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In Praise of Dice

I don’t think I need to convince anyone that dice are cool. But for those who feel dice are only useful for looking pretty and making a clattery sound behind a GM’s screen, I disagree.

dice-2788986_960_720.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Fudging Dice Rolls​

Recent years have seen an explosion in all manner of gorgeous artisan dice and special editions. It seems every convention I’ve been to I’ve had to add another set to my already over developed collection, whether it was some rainbow dice during Pride at Origins or a set of cool Eldritch Cthulhu dice the next year.

In such articles, the conversation is about taking control of the story and making sure the results do the best thing for the adventure rather than accept a random result. It makes sense, and in many games I’ll ignore my dice (as a GM that is, for a player that’s called cheating) to work in the best interest of the story to get a more satisfying outcome for the players and the game.

But while I do agree with the odd fudging, I have to also council against it, and suggest your story may be a lot better because of the randomness so often eschewed by ardent story gamers. Quite simply, a random result will not only test your storytelling but also get you out of a rut.

Digging Out of a Rut​

We all fall into storytelling ruts. Many players have a certain type of character they love to play, and GMs do the same thing with favourite types of encounter and NPC. There isn’t especially anything wrong with this if that’s what you enjoy playing. But if you are finding your game seems have become a little samey, you need to go a bit random. Instead of choosing character options, roll them by the book and take whatever you get, no matter how unoptimised or odd. Then take all that randomness and make it fit together. Not only will you get a character you have probably taken a lot more time to think about, but also something you don’t usually play. You might hate it, but if so, you can always create a new character, and at the very least you may have gained few interesting ideas you’ll want to use again.

The same goes for the gamemaster. It doesn’t hurt to let fate take over the driving seat now and again. While it might not always take you down the best route, a random dice roll will take your game somewhere unexpected. When the game slides onto a path even the GM didn’t predict, you are all suddenly on a mystery tour. As a GM I find that exciting, because I want to know what’s going to happen as much as the players do. It may mean a little more improvising but that can be part of the fun. Either way, just like creating a random character you will go somewhere you don’t usually go, and tell a story you don’t usually tell. If it isn’t working you always have the option to pull the adventure back onto more familiar ground by fudging the next dice roll. But give it a chance before you do as sometimes the most jarring paths can take you to a very interesting place if you take just a few more steps down that road.

The Glory of Failure​

It’s at this point I should add a note about one of the best things about dice, failure. Failure is good, and possibly one of the best storytelling devices you will ever find. Sure, it might suck to be the thief who fails to pick a lock or the group who fails to take down the villain. But such events only start new stories. If the lock can’t be picked, the party isn’t going to just go home. They must find a new way to get past the door. If they can’t defeat the villain, they won’t just give up (or shouldn’t if they are true heroes). Instead, they will come back again, and how much more satisfying to overcome a problem that seemed insurmountable the first time.

I even include expert characters in this. While your thief might be a world-renowned locksmith, no one has a 100% change of success every time. Even experts fail now and again. So, don’t get hung up on the idea that it is part of your character that ‘they never fail to pick a lock’. Embrace the fact they are imperfect and can have a bad day and ask yourself how they deal with the fact they have failed.

As it often does, Pendragon offers a model for this with the personality traits. Even the most Chaste or Brave knight might fall victim to the charms of an enchantress or be struck by cowardice before a big battle. They are human, it happens. The question then becomes how do they cope with this failure, and how does it affect their position in the group? Can they make amends, will they overcome the lack of confidence, and what will they feel the next time they are called upon to face a similar test?

So, in short, don’t always take too much control of the story. Let go a little and see what fate brings you. It may take you somewhere you never even dreamed possible, and you get to roll a few more of those gorgeous shiny polyhedrons you spent all that money on.

Your Turn: How important are dice in shaping your game's narrative?
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


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Why roll if you aren't committed to accepting the result? Better to just declare what happens and save rolling for when you're going to respect what it tells you.

Also, there are other ways to deal with catastrophic results than fudging dice results. In games like D&D there is resurrection magic, wishes, and divine intervention. If your campaign is totally ruined by one bad die result, you could reboot in a slightly different parallel universe. Even converting the whole thing to a dream sequence afterwards is better than misrepresenting the dice roll.
110% agreed.

re: dice fudging
I've always been of the opinion, that fudging roles should only be done in the event that accepting the dice as they rolled would result in a distinct lack of fun, or interesting narrative outcome.
Case in point: Recently during a session, all of my players had been rolling poorly all night and they were being decimated in combat. Everyone at the table was not having fun, at all. So I changed gears, fudged one or two monster attacks into misses while also introducing a few narrative actions to turn the tide in their favor. Lo and behold, on the next combat round, my players started rolling better and the entire mood of the table shifted for the better. At the end of the night, they were telling me it was the most fun they've had in the campaign thus far.

Could I have let the dice lay where they fall, sure. It's possible that they could have turned things around on their own. It's also possible there could have been a TPK and a lot of sour feelings. I think that smart DMing with a rare occurrence of fudged rolls used with discretion is a happy medium.
Have you ever even considered the possibility of just saying "no, that's BS, the attack missed you, I don't care what the dice say"? Or of inserting a little bit of diegetic divine intervention that the players can wonder (or become paranoid) about?

Deceiving your players is not the only way to reject unacceptable dice rolls or mechanical results. It is possible to be the guardian of fun without making your players believe you actually let them play a game rather than enforce your will and just happen to mostly choose not to disagree with the dice.

It doesn't matter what's true,
It always matters what is true. Especially when other humans are involved. That we speak of fictional things (and thus ones that do not physically exist) in no way reduces the value and impact of the truth. That said, truth alone is no excuse; hence, as I said in the previous paragraph, we can still be guardians of fun without being deceivers. We can still uphold our responsibility to deliver a good time without cheating or misrepresenting. We just have to show a very, very little bit more creativity.

Would it be ok if a casino fudged the dice on the players? There is an element of trust here; challenge, risk, and reward. All that.
Agreed. Or if a video game presented odds of success that had nothing to do with the actual calculation. (See also: the newer X-Com games.)

"Would it be ok if a casino fudged the dice on the players? There is an element of trust here; challenge, risk, and reward. All that."

If the casino fudged the dice so that the players won more often and had a better time? Yeah, I think most people would be good with that.
But doing so guarantees some other people will lose more. More importantly, it means you aren't playing a game, you're being spoonfed a fixed experience. Do you really think "winning more" would actually correlate with folks getting more money? Do you really want an experience where strategies are pointless because the house doesn't just win, it fixes the results of play?
 


Do you feel deceived by a stage magician because what they are doing is trickery and fakes, or entertained by the spectacle?

The person with the top hat and the rabbits, pretending to saw the assistant in half? That's the DM.

As long as the audience is entertained, the number of trapdoors and mirrors involved is irrelevant as long as you don't let the audience see them.
 

Mortus

Explorer
In session 0, I always ask if the players prefer GM public rolls or private rolls (except when it doesn’t make sense of course like finding traps). Most of the players I’ve gamed with want public rolls. It does make it easier when their PC is killed, they asked for it. 🙂
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
I like my dice lightweight in the hand, sharp of edge, easy to read, and different colors so as to be readily told apart:

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In play, I'm strictly anti-fudging, and that's as true of monster stats and setting elements as it is of dice rolls. I won't quantum ogre my players because I want them to have agency, and I want their choices -- and therefore the game itself -- to have meaning. To that end, I embrace the "dice as oracles" principle.

Do you feel deceived by a stage magician because what they are doing is trickery and fakes, or entertained by the spectacle?

The person with the top hat and the rabbits, pretending to saw the assistant in half? That's the DM.

As long as the audience is entertained, the number of trapdoors and mirrors involved is irrelevant as long as you don't let the audience see them.

Anyone watching a stage magician has consented to be entertained with trickery. Illusionism in an RPG is, by definition, deceiving the players without their consent. For a referee who holds to a more old-school play-style, it's tantamount to cheating.
 

There is a middle ground between extremes.
I will need more information before I can make sense of this assertion. From where I'm sitting, the so-called "extremes" are "No deception/fudging" and "some amount of deception/fudging." I do not know how it is possible to find a middle ground between "none at all" and "some."

Do you feel deceived by a stage magician because what they are doing is trickery and fakes, or entertained by the spectacle?

The person with the top hat and the rabbits, pretending to saw the assistant in half? That's the DM.

As long as the audience is entertained, the number of trapdoors and mirrors involved is irrelevant as long as you don't let the audience see them.
Does this mean you admit your players are merely a passive audience, to whom you give a controlled experience fixed in all ways actually relevant to the entertainment? (E.g. the magician accepting a volunteer to be "cut in half" does not actually make that volunteer any less of a passive participant.)

Or do your players actually have agency and active participation? Because if they aren't just a passive audience, the critical component of your analogy--a show put on for passive observation--fails. And it is in fact exactly the players' agency that makes such deception unacceptable.

In session 0, I always ask if the players prefer GM public rolls or private rolls (except when it doesn’t make sense of course like finding traps). Most of the players I’ve gamed with want public rolls. It does make it easier when their PC is killed, they asked for it. 🙂
This, at least, I can accept. If your players tell you they don't mind you fudging rolls sometimes, more power to you. I as a player would register my serious issues with such tactics, and if a majority decides in favor of DM fudging, I'd politely excuse myself from that group, due to irreconcilable differences.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Just to reiterate:
There is no goal that fudging achieves which cannot also be achieved without fudging, which is not inherently a deception (unless, as noted, the players explicitly give their consent). Literally every single desirable in-game result that you can achieve by fudging, you can also achieve without it, though I admit it usually takes a (slightly) greater degree of effort. If it is possible to achieve an end without deception, is it not better to take the non-deceptive means?
 

Lord Mhoram

Adventurer
I find it easier to play systems that have failure states other than "You die" or similar - that even if rolls go bad the narrative continues. Decades ago when I GMed 1st ed D&D I tended to fudge... for a number of different reasons. As I grew in ability, and the market became much more open with many different types of games, I found it's easier to just find games that fit how I like to GM.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
But doing so guarantees some other people will lose more. More importantly, it means you aren't playing a game, you're being spoonfed a fixed experience. Do you really think "winning more" would actually correlate with folks getting more money? Do you really want an experience where strategies are pointless because the house doesn't just win, it fixes the results of play?
"Would it be ok if a casino fudged the dice on the players? There is an element of trust here; challenge, risk, and reward. All that."

If the casino fudged the dice so that the players won more often and had a better time? Yeah, I think most people would be good with that.

"Would it be ok if a casino fudged the dice on the players? There is an element of trust here; challenge, risk, and reward. All that."

If the casino fudged the dice so that the players won more often and had a better time? Yeah, I think most people would be good with that.
What happens when you lose? Once the trust is lost, it never comes back.
 

It is trivially important whether players have agency.

It is vitally important whether players BELIEVE they have agency.

I have no moral objection to lying to the players, consistently continually and with a straight face, if it adds to their enjoyment. As DM I am first and foremost an entertainer, not a referee.

And if a potential player ever asked me - in person, rather than under the cloak of internet anonymity - I would respond that no, of course I absolutely do not fudge the dice. Ever. Perish the thought!
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The quote function is totally broken.

The magician example is good, because where I am from, Eastern Europe, magicians are bad, as considered to be pick-pockets, and thieves.

I think we have all ignored a result of the dice, except this sometimes is the agreement of the table, such as we do this thing, and then never talk about it. Too much, yes, it removes agency of the player. Always circling back to the trust issue, try, try to maintain that trust, as it is important.

Often, I think that if the roll is not that important, why roll? Or make it for the measure of success or failure, not life hanging in the balance. Many games it would be ridiculous to do a "save or die" when it takes hours to make a character.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
At Gen Con 2001, I bought one of those ridiculous bowls of dice you can get by the pound. I then ordered six "Eric Noah's Unofficial D&D 3rd Edition" mugs and fill each with a random assortment of dice and gave one to each of my then current players.

I love odd dice and have found ways to work d30s and d16s into my old games with house rules. In another recent thread I talked about how I sometimes buy cheap old board games at flea markets and thrift stores if they have funky dice and throw the rest away!

Among my favorite or notorious dice are a set of black and grey d20s that my players dubbed "The PC Killers," a blue on white d8 that came from the old Dune board game, 2/3s of the set that came in my first Red Box, and the 6-sider that came from the 1980s Trump board game, where not only is the 6 replaced with a "T" but the die is clearly weighted towards that "T." A player who started feeling bad about using it because of this fact gifted it to me back in the early 00s and I started lending it out as DM when a player needed to roll a d6 for something important in-game. So kind of a built in "possible" fudge. These days, given the die's associations I have mixed feelings about using it at all.
 

"Often, I think that if the roll is not that important, why roll?"

We so agree on that, and (even though it is not a new idea) I think it is the single biggest style adaptation I have made since 5E. If a task is either trivial or impossible, you don't need to ask the players for a roll.

Off topic, but it's how I dealt with the issue of "Well it doesn't say you have disadvantage on your Athletics checks to swim in heavy water if you are wearing full plate!" "Huh. You're right. You don't get a roll at all. You sink."
 


dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Dice are fun, when I met with UK players, and one was running a Traveller game; they laughed as I said I had bought a "pound of dice" from chessex. I love buying dice. As others have mentioned, some dice are weighted, I avoid anything like that. Dice rolling is fun though, and I try to have the players roll as much as possible, with many times a "fail forward" sort of philosophy.

Saying yes or no to players, I more think times I said no are probably wrong than the times I said yes. Better to go with the flow, they can always fail later. It is also key to narrate what they are exactly rolling for.
 

Jack Daniel

Engines & Empires
It is trivially important whether players have agency.

It is vitally important whether players BELIEVE they have agency.

I have no moral objection to lying to the players, consistently continually and with a straight face, if it adds to their enjoyment. As DM I am first and foremost an entertainer, not a referee.

What a fascinating difference of method and opinion. I'm ardently a referee and not an entertainer, and I should imagine that my players prefer it that way.

If I robbed them of their honestly earned successes -- and failures -- maybe I could keep that truth from them for a time. But not forever. (Players are a clever lot in general.)

And even if they never found out (an unlikely prospect), I would know. And that would be enough to ruin the game for me.
 


I love fancy dice, but yeah, they need to be readable. I have a few that I will only use when I'm the DM, because I know the DM knows I'm not using them to cheat.

In Harrumph of dice.
...gorgeous artisan dice and special editions....Harrumph. I really hated with the die color and number color don't have enough contrast. Or you need 100 watt bulb to read them.
Harrumph.

My wife is fond of this recipe. She will swirl in peanut butter or add nuts or other goodies:

If you are going to fudge, do it right.

As far as the role of dice in the narrative goes, the randomness has to be respected. It will take you in unexpected, exciting directions. If your party absolutely needs the loyalty of a noble and you botch that persuasion check, the story is now going down a new path. Suddenly you have a new enemy to deal with, or need to figure out how you're going to proceed without that ally you were counting on.

Yes, it's annoying when you go a whole fight without landing a single attack, or when you nat 1 a skill check you've got a +11 or so. But that's what makes a critical attack, achieving that near-impossible feat, so exciting. The person I used to play with that cheated constantly always sounded so bored and perfunctory when he announced a critical.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I like to think of it as Schrödinger's universe, where success and failure can exist simultaneously without either direction weighted; we play the dice where they fall, and let the story be an emergent property of our playing.
 


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