I was recently invited to a friend’s house to take part in their playtest of the second edition of Pathfinder RPG.
The first week went fine. Gameplay quickly revealed that my player character — Spindle, a gnome bard — had little affinity for the shortbow he was carrying.
It was hardly surprising. Singing and inspiration were his hallmarks.
If Spindle’s arrows went ker-plunk, that was to be expected. He was a first-level character, after all.
The following week I arrived determined to emphasize Spindle’s bardic skills. One problem — the player with the dwarf fighter couldn’t make it. I looked at the player with the rogue, and he looked back at me. Then we both looked at the druid and the wizard. For this night’s play, our characters would be the melee combatants?
OK Johnny, rosin up that bow …
But this isn’t a story about how our misfit band of spellcasters prevailed in a dungeon designed to test the ruleset — although that did happen. It’s really about me rolling spectacularly bad, owning those rolls in the moment, and incorporating that into the role-play.
Spindle’s first d20 attack roll of the night was a 1.
It appeared to be a continuation of Spindle’s record of near- and not-so-near misses.
So be it.
As a player you can throw a pout, get angry at the die, curse, or demonstrate your displeasure in any number of ways.
Or, you can scoop up the die and describe how spectacularly bad that arrow shot was.
I chose the latter. (If I was GMing, it’s what I hope my players do.)
It was a move that paid off.
Not by getting better rolls, but by continuing to roll poorly and bringing those fails to life with energy and interaction that other players could feed off of.
Spindle offers to assist the rogue attempting to disable the trap by holding back a distracting gate.
Spindle searches for the key to the locked chest.
Spindle attempts to climb the rope to reach the ledge.
Spindle makes a skill check.
And with each 1, Spindle was coming alive at the table. With every miss, his personality emerged. Admittedly, he wasn’t contributing to the general welfare of the party — which could have used a nice solid attack roll. But I was getting to know Spindle, and so were the other players.
Hands jittery and nervous hovered over the quiver. Reaching in, they shook so badly he knocked two or three arrows out for each one he withdrew.
He might be a hapless, inept bowman, but he was my hapless, inept bowman. And that’s what the table got to experience. A gnome that was out of his league, out of his element, off-balance … perhaps, even a liability.
Spindle renewed his attack and almost tossed another 1, but the die stopped on the seam in the table … hovered at 1 … but then teetered onto 19. Clearly, that shot ricocheted past the target, bounced off the back wall and got the goblin on the rebound. Something like that.
With that, I sensed I was in for a change of fortune, so I switched gears.
“Enough!” Spindle declared, tossing down the bow. He drew out the rapier, tossed magic missile and true strike at the boss opponent and was suddenly back on offense.
I have written in a GS post before  about the importance of the GM taking roleplay cues from dice results.
But having a player do it is important, too. Probably moreso than relying on the GM to shoulder the burden. When four players around the table are riffing off their dice rolls, the narration sizzles. The rogue takes poison from the needle trap, and despite the illness and the loss of hit points refuses to retreat. The druid steps up into the fight, slicing at her foe with her scimitar. The wizard calls forth lightning, but it fizzles out, doing only 1 point of damage. Oops.
Unlike a stage play, an rpg session doesn’t have a script.
But it does have lines, of a sort, and they are revealed with each toss of the dice. Hit those cues and you’ll have a session to remember.