case, the situation is a little different. If the goal is to change your character sheet, you're going to want to be able to manipulate the fictional situation to get the result you want (although not always), and you want to make sure you take some long-term fallout, and you want to make sure that your character doesn't die.

As far as initial fictional spacing, you want a conflict which is going to stay at talking for a while, and where the talking raises are going to be very takeable, that can escalate to physicality but has little chance for gunplay. I suggest, maybe, an interrogation.

You're of course going to want a metric ton of small change dice. Additionally, you're going to want at least 3d6 in Body (and preferably more like 5d6), and a few higher dice.

A mistake that a lot of beginning Dogs players make is only going for d4 fallout. In fact, d6s and d8s, with their capacity to generate double-longterm fallout, are by far the best option for character development. Getting long term fallout at all is hard on d4s (you'll want at least 20 d4 to get that consistently) whereas on d6s it's basically the expected outcome. My preference is to go for a lot d6s and maybe 3d8s, unless I have another dog right there with me to provide medical assistance, in which case I go for as many d8s as I possibly can. You will of course wants a few d4s for the tasty, tasty experience fallout that they provide.

But how do you get the opponent to give you a raise to work with. My suggestion is to provoke them both fictionally and mechanically.

The mechanical provocation is by having a strong high die cap and forcing them to escalate just to get the extra dice. If you're going this route it's imperative that you not escalate because that's a way to give them extra dice without ever getting them to make an appropriate raise!

The fictional provocation is to simply give them lots of opportunity to escalate. For instance, consider a block that leads into a physical non-violence action "I open the door and say 'leave if you want to.'" The natural raise is to leave, right? How about "Hit me, then, if you're not yellow!" as a block? You're beginning to see the possibilities.

3) Case #3 is quite simple: whittle down their substantial and large dice with a number of blocks and sees, including using your small dice to tempt them to blow their large dice on turning the blow, which more about later. Basically, the situation you want is that you have a few large dice and they have a lot of small dice, so you're going to use your small dice to get rid of their large dice.

4) Case #4 is too complicated for me to talk about right now, and it's a pretty rare case.

5) In this case, your sole goal is to get a large showing dice. So roll as many d10s and d8s as possible. Also, of course, you must fictionally position yourself so you can go for what you really want as a follow-up conflict after you give this one.

6) The basic goal here is to put up a good show, and then give. So what you want is for your opponent to not be able to block or dodge a single raise of yours. To do this, you have to manipulate the dice situation so that the opponent has a lot of small dice and you have a few large dice. So what you want to do is get your opponent to turn the blow as much as possible: blowing through their largest dice, and then whack them with whatever you have at the end of your line. This is important: turning the blow isn't always a bad thing. It just depends on your goals in the conflict. You're going to want a *lot* of small dice, and also a few big ones.

Next: The categories and what they are good for.

Filip Luszczyk


I think that could be pretty useful. Oh, you've posted while I was writing this ;) But it's already late here, so I'll read it tomorrow, and I'm leaving my post intact for now.

I recall some old thread about balancing backgrounds of yours, by the way. We've even used the changes you proposed there in one of our past games. However, there wasn't any imminent difference of note, and we didn't play with that variant long enough to observe possible long-term effects.


Actually, one concrete question that comes to my mind at this point is what exactly wasn't right with old Afraid's Backgrounds? Or maybe rather, what effect were they creating, specifically?

I went with comparable amounts of dice in my tactical hack. There was a number of reasons for that: mainly, I wanted to pump the challenge levels up (and still be able to use the online NPC generator), increase the impact of Experience and Reflection Fallout and make the average length of a conflict more controlled (i.e. in the hack I closed the dice economy, aiming to make efficient dice tactics the main way of winning the conflicts). In retrospect, my solution was far from perfect - my goals seemed only partially realised, and additionally, character creation seemed a bit too constraining (with about 5-6 Trait dice there wasn't enough room for differentiating starting Traits). Also, I learned it's somewhat hard to strike the right balance between Trait and Relationship dice, in terms of making the same amounts of dice comparably useful.

I'm considering the one session of TPK we played last weekend, too. The numbers of dice are a bit lower and at the same time, the economy seems to be closed in a similar way to my tactical hack, or possibly even more rigid (i.e. unless we missed something, once the conflict starts no dice from outside the participant's sheets can be rolled in). The conflicts played a bit strange, though - possibly, due to the lack of some options I'm accustomed to, like strong escalation mechanism or keeping the dice for giving up. The fact that each quality was worth only one die, paired with a pretty powerful opposition, affected the way we narrated stuff (i.e. it resulted in a regular pile up of multiple traits in a single raise or see). However, that's just one session, and I'm not sure whether we've been doing everything correctly.

Quote(I have a funny picture of you wrapping your questions around a brick and throwing it through my window...)

Why... But I haven't even asked what would be the appropriate flanking bonuses for guns, yet...

Ben Lehman

What are attributes good for:
Attributes are good because they are a nice sized small die (d6), they come in huge numbers, and you can *always get access to them*. What attributes ultimately do is give you a lot of flexibility and control over the situation: both fictionally and mechanically. A character who has a lot of their attribute dice can expect to be able to push the opponent around mechanically: making them turn the blow, take the blow, and so on as they want. What's less likely is that they'll be able to do this without making some serious sacrifices of their own.

Additionally, Body allows you to take physically violent blows without fear of death, which is super-useful for character development.

What traits are good for:
In theory, every trait can come into every conflict. In practice, this is very rarely the case. What traits, vis attributes, is provide lots of different die sizes, which is useful for the strategic situation where you need a big spread of dice. And if you're like "man, I really need those 2d8" you'll probably be able to figure out a way to get that particular trait in. Also, traits come up over and over again, town after town.

What unspent relationships are good for:
Unspent relationships are dice which can be brought in at any time, for no reason. This is hugely powerful for that one conflict where you want to do exactly the right thing. Unspent dice are a beautiful treasure, a shining rainbow in the sky. Love them and cherish them.

What spent relationships are good for:
Spent relationships are good for this particular town, after which they are barely any good at all. Speaking strictly in terms of character maximization, you need to use them to position yourself for fallout (in other words: have a mix) so you can get some character development out of them.

Relationsips with sins and demons and institutions might come up again and again, in which case they're vaguely trait-like. Relationships with demons let you be a sorcerer, which is *big dice city* but the other dogs might shoot you.

Ben Lehman

Okay, so now that we've done this, we can evaluate the backgrounds.

Well-Rounded has serious ability to manipulate the fictional and mechanical situations and roll with the punches. But he's going to be initially bad at anything that requires really big dice right off the bat (no big d10s.) In short, Well-Rounded is going to come out on top and get what he wants, but it's going to be a doozy of a ride getting there.

Strong History is super-good at making a statement, or winning with the untakeable blow, but is just not going to have the initial staying power to do anything else. Additionally, Strong History as compared to Strong Community is going to do better town-to-town but won't be able to really pull out stops as well for a town that she cares about.

Complicated History is going to be much less easy to push around (more dice) but also is only sometimes going to be able to pull off the really awesome high-die strategies. In the purely character-maximization sense, she should be looking to take a lot of experience fallout, in order to upgrade those d4 traits to some d8s and d10s and get some more high dice. Again, also, better town-to-town but not so good at any particular town. Additionally, she is capable of becoming a sorcerer right off the bat.

Strong Community is going to be good at the same things that Strong History is, but is even more exaggerated (less dice to throw, more high dice). But this is only true for the one town where Strong Commmunity decides to drop all her relationship dice. In ordinary circumstances, she's just a very weak character across the board, although she is capable of starting as a sorcerer. Once Strong Community decides to throw down, it'd be a good idea for her to cultivate some fallout so as to not go back to being a weak character after all those big-die relationships have been left behind.

Complicated Community ... well, you can see where this is going.

Basically, in assessing a new character type, imagine how you see this type being used: Is it a weak character that then can make a stand? Get some large relationship dice. Is it a all-around competent character who takes punches but controls the situation? Lots of attributes. Is it a character who's going to be doing lots of dramatic actions and such things which other people just have to deal with? Large dice in general. Do you want the character to win conflicts? Lots of small dice. etc.



Thank you, Ben.

Now that you've said it it's evident to me that, having chosen a background, how you pitch your stats and traits will give you mini versions of these same considerations, per arena of conflict. That's pretty cool. Good on my gut and bones!