On Die Rolls

Posted: 22 May 2012 in The Hobby
Tags: , ,

My last post was about time, and how keeping track of things allows you, the DM, to coordinate events in the game-world without falling to fiat or “dramatic timing.”  I noted that it opened up a lot of possibilities, the most obvious of which is a reliable way to determine if the players make it to the demonic altar in time to stop the evil ritual.  In the comments, dhlevine proposed a third way of using contested game stats and a die roll to see if players make it in time.  I acknowledged the idea as an alternative, depending on the mechanics available to you and the desired effect, but after thinking about it I think I’ve concluded that reducing time to a die roll is as bad as DM fiat.  It’s arguably less biased, but if you’re going to roll a die to determine the time things take you might as well not keep track of time at all.

The key piece that’s informing my determination here is player agency.  It’s a term that I’ve only recently come upon, thanks to either Hack & Slash or Papers and Pencils (I can’t remember which I saw first). The basic idea is that players have ‘agency’ when they are given meaningful choices and the choices they make have consequences (good or bad) in the game world. It’s the notion that players can control their own destiny. When a DM or game mechanic takes away options, negates choices, or ignores consequences it results in a less engaging, less fulfilling game experience for the players.  This is why railroading doesn’t work.  Players denied agency become frustrated.

Bringing us back to the question of time, if the answer to “did we make it in time” reduces down to a die roll, then you’ve essentially negated any choices the players have made that would affect timing.  I suppose you could hand-wave it, or have penalties or bonuses based ion player choices, or do a preemptive roll to see if the character can/do take time to prepare…  But it all ends up with the dice, rather than the players, making the final determination.  That just strikes me as poor form.

I’d like to take a moment here and note that I don’t hate die rolls.  They are a useful method of conflict resolution, especially if well formed mechanics are built around them and used appropriately.  My point here is that using dice to determine timing is an unnecessary and inappropriate use, and you might as well simply declare timing by fiat as leave it up to the dice.

  1. dhlevine says:

    If a die roll in this case takes away player agency, it takes it away in all cases! After all, why should we roll to see if I hit a monster rather than have the GM keep track of where my blade is relative to the chinks in its armor, etc.? Or if that’s too fiddly, just keep track of my tactics vs. the monster’s tactics, etc. on a higher level of abstraction.

    I think you’ve provided your solution, by the way. Of course, in a die roll system, you don’t *track* time, but you might have time be a factor nonetheless. You’re right, if the players have *no* influence on the die roll, you might as well just flip a coin or ask, “do you guys think it’d be cool to show up right as the ritual is being completed?”

    But that’s not the proposal (and not the way it’s handled in games that do use a version of this, like Burning Wheel). To take the BW example as a concrete (but slightly pervy) one, the way it works is that when we roll dice for whatever, we set stakes, and timing can be one of those stakes. So, it would be something like:

    PLAYER: We need to get through this door! I’m going to pick it.
    GM: OK, you’re a master thief, so I think you can get through this door, but if you fail the roll, the guards are right on top of you as you get the door open and will be able to engage you.
    PLAYER: Cool, but if I succeed, then we get away from them, right?
    GM: Yup.

    Here there are two points of player agency. One is that the system gives explicit stake-setting agency to the player (this is the pervy part) – the player could say, “I don’t like that, how about instead…” and the conversation continues until everyone is happy enough with the stakes, which might include deciding whether they care about the time aspects. The other is that by pumping up Locksmith (or whatever) the player is, because of the way the system works, saying, “I want to be good at getting what I want when the issue is locks, including being able to open them quickly.” (There’s a third bit of agency that’s very BW-specific, which is that the player can explicitly opt to work quickly at a penalty or carefully and slowly at a bonus).

    You could have a much less pervy system that just allowed players to choose to invest in things that will make them better at time-sensitive tasks. E.g., Donjon has a “preparedness” roll, and Apocalypse World has an optional one. You could have a feat that gives you +2 to all time-sensitive rolls. You could give a +1 to the “do the torches go out” roll for every 100gp spent on torches. You could make your Wisdom bonus a modifier to them, etc. etc.

    Whatever’s wrong with die rolls, it can’t be a removal of player agency in this case without being a similar removal in all cases. What it’s doing is *shifting* the *kind* of agency players have. In a die roll-based game, more of the player skill is going to be involved in builds, and less in resource management, probably (for instance). More of the choices about how to do time-sensitive tasks are going to be about reading the potentials of various factors and adversaries than tracking the details of the fictional situation. That may totally take you away from what you want out of your game! But it may be totally what’s needed from time issues in a different one, and both can be heavily invested in player agency.

    • Didn’t mean to strike a nerve. I’m sorry?

      I agree that die rolls take away agency at all levels. At the same time I don’t believe players should have limitless free agency for the same reason you can’t set up a game of monopoly and simply declare “I win,” and put everything away. But there’s an appropriate level of agency, and a point where I feel reducing agency becomes problematic. I feel that timing is one of those things, it’s one of the things I’ve long been dissatisfied with as a player and as a DM, in D&D and other systems I’ve tried.

      I probably sounded like “this is the right way to play, and if you aren’t doing it my way you’re having fun wrong!” That’s not what I meant, but I am writing from my perspective and my preferences are going to be heavily involved.

  2. casewerk says:

    Her’s my thought on dice rolls, though this comes from my bent as a GM and player that heavily leans towards the narrativist agenda, but also one who really really values player agency. Dice very much have a place. Their place is where player choices have got them in a situation where there is an element of risk and the outcome may be beyond the scope of the character’s desires. The die roll comes in determining “which way” a risky situation goes, but one of the keys for when a dice roll should happen, in my mind, is where any potential outcome of the dice roll is potentially interesting. Note that I’m not saying any outcome of the dice roll is to the benefit of the players’ characters, but leads to an interesting situation.

    If I’ve chosen to oppose the evil overlord and engaged him in a duel, I as the player don’t get to declare “and I win!” – I as a player then need to make further choices in my strategy, and then the dice come in to determine the outcome of that strategy. Agency is the choosing of courses of action, not the choosing of their consequences. In this case I have to roll out the dice related to the duel with the evil overlord. Do I win or lose? Do I defeat him handily, or am I so badly wounded in defeating him that I collapse from blood loss and might perish unless the members of the vanquished overlord’s court choose to help me? Does he defeat me and throw me in the dungeons pending my public execution, thus setting up a dramatic escape attempt? Does he kill me, thus prompting my allies to swear vengeance? All of these are potentially interesting and dramatic, and the dice can give an element of excitement and uncertainty, and can lead to a situation that I as the player may not have anticipated or chosen on my own, but which can be a lot of fun to play through.

    That’s what dice are for.

    • I think I can agree with your notion of die rolls; the idea that they arbitrate chance and risk is frankly obvious and I’m a fool for not putting a point on it like that.

      I grew up as a narrativist, and even away from the gaming table I’m a consummate storyteller. More and more, though, I find it desirable to tell the player’s story rather than MY story. I haven’t gotten around to trying it yet, but the idea is very freeing. The idea that rolls are appropriate when “either option is interesting” is a notion I’ve been running on for a while — if the story can’t progress unless the group fixes the truck, don’t bother rolling to fix the truck. In my new perspective, though, I think we lose the possibility of the story stalling in almost every case. Because I’m no longer trying to guide the characters through my plot, I’m following them and watching how they react and respond to my world; it only stalls if there’s no longer anything to interact with. And as DM, all I need to do is introduce a new element.

      I guess, to address the question of die-rolls-for-timing, what I don’t like is that it abstracts further than I’d want. That’s mostly a matter of taste in the end, but…

      • casewerk says:

        Oh, trying to force the players to tell “my” story rather than “the” story was an important bit of realization for me too. It’s important to note that when I’m talking about being more interested in narrative concerns, that’s utterly and completely unrelated to trying to shoehorn the players through the story that I want to tell. It’s more about the game being a vehicle for the creation for compelling narrative. I’d certainly prefer that the players be the driving force of the story. I’ve been trying hard (and often succeeding, though hardly always) to make my current game be driven by the player characters rather than by some plot I’m handing them. I’ve been going mroe the “drop them in situations that are charged for them and see where they go” angle.

        • My players seem, generally, especially acclimated to the “follow whatever plot the DM is running” school of thought. I’m trying to get them comfortable with the idea that I don’t have a plot, and that (essentially) any action by them is valid action. I think there should be caveats to that, maybe something like Wheaton’s Rule, but I’m not sure how to phrase it.

          • casewerk says:

            It’s a tough transition for a lot of players to make. My oWoD chronicle’s gone through some growing pains with that too, but the players seem to be getting the hang of it. I did like what one of the players said when he realized that I had designed a whole world and situation with many interlocking parts where all actions were valid and all actions had consequences: “Hal, your world is a complex and scary place.”

            • My Candlelight game is a New WoD game, and I’m having a real hell of a time getting it to work. A lot of the problem stems from some dumb choices I made in what an acceptable group composition was (hint: they have little reason to know each other, let alone work together) and the “gradual introduction to weirdness/supernatural” theme I wanted to run with. Reactionary players only exacerbated those issues.

              • casewerk says:

                Ah yes… that can be a challenge. One thing that helps a lot for getting a group to work together is to have them all sit down and work on the characters together, explicitly encouraging them to figure out how to work them into one another’s lives before they ever start play. That way they can be good to go right from the start. Not useful advice to an already ongoing game though.

                For the ongoing game, maybe it’s time to sit down and talk with the players about what they think it would take or what they want to do. Sometimes players realize that they’d actually ratehr use a different character concept that would work better in the game, and sometimes they surprise you with ways to get them together… but in any case, it might help you get a feel for what to do next even if they don’t know what to do.

                Aside: As a rules system, I much prefer nWoD over oWoD. It’s so much cleaner.

                • I strongly prefer nWoD to oWoD, both as a rules system as as a setting. I think they did wonderful things cleaning up both Vampire and Changeling, they went a long way towards making Changeling what I always wanted it to be, and (I know it’s blasphemy to compare the two) they even made a version of Wraith that I’d want to play in the form of Geist.

                  The ONLY thing I would complain about is how they handled Mage. I was a big fan of the old Mage setting, and whereas parring down 13 Clans to 5 archetypes works for Vampire, the disparate visions of reality was kind of the point in Mage. In gutting that and making everyone “Atlantean” they kind of ruined the setting. (Don’t even get me started on the baggage that comes with Atlantis…) I also have quibbles with the way they redid their magic mechanics, as that also changed a fundamental piece of what Mage was. And I think Death as a Sphere is kind of crap. I’ve almost come to terms with it, but it’s still kind of crap.

                  • casewerk says:

                    The nWoD’s “setting” (it’s really a setting toolbox more than a single setting) is really interesting and has a lot going for it.

                    Agreed on vampire, and Changeling too – it was really what I thought the original one should have been.

                    I preferred the Death and Fate split on Entropy myself, and thought the newer magic system was better than the first one.

                    The old Mage setting is cool, but I like the new one too… and frankly part of the reason why is the fact that the core conceit of Mage: the Ascension was one that always, always stuck in my craw: Consensual Reality. It’s an interesting concept, but it’s one that also offends my sensibilities. I loathe the idea that the nature of reality is subject to a subconscious popular vote. It’s fascinating, but utterly repellent to me. I much prefer the idea that there is an underlying truth that is simply not understood by the Masses.

                    As for the Atlantean baggage, some of the later supplements do leave a bit more wiggle room there at least.

                    • Yeah, that’s how they presented it, but I never bought it. If reality-by-popular-vote were true then mages could never do magic outside their little collectives. Instead, I believe the underlying truth of old Mage is that everyone has the ability to create and influence reality through their will. Awakening is the first step in realizing this. If a Mage had perfect understanding of this truth then they wouldn’t be bound to the trappings of a Tradition or paradigm. And a sleeper could be TOLD the truth, but they lack the will and belief to be effectual.

                      Supplements tried to fix these problems, but I think it’s a direct result of fan dissatisfaction, not a clarification of their original intent.

                      And I agree, Entropy needed to be split into Death and Fate, but in the face of Spirit Sphere and the Practices of Fraying and Unravelling, Death should have been dropped.

                      We’re totally derailing this thread…

                    • casewerk says:

                      Sorry about the derailing…

                      As for the sufficiently enlightened will not needing traditions, foci etc, that’s pretty clear from the rules for abandoning foci as a mage advances into arch levels of Arete.

                    • Don’t be sorry, it’s all good discussion.

                      And yeah, that’s part of my point. They acted like it was reality-by-majority-vote, but the actual game relied on it being reality-by-force-of-will or something. Hell, one of the basic premises was that anyone could become a Mage, they just had to Wake Up.

                    • casewerk says:

                      Yeah, perhaps they meant the reality-by-majority-vote to be a lie the mages of all sides were fighting over. but I’m not really convinced that was the intention at least initially.

                    • I think it comes down to the fact that they were confused by their own game. I think you’re right that they intended majority vote, but that’s not how the world they built works. For the better, I think.

                    • casewerk says:

                      Definitely for the better.

                • Back on topic, I did spend (I think quite a bit of time) trying to get them to build characters in concert and draw ties between each others, but:
                  (1) group character creation sessions never go the way I wish they would, and always seem to break down into everyone heads-down over their own sheet.
                  (2) I was too lenient on how tightly coupled they should be; most of they could justify never interacting with most of the rest of the group, and a couple could arguable never interact with anyone. Stir in reactive players, and…
                  (3) WAY too many players. Here I’m a victim of my own success; I threw a war and everybody came. I currently have 7 players. I originally had 8, but lost 2 and gained 1. I’m generally a lot more comfortable with 4 or 5.

                  I’ve also been mostly incapable of drawing and feedback or input out of them, despite repeated attempts… But I don’t want to be airing all that dirty laundry here…

                  • casewerk says:

                    Fair enough. And yeah, I know the feeling of being victim of your own success.

                    ACWOD suffered from that too. I started with 6 players, lost one almost immediately then picked up two more and so on… at its numerical height I think I had eight and I was floundering a little. Now I have five again and it’s tooling along nicely. Thirteen player characters (from eleven different players) have been in that chronicle at one point or another over the course of the past nine months. It’s been an interesting ride LOL

                    Group character creation sessions can certainly be hard. 😦

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