Monday, November 30, 2015

Rolling when it matters

Just a brief thought today, occasioned by Doug:

When you roll the dice, make it matter

Pretty much, that. Especially this:

"But bringing out the dice should either mean enabling something good, or inflicting/avoiding something bad. Otherwise, just keep moving."

What I said in the comments way:

"Yeah, this. Roll when success matters and/or failure matters. Preferably both. If nothing interesting can come of the roll, skip it. And if something interesting should come regardless of the roll, just go with that."

The first part is pretty self-explanatory - use the dice to settle things that could go either way, when having them go one way or the other has consequences.

This means:

- no "roll until you succeed" rolls unless the number of rolls matters (time costs, energy costs, consequences outside of the roll itself.)

- no "roll until you fail" for the same reasons. If you've got 100 death checks to make, you're going to die. But if it matters how far you get before you die, well, get rolling. Maybe you'll hold on long enough.

- ideal rolls are interesting no matter what happens - they're determining which of a range of interesting outcomes will occur.

But that second bit needs a little explanation, I think.

It boils down to don't roll when only one interesting possibility exists. Don't roll for Wandering Monsters if the game will be far better if something shows up - just have it happen. Chandler didn't roll to see if a gunman would burst in and give Marlowe the business and advance the plot from a stuck point. You don't have to either. Just make it happen.

If the bad guy falls off the cliff and his dying or surviving both have cool outcomes, roll. If only him living has a cool outcome, just select that. And vice-versa.

That way you get a nice mix of narrative interest (of course the daughter of the evil high priest has a weakness for one of the party members, don't make a reaction roll!) and random effect (and that party member is [roll, roll] the horrifyingly ugly half-orc assassin!)

Remember that dice are tools. Die rolls are tools. Rolling the dice doesn't commit you to accepting their outcome (although general, it's worth doing so.) And having dice doesn't commit you to using them to determine everything. Keep it moving, keep it interesting, and use die rolls as a tool. Bust them out when it matters, not just because you've used them in that situation in the past.

Nothing new there, but I felt like I needed to get that out in words.


  1. On 'no roll until you succeed'; the thing that always gets me is why no one seems to get the idea of 'the roll determines how long it takes.'

    Figure out your roll without figuring in extra time bonuses, compare your roll with that. Figure out what amount of time would have been sufficient to do it, and it took that long.

    Miss the roll by one, and taking double time would have given you +1? It took twice as long as normal.

    I don't get why this isn't a common GM technique, and I don't get why I've never seen a game where this is explicitly the way to figure out how long a character takes to do a task when there is no immediate pressure.

    1. Yes! This is just what I was doing in my GURPS demo game on Saturday, and I think it makes a lot of sense with long uncertain tasks (e.g. cracking a bit of encrypted text, or fixing computer problems). Maybe you'll hit on the right approach straight off, but you'll get there eventually anyway.

    2. I sort of do this. For example, in D&D there is the common stuck door scenario. Every group I've played in has treated the open doors roll as success or failure and on a failure they roll again...until they succeed. What's the point? When I run games I ask "do you want to give it a quick try or do you want the door open no matter what?" If they want it open then a success means "right away and mostly quietly" and a failure means "after a few tries and loud enough to alert dungeon denizens" (and I roll for wandering monsters immediately). Such a system of rolls meaning success vs "success BUT..." is much more entertaining than when rolls are just success vs failure with no consequences.


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