One of the core features of the Roll and Keep die rolling system used by L5R and other AEG games is the ability for players to call their own critical shots. Essentially, instead of needing to roll a 20 on a D20 to get that crit, you just make the difficulty harder than it normally would be and in exchange you receive some benefit for it. In a sense it works like the "Power Blow" feat in D&D where you subtract from your bonus to hit in exchange for bonus damage, only the entire system is geared around this mechanic. Personally, it is a mechanic I love, but it isn't without it's own pitfalls. Today I wanted to talk about some of the good and some of the bad that this mechanic has.
Character Skill Shines Through
My favorite aspect of this system is that it makes character skill really shine through. Simply put there are things that you can do at a high level of skill in this system that just aren't readily available in other systems. You can tell the difference between a painting done by an apprentice (3 ranks of skill) and a master (7 ranks of skill,) and that is huge when it comes to, among other things, character bragging rights. It also lets the player show off at times. In D&D if you have a +15 to a skill check and the difficulty is an 18 then there isn't much you can do aside from roll your D20 and hope for a 3 or higher. In L5R you'd be able to make raises (making the task more difficulty) in order to do the action with increased style, increased effect, or just faster. Neat huh?
A Common Base Line
With the ability to call criticals there also exists a common base line. Namely, a successful roll is successful but there are not degrees of success based on just how good a roll was. This means that a random roll of the die doesn't make Bobby jump better than Suzie just because he rolled a 20 while she rolled a 19. Unless the player calls raises to make their success better in some way than they did the action just as well as everyone else who succeeded but didn't call raises. At the same time someone who called 3 raises did better than everyone that didn't call 3 raises or more.
At first this can seem counter-intuitive to gamers. We want to reward that amazing die roll. When you roll a 50 versus a difficulty fifteen you want that to mean that you do it with ease. Mechanically though you can't. What you get in exchange for this is a common baseline. By that I mean that the GM can set a standard for success for a given task, which in turn can make things very easy to scale and determine the extra benefits of raises and also a means for difficulty to be assessed without taking in other things.
For example, a difficulty 15 painting looks good and successfully captures the essence of what the artist was going for. A base difficulty isn't just a "not embarrassingly bad" performance, it is actually a "good performance" it just isn't that extra step above. Art is, however, subjective and perhaps a bad example. So let's move to a better one. Lock picking. A base success will pick a lock in 3 minutes. Simple, right? But now think about it. The GM can scale the complexity of the lock by raising or lowering the difficulty of the roll. Standard fare, I know. But where does the character shine? The character shines in how fast the character can pick the lock. See, with the base success being "the lock is defeated in 3 minutes" we now have room for raises to be called. Someone who can call 4 raises to pick that lock will do it faster than someone who can only call (or does only call) 2 raises. We now have a separation of the difficulty of the task and the skill that will be employed to defeat it.
Ultimately this does very little, except for the fact that it eases the approach. Since we have that base line for success we can scale everything else off of that baseline and work with it. Setting tasks now becomes easier, and more to the point - as long as the characters don't want to embellish - can be attempted by characters of various levels.
Base Difficulty vs. Embellishment
However, the common base line isn't all sun and roses. It adds complexity and complexity can be confusing. For example, what is the difference between saying "It's difficulty 40 to make the jump" and saying "you'll need to call 4 raises to make the jump"? Numerically, there's not much difference. However, by saying that you need to call 4 raises you are making the task flat out impossible for some characters to even attempt - not everyone can call 4 raises after all.
This can make it hard as a GM to determine exactly how to call a ruling if you're not prepared for it. Back with the lock picking example it is one thing to say that the base line is 3 minutes. However, add a guard patrol to the area and now a character needs to be able to call X raises to pick the lock in time. Shouldn't that just increase the difficulty? Is that so different in denying people who can't make X raises from picking the lock from denying people who can't call Y raises to make a jump?
You can argue this either way you want - honestly, I'm doing it right now in my head - and most people will come down on it their own way. The difference I would say here is that one is an act of pure skill (picking a lock) while the other is a feat that also relies on physical prowess (jumping.) Whichever way you argue it though, you come back to the argument that you're either denying some people the ability to do things (maybe desirable, honestly, but GMs are trained to not say no) or removing what makes another character special.
I have 2 examples of this done both well and not so well (I refuse to say poorly as I stand by the GM's decision in both cases.) In a house mate's L5R game me and another player are playing very athletic Hare clan siblings, only the other hare (brother from now on) has Great Potential: Athletics while my character (sister from now on) doesn't.
In the first situation there was an obstacle course set up. The difficulty for the course was high (3 rolls with a TN of 20-30 depending on the roll.) It took 4 raises to due to course at full speed. Brother could do the course at speed because his Great Potential let him call four raises. Sister could not do the course at full speed because she couldn't call 4 raises. She still did the course, and did it impressively well, but not as fast as brother.
This is a good example in my opinion because while both players got to show off their character's strong suit, one - the one built to be - was clearly better and more gifted at the thing than the other. The difference was in results, determined by raises, but both characters were able to compete.
Later on in the game there was a situation where both Brother and Sister felt the need to climb the outside of a tower. Initially the GM said it would require 4 raises to climb the tower. I was upset by this because it meant my character couldn't even make the attempt at climbing because I couldn't make four raises. I explained my argument and the GM let me try (setting a high TN for both characters and again letting raises make Brother faster) but the initial example I think is still a good example of a bad split here.
Why? Because the ruling flat out denied a character a chance at doing something that the character was more or less built to do, just not as well as Brother. The difficulty of the task was high, and it should be high, but it ultimately lacked embellishment aside from needing to be done fast. or stylishly. Had the GM stuck with their original ruling I'd still have not liked it, but that is the GM's call to make. I take nothing from the GM, they're good at what they do, but I think this also shows how this mechanic can be interpreted differently to much greater effects by different people.
In conclusion I think the complexity and confusion can be worth it. It is nice for a character to be able to show how good they are without having to hope for a good die roll to do it. It is awesome to be able to call your own criticals. It is great to not be reliant on a 1 in 20 chance to pop up randomly when you can say "I want to go for it now!" or to just go for half a critical if that is all you need.
If you're designing a game you should consider this as well. It gives Agency to the players and the GM. Just keep in mind that every system has good and bad associated with it.