Rolling Dice at the Most Important Door in the World!

Yeah, I’m thinking about rolling again. I know I’ve covered this subject in various ways before, but I find myself drawn to the way we do things in games and the interpretation of game mechanics as “action in the characters’ world” again and again – the whole moth and flame thing.

I was thinking about this again last night when the PCs in my Kingmaker game got caught in a Stinking Cloud spell and failed those Fort saves. The PCs gained the condition “nauseated” which means one thing in game terms but also needs some representation/interpretation at the game table. That is, mechanically a PC is restricted to taking move actions. But in terms of the character what is happening? Basically, nauseated means the character is retching their guts out and sick… very, very sick.

Since I’m playing with a player who is new to Pathfinder, I had to explain both applications of nauseated. This seems to have little to do with rolling, but for some reason, thinking about this connection also triggered another thought about rolling the dice in my head.

I’m pretty good with puns and word-play. I mean, I’m no stand-up comic or anything, but I can twist a phrase for a laugh or a groan quickly (and usually painfully). Sometimes though, I don’t quite get there in a timely fashion and usually, if it’s been more than a conversational heartbeat or two I will discard even a good one because the moment has passed… Sometimes, I’ll want to have one, but it just won’t be there at all.

So, what does all this have to do with rolling dice, anyway? Well, I was thinking about the pun thing and I realized – my previous entry about how dice represent the ‘whims’ of chance part of a skill roll doesn’t make sense to me – for this reason. When I can’t come up with a pun in that moment, I don’t assume that it has anything to do with whims of chance, it means I just failed that I actually just failed my skill roll in that moment. Whether that was because of a situational modifier or my skill just wasn’t high enough (and later when I had time to “take 20” I thought of one) my way of interpreting that in “game terms” has little to do with outside forces of fate and more to do with representing that I just couldn’t accomplish something right at that moment.

More specifically, I was re-watching Princess Bride the other night to watch the fight scenes again (research) and I started thinking about the most important door in the world. It seems odd but when Inigo finally meets the six-fingered man again he chases him. A door gets closed in between them and for Inigo that door is suddenly the most important door in the world. If he gets it open, he can finally have his revenge, his closure with the six-fingered man. If that door remains closed, he fails – again.
And make no mistake, Inigo had no way to open that door. Inigo can roll Strength checks all night and he’s not going to break that door down. Not going to happen. And call the writer a bad GM if it makes you feel better but the plot only had one direction right then… there was only one door, because if the Count had more time to run, or if Inigo had tried to negotiate his way through the castle to another door, well, the bad man would have gotten away. One door, no way to open it. Is William Goldman a bad DM? I say he is not, but that’s really for another time. The point here is, the in-game action of “opening a door” was IMPORTANT to Inigo – the most important action his player would be even considering at that moment. Did you hear the desperation in his voice in that scene?
But Fezzig can knock down that door. He can break it off its hinges quite readily actually. Done and Done. Which I think speaks to collaborative play and the value of a well-rounded party more than it does to the act of rolling, but again, that’s another topic.

Players like to believe – I know I do when I’m a player – that I can do anything and the GM is going to need to just keep up! I’m a very active player, I don’t wait around for stuff to happen. It’s important to me to be able to succeed and it’s important to me to be able to do the “stuff” that’s important to my character. That’s why I set goals and have a backstory and put my 18 in Legacy. Because that “stuff” is what makes gaming good for me. So how would I have felt if I had been Inigo and the DM had put a door between me and the focus of my obsession that I couldn’t bust down?

Well, a lot of DM advice would tell you never to do such a thing. But what if I think about it through my character’s eyes for a moment? I can get all worked up about chasing the Count, right? Shouldn’t my immersion also include the issues of what my character cannot do as well as what they can? And that’s another point where my other decisions really start to matter. If I’d been a horrible friend to or ignored the “freakish giant” hired by the crazy Sicilian who found me drunk in some dive somewhere, well, maybe he doesn’t come to help me knock down the door? It’s about more than just the abilities on my sheet, it’s about the whole story being built in the world around us, right?
Well, this is long, and it’s a little on the rambling side, but I guess if I want to draw some semblance of sense out of this post, it could be this:

Players like to believe they should be allowed to do anything. And they should – or at least, Try to do anything. But they should not assume they will succeed because it is important to the story or to them – and especially not on their own. I’m a story-driven GM. That’s who I am. I’m a story-driven player too. I like “important stuff” to be exploding all around me in play. But a sense of frustration can be just as driving, just as rewarding as a sense of success sometimes. And the next time I find myself stuck outside the “Most Important Door in the World” I will try not to take it personally.

Good Grief, that rambled. I hope you got something out of it. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time with something more… straightforward. Promise.

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2 responses

  1. I like the phrase, ‘the most important door in the world.’ Such a mundane thing like opening a door can suddenly – in context – mean achieving everything, or being relegated to nothing. Epic stuff, which I think you rightly point out, we are encouraged to steer session planning away from.

    Were the Princess Bride an RPG session, the search for, discovery of, quick battle to close with, and then the desperate chase of the Count will have the spotlight shining very, very brightly on Inigo’s character and the tension surrounding the idea of ‘will he get his revenge or won’t he’ will ramp up the wattage significantly. That door makes the whole scene.

    It also shifts the focus onto another key player at a peak of drama and desire without breaking momentum or stealing the thunder of Inigo. It really is a wonderful example of how to keep a group engaged and thinking of each other’s characters as people.

    The dice can make the desperate hurling of a body against an impassable door happen dramatically for us I think in a way that diceless systems cannot. I suppose it doesn’t need to be dice per se, but some form of external mechanic strikes me as being as effortlessly able to produce real tension as Fezzig is able to bat down the door with one huge hand. Being entirely independent of GM fiat, spending of some form of action point, or negotiating a turn you might like to explore dramatically, etc, etc, the ‘die roll’ lets the player actually immerse in the moment on a more visceral level. It seems to me that systems where I have to negotiate through a transaction of some kind to produce an effect – while certainly able to produce investment and tension – fails to engage on this level, with this intensity and ease.

    For me, at any rate, that has been an important distinction over the years.

  2. […] how it applies to the tangential issues surrounding the post about the implications of having to Roll dice at the Most Important Door in the World vis-a-vis The Princess Bride wherein Inigo survives to finally meet the Six-Fingered Man and it got […]

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