Are You In The World’s Face? Rolling the Dice in an RPG Session

We RPG geeks often debate the value of dice in roleplaying games, especially ones where characters are given lots of options relating to rolling them.

A while back, I wrote a guest post for Coaching for Geeks about the dice debate. Since, I’ve wanted to refine and simplify it; here’s my latest attempt.

When not to roll

When your character is going about their day.

Whether their job is an accountant or emergency response, cleaner or con artist, if they’re doing your everyday thing, don’t roll. (Especially if it’s something they’re good or exceptional at.)

They’re in the world, not standing out, not making any particular waves. Even if bad shit is happening, they’re keeping your head down, or running, or saying, “yes, sir, whatever you say”.

They’re not taking any chances that have meaning.

When to roll

When the world gets in your face.

In many ways, we play RPGs for these situations. Even if we want a home base / town / nation where things are Good, somewhere there is Bad happening.

If your game master is dong their job, that Bad is going to happen to something the player characters value (their property, their power, their friends, their family, their lives), and soon.

When that Bad happens, it’s up to you whether your character lets it happen, or Responds.

The problem with Responding (from the character’s perspective, not necessarily the player’s) is twofold:

  • Responding calls attention to your character. By its very nature, you’re having them tell whomever is making the Bad happen that your character is not just going to sit back and let them do what they want. That whomever will likely have responses of their own to your character’s stand.
  • On top of all that, your character might fail.

Even if your character fails their action, they’ve still changed things both for themselves and the being/s making Bad happen. They have to deal with your character now.

When you get in the world’s face.

This is when you get Proactive through your character. The Bad things, whatever they are, aren’t happening to your character, but you decide to intervene anyway. Or maybe you decide that while the world is actually Pretty Good, you want to make it Better.

The problem (from your character’s perspective, not necessarily yours) is twofold:

  • Trying to change things calls attention to your character. You are entering your character into a momentum in the world that people generating / riding and attempting to stop or change that momentum. From that point on, for better or worse, you are on those people’s radar until they can get rid of you, co-opt you or realise the value in the change you’re trying to impose on them.
  • Your character might fail. And your character willl be failing where other people can see them fail. Aside from the usual combat-related consequences of death and injury, failure will create or change an impression of your character with those your character is up against and maybe yet more.

Why not just not roll?

This is the other part of the perennial Question of the Dice in RPGs. If we’re all sitting around telling a story, why don’t we all just discuss what’s best in the given moment for the narrative you’ve all been creating, choose it and go from there?

Some RPG systems address this directly, one notable being the venerable Amber Diceless Roleplay, which (if I remember rightly) did away with randomisers completely.

Well, why not? Choosing to remove randomisers is valid, and if doing so gives you and our group a satisfying, entertaining experience, go ahead.

But be mindful of what you’re angling for.

See, reaching for the dice is an explicit thing. You can optimise all you like beforehand (equipment, information, allies) but in reaching for the dice, you’re accepting the risk that, despite all your preparation, things might not go your way. You may fail. You may succeed, but have to pay a cost of some kind. You may succeed outright. You may even succeed spectacularly.

This, I believe, is where the real value of the tabletop roleplaying game hobby lies. As well as entertainment, RPGs can be a great tool for practising things important to us in real life, and real life is about risk. You can’t negotiate a narratively correct outcome with it because life is too big; everyone else is just as busy in their own story, trying to impose their narrative on the world.

Reaching for the dice gives you the chance to accept that risk in a comparatively safe environment, to practice putting yourself, your brilliant ideas and your clever planning out into the world.

Reaching for the dice in a tabletop roleplaying game gives you the chance to practise getting in the real world’s face, demanding more from it that it would otherwise give you.

What game rules do this well?

I like Tales From The Loop’s way of doing things. Instead of setting difficulties for what you want your character (a Kid) to do, this game by Fria Ligan / Free League Publishing tells your GM explicitly to throw a Trouble of some kind at your Kid, but only when your Kid is trying to do something out of the ordinary (like investigate the Mystery at the heart of each adventure). Unless you’re being proactive, the world has no need to send Trouble your way, so there’s no need to roll the dice.

The broader rules still include some regular RPG-esque “Roll to find out whether you succeed at doing non-conflict-related thing” under the guise of Troubles that to my mind aren’t really, but I like the idea of making stats and skills more explicitly about Doing Things To The World rather than defining a character numerically; an idea that I think sees more traction in Fria Ligan’s ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game.

Probably the fiercest exponent of going for the dice when getting in the world’s face is Dogs in the Vineyard. This indie game by D. Vincent Baker, co-creator of Apocalypse World, not only popularised the concept of “roll dice or say yes,” but also made the dice specifically tied to conflict, i.e. one party wanting something that the other doesn’t want to happen, with a brilliant see/raise system that makes explicit the question, “How far are you willing to go?”

Baker has removed Dogs from sale due to its setting incorporating problematic elements of North American history. While these do help drive conflict and give the players things they can change both externally and internally, I can certainly understand the desire to keep them in the history books rather than dredging them up for modern-day entertainment.

Featured image by TomNatt; used under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 license.