Sunday, August 1, 2010

What's in a Roll?

I've been reading a bit of RPG theory lately, and one of the things I think about, whether discussed in a book explaining basic mechanics of a game or discussion on or elsewhere is the question, "when do we roll the dice?" I'm especially inspired since finding the rules for the spy game Danger Closer (DC) as suggested over at when I was hunting down other spy games to use for Alpha Protocol. DC is a free spy game written by Rob Justice and is well worth the download and read.

In DC, Rob brings up John Wick's theory on the rolling the dice question. Rob explains that players only roll the dice when there's an inherent risk involved and the character wants to acheive something more than his or her obvious means could acheive.

Keep reading, I eventually get to the point of my lil' essay here!

I like this, I like it a lot. I think it's a really good way to explain the idea to make a player roll when it actually matters. In the Burning Wheel and Mouse Guard (probably Burning Empires, but I haven't had the opportunity to pick that up yet), Luke Crane also makes a point that a player shouldn't have to make multiple rolls in a row to acheive the same objective. The example that always sticks with me is that of a thief trying to get past a group of guards without being spotted. The player should make one roll for the entire attempt. Whether he fails or succeeds you then narrate the whole scene with more detail. There's an emphasis on story telling versus crunchy, strategic play, and this is much more in line with my own philosophy of table top games (generally).

So I like this idea of risk and not making every single step of an action hinge on the dice results, but I do have my own philosophy (in which, I'm sure, I'm not alone). Since RPG's serve as a collaborative story telling device by their very nature, the only real thing player and GM can do in a game is to determine who has control over the story. It's a constant negotiation between what the GM wants and what the player wants to have happen. A lot of times this is actually the same things. I know as GM I've wanted my players to be really successful at doing something truly amazing because it makes the story cooler.

However, the GM does have a responsibility to make failure an option, otherwise there won't be any glory in the success. To this extent (and for those times when the GM thinks a player should fail at something), when do we roll? The player rolls when he wants to impact the story. Universalis is a GM-less game. Each player is given resources that he or she can spend to create elements of the story. It's a great (and I believe one of the first) GM-less rule sets in that it gives everyone the power to impact the story equally. I tend to pull that lesson back the GM-centric/traditional game to say that the way a player creates his character, focusing on stealthy thievery, strong-arm brute, or smooth-talking face determines how a player wants his character to impact the story.

This seems obvious, but it goes beyond just the way a player wants to solve problems. I believe every character choice is a choice about what kind of character the player would like to see in the story. It's not just the kind of character he or she wants to play but also what he or she thinks would benefit the overall story. For example, we're going to be running the new Tomb of Horrors for 4th Edition in a couple of weeks. We're planning it as strategically as possible and trying to cover all our bases, but when it comes down to it, I really just think a Half-Orc Barbarian would be a fun addition to the game. A hot-headed brute that needs his teammates to cool him down before running to the next room makes the game much more interesting in my opinion.

So when I roll the dice, in the game, my roll represents how I want something in the story to happen. It's a little less impactful in a game full of strategic dice rolls like D&D 4th Edition, but it still stands. Now let's look at a different game, 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars. It still has a very crunchy and combat-focused system, but it's also got a very nice binary character creation process that shows what I'm talking about. At chargen, you divide 10 points between Fight and Non-Fight ability. So my character, as an extension of how I want to impact the story, can be balanced, fighty, or non-fighty. I'm deciding at the start of the game how I want my character to impact the story. It's very much in line with the idea that a player sends a clear message to the GM about what he wants to see in game by what he puts on his character sheet. A character who put lots of skill points into archery would probably love to see an archery contest as part of the challenge the party faces, or at least as an option to free the princess. The player doesn't just want to free the princess but he wants to really change the story and be a part of it.

Whew! That went on longer than I meant it, and if I ever do produce an RPG, you can beat I'll probably steal wholesale from myself here to describe why a characters rolls a d8 or whatever!

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree, and wrote something similar myself a while ago. If you want to read it, it's over here:


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