GM Radio Rob explores the challenge of dice rolling in role playing games and asks some tricky questions for the avid gamer.
For as long as I’ve been in the RPG hobby, there’s been one question that’s bothered both myself and many other gamers:
When do you roll the dice?
Dice are a key component of the vast majority of roleplaying games. Generally, they’re used whenever a player wants their character to use one of their skills or abilities; typically, they will total the numbers provided by an ability, an applicable skill, any equipment being used, the near environment and one or more dice; if the total equals or exceeds a number defined by the rules or chosen by the game master, the attempt succeeds.
As a result, dice are a core part of the RPG community’s collective lore. Jokes are told about appeasing the dice gods, or how the dice are out to get us. Many gamers fetishise dice, forking out obscene amounts of cash for custom and/or pretty ones. Some games even include dice with custom faces.
Yet more than a few gamers look down on the involvement of dice in a roleplaying game. They see dice and the complex rules they’re often associated with as antithetical to creating stories of drama or just getting lost in the shared imaginary world that the group creates together.
Even if you don’t adhere to one extreme, you may find yourself asking: Just when do you take the dice out? For everything? I remember a friend in high school questioning the Palladium system as presented in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness: “So, my Driving skill means I only have a sixty-six percent chance of starting my car?”
Then there’s the dreaded “Whiff” factor (also known as The Wil Wheaton Dice Curse, or Storking it): the idea that even when you design a character who is, by how the game rules define a player character’s abilities, exceedingly competent, perhaps even The World’s Best in the thing the player does (that’s likely not very nice), the randomness of die-rolling may lead to a character who fails vastly more often than succeeds. When does the character’s competence get to shine without the risk of the dice making the character look like a clueless dork? (“Natural one. Natural one. ANOTHER fucking natural one…”)
Complicating this further is that each set of RPG rules often has its own recommendations on when to let the dice decide what happens next. They make proclamations like “save them for when it’s important”, or “roll when success or failure are both equally interesting”, or “say dice or roll yes” (sorry, Vincent.)
As a game master myself, I’ve put a non-trivial amount of time into considering this. And, friends, I reckon I’ve finally hit upon an answer that works:
When you’re playing in an RPG, unless you’re doing an absolute, boiled-down dungeon crawl where you’re kicking doors down, killing stuff and taking their monsters, you’re adventuring in a world where Someone – maybe even several Someones – are about to do something. If they aren’t interrupted, the thing those Someones do is going to change the world for the worse. No one else is available to prevent that from happening. If people you care about are doing okay, they will suffer. If suffering is already around, those close to you are about to suffer more (think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games when her sister’s name is drawn out of the lottery).
What can you do? Well, you can stand back and let it happen. There’s no risk that you’ll screw anything up, and you also won’t come to the notice of the Someones in question, who are likely powerful enough to make your day quite uncomfortable. Or you can step forward and intervene, interfere. But that, friend, means you have to pick the dice up. Suddenly, failure – or success, but at a significant cost – is on the table. And while the result of failure, or the cost of success, may not be the worsened world that would have come about otherwise, you’ve likely come to the attention of the Someones, who now probably view you as a threat to their plans and will start acting directly against you – maybe not now, maybe not even soon, but their retribution is coming. And at each step along the way, the game master will place the dice before you. What will you let happen by leaving them as they are, and for what will you pick them up and roll?
Dice Vs. Whiff: When Not To Put The Dice Down in Front Of Players
The above notwithstanding, there are situations when the game master is likely best to not ask the players to roll dice. These are the situations where a player is faced with a challenge to their character’s core concept, the thing that they as a player are invested in, but that don’t directly relate to The Impending Badness that the Someones are about to carry out. Maybe it’s a con artist entering the city controlled by a Someone and wanting to bluff their way past a guard at the city gates. Maybe it’s a xenolinguist working on a translation of a text that doesn’t contain any information about the Evil Plot. Maybe it’s an officer of the law bringing a pack of vicious thieves who aren’t directly involved with a Someone’s mob of hardened gangsters.
In cases like these, I recommend the game master not worry about trying to make the encounters more than they are. Instead, work with the player to make it an interesting scene that shows the character’s Right Stuff off. Give them the moment in the sun, maybe once every session, before they plunge headlong into the machinations of your Someones, so the whole table can vibe on the character’s awesomeness. Some RPGs actually have rules for this. Pathfinder (1st Edition) and the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons it’s based on, have rules for Taking 10 and Taking 20; when the characters are at comparative ease and have enough time to do thorough research or a proper crafting job.
Saving Vs. Life: Accepting the Consequences of Action
There are some hobbyists who take a dim view of including dice, cards or other randomisers in the act of roleplay; they may favour instead resource management through points or even prefer to eschew direct math entirely. The prevailing opinion for doing so is that randomisers reduce drama and take control of the pacing of the game away from the actual human beings playing it. Why not, they ask, always choose the most dramatically interesting option, whether it’s success at a cost or outright failure?
The opinion certainly has a lot going for it, especially when you look at gaming as a form of story creation. Some folks’ instincts for story may enable them to create what they feel are the optimal Intriguing Next Things to Happen and also know when to take the pressure off without needing a Natural 20 to tell them so. But some also reckon that RPGs make a great practice ground for life, and reaching for the dice can have a lot to contribute here, too. They let us practice facing that fear we experience when we mouse over the “send” button of the application email to the company with the job we want, when we fill our lungs so we can introduce ourselves to the person we want to get to know better, when we tense our leg muscles to get up and say, “hey, that’s really not cool, please stop right now” to the person who is doing wrong to us or another.
Reaching for the dice helps us with the realisation that, as much as we’ve prepared for life, as many contingencies as we’ve covered, there’s still that possibility that the worst can happen. Ultimately, the dice help us accept the likely, the unlikely and the unknowable consequences of us interposing ourselves on the world around us, of drawing the attention of people we want to like or are with good reason scared of, and acting anyway.
And let’s face it; the occasional “YEAH! NATURAL TWENTY!” moment is wonderful!
Rob Farquhar – Cairns voice talent, game master, writer, host, presenter and podcaster