Randomness, Niche Protection, and a little frustration

I have a friend who hates using the d20. He pretty much hates any version of the d20 system. His primary gripe – although there are many other well-founded ones – is rooted in the randomness of rolling a single d20 to determine outcomes. Basically, no matter how good he is, bad rolling can ruin that at any time.

My own gripes with the d20 system(s) trend toward a different direction but ultimately, the randomness of these activities really grates on me as well, sometimes doing a disservice to another convenient part of many d20 related games – Niche Protection.

Essentially, because I’m hoping not to drive too far off the cliff here, niche protection is the idea that by prioritizing certain roles or rules you protect one type of character from being upstaged in its chosen role (niche) by others who have an “anything you can do, I can do better” card from their own role abilities. This is often seen in the case of thieves in D&D-style games where almost anything that “only a thief can do” is actually easier for other classes (usually spellcasters).

I’m going to pull out my anecdotal moment here to ease into a larger point. And this is not about a class-based game, but rather, a point-buy system. Mutants and Masterminds, 2e was the game and I was part of a very fun superhero game with a mystical bent. I was playing Stryx, a teenage girl who could turn into an owl. She had all kinds of perception abilities, she was – in many ways – built to be a perception character. Stryx was a second-tier fighter and a scout, a role often found on many superhero teams in one form or another.

So we find ourselves in Hell, in a room full of whispers. This is my moment. I turn into an owl, fly up into the thicket of whispers and proudly prepare to enjoy the fruits of being a perception-based character. And proceed to roll really terribly for the next several minutes. Really bad. Like, awful. And inevitably, the chorus began of “Hey, that’s a good idea, I’ll roll perception too.” It’s an unfortunate syndrome at the table where everyone wants to roll everything. It’s not only one of the reasons I dislike heavy-mechanics systems with a rule for everything but one of my least favorite examples of how not to roleplay (badwrongfun? Maybe, but more about playing to type rather than to numbers/scenario.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that some readers right now are shaking their heads saying, “but that rolling and those failures/successes allow for emergent story when the unexpected happens.” I’m sure for some folks that’s true but it doesn’t really work well for me. I like winging it at the table, I like improvising and I enjoy emergent storylines that spring up from play. Failure to do what your character is actually good at/random shit just happening don’t really encourage that for me. Instead, it has the opposite effect of making me not trust the game-world or my character to work to expectation and therefore I feel more constrained and stymied than before. I’m not saying I should always succeed, I’m saying that the concept that my failure is tied to the whims of a d20 or d100 roll is simply more frustrating than fun.

My takeaway point is that the utter randomness of dice-rolling at the game table is still a source of frustration for me (and for many other gamers I know). It’s not that dice as determiner is inherently wrong or bad – hell, I’ve played a lot of games with a lot of different rolling systems and enjoyed myself – it’s that I often find that I get more enjoyment when playing a game where I have more direct control over the outcomes. I think this shifts the focus back to an idea of player skill vs. character skill in some ways (but that’s another post altogether).

As always, let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!


5 responses

  1. Personally, the randomness is why I dislike single die resolution systems. Sure in aggregate the rolls will balance, but weird fluctuations cause weird realities. I’ve tried asking to roll 3d20 drop the high/low when rolling in d20 games for just that reason.

    However, the biggest question is why I love the idea of “Fail Forward” – that even in failure, the plot moves forward, and have started integrating it into my games as a rule. Sometimes it is a case that the critical information will get across, but the roll will determine whether there is more information to be gathered – whether or not that information is actually helpful will depend on the dice. (This is similar to what Gumshoe does for investigations – you will always get the basic information necessary, you just get to spend resources to get additional information.)

    As far as determination goes – for me, I like having a randomness factor, as long as I understand and control the variables that go into the randomness. I like reliability with range of results.

    I have tertiary thoughts regarding how to handle group perception and group stealth checks, but that’s not really what this post is about.

    1. This is sort of a post-script but (nudge, nudge) I’d actually enjoy hearing your thoughts on the subject of group perception/group stealth checks… maybe a post idea for your blog.

  2. I’m not the biggest fan of single die systems in most cases either but I think that “fail forward” systems (like Gumshoe) rub me the wrong way because their is a different set of assumptions that set up a feeling that you never fail. (I know it’s not really that simple but it feels that way.) I don’t mind failing and I don’t mind failure meaning that we have to go back to the drawing board because we hit a dead end – that happens. What bothers me about failure is the often improbable range of successes/failures that can be experienced at the table on a more character level rather than a adventure/campaign level.

    It’s probably no secret how much I enjoy diceless gaming but I certainly do appreciate the idea that even in a game with a randomness factor, it is nice to have some control over the variables. It’s one of the things that is bringing me around on FATE. I like the very contained range of outcomes and the ability to be deterministic about your chances based on Aspects, etc. That said, I’m also a narrow-interpretation minded GM so I tend to dislike the often handwaving, “sure you can use that aspect in this situation” manner that I see FATE played with…

    I’m off topic – maybe that’s another post.


  3. Have you tried Dragonlance 5th age?

  4. You are contradicting yourself and lying to yourself. From your own essay, the issue is that you want to succeed when you think you should. Dice games are games of chance and probably not for you if you can’t handle losing due to the random nature. You should try a diceless game or just tell the story rather then pretend to be playing a game if you want to dictate the outcome.

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