D&D General Disclaiming Decisions: Why We Roll Dice

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I been kicking this around for awhile, and wanted to talk a bit about why we, as RPG players, roll dice. Not like specific things like attack rolls or skill checks, but one step removed from that – what is the intended purpose of rolling dice at all? To that end, I see three main reasons we roll dice: to use them as a prop, to use them as a prompt, and to disclaim decision-making. I don't think these have to be exclusive (although prop and disclaim have some challenges in getting along) and I certainly don't think all rolls should be one or the other. And I think that the reason one rolls, even for the same thing, can change. This isn't meant to say that this kind of roll must be a prompt and that a prop. It's to just suggest that there are different reasons to roll dice, and what those might be to spur some thinking about how we, individually and collectively, look at how dice are used in play.

Prop
Die rolls that are props are the ones where the actual result doesn’t matter, it’s the appearance of a roll that does. I’ve seen these stated as useful to build tension by asking for rolls that don’t matter but seem like they could, to keep players on their toes. Or to obfuscate important rolls, like asking for multiple meaningless perception checks to disguise the one that matters. Also, rolls become props if you’re fudging (not a dig against fudging, there are other threads for that, but an observation that in order to be fudging, a die roll has to try and look like a prompt or disclaim roll but really is a prop).

Prompt
Rolls that are prompts are specifically to provide input to the narrator (GM or player) to help choose what to narrate. These rarely have any fixed values, although there are exceptions, and serve to assist in choosing what to narrate. Examples would be things like random name generators, or personality traits. These aren’t fixed or required outcomes, but can inspire or guide play. An interesting use of the prompts is Ironsworn’s Oracle charts. These are broad suggestions of things that happen that accompany a roll, and you’re suppose to use them to create a specific event that does happen.

I think prompt usage is what's most often paired with other uses. When paired with disclaim rolls, you see this happen when GM’s take very high rolls or very low rolls as inputs into how they narrate results. I've seen it claimed to be paired with prop rolls, as well, where there's some element of the narration that's decided, but another part that takes inspiration from the roll.

Disclaim Decisions
The main use, in my opinion, of a die roll is to disclaim decision-making. This use is where we use the dice to disclaim the decision – to not have to choose the outcome. There are a few uses within this, ones where a GM might think two or more things are likely to happen and assigns a random chance to each and rolls to find out which does occur to complex mechanics like attacks with associated damage and critical chances. The main thing here is that the dice are used to remove the choice from a player or GM and put it on something impartial. This is very important, especially when bad things are happening.

Conclusion
This is just a short post to talk about the meta-reasons we roll dice (or flip cards, or any other randomization method used in a game). I think it’s worthwhile to stop and consider how and why we use dice or mechanics in play; to try to examine what we’re intending to accomplish. Regardless of if you like a certain game theory or hate them all, this really doesn’t belong to any of them. It’s just looking at how and why we use the mechanics. Consider your play, and see if you can identify moments where you’ve used a mechanic as a prop, prompt, or to disclaim decisions. Are there any moments you’ve used a mechanic that’s meant for one as another? Have you combined two of these together? What effect did that have on play? If you feel like it, share the story.
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think this is a pretty good analysis, though I have quibbles, because I gotta me.

I think if the result doesn't matter at all, then you're not using the dice as dice, at all, really, and that use really belongs with uses such as fidget (because idle hands are dangerous hands) or marker (because minis are expensive) where the physical die is something other than a randomizer.

I think the borders between using dice as a prompt and using them to disclaim decisions are going to be blurry. If you're using a random encounter table, it seems like some of both--and how much of each may vary.

I think one of the things dice can represent in the game is the unknowable/unpredictable. I don't think rolling to-hit is disclaiming a decision so much as acknowledging neither the character nor the player nor the GM knows exactly everything about the given situation. This doesn't exactly seem to me like "disclaiming decisions," though I'm sure as hell drawing a blank on what to call it.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think this is a pretty good analysis, though I have quibbles, because I gotta me.

I think if the result doesn't matter at all, then you're not using the dice as dice, at all, really, and that use really belongs with uses such as fidget (because idle hands are dangerous hands) or marker (because minis are expensive) where the physical die is something other than a randomizer.
Well, yes, like a prop. Specifically, though, prop are suppose to look like they mean something, but don't.
I think the borders between using dice as a prompt and using them to disclaim decisions are going to be blurry. If you're using a random encounter table, it seems like some of both--and how much of each may vary.
;) And that's way I explicitly said that you can have more than one reason for a single roll!
I think one of the things dice can represent in the game is the unknowable/unpredictable. I don't think rolling to-hit is disclaiming a decision so much as acknowledging neither the character nor the player nor the GM knows exactly everything about the given situation. This doesn't exactly seem to me like "disclaiming decisions," though I'm sure as hell drawing a blank on what to call it.
What's the alternative to letting the dice tell you if you hit or not? It's deciding if you hit or not. That's why even this use is still disclaiming decision making.
 

niklinna

Legend
I think the borders between using dice as a prompt and using them to disclaim decisions are going to be blurry. If you're using a random encounter table, it seems like some of both--and how much of each may vary.

I think one of the things dice can represent in the game is the unknowable/unpredictable. I don't think rolling to-hit is disclaiming a decision so much as acknowledging neither the character nor the player nor the GM knows exactly everything about the given situation. This doesn't exactly seem to me like "disclaiming decisions," though I'm sure as hell drawing a blank on what to call it.
I can see that. I too have a slight concern with the name. "Disclaiming decisions" implies to me that we ought to be making decisions and are copping out to a randomizer, when, as you point out, in many situations we deliberately want the outcome to be randomly determined. And yet, the name does point toward situations where use of dice (or not) can cause problems.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I can see that. I too have a slight concern with the name. "Disclaiming decisions" implies to me that we ought to be making decisions and are copping out to a randomizer, when, as you point out, in many situations we deliberately want the outcome to be randomly determined. And yet, the name does point toward situations where use of dice (or not) can cause problems.
Well, there's no value judgements attached to any category. Using disclaim in a poor way is perfectly in line -- and an invitation to think why you might be doing that!
 

Prompt - Resolve player vs obstacle (whether setting or NPC or crisis of self) collisions that impact the gamestate.

Prop - Device to affect play aesthetic (mood or player behavior) which doesn’t impact the gamestate directly but rather by-proxy of that aesthetic impact (eg paranoid or curious players feel x and act y).

Disclaim Decisions - Content generator that resolves the action/manifestation of NPC and/or setting elements that either (a) don’t directly interact/collide with PCs (eg NPCs vs NPCs or setting vs NPCs) or (b) collides with PCs but has no internal will to direct it (eg weather or the chance of random encounter in an interval of play) or (c) an NPC has a suite of possible actions where each seem as impactful or reasonable as the next.




I think you’ve captured everything in your lead post (cue Leo’s toast).

Weather is an incident of Disclaim
Decisions that frequently affects expedition/journey decision-space for players and consequence-space for GMs so that one might get the most use/mileage. Systematized Random Encounters (this might happen in B/X when Wandering Monsters “hit”) are probably similarly frequent. Then you have things like Blades Downtime Activities where GMs are procedurally resolving setting/Faction collisions. That happens once per play loop. The least frequent of the bunch is (c) because a well-designed NPC system + principled/conscientious GMing should be able to nearly always infer and resolve NPC actions when they collide with PCs.
 
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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think it's not accurate or fair to call playing by the rules, or engaging the mechanics, or letting the system have its say, or whatever verb phrase of the moment you have in mind "disclaiming decisions." Rolling on a table for random encounters or random treasure seems like disclaiming that decision; rolling to-hit does not. It might be a prompt.
 

I think it's not accurate or fair to call playing by the rules, or engaging the mechanics, or letting the system have its say, or whatever verb phrase of the moment you have in mind "disclaiming decisions." Rolling on a table for random encounters or random treasure seems like disclaiming that decision; rolling to-hit does not. It might be a prompt.

I’m not sure there is disagreement (at least on my end).

I don’t think there would ever be an occasion when a “to hit” (as in an zoomed-in move using actual task resolution) roll would fall under Disclaim Decisions. That would definitely be Prompt. Now you may (or not) go to a randomizer to decide which of 3 moves to make before the “to hit” roll (whereby you’ve got a relatively atomized interaction in the gamestate vs zoomed out conflict resolution - like resolving the weekly or monthly change in a Faction War in Blades).

Disclaim Decisions is procedural content generation. Which thing is employed or how does this thing manifest (perhaps not at all)? When you don’t know and system or GM principles tells you “stay out of it”, you go to dice to find out.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I have a strong quibble with "Disclaim Decisions". I feel moreso that they are neutral arbitrators. When two parties are in conflict, rolling the dice accounts for unseen factors and helps to determine outcomes in a non-biased manner. You inputed the chance, and the dice computed the outcome without emotion or further diagnosis of logic.
 

kenada

Legend
I can see that. I too have a slight concern with the name. "Disclaiming decisions" implies to me that we ought to be making decisions and are copping out to a randomizer, when, as you point out, in many situations we deliberately want the outcome to be randomly determined. And yet, the name does point toward situations where use of dice (or not) can cause problems.
I assumed it was a reference to “Sometimes, disclaim decision-making” from Apocalypse World. That’s where I got it, anyway.
 


niklinna

Legend
I have a strong quibble with "Disclaim Decisions". I feel moreso that they are neutral arbitrators. When two parties are in conflict, rolling the dice accounts for unseen factors and helps to determine outcomes in a non-biased manner. You inputed the chance, and the dice computed the outcome without emotion or further diagnosis of logic.
If you have two parties in conflict, having either party decide the outcome clearly has certain issues. Even then, though, there are games that do have rules for assigning/winning/negotiating that authority, such as one person gets to decide who wins, but the other person narrates how that happens.

Anyhow, giving odds and randomly determining the outcome of a conflict is widely regarded as a neutral way of handling it. But who decides the odds? In practice decisions at that level are rarely disclaimed or put to randomization (as prompts). Depending on the nature of the factor and its place in the narrative, it could be the GM or the player. The numeric value of the factor can also be determined by rules, or by either GM or player.

I am also reminded, from another thread going on, about how GM and player negotatie position & effect in Blades in the Dark (including narration in advance of possible outcomes), and how the player can garner extra dice.
 

As usual, I have my...issues...with dice as Props, but I will leave those aside for the good of the thread.

I do think there's space for one more area wherein dice matter, which doesn't fit well into any of the existing categories: Dice (or other RNG sources) as Gradients. That is, dice give us the possibility of having more than a binary outcome, more than just yes/no, win/lose, etc. Damage dice are obviously one of the most common examples of gradient dice, but PbtA games have their three grades of success (which I personally have extended to a fourth grade), and Pathfinder 2e has a more clear, direct form of fumble/fail/pass/crit than is typical in d20 systems. Those are both examples that combine some form of prompt (success vs failure) with gradient (degrees of success.) In most cases like this, the tone and focus of the action is already defined, but exactly how it cashes out remains in question, unlike a usual "prompt"-style role, where there are numerous completely disparate possible results (e.g. rolling up an NPC with various quirks or rolling up a random treasure.)

Gradient stuff doesn't see as much presence in D20 games, but is rather more significant in, say, White Wolf's Storyteller games or in the various editions of Shadowrun, where you have dice pools, and usually need to hit a certain number of successes (and may get more benefits for more successes.)
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I’m not sure there is disagreement (at least on my end).

I don’t think there would ever be an occasion when a “to hit” (as in an zoomed-in move using actual task resolution) roll would fall under Disclaim Decisions. That would definitely be Prompt. Now you may (or not) go to a randomizer to decide which of 3 moves to make before the “to hit” roll (whereby you’ve got a relatively atomized interaction in the gamestate vs zoomed out conflict resolution - like resolving the weekly or monthly change in a Faction War in Blades).

Disclaim Decisions is procedural content generation. Which thing is employed or how does this thing manifest (perhaps not at all)? When you don’t know and system or GM principles tells you “stay out of it”, you go to dice to find out.
Of course it's disclaiming a decision. We need to know if Bob's fighter hits the troll. Unless everyone is cool with either the GM or Bob or Suzy just saying what happens, we need some way to not decide and let something else tell us what happens. That's disclaiming a decision -- literally denying claim or authority over it.

It's also, in D&D and lots of other systems, a prompt, in that the result is pretty light on detail and so it prompts us to fill it in. It's both -- we disclaim the decision to say if Bob's fighter hits, and we also get a prompt to narrate some more fiction -- Bob's fighter hits, but how?

@prabe, @Stormonu, I hope this helps you understand what I'm saying.
 



niklinna

Legend
Of course it's disclaiming a decision. We need to know if Bob's fighter hits the troll. Unless everyone is cool with either the GM or Bob or Suzy just saying what happens, we need some way to not decide and let something else tell us what happens. That's disclaiming a decision -- literally denying claim or authority over it.
And there are some decisions—like to-hit rolls—where tradition is very, very strongly on the side of rolling the dice in many games. Again, Bladesin the Dark is a notable exception there! You could go blow-by-blow with it, but it's usually not done that way, when combat even comes up in that game.

It's also, in D&D and lots of other systems, a prompt, in that the result is pretty light on detail and so it prompts us to fill it in. It's both -- we disclaim the decision to say if Bob's fighter hits, and we also get a prompt to narrate some more fiction -- Bob's fighter hits, but how?
Ah, this helps clarify the difference between prompt & disclaim decision a bit.

Edit: Fixed a typo.
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Choosing to introduce uncertainty is itself a decision.
Okay. There's nothing here that says there aren't choices made by people. This is talking about using dice or a game mechanic. So unless the choice is through dice... not the topic.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Ok, obviously some people are taking issue with the terminology “disclaim decisions.” Personally, I don’t take issue with the term, but if I learned one thing from the jargon thread it’s that the wrong choice of terminology can completely ruin an otherwise useful theoretical framework for people. And I think that would be a shame to happen here because I think you’ve got something really interesting here and I would hate to see it dismissed over word choice.

All that said, I adore this framework.

One thing that immediately strikes me is that I think this speaks to one of the major sources of disagreement on these boards: player-initiated rolls. Under this lens, we could frame player-initiated rolls as players wanting to use the dice to (for want of a better term) “disclaim a decision” - letting the result of the roll stand-in for a description of what specifically their character is doing to search the room or whatever. On the flip side, when the GM calls for a roll in response to a player-described action, the GM is “disclaiming the decision” of what the result of that action will be.

Something I wonder about is where random tables lie in this framework. By that I mean things like random encounter tables, treasure horde tables, random event tables, weather tables, etc, etc. They seem to combine elements of prompting for the DM with “disclaiming the decision” of what monster shows up, or what treasure the PCs find, or what have you.
 
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