Rolling Dice, Action Resolution, and the Whims of What..?

I’m running a Pathfinder game, playing in a 3.5 game with very old-school sensibilities about it, and about to start a Vampire the Requiem game. I’ve also been working on my own projects — in between killing myself with summer work on my thesis. These ideas all intersect at the point of my project, producing a diceless version of the RPG I wrote a few years ago.

But I was reading the World of Darkness Core Book today and this excerpt hit right where I’ve been thinking lately:

Like most roleplaying games played around a table, Storytelling uses dice to determine the whims of chance. (32)

But that’s not really true, is it? Rolling dice — in my opinion isn’t really about the “whims of chance” but rather, the ability of a character to succeed at something. (I suppose, arguably, rolling for wandering monsters in Kingmaker is the whim of chance, but otherwise…) That same section of the book goes on to say:

Anytime a character performs an action under adverse conditions or when the outcome is unclear, his player rolls dice to see whether the task succeeds or fails.

Now, that seems more in line with the normal way I’m thinking when I’m running a game. I mean — take Star Wars… when I want to land the ship at a spaceport and drop off my friends to go shopping, the GM just says, “okay, you land, now what?” When I want to land the ship in another ship’s hanger bay, while under fire, and try to drop a squad of soldiers without cutting the engines and then blast back out — well, that’s a little different, right?

But then, it also depends on the dice system. I mean, AGE has stunt points generated when the dice do something specific, Star Wars D6 had the wild die, other systems since have taken this idea of “exploding dice” and run with in all kinds of ways, World of Darkness dice do weird stuff on 1s and 10s. You get the idea. So those whims do seem to have a little more to do with it when you start incorporating alternate dice mechanics. The more the mechanic does something when you get a specific result, the more that specific result matters and the more the chance of getting that result becomes shaping to the gameplay experience.

I’m not sure I’m a fan of that anymore… it’s tough for me to decide. But while running my Pathfinder game last night I had a little breakthrough, and it put some gaming thoughts in perspective for me.

My Pathfinder group is working their way through the Kingmaker AP and it’s a game that is mostly about exploration, combat, and just an interesting dash of the trials of rulership. As the kingdom grows, that dash gets a little more prominent, but it’s still a pretty swords-in-the-wilderness kind of game… And last night it took a turn somewhere we hadn’t gone before. I modified a few of the side quests into something a little different in my game — and the result was a story about a cult of Gyronna stealing children, sacrificing them, and replacing them with changelings. The Baroness in our game — a 19 Charisma, half-elven elemental bloodline sorceress — needed to talk to the family who had one of these changelings in their house. Talking to the mother, who had been denying that anything had happened to their child, I had the player talk, ask questions, interact with the woman in the scene. And this player, she’s a good player and a fun person at the table, but she’s a little bit of a shy player who certainly doesn’t have all the tricks available to her that her sorceress does. The player was making an honest effort and whenever a decision point in the conversation would crop up, I’d have her roll.

Let me explain that a little better. It works like this — the PC would talk and the mother would respond. Whenever the conversation got “heavy” I had the Player roll diplomacy to see how it was coming along. Now, based on those rolls I shifted gears. That is — as the DM I had two ideas in my head about the conversation, how it could go bad and how it could go well. I didn’t have it all planned out, and I was improvising the dialogue, but the point is — the conversation we had in person traveled along naturally, based on me and the player talking in character. The rolling shaped my responses. If the player rolled well then the mother opened up a little more, trusted a little more, etc. If the player would have rolled badly the mother would have been defensive, angry, closed off and offended. Ultimately, to my mind, that produces a much more seamless RP experience and yet still gives the dice weight. Imagine if the 6 Charisma Dwarven Ranger tried the same thing? The player could say the exact same words but the rolling might be so bad that the mother reacts differently — because even though the words are the same, the off-putting manner and terrible awkwardness of a 6 Charisma should make a difference. Consider how you listen to people in your real life. It matters. But if that player with the 6 charisma does it right, then maybe, just maybe they can still succeed in the encounter — just in a much uglier way than the sweet little half-elf girl, right? Maybe.

Amber Diceless would have handled this interaction based on Stuff — Good, Bad, or Zero.

But the take-away from all this, for me, is that task resolution in RPGs should never just be about fate and chance — it should be a gradual building process of success or failure that gives PCs a chance to succeed or fail based on their chosen abilities while also mixing genuine RP in as seamless a manner as possible. I feel the same about this whether it’s combat, seduction, or lockpicking. And when the outcome isn’t in doubt — or seriously doesn’t matter — just put the dice away altogether.

What do you think? Thanks for reading.

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8 responses

  1. Absolutely. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

  2. I have to challenge your initial premise, and in doing so possibly alter the way you’re looking at it.

    The dice do, in fact, represent the whims of chance. Or, more particularly, the vast array of factors that cannot possibly be accurately represented in the mechanics. It is the bonus to the roll (insert system-appropriate term here) that represents the ability of the character to get things done.

    In your later example, you are conflating the importance and effect of the check with the meaning and randomness of the roll. Making the checks is vitally important. And, I think that you used the checks exceptionally well to represent the difference in the abilities of the characters. But, the whims of chance can still come in on the coattails of the die roll.

    The high charisma baroness has a lot of skills available to her to shape the conversation. She understands how people tick. But, maybe the woman has a deep-seated distrust of nobles, and her highly educated tone undermines her kind words. Or, maybe the baroness happens to use a phrase that exactly mimics what the cultists told the woman the authorities would say. Or, maybe she pronounces the child’s name wrong over and over, driving the mother crazy. These things can happen to the smoothest talkers, and it is the job of the dice to represent these possibilities.

  3. Lugh has a solid point that it needs to be possible for there to be opportunities for unexpected success and surprising failure, but your point that keeping a character’s actual traits in mind as a framework for interpreting how those great successes and failures manifest in the actual tale is also important.

    It seems unfair to choke a phenomenal success because the player has only a 6 Charisma, but empahsising the non-charismatic elements which allowed that unexpected achievement of swaying the mother despite being socially awkward, is part of bringing that character to life, and being true to the information which shapes it.

  4. I think Lugh has very acutely pointed out one way of looking at the meaning/function of skill rolls. I think Lugh is right, that the roll helps to represent all of the intangibles that go into an action. I’ve written about this same thing when it comes to combat in old school rpgs.

    But I disagree that it represents the only way. All of the points made in Lugh’s last paragraph are things that I would never just insert into a scene… I wouldn’t presume that the PC said the kid’s name wrong — for example — and I’d be annoyed with a DM that did that to me.

    I certainly agree with Lugh’s idea that the dice can represent the “chance” but it is also not conflating it with PC ability. It is simply a part of the overall equation. That’s all I really meant.

    And as far as unexpected successes and surprising failures… I think I’d prefer those to come from the action of the player as well — not from the dice… but I realize that’s a preference issue, not a game issue.

    Thanks for the comments.

  5. I think we’re likely to come to the same impasse here we did in our previous discussion on dice rolls. I want the dice to tell me what my character actually does after I declare my intentions. You want the player to decide what the character actually does, but limited by the results of the die roll. It’s a subtle difference, but one that’s going to lead to most of our discussions just failing to meet in the middle. I yield the point. I will definitely continue to read, though.

  6. @Lugh

    Thanks for the comment — and I completely agree, I think you articulated the distinction as clearly as possible, though I’d add that (as I’ve said) I’d prefer to get rid of the dice roll altogether.

    — BUT —

    The reason I replied was this. I want to shut up and close my mouth (er, keyboard?) for a while and listen. Would you be willing to post a little bit more in-depth about what you want out of your task resolution in a game? I’ll happily read it elsewhere if you wanted to post it on your own instead of in these comments. I ask because, while I understand what you want out of the system based on that distinction you made — I don’t play that way, or run that way, so I’d be interested in the learning experience of hearing you articulate it a little deeper in your own words. If you don’t have the time or interest yourself, I understand, but if you do, I’d really enjoy seeing what you say.

    Thanks.

  7. Well, I never get tired of hearing myself talk. Er, type. Whatever. So, sure. I’ll blog about it.

    Can you get into a little more detail about what you want to know? I mean, this is not really an area that I’ve done a lot of personal introspection on, so I’m not entirely sure what assumptions and preferences are baked into my thinking. If you could break it out into four or five questions that could act as seeds for discussion, that would really help.

  8. Well, first — Awesome, thank you.

    I suppose I’d start by asking you to do just what you mentioned — be introspective on the matter and dig a little at what makes the task resolution in an RPG work for you (with an emphasis on actual play, in-session, player to player to GM interaction rather than theory).

    That’s where I’d ask you to start.

    Second, I suppose I’d want to hear more about the distinction you made above about the perception of the role (sorry, it just happened) of the dice in actual play. I agree that the difference in our thinking is subtle but significant — I’d like to see you ponder that distinction a little.

    I suppose ultimately, I’m hoping for seeing task resolution, involving dice, in actual play situations vs theory, broken down and ruminated on in an anecdote-style post.

    Dang — I hope that was helpful.

    Thanks again.

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