Thursday, January 22, 2015

Dice Discipline

In a roleplaying game, dice are used for almost any level of action resolution. Punch a bad guy? Roll dice to find out if you hit, and if so, how hard. Convince someone to go on a date with you? Roll dice to find out if he/she likes you, and if he/she is willing to. Climb a rocky cliff? Roll dice to see if you avoid falling, and if you do, how fast you climb.

I like this. Dice are fun. Plus, dice can inform the narrative. That's not earth-shattering news, but oftentimes when GMs/RPG groups get too deep into dice-rolling, they forget that. They start to feel constrained by the dice. They start to feel like they've lost control of the game, or the narrative of the story.

Throw them bones, players!
"When and when not to roll" is a classic conundrum faced by all GMs. Many RPGs try and help you out with clear-yet-broad guidelines: "When failure would be interesting, roll." "When success is not certain, roll." "When you don't know what will happen next, roll." Other games, notably games like Dungeon World, will get even more specific: "When you exchange blows with your foe, roll."

What I find interesting today about dice rolling...and the inspiration for this entry...comes from my study for two separate RPGs with very different "dice discipline:" The One Ring, and Dungeons & Dragons. In The One Ring, dice rolling is only for important tasks, where success and/or failures can have serious repurcussions for the party. As a result, dice aren't thrown all that often in The One Ring, compared to D&D. In D&D (specifically, the first official adventure, "Hoard of the Dragon Queen"), almost the entire first part of the adventure is a series of skirmishes. Played straight, there are probably over a hundred dice rolls in just that first part of the adventure...more than probably four or five adventures combined in The One Ring. 

Does this mean one game is better than the other? Of course not. What we see here, though, is that dice are being used to control the pacing and the mechanics of the game. The One Ring is a narrative-heavy game. By design, The One Ring doesn't want you to roll dice too often, and when you do, it wants you to really care about the results. It expects the GM (called a Loremaster in that game) and his/her players to carry the majority of the narrative. The dice, fundamentally, do little more than throw some randomness into the current of that narrative. In D&D, dice are practically the reason for the season, so to speak. The game expects you to roll dice often, and for the results of the story to be heavily shaped by the turnout of those rolls.

Of course, both games aren't entirely dependent on their design choices. There are parts of The One Ring (combat, namely), where dice rolls can completely make or break the story. Likewise, in D&D, there are whole situations where the dice never need to be broken out. The observation I'm making here is in how each game chooses to value their dice rolls.

Because Internet, there's often debate about when or when not to roll, what constitutes a "good roll" from a bad one, and judgements on the quality of any given RPG, based on how dice-heavy it is. And, because Internet, I hearby offer my unsolicited opinion on the topic: Dice discipline is a conscious design choice within any RPG, and to say one game is better than the other because it uses more or less dice-rolling is, patently, bullshit.

What games do I think have great dice discipline? Here are five:

1. The One Ring: As said in the blog, rolls are always important and meaningful.
2. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire: Rolls are directly designed to influence the narrative, and it does so with great panache and style.
3. Shadowrun: This game knows what it does well: nerd-binging on magic and technology, and it's dice provide for a wide-range of options that emphasize just that.
4. Call of Cthulhu: Quick, simple, and often brutal.
5. Cortex Plus: A game literally built from the ground up to roll lots of fun dice, and it works!

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