Monday, September 15, 2008

The Happy Medium Principle (When Ought A GM Call For A Dice Roll Part ii)

A friend of mine has never played a pen and paper rpg before. He has played games like Baldur's Gate though, so he has some familiarity with how a past DnD system works. Trying to explain what pnp gaming is like to someone who hasn't done it before can be difficult because other types of games have little in common, so finding an appropriate analogy is hard. 

One thing he asked me is do you roll for everything? 

And this is something I'd thought about before: What principled ways can a GM call for a dice roll? This is the philosopher in me being concerned that I'm merely using intuitive feelings to decide when it's appropriate to ask players for a dice roll and not a rational principle. If a GM asked players to roll for everything, this would be principled. It would also be tedious and turn role play into nothing more than a dice game. 

At the opposite end of absolutism one could never ask for a dice roll (in something that's intended to be a dice rolled rpg), but then it's not clear that there is a mutually agreed upon conflict resolution system between players and GM on how to decide outcomes - I'd worry a GM in such cases is being needlessly whimsical. 

In the games we play it seems we're trying to have a happy medium. We want dice rolling to decide conflict resolution, but we don't want any trivial thing that could be contested to be rolled out, and we don't want to do away with dice rolling completely as then it's unclear why some things are successful and some things are not. 

Attempts at a happy medium:
These are really just off the top of my head (which means I'll probably think about this more and post again on this later): 

All significant actions ought to be dice rolled. This calls out for a definition of significant otherwise it's just a restatement of: We need a principled happy medium. Let's say significant actions are those that the story turns upon, that will alter characters depending on the outcome. For some, this might be problematic because many things that we do call for dice rolls may not fall under this. For more dice heavy gamers, this then would be seen as a bad principle. However, others might respond that maybe those gamers aren't being principled (or following a different one), and this principle would work for gamers who want to be more permissive on the minor details. 

The principle might also depend on the kind of game being played: are the characters heroic/supernatural or mundane? 

If the characters are in the first group, then it could be good to take for granted that they are capable of succeeding at many mundane actions without rolling. If they're in the second group this might not be assumed. 

Those are my scattershot thoughts on returning to the issue of dice rolling. 


PatrickWR said...

Dude, I love rolling dice. I want more excuses to roll 'em, honestly. What I don't necessarily want is for every roll to matter hugely in the grand scheme of the game.

For this reason, I (as GM) find myself using dice rolls to add color to various situations. Sure, I know the thief can make his lockpicking skill check, but I want to see *how good* he is at the task. An overwhelming success gives him a further bonus when he tries to stealth his way into the room, for example.

So I'm not really concerned with win-or-lose situations; rather, my group just likes to throw those bones in an attempt to inject a little color and quality into our gameplay mix.

Zach L said...

For combat, dice are necessary. The whole point of combat systems in pen-and-paper games is to roll the dice. Giving bonuses for descriptive attacks are good, and having people engaged is also good, but even just rolling dice and declaring actions can consume a LOT of time -- dice are faster than people's brains at figuring out appropriateness. The system is built to streamline combat, the most confusing and chaotic and difficult-to-describe aspect of everyday reality.

For social situations, though, it depends. For instance, if one player is trying to convince an NPC of a lie, I may just let the person keep talking and see if the PLAYER can give a good lie, and go with that. However, I would always give the OPTION of a dice roll for anything where the possibility of success or failure is up in the air.

And that's where things get tricky, isn't it? What's the point of just rolling "subterfuge" when you, as player, are capable of acting out the subterfuge? Well, game-centric players would probably rather roll the dice. In fact, I know more than a few people who just say "my character lies about what he knows" and rolled, without even clarifying what the lie might be!

These are people who prefer efficiency. And I think that's where the real balance lies -- not between rolling frequently versus infrequently, but between rolling efficiently versus inefficiently.

Think of it this way: in combat, the actual benefit to describing your actions before rolling (rolling still being necessary in the majority of cases) is minimal, while the time spent comparatively is high. In situations like this, you might as well just roll the dice. However, in a social situation, not only can the player himself take a more active role in the 'action', but his words can have a significant impact on the roll itself (if one is chosen for). It's more efficient for the time spent to speak and participate, because it is more likely to increase your chances of actual success (as defined by the game or the player's intentions).

When the players feel that their participation in non-dice play is irrelevant, they'll be far more likely to prefer frequent rolling to give them the sense of achievement and interaction; whereas a GM who varies the game widely depending on actual discussion and description is less likely to want to interrupt their sessions with dice.

As with everything else, it depends a lot on the players and the GM. The best gauge for when to increase/decrease the amount of rolling, though, is when it feels like they're being impatient -- either waiting for the next roll, or waiting for combat to finally end.

Ravyn said...

I'm a rolling minimalist, personally; I run a lot of social encounters and the like, and for me it's a lot more fun to see how the players are handling the situation and operate from there then to try to figure out what those nine successes on the Presence roll meant as far as how the NPC they were trying to impress would react. Most often, what they end up rolling for is to figure out whether they know something that either they or I think they should know. The players don't mind, so it's all good.

Typhinius said...

I disagree that rolling is necessary for combat. I prefer it, but it isn't something that has to be done. I also vehemently disagree with the point with combat systems in PnP is to roll the dice. I think different systems have different goals, but I'd say in general most PnP combat systems are developed to make combat fun and interesting, and rolling dice to introduce random elements is just one way of doing that.

Also, how do dice figure out "appropriateness"? They are just dice. They offer a random chance to roll numbers, nothing more.

As for not rolling in social situations, I prefer that to an extent, but generally, when we are RPing in social situations,I for one am no Don Juan or Johnnie Cochran, yet I can RP as such if that's the character I'm playing.

Unfortunately, if the ST/DM relies simply on MY ability to play those parts, then the ST either needs to assume that I'd be better than my RP skills show or roll, otherwise playing such characters is not fun.

Jack Phillips said...

In what I mean "appropriate" you determine by formulating a principle that is self consistent and hopefully describes how gaming is often done. Or if it doesn't describe, it can prescribe how gaming ought to be played. If we're just appealing to intuitions this leaves us open to many kinds of inconsistencies. I'm trying to determine how not to do this while calling for a dice roll. In morality utilitarianism and deontology both offer principles in similar ways to describe when something is a moral choice and how it ought to be determined.

You're comment "they are just dice" seems to be a non-sequitur or to miss the point. What's being discussed in regards to dice based conflict resolution systems is when is it appropriate to role play something out, just grant that players are successful, or call for a dice roll.

Other than that I agreed with everything you said, but I think we've also talked about this before.

Typhinius said...


Sorry, the response was mostly aimed at Zach. The appropriate comment was in response to the statement, "dice are faster than people's brains at figuring out appropriateness," which really didn't make any sense to me.

Jack Phillips said...

ah, my bad.

I used the term appropriate too, so I thought your comment was aimed at me. Your comment didn't really make sense, but I thought maybe we were just really, really talking over each other's heads.