Development Log - The System

In creating Hell or High Water, I wanted a system that would reflect the grit of the world that I want to tell stories in, without the granular details that would deter new players. If possible, I prefer to have a central dice mechanic that is simple to understand, yet leaves room for fine-tuning and manipulation by more seasoned players. 

While first writing the HoHW concept, I had been reading through entrants of the “200-Word RPG Contest”, which invited various gaming microsystems to be detailed in 200 words or less. Given the restriction this poses against listing out lots of granular detail, many games proposed a simple “over/under” method, which I’m copping for the bare bones of this gritty space game. 

One of my favorite examples of this system was “Witchfeels” (, which has each character select a number between two and five. With each action that involves risk, roll a number of D6. Each result above the chosen number represents a benevolent side of the character, while roll under represents theor malevolent side instead. 

In Hell or High Water, there are only two attributes: Hell, and High Water (I know, i’m so clever). “Hell” represents acting with force, malice, self-interest or aggression, while “High Water” represents self-preservation, fear, of desperation. Note that these do not speak to any particular acts, but instead the motivations behind them.

At character creation, each player will select a “Guideline”, a sort of moral compass, between 1 and 10. When asked to roll for a action, the player will roll a D10. Depending on the intent behind the action, the player will want to roll either above or below the guideline to succeed, depending on the motivations for their action. At or below the guideline, it’s a successful “Hell” roll, while at or above is a successful “High Water” roll. 

For example, say the players are organizing a deal with a local militia— meds for creds. Working to convince the militia to sell them the meds at a discount might be a “High Water” roll if you’re low on creds, while it might be a “Hell” roll if the rest of the crew is setting up an ambush. 

Of course, the guideline should be malleable. In a world where alliances are shifting, it should be possible to not only make Hell rolls more likely (oddly enough by subtracting from the roll), and equally possible for an injured soldier to move their guideline and make High Water rolls more likely. 

Next, we’ll talk about how roles, moves, and abilities make that possible.