Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Go ahead and roll

How many times has this happened: You're GMing and a player says "OK, we're at the burned village. I want to see if I can find tracks from the raiders." And before you can say "Yep, there's a set of huge footprints leading into the hills" the player has thrown his dice, read the result and glumly reported back to you: "Nope, I didn't find 'em."

A variation of that scenario happened last weekend during my Savage Worlds fantasy campaign (featuring special guest player Chgowiz, in his first-ever Savage Worlds outing!). It illustrated that "think, don't roll" can still be applied even to new-school game systems like Savage Worlds.

Had the player asked me what he was able to find, I would absolutely have delivered the details. But once those dice fall, it's tough to backtrack and be like "Weeeell, you officially failed, but it's tough to miss orc footprints in soft soil."

It also points to a general weakness in games where there's a known target number or difficulty class. If you want to roll and tell me you fail, that's fine and dandy—yep, you failed. But if you want to tell me what your character does, you might just get a surprise when I tell you, "OK, you do it."

I'm thinking of putting a little edict in place for my campaign: Unless you're in combat, you don't have to roll for anything unless the GM says you do.

Chgowiz, for his part, took the exact opposite approach. He described his character's actions in detail and tried to set up situations where he wouldn't have to roll—because that added the chance of failure. He had some observations of his own from the game, which I hope he's able to post over at his blog.

Regardless, it made for a very interesting game that truly spanned the divide between old school and new school.


anarkeith said...

I think 3e led us down this path of roll first, ask later. It used to be that a DM had to formulate odds off-the-cuff for actions. That created a window for players, as Chgowiz demonstrated in your game, to stack the odds with a description of their actions.

But 3e had so many skills and situations detailed in the rules. 4e has pared this down a bit, but players have been conditioned to look to their character sheets or rulebooks for answers before they use their imaginations.

PatrickWR said...

Yep, I agree totally. And that's fine in situations where it's clear that a dice roll is the right decision—like combat, when you're toe-to-toe with an ogre. But other times over-zealous dice rolling can can harm players. I'm hoping to foster a careful balance in my game.

Supah said...

This situation presents a tricky question of GM balancing to me. On one hand, I like rolling for skill checks in addition to basic fighting checks - it puts some mechanical teeth into non-fighting characters. This is because I'm a big proponent of the idea that system facilitates a certain type of play (or at least emphasizes a certain type of play) even if it doesn't determine a certain type of play.

On the other hand, there are certain skill checks that just *have to be made* in some situations. If the pc's don't find the footprints, the GM may have to do some pretty quick thinking to keep the session interesting. A full on sandbox GM could say, "Ok, you don't find footprints, so now find something interesting to do from the hidden map that I have behind my screen." But let's face it: this approach doesn't always yield interesting play.

It's a tough balance.

PatrickWR said...

@Supah: I'm fine with skill checks too—I was focusing more on the diminished role of the gamemaster/referee in games where players know (or think they know) the odds what they're rolling. If I'd asked for a skill roll to find those footprints, for example, I might have added a +2 or +4 because they're right there in front of the players. But when the players seize the initiative and say "Nope, I failed"...well, they dug their own grave.

Anonymous said...

Yes, best to just ask if you need to roll. No perception roll needed to see the approaching dragon or armored column. Sometimes, you do need to roll, but only when both success and failure is interesting to the game.

Chgowiz said...

I was just reading a thread on this on the Savage Worlds forum where someone else was asking about the "Take 10" rule that came from d20 gaming. Very similar to what you're talking about doing.

I wonder how you would have handled failure in this case where something was very obvious. I think there are very few times I have the players reach for dice unless I already know what a failure wold bring.

He described his character's actions in detail and tried to set up situations where he wouldn't have to roll—because that added the chance of failure.

I tended to describe what I was doing, not so much because of the chance of failure (although when asked to roll, I was negotiating like crazy to give myself some favorable bonuses) but because in my head, there are just some things that don't need to be rolled for.

The example of looking at orc tracks in the soft snow is one of them, here's another - inspecting a broken down area for stuff. It should be really obvious what is there, what is not there and what I'm looking for. There is the possibility of not seeing that huge pile of metal and rubble in front of me, but I wasn't looking for a needle in the rubble, I was looking for things that could burn and metal rods. In my head, that's a binary operation - it's either there or it's not. Now, if I'm fighting off hordes of bees and there's mud in my eye and if I don't find said wood/metal in the next 5 minutes, I could die - then that in my head is when I expect to roll - and that would be me working like crazy to get favorable bonuses again.

Now, having said that, I also game from a perspective of "ordinary people doing extraordinary things (sometimes)" so I wasn't used to the world of Savage Worlds where the players were larger than life. But then, if I'm rolling to Notice something, and it's expected that I'm a superhero attempting to get an extraordinary result, then if I have to roll on tracks in the mud, I want to be able to tell how many orcs there were, how long ago they walked through here, if they were heavily laden, and even possibly the tribe.

Anonymous said...

Well, you failed, so [time-based complication happens] because it takes so long.

... you find the tracks all right, but [after players have told they are following them] there's an ambush and the obvious tracks are a trick.

Or something else interesting.

MJ Harnish said...

Good advice, although, IME, it's more often the GM that calls for unnecessary rolls.