It may be an understatement to say that Timeless has an unusual dice mechanic. Not that dice pools, difficulty ratings, or face values are strange. The odd thing about Timeless is that a lot of different ideas were combined to make for simple resolutions. Simple in both scope and implementation. The simplicity is not so obvious, but I hope to explain it.
When it comes to games, I’m pretty much done with flat percentage rolls. All I see in my head are the numbers, and it takes away from the fun for me. There are quite a few replacements that are pretty good. One is the bell curve. This is accomplished with dice pools that rely on averages. Whether taking a total or a single face value, the likelihood of reaching the average drives the most likely outcomes. Timeless uses a dice pool as well but it is capped at 3.
A famous game that blows the simple percentile scale out of the water is Risk. Attackers and defenders trade off equal advantages. The attacker relies on a larger dice pool. They are more likely to roll high numbers. So even though a higher average is present, the main idea is to give the attacker more opportunities to roll high numbers. Same with consistency in Timeless. More chances to get it right.
Timeless uses varying dice sizes as well as the dice pool. Since these are rolled against a difficulty rating, some dice pools cannot beat certain difficulties. This is the big oddity. Some things are simply outside of your abilities, but that’s OK. Climbing the quality ladder makes harder tasks within the player’s grasp. More importantly, creative problem solving to gain advantages bring difficulties lower.
Most games just place the most difficult activities high on a difficulty scale, within 1% and 10% chance of success. There is the potential to accomplish them, but it’s only the unreliability of the actions that make them rare. This is one of the strangest parts of Role Playing Games’ abstraction of events because it’s very unnatural for us.
Let’s take for example a basketball player. He can shoot 10 shots and make 9 of them to give us a 90% accuracy. But this is a weird abstraction. If we look at the real accuracy, the missed shot didn’t go the wrong way. It wasn’t thrown strait at the ground and it most certainly didn’t get thrown 50 feet too high. The failed shot almost made it in. It was pretty accurate. In fact, if we were to imagine the entire court in 3d space and see where the ball traveled compared with all of the other possible location, the precision would approach 0.001. We should expect the best players to have precision closer to 0.0001 and average players to approach 0.01. We should expect a difference between numbers like 99% and 99.99%.
With Timeless, as the difficulty rating falls, the most skilled differ by similar precision. Not only do some actions become out of the reach of the unskilled, but the skilled gain a more understandable consistency when it comes to easier tasks.
The second element that is the most odd about the dice system are lower caps on abilities. In most settings, once a player reaches Great Expert level, there is no more room for improvement. The consistency is open ended after this, but the quality of the roll caps quickly and with relatively few skill points. Timeless is not designed to be a system with infinite dynamic scaling. Players are expected to become comfortable with their abilities and reach the story goals of their character.
So then, what does this ability cap do to balance? Quite frankly, it destroys it. The dice system is not made to be balanced. In fact, the players are expected to function like fictional characters. Hackers plug into giant robots and disable them without having any clue what kind of computers run them. Thieves slip by unnoticed in black ninja outfits on a white beach in the middle of the day. By reaching the ability to accomplish “impossible” tasks, players get to tell stories about the most fantastic ideas. Because Timeless wasn’t created to balance game mechanics. It was created to balance realism and fantasy.
The main reason why ability caps are so low is to let a character biographies make sense. In most RPGs you are not allowed to be a karate master. And if you flavor yourself to be one, you still have some limited point buy system that keeps you from doing amazing things. But that’s not how good character biographies work. The most imaginative players have mixed pasts where they were forced out of being the leader of a biker gang and are hiding away playing piano music in a symphony, until they get famous and are hunted by former members. Games like WOD and Gurps force elements of the story to be entirely decoration and never come into play because wasting points on it risks the full potential of min-maxing.
Creatures! takes advantage of this the most. Players are expected to be accomplished in something. Scientists, soldiers, and barons of business have to have reasonable abilities in their fields. This concept has allowed plenty of chemistry majors to throw together make-shift acid sprayers and for mechanics to repair and fortify their only means of escape. The players don’t have 8 sessions to level up before fighting that big boss. They use the skills that they have to combat the invincible lava monster down the hall in the most creative way possible.
One of the game mechanics balancing acts that most games suffer from is the “master of one, jack of none.” You generally get to choose to be good at a single thing or nondescript at a lot. In between is rough and requires so much analysis paralysis that character creation is the most significant part of the game. But story games don’t like this idea. You should be a jack of all trades if you want. And if you are, you can still master one or two things.
The difference between why story games don’t need to balance this is the idea of prohibitive challenges. Certain skills overcome these challenges, and only players with those skills can move past it. Locked doors, intense combat, computer networks, traps, magical barriers… There is a long list of things that requires a certain solution to avoid blocking the path. Traditional games only break skills up by what would solve these prohibitive challenges. And by allowing players to have too many, the individual challenges can be solved by too many players. Story games don’t have this problem in the same degree because the skills available typically are divided by biographical details, not world access.
As players level in Timeless, they end up moving towards jacks of all trades. It is in no way bad for player expectations. A group of adventurers moving through the wilderness should pick up how to work a tinderbox, fell wood, and trap animals. Players horde their skill points in other games instead of learning the skills they need to survive. But it should be expected for their experiences to help carve out their future abilities.
In the end, the mechanics are fairly unique. They are strange, and not for everybody, but for those looking to focus on stories and biographies, the simplicity of the mechanics become tools for the GM and player alike. Not rigid restrictions on their imagination.