Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Will of the Dice

The dice know all, see all.

I have a decent commute every morning - I'm on the road about 30-40 minutes each morning getting to the office - and I've gotten into the habit of listening to podcasts.  My two favorites are Hardcore History and the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast, but I also listen to some fantasy sports, some Cthulhu gaming stuff (yogsothoth.com), and an AD&D podcast - Roll for Initiative.

Listening to a recent Roll for Initiative podcast, a realization took hold - I no longer play the game like those guys do.  Somehow the topic of fudging dice came up, and they were talking about the importance of making their monster hit when they wanted it to hit, or making a monster auto-miss if they didn't want to kill someone - basically changing the results any time the dice disagreed with what the DM wanted to happen.  I know on a previous show I got all fired up when they were talking about moving encounters around to make sure the group ran into the encounter the DM wanted them to meet (a bit of Illusionism).

I used to DM in this style  - I did a lot of event or scene-based games and always guided the action to a degree.  In fact, lots of game systems and game mastering styles require the DM to have a strong hand in laying down the story - super hero games and modern genres pretty much necessitate this style.

However, one of my recurring talking points on the blog is the sense of discovery the DM gets by allowing the game to unfold through a healthy amount of randomization.  Over on Mule Abides, I read the phrase "oracular power of the dice" and that's really a fitting phrase, isn't it?  The oracles from antiquity prophesied the future, but there was a fair amount of interpretation that needed to happen to the pronouncements.  Any time the DM is randomizing elements of the game and incorporating new things on the fly, they are acting as improviser and oracle and fellow explorer.

So here's how this ties back to the Strahd post from yesterday.  Strahd was a random encounter!  The group was making their way to the study, looking for the Tome of Strahd, and the random encounters in Ravenloft are set up so that one of the results is Strahd himself.  When that came up on the dice, it certainly sent things in another direction.  Strahd was aware of the PC's quest and decided to meet them in the study.  He'd been chastising them in his nightly visits for not approaching him and having a "civilized" conversation face-to-face, so he would force it upon them.  There he waited in the sitting room before the roaring hearth, leafing through the Tome of Strahd.  He had no idea he was about to be nuked!

Things would have turned out differently under the management of 1990's Beedo.  I might have fudged the Strahd random encounter, or had him automatically make the saving throw, and definitely would have had it be a fake-Strahd decoy.  Getting randomly gacked by a spell on a scroll just wouldn't have fit my sense of drama.

These days, I'm finding there's a lot to be said for never fudging the dice, never swapping out encounters or otherwise manipulating things behind the screen.  The players can always tell; making up dice results affects the game's integrity.  Letting the dice fall avoids any perception of favoritism.  The game develops in unexpected ways, pushing me to improvise and incorporate unforeseen elements.  Sure, characters may die for unplanned reasons - random reasons - but it's old school, we expect a bit of that, and the victories the players enjoy are sweeter because they know I'm not pulling punches.  For my own enjoyment, there's this sense that I'm discovering what's going to happen at the same time as the players, and that's pretty dang cool.  It's not all laid out ahead of time and carefully plotted.  Trust in the wisdom of the dice, eh?

There's plenty of advice on the other side - most DMing manuals have a blurb right near Rule Zero that says something like, "Don't let random dice results ruin your game..."  I guess my definition of 'ruin' has changed - I'm having a hard time seeing a random result ruin anything.

Since I brought up the podcasts - anyone have their favorites?  Let me know why I should add your recommendation to my iTunes queue!


  1. Thanks for the post. With new or younger players I am more prone to fudge a roll that kills them, however once they have played the game a while or if they happen to be older or seasoned players the dice are part of the game. Playing the game and having fun is the goal, even death can be fun if played well.

  2. That's an interesting point - letting the dice lie. We randomize things so often to keep things interesting. Why not 'trust in the die' at other times? :)

    The latest LL game I ran had a vaguely similar situation. The PCs were up against 8 ten feet tall egg headed monsters from the Ethereal plane. Basically reskinned ogres, but SHHH.

    The PCs were getting hit hard and were backing out of the dungeon slowly. Then one of my precious egg-heads missed. I had a very strong desire to fudge the die and auto-smack a PC, sending the party into a final tizzy that would end in them running out of the dungeon with their tails between their legs.

    I stared at the die, took a a deep breath, and sucked it up. It was funny. At that moment, the party began to improvise - using ropes and grappling hooks and whatever they could find to knock over the egg-heads, jump on their chests, and make scrambled eggs. They finished their omelet soon after.

    Random results keep the game interesting, but they can also keep a bloodthirsty DM from initiating a TPK just because he happens to be in beserker mode. :)

    Regarding Podcast - I just don't listen to RPG ones anymore. The ones I followed kind of got boring. Any good ones out there?

    - Ark

  3. My moment of clarity came when I ran a game online using OpenRPG. In that software, all dice rolls are out in the open, so there was no way I could fudge rolls. It was quite liberating, and I discovered that the game, rather than falling apart, was actually richer for "letting the dice fall where they may."

    I just had one of those moments in a Pendragon game I ran on Sunday. I had an NPC knight who was supposedly the model of knighthood (and had the stats to back it up), but he fled in fear before a basilisk when a couple dice rolls went against him. Totally changed the character of the NPC and how the PC thought of him. It was a development I never would have come up with on my own, but in retrospect really added to the game and created a much more interesting PC-NPC dynamic.

    As for podcasts, I enjoy the actual play podcasts on Yog-Sothoth.com and "The History of Rome" but my all-time favorite is "The Ricky Gervais Show".

  4. So Strahd was a random? That changes my view then from your last post! I thought it was a planned encounter because of how well they prepared, but I suppose they prepared that way in case they ran into him, which they did. Wow, that is pretty awesome. I will admit, I used to fudge dice, but no more. I let the dice fall where they might and leave it to the players to decide what to do. If a roll misses, or hits, I don't pull punches. Nor do I cheat to give the monsters or villains an edge. I think you handled the Strahd encounter perfectly. Randomness is what makes these games so fun, because in a sense you're discovering the world just as the players are.

  5. "oracular power of the dice"
    That's a perfect phrase to live by. I use to fudge dice, just a bit, in the past. Now, I just let the dice fall where they may. As a DM it lets me participate in the excitement of the unknowns of the game.

    Always a good topic for a post.

  6. radomization can result in crap. everybody has seen this happen. i believe that in such a case it's the duty of a dm to "spice things up" a bit.

    i can take 1 boring session. maybe 2. if i play and session after session is weird, disconnected or simply boring because of a string of shitty rolls i'd rather have a dm that has less faith in the dice and more faith in himself and his imagination (or is simply well-prepared). if a random encounter rolled is boring and i as dm have got an interesting one prepared, one that would either work well with what the party is after or cause even more confusion (or whatever is needed) at that moment in the game, then i would use my encounter.

    i don't think this is an issue of control either. it's an issue of shared expectations. different parties expect different scenarios in their games. as a dm you would do well to get a feeling for what your party wants (hopefully the same things you do or there will be tension) and give them at least some of it. if the sacred random rolls don't do that, the players will be unhappy. it's as simple as that.

    this party is satisfied with their victory. i know i wouldn't be. a random encounter that results in a major villain being killed with 1 spell is not what i am after.

    being able to understand what a party is after is a very important dm-skill in my mind. like i wrote in my comment to your previous post, as the party was happy with the outcome, you made a good choice.

    in my own current game our party also killed a couple of vampires with lucky rolls a few weeks back and it didn't really feel like a great accomplishment. the power of the dice works both ways...

  7. I am simply relieved that there is another human being who uses the word "gack."

  8. I can second The History of Rome. But you should start at the beginning :) You could also check out Two GMs One Mike - I found it today, and I think it'll be a regular.

  9. The History of Rome looks intense - there are years worth of podcasts out there! I just checked out the site, I'll have to see what's in their iTunes feed. Thanks for the tip on the other one (2 GMs One Mike) I'll look into it as well.

  10. As for THoR, his iTunes feed is a little messed up due to him changing clients a couple of times. I think the first episode is numbered 001, but you'll figure that out if you decide to go for it.

    He is a very good storyteller, and he knows his stuff. It is well worth it. I was a year behind when I started, and I didn't listen to anything else for about three weeks. Then I was caught up :)

  11. I love that the Strahd encounter was a random one! That just rocks.

  12. Combat in my games became more gratifying and intense when I stopped using the DM screen. I roll my dice out in the middle of the table and it is fun seeing everybody's eyes watch the dice. It brings an honesty to the table that results in better games. The players know when they have earned a victory and know when they deserved a defeat.