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A Guide to Dice Rolling

Different games, situations and even players require different treatment, but as a general rule, the Game Master shouldn't ask for a roll when the situation doesn't need it. Judging this need is the trick of course, and separates good Game Masters from average ones.
Steve Dean on Dice Rolling in Games
Asking for a dice roll may separate a good Game Master from an average one. Dice D20. Image: Imgur.com

We’re not talking about the physical act of throwing the dice and waiting for them to stop rolling, of course, but the need for such a roll in the first place. It’s easy for a Game Master to fall into the trap of calling for a check when none is needed. Dice provide a method of randomizing success and failure, and the degree of that result. And really that’s all they should be used for. Too much dice-rolling slows the pace, distracts the players and ruins immersion.

Different games, situations and even players require different treatment, but as a general rule, the Game Master shouldn’t ask for a roll when the situation doesn’t need it. Judging this need is the trick of course, and separates good Game Masters from average ones.

In certain situations, a roll is always needed, such as in combat, and when using skills or taking actions that can fail, like picking locks and leaping chasms. In other situations, rolls aren’t needed, such as when a character is doing something they’ve done many times before and there are no reasons why they should fail, like riding a horse or putting on armour.

In between these two conditions is a large grey area, where calling for a roll is dictated by circumstances. For instance, lighting a fire is very easy for our adventurers, they have the skill, plenty of dry wood and time to work on the task. If the Game Master changes any of those parameters, the task gets more difficult. Is it raining, is the wood wet, has the character lost their tinderbox? All of these things can make a big difference to whether they can light a fire or not. The next question is “do they need the fire?” If not, there’s no point calling for a roll, just let the characters light the fire. If getting the fire lit is part of the characters’ plan, because they want to summon a fire elemental, for instance, then make them roll.

Which brings us to the next point. If the success of the characters’ action is critical to the plot, don’t let the success hinge on a dice roll. If the characters find a door in a dungeon and the entire adventure is beyond that door, a failed roll on strength or a lock-pick skill is going to ruin the entire thing.

The most common over-rolling situation in my experience is when dealing with non-player characters. The only roll required here, outside of combat, is if a non-player character has an opinion that can be changed by talk, bribery or some other method. A king’s guard isn’t going to let adventurers into the king’s tent, no matter what dice they roll. Similarly, a merchant isn’t going to give away his fortune, nor a farmer set fire to his own crops. In contrast, a guard on a gambling den might let the characters in, a tavern keeper with a full house might let them sleep in the stables, and a merchant might give them a better price, and in these cases a dice roll is relevant.

When calling for a dice roll, the Game Master should also be aware of how many separate rolls are required. The least number in any situation is the best, and many encounters can be dealt with by just one roll. For instance, the characters have had a long day slaughtering cultists in a dirty crypt, they’re covered in blood and other foul substances. They enter a tavern, just wanting to get clean and sleep. The tavern keeper will take one look at them and order them off his premises. One of the characters produces a gold coin and asks for a bath. The tavern keeper, seeing the gold coin and hearing the word ‘bath’ immediately smiles and welcomes them with open arms. In this case, a single roll, or even none at all, is all that’s needed. The tavern keeper now knows the characters have money and aren’t as disreputable as he first thought.

In some cases, instead of every player rolling, a single roll from one of them will do. For instance, when negotiating payment for a task, the character speaking for the whole group should make any rolls needed, the rest are assumed to be agreeing with the spokesperson and don’t need to roll. Tactically, of course, the best character for the job will be doing the negotiating anyway.

Asking for too few rolls can be just as bad as too many. The Game Master shouldn’t be deciding the outcome of the characters’ random actions, and neither should the players. If a character says “I pick the lock and go through the door.” The Game Master has to step in and ask for a roll against their lock-picking skill. Similarly, if the Game Master says “An arrow flies out of the dark and hits you in the eye.” with no sign of a roll, the players will, rightly, be upset.

In summary, dice are rolled to decide the outcome of random events, things that can fail or succeed, and that have an impact on the game in some way. Trivial events don’t need rolls. The Game Master should think “will there be different consequences in the game if the roll succeeds or fails?” if the answer is no, then put the dice down. The Game Master should keep dice rolling to a minimum but without going too far. On balance, it’s probably better to ask for too many than too few. We know well enough the draw of those clicky little multi-coloured crystals of fate, but try to resist!

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