Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Interpreting dice rolls dramatically

When you're GMing a roleplaying game you will often need to make your players make dice rolls for skill checks and challenges. Following the rules usually leads to a fairly static set of possible outcomes. If you're trying to drive across town quickly, a low roll means you get there at such-and-such a speed (or don't get there at all), a high roll means at some other speed. Period.

But if you're playing a more drama-based game with looser rules, you need a different guideline for how to interpret rolls, and there's a very simple one. The worst roll should produce the worst outcome that still lets the story progress in a satisfying way. The best roll should produce the best outcome that still lets the story progress in a satisfying way.

For instance, you're driving across mid-day traffic through downtown to rush to where the bomb is, and there's only minutes to spare before the terrorists will be able to program the launch codes to detonate the bomb, destroying the whole city. There's no other way to stop it but to get there. Now it's up to the wheelman to make his Drive roll. If he rolls badly... "Well, you didn't get there in time, the bomb blows up, and everyone dies" is just no fun.

The worst outcome that still is satisfying probably means you get there literally at the last possible moment, and along the way, you bashed up your vehicle, injured the passengers, wrecked some of their gear, picked up a cordon of police chasing you, and maybe did some damage to city landmarks along the way which you'll have to deal with later. So, that's what that roll should be. Something which lets the story continue, and even adds interesting complications, which gives the characters a tactical disadvantage, but doesn't end the challenge entirely.

Does that drain away the suspense? I don't know: when you watch an action movie, does the fact that the heroes are likely to survive and even triumph, one way or another, drain the suspense? No, because it's not just about the final score, but also about how we got there, and what it cost to get there.

In the same way, a roll that's too good can just as easily render the story anticlimactic. A lucky hit that kills the villain early into the story can really be a bummer. Don't take away a victory, earned either through skill or luck; just change it to a victory that lets the story continue. Hurt the villain, give the characters an advantage in their next meeting, and the villain more reason to hate them. Reveal a key clue about what the villain is doing in the way the villain escapes to continue his plan. Ensure someone else will be able to carry on the plan in the villain's absence. Just keep the story going.

Though it's important not to let yourself be blinded by this. Sometimes the story resolution that the characters and the dice bring is better than the one you had in mind, even if it cuts the story off short. If the outcome would be better in the movie, go with it. I once had a GM steal a tremendously dramatic, character-changing moment caused by a really good roll on a very risky move, in order to preserve a different ending that probably sounded good on paper, and was bigger and splashier, but less impactful than the one he threw away, and it really undermined my appreciation for that game thereafter.

But the important thing is to keep your goal in mind. If you're running the kind of game where your goal is a dramatic, exciting, satisfying story (which is usually the kind I run), make your dice rolls serve that just like you make everything else serve that. Just remember, players aren't rolling to succeed or fail. They're rolling for the difference between the best and worst outcome that still keeps the story interesting. Calibrate your interpretations accordingly and you'll find preparing adventures is a lot easier, and running them a lot more successful.

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