In traditional roleplaying games—i.e., in those where we have one (1) Game Master (GM) and one or more players roleplaying their player characters (PCs)—the game’s dynamic tends to be as follows.
The GM describes the situation => The PCs ask questions => The PCs propose a course of action
At this point the GM has to make a crucial decision for the game: to ask for a roll or not in order to determine whether the proposed courses of action are successful… Or not.
Most roleplaying games include advice for GMs about what to do in such instances, such as:
In those cases, the DM decides what happens, often relying on the roll of a die to determine the results of an action.
Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, Player’s Handbook, page 6.
You roll dice whenever the outcome of an action is in doubt or the Storyteller thinks there’s a chance your character might fail.
Vampire: The Masquerade – 20th Anniversary Edition, page 246.
Skill rolls may be called for during dramatic situations in the game.
Call of Cthulhu Quick-Start Rules (7th Edition), page 10.
Often, you just succeed, because the action isn’t hard and nobody’s trying to stop you. But if failure provides an interesting twist in the story, or if something unpredictable could happen, you need to break out the dice.
Fate Accelerated, page 12.
All of these pieces of advice are, in my opinion, extremely useful and accurate. The only problem? They are in four different books belonging to four different game lines. Because of that many GMs will never read or run them all, whether it be due to time constraints or taste. Besides that, there are other cases or situations that do not appear mentioned here at all.
Thus, I’ll try to develop in the following paragraphs a practical guide based upon my readings, tastes, and experience of almost two decades running roleplaying games. I hope they are useful to you!
My Philosophy of When to Ask for Rolls
Let’s start with the basic: I believe that rolling dice is one of the most entertaining and exciting things about playing roleplaying games. I understand the appeal and space design of roleplaying games but, at least in my case, there are few things that I like more than to watch the expectation, hope, and tension on the faces of players when they are watching those pieces of resin (or sometimes metal) rolling. In that sense, I consider dice rolls to be excellent ways to increase the tension of a session—and to resolve it clearly and conclusively.
Consequently, in the games that I run I often ask for rolls. Although there was a time when I tried with sessions or games when we almost didn’t roll any dice—and I was proud of it—these days I consider the uncertainty, tension, and resolution that the dice provide to be an invaluable contribution to a good session/game/campaign.
The crux of the issue is, of course, in knowing when to ask for such rolls.
When There Is an Obvious Benefit for the PCs
In any case that there’s an obvious benefit for the PCs, I ask for rolls if:
- Obtaining such benefit is not something automatic. That is to say: when there is a degree of uncertainty about the result,
- Doing so would advance the current game, and
- I’m willing to deal with the consequences of the PCs obtain the benefit in question.
I consider these three criteria to be quite clear and reasonable, but let’s look at an example that, I hope, will be illustrative of the method in practice.
The PCs are adventurers exploring the ruins of an ancient temple in a D&D 5th Edition game. My notes for the room they are in now say that there’s a particularly well-preserved altar. Under it, there’s a chest filled with the tithes from the followers of an ancient religion now forgotten.
I observe the players at the table. I see that they all seem attentive. I perceive tension in their eyes.
If someone describes that their character investigates the place, I’d ask for an Intelligence (Investigation) roll. If they described that they inspect the altar and their surroundings, the Difficulty Class (DC) would be 10. If they tell me they try to move the altar, the DC would be 5.
If no one describes their PC investigating the place, I’d review their Wisdom (Perception) passive scores and compare them against a DC of 15. The old priests tried their best hiding the tithes, but they weren’t particularly good at it.
This is a classic D&D case: an exploration situation with, in this case, a benefit with no apparent risk for the PCs. I’m willing to ask for rolls because the situation fulfills with basically the three criteria. The benefit is not automatic (the chest is hidden); doing so would advance the current game, in the sense of providing the PCs with more questions than answers. Why did the priests hide those tithes? What kind of calamity came over them and why if they knew that it was coming, they were unable to prevent it? And, finally, I have no problem in providing a group of adventurers with a well-earned amount of money.
When There Is a Harm the PCs Can Avoid
The oppossite situation from the above, every time there is a source of harm about to affect PCs and they can act in any way, I ask them to roll as long as:
- It is possible to avoid harm (which should be most cases, in my opinion),
- Doing so would be “dramatic” (i.e., tense), and
- I’m willing to deal with the consequences of the PCs avoiding the harm.
Once again, let’s look at these guidelines in practice.
The PCs are a coterie of Neonate vampires investigating the mysterious disappearance of another Kindred. They are going through the missing Kindred’s stuff when I look at my notes. This Kindred had a security system in their Haven directly connected with the police. If the Neonates activate the alarm, they’ll have 5 minutes to get out of the place before they are surrounded by local police. In the worst case scenario they risk to meet their Final Death; in the “best” case, they are risking a major Masquerade breach.
In this case, if someone describes that their Kindred is looking for anything out of place, I’d ask for a Perception + Alertness [difficulty 8] roll. If the player proposes it, I’d allow for a Perception + Larceny or Technology (depending on their description of the action) [dif. 6] to discover and perhaps do something about the security mechanism.
If someone has three dots on Larceny, I’d probably give them a clue for free that it is possible that a place such as this has protections of this kind.
This is a case when once again the three criteria are fulfilled, in my opinion, The harm is clearly avoidable (perceive and possibly deactivate the security system). Even if the PCs avoid the harm, the tension in the game would have increased—they would have seen, from afar, the debacle they’ve just avoided. And, lastly, I have no problem in letting the Kindred get off “scot-free” this time. I imagine that at least someone in the Camarilla, either Kindred or mortal servant, would have been observing these careless Neonates from the shadows.
When the Proposed Course of Action It Is Not on My Original Plans
One of the truths of the life behind the screen is that it is not posible to prepare for every course of action that PCs may want to undertake. Or, in other words, that there’s no preparation for a roleplaying game session that will survive contact with the players.
In these cases the best strategy, in my opinion, it’s to use rolls as oracles. That is to say, to let them be the ones who decide what happens in the game, while I dedicate to interpret the results and build a fiction as coherent as possible around them.
To make my point clearer, let’s look at an example.
We’re in the middle of a Call of Cthulhu game when the Investigators (the special name PCs receive in this game) decide on an unforeseen course of action: to break into the library of one of the most prestigious local university to steal a Mythos Tome. I didn’t think they could come up with something like this—after all, they’re suppossed to be respectable members of the community xD—but now there’s nothing left to do… Except to decide how will things turn out.
In a situation like this the PCs will have to bring out Skills such as Elec Repair, Listen, Locksmith, Sleight of Hand, Spot Hidden, Stealth, etc. and I, on my side, will spin a narrative around the results they obtain. If someone fails a Stealth check, for example, I can have the PCs activate the library’s security systems. If someone “pushes” a roll—a new rule in 7th Edition that allows Investigators to repeat a roll in exchange to risk something terrible happening to them if they fail the second time—I could have them run into the university guards and them firing their weapons at them… Or something worse.
And so, little by little, the players and I will find out whether they were successful in stealing the De Vermis Mysteriis… And what will be the cost of their success or failure.
The skill of knowing when to ask or not to ask for rolls in a roleplaying game is exactly that: a skill. It’s something that one can develop in time and, above all, with practice. It has lots to do, as you’ve noticed, with knowing how to “read the table”. That is to say, with realizing whether interrupting the narrative to ask for a roll would be useful or not for the game, in the sense of increasing or diminishing the tension/drama.
This, on the other hand, it’s very much related to the concept of narrative rhythm, something that I’ll discuss on a future blog post… If the Patreons decide so.
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This entry was published thanks to contributions by Paulette Rompeltien, Marley Clevenger, María Consuelo Gómez Martín, Alberto Peña, and all my other wonderful patrons.