Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Reducing Die Rolls - Part 2

Yesterday I talked about how I want to reduce the amount of die rolls I call in my games. To begin the discussion, I laid out what I wanted die rolls to be (representations of times when failure is possible and dramatic), and what criteria I intend to use to determine if a certain situation falls under that criteria. Today I intend to talk about how I hope to do this, and what I hope to get out of it.

Important Information
This one is fairly specific, but have you ever been GMing and called for a notice roll when the information about to be gleamed was something of importance for a scene? For example, you have the group roll to see who hears a scream coming from inside the building. I do this all the time, but the problem is that this is literally a nothing roll. See, no matter what someone is going to hear the scream, even if it is only the person who rolled the highest. So why don't I just give the information over to someone? If someone has something like "Keen Hearing" or a really high perception/notice, than they should hear it. Otherwise, just pick someone at random (perhaps the person sitting their quietly while everyone else discusses how to break in?) and tell them what is going on. This removal of die rolls keeps things going, keeps the focus on what is important (how the players react to that scream for example), and is the core of what I am talking about today.

The best way to reduce die rolls is to simply say yes to your players. This is a good rule for GMing in general, but what you are doing here is a bit stronger. When a player asks something, or says they're doing something (i.e. I jump to the next building) you take a second and assess your criteria. In my case I determine how likely the player is to fail (their relevant skill/attribute versus the difficulty of the roll) and the situation at hand (does it really matter if they succeed/fail here?) and base my answer off that. If they have a good chance at success, and/or it doesn't really matter, then instead of going "roll athletics." I can simply say, "yes." If I'm feeling particularly GM-ie, maybe I give them a description of how they do it.

Reasonable Expectations
The key to this that players have to understand is that what they're asking for also has to be reasonable. My saying 'yes' to reduce die rolling isn't a license for the player to go nuts with things. For example, someone with no strength/athletics can't establish a baseline of expectation by constantly jumping from building to building across streets when it isn't important just to have it there. Why? Because you can not reasonably expect your non-athletic character to be able to do that. This basically falls under the "This Is What I Do" rule, but it is also just common sense. Basically, I'm trying to streamline the game, not give players a free ticket to be jerks.

That's Not Fair!
Do you remember the Steve and Sasha example from yesterday? If not, it basically is this. In some situations some players will have to roll dice, while others do not. This may seem unfair to some players who want to know why they have to roll dice to see if they hurt themselves, while the other person doesn't. First off, before you ask, less people rolling dice does go faster at most groups. Second off, the way to defeat this is to explain the reasoning (Sasha's +20 means she succeeds on a 3+ on that D20. You need a 15+ to do it) and make sure that you don't always end up waving Sasha having to roll and making Steve roll. In much the same way of moments of cool, these moments of automatic success should also be getting spread around. There simply should be a time when Steve's awesome computer skills means that he just gets a hand waive to hack into somewhere and do the awesome.

Will Not Can
What do I truly hope to get out of this? Honestly, I hope to get stronger stories with faster play and a greater emphasis on the characters and their choices. Every time a die roll comes into play you are making it a question of "can I?" As in, "Can I jump across that gap?" "Can I hack into that server?" "Can I shoot this guy?" What I want though, is for the focus to be on questions of "Will I?" As in, "Will I hack into that server to get this data," "will I shoot this guy for lying to me," or "will I jump across that road to escape these guards?"

Questions of "can I?" have their place, and they should be used to arbitrate what is going on when failure is bad. However, keeping the focus on "Will I?" not only keeps things moving, but it keeps the focus on what and who the character is, not what they are mechanically capable of doing. After all, what is more likely to be talked about down the road? That time that Bob rolled a nat 20 at just the right time to save the day? Or the fact that that fight began because Bob told the demon prince to go eff himself?

The Danger
There is one bit of danger here that I want to touch on. In focusing on the Will and not the Can, and if you hand waive too many rolls, you may shift the game on a fundamental level away from what your group wants. After all, there are games out there where you roll for narrative control, and your group may have actively chosen to not do that. So find a balance, and remember that the dice should come out when failure is dramatic and possible. So that big car chase to escape the big bad before the nuke goes off? Die rolls, totally for sure. But that set up scene? Not as important.

I'll let you know how it goes, but please sound off if you have any experiences with trying to do similar things. Tricks that works? Pitfalls you found along the way? Sound off in the comments below.


  1. The jumping across rooftops thing had me thinking about failures that the PCs just try again with no consequence. So, if the player rolled to jump across one roof to the next and failed and survived, he'd likely, knowing my players, just try again. "I go back to the roof and try again." That's always annoyed me so much and I think this is a good way to get rid of that.

    I've always used it for things that don't really matter, where there is not possibility of failure or where failure is very unlikely. Like in your hearing the scream example. That's a situation where I wouldn't have asked for a roll, simply because one of the PCs would have heard it anyway.

    I guess the only problem I can see showing up, at least I know it would be a problem with my group, is when the automatic successes begin to mean nothing to the players. So, they start to see things like hacking a computer as something unimportant or something like that. I can play it out in my head. Maybe you've planned something that the group will succeed at, but you've planned for three ways to go about succeeding. Knowing that he can almost always just simply hack a computer, your player does that to succeed and none of the players considers any other option. Now, repeat that over and over until that becomes the main way of solving problems because they see it as an automatic success. Something like that. Suddenly, your players aren't thinking out of the box and things become stale.

    Maybe it wouldn't get so extreme, but that's how I see it playing out and how I see my players doing it if I brought it fully into our games. That's why I usually keep my automatic successes either limited or hidden behind making them roll the dice.

  2. Something I'm considering, but isn't in this post, is that when giving an automatic success I'll ask the player how they're doing it.

    So for the hacking example, you give them three choices. I.E. "Are you going to spoof an admin account to get in, overload the login server and slip through a crack, or hack a real person's account?" Then, based off what they choose (with each having different levels of speed) I can give them their consequences.

    You are right that you can't use this to take away all risk though. The idea is just to focus on when the risk is dramatic. And also, sometimes when things aren't being rolled for, the bad guys may notice things as well to keep things interesting.

  3. ...when giving an automatic success ask the player how they're doing it.

    You could combine two game techniques into one and do the following:

    The more detailed the description the more successful (and rewarding) the automatic success yields.

    So, as an example, if the player's character is chasing a bad guy across the skyline and the player simply states their character jumps across the rooftop it happens.
    But as the player adds detail to their description, perhaps you give them some reward such as the bad guy trips or stumbles and the gap between the two closes.

    The result of the combined technique is that it grants narrative control in exchange for bonuses.

  4. That's a really good idea, Kevin. It also helps get the players involved in playing up the tension drama in a scene. As a "I go after him!" is ok, but a "I chase after him, jumping through the window to try and cut off some distance" can really add to the scene.

  5. My concern with the more detailed and reasonable the description the more likely they are to succeed is the same problem I have with "Just talk it out" in social skill situations. It favors people who are more charismatic, and better speakers. I've seen exactly that mechanic in Exalted for combat, the cooler the description the more bonuses you got, and it led to some people always getting +2 dice, some people usually getting +1s, and some people getting nothing. There's a reason for dice rolling, and if there's a chance of a failure or success having any significant effect at all I think there should be a roll.

  6. My take on what Kevin said is that the description would come into play after you've already decided if they were going to have to roll or not for the feat they were doing.

    If a roll is involved, the dice should trump everything (except, possibly, GM fiat.)

  7. Exactly. Here's a generic example:

    * The Player decides to do action X and indicates so.
    * The GM decides, and everyone agrees that the action isn't significant enough, or isn't being opposed enough, to warrant a die roll and tells the player that success is assured.
    * THEN the GM offers the player an opportunity to detail the action with the understanding that additional details MAY yield some bonus.
    * The Player either chooses to leave the action general and without detail (and forgo any bonus) or they describe the action in greater detail and possibly, but not assuredly, get a minor bonus to the result of the action.

    The reason for the "MAY get a bonus" concept is to give the GM reign to grant bonuses on a sliding scale.