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!