This is a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently as I have started going back to multi-system playing in an effort to expand my knowledge about other game mechanics and different game and setting styles. Many of the games I have come to enjoy are primarily conversations between the GM and the Players. There are dice rolls, particularly in combat, occasionally in other things, that induce randomness into the conversation. But the bulk of the game is designed to be conversation driven. I am speaking of games like the Cypher System (and Cypher-adjacent games like Numenera and Invisible Sun), FATE, and games like Blades in the Dark, where the system itself and the rules encourage that back and forth conversation.
In games not like that, there are often a hard list of skills, and frequent rolls in order to do things. The GM knows there is something in the room, so we hear the inevitable, “Give me a perception/spot check.” The Player is looking around the room. “Give me a search check.” For everything there is a roll or the GM is asked to arbitrate a “close enough roll” The problem here is, in combat, if you fail a roll, there is an immediate consequence, but it does not stop the player from acting (unless their character dies). In non-combat encounters, like the ones I mentioned, a failure in a roll means they didn’t notice something. Depending on how the adventure is written, this is a game-halting moment. Today, I want to discuss why I believe as a GM you shouldn’t do this, and how to appropriately use skills like Search, people-oriented “soft” skills (Detect, Investigate, etc…), and Spot/Perception.
The overarching theme for these thoughts is necessity. To start the discussion, I’ll quote one of the parts of the Numenera: Discovery corebook that began this change in thought process for me:
“Players should roll when it’s interesting or exciting. Otherwise, they should just do what they do. If the PCs tie a rope around something and use it to climb down into a pit, you could ask for tying rolls, climbing rolls, and so on, but why? Just to see if they roll terribly? So the rope can come undone at the wrong time, or a character’s hand can slip? Most of the time, that makes players feel inadequate and isn’t a lot of fun. A rope coming undone in the middle of an exciting chase scene or a battle can be a great complication […]. A rope coming undone in the middle of a simple ‘getting from point A to point B’ scene only slows down gameplay. The real fun—the real story—is down in the pit. So get the PCs down there.”Numenera: Discovery, page 314, emphasis added
In each of the following skill examples, I have found that, like this quote, the fun – the real story – is on the other side of the dice roll. And you should never let the dice dictate your fun, they should only enhance it.
As a skill, search is typically used when you want to find out if there is something of interest in a room. A secret door, a hidden item, a trap, or something similar. The trick with search is knowing when it matters or makes things more fun to roll and when it doesn’t. If the PCs are potentially going to find something that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things (like a hidden treasury with random table contents), or are looking for something to avoid danger (searching for traps on a treasure chest, using the Search skill roll is absolutely acceptable. In the first case, if they don’t find it, it’s not preventing them from moving forward to the next scene, and in the latter, there’s either a nasty shock waiting for them (think something like the role playing version of a cinematic “jump scare”) or elation as they successfully find and disarm it (in a fantasy game, this is the Rogue’s “schtick” – let them do it).
What you don’t want to do, however, is make them roll to find plot items. If you are in an “office” and they are searching for an incriminating bit of evidence that you as the GM know is in that office, don’t make them roll. If they tell you they are searching for evidence, they find the evidence. Why? Because the fun isn’t in finding the evidence. It’s on the other side of that. It’s the dramatic chase scene where you catch the villain as they’re frantically running, or the one where you face down the King in his throne room with his entire retinue holding damning evidence that his magister who is standing right next to him is a traitor. That’s where the fun is. What happens if they fail the dice roll? They miss getting the clue. Now you have to either shoehorn it in somewhere else (a potential option, but also potentially a narratively problematic one as you may have to come up with an explanation on the fly why a piece of evidence is “out of place” from what makes sense) or the whole thing grinds to a halt.
The only exception to this might be if they are doing these things under duress. If the players are not “lawmen” and are searching a crime scene where the law is on the way, they may only have a brief period of time to find what they are looking for. Then, it is appropriate to reduce it to a roll because it’s part of the drama at that point. If the roll fails, you have the law find the clue and you have to figure out now how to get it away from them. That’s excitement too, just of a different kind.
“Soft” Skills (Detect, Investigate, etc…)
These kinds of skills are the people-equivalent of the inanimate “Search” that we discussed previously. You are investigating a mystery about some disappearing ore. One of the miners has seen something, but is afraid to talk about it. You roll detect, to notice his reticence, or to persuade him to tell you anyway. It comes up a way too low. And… what? You just don’t get the information? Remember, the fun is on the other side of this conversation. Give the player’s the information without a roll if they can come up with a plausible conversation path description for talking to this person. Get them to the fun.
On the flip side, once again, if the situation says that drama needs to be induced via a chance of failure, do it. If you’re trying to persuade a merchant to cut you a deal on a new sword, it’s a roll, because you could still buy the sword without it. When there’s a pack of wererats hot on your heels and you need the town guard to hurry and open the gate to let you in, roll it. That’s drama. That’s tension. That’s excitement.
This one, I look at in reverse. For situations where a snap glance or insight is called, roll it most of the time unless there is a need for them to see whatever there is to see. Then obscure it. What do I mean by that? You are riding along a path. There is a necklace alongside of the path buried under some leaves. If the players tell you that they are being investigative at all, they spot “a glint of metal”. Not “a necklace buried under some leaves”. You don’t want to give the information away all at once. Add some narrative tension, but don’t make them roll, because the fun is on the other side of the clue.
Most of the time, however, these skills are about: Do the players notice the tripwire they’re about to step on, or do they notice the guard’s hand inching toward his sword, or do they see the faint dust cloud of bandits riding up on them. In my mind, all of those are opportunities to introduce tension through dice rolls because the surprise, and the fun, works whether they pass or fail.
Particularly if you are an “old school” gamer like I am, you likely were groomed to believe that your first instinct as a GM or a player should be to reach for dice. Don’t get me wrong. Rolling dice is fun and the tension it can inject into your session is not to be discounted. But don’t let dice rolls grind your fun to a halt by hiding things that advance the plot behind them. Make as much of that as narrative as possible and double down on conversations with your players. “What are you doing in this room?” or “What are you trying to accomplish by doing <insert player action here>?” are great questions to get a sense of PC purpose. Once you have that, decide how crucial it is for them to succeed at whatever they are doing, and if the fun is on the other side of that thing, just give it to them. Get to the fun, it’s why we play the game. Happy gaming!
- Josh Walles
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4 thoughts on “Don’t Hide Your Plot Behind the Dice”
You would be interested by the Gumshoe system by Robin D. Laws. I think he was the first one that emphasised his flaw in traditionnal RPG back in the 2000’s, and he wrote a full system dedicated to workaround that.
I actually have a game in that system. I just haven’t had time to read it yet.