Sunday, July 21, 2013

Why Do We Roll Dice?

I think sometimes we lose sight of why we roll dice. What exactly is it about combat and other tasks that make them random? It is not simply that you have a 40% chance of success and therefore will hit four times out of ten. It is instead, chaos theory. There are too many variables involved in a system such as combat for a game to take them all into effect. Since neither players nor game masters know everything about the terrain, the weather, the manufacture of the arms and armor, the health of the two combatants, etc., it would be impossible to know if a breeze knocked an arrow off its course or if a sword found a weak spot in the armor. All these variables are represented by the dice. Random factors affect the success or failure of the attack. Why does this matter? I think it matters because it establishes a premise: The player does not know all the factors that are controlling his success or failure. The use of dice establishes this. So why do game masters insist on explaining to players all the modifiers that factor into their success or failure? I do it myself, sometimes. We’re trying to quickly do the math on an attack success and we walk through the modifiers. What I think is necessary is for the GM to sometimes say - your chance is X%. Why? I’m not going to tell you! Of course this upsets most players, especially the rules lawyers, but it’s meant to. Role-playing games are intended to have some mystery to them - that’s why you have a GM who knows all and players who don’t. We (as GMs) need to flaunt that a little more. Besides, if you can get them familiar with the idea that they will not always know the modifiers, then when you do need to keep something secret, you can slip it in far more easily. As a player, I use this idea as well. Let’s say I get lucky and hit three times in a row on a 40-50% chance of success. Role-playing, I will thank my deity, because clearly, that shouldn’t have happened, so it must have been divine intervention. Sometime other characters get upset about stuff like that. They are assuming that their characters fully understand not just physics, but the specific physics of that situation. The idea is ... well ... I’ll use the phrase foolish, because the words I want to use are not publishable. Yes, luck in and of itself is a factor, but how was it lucky? Did the attacker hit a pot hole and stumble? Is it really humid out and someone’s grip on their weapon was a little off, not enough to drop it, but enough to lessen the impact of the hit. I’m not suggesting you determine why every hit or miss occurred, just that you accept that sometimes factors that no one sees or senses still have an impact, and it’s OK for them to be secret.


  1. When you do something you are skilled at in the real world, you generally have a good idea of your chances. If I see a big puddle, I have a rough Ide if I can jump it. I sometimes choose not to if I think I'm going to end up on my ass. Players don't have that feeling for their characters. They have to rely on the dice to give them the idea if it's a good idea or not.

    Now your players may enjoy a game where they often have to try something with no idea what their odds are, but I can only deal with some of that.

    Now I'm okay with failing because there was something that my character didn't know about. I don't always know everything that's going to affect me in the real world. But most of the time I have a good idea.

  2. I agree - Players should have an idea of what it will take to succeed, it is the unknown that they shouldn’t know. What types of unknown things shouldn’t they know? Unknown things. I’m not suggesting they have no clue how far they can leap or whether they have a good or bad chance of hitting a stationary target with an arrow. They know that - it’s in the rules. What they shouldn’t know is whether the target has magic or special protection. Too often if you work out the math in front of them, they can easily figure out that the numbers don’t add up - thus something “magical” is happening. Then they loot that guy twice, trying to figure out what magic item they might have missed.
    But it’s more than just that. Maybe the enemy is so clever they have the PCs attacking uphill and therefore have an advantage the PCs aren’t thinking about. Maybe they know the wind is behind them. Maybe their god promised them luck that day. Mundane or magical bonuses need to remain hidden. BUT if you only hide the bonuses when they exist - you’ll get caught every time. That’s why hiding things - even things that aren’t there - are so important.