Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reducing Die Rolls - Part 1

This is something I've been trying to work on in my games of late, and to be honest I've actually been failing pretty miserably of late at it. My hope with this entry is to have it written down, and thus thought out, so that I can keep that in mind the next time I'm GMing. If along the way I point out something to help you with running your game as well then the more the merrier, right? So, let's take a look at what die rolls we can just cut out of our games.

The Problem With Die Rolls
Before we can begin cutting die rolls out of the game, or more specifically lowering the number of die rolls we call for in our games, we need to know what it is about die rolls that we don't like. For me, it is the fact that (in my opinion) every time a die roll is called for it breaks character. Maybe it doesn't break mood or tension, but by calling for a die roll I have just asked my players to step out of their character and do some metagame number crunching.

This can be seen most acutely in combat where intensive die rolling keeps people from role playing because time has been segmented down so firmly. Sure, some groups get around this, but the play is definitely lessened than when there are no die rolls going on. Now, I could go on about the reasoning for why this happens, but for the purposes of this post it isn't necessary.

What Are Rolls For?
The second thing I need to do is identify what I think die rolls are for. This will give me the focus and a metric to compare against for when to call for a die roll. Now, at their most basic level, die rolls are supposed to be used whenever there is a chance of failure. Basically, if it isn't a sure thing that a character can succeed at something you roll dice and find out. However, over the course of a session there are a lot of things that a player can attempt to do that might fail, but the failure is unimportant; or where the chance of failure is small. I mean, do you call for a roll when the chance of failure is 5%? How about 10, 15, 25, or 30 percent?

So what do I want? I want die rolls to be used when there is a significant chance of failure, and that failure would be dramatic or in some way add to the story. So a check where failure could lead to character death (i.e. jumping across a river of molten lava) would likely have a roll, while a check to see if someone got their pants wet while jumping across a shallow stream wouldn't need one. Obviously, both may have situations where that changed, but you get the idea.

Chance of Failure
I know what I want rolls to mean, and part of it is hinged on a chance of failure. So how much of a chance of failure do I need? To be honest, I don't want to get into percentages, so let's look at it this way. If the PC would have to roll exceptionally poorly to fail a check, it probably isn't worth slowing things down with a die roll. So, let's keep it at that for now. This means that the "this is what I do" rule can be in effect.

This Is What I Do
What is this rule? Basically, almost every PC has something that they do well. One character may be great at dueling, another at smithing, and a third at explosives. That is something that that character does. It is their area of focus, and they reliably roll well (or at least bring a lot of dice/bonuses to bear on the roll.) This means that, unless the situation is tense or otherwise have the drama/tension high, you probably shouldn't have these characters roll for their area of expertise. This generally works with the chance of failure roll, but can also just work for things where you expect the PC to be able to handle it fine. After all, if you expect the PC to be able to overcome the obstacle, why have them roll?

For example, let's go back to that jumping over a river of lava example and two different characters: Sasha and Steve. Sasha is a thief who does parkour, she has a high athletics, decent strength, and a good agility. She also regularly performs acrobatic feats of daring do. Steve on the other hand is a computer geek without much athletics, strength, or agility. Over the course of the adventure, Sasha and Steve come across this river of lava and have to make a go at it. Sasha is expected to succeed, athletics is what she does after all and the TN isn't very high. Meaning there isn't really any point to calling a roll for her. Steve on the other hand has a decent chance of failing, and this is somewhere where he is weak. More to the point, the injuries sustained by being burned would make things harder and up the tension down the line. Making him make a die roll is more than fair and justified here.

To Be Continued...
With that I've established the criteria and reasoning for what I want to determines calls for a die roll. To sum up, I want die rolls to represent times when failure is more than a rare possibility, the character is not expected to be able to succeed, and failure would be dramatic in some way. Tomorrow, I will go over the ways I intend to try and implement this in my games, as well as some issues I can see coming up from this and what I hope to gain.

As always, if you have an opinion on this matter, sound off in the comments. You never know who your view point might help.


  1. Sounds good in general, but many games have rules for Critical Failures. This is often a balancing factor against situations where the character can succeed 95% of the time, but you want there to still be some tension - for example, a highly skilled gambler that can usually win with ease should still have that slim chance of losing it all.
    Plus, as a player, I would have a bit of problem with this. Suppose I were Steve's player in your example, and you are forcing me to make a roll to see whether my character is horribly wounded but saying Sasha automatically succeeds. Now I roll a d20 and get a 1 - Steve is toast! Sure, maybe that's what he deserves - but Sasha would also have fallen with that same roll. The only thing that saved her from Steve's fate is the GM arbitrarily stating that she would succeed no matter what.
    Yes, I know some people are going to say "but Sasha's player might not have rolled a 1". Eventually she would, though. And if you say the character succeeds without having to roll, that is statistically the same as saying the character would have succeeded even if they rolled a 1 (imagine that the player is rolling a die anyway just for the heck of it).

  2. Actually, a lot of what you are talking about is stuff I'm going to address tomorrow. I also don't expect this to work for every game. Some people want rolls for everything, I personally am trying to reduce it a bit.

    Also, while a lot of systems do have rules for botches, many are also moving away or giving the players rerolls. Essentially things to mitigate whiffing on rolls you're supposed to be good at.

    Still you bring up valid concerns that people need to be aware of before just doing this willy nilly on their game.