A Short(ish) Note on Rolling Dice (in RPGs)

This morning, I’m re-reading through the Sixth World Beginner’s Box for Shadowrun 6th Edition to write a short review as a prelude to a full review when the core book releases. As I’m reading through, comparing to other roleplaying games, and thinking about the mechanics and systems that make our games run, a thought occurs to me.

We need a paradigm shift on dice rolling. For some of you, particularly those who play more narratively-styled games, this is likely already part of your repertoire, and a number of games that have been out for quite some time make a point of this explicitly, or at least imply it heavily. Others may say, “yeah, that’s not necessarily in the rules, but it’s the heart of ‘Old School’ gaming.” But I think that the approach I’m about to describe (wait for it!) should apply to all roleplaying games, because it’s fundamental and universal to the way stories are told.

Dice should only be rolled with the result increases drama and drives the story forward. Seems simple, right? But if it’s so simple, why do games keep using a different formulation, one that goes something like this: “Easy, mundane or routine tasks do not require a roll. Complex or more difficult actions do.”

If you want to lean heavy on the simulationist side of the GNS theory (and if that’s what’s fun for you, I’m not going to say you’re doing it wrong!), then this formulation does make some sense.

But from the standpoint of telling a story–even if aspects of that story are governed by intricate and complex systems to govern outcomes–the difficulty of a task is not the standard by which we should determine whether to pick up the dice. Novels and short stories often compress into tiny fractions of the narrative those tasks which, while difficult, are necessary to the story but not terribly interesting to focus on. Perhaps the epitome of this approach is the oft-maligned (and oftener-used) “montage” of film fame. The training or preparation depicted in the montage is crucial to understanding where the narrative goes next (or explaining why it goes where it goes), but it’s not where we want to spend our time. Rocky immediately comes to mind, right? All that training that the eponymous character does provides context and justification for everything that comes after, but if the film had two hours of watching Stallone work out as “character development,” many of us would never make it to the story’s climax.

Dice rolling should be treated similarly, and the best example I can give in practice is the Gumshoe system and its treatment of investigation. In an investigation adventure arc, the discovery of the clues to move the plot forward is essential and integral to the success of the story (unless the investigation is a side-story which will turn up again whether or not the characters are successful). Therefore, the characters must succeed at discovering the crucial facts, though it’s just fine if they don’t discover all of the available clues.

If you predicate the discovery of clues on successful dice rolls placing difficulty as the first concern, you get a realistic approach to be sure–but plenty of mysteries are never solved, and that’s just not interesting in a roleplaying game when the mystery serves as the main plot! So, as Gumshoe suggests, don’t roll the dice–just give the players the core clues in ways that match the particular characters’ skills and backgrounds. Sure, you can let them roll (or, as in Gumshoe, let them spend character resources) to gather additional helpful but non-essential clues, but we don’t want to hide the narrative ball (as it were) or put our foot on it to stop it altogether.

This goes well beyond investigation, though, and applies to all types of actions and scenes. Do the characters need to scale that castle wall–no matter how difficult–for the next central plot point to occur? Then success cannot be predicated on a roll of the dice, and the GM shouldn’t put himself in the situation where s/he must fudge the roll or the story hits an impasse.

There are plenty of narrative ways to keep these challenges interesting to the players (and GM), and we can return to the montage for one example. In our scaling the castle wall, maybe the characters need some manner of assistance to do it, so it’s not about a roll of the dice but the proper preparation. This may be as simple as having the players come up with a feasible strategy and concomitant preparation and having that influence the description of the ascent. The obstacle could simply require the expenditure of some character resource (to represent the difficulty) without being predicated on a dice roll. Or, you could make them do the legwork of the preparation as dedicated scenes in the adventure (if interesting), and have these subtasks involve dice-rolling, so long as the last feasible strategy available to the characters automatically succeeds (otherwise you’ve just move the same problem to a different location in the narrative).

Whether in the GM’s section of an RPG book, or in the growing number of books about the craft of GMing, it’s an axiom that a good GM will give each character (and therefore player) a chance to “shine” and take center-stage in the narrative for a bit of awesomeness. If there’s a challenging task in the characters’ way that must be successfully resolved, consider dictating that one of your player characters is able to accomplish it readily because of particular skills, backgrounds, or other character traits that make the character especially suited to success.

You could also use the “failure at a cost” principle on rolls that must succeed to drive the story forward. Rolling the dice isn’t about the success of the roll, but about the severity of the cost of that success. See the Powered by the Apocalypse games for an example of this principle writ mechanically. Like Gumshoe, though, the principle can be applied to any roleplaying game whether or not codified in the mechanics.

My key concern in this rant (which is already longer than I’d originally intended) is to decide when to roll the dice based on when doing so pushes the players toward the edge of their seats, not the objective/realistic difficulty of a task at hand. Choosing when to roll the dice is like zooming in the camera–you’re telling the players, “here’s where the story gets interesting.” Always make good on that promise!

There’s a corollary to that–always have a back-up plan when you roll the dice. If you’ve asked your players to roll, there ought to be an interesting result no matter how the dice fall. If there’s not, consider avoiding the roll altogether and simply dictating the interesting result.

At this point, if you’re working out in your head some criticism about player agency, let me address you specifically (I’m tempted to put a random name here in hopes of blowing the mind of some fortuitous reader, but I’ll not). Player agency is not an absolute in a roleplaying game (just as it’s not in real life); it ebbs and flows and is often a “negotiation” between player and GM. Sometimes the characters have more ability (and therefore agency) to freely respond to a situation than others. And the dice are not the only mechanism of player agency–far from it. On top of those points, most players intuitively understand the idea that their character’s agency changes from scene to scene and will accept that without complaint. Problems arise when (the lack of) player agency gets pushed beyond the breaking point and players feel “railroaded” or as (unwilling) participants in a story told solely by the GM. There is a great distance between dictating the occasional outcome without resort to the dice and reaching this point. If you’re basing dice rolls on drama anyway, you’re going to blow past the dictated results to focus on the times when the players have the greatest amount of agency in the story (and thus drama is at its peak). That’s the whole point.

I’m going back to my reread of the Beginner’s Box to hopefully get my pre-review up this morning as well. Rant over.

One thought on “A Short(ish) Note on Rolling Dice (in RPGs)

  1. […] A Short(ish) Note on Rolling Dice (in RPGs) @ Faith, Fiction & Fatherhood – The author of this post gives a long(ish) and thoughful speel about dice and the throwing thereof in RPGs.  I agree in principle, that a dice roll is like the camera zooming in on a player and that they should create tension.  It’s an interesting read, and I’m looking forward to also reading the author’s thoughts on the Shadowrun starter set – the products that triggered these musings. […]

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