Tobold's Blog
Friday, March 02, 2012
Why roll dice?

The other day Jokkl asked a question on this blog about pen & paper RPGs: "why should I roll some dice when I want to bribe someone or something like that?". I know that was meant as rhetorical question, but I'd like to answer it anyway.

Nearly all of us have been "roleplaying" when we were kids, we just didn't call it that. We played cops & robbers, or cowboys & indians, or superheroes, or something similar. And when kids play like that, inevitably the same situation pops up: One kid says "Peng, peng, you're dead!", while the other kid claims his sheriff star caught the bullet or the bullet missed him. So most pen & paper roleplaying systems have a way to resolve this situation with dice. Dice generate random numbers, rules tell us what the probability is of the level 2 fighter with the longsword +1 hitting the level 3 orc, and the combat situation is resolved.

But of course pen & paper roleplaying games aren't just about combat. In fact a pen & paper game has a much larger scope of different possible events than a computer game, because pretty much everything is possible as long as the players can imagine it. So there is *real* dialogue instead of clicking on one of three choices. The DM plays all the NPCs, and the players play their characters.

In these roleplaying dialogues sometimes the players want to achieve something specific, for example find out an information, or persuade somebody to do something. It is perfectly possible to play through let's say a bribe situation just by using dialogue. But at some point the DM has to make a decision on whether the NPC accepts the bribe or not. And suddenly we are back to "peng, peng, you're dead". The player is almost certainly sure that he roleplayed the bribe so brilliantly that the NPC should accept it. The DM might not be of the same opinion. And the DM might even want to have different degrees of difficulty in bribes: The general is harder to bribe than the soldier, for example. Using rules, probabilities, and dice rolls again helps to resolve the situation. That doesn't mean that all dialogue is replaced by dice rolls, but if there is a question of whether something succeeds or not, dice are an option.

Rolling dice in such situation has two more advantages: It helps staying in character, and it balances the attention each player gets better. In a completely free-form roleplaying situation without any dice rolls, you inevitably get some of the more extrovert players hogging all of the limelight. Add social skills with dice to the system, and every player ends up with skills for different situations, and gets to shine when that situation comes up. What is tested is the skill of the character, not the skill of the player. So just like you don't have to be very strong in real life to play a fighter, you don't have to be very intelligent and charismatic in real life to play a diplomat.

And then of course you can mix and match. For example you let the players play out the bribe situation with dialogue, and then let them roll the dice at the end. You can even give bonuses to the roll for good roleplaying. Or even drop the need to roll the dice if the outcome appears obvious for everybody. Dice are only needed to resolve a conflict. And they are good at it, being perceived as impartial. Sometimes they are just a perfect tool to keep everybody happy, and that is what playing these games is all about.
Of course, the downside of rolling dice for social skills is that people skip the roleplaying, and go straight to the dice roll. "I bribe the guard, rolled 20 on my Diplomacy skill."

Given both extremes, I've come to the conclusion that free-form was just more entertaining, despite the potential downsides you've listed in your post.
Haha, Rohan, I was actually going to say "It's nice sometimes to be able to just roll the dice instead of having to come up with an elaborate bribe dialog." Yeah, people can break the systems down to their component parts. But then again, if someone is introverted, should they simply not be allowed to play a half-elf bard with +15 to Diplomacy unless they get a teleprompter?

In my games, the dice can also take the plot in interesting directions. If a player rolled a natural 20 trying to bribe a guard, I feel compelled as a DM to make the interaction extra special. Like instead of just letting them out of prison, the guard let's them in on the drug trafficking business he has going on the side, or whatever else I can think up on the fly.

And besides, the physical act of rolling dice with friends is just about one of the most pleasurable events in gaming. There is a reason why people get addicted to gambling - it feels good! I can't even look at a d20 without salivating and I've been "clean" for 5 years.
I can't even look at a d20 without salivating

Here you go, Azuriel!
Ok... I get your point. But is it in the players interesst that he rolls the dice?! Dicerolls show the players that something is going on and they shouldnt know what. If I as a player roll the dice I see whats going on and know if I passed. Rolling dice behind a screen as a DM/GM/whatever without the players knowing whats going on is a good thing sometimes. But for the most part we just played it all out. There were those notes that would be passed around even if they would say nothing just to get some tenssion into the group. Maybe our group isnt exactly what you are up "against"... we played against each other most of the time. I wouldnt call anyone of us a hero... we followed the story but gave the DM/GM a hard time sometimes. Maybe thats part of the games we played... Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Paranoia. Same goal/quest for everyone but that doesnt mean I have to like that ugly orc over there and maybe my payment goes up if he goes down (no - we didnt try to kill each other - just tenssion)...

Passing a note that says "laugh" to the GM/DM and looking at the orc allways gets some nice reactions. Same with "bribes or stuff like that". Play it out... pass some notes around... maybe roll a dice. Most of the time the way someone plays it out should be a good sign what should happen next. Just listen to them... One word OOC and you knwo what you have to do...

I guess most people play as a group that sticks together as if they were brothers... this never happend with us but the GM/DM did know that. Maybe not those DMs/GMs at all those cons... but hey... why should they have it easy... they didnt even pay to get inside!
Peng is totally not the American onomatopoeia for the sound of gunfire, most kids here would go "Bang bang, you're dead"

I just find the difference in onomatopoeia in different countries fascinating, because there is of course no real reason why any of them are different, it's just how we grew up.

Anyway, I am not a huge fan of the rule minimalists, roleplaying maximalists. It seems so hypocritical. Why even play Dungeons and Dragons at all? You can roleplay anything you want, why not just say "I am a warrior, I swing my sword at the orc!" and the dungeon master decide if it hits or not, no books needed.
Ideally you're rolling dice when trying to bribe the guard for the same reason you'd be rolling the dice when you try to fight him; you don't just want to find out who wins, you want to know how much the other guy gives up to do it.

Indietronic RPGs like Burning Wheel or its Mouse Guard adaptation take this idea and run with it, using exactly the same structure to resolve social and physical conflicts.
To handle the immediate going to "I bribe the guard by rolling my dice" problem that Rohan mentioned, I give the players bonuses based on how they handle the verbal interaction. If someone just rolls and gets an 11, they get an 11. If they spend a minute or two sweet-talking the guard, are extra suave, etc., I'll either lower the difficulty of the check as a reward or explicitly tell them that they'll get a bonus for how well they did.
Rohan, not that alot of traditional RPG's explicitly describe this in the text, but isn't the idea that you get more of a bonus to the roll if you try and roleplay it out?

Otherwise the whole process really is
1. GM decides where you're going
2. You will roleplay until the GM decides you have roleplayed enough
3. You go where the GM had decided you're going.

A dice roll helps it stop being just someone (the GM) deciding if you can do something or not.

I'm not sure I can be bothered roleplaying simply in order to go where the GM decided I was going to go anyway. That sort of roleplaying is what actors do when following a script (sometimes even being paid for it).
I see two reasons to roll the dice.
First, narrative decisions. If your player declares an action, and both outcomes are equally interesting, then instead of declaring result you can as well roll the die.

This also means that if the outcome doesn't advance the story ("you didn't find anything!"), it shouldn't be rolled in the first place. Ideally each action should move the party either to their goal or to the impending doom, otherwise - why bother?

I guess, the good example of failed "search for secret room" roll is not "you didn't find anything", but "you manage to find some kind of hole in the wall. When you lean on the bookshelf to examine the hole, you accidentally push something, hear a loud click, wall section rotates, but you stumble and the secret door closes before you can get in! You notice that the sleeve of your robe is stuck between the wall sections. You can hear guards, alerted by the noise, approaching the room..."
That's the way I like my failed rolls.

The second reason is for game-mechanics purposes. The most obvious is combat, where you need some random distribution.

Since character advancement (choosing skills, perks and stuff) is also a part of the game system, the dice rolls highlight consequences of such choices, it's kind of meta-combat where you pick some abilities and then try to get yourself into position to exploit your skills.

And naturally, rolling dice just feels great.
Another way to use dice is to first decide if the guard can be bribed, and then roll from a table, perhaps a treasure table, what is needed for the bribe. Personally, I would not even roll, but figure out what the guard wants. To keep things interesting, it should be something the player's do not currently have. For example a bag of silver.

Then players need to find a way to get the silver. Are they going to borrow it, steal it, or what? A mini-adventure would start just because of a need to bribe a guard.
I'm a bit late (as is usual) on this, but I've found what I think is a pretty solid technique for using dice to resolve social exchanges. It requires faith in your players and players who can adapt quickly, but it's generated the most positive approval from my players.

Basically, if someone's going to be trying to convince anyone of anything (so most conversations that are more than just "get information and move on"), I have them roll at the start and then have them roleplay as appropriate for their success. If they roll poorly, I have them roleplay poorly trying to get their desired outcome. If it's a "well done" bad attempt (meaning they do a good job at doing badly) or wildly entertaining (nothing's as funny as a Vampire Samurai from the 1600s trying to buy drugs by asking for "Crystalized Amphetamines for burning and inhalation" after a bad roll), they can still succeed (so if it was really crucial, they have an incentive to do badly but still pull through). Alternatively, they can just choose to fail the roll and do poorly in the role play. The ratio is about 50/50 for voluntary failures versus working to get what they want (depending on the importance of the situation).

I haven't had a player yet who abused this (but if I had one who did, I'd rectify the situation), and they feel that the dice aren't their masters but more like their directors, which has instilled a lot more faith in the outcome of roleplaying.
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