Monday, July 25, 2011

The dice tell me ... nothing!

So, I have been chatting over in The Rhetorical Gamer's blog the last couple of weeks about dice and task resolution.  It became quickly obvious that we view gaming pretty radically differently.  So, he asked me to unpack some of my thoughts on this, with some concrete examples.  This is probably going to take me a couple of posts.

Today, why the heck do we even have dice in these games, anyway?

In answering that question, I'm going to skip the historical, "RPGs are descended from wargames" blather.  Instead, I'm going to dig into why dice are important for a role-playing game.  In my opinion, it comes down to three elements:  simulation, chaos, and impartiality.

Dice as Simulation Aids

If you created a game system that accurately reproduced reality, it would have to be at least as complicated as the laws of physics.  It probably would need to be more complicated than the current sum total of human knowledge.  After all, there are an awful lot of things in the world that happen, but we can't explain.  Such a system would be totally unplayable.  As such, most game systems use an approximation of reality to strike a balance between usability and verisimilitude. 

As an example, the d20 system does not track the position of a character to granularity greater than a 5' square.  In terms of actual physics, that is a pretty gross oversimplification (even more than the proverbial spherical frictionless chicken).  Even a number of gamers find that it is too large a grain, but it functions admirably well in 90% of cases.

However, if one were to run an actual simulation of a combat round, the difference between a "hit" and a "miss" is often a fraction of an inch.  That is approximately two orders of magnitude between the position of the character as described and the position as deemed necessary for resolution.  Keep in mind that this is then doubled, as both the attacker and defender are not measured accurately enough to determine actual success.

This is where dice come into play.  You begin with an assumption that the characters can potentially occupy any spot within the 5' square.  You then use the attacker's skill to determine where his assault is most likely to land.  The defender's skill is likewise used to determine the odds of her body being at the end of that assault trajectory.  This creates a complex probabilistic surface that can be used to calculate the statistical likelihood of an attack.

But, most gamers think that taking a square root is advanced mathematics.  So, instead, we approximate that probabilistic curve with the game system, and use a die roll to determine how the curve resolves.  That is, since we can't actually measure whether or not the hit succeeds, we use dice to bridge the gap between the possible and the actual.

Note that this is not a "luck" factor.  It is not truly representing randomness.  Instead, it is taking all of the extremely complex elements that we cannot possibly account for and smoothing them out into a single simple factor that allows us to resolve the action at the granularity of the system.

Dice as Bringers of Chaos

Of course, sometimes we do just want that luck factor.  As humans, we are often painfully aware that capricious and unpredictable forces control our daily lives.  Sometimes, it does all come down to a flip of the coin or, in this case, the toss of the dice.

This is especially important to keep in mind when looking at the RPG as a game.  Some games are heavily strategic, such as chess or go.  There is no random factor.  Others are extremely, or even entirely, random, such as craps or Monopoly.  Most fall in between, allowing the skill of the player to manipulate the random factor, but also sometimes fall victim to it.  RPGs historically, but not exclusively, fall into this moderate category.

When a player character is facing off against a villain, it is a contest.  It has been demonstrated, by market pressure if nothing else, that players tend to prefer a system that has randomness built in.  Being able to defeat the villain as a "sure thing" is unsatisfying.  Being unable to defeat the villain is frustrating.  Having a chance to defeat the villain is exciting.  (Though, strangely enough, it seems to be most satisfying when the characters inevitably win against very poor odds.  How to manage the odds so that they appear remote but are actually strongly in the characters' favor is a subject for an entirely different post.)

Even outside the nature of conflict, many gamers enjoy having entirely random elements shaping the story.  This can be as fundamental as using random character generation and then trying to work with the results.  It can be as trivial as determining the results of haggling with a merchant.  It can be as significant as determining whether a given NPC will be friend or foe.  Either result can be used to tell a good story.  Using the dice to surprise you as to which direction the story goes can be just as satisfying as when an author surprises you with a plot twist in a novel.

To demonstrate, picture a party at an embassy.  Your character is a spy, working undercover.  Your mission is to stop an assassin from killing the ambassador.  You know that there are other spies here, some friendly, some not.  You also know that there are a lot of people here who are not spies, but who are clever enough to spot one.  You are speaking to a beautiful woman, here on the arm of a powerful CEO.  Can you figure out her true identity, or at least her true motives?  Can she figure out yours?  Having her see through your cover but identify herself as an ally can be excellent.  Seeing through her cover and blackmailing her into supporting you can be awesome.  Having you clueless that she is the assassin, and her equally clueless that you are a spy, as you dance together across the floor watching everyone else is a classic scene right out of a movie.  It can really add to the tension to let the dice determine which way the scenario plays out.

Dice as Impartial Judges

Ideally speaking, every GM should be working at all times to maximize the fun of all the players.  This is a given.  However, not every GM is actually good at that.  And, not every player will agree on what the maximum fun is.  Every once in a while (or very frequently, depending on your group), you need to appeal to a higher power.  You need something incontrovertible to adjudicate your dispute.  You need to roll the dice.

Suppose that the GM has put up a fence around the compound that your character is supposed to be sneaking into.  For various story reasons, the GM wants you to slip around to the rear gate and make your way in there.  You, though, want to go up and over the fence.  The GM knows that by doing so, you will miss some important clue, or possibly just avoid the trouble he had set for you.  He has four options in front of him.  On the one hand, he can just declare the fence impassable.  This would be the "railroad" solution, and it generally is not popular with the players.  On the other, he can just allow the player to scale the fence, and scramble to try and fix his plot (not popular with the GMs out there).  On that third hand, you can negotiate with your players to accept your plot and go along; this often either devolves into one of the two prior options, or tips your hand about what is waiting at the rear gate.  If you have reasonable players, this can be a good option, but those cannot always be relied upon.  On the final hand (what, how many hands do you have?), you can turn to the dice.  Set the target difficulty fairly high, so as to encourage the player not to try, but be prepared to accept the outcome if the dice go against you.  This has the advantage of at least appearing completely fair.

This factor is also critical to the recent mantra in the gaming community of "say yes or roll the dice."  Generally speaking, it is good to empower your players, and to collaborate on them in creating the story.  In improv theater, this is known as the "never say no" maxim.  Saying "no" shuts down the flow of the story, and kills the enthusiasm of the person who was shut down.  The difference between improv theater and a role playing game is that we have dice.  When it makes sense to say "yes", do so, and run with the story generated.  When it doesn't make sense, for whatever reason, don't just say "no".  Instead, turn to the dice for arbitration.  Having the dice shut down the idea is not nearly as demoralizing for the player.  And, if the dice come up "yes", you'll just have to stretch your abilities a bit more to make it work.

Where's the Dice?

There are such animals out there as diceless RPGs.  I do not mean to deny their existence, or to denigrate them in any way.  Most of them work by having some sort of currency in the game that allows the player to buy success when it matters, and accept failure when appropriate.  They use such currency to tell each of the other players and the GM what actions are important.  To extend the comparison to improv theater (which becomes obviously much closer with these games), it is as if each player has a limited number of times per session in which they can say "no" in order to promote their own version of the story.  They are still games (despite my occasional rants to the contrary), but they avoid the randomness of dice in favor of the certitude and strategy of games such as chess.  And, finally, they resolve the gap between the system and the simulation by simply waving it away, and not even attempting to present anything like an accurate simulation below the system level.  (The games are, by nature, far more interested in the narrative concerns anyway.)

Roll the Bones

Dice are important in RPGs to help us bridge the various gaps that must exist between a group of people sitting around a table chatting and a band of intrepid heroes battling vile miscreants.  The players are not the characters.  The GM is not the world.  The system is not the physics.  But, with the addition of dice, the illusion can become just a bit more solid.


  1. Immensely entertaining and informative article on RPG dice rolling. I really enjoy these academic treatments of my hobbies. If you don't mind, I'll add a link to my blogroll (I have been writing a lot about boardgames recently, but most of my friends also roleplay and this is an excellent confluence of ideas).


  2. Thanks!

    I've seen your notifications on Facebook about your project. It looks really cool. Unfortunately, I don't play board games (lack of opportunity more than lack of interest). I've only even recognized I think two of the ones you named.

    And I never object to linking!

  3. The interesting question, I think, is when the dice can be left aside. One of the defining moments of my time as a gamer involved a rather long conversation between one of my characters and someone by whom she'd been being blackmailed for a while; there wasn't a single die rolled the entire time they were talking, just a direct contest of wits between me and the GM. Not my first social character, but the first one where I thought I might know what I was doing. I've gotten rushes out of game victories before and since, but most of those were just sequences of really great rolls; this one was purely my victory. I think that might also be when I stopped being quite so interested in combat; sure, it was impressive and all, but not near as much of it was my skills as whether my dice happened to like me that day, and it messed up the pacing and jarred my suspension of disbelief (let's face it, in a play-by-IM situation, one combat round can take an hour if we're not careful). I won't say there aren't times when the dice are helpful, even necessary, but for anything that requires skills I myself have, I tend to try to avoid rolling, and just stat the character such that I don't have to hold back.

  4. I will fully agree that there are times when setting the dice and the mechanics aside can be extremely helpful to the flow of a scene. Knowing when to do so is one of the higher skills of being a good game master.

    However, what I do tend to object to is people who extend that to argue that dice are therefore antithetical to role playing. If we can have a great scene without dice, then it was because there were no dice. Therefore, clearly the solution is to minimize the dice and the mechanics as much as possible.

    (Note, I am not trying to imply that this is your position. I agree with what you have said. I'm just trying to explain that there is a position one step beyond yours that is what I am primarily responding to.)

  5. Well written, sometimes I wonder if I'm missing something if I'm not interested in the more collaborative storytelling style of game since so many seem so taken by them. You bolster my confidence that I'm where I want to be in my games.

  6. Thanks! Glad to know I could help.

  7. So -- I came in late, it was really nice of you to take up writing this. I can't believe how spectacularly I disagree with several of the things you said (don't be offended, I think it's actually a great thing that we disagree, gaming takes all kinds of players/GMs to be fun), especially in the part about "dice as impartial judges."

    But I said I'd be keeping my mouth shut and listening -- so, I'm here, I'm listening and I'm just about to read the next post on resolution, so, thanks again and keep going!

  8. You don't have to keep your mouth shut. I get more than enough room to say my piece in the original post. And, I can always just delete the comment if you get uppity! ;)