Rolling for fun and profit~

A few times in the last year, mainly due to our group’s tendency to switch between a few ongoing campaigns, with the occasional short-term story thrown in for the sake of variety and experimentation, I have had a discussion about the actual application of mechanics for a few of our regular systems. If your experience with gamers and game mechanic discussions resembles mine, I imagine any readers of this blog will already have guessed that no resolution in these discussions was ever reached. There is just not enough time in the world.

I took a look at The Dark and Romantic Adventures of Mary Sue on the Rhetorical Gamer yesterday, and that got me in a somewhat mechanical frame of mind. Also, some of what I was writing in yesterday’s entry on imbalances between characters got me thinking about a particular element in the application of mechanics, and so this post crept through the cracks in my skull, slipped through the cracks in my keyboard, and has made its way to you.

It’s how we roll:

Specific games aside, the question which slipped through the gas lit alleys of my mind to cast shadows here today was this: When do you call for a ‘roll?’ In other, even less mechanics-specific terms, when do you require that the resolution system of your chosen game be called into play? (For obvious reasons, I am just going to use the word ‘roll’ for the rest of the post to represent the phrase ‘the resolution system of your chosen game’).

If you call for a roll for everything what does that mean? What effect does it have on your game? Does it increase impartiality and the chances for dramatic tension, or does it shift the power of adjudicating scenes and outcomes from the GM to the dice? Does it pit the players against the plot, or the polyhedrals?

Is Good Enough good enough?

Let’s turn things upside down for a moment and address not rolling. In cases where the character clearly has all the skill or situational advantage necessary to accomplish what they seek to do, and you bypass a roll for a ruling, how do the players react? Do all the players react the same way? Are some situations more acceptable for this than others? It is at this that I wish to get.

For example, our hero is compelled to fold 1000 origami cranes in a weekend, sneak onto his love’s father’s estate, creep into her bedroom unnoticed, hang them creatively in her bedroom, steal a piece of her lingerie, and escape as silently and secretively as he arrived. He has enough fiercely loyal allies to assist in the crane folding, he has the stealth of a jungle cat, an encyclopedic knowledge of estate layout and design, and his passion when not screaming like a banshee and gutting the enemy, is interior design influenced by proper geomantic principles. How would you deal with this in play?

  • Simply rule that he succeeds in his tasks and move on
  • Simply rule that he succeeds in his tasks and describe how
  • Simply rule that he succeeds in his tasks and have the player describe it
  • Roll to overcome hazards and obstacles, but with appropriate bonuses
  • Roll the encounter normally
  • Other

Or imagine that an opponent has been stunned by a lucky blow, and the player declares his character will slit the villain’s throat while he cannot resist. Conan, what is best in life?

  • Simply ruling that the opponent bleeds out and expires at a dramatic time
  • Voiding a roll to hit, but requiring a roll for damage with appropriate modifiers
  • Requiring a roll to hit and do damage, with appropriate modifiers
  • Roll to hit and do damage as normal
  • Other

Or suppose the character is a world-class gymnast and extreme martial arts expert with leathery lungs, devil-may-care attitude, and a reckless disregard for proper footwear. Further suppose that this gymkata warrior is waylaid by a brutal gang of thugs, none of whom are a match for his stalwart heart and deadly kicks. What then?

  • Simply rule that the hero crushes his opposition and move on
  • Simply rule that the hero crushes his opposition and describe how
  • Simply rule that the hero crushes his opposition and have the player describe it
  • Roll strikes and dodges as normal, but modify damage to speed play and minimize the damage potential and resistance of the thugs (mook rule)
  • Roll the encounter normally
  • Other
Do you trust your system?

In the very early days of WW Games, players loathed to roll certain-sized die pools for fear of death. Things got better, of course, but the fear-response had already been ingrained… and better is not perfect, just an undefined amount less problematic than before. Mentally strolling parapets in Denmark, deciding to roll or not to roll, there are many considerations, not the least of which is if you and your fellow players trust the outcome of the roll will be reasonable and produce more entertainment value than frustration value.

If players, through the magnifying and distorting lens of personal perception, find that rolls lead to failure or mediocre results “more often” than more advantageous results, they will not want to roll, or at the very least will go to extreme lengths to load the dice in their favour… including loading the dice. This can predispose them to enjoying moments where the GM rules that a character is good enough to handle that situation without rolling.

If the system is perceived as being trustworthy, or at least consistent, then players may wish to roll just for the chance to exceed their character’s usual performance, and are willing to risk the potential loss which might come from a ‘bad roll.’

It’s 10 pm; do you know what your system is doing?

Trustworthy or untrustworthy, at a certain stage of the game, a GM has to understand what to expect from the system and to manage rolls accordingly. Are there quirks in its behaviour in certain situations? Do certain activities require a lot of effort from the player in order to calculate a die pool or figure out what or how to roll? Are some aspects of the system redundant, or seem so in extended use?

What are the effects of making changes? Does it matter if we roll for initiative each round, roll it once and let it ride until circumstances dictate a new roll, always use a fixed value, void it altogether, or some other alteration of the rules? How does it matter? What exact effect does it have?

What are the effects of skipping rolls in routine tasks? Does it enhance player appreciation of the skill and effectiveness of their character? Does it make players wonder why they bothered creating stats if they never get to roll? Does it rob of us interesting opportunities for unexpected changes of story direction? Does it prevent the needless interruption of a story players and GMs are striving to create?

What are the effects of skipping rolls in tense tasks?

The dramatic use of rolls:

In an earlier post, I got into the idea of Premature Imagination and how it pertains to rolls and resultant dissatisfaction. The choice of when to roll has a similar of effect on player enjoyment, in my opinion, and should not be underestimated. A primary concern of that choice is how to deal with the decision not to roll. How will you handle the resolution of the task for the player?

In many ways, calling for a roll formalizes and makes a specific task or event in the game world ‘real.’ It is more than simply determining what will happen through the filter of chance. It is a ritual signifying that a character is taking action and having an effect on what is around them in a significant way. When this ritual is not invoked, it can leave the unrolled-for result feeling less important and less real than something far more trivial in terms of plot or character that did merit a roll. In the earlier examples, if we were to have opted not to roll for the Great Crane Robbery, but did choose to roll for the random encounter of street mooks, what are the odds that when asked to recount the evening’s events, the fight in the alley will be related in detail, while the elaborate infiltration of the bedroom will be a side-note at best?

On the other hand, using dice to introduce a random element or feeling of tension into a scene in which the character really should succeed easily has the unwanted side-effect of introducing a random element. That element can sometimes stretch out and kick the story in the balls. Who wants a character death caused by a bad roll in a wrestling match in a darkened rose garden with your lover’s guard-dog? Where is the drama in that? I am all about letting the chips fall where they may, but I reserve the right to determine where I drop them.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain:

To what extent should players be privy to the details which factor into your assessment of a roll? Should you share the entire process with them, including salient bits of information pertaining to the enemy or obstacle in question? Should you enlighten them with just the modifiers which their characters introduce to the roll? Should you leave such things in their hands to ascertain with their exhaustive knowledge of each rule and detail of play? Should you let them choose whether or not a roll is made, and if so – how it is to be made? (Remember we are using the word roll in place of the phrase, ‘the resolution system of your chosen game.’)

Decisions, decisions.

In conclusion?

For my part, I enjoy rolling dice, and I find that doing so enhances the fun of the game. Of course, all things are best in moderation, and if I do not have to roll out each hit and each reduction of hit points because the GM has the wherewithal to roleplay realistic enemy behaviours like surrender, retreat, panic, and sudden, fatal heart attacks, then I appreciate that immensely. Still – there is a valuable element of enjoyment to be found in die-rolling for me.

If a GM knows my character well enough to assess that rolling our way through a given task or scene would be beneath him, then I like it when that is communicated to me through descriptive means rather than declarations of ‘there’s no need to roll.’ I habitually state that, and I absolutely have to stop. It makes the application of the system seem like both a focus and a burden. It isn’t (or at least not usually) and stopping the flow of the immersive element of roleplay to redirect attention to the separation between player and character for the express purpose of not using the mechanics makes absolutely no sense. If we do not need to roll in a scene, then there is no need to stop the in-character interaction and narrative. Right?

As I have stated before, I am partial to the idea of rulings vs rules, and so I when I run a game, or play in one, I expect the person acting as the GM to use the system, not be a pawn of it. I expect them to apply positive and negative modifiers based on their own experience and intellect and back it up with vibrant description. I expect them to consider the scenario, the characters, and the NPCs, and assess the impact of the system on adjudicating the events. I expect the players to play~  Don’t you?

Anyway, this post has been heavy on the questions and short on answers. I hope those of you who have taken the time to read this will take a little more time and offer your thoughts about and responses to the questions raised here. I am quite curious about what you might have to say~

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