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Roll Call: When Should the Dice Decide?

Almost everyone who takes part in tabletop gaming has at least some fondness for dice - they’re the universally recognized symbol of our hobby, after all! (Some weirdos are enamored enough to namecheck dice in the titles of their blogs!) But for their near-omnipresence, there’s no one rule for when dice (or cards, or tiles… insert the appropriate randomizer for your game here) should actually be used. Like so many things, it’s up to the people at the table and what they all want out of the game. We thought a topic as fundamentally important as this would be a good way to start off 2021. So…. when should things come down to a roll, and how much should the results of that roll matter? - B

B: It probably says something about me that, when I think about the unspeakable eldritch blasphemy that is F.A.T.A.L. the thing that bothers me the most is the text in its logo: “where the dice never lie.” Aside from the sheer stupidity of the concept of having a whole phrase as part of your logo declaring the randomization in your game to be superior to others, somehow,(they’re the same dice, Byron!), the singular focus on dice has stuck in my craw like a lost D20 hiding in a bowl of peanuts. Not catching potential gamers with the kinds of stories that could be told, or the ways in which those stories could play out, but going directly for an assumed fetishization of the hobby’s universal totem. (To be sure, given the nature of F.A.T.A.L. it’s probably for the best that they didn’t go into the game’s specifics…) But it’s not only the phrase itself that bothers me, it’s the expectations that went into its selection - that roleplaying is ultimately a numbers game, and that story and characterization are simply set dressing. And I don't like assuming that I'd feel the same way.

But there’s a reason we have randomization, though - it’s the possibility of failure, the moments of blind luck that make tabletop roleplaying a unique form of communal storytelling, and where we choose to place those moments determines both how our games function and how they feel. Andy, how do you decide when it’s the right time for things to come down to a roll?

A: As you mentioned in the preamble, it's up to the people at the table and what they want out of the game. This is true for all facets of a game, including what rules and which parts of those rules you use. These “deciders” are important though, something that keeps us from the playground battle of “I shot you with my laser!”/“No you didn’t, you missed!” The dice (or other deciders) are a set and agreed upon arbitrator when the “yes... and?” improvisational part of RPGs comes to a halt. Something even the GM has to agree with (unless you’re fudging your rolls, which I don’t generally  think you should). Even in simple board games, we rely on this as a common factor of fairness. Can the dice really lie? Unless they are purposely “loaded,” improperly balanced, or some other foul play is involved, I don’t see how they could. That's the point, we need these deciders - but as Bugsy asked, when is it the right time to use them?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is really any right or wrong time to roll dice. I’ve had players roll for something as simple as walking down a hall, and I’ve waved off making rolls on final attacks and damage in battle. It depends on so many factors: the players, the situation, tension, humor, timing... Forcing rolls can drag out a game and bore your players. One needs to develop an instinct for when it's appropriate. Given the right situation and time, I'll focus on the scene's tension and humor. Will the results alter either of these? If it can add or release tension or humor, then I'll say "it's your turn to roll." Will the results be meaningless either way? Then you should probably avoid it to keep from bogging down the game. You'll develop your own sense and style for this, and it will change from group to group.

The other side of the coin (another form of decider) is players expecting to roll. Countless times have players asked me if they could roll in search for treasure or to make an attempt to be silent and hidden when I  know, from my notes, that there's nothing to find or keep hidden/silent from. The players want to make those rolls, though, and not for you to handwave it away. They want that final hit on the boss, to uncover some major treasure, or to find that hidden mysterious clue. We all enjoy the pratfalls of failing miserably, and the joy of having a wild critical success. If they're asking for it, let them - just be prepared with a response either way. Bugsy, what do you do when they insist, but you have no outcomes prepared or nothing for them to find? How do you handle it when the risk is incredibly great, but they go, to quote Han Solo, "never tell me the odds" and take the chance, anyway?

B: That  scene is a fantastic example of one of those kinds of moments. The Falcon crew have to survive for the story to continue, but there still needs to be a sense of danger and tension. C-3P0 rattling that there’s only a 3,720-to-one chance of them making it is essentially giving them a target to roll against - the number alone conveys the gravity of the situation. What happens if your players do fail that role, though? Things need to become more difficult for them, but not impossible. The ship is horribly damaged and will require additional time and help to fix. Even though you’re trying to make it feel like their lives on the line, you should have some new complication for in mind for them to deal with. The penalty for failing to escape trouble should be… more trouble. But don’t let ‘em know that.

As for when you should roll, one bit of advice that I try to keep in mind is “you don’t roll to succeed, you roll to not fail.” It should happen when failure (or decision, depending on circumstances) will seriously affect the story. Some rulesets state specifically that, when a character is skilled in something where they can expect to succeed under normal circumstances, there should be no roll. It can cause a major breakdown in play if a character with a specialty is a attached to a player having a string of bad luck. (Not to mention pulling everyone out of the story with this concrete reminder that this is, in fact, a game incorporating models of calculated randomness.) Of course, part of the GM’s role is to present abnormal circumstances, and that’s where the fun (and risk) comes in.

Above all, it’s always important to keep the purpose of a dice roll in mind: to determine the outcome of a single aspect of a situation. The conscious choices made by players and their GM that lead to getting into (and out of) that situation should always be the most important consideration. If all you care about is rolling dice, I’m sure there’s a floating craps game in an alley somewhere. We’ve got stories to tell here. (Although, let me know when you find that alley, sounds like my kinda place…)

Any final though on the Role of the Roll, Andy?

A: I think what we’re both trying to say is that, when it comes to dice deciding an outcome, it should feel impactful. It doesn't matter if the impact is humorous, a new complication, or a “great shot kid, that was one in a million.” It should mean something to the players, even when that meaning is mysterious. We like rolling, not for its own sake, but because it means something to us and to our stories. So, remember at your next gaming session, make sure to bring the right amount of roll-playing into your roleplaying.

B and A

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