Warriors of Synnibarr by Gary Gygax

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

Raven McCracken’s Synnibarr RPG takes a lot of criticism for – well, for a lot of valid reasons; but one of its poorer mechanics is this:

If “Fate” (the GM) doesn’t know how likely the players are to succeed at something, he should roll a d100. The result is the players’ chances of succeeding. A second roll is then made. If the second roll is LESS than the first roll, the players succeed.

It – almost – seems plausible until you think about it, right? But rolling a random difficulty threshold, and then rolling the same die against that threshold, is really always a 50% shot. You might as well play an RPG where you flip a coin every time anyone tries to do anything.

As this review of Synnibarr says:

“Fate [the GM] then makes a percentile die roll to determine whether the empty ship will be safe or not. The first roll is a 33. This indicates there is only a 33% chance of the boat remaining safe. Fate then rolls again. The resulting roll of 40 indicates that their ship won’t be there upon return. How and when the ship is lost is up to Fate.”

This is the stupidest thing that I’ve ever seen done within a role-playing game. Besides removing a potentially useful element from the adventure, it removes control from the GM and puts it into a pair of dice rolls; and they’re both entirely random. You could roll a 95% chance of being safe or a 5% chance of being safe, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s nobody at the switch; just a series of random encounters determined by blind idiot luck. It’s like Azathoth designed a role-playing game.

Agreed? Bad mechanic? Now check out these rules:

Missile Fire Procedure:
The firing player rolls two [d6] dice in sequence: The first is the number he must match or beat in order to score a hit, and it is modified by his status, weapon, the range, and so on. If the modified number is not matched or exceeded by the score of the second die the missile failed to hit its target.

This is from Warriors of Mars by Gygax and Blume, 1974. (I’ve also seen the same rule in a fairly recent edition of Pendragon.)

To be fair, one of the Warriors of Mars die rolls is modified by various factors. That doesn’t really change the issue, though. Rolling up a random target number on a d6 is no different than setting the target number to 3.5.

Warriors of Mars is from the very dawn of roleplaying, and Gygax would go on to create much better subsystems than this (and a few worse ones). Still, if you’re a rules hacker at all, it might be comforting to see that every RPG developer starts at level 1.

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12 Responses to “Warriors of Synnibarr by Gary Gygax”

  1. KenHR says:

    Funny, I was just reviewing the pursuit & evasion rules for 1e AD&D, and there is a “roll to determine the chance of X happening” mechanic there, too, to determine if pursuers are distracted by dropped food or treasure. It’s a little more refined, but the idea’s the same….

  2. For what it’s worth, Toon (a RPG based on animated shorts) has what’s called the “50% rule” — that if you want to make a random check for something that’s not otherwise covered by the rules, the probability is 50%. But that’s in a context that’s supposed to be wacky and random, with lots of unlikely things happening.

    Still, unless I’m misreading this, it seems to me that Synnibarr’s 50%-by-default rule is at least optional, yes? If it only applies when the DM doesn’t know the probability, and the DM can (I assume) make up probabilities on the spot, then it’s really a null rule. So, not a good rule, but ultimately not a rule that needs to affect anything, unlike the Warriors of Mars “50% plus modifiers for this specific sort of thing”.

  3. Pere Ubu says:

    To be fair, the Warriors of Mars rules mention pertinent modifiers to the roll, which Synnibarr doesn’t. So it’s not QUITE equivalent.

  4. Pere Ubu says:

    “it seems to me that Synnibarr’s 50%-by-default rule is at least optional, yes?”

    NOTHING in WoS is “optional”.

    Players can get Synnibarrian XP for pointing out rules in the book and/or adventure that the GM missed or ignored.

  5. Craddoke says:

    It seems to me that the Warriors of Mars mechanic is not fundamentally different from the concept of assigning a DC and rolling against it. This particular DC just has a combination of a static element controlled by character/player skill (the modifiers) coupled with a random element (the first roll). Doesn’t seem that much worse than the DM pulling the base DC out of their backside and then applying relevant modifiers.

  6. paul says:

    I actually don’t have a problem with “everything has a 50% chance of working” or “make up a DC” as rules. The game designer should know that that’s what’s happening, though.

    Ken, I don’t remember that rule in 1e pursuit rules, I’ll have to look! I’ve looked at the OD&D pursuit rules more recently, though. But since I’m coding up the logic for the 1e-compatible Tomb Robber flash game, I will have to review these rules.

  7. Rifter says:

    I remember reading the Synnibarr rules, and was going to run it at one point… then I tried to explain it to my then girlfriend, and gave up, and went back to AD&D. I actually came across my book a couple of weeks ago, while cleaning up, and organizing my garage. :-)

  8. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Don’t forget “Warriors of Mars” was a collaboration, and is at least half skirmish miniatures game. That might not be Gary’s rule.

  9. paul says:

    I do think it’s quite likely that it was a Blume rule.

  10. Canageek says:

    The version of Paranoia I have uses this system, which annoys the heck out of me.

  11. I actually wrote a joke RPG a long time ago (almost 10 years!) that was a 50% chance for every action. It was called “d02: Know No Limit”. You flipped coins instead of rolling dice. And to make a character you just draw or write whatever you feel like on the character sheet. It was popular. People actually played it and wrote play reports and stuff. Good times. :)

  12. tartex says:

    I was just thinking about that: how is having Hit Die for each (unimportant) enemy and a weapon damage roll in traditional D&D not the same?

    It makes a difference, if the GM tells the players the specific hit points of each enemy or puts even more effort in to describe the – let’s say goblins – as bigger/smaller/stronger, but in my play experience, this combo pretty much does the same.

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