Today’s guest article is by Gnome Stew reader Michael, a DM with approximately 35 years of experience with roleplaying games, administrator of a D&D 5th edition community page, and a regular writer at Tribality.com. Thanks, Michael! –Martin
The most crucial aspect of role playing is the story, but we waste a lot of time with administration of the game. And the most time consuming aspect of some role playing games is ROLL playing.
I have been in some games where the dice are rolled at the end of almost every query made by a player; right after a player explains what his character is attempting he is asked to roll a die. It was very frustrating, and I could see the life force drain from the new player’s face. Sometimes, we may find ourselves in that same scenario; where we are rolling the dice for everything that comes, because that’s what the rules say. Or the GM believes that is how the game is played. Rolling the dice can be fun but we should start looking at ways to minimize dice rolls.
I am sure there are a lot of options for simply not using dice at all. You may have been on car trip, or even out camping with friends where you don’t want to roll dice, but still want to play. There are a lot of RPGs that don’t require any dice, and using some of those ideas, you could take a role playing game and minimize the amount of dice rolling. And then we can start maximizing the dialogue and NPC interaction and stop asking for the constant dice rolling.
Examples of Diceless Games
So I did a quick search and found this list on Wikipedia:
- Active Exploits is free; world-books available: Sengoku: Chanbara, Dreamwalker, Blood Island Diceless, and CORPS Diceless
- Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game uses no randomization, although secret information does create uncertainty for players
- Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine by Jenna Moran is a slice-of-life game as well as an adventure game
- Everway uses diceless mechanics, but also has elements of chance, if the game master wishes to utilize them
- Frankenstein Atomic Frontier, an Australian role-playing game, uses cards with players drawing a quantity equal to their trait, counting Aces, Kings, Queens, Jacks and Jokers as a success
- Golden Sky Stories, a Japanese heartwarming, non-violent role-playing game uses resource pools, called Wonder and Feelings, rather than dice
- Lords of Gossamer and Shadow uses no randomization, but has Good Stuff and Bad Stuff to influence circumstances of chance
- Lords of Olympus is inspired by Amber Diceless in which players take roles of Greek pantheon characters
- Marvel Universe Roleplaying Game uses a resource-management system inspired by collectible card games
- Microscope and Kingdom use diceless mechanics to create a setting
- Montsegur 1244 is a game about the fall of Monstsegur Castle, held by the Cathars; the plot is pre-scripted and leads to the question which of the characters burn for heresy, and does one of them escape into the night
- Troika Moira uses secrecy to replicated chance for most actions and a double-bluff system for combat, similar to rock, paper, scissors
There are some very creative resolution systems in these games, and I like a lot of the things I found. But with the traditional role playing games that I am playing, I just want to minimize the rolling of dice, not completely remove them. So with some ideas in mind I’ll look at two areas of contention or game delay that I find in my role playing games: combat and skill checks.
Combat – The Odds are in Your Favor
Let us start by looking at what to do with encounters involving combat.
When it is highly likely that the players are going to win combat against some monsters, then the story should simply be fast forwarded to the end. That is so that the story can continue without a lot of meaningless dice rolls and mundane combat damage. The die rolling just becomes a lot of nickel & diming of the player character’s health points, and the combat die rolling becomes totally unnecessary and boring.
Nothing kills the game more than 10 rounds of dice rolling to kill the small group of goblins because the party isn’t rolling well. The combat encounter should just be finished when there are six players fighting that last couple of goblins. Ask the players, “Do you to kill them, or do you want them captured?” They let you know, and their decision is the story. This will save a ton of time, and reduce the dice rolling. The game master should really save all those nail biting dice rolls for the Big Boss Fight.
Combat – Rolling Dice for Damage
So with combat, there are other options when rolling randomly for damage. The fastest for monsters and NPCs is to take the average damage a creature can output and just call it that and be done. If the damage is a 1d6 of damage, then make the damage equal to 3. If you are rolling 2d12+5, then make the damage 17 (6+6+5).
Another option is if you are rolling a die to see if a monster or player hits, then you would scale the damage based on the roll:
- The creature that rolls a d20 to hit and needs a 14 to hit. On a hit does 2d6+2.
- The creature then would do minimum damage if it rolled a 14 so that would be 3 damage.
- If the player rolled a 20 on the d20, then give the damage as a maximum, for 14 damage.
- Everything in between is divvied out as average damage for 8 damage.
Now, the players will at times make choices that can be attributed to one of their PCs’ skills with a d20 mechanic or another dice rolling mechanic, then an average die roll is taken vice an actual die roll. So for the 20 sided dice that would be 10 plus the skill or attribute score. If you use 2d6, then that average would be a 7. This type of game mechanic addition makes things very clean, nice and simple. This is sometimes referred to a passive attribute, take 10, or inherent ability.
Another way to reduce unnecessary dice rolling is to roll only once for a skill check until the circumstances change dramatically. So the thief is trying to sneak through the castle rolls once against the first castle guard, and succeeds. Then you don’t need to keep rolling skill check dice throughout the castle, the thief would just keep going through the castle. Makes things simpler and can fast forward the story to a nice narrative point.
But I like Dice!
I’m not advocating that you should remove all the die rolls, and just replace them with the game master’s fiat, unless everyone is really on board with that. There are systems that remove the dice, and I listed a lot of them above. If you’re not careful, then those type of games can devolve into “the GM’s story” and the players are just spectators instead of active, creative participants. If the player characters are to be the protagonists of this shared story, then the players need their choices to matter. Often, the dice rolls are the main point of contact with the system for players, and removing them removes a vital tool for player agency and are an impartial judge. Even a random factor can be a lot better pill to swallow than the GM saying no.
I would say all of the decisions really depend what you want from the game. I actually do like the crazy “random factor” that the dice create. Sometimes dice come up with results that are not expected for the game master or other players in the game. But I think it’s good for the GM to know when to roll the dice and when not to. If you really want someone to climb over the castle wall, because the adventure lies beyond the castle wall, having them make a roll that can result in them not getting to the adventure may not be a good idea. A bad dice roll can stall or even ruin a game.
Build the story up with all the players and have fun. The dice are a fun tool, but don’t let the dice dictate how you have fun with your friends.
Thanks for reading, and have fun!
My suggestion for easing out the randomness that can afflict excessive dice rolling is to first, replace D20 rolls with 3d6 rolls, second, esablish more target numbers along the probability curve. Generally, I find that more satisfying than static results on Dmg and skills checks, because there is still an element of chance, but a run of bad roles is greatly reduced.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been GMing Amber and various other diceless games for 22 years now, and in my experience, a diceless system gives players greater agency, not less. At a typical moment in an Amber game, a player’s options are literally infinite: “Screw this, I’m going to go looking for a world more to my liking.” Instead of the players reacting to what the GM has set up, an Amber GM has to react to whatever crazy thing the players dream up on the spot.
My typical approach when GMing is to come up with a setting and a problem. I don’t worry about how they might solve it, because I know the players are likely to come up with an approach I never would have thought of.
(It is true that if your GM wants to railroad you, you don’t have the “But I rolled a 20!” defense that a diced game has. But if your GM is determined to railroad you, THAT is the problem, not the game system you’re using.)
That sounds awesome. I think I would like to be playing at your table.
Yeah, I too was going to say – I don’t feel like removing dice rolls reduces player agency in any way; Dice rolls are part of a resolution mechanism, but ultimately, that is always filtered through the GM. If the GM wants a story to go a certain way in a game with dice, it is certainly no problem for them to move things that way. Diceless games often have rules restricting GM authority whereas many diced-games are “reality simulators” that assume the GM to be all powerful.
In my PFRPG, the characters are built as con artists and thieves. We often go through a session with very few dice rolls. They bluffed their way into an orc fortress (“Let’s run our usual con!”), convinced the orc king they could, in fact, rid his armory of ghosts, and walked away with a trade agreement and a bag full of gold.
Here are three approaches I use to reduce excessive dice-rolling:
1. The game I run uses D&D 3.5 rules, and I encourage players to “Take 10” whenever reasonable. This removes the tedium and the bad randomness from actions the players know are in their characters’ comfort zones.
2. When a player does roll dice for a skill challenge, I use house rules for critical success and critical failure. These add an element of good randomness into the game by making it more colorful.
3. When a player is doing a skill check repeatedly, such as having her rogue carefully check each 5′ square of floor in her archenemy’s lair for traps, I’ll use 1 die roll per actual challenge. So rather than ask for a new die roll every 5 feet, I’ll have her roll once and apply that number to every square until she reaches one that actually has a trap in it. Once she discovers one trap she rolls again, and that rolls stands until the next trap is encountered. This method greatly cuts down on the tedium of dicing for repetitive actions while maintaining a desirable air of suspense about what lies immediately ahead.
In my early days GMing I was certainly guilty of requiring excessive die rolls for everything, but as I honed my craft I began to consider a couple of simple questions before asking players for a dice roll. Is it important? Will failure result in something interesting happening? If the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then a dice roll is not necessary. If the answer to either question is ‘yes’, then a dice roll is required.
This year I playtested the Faith Diceless RPG @ Essen Spiel. I must say, I was sold instantly, despite the fact that I love to roll dice. It uses a card system vs the GM for randomisation. Check it out: http://burning-games.com/faith-sci-fi-rpg-boardgame-the-game/ (they have a print & play link)
The main problem is that those heavy dice rolling games use it for ressource management. I mean it was the whole thing behind challenge rating.
And for a GM it is a displacement activity. Run out of ideas? Bring on the ninjas. It gives you at least 20 minutes to think.