Ironclaw :
Thoughts On Balancing Mechanics

Copyright ©2001 By Joseph Teller

Originally Published In Interregnum APA

Ironclaw is the Anthropomorphic Fantasy Role-Playing game that is published and copyright 1999, 2001 by Sanguine Productions Ltd.
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Ironclaw is a fairly versatile and flexible game mechanic, working from a bare-bones minimal number of attributes (which are called 'Traits') to which the GM and player can add a number of additional Traits that are specific to the concept of the setting and character being played. This makes it semi-modular, and thus it has garnered my attention, since I have become an advocate for modular design in roleplaying games.

Recently the system has gone thru a revisement, and the changes to the system from the initial publishing to the current one have mostly been good, but a few do not go far enough and others have negated the value of the modular properties of the mechanic, as they are not cost effective for character design (in a point based system cost effectiveness always becomes an issue).

In the original die mechanic, in case you have not seen the 1999 edition of the basic book, worked to reduce the possibility of dice rolls producing ties. Basically after rolling all your trait, career and racial skill dice you would compare them highest to lowest to the opposing die roll. If your highest die result was greater than you succeeded (and if you or the opposing die succeeded with a difference of 5 or greater, overwhelmed). If your result was lower you lost. In the event of a tie you went on to compare your next highest die with the opposing next highest die, and so on. If ties continued and you had more or less dice then the opposing roll, then you treat the non-existent die as if you were opposing a roll value of a '1' (and if you rolled all ones then you botched).

In the new die mechanic (introduced in the 2001 revised edition) only the highest die rolled actually matters, if they tie then who exactly is the winner is determined by a number of factors. One of which is whether the character has a special Exploit or Maneuver being used which modifies the result of a tie into a victory; and secondarily whether character's rolling have a much higher skill (not counting traits, career or racial skill values) of 5 or more levels.

The exclusion of career or other trait dice from the determination of tie victories makes a significant change in the probabilities involved between the two systems. The need of the GM to know about a potentially complex series of exploits and maneuvers that can affect the outcome (which becomes more obvious in the upcoming Jadeclaw martial arts system) adds a level of mechanics that I feel detracts from the advantages of the systems abstract nature. It also means a lot of ties that result in wasted rolls, which means that combat takes more rounds (and thus is slower and gets in the way of other roleplaying concerns). I don't want to spend entire sessions that are nothing more than combat sessions, if I wanted that concept I would run Champions or GURPS, which both have very complex and often long and draw out combat sessions.

My friend, and fellow Western Irregulars members, Elisabeth Riba, has worked out a detailed Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet showing the mathematical effects this has on the result of ties in the system:

Additionally the modifications devalue the usefulness of the extra traits system, the modular mechanic, which already suffered from costing more character points than skills and being less versatile than the basic four traits (Mind, Body, Will and Speed) that all character's start with. It makes things like Quickness (which primarily just helps with initiative rolls) useless, since you already would get more from investing your experience points to raise your basic Speed dice instead.

My solutions for dealing with these problems include not using the new dice mechanic in my own games, but continue to use the original mechanic, and thus reduce the number of ties (and thus keep combat a bit less drawn out). This keeps the value of career and race skills intact as well.

Additionally I will only be allowing a streamlined list of exploits and maneuvers from the expanded combat system, to keep the game reasonably abstract and not require myself or players to memorize long lists of such and how they affect the dice. (Preferring those that either effect things like damage results or special effects associated with actions, instead of those intended to handle ties).

The other thing, which I consider essential, is that I've modified the cost of the extra modular traits, and created another category of traits (what I call Power Traits) to cover extraordinary abilities that basic Ironclaw was not designed directly to handle, like Telepathy, Telekinesis and Teleporting.

Traits other than the base 6 starting traits (Body, Mind, Speed, Will, Career and Race) costs only 2 construction points at start (instead of 3) to get a D4 in at start (5 points for a D6) to have. The Power traits cost standard of 3 points for a d4, 7 points for a d6 (which are the prices the basic rules were charging for all traits including starting traits).

When applying experience to buy traits, base traits (Body, Mind, Speed, Will, Careers, and Race) cost 20 points to raise to the next die. (Buying a new Career costs 15 experience points to start, then 20 points to raise to the next die).

Extra Traits cost 10 experience points to buy and 15 points to raise to the next die. Powered traits cost 15 experience points to buy and 20 points to raise to the next die. No character, except with special GM permission, can have more than 5 additional traits, including extra careers and Powered traits (not counting racial traits).

This encourages folks to buy extra traits, including Passions, which help shape and identify the character's concept and personality better and thus improve roleplaying results without adding to complexity or the amount of time spent on action resolution. By not adding complexity, players who are not heavily rules conscious can continue to play without worrying about the purely cost effectiveness of character design and spend more time in having the experience they desire.

Generally I see it as a win-win situation for everyone except those who are more interested in wargaming than actual roleplaying.

I would like to encourage others to follow my lead on this, but even if you insist on following the new dice mechanic, by changing the cost for traits as I've noted you will discover that it will encourage players to take passions and other useful traits rather than just piling up their experience points in to their basic 4 attributes and over maximizing individual skills. More well rounded characters are more interesting in many situations, and makes for a more diversified experience for everyone, and leaves you lots of opportunities as a GM to take your adventures into new directions that more limited characters prevent you from achieving.