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.

Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will, Part 2

In Part I, I described an extended analogy using (good) roleplaying games as an example of the compatibilist school of thought on free will. But why does it matter?

Our understanding of free will informs almost every other aspect of our theology. For a human being to be culpable for wrongdoing, he must have free will. This is a basic aspect of our criminal justice system and the same principle holds true for the cosmic importance of sin. Our understanding of the purpose and direction of Creation rests in part on our belief about how and how often God directly intervenes in our lives. Differing views about the cause of events—randomness, directly controlled by God or something in between—influence our understanding of theodicy. More important, perhaps, than all of these, our understanding of free will tells us something about our own place in Creation and about our personal relationships with God.

So why do I feel so strongly about the analogy presented in the previous post on this subject? Like all good analogies, I think roleplaying games show us something about a doctrine of free will that we might otherwise miss. It is not simply that the roleplaying game correlates with a compatibilist doctrine of free will and that makes so much sense to me, it’s what the game shows us about that doctrine.

Here it is: a compatibilist view of free will has a strong component of relationship when there is a being, a personality, behind the deterministic force. The Player and the GM may at times be opposed, but they are always together, negotiating a narrative through mutual agency and response. A good GM, much of the time, need not determine the course of the story—all she has to do is respond to the actions of the Player Characters by determining the logical consequences of those actions—in the physical location (or even the physics of) the game world or in the relationships between Player Characters and Non-Player Characters controlled by the GM.

It’s important to keep and mind that, when responsive determination of cause and effect is the GM’s role, that’s not determinism, at least not directly. We might attribute some determinism to the nature of the rules themselves as they provide the boundaries of possibility, but that’s something we can discuss in a later post. That is an impersonal determinism.

What’s fascinating here are those times when the GM decides that the Players will experience a certain event or encounter a certain character—here, the GM is making a conscious choice (stemming largely from personality) that allows the GM to directly determine his interaction with the Players. It’s a set-up to be sure, but a fundamental one when there are both free agents (the Players and their characters) and an consciousness in control of the game world.

Within a scene, both the Players and the GM (and the mechanics) work to determine what happens. The best GMs sometimes “fudge” the results, occasionally ignoring the dice (or whatever other action-resolution system is in place) and determines himself what happens. The very best GMs are able to keep the players completely oblivious about when this does or does not occur. This is determinism to be sure, but when used sparingly it is a powerful determinism that nevertheless preserves the power of Player’s choices. There must be trust between Player and GM that the other is “playing fair” and preserving free will (and not cheating the rules). Here both free will and determinism play important roles.

With all of this, the roleplaying lays out for us the why of compatibilism being the best school of thought for the Christian. It preserves God’s ultimate sovereignty, maintains the dignity and freewill of man and, most important, builds relationship between the two as they co-create narrative. Ours is a God of relationship—even the trinity points to this. Why would God not, then, write the rules of the universe in such a way that relationship remains the focus?

Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will, Part I

In this post, I’m going to use an analogy (or set of analogies) to describe the various philosophical schools of thought on free will. Being a nerd and avid gamer, I’m of course going to find that analogy in the world of gaming. Specifically, in that corner of the gaming world that is possibly the nerdiest (and also my favorite): roleplaying games (RPGs). Here, I mean RPGs that are played with pen, paper and dice (or some other mechanic) in a face-to-face situation—not video games that would be classified as falling in the “RPG” genre.

If you’re not sure how a roleplaying game works, I’ve written a basic explanation here.

Here begins the analogy:

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that written literature represents pure determinism (at least when you are the reader). The story is already set, the characters are going to take the actions that they have been written to take, and you’re just along for the ride.[1]

On the other end of the spectrum is when you tell a story to others and have no set requirements about the content or nature of the story. This is pure free will. No outside force determines the course of the story and no logic need constrain your characters; you are the sole captain of your ship.

Somewhere between pure determinism and pure free will, things get interesting. Here we find a debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The latter believe that any element of determinism destroys the existence of free will, while the former believe that some determinism and some freedom of will can peacefully and logically co-exist.

In a RPG, the GM is a little microcosm of a god, though GMs who take this seriously usually fail to keep in mind that they’re playing a game that the Players are there to have fun, and that being forced to act out a story over which they have no control is neither fun nor interesting. Players generally call GM behavior that forces them down an inevitable story arc “railroading.”

When a GM railroads his players, they may be choosing their actions, but the consequences of their actions will always lead to the same result. The meaningfulness of choosing is lost; only the illusion of meaningful choice remains. Don’t look at the man behind the curtain or that illusion will itself disappear.

Railroading in a RPG, then, represents something more akin to the deterministic nature of Fate in Greek theatre—the characters seem free to do what they want, but they will always reach the same result no matter what they do—just ask Oedipus. Like Greek tragedy, this is depressing; it’s only real meaning is the paradigm’s tautology that Fate is unavoidable, so no matter what you do, you cannot avoid Fate.

Both Greek tragedy and poorly-run RPGs represent incompatibilist theory—it’s plain to see here how the determinism of the situation makes the existence of the remaining modicum of free will ultimately meaningless.

Roleplaying games, when run by a skilled GM, fall firmly into the compatibilist free-will philosophy. There are some—indeed, many—things outside of a Player Character’s control. From the very conception of a game, the determination of the setting to be used for the game naturally precludes certain options for characters, both ontological and practical. Once the game begins, at least some of the events that occur are predetermined by the GM.[2] What has happened before the game begins, for instance, is usually dictated solely by the GM.

Once the story begins, however, the Players and their characters have true agency. When a PC acts, he has the capacity to enact change in the (fictional) world around him. The things he does influence the story in a tangible way as the GM incorporates the results of the character’s actions into the plot and narrative as they progress.

What we end up with is a back-and-forth, a give-and-take between Players and GM where both influence the course of the story. Determinism—the actions of the GM in setting the stage for the characters’ actions—and free will—the actions of the characters in pushing the story along—live side by side and feed off of one another. This scenario is clearly the most meaningful. We’ll explore why in the next post.

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[1] I understand that many writers, myself included, would argue that a story takes on a life of its own during its creation and wanders in directions we never initially considered. Nevertheless, once put down, the story is immutable.

[2] It has become popular in the last decade to focus on building narrative in an RPG and, thus, to foster “collaborative storytelling,” in which the players have greater control over the story in a more cooperative relationship with the GM. Even games without such a focus have become less “adversarial” in their depiction of the relationship between GM and players. Nevertheless, the analogy for our purposes focuses on the situation where the GM has ultimate narrative authority but allows the actions of the characters to alter the story as it moves forward.