Monday, January 3, 2011

Discuss, Decide, Describe and Resolve Pt. III: The Dice

The Dice Decide and Resolve

I spent some time over the recent holiday break thinking about how I'd like to write this post on dice.  On how dice can determine scores, decide content or resolve actions.  On the value of randomness in general.  On the specific necessity for uncertainty in a game.  I thought on how once having assigned a task to the dice, one must allow them to carry through with it no matter how poorly it goes  for either DM or players.  Because that is their job, is it not?  To make this a game.  To be, if nothing else, counted on for objectivity and impassivity.  To at times help or hinder the goals of the participants with the fickleness that only fate possesses.  Yes, I spent some time considering all these things but they were all summed up in a few short seconds this past week while actually playing the game.

I once wrote how I don't worry too much anymore about my belief that the players are bending the rules for character generation when I'm not around.  This is an affront to the dice on both of our parts, but it keeps the peace and doesn't wreck the game so I mostly look the other way.  I'm not perfect.  I am, though, a bit more of a stickler when it comes to those dice rolled when leveling up.  I'm talking mostly about hit points here. This past week one of the fighters in the group made third level and rolled for additional hit points.   He rolled a "1".  Without a constitution bonus that means 1 more hit point.   For the fighter.  That's the guy that stands in the front of the party, bangs sword against shield and shouts "bring it on, motherfuckers".  Yeah, that guy got one extra hit point.

Obviously he wanted more hit points.  Having hit points is sort of in his character's job description.  If he is to serve as one of the primary melee combatants he needs the extra hit points, especially at third level.  I want him to have the extra hit points because I actually don't like it when characters die and making it to third level is a big deal in a game where punches aren't typically pulled.  Also, there's the cleric that has more hit points.  That's gotta hurt.  Yet there the upturned "1" lay before us.  It mocked us.  I was sorry.  He was disappointed.  A look passed between us in that instant.  His was the sort of questioning, outraged and amused all at once look that asked, "You're not really expecting me to keep that roll are you?"  Mine was the raised brow and apologetic half-smile that responded, "Yes.  I'm afraid I am."

He took in stride.  He explained that he just felt a fighter should get more hit points when leveling up.  It only made sense.  I agreed.  A fighter should get more hit points.  At least one of the '85 through '87 Philadelphia Flyers teams should have won a Stanley Cup.  Cordalene should have recorded at least one more album with the original lineup.  Firefly should have lasted longer than the 14 episodes Fox gave it.  George R.R. Martin should have by now written and published another book for  A Song of Ice and Fire.  Lots of way more important things beyond the minor woes of my personal history should have happened or should be happening right now.  If the universe functioned according to concepts like fairness or logic, that is.  But they're not.  It doesn't.  In the real world its debatable who we can blame.  One might argue there is no blame, at least not in any cosmic sense.  Things are what they are.  In the game, we at least have the dice to blame, and what a dull and pointless game it would be without them.

The dice are there to keep us honest.  To be objective.  To be interesting. To resolve.  The dice provide the game both necessary impartiality and uncertainty.  The DM is the referee, and gets the final say on most things, but his or her power must be held in check.  There are the players and their agency, which any good DM should but doesn't actually have to consider.  There are also the rules and the dice.  The rules establish a framework and probability for what can happen.  DM and players create the situations that operate within that framework.  The dice resolve it all.  They tell us how the dust will settle.  Without dice, there is no game... just narration.  It might be fun, but it's not a game. 

Each set of rules and each DM will have their own way of utilizing the dice.  I personally prefer things somewhat random within a pre-determined framework, so like a lot of so-called old-schoolers I use random tables for all kinds of stuff.  I love them.  To me they make things interesting and sometimes provide spark or inspiration  and a whole new direction for the activities going on.  I'm not proposing that you play the game the way I do or that this particular size fits all.  I am saying, though, that once you figure out what role dice will play in your game you need to stick to it, even if the results aren't immediately palatable.  To do otherwise is to undermine the game.

The closest analog to the table top game is the CRPG.  They're less fun to play, if you ask me.  It's not just the social interaction and chance to be creative and quick-thinking I get out of traditional RPGs... it's the finality of the dice.   It's the fact that there is no saved game to fall back on in the event of failure.  When much is risked on the cast of the dice, the rewards are that much sweeter.  The event of a character death or, fates forbid, a total party kill actually has some meaning.  It's the dice that provide this.  But to do so, they must be fully empowered to perform the function of resolution.  They must be able to kill favorite characters or provide them only one extra hit point at a crucial level.  Their rule and role in this regard must be absolute.   Each little re-roll, no matter how innocent seeming or even logical, erodes the agency of the dice.  As the dice lose meaning, so do the concepts of risk and reward.  Eventually, so too does the point of playing a game at all.   Fudging the die rolls is to me a slippery slope to hell.

I could have allowed the player in question to re-roll his hit points last week.  It would have been immediately acceptable to all nine of us standing around the table the moment it happened.  I would have been congratulated on my fairness and ability to see a greater picture.  Somebody would have fetched me a beer or put the water on for my customary cup of tea as the night got late as a gesture of love and respect.  Then the magic user would roll a "1" for his hit points.  Or the other fighter a "2" or a "3".  Or perhaps there's this really intense moment later on in the evening, where all comes down to a single die roll and the player tossing it misses.  What then?  Where is the line drawn?  Will that really intense moment remain intense if everybody around the table knows the DM will just let the re-roll happen if he desires it?  If the DM doesn't allow the re-roll is he or she being unfair?  Isn't it therefore better to always let the dice have their say, so as to not appear to be playing favorites or making decisions as DM on a subjective and inconsistent basis? I think so.  So the fighter got 1 hit point, I poured my own damn water for the tea and my players will always know what to expect.  That, if nothing else, I at least respect the dice.

Part I:  The DM
Part II: The Players


  1. A couple of minor points. I too wrote today about the effects of a die roll on the game. And its fabulous how your follower's roll is exploding; its on account of good posts like this one.

    It isn't outside the purvue of the game to modify certain rules which seem intolerable to the game. This is not so much a slippery slope, as a precedent set that then establishes the reliable course of the law at hand. A rule such as no ones rolled gives every player the knowledge that at least they will get 2 hit points upon reaching the next level, which does not markedly change the game. Having made that precedent, you can draw the line there and avoid the slippery slope.

    For all the correct argument you make about the absolute nature of the rules and the die, while the law is free from passion it is not unquestionably static. An alternative law, which exchanges great dissatisfaction of moderate dissatisfaction is not beyond your consideration as DM. You are correct in following the rules, but do not forget that the law is also an ass, and a humbug.

  2. Alexis, thanks for the kind words. The blog roll is also due in great part to those like you who have linked to here and provided some visibility. I appreciate it.

    I agree 100% with your point and tried to make the distinction between changing rules and changing changing rolls at the table. The former is natural, expected and encouraged in my approach to the game. The latter only serves to undermine it. I've been guilty in the past of doing both.

  3. As for the single hit point our poor fighter received, I've been considering that as well. I make rules up on the fly as needed and when not otherwise covered. Established rules we follow. If, however, there's a clearly established rule or even just a precedent in place that we want to change I will also do so. BUT, I like to not do it at the table if I can help it unless some non-action on my part would be particularly damaging to the overall game. A character death is not damaging overall to the game. Fighters habitually receiving only one hit point might be.

  4. Hello, my name is Robert Emmons, I am the player. I rolled the 1. I hold the shame.

    I have banned that particular die, because it wasn't me, it was the die... Damn you lady luck, damn you. How am I to bang my shield confidently leading a party now? How am I to protect the magic users so they can heal my wounds? I mean, what else can they do?

    Very nice essay James.