Thursday, 15 October 2015

To roll, or not to roll, that is the question

Spurred on by a recent thread on the subject I've been trying to decide how dice should be used in a couple of situations and to resolve this I decided to take a step back and consider all the situations where dice might be used, what I'm trying to achieve, and thus to decide what sort of dice rolls are appropriate. Putting this down has helped clarify things in my mind, and in the process my thoughts on this have evolved – any observations or disagreements are welcome.

1. Dynamic physical contests between opposing parties (hitting things!)
The skeleton archers were hiding behind the pillars...
This is the primary situation where dice are used. It provides tension & uncertainty but at the same time impartiality. What are the characteristics we require for the dice? Now combatants should never become completely flawless; it may become more and more tricky for someone to hit you with a sword, but it should never become impossible. Similarly, hitting progressively smaller and smaller targets with an arrow eventually becomes a purely random affair, but the chance of hitting the target never goes to zero. Hence although one party in a combat may be hopelessly outclassed, they should always have a chance of hitting (however small). In Explore I chose the open2d10 system, a wide open-ended bell curve with an exponential drop-off, so you can always succeed, but the chance falls away exponentially.

2. A disaster has befallen the character - do they survive by pure luck?
Here I'm lumping in the consequences of being hit with saving throws, I think both are similar situations. There may be mitigating factors, such as a strong constitution helps you survive a poisoning. The system used in Explore when you've hit someone is the same as that used to see if you hit, which is a wide open ended bell curve (to ensure that no-one is invulnerable). It seems reasonable to apply this same mechanism to *all* saving throws.

In the case of an attack, the attacker makes the roll, but for a save versus poison it is the subject of the poison who makes the roll. If rolling high is always good, then with a minimum roll of 2 we have to decide if 2 is always failure or not. For poisons is seems more plausible that you could be immune to an attack (this giant is immune to that poison), so I’ll not have 2 as an auto-failure. The bonus for a saving throw is a stat (e.g. CON) plus level. It seems fair to make saves versus spells to be the same system, i.e. the defender makes the roll.

3. Who strikes first? (Initiative)
I use initiative purely to mix things up a bit, and speed is of the essence in resolving combats, hence when resolving combat I split it into separate groups, resolve them one at a time, and use the quick and simple d6 for each combatant with no bonuses. See

4. Determining the behaviour of NPCs and monsters
Moving away from combat, the next situation where dice are appropriate is to make the game feel like a living breathing world. Here are several common situations, which are variations on a theme, all requiring ad-hoc solutions.
A. Wandering Monsters.
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
A dungeon or any other adventuring locale should feel like it has an existence separate from the characters. The inhabitants have lives of their own, and often move about. These movements are often time-critical and should be independent of the actions of the characters – the guard shouldn’t step out of the room the moment the players walk past the door purely because that’s what’s written down (though he may well do so in response to noise the characters are making). Since the behaviour in question is unpredictable, dice are a simple solution for determining this behaviour.
B. Listening at doors.
We’re not rolling to see if the character hears something, we’re rolling to see if there’s a noise to hear. If there’s a Giant’s banquet on the other side of the door, I think they’ll hear it just walking past! If it’s a guardroom, the guards may all be sat around looking bored, or in the middle of an argument. It’s more interesting for the Referee if he doesn’t know in advance how a situation will play out, it’s better if he knows they *may* be playing a game or they may not be. That’s what the roll’s for. If more than one player listens at the door, this doesn’t alter the outcome. What might matter is how attentive the character is at listening, and how much they can discern the difference between the noise behind *this* door compared to the row coming from the door opposite. In this case it would probably be sufficient to infer from the roll what perception check would be needed.
C. NPC and Monster Decisions (e.g. morale).Does the monster turn and flee? In many cases this should be obvious from the situation, but often it’s an arbitrary decision. The ref feels that it might flee- so he says “you’ve just killed their leader, on a roll of 1-3 they run away” and rolls the dice. Similarly, lots of times it might be clear which of their attackers a Monster or NPC targets “they attack you, because you wounded them” or “they attack the Elf as they hate Elves”, but if it’s an arbitrary decision, just roll. Dice here help the Referee make impartial decisions, especially when the Referee knows things the monster doesn’t.
D. NPC Knowledge.When they speak to the inn keeper, does he know anything useful? Anything specific about X? Anything rumoured to be going down? Some referees know beforehand what each person knows, some use a random result from a list of rumours.
5. Character attempting a complex multi-step task to solve a static multi-faceted problem.
After I took this photo, my Dad asked me if I thought I could climb it!
Examples of this are the character attempts to track something, climb something, or to pick a lock. You cannot role play through the resolution of this – sometimes the character will succeed, sometimes fail, depending upon the specific details of the task and the character’s strengths and weaknesses. If the task is simple compared to the character’s ability you would expect them to always succeed. Conversely, if the task is far beyond the character’s ability you would expect it to be impossible for them to succeed.

These two factors give some meaning, some sense of progress, to a character’s abilities; just like the warrior can now slay an Ogre, and the wizard can now cast that cool spell, there should be a feeling that you can now track the wolf when you previously couldn't. You want it not to be too narrow a gap between auto-success tasks and auto-fail tasks – if it is always “no roll” then everything is in effect predetermined by the referee. On the other hand, the random element should not be so large that novices regularly outperform experts. The random element here needs to be a reasonably narrow bell curve, and not open ended, so not the same resolution method used in combat. I’ll talk about the solution for Explore in an upcoming post.

Continued in Part 2.

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