Risks and rewards in Starfinder

Here’s a thought experiment in narrative control. The GM of my biweekly Starfinder campaign asks of my previous post:

I’m not familiar with DRYH and how the dice pools work but this looks really cool. Something similar to a Raise the Stakes concept. I’ve always liked allowing players to accomplish more if their willing to take some risks. Do you think it would be possible or practical to use DBYP in a Starfinder game?

I’m a big fan of the supplement linked in that quote, which provides additional mechanical hooks for players in d20 games to control the narrative. In games with lighter rulesets, you can usually get the same kind of creative contributions from players just by encouraging them to ad lib, but in D&D/3/3.5/Pathfinder/Starfinder, I’ve always had more luck by (paradoxically) introducing extra rules of this sort.

So what would it look like to mash up Don’t Rest Your Head and Starfinder (or another d20-derived game), and what would you gain from it?

DRYH rules in a nutshell

For the uninitiated, Don’t Rest Your Head is a game where you play an insomniac whose sleeplessness has let them see through the world’s illusions. They have a weird power as a result (a Madness talent) and are hunted by nightmares given physical form. A partial rules summary:

  • You have three pools of six-sided dice: Resolve (3 dice), Exhaustion (1 to 6 dice), and Madness (up to 6 dice), which you roll together against the GM’s Pain dice pool when you want to do something risky. Every die that comes up 1, 2, or 3 counts as a success. The side with more successes wins…
  • …but that win is accompanied by consequences depending on which pool dominates the roll. The dominating pool is the one with the highest single value. (Drop tied dice until you have a winner, then go in the order that the pools were introduced above if there’s nothing left.)
  • It’s only a good thing when Resolve dominates; otherwise, your Exhaustion will start spiralling out of control, your Madness will trigger a fight-or-flight response and/or consume you, or the situation will become increasingly painful for your character and the people they care about.
  • You always roll Resolve and your current Exhaustion, but you can choose how much Madness to use; those dice sit in front of you, every turn, waiting for you to decide whether the action warrants the risk that using them poses.

I’m going in a different thematic direction with DBYP, but as an emergent property of the sytem, both are games of hard choices with a strong resource-management component that’s a little like Yahtzee: You can accomplish almost anything, but how much are you willing to push your luck to do it?

Torches vs lighter fluid

This kind of resource-management stands in contrast to games in the tradition of the original fantasy game (including its rules-heavy children like Starfinder), where you tend to be counting down to oblivion: Consumable items like torches, spells, and especially hit points all represent scarce resources that the player must deploy judiciously to prevent their character from dying.

In DRYH, you’re not in danger of running out of light in a dark place. You’re in danger of burning the place to the ground while you’re still inside. So let’s turn up the heat in Starfinder.

Drift, Health, and Void dice

To model an ability that a character can use to an unlimited degree but at great personal risk, assign it a pool of six-sided Drift dice. (I’m using that name because the Drift is a big unknown in Starfinder, and so is a reasonable source for weird powers, but feel free to look elsewhere for inspiration.) Assign at least three tiers of effects to the pool, e.g.:

Drift-ability: Cross-dimensional resonance

Your exposure to the raw energies of the Drift let you peer for a moment beyond the edge of time and space, into other times and spaces. As a standard action, channel the Drift for any of the following effects.

Pool size Effect
1-2 dice Cast Mirror image on target touched creature. It lasts 1 minute.
3-4 dice Flood target touched creature with memories of another life. Will save DC 20 to act normally.
5-6 dice Replace target touched creature with their double from a mirror universe. Details up to the GM.

I think the most critical aspect of this subsystem is to tie the consequences back to the original system, which in this case means hit point depletion. Starfinder characters have two-tiers of health (Stamina and Hit Points), so we’ll define the Health dice that the player rolls alongside their Drift dice to correspond to different levels of health. I’ve chosen not to include a pool like Exhaustion because it models a longer-term resource and would mean tracking extra bits for this subsystem.

The size of the GM’s opposing Void dice pool is left to GM fiat, but I wouldn’t recommend going over 4, and you should tell the players what you’re going to oppose with while they’re making their decision to roll. Keep in mind that they’ll only have a 50/50 shot to succeed if your Void pool is the same size as their Health+Drift pool. Here’s the final proposal:

Channel the Drift

When you channel the Drift, assemble your pools of six-sided dice and roll against the GM’s Void dice:

  • Start with one Health die. Add a second if you have all your HP. Add a third if you have all your stamina.
  • Pick up as many Drift dice as you need to get the desired effect.
  • Roll all your dice and count up every die that comes up 1, 2, or 3.
  • The GM will also roll some number of Void dice (usually 2-4), and count successes the same way. If you have the same or more successess, the effect takes place, otherwise it doesn’t.
  • Figure out which of the three pools dominates the roll.
    • If Health dominates, nothing more happens. (Whew!)
    • If Drift dominates, act randomly for a number of rounds equal to the size of your Drift pool, probably not in your own best interest.
    • If Void dominates, you lose health: If you have stamina, drop it all. If you don’t, drop to 1 HP. If you have no stamina and you’re at 1 HP, drop to zero.

Drift domination is a pretty punishing rule, but since the player decides when it’s worth it to push it and the possible outcomes are known prior to the roll, I don’t think it’s unfair. The player also has Resolve points that they can use to recover – characters are pretty resilient in Starfinder.

Inspirations for mystic heroism

Don’t Break Your Pact is my house-ruled hack of Don’t Rest Your Head for stories of mystic heroism. From a mechanical perspective the bones of the hack are pretty simple; Discipline, Exhaustion, and Madness dice pools from DRYH become:

Soul
Represents the core of who you are. You have 3 dice in this pool, and if you lose them, you’re likely to lose yourself and what’s important to you.
Guts
Represents what makes you exceptional. You start with 2 and can push yourself to gain more (max 6). Having a lot of guts dice means you’re near your limit and you’re in danger of having the situation get out of control, whether that means losing your nerve or going into a frenzy.
Pact
Represent fantastic power granted by a patron. You can have access to up to 6 pact dice total, possibly from multiple patrons.

There are some differences in how these pools work, but it’s basically still the case that you have a “safe” pool (Soul), a “push it” pool (Guts), and a magical pool that you can exploit at great personal risk (Pact). Games of this sort allow the characters to accomplish a lot as long as their players are willing to take risks, and so the drama often comes from the danger of collateral damage to things the characters value.

I’ve been trying to hone in on what kinds of stories DBYP is supposed to help tell and build an meta-setting that supports it. In terms of inspirations, I think the list below is as short as I can get without leaving out anything essential. I might delve into each of these in separate posts as a way of collecting my thoughts.

  • Dragon Ball (Akira Toriyama)
  • Le Monde d’Edena (Mœbius)
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender & The Legend of Korra
  • Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
  • Chrono Trigger
  • The Earthsea Cycle (Ursula K. Le Guin)
  • The Old Kingdom series (Garth Nix)
  • The Broken Earth trilogy (N. K. Jemisin)

Bonus: There’s also a visual inspiration album on Pinterest.