To Dice, Perchance to Dream

I have been thinking about how dice actually shape my games, and wondering how it is possible for them to do so. Apart from the superstitions I have found reflected in the habits and thoughts of gamers I have met from around the world, in what ways do the dice we use collaborate in the stories which grow around our tables? How much of this influence is by design? How much is personal choice? How much develops on its own as we teach ourselves to play?

I have written before about the necessity of properly framing situations before rolls which influence them. When a roll is framed poorly it leads to dissatisfaction and frustration. These are not the only emotions which may stem from the use of the dice. Critical hits, botches, exploding runs, and so on all bring their own bits of surprise and emotional response with them. When the system itself involves mechanics which provide results, such as hit location tables, or the chance for a critical success, are there things we can do to integrate these results and the emotional charges they may carry with the nature of our setting, story, and group? Do we make use of them?

An ace, or just a lucky stiff?
In a war game like Battletech the ability to cross over into roleplay is quite high. Over the decades this game has been played, the mechanics and the fiction of the game have had time to become very tightly wed. One example of this is that Battlemech is set up to represent the premier war machine of the setting’s battlefields. The ongoing shift in balance between armor and ammo is reflected in the clatter of 2D6+modifiers. Critical hits manifest in the game as a feature of the hit location table, and in a sequence of play like Battletech’s, the associated feeling of getting one is one of lucky happenstance. Hitting at all feels connected to your pilot’s skill and your tactics, but crits are like winning the lottery. It’s just luck- or so it seems.

The sequence of play involves movement, assessment of the field, declaration of fire, resolution of fire with dice, identification of hit location with dice, determination of possible criticals with dice, and then application of damage. As it is a war game, not really a roleplaying game, this gradual discovery of results serves its purpose extremely well. When bleed between the pilot and the player in a roleplaying sense begins to occur, things shift somewhat. The effectiveness of a given pilot in play can be traced to the way they are played and the way they have been developed and outfitted. The player is responsible for these elements and can – if they are so inclined – take pride in the outcomes. Getting a critical hit on essential equipment in an enemy ‘mech – something an Ace Pilot would try to do intentionally to maximize the salvage while minimizing their own risk –  does not generally tie into this player to character connection as it is divorced mechanically from the process of successfully hitting, and the war game environment is one where the sequence of play and the roll of the dice is all that is needed to determine results. In an RPG, that is not always the case, and even when it is, there is an additional step in the sequence: the narration of events.

The interplay between characters, and between the players and the GM establishes more than just results, it establishes all the required aspects of an ongoing story. In an RPG version of a Battletech conflict, a GM might go through the same sequence of play, but in the end rather than relating the results as purely generated (You move into range, line up a shot, hit, and bore a steaming hole through the armour plating of the enemy Ostscout) they have the option of involving the players in the creation of a scene incorporating the intentions and concerns of the character and filter that through the information obtained from the dice. The dice can be the starting point of narration, rather than the ending point. The system does not care if a critical hit is the result of luck, skill, or good planning, but a good story thrives on such distinctions. The GM would be well within their rights to turn this set of hit and hit location rolls into a scene where the skilled character moves into position and judges their shot just right – disabling a critical system. The portrayal of the event is one of character skill and effectiveness in battle. Alternately, a later scene could be presented as luck, or as an indication of poor enemy maintenance of their machines, and so on.   The results of the dice can serve as the starting point to bringing out more and more knowledge about the game world, setting, and situation to the player through the eyes and experience of their character.

More than just the average bear

In a game like Hollow Earth Expedition, the system allows for players to roll their die pool to obtain required successes, or to Take the Average number of successes their die pool generates. Additionally it lets them opt to invest Style Points to improve their chances or the chances of others. This can be left as a purely mechanical distinction without connection to the world the group is imagining in play, but it does not have to be that way. Taking the Average can be a mechanical representation of reacting to the scene with calm competence and confidence in the outcome. Rolling can represent investing in an action more emotionally – hoping for a larger degree of success while risking being less successful. Spending Style Points demonstrates knuckling down to really give something your all, investing your emotional core in the action being undertaken. The mechanics do not change with these interpretations, but the interpretation of the actions characters take and the way the player thinks about those actions definitely do. The influence spreads to how the character is portrayed and it spreads to how the player chooses to interact with the mechanics.

Arkham or Bust

Other games, such as Call of Cthulhu do not seem to offer this sort of interplay between mechanics and roleplay, but options still exist for using the system for more than resolution. As we improve as players and GMs, description surrounding roll results tends to expand and bring more of the world to life. While any grinding combat can eventually wind up being, “Ok, you hit and do 3 points of damage,” I feel it is pretty much expected these days for the group to be generating descriptive and engaging results for action in play. Even in the adjudication of simple skill rolls – although the great temptation is to simply call for a roll and accept the unmodified base percentage – a good part of the fun for the GM, and the ongoing realization of the characters as the system purports to reflect them is to remember to frame the roll with the inclusion of the environmental qualities which affect it, and not simply go with the numbers on the sheet. Bonuses or penalties generally apply based on what is going on and who is performing the action and to help prevent the character from being just a bland pastiche of common stats and percentages with a name and personality taped to it, keeping these rolls individual, personal, and connected to the events and situations around them is a massive aid to immersion and investment.

Results are given their parameters by their associated die rolls, but given form and substance from the developing story, the history and traits of the characters, and the nature of the setting can really elevate even so basic a system as one built around percentile rolls. While different iterations of engine powering this venerable game have taken on more aspects of interpreting results at a trade-off of adding a little more complexity, the call remains to frame the roll properly then obtain the result, and build on it to create the scene. The roll result does not have to be the end of the sequence (You hit), it can be the start of something:

“Your gun speaks and the sleeve of his shirt jerks wildly as though yanked hard by some invisible wire. An instant later your eyes register the hole in its fabric as the blood spray blazes a trail the cultist’s arm is following uncontrollably in a spasm of pain – taking his own smoking gun out of line with its target of your heart!”

The dice don’t tell you what happens next, they define one small part of what is happening now. Even in binary situations of yes/no, or hit/miss, the logic and underlying reality of the situation plays a role in the resolution and defining of the scene. The results are just a part of the melody the group is creating, woven from various harmonies into a more satisfying tune than just the one note alone.

Evocative Mechanics

What other systems out there are challenging or alternately very easy to use to spark greater engagement, connection, and description in resolving events in play?  In what ways do you use these systems to bring your world, your characters, and your players closer together?

Care to share?

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