What’s in a Roll?

I think, you being here on this page, that I can safely assume that you have played a roleplaying game at some point, whether as a player or a game master. Most games ask one or more players to roll dice to determine the outcome of any given action. Indeed, the D&D 5e Players’ Handbook states the following:

Players roll dice to resolve whether their attacks hit or miss or whether their adven­turers can scale a cliff, roll away from the strike of a magical lightning bolt, or pull off some other dangerous task.

But in the realm of roleplaying games, there are many different elements to consider beyond just dice rolls. There are character motivations, storylines, the overall cool/fun factor, and sometimes even a degree of realism.  Throughout all of these considerations, the dice rule all, judging actions and engraving fate upon the game world. We roll dice all throughout every session, but the question is:

Why do we roll dice exactly?

Obviously, dice exist in roleplaying games to provide an element of chance, but therein lies a contradiction: more often than not, any given player at the gaming table treats any given roll not just as an indicator of success, but of the character’s capability.

For example, when a 16th level fighter swings his sword at a peasant and rolls a 1, the explanation that the DM typically proclaims is “Your swing goes wild!”

However, this doesn’t ring true, if you’re attempting to keep a thought towards realism in your game. This is a 16th level fighter vs a level 0 nobody. There should be no way that such a trained and experienced force of violence should miss from a simple wild swing. So how is this possible? Do we need to revise how we narrate our combat?

For guidance, I look to the sentence immediately following the above passage from the PHB:

Anything is possible, but the dice make some out­comes more probable than others.

“Some outcomes more probable than others” is absolutely key. The dice are not there purely to determine whether or not the swing was good. A 16th level fighter will always swing well… unless something impacts his ability to swing. There are other potential outcomes beyond just ineptitude.

I suggest the following: treat failed rolls, particularly in combat, not as the character’s failure, but as the effects of the rest of the world upon their efforts. The dice are there to add an element of luck, so they should represent the effect of luck itself upon the characters’ world.

If an attack would miss, or if a target would fail a saving throw, try the following possibilities instead:

  • The roller is distracted by something else in the combat, like a companion being injured or an overreaction to background noise.
  • The roller steps on a loose stone or some other unsure footing.
  • The roller is preoccupied with their feelings, such as sadness or fear.
  • The roller’s blood pressure has raised to the point where it is clouding and/or coloring their vision.
  • The roller has an illness or previous injury that acts up.
  • The roller’s heart just isn’t in it.
  • The climate in this location is different than what the roller is used to.
  • Something the opponent says or does reminds the roller of a beloved person.
  • The opponent’s diety is able to provide some kind of minor assistance.
  • The roller WANTED to fail, to set something else up.
  • The opponent trips up, moving unexpectedly so that the roller fails.

Remember, dice add chance not just to the game, but to the characters’ lives!

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