Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Put The Dice Down

Often times, especially when people are trying out a new game, the dice have a tendency to come out a lot. Often times when they do, the dice aren't really adding anything to the scene or to the tension. People are rolling the dice for the sake of rolling the dice, as if their character's ability to do something is so varied that at any given time they could give a performance barely acceptable for someone on their first day, or an absolutely masterful performance the likes of which even a master with 30 years of dedicated practice would be hard pressed to match.

There is no need for those dice rolls, or to call those dice rolls. Today I want to talk about that.

When To Roll
While this may vary for you based on group/game/gm/style - and that's perfectly ok - most rule books I've read are pretty clear. Dice are only supposed to enter the picture when the possibility of failure is dramatic and/or interesting. Some people take this to mean when failure is highly likely, but that leads to a lot of needless dice rolls. In my D&D game recently I simplified it for an out of combat encounter to "you only need to roll if you are going for some kind of mechanical effect."

By this I meant that the player didn't have to roll in order to entertain a crowd at an inn - they have the performer background which lets them stay for free at Inns so presumably they can do their job - but if they were looking for some specific in game effect (i.e. getting the crowd to all get up and dnace, thus giving them a way to sneak out the back door) that would require a roll.

Even this description is limited though. A player could be looking to open a locked door. Here they are trying for some mechanical effect. They want to open the door and gain access to an area currently denied them. Should they roll? Well, that depends. Are they under some sort of time constraint? Is something going to happen should they fail? If the answer to either of these is no, then there is no need for a dice roll. If the only real cost of failure is you pick your stuff up and try again, and then again, and again until you get it...well, what is the point of making the roll at all? Just go for it.

By contrast, in that same situation with the locked door, if the player needs to get through the door before the room they're in fills with lava, or a failed check is going to trigger some sort of trap, then a roll is more than appropriate.

The Cost of Dice Rolling
We use dice for dramatic moments in games but at the same time they're something of a double edged sword. Dice bring drama up when the drama is the unknown. This is why they are good in combat. It is unknown what is going to happen, how hard someone is going to get hit, and thus the dice can bring a kind of drama into the scene through the harsh reality of random chance and the fact that sometimes bad shit is going to happen.

However, dice also break tension. Specifically they break the dramatic tension found in tough decisions and strong RP. When you tell someone to roll dice you break them out of the moment, and that breaks the tension that is held in that moment.

You can see this in some combats if the GM is on a roll with narration. The situation looks bleak. The GM describes the monsters coming out of the caves and looking for blood. The situation looks hopeless. Tension mounts. The players' brains wants to know what happens next...and then the GM says to roll for initiative. In that moment the tension is gone as the mechanics of the game breaks through and what was this tense dramatic puzzle is suddenly a mechanical problem with strong set rules to deal with it.

As a GM your job is to find the balance  between the two. Only call for rolls when it is appropriate, otherwise what is the harm in letting the players feel skilled and capable?


  1. Interesting post, and I've noticed exactly the same thing earlier this week. I've been running a group for several years now. Since we're heavy on the RP and narration, the dice hardly come out, sometimes not even once during a session. Usually there's a couple of rolls but no more than that because the way the players narrate their PC's actions are more important. I still use them though. Sometimes I ask a player for a roll to figure out whether his/her action is a success or not. Often I use it in situation where the narration itself isn't enough to figure out whether an action is succesful or not. Maybe the PC struck up a conversation with an NPC I hadn't fleshed out beforehand so I need a diplomacy roll to figure out how he'll react, or something like that. I've had some bad experience with players who cheated, so I don't like using it very much just to figure out whether the PC fails or not. Now I think about it, the situations where I let my players roll the dice is mostly to get an advantage, not a failure. Also, my players can always ask for a roll if they want to speed up the game a bit or when they have difficulty with the narrative.

    But on the other hand... I ran a session last monday with four new players, none of them having played tabletop before. One of them being my SO he knew what he was getting into, but this was the first time I managed to get him in a game. And I've never had so many dicerolls in one session. I was thinking about why this was the case and I think I figured it out. The dicerolls are well, the most iconic part of tabletop RPGs. Yes, there are tabletop games where there are no dice needed at all, but they're rare. They expected to roll a lot of dice, so I let them. Also, once they figured out how the rolling worked (I set a difficulty which they needed to beat) they were instantly figuring out how they could use it to influence the game itself. Bit a case of everything being a nail when you have a hammer, but rolling so much certainly helped them to understand the game itself. Roleplaying instead of Rollplaying simply takes a lot longer to learn.

    1. That is actuyl a really awesome story. I don't see anything wrong with the new players rolling a lot either. Cutting down on dice rolls is something you learn to do with experience. Starting out, especially in your story, it sounds like they're learning how to enact their agency on the world via the dice, and in a sense that is exactly what they are supposed to do. In time that can be pared down to just letting them act in the world and finding that they only need to roll sometimes.

      Still, awesome story.