Roleplaying is in a state of transition these days, facing both commercial pressure from Collectable Card Games (in terms of where adventure gaming dollars are spent) and an onslaught of new systems designed to broaden its appeal, such as Everway (roleplaying based on pictures) and various "diceless" systems including Amber (the pioneer) and newer ones such as Theatrix.
What many of these have in common is attempting to reduce the intrusiveness of game mechanics between players' imaginations and their characters to make the gaming experience more vivid, easier to get into and less rules encrusted. Into this bubbling stew is now thrown yet another approach, the collectable dice game Throwing Stones, published by Gamesmiths. In it, specialized dice are used to represent your character. To act, you simply announce what you're attempting, roll your dice and see how you do. You don't have to total pips and compare them to numbers on your character sheet. Indeed, most of what people think of as a character sheet is absent. In Throwing Stones, you use one just to record your equipment, damage, current mana and experience; your specialized dice really are your character. By removing the character sheet largely from play the game actually feels more "diceless" than some diceless systems -- a strange result from a system based on constantly rolling dice!
Throwing Stones is being marketed both as an "arena dueling game" and as a roleplaying system. Two products are offered: tubes, containing dice and a one page rules summary for the arena game; and a 96-page softcover book which expands these rules, adds roleplaying information, sketches a somewhat generic fantasy world named Chaotia, and provides one multi-player and two solitaire adventures to start you off.
Each tube comes with nine dice: one regular six-sided die, a generic "monster" die and, the heart of the game, seven of the specialized dice, called stones, to build characters with. A starting character has four stones. As experience is earned, additional stones are gained one at a time.
Each stone has several pieces of information silk-screened onto its six faces: a colored skill or effect glyph plus possibly skill plusses, swords and a name. There are three colors: red, gold and silver, corresponding to the three attributes: strength, intelligence and agility. Two characters who want to arm wrestle each other would roll their stones and count up the number of faceup red (Strength) faces to determine who won, resolving a tied result by rolling again in the next round.
If a skill is involved, then you count both the relevant color and, assuming a desired skill glyph ends faceup, the number of skill plusses (+) on it (the same glyph may have varying number of plusses on different stones). For example, sneaking past a guard would pit a character's Agility plus Balance glyphs vs. the guard's Intelligence plus Notice glyphs. A roll of two Agilityfaces and a red Balance++++ glyph (a total of 6) would successfully sneak past a guard who rolled a gold Intelligence face with a Notice+++ glyph (4).
Each skill glyph factors into several skills depending on the actual ability being checked. A gold Charisma++ glyph counts for 3 on a Persuasion check (Intelligence based) but only 2 for Intimidation (Strength based) and 1 for other Intelligence checks.
Effect glyphs generally indicate special effects occurring in addition to the skill or attribute being checked. For instance, a Knockdown glyph appearing in a to-hit roll indicates that if the hit succeeds, the defender -- after taking damage -- must make a successful Balance (Agility) save vs. the damage taken to avoid falling down.
Sword symbols add to Attack and Defense (Agility) checks during melee, provided the character is fighting with a weapon. Otherwise, they add in only if an Unarmed Combat glyph appears. Swords also add into damage rolls (Strength); however a player may only count as many stone faces with swords on them as the size of his or her weapon (e.g. 1 face for a dagger; 2 for an axe; and 3 for a two-handed sword, etc.). Each weapon also has a strength rating indicating the Strength (the number of Strength faces on all of his or her stones) a character needs to wield it.
Finally, every stone has a name appearing on one of its faces, such as Wizard, Barbarian, Thief, Druid, Amazon, Duelist, Monk, etc. It adds one when rolled in a saving throw; more importantly, it allows players to easily select and distinguish among the different stone types.
All this information is packed into a 5/16" face. It will seem very cryptic at first as you look up each glyph you roll in the summary chart. However, in less than an hour, reading stones will be mostly automatic, eliminating much of the psychological "distance" between you and your character.
To build a character, you select four stones. You also record your Durability (hit points) and Mana and spend money to outfit your character. Your hit points, Mana and starting money are computed by simple formulas based on the number of colored faces among your stones (e.g. Durability is the number of Strength faces plus 4).
Each stone has at least one face of every color, but the remaining three faces might be all the same color, split two and one or evenly distributed. Some stones have Wild color faces -- no skill glyph or swords but the ability to be counted as any desired color when rolled, providing flexibility.
The names serve as guides to the stones. For example, a character composed of Duelist and Gladiator stones would have high Strength and Agility with faces loaded with swords and combat special effects (disarm, knockdown, stun, etc.). By contrast, a Druid stone has two faces each of Nature, Zoetry (life and healing magic) and Thaumaturgy (the magic of change).
Taking several of the same stone reinforces that stone's flavor in your character. Taking four implies that character is effectively an archetype; i.e. a character made up of four Barbarian stones is your classic raw fighter.
Names can also be used to tell a character's background. One character might be a barbarian who ran away from his tribe; learned to survive in the wilds; came to the city and became a thief until he stole enough to enter the Arena with a weapon. There he flourished, eventually becoming a respected duelist.This might be a four stone character (two Barbarian, one Wildman and a Thief) who, after gaining experience fighting duels, added a fifth Gladiator stone.
The dueling game, provided you take advantage of all the rules, can be quite absorbing and interesting. The key concept is the idea of a "mulligan" -- a single re-roll of one or more stones after a roll is made.
For example, equipping your character with a shield will enable you to re-roll one stone when you roll your defense. This might turn a successful attack into an unsuccessful one. However, your opponent could also "focus" his or her attack to gain re-rolls to improve it -- at the cost of giving you the right to "anti-mulligan" your opponent's next defense roll (you would get to pick which stones your opponent must re-roll). This assumes, of course, that you survive your opponent's attack to strike back! Re-rolls are also used as situational modifiers; i.e. a prone character suffers two anti-mulligans on all checks.
These tactics, along with the combat special effects, spell casting, range eapons, fighting defensively and even such options as trying to blind your opponent with dirt, can add up to some very exciting duels.
Unfortunately, not all these options are present in the one-page sheet provided with a tube. That information-packed sheet is a useful summary but, given how original this system is, perhaps too cryptic as an introduction to the game. The 96-page book helps, though it could be better organized. Pay attention to the sample duels in the back if you find yourself confused.
One problem with the dueling game is that some skills (Nature especially) are of little use in the arena. This makes stones with these skill faces very irritating to get when you buy a tube, unless you intend to roleplay as well.
As a roleplaying system, Throwing Stones seems to work pretty well. By having Charisma and Dexterity as skill glyphs, the apparent limitations of a three attribute character system are transcended quite neatly. Similarly, since taking more of one color of faces implies taking less of another (except for Wildcolor), character generation feels balanced. While wildcolor faces are useful, their lack of skill and sword symbols keeps them from dominating play.
There are 21 different dice and 25 different glyphs in the current edition. These provide a fair amount of variety. But, because of the emphasis on combat and the dueling game, glyphs such as Lore (for Literacy and Knowledge rolls), Will, Trade (for Bargaining), Creativity (for Idea, Performance and Craft rolls), Fortitude, etc. have been omitted. Similarly, as I started creating characters with backgrounds, I found myself wanting stones labeled Bard, Soldier, Alchemist, Merchant, Priest, Scholar, Archer, Scout, Sage, etc. Some existing stones can easily serve (the Fool makes a fine Minstrel stone) but the emphasis on combat and magic glyphs may steer some Throwing Stones campaigns towards more hack and slash storylines.
One of the neatest ideas in the game is the monster die. This die, supplied with each tube, has 2 primary and 1 secondary skill faces which differ in interpretation from monster to monster. For example, a Giant Spider has Web and Poison as its primary/secondary abilities while an Elephant has Knockdown and Stun. A chart describes this and how many such dice to roll, armor, hit point modifiers and the number of damage mulligans to use, listing nearly 100 creatures on one page. Fuller descriptions are given in the monster section but this chart and several of these cleverly designed monster stones makes running random monster encounters very easy for the GM (while the monster die is mostly for a GM to use during roleplaying, Summon Monster and Shapeshifting spells allow it to be used in the dueling game too).
Does Throwing Stones provide good value? The stones are dark blue pebbled dice with gold, silver and red glyphs printed on them. They look quite nice, though the gold and silver can be hard to distinguish from each other in dim light. Note, however, that the glyphs are not etched into the dice and will flake off with heavy use (which they do get when you play with them). To protect them, paint them with clear nail polish. (Test your polish on one face first to make sure it has no solvents in it!)
For a tube with seven stones and two more dice plus a rules summary, $10 is a bit pricey, though quite reasonable given Gamesmiths is a small company unable to produce and sell a large production run in order to lower their per unit costs. Similarly, the 96-page guidebook at $20 seems a fairly good buy.
What about the collectable aspect? This is possibly Throwing Stones' biggest problem, affecting both the dueling and roleplaying games. I have nothing against the idea of collectable games per se, though I think manufacturers need to ensure the collecting aspect does serve their customers' needs: to allow players to try out a game cheaply and to buy into it incrementally as their interest in it grows.
To support incremental buying -- while avoiding the "money game" problem where rares dominate commons -- tuning by selection needs to work and rares need to open up new strategies. In Magic the Gathering, a few more cards beyond a starter deck improves it a lot since a color or two can be stripped out (this selection process also opens up a variety of different deck designs) and many rares do offer strategies (card denial, recycling the graveyard, etc.) not easily available using only common cards.
In the Throwing Stones dueling game, however, you only have four "things" to tune: your character's stones. And if you swap more than one or two stones, you haven't improved your character, you've created a new one. Swaps can help even though the stones are pretty well balanced (most rares are only slightly better than common stones). For example, swapping a rare Wildman stone in for a common Barbarian stone will improve most characters using several Barbarian stones. But, mostly, buying tubes allows you to make additional different characters more than it helps you improve your existing ones.
Without incremental improvement to reinforce the collecting instinct, I'm not convinced that most players will buy many tubes. Each tube contains one rare, two uncommon and four common stones drawn from three sets of seven different stones. You need 15 tubes to get at least one of every stone (on average, without trading) which, at $10 a pop, is pretty steep. (With trading, you should need only 8-10 tubes to get a full set and about half that if you concentrate on building a couple of strong characters.)
The dueling game needs a larger "strategy space" -- such as a six or eight stones per character tournament standard -- to properly support a collectable game system. Whether Throwing Stones as currently written is as balanced and fun at that level of dueling is unclear (at 6-8 stones, most characters will have enough Strength to wield a large weapon, which is a bit boring).
In the roleplaying game, the tube scheme runs into a different problem. Most modern RPGs allow a player to play the character *type* they want. But in Throwing Stones, if a player wants to play a thief and doesn't get any Thief, Assassin or Ninja stones in their first two or three tubes, they're either out of luck (unless they can find someone to trade with) or have to buy more tubes. Some players will really dislike this.
Similarly, a typical way for a group to try out a new RPG is for an interested GM to buy a copy and run a few adventures. Then, if the group enjoys it, most players will go and buy a player's handbook, figurines, etc. A GM who wants toprovide enough stones for a group to build a variety of characters in Throwing Stones has to make a fairly large initial investment.
I think a better marketing scheme would be to increase the number of distinct stones in the game, possibly reduce the rarity levels to two, and package them in tubes labeled "Fighter", "Mage", "Rogue", "Cleric" and "Traveler" (the last would contain Mechants, Scholars, Alchemists and so on). Stones would still vary from tube to tube. This way a player could buy one or two tubes and get, roughly, the character they want to play. A GM could purchase one of each tube type to introduce the game to players fairly cheaply. And players who wanted to just duel could concentrate on Fighter and Mage tubes, avoiding stones intended mostly for the roleplaying game.
Currently -- if everyone can get past "these are my stones" -- one approach is for a group to pool their money to buy a bunch of tubes and design characters (since players will probably want to play different characters, they won't allwant the same stones). The monster dice and remaining stones could be lent to the GM for campaign use and NPCs. 4 players and a GM could buy ten tubes and two books for $140 which is a bit much just to try out a system but not too bad if everyone enjoys it.
How similar is Throwing Stones to Dragon Dice, TSR's collectable dice game? Not at all. While both games use dice and are collectable, Dragon Dice is closer in spirit to miniatures, where each player assembles an army and thenslugs it out. (The collectable paradigm seems to fit Dragon Dice better given the larger number of dice used -- allowing incremental improvements by swapping in a few new dice -- and the tradition of building your own armies present in that gaming style.) Throwing Stones is primarily a roleplaying system. Throwing Stones is a very original idea with a fairly decent "release 1.0" implementation. There are some bugs, rules omissions, etc. But, if you're at all curious about it, pick up a couple of tube, the book and give it a whirl.
As a dueling game, I think you could have a lot of fun by forming a league of, say, 8 players, each of whom buys two tubes. Allow trading and then fight a series of duels swiss style, testing out different strategies and tactics. Allow character adjustment and then run a standard tournament with a prize.
The real thrill, in my opinion, is in the roleplaying. The stones provide an interesting method of character generation that is quick, balanced and fun (players will enjoy fighting mock duels to test out their designs) as well asa very powerful sense of immediacy during play.
There are two caveats, however: the entry cost to get started is a bit high and the GM should be pretty good. What is provided is enough to get started but both the game system and the world provided will need some fleshing out.
Players might also want to combine these two gaming methods with a mini-league to learn the rules and combat system before roleplaying. Doing this would also spread out the cost of acquiring a decent set of stones among all the players. In the back of the book, Gamesmiths announces their intention to release a series of stones for different genres (super, western, horror, cyber, future). Personally, I hope they work on expanding and perfecting the current fantasysystem first before expanding into other genres. I think, with some work, that Throwing Stones could be a very strong roleplaying system. Enjoy.
Tom Lehmann,President of Prism Games and the creator of such games as Suzerain, The Age of Exploration, and 2038, was kind enough to let me reprint this review which originally appeared on Internet. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (firstname.lastname@example.org)