Tuesday, May 10, 2011

GM Made Rolls

Today's post is a bit of classical GM advice. No, seriously, this is something from the old days with AD&D second edition, perhaps even earlier, but it seems to get forgotten every now and then. I've been told this trick, and advised others to do this trick, more times than I can count, and yet in my current games I'm not doing it. However, the new GM that runs a game I'm in is, and well, it got me to thinking that it might be worth bringing up again for those who may not have heard it somehow.

The Trick?
The trick is easy. Quite simply, when you are GMing, make the awareness, search, and other perception rolls for your players behind your GM screen rather than having them make the rolls themselves. Done right, it doesn't even slow down the game, with the added benefits of raising the tension and allowing you a bit more freedom with the things that you want to do.

Why Do It?
Picture the following situation. You have your group walking down a hallway in the Ancient Castle of K'zak Vul. As they go down the hall, you check your notes and see that there is a secret passage that they may notice as they go by, so - being the dutiful GM that you are - you ask everyone to give you a notice roll. Unfortunately, the dice gods do not favor the PCs, and no one makes the difficulty to notice the secret door. You try to gloss over this by giving a bit more detailed description of the hall, even making up a tapestry that can be noticed by some of the players, but despite your best efforts a change has come over the players' attitudes.

So, what just happened? Well, the players were just tipped off to two things. One, there was something in the hallway that was worthy of being noticed. Two, they rolled badly and thus probably didn't make the difficulty for the check. Now, even if your players are good players and strive to not metagame, they've still got that thought inkling in the back of their head that there are hidden things in the castle. Suddenly, they're a bit more cautious, a bit more thorough. They react to mundane changes in ambiance differently. None of this is even their fault, it is simply how we as human beings start to react when we know that there is potentially something hidden just around the corner.

Now, picture it the following way. The group moves down the same hallway, and you secretly roll some dice behind your GM screen. You compare the results against your cheat sheet of their notice skill, and determine no one made the check. You describe the hall as normal, and the players go on never knowing that there was even something there to be noticed.

But They Know You Rolled Dice
One of the earliest developed counters to this technique by GMs, was the players simply paying attention to when the GM rolled dice. Like I said, this is an old technique from the bygone days of the Evil GM. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of ways that you can avoid this being a sure way to tip off your players that something is going on.

First, and this is a favorite for any GM with idle hands, just make idle die rolls behind your screen whenever you aren't doing anything in specific. Try not to be too loud with it, you don't want to distract your players after all, but once your players are used to the fact that you roll dice constantly, they have no way of knowing when it is significant and when it is not.

Second, roll ahead of time. If you've done your preparation right, you know when things are going to happen. You should know ahead of time if an enemy ninja is going to tail the PC home, and you should know ahead of time if there are hidden doors the PCs can find. So, roll for those things before it is actually going on and just make a note of it. Hell, you can even roll some of these things out before your session even starts - just be sure to account for any status modifier changes that happen in game before giving the results. My personal recommendation when rolling ahead? Do it when other dice rolling is going on. For example, if a fight is happening, and after the fight the PCs have a chance of noticing their tail or the hidden lever, than in that last round of combat make the check for the PCs. They think you're rolling combat dice, not notice checks, so no one is any the wiser.

Adding Tension
This is all well and good for reflexive things like notice and listen rolls, but what about times when the PCs are being more active in how they're handling things? Like, say for instance, if the PCs decide to ransack a room looking for hidden treasure.

Honestly, in this situation it can be better to roll for the PCs still. This may slow things down, but it also keeps the unknown as more of a quantity. There is just something inherent in human nature, something we can't turn off, that makes us more suspicious - or assured - when we know more of the factors. For example, if you have a PC roll to search a room, and he rolls a critical success and then is told he doesn't find anything, the player now "knows for a fact" that the room has nothing to hide. At the same time, if your player rolls a botch and doesn't find anything, she has reason to suspect that it is only because of her bad roll that she found nothing. (there will be more on the possible results of this phenomenon tomorrow or Thursday)

However, if you roll for them. Well, then the Player has no idea what way the dice came up. They just have the results that you gave to them. With nothing else to go on, the player's mind has no choice but to go with what you've told them. Nothing is there to color their expectations, and so things will just go on from there.

Fudging Die Rolls
The temptation may hit you while you're  rolling for your players to fudge your die rolls. Whether this is in or against their favor, I recommend against doing it. Why? Because if you're just going to give them the win, or the loss, then what is the point of having them rolled in the first place? Sure,  it may look fair, but it is also a waste of time. So, if you're going to just fudge a roll so that the person who did the best notices something, then just give that person the information. If you're going to fudge it so the players can't spot their tail, then 1) re-evaluate what is going on with the tail that you are giving it an auto-win and 2) don't waste time giving them a roll that can't win anyhow.

Basically, if you're going to roll the dice for noticing something, then let the dice determine who notices things.

C'est Finis
That's it for this blog. Have any comments, insight, or advice on making the rolls for your players? Sound off in the comments below.


  1. I used to recommend doing this but over the years I've found it difficult to do. It depends greatly on how pragmatic your players are. Do they believe that they have an influence on dice rolls? A lot of players do and when you roll for them and they fail a roll, they get upset. On the other hand, if a player is the logical sort they are fine with other people rolling for them. It's really interesting how a lot of players will react to another player saying "go ahead and roll for me". They act as if you just let the air out of the game. Like you just made a ancient kung-fu master in china that talks like a surfer and named him Al.

    So yes, I understand the utility of rolling for the characters but players may not agree. Maybe if you discuss things before hand and the players agree that it would make the game better?

    Now heres a thought that ties in with one of the points above. Instead of having the players roll when they're supposed to notice something, have them roll before, maybe even rolling all their perception checks for key events at the beginning. They'll know there are things to notice but not have a clue when they missed.

  2. That is another solution to the problem. Honestly, I've never had a person gripe at the GM rolling notice tests for them, but I'm sure it does happen.

    Rolling before hand for the entire scene could work, "this is your baseline notice for the tunnel", but then can run into the problem of over emphasizing that one roll. Though, you could just do multiple rolls ahead of time too I suppose, and then refresh them.

    All good ideas :)

  3. If you are going to roll ahead of time, an alternate thing to do is to have each player give you a variety of rolls before the session starts on a piece of paper. Then when you need to make a check, just reference the appropriate roll they have given you instead of referencing your rolls. That keeps the player interested instead of thinking they don't have any influence.

  4. @Darren: Right, that's what I was thinking. Just failed to write it properly. Thanks.

  5. While this won't work for everyone... if you have a smartphone with a dice roller app, just set up a dice pool for your PCs and use that to roll. No noisy dice, just one button push and no one knows you even did it.

    For example, I'm running a Pathfinder game for two PCs. I have a dice roller that rolls 2d20. Let's say I get an 8 and a 12. The 8 is for PC one, the 12 for PC 2, I add their individual modifiers and I'm done. 2 seconds.

    I still use this method (rolling for PCs) when they are doing "exploration" style, but I do allow them to roll their own when they are Actively Searching. It does still have the effect you mention, but since they can't change the outcome, I describe that "feeling of frustration, that you might be missing something..." I have that all the time in real life...

  6. I like that idea Rhetorical, just giving the feeling for it and going on.

    Same with pre-rolling a number of things at once.

  7. The problem I have had, in the past, with rolling certain types of tests for the players is that it starts sliding into a gray area as to which rolls to make.

    While I agree that the random search/spot checks should probably be 'unknown' to the player, what about:

    bluff/sense motive - knowing the die roll here is a bit of a give-away as to whether the player rolled poorly and the mark is "just playing along" or whether it went well and you really changed their mind.

    heal/treat injury - did you roll poorly or is the wound really that bad that you can't treat it?

    how about attack rolls - is the enemy that tough/armored/dodgy or did you just roll really poorly on your attack?

    Once I put some thought into this, I started going back and having the players make all of their own rolls. Sometimes I have them roll a batch of such rolls at the start of game (if it's a d20 game I just have them make the d20 roll and I reference the specific stat at the time it comes up - if it's something else I'll likely have a series of different rolls for them to make)

    Most of the time, though, I just have them roll in game when they do something. They know that if they screw up the roll, they're stuck with the result unless there is something that happens IN GAME that would trigger a re-roll (such as new information, a good reason to believe there -is- something to find, etc)

  8. For lying, if the player says they're actively scrutinizing, I let them roll. If not, I'd probably tend to do a private roll like this. Though, when I ran FRO, in some scenes I"d have the player roll the social rolls at the beginning or end of the scene, then give the nuances they picked up.

    Medicine, I'm not sure of. For combat, for speed I leave the dice with my players. However, our group has a house rule that you don't get to know an enemy's DC until you've tried to hit them at least once, or otherwise seen them fight. In some fights we've done it that you don't get to know until you actually hit, but that can be a bit weird when you factor in other modifiers.