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.