When do you roll dice?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I was at a party recently, chatting with some gamers. They were hardcore World of Darkness players (plus a smattering of D&D3). The conversation veered into RPG theory and game design and it was pretty interesting hearing their perspective, having almost no knowledge of games outside those two.

At one point, I asked one of them this question: "You know Vampire right? You know the game books backwards and forwards. So, how do you know when to roll the dice? What's the actual rule for that?"

They were entirely stumped. No one knew what the books said about that. Same for D&D3. "When the GM says so," was all we could think of, but everyone agreed the book probably said something about it somewhere.

Of course, that lead to them asking me how you know when to roll dice "in one of those indie games." So I told them the different ways from Primetime Adventures, Sorcerer, Agon, Burning Wheel, Polaris, Apocalypse World, etc. Their eyes got a little big. They nodded along. Asked follow-up questions. It was a good conversation.

Maybe give it a try next time you're talking games with someone. The "when to roll dice" question has a lot of interesting layers to it.



Blogger Brand Robins says:  

"Of course, that lead to them asking me how you know when to roll dice "in one of those indie games." "

Answer: When the game designer tells you to.

Blogger Jeff says:  

Well, I know for my part, reading some good, solid "this is when you roll dice" advice (like "say yes or roll dice" in Dogs or "make sure there's something interesting for either outcome" from Spirit of the Century) lit a little light bulb above my head. After the fact it seemed like "duh", but it really altered my perception of how the dice fit into a game design (coming originally from a similar background to your friends - mostly AD&D 2 and WoD and what not)

OpenID nemomeme says:  

When you need to know how big a blanket is. Duh.

More seriously, great post.

Blogger Gregor says:  

"When do we go to the dice?" is a question that is plaguing every moment of my waking designer's mind.

Blogger John Powell says:  

Everytime you want the players to fail?


Blogger Chris Bennett says:  

John, isn't this more of matter of players not reading the rule books?

I think indie games tend to be a bit skewed because the games are usually a lot shorter (and cheaper) than the average (hardcore) game. So when you come to the table, you can usually assume more players have read or at least skimmed the rules.

Whereas for more hardcore games, often I see players coming to the table with nothing more than a pencil, some dice and maybe a character sheet. They really do rely on the GM to "know the game".

Or was that not your experience with this conversation?

Blogger John Harper says:  

My experience was that, for these guys, the idea that the game rules would mandate when to roll the dice (and that every game might have different criteria) was fairly novel. "When it seems right" was the only technique they were aware of.

Blogger Gregor says:  

Yeah, I've played and GMed a decent amount of D&D3 and Vampire years ago and I don't remember there being any explicit instruction as to when to roll dice (except in combat of course).

It's all like:
Player: "I lift the boulder."
GM: "Uuuh, yeah, roll a Strength check, I guess."
Player: "I rolled a 12!"
GM: (looking up some tables or usually pretending to): "Hm, nah, I don't think that's enough, you lift it a bit but it falls back down. What now?"

In the PHB the only rule is (again, barring combat rolls and saves): "Whenever you attempt an action that has some chance of failure, you roll a twenty-sided die (d20)."

Maybe the DMG has some extra instructions for when the GM asks for a roll, I don't remember, it's been a while.

Blogger Zac in CA says:  

Weird, I'd be intrigued to see that in the 3.0 books, Gregor. I'll see if I can dig that tonight.

Blogger Matt Snyder says:  

Writing the actual paragraphs of both Nine Worlds and Dust Devils that explain when conflict occurs -- and thus roll dice / draw cards -- was the single hardest design writing I've ever done. To this day, my stance on it still doesn't agree with the discussions I had with others at the time.

I can't immediately think up comparable paragraphs outside the indie scene of games.

Blogger czipeter says:  


I think 3.5 (and 3.0 as well) doesn't tell "you when to roll dice" at least not in a general sense. But as this is a task based rules system, you have a really huge number of different things you possibly have to roll for (like AW's "if you do it, you do it"). I think the rules for when to roll the dice are so present, but they're a bit too quirky for me. It's something like this:

If you say something that is nearing the so-called LINE (like "my character is trying to take an action what affects the world out of her/him" but the final arbiter is the DM about where the line is drawn), you might have to roll. If the DC of your said action can be found under any rule, then that's the DC (and that's the trait to use). Else, the DM makes up one (combination) on the spot. (Usually, here you can reconsider your action (saves and other passive checks are an other cup of tea), for example if you find the DC too high for the value of the successful outcome.) Now, if there is no combatty or dangerous situation, you can consider your roll a 10 without actually rolling. If there is no fighty situation or danger and in addition you have time and you could retry the check after a failure, you can consider your roll a 20 but this way this takes 20 times longer to do. Some skills and other checks (like bardic music or caster checks) don't allow you to take 10 or 20. If you don't take 10 or 20 (and if you're still reading this ;-)) YU HAVE TO ROLL.

Blogger czipeter says:  

I think this is still not the whole picture for 3.x "when to roll". E. g. I forgot to include the danger-defying of high level rogues. This meaning you can have a class or other trait to be able to take 10 even in dangerous or combat situations.

I like less crunchy systems more, I'm pretty sure. But this "how long logical process can you keep in mind" thing can be a challenge as well. Building the uber-character, too. Very different from creating an engaging story together. That's much more my thing these days.

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