The new Smallville RPG (using the Cortex Plus system) includes a concept called Threat Dice for most inconsequential NPCs and other hazards; effectively, they replace the character sheets for anyone not important enough to rate one (and can be spent to make NPCs that have sheets more powerful). The size of the threat pool organically goes up and down during a session, varying the challenge to the players.

It strikes me that this might be a useful concept for virtually any game that’s willing to model a generic “how screwed are the player characters, in general, right now?” instead of a more accurate variance of power between threats. Essentially, it’s a really neat idea for people like me that hate statting NPCs in intimate detail, but would like some kind of system to model how threatening they should be.

Smallville uses a dice pool system, so threat dice would convert most easily to something else dice pool-based, like White Wolf, but they could be converted to a “threat bonus” on a more linear system. The basic rules for them in Smallville are:

  • The GM starts with a certain bank of dice, and can never have fewer than a minimum number (I believe it’s 2d6 for Smallville) so there will always be something to roll.
  • Whenever a 1 shows up on a PC’s die, the GM may pay that player a plot point and add a die of the same size to the threat pool (in addition to narrating something bad happening as a result of the action that raises the general tension). This roll doesn’t have to be a failure: the 1 results in a complication to a success just as easily.
  • Whenever a 1 shows up on one of the threat dice, the players may ask for a similar complication to impact the enemy in question, as well as removing that die from the GM’s pool
  • Threat dice can be voluntarily removed from the pool to add a die of the same size to a statted NPC’s roll.

Effectively, as things go wrong for the PCs, the opposition gets more powerful across the board. But, the more powerful the opposition gets, the more likely its rolls are to result in complications that benefit the PCs. Since Cortex uses dice of different sizes, the threat pool may soon contain lots of d4s and d6s that are just as quickly lost, while the rare 1 on a d10 or d12 creates much more danger in the pool that lasts longer.

As noted, this maps very easily to White Wolf, where it could replace the standard 1s mechanic (and may or may not require the addition of plot points to pay for complications, depending on how dark the chronicle is meant to be). It’s not much of a stretch to map onto an additive system, however, as the threat pool simply becomes a straight number that’s added to a standard dice roll: with fewer dice being rolled, however, the GM might want to tag complications to a wider range than just 1 on the die.

As in Smallville, threat dice can be entirely for non-statted threats (spending them to buff bigger enemies), or enemies could be completely based around a threat die. For example, instead of giving an enemy fixed stats, he might have Melee +2, Alertness +1, Dodge -1: if the threat pool is currently 5, he rolls 7 dice for Melee, 6 for Alertness, and 4 for Dodge.

Additionally, the current threat pool might be used as a base target number (possibly with a fixed modifier, depending on dice type) for any potentially dangerous actions taken during the game. Want to leap the pit to get away? Difficulty is equal to threat pool.

Care should be taken to make sure the base number of dice still provides the intended challenge for the party, or players may steamroll through the game.