Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Dangers of Removing Die Rolls

John Wick is doing an interesting project over on You Tube called Santa Vaca. Basically, what he is doing is transforming D&D into a game that he wants to run, something he would have made, with the caveat that he can't change the character sheet at all. He can repurpose the stats, but he can't remove anything that is already on the sheet. Now, he's had a few little errors to this, but nothing huge, and whether you like it or not, it is an interesting project. In his most recent video update (provided below), he is reducing combat down to one die roll. Making it more on par with say, seducing a bar maid, and most of the other checks done in D&D. Now, I'm for the idea of simplifying things, but one of the comments made me stop and think, and that is what I want to talk about today.

First, here is the video so you know what I am talking about.

Watched it? Good. Now, the comment that made me stop and think is - summarized - this. "How would you handle a situation where a character is in the eye of the storm? Like the end scene of Kill Bill Volume 1". The response I saw was a comment on Wesley taking out the 4 guys around Humperdink in the Princess Bride. Which, while similar, isn't exactly the same situation. In one, we have a desperate fight as a group of people try to stop one crazy lady with a katana from killing their boss. In the other, we have a swashbuckler handily dispatching 4 people in one go.

See, what the commenter is getting at, or at least what I think they're getting at, is that by lowering combat to a single die roll, you remove a lot of the tension from certain types of scenes. Rolling once, and stating the results of the fight, however quick - and narratively or realistically appropriate - it can be, also removes the tension. I mean, we've all been there. Our character on their last few HP, desperately needing that good roll to come along and let us pull off the win. We've had it happen, we've had it fail, but by and large it has made the fight more exciting.

I'd argue that a good GM could bring some of that tension back, especially in the pre-roll, but in a big way it just isn't the same. When you simplify things, you lose something that is there when it is more complex. You lose all the intricacies and details. This isn't to say that the simplification is bad, just that you need to be cautious when you do it. Employ it selectively. Let Wesley use one roll to beat 4 of Humperdink's men, but at the same time, give Beatrice Kiddo her epic fight in the restaurant as she takes on all comers.

There is a happy ground somewhere in the middle, but I don't think any system has properly found it just yet. So, for now, the GMs of the world should be aware of both approaches, and not be afraid to employ either method when the tension and drama of the scene demands it. Use a single roll to make the player feel powerful, and show their growth, or to represent a particularly quick and bloody fight. Use multiple when you want the tension to rise a bit more, and each move a bit more thought out. There is room for both here.

But, maybe I'm wrong. What are your thoughts on the matter?


  1. Quick edit, Inigo dispatches the guards in Princess Bride.

    I think that this process actually raises the tension of combat. A system that takes many rounds to go through combat gives the player time to change their mind or their strategy. This way, you have to have it right the first time. That makes you worry about it way more. It's the difference between a fist fight and a knife fight. I've gotten into plenty of the former as a young man. I've avoided the later. I could bow out of a fist fight if I needed to, it's really hard to bow out of a knife fight.

  2. In any fight you have the opportunity to change your strategy unless you are gakked so fast you don't have time to react. In fact in general once you get to lethal or weapon oriented fights tactical (action)/strategic (resource) choices are what decides winning or losing. The ability to make those strategic and tactical decisions is the point of a round based system. That said, if you're boiling combat down to one roll you can describe those failed or successful changes of tactics and stragey.

    I am a proponent of single rolls for combats that aren't the focus. I am not in favor of single roll glazing over of any action, social or combat that is vital to the plot, or the individual character in question. It doesn't increase tension, it increases disappointment when the dice decide to, for that one roll, fail. The beauty of a multiple round combat is, while it is possible to have one roll kill you, especially in something like GURPS or L5R, usually one bad roll doesn't end you, it makes it harder, it increases the tension where as in any single roll action it can not, by definition increase tension because it is the resolution.

  3. Thanks for the edit Emmet. I think I'll leave my mistake up there for all to see, but it does solve my wonder as to when Wesley did that. Oh well.

    Single rolls for all sorts of things can be good, or bad. I think I am with Atraties on this though, that if something is a big focus it shouldn't be resolved with just one die roll. Give the player a chance to get out of a bad situation should the dice turn angry.

  4. The games Shadows of Yesterday and Solar System use a system where most transactions are resolved in a single die roll, but the players (not the GM) can choose to "bring down the pain" and instead use a more drawn out resolution system, giving more of a back and forth, tactical feel to the scene.

    So Inigo vs the guards would be resolved in one roll, but the player of Beatrice could drill down and really enjoy some mook slaying.

  5. That sounds like an awesome game. I'm going to have to look into those. Thanks Steven!

  6. I'm not saying this is the right choice for every game, I'm just saying it makes building up to that point a very tense process. Being around a bunch of SCA guys for a very long time most fights can end very quickly unless the two fighters are very well balanced. I think this method is reasonably accurate although it could use a little bit of a mechanic for rolls that are close to each other and are then stalemated.

    Still, like was mentioned in the rules telling the story post, this isn't right for every game. I'd just say it fits well with my experience swinging foils, rubber knives and rattan at people.

  7. "It doesn't increase tension, it increases disappointment when the dice decide to, for that one roll, fail."

    This would be my big issue with this idea. It's all well and good to have a single roll where the player wins - but what about the single roll where they lose? What happens if Inigo fumbles that roll, and the 4 mooks pincushion him? We've all, as commented, had those desperate, down-to-the-last-few-HP fights where we pulled it out... What about the ones where we didn't? Or where we wouldn't have, but someone chose to make a sacrifice to save the rest of the group? You can't just retcon-narrate all of that into a single die roll, not and have it still be interesting. When all of those go away, the end result is even duller than spending hours of boring back-and-forth.

    I agree wholeheartedly that RPG combat needs to be streamlined, but you can overdo it. I think systems which divide opponents by importance - such as 7th Sea or Exalted - are on the right track. After all, Inigo may have dispatched the 4 guards in about 5 seconds, but how long did the duel with the six-fingered man take?

  8. The duel with Count Rugen is very different. He purposely did not kill Inigo. His goal was to watch him suffer and maybe get a little more information. His ego would not allow a quick ending otherwise he would have just stabbed Inigo until he was sure that he was dead.

    Additionally the same applies to Inigo. His goal is not to immediately kill Rugan. He has to get revenge. Revenge involves causing pain and deconstructing Rugan's ego. He can't just kill him.

    The big thing that is being missed here is that your psychology has to change with a rule change like this. I'll give you the example I know best. In the system for The Artifact character's start out with about 10-15 HP. Guns tend to do 10-20 points at point blank range. A head shot does double damage. One shot can kill or severely wound. You can only heal naturally, there is no way to get better other than days of medical care and bed rest. I allow dodging and there's plenty of armor to go around, so I'm not doing exactly what is being said here.

    What's my point? Players are far, far more careful. They rely on stealth and wits rather than brute force. They pick their battles. They worry about charging in. To me that's far more interesting than rolling a die five more times.

  9. One last thing and then I'll shut up (promise).

    This one roll rule needs two things, one as I said before, a way to stalemate. Two, a way to combine the results of rolls so that two or more characters can gang up on one. I also think that this "ganging" should also be able to be done after everyone has rolled so if you saw your buddy is about to be overwhelmed you can come to his aid. That might leave you open to attack though. I think that would allay some of the fears about the "sudden failure" problem.

  10. No need to shut up if you have something to say Emmet. I think that your example doesn't work as well for this though, because it is a multiple roll system. The combat is highly lethal, sure, but you are making an attack roll and a dodge roll for your players. So what you are actually talking about is upping the lethality (which definitely does what you say it does btw).

    This is talking about making it so there is one roll. Not a "Attack vs. Defense" roll that may end the fight, but just. You roll your combat, I roll my combat, whoever wins that one roll wins the entire fight. Like I said, it has uses, it can be good, but anything that needs focus for dramatic purposes can lose out from being covered by just one roll. Whether it is combat, social, or a bargaining roll.

  11. Your point with the duel between Inigo and Rugen is taken, but I think misses the broader point. Consider another with the same thing that removes your "whys" - the only decent part of Phantom Menace, the three-way duel at the end. Nobody was trying to wound or drag anything out there.

    Think of it in cinematic or even just raw storytelling terms. If you have a climactic action sequence, is it over in the time it takes a single d20 to hit the table? Of course not.

    The goal of action sequences in movies are to impress the viewer and convey the difficulty of the situation, likely building uncertainty about the outcome. Considering this by going back to the Princess Bride, Inigo dispatching the guards accomplishes this - Inigo is certainly impressive, and the scene conveys the difficulty (i.e. none). The duel takes far longer not because they're toying with each other, but to build dramatic tension.

    That should be the goal of RPG combat as well. In trying to fix a problem which saps dramatic tension (dull, repetitive systems) the proposal replaces it with a system that... saps dramatic tension. You can try to replace it with descriptions and narratives about the back-and-forth, but there's no real tension there. The outcome is known.

    Diceless is fine. Tactical is fine. One roll decided your fate and then spending the next ten minutes trying to come up with an interesting narrative of why the roll decided your fate... Meh.

  12. Sorry, I'm longwinded :) But I wanted to split out a response on the lethality issue.

    I think lethality in a game is great, as long as it fits, everyone knows what they're in for, and you can reasonably replace characters when they fall to it). Tribe 8 - brutal world, easy death, and the system showed it. L5R has an equally brutal system, but the world never struck me as matching that. Our first game saw two samurai killed by random bandits with bows. That doesn't feel like the way it's supposed to work, and it didn't help that the now-dead players had no idea it could happen like that.