Monday, January 9, 2017

GM 101: When To Roll Dice

Over the holidays the friend of a friend regaled a group of us with a tale of GMing woe. A friend of his wanted to GM, and so they gave him the shot. It was the person's first time, and he went through and did all the prep. The players made characters. Everyone was gathered. Things looked like they'd be good. Then, one of the players said their character went down stairs and the GM told him to roll.

Confused looks crossed the table. The GM took the stance that since the player had declared an action he had to roll to see if it succeeded. And that's what I want to talk about tonight.

A Chance of Failure
Taken as a story I bet a lot of you are groaning and thinking this is an exaggeration of "one of those" types. The roll for everything GM. I don't know if it was an exaggeration, but as I thought about the situation it became fairly clear to me what happened. This GM was following the rules of the game more or less to the letter.

Think about it, most games say that you roll dice when there is a "significant chance of failure" or when "failure would be dramatic or costly." Now, for most grown adults there isn't a significant chance of failure in going down some stairs - but if we think about it there is a chance of failure - and falling down the stairs could be both dramatic and costly.

I mean, let's face it. I've been walking for years and every now and then I misstep and trip over my own feet. I'd been using stairs for years when I managed to fall down three consecutive flights of stairs at a hotel. Thankfully I was unharmed, but I could have easily broken my neck or something.

Basically, it's not unreasonable for a literal minded person to read the rulebook and think that going down stairs is something worthy of a check. Right?

I Did It 75 Good...
I've been running L5R for years. I've been running lots of games for years actually. Some of the players in my game love rolling dice. At least, I assume they do. I assume this because when they are doing things - without me even calling for a roll - they will tell me what they got.

"I write a letter to the Lord about what happened. 34 on Calligraphy." Or "I practice the song the slave taught me. 24 on Performance: Music."

Now, it's great that I know they rolled well, but what does a 34 on Calligraphy actually represent? I mean, I can compare it against normal difficulties and target numbers and see that it is better than even a "Very Hard" challenge per the system, but what does "very hard" Calligraphy even look like? And was the character actually going for that level of ornate?

In an upcoming session of my L5R game, one of the players is making a romantic gesture to a female Scorpion he's befriended over the course of the game. The player asked me if they should roll. I gave an immediate response of "do you want to do it all in one roll, or make multiple for the size of the project?" but then I thought about it. What would a dice roll in this situation even represent? Like, can you fail at a romantic gesture? It could be taken wrong, but in this case the character is folding origami flowers and hanging them in the room. How do you fail that? Either there are flowers or there are no flowers. It doesn't matter if there is only one, a half dozen, or three hundred because the character will have the flowers. We have already established the NPC likes flowers AND Origami so those are beyond contest.

Ultimately, I decided that they didn't need to roll. They just had to put the time in.

When To Roll?
So when do you roll? Obviously I think you shouldn't be rolling for every action because of the real and dramatic chance of breaking your neck going down stairs, and against players just randomly rolling to say they did some thing X good. So when?

7th Sea is actually a great system for understanding this. Why? Because in 7th Sea any time dice are rolled there either has to be a direct opponent in the form of a villain, or consequences.

"I go downstairs" The player says. You want to make them roll? now you need to tell them what they're testing, and what the consequences are, what happens if they succeed, and any opportunities. It immediately addresses the point that the GM thinks these stairs are dangerous and could make you trip, you could take X damage, and you could paralyze yourself for life. It instantly highlights the risks.

The player roll is also solved too. "I want to write a letter to the lord. I roll dice." Well, if you're going to roll there needs to be consequences for you to buy off. So what do you see here?

Now a clever GM can come up witht hings to make these dramatically appropriate. But it also makes you think about those consequences. Pressed for time, maybe the letter keeps the player character up all night and they're exhausted the next day. If that's what you want, great. However, do you really want a simple letter about nothing to have that much impact on your game? No, well then, don't roll.

Meaning that you should roll when dramatically appropriate, like the book says, but that isn't complex enough. I can say you should roll when it has a chance to have a huge impact on the story, but that doesn't tell my friend's friend to not roll when going up or down stairs.

I can tell you you should only roll when you have a significant chance of failure, but that doesn't stop my players from rolling when trying to practice art or side things where a samurai could fail to make 200 origami roses because they only made 195.

You can combine those, that gives you roll for having an impact on the game world and also a significant chance of failure. I.E. if you are trying to mechanically (as in game mechanics) influence the world, and that attempt has a better than 25% chance of failing you should go for it.

For now that will ahve to work, but to get more into it we need to talk about what a die roll represents. We're going to do that on Wednesday.


  1. Hi AL,

    A very interesting article.

    I would require a Hero to roll for their romantic gesture towards a GMC. My experience of rolls is a little different, as my preferred system creates a graded set of outcomes, not the traditional binary ones.

    I would frame the contest to determine the response of the Scorpion GMC. Were they delighted, amused, bemused, or angered over the invasion of privacy? A big success may carry a lingering bonus to the romance, or the reverse could happen.

    There are many ways to frame the contest around the event, and the framing can lead the story in different directions.This is another area where GM experience and input has a big impact on the game.

    All the best

    1. Sorry for late response Phil. If it was a one off for the whole thing, I would probably as well. But there is more nuance in this situation.

      For starters the two characters already have a relationship. They've worked together, and against each other before. In that, it's already established the Scorpion likes both Origami and Flowers.

      There is the chance for rolls over the course of the event. Especially if the PC is trying to find information, or move their relationship along in a direction, but when it comes to the origami the only question is "can he make all the flowers in time?" in which case the answer is, does it matter?

      Does it matter if he has 295 flowers instead of 300? It's not like there is going to be a count, nor is it like they're going for the 1000 Crane make a wish. Because of that, there's no real point for rolling now. Later, maybe.

      Of course, other people are going to roll differently. I just wanted to explain my thinking as you had done the same with your own. :)

      All the best!