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Dice: the love, the hate, the fear, the need

Prompted by our discussions in the comments across posts here, Lorenzo Colucci brought the relevant mechanics of his game in design, Crescent (working title), for some high-focus work with me.

His concern is perfectly clear: if you are playing chess, then there's a reason why dice aren't involved, particularly dice rolls whereby a contestant can say, "I look, I rolled a 6, so you lose the game," regardless of anything that's happening on the board. Bluntly, more than one RPG exists for which this is effectively the case. And I have no doubt this has led to considerable dice-phobia in many role-playing communities, resulting in many systems for which the dice are almost entirely pro forma rituals with little effect on what occurs, and even including the claim that these objects are merely artifacts of wargaming and have no understandable place in the production of enjoyable fiction.

My view differs.

I invite you to consider the points we make together very carefully. They include such heady topics as why bother even rolling dice ever, what happens to fiction when everything that happens is the most likely, and how people perceive events determined partly through random effects to be, in retrospect, inevitable in the best sense of consequential plot.

A couple of minor points about the recording. we experienced some connection lag, so sometimes the recorded dialogue runs us into one another; we took some care to avoid accidental interruptions but if it looks kind of bad, it wasn't in reality. Also, I learned along the way that in the game, the shield block wasn't the right fiction for the mechanic I was addressing, so revise your viewing so we're talking about a parry instead.



LorenzoC's picture

I promise the connection will be better next time. I can't make guarantees about the babies!

Ron Edwards's picture

I had to snip out the actual kids' entrance into the video because that is good ethics, but they were so cute and awesome that I will send you the short clip. It should become part of your family history.

LorenzoC's picture

Thanks, I'd love that.

Meaningful decisions is a topic I picked out of this conversation: decision points provided in the rules that have the potential for consequences important to the players. These are the things players can look back on and say, "Because I chose that, this outcome happened."

I recall many nights playing 1st ed AD&D where figures would stand toe to toe exchanging to hit rolls. As I recall there were no options that were better than "I hit him," so the game was often just a back and forth grind that left no memorable choice point.

A contrasting example might be FATE, where it's advantageous to describe an action that "Creates Advantage" so you can stack up bonuses that will help take down an opponenet.

"Bounce" and consequences--inter-related to choices--brings tension and meaning to a choice. Bounce is an element of unpredictable variation that brings a sense of risk to the choice and consequences ensure that the outcome of a choice makes a difference to the direction of the unfolding fantasy. 

The examples that comes to mind if Pushing a power in Champions Now. You can add dice to your damage, but it requires you afterward roll dice to see how much Endurance you spend. A high roll on Endurance can restrict your future choices, or even knock you out.

So it seems to me that when looking at the effect of points that allow players some control over the dice determined outcome, the primary questions are: How much control is too much for a good play experience? Would it be better to revisit how chance relates to outcome? Are the consequences of using the hero points (energy points) meaningful? Does spending energy itself have a risky outcome?

Ron Edwards's picture

As this is an ongoing discussion across several venues, here are a couple of spot-responses, not a considered essay.

Your AD&D/FATE comparison is well-chosen because – as I see it – we’re looking at both ends of a spectrum which is dysfunctional in the first place.

On one end there’s a game in which the dice are inconsequential per unit of employment, so outcomes come about through repetitive attrition. That’s why table and text developments instantly ran to more and more elaborate rules for critical hits, and more and more over-powered items; people are desperate to be able to do something and have something happen.

On the other end there’s a game in which the dice are potentially at odds with the goals of play (“ruin the story”) and need to be negated. Looking at the older versions, like James Bond 007,* DC Heroes, and Fudge, the points are basically a pacing mechanism for the villain to win big early and lose big later. Based on my experience with Hero Wars and a couple of similar systems, I think these would become much more fun, i.e. functioning Bounce, given more organization (and limits!) for gaining Hero Points. That’s what I’ve tried to focus further in Cosmic Zap.

To stay with these examples specifically, I’d pin the problem on the source material being so formulaic. If dice and player choices are to matter at all, then the outcomes of scenarios cannot be locked down so hard emotionally and mentally, so that “play to see what happens” and “this outcome must happen” are set at one another’s throats. And if you want “this outcome must happen” to be set in stone, then for God’s sake set it in stone and have the dice and player choices be about something else.

Finally, to FATE specifically, which is rooted in that exact contradiction. It is, if you will, a prosthetic game for an unnecessary problem. Its whole system is based on “talking it out” because the dice can’t be trusted. That’s why Fate Points are so easily gained – effectively synonymous with “play my character” – and why they don’t serve as a pacing or limiting feature. I’ve consulted or otherwise been in on the design for several FATE-based games whose authors were aware of the issue and tried very hard ... always unsuccessfully.

I’m interested as well in looking at the same spectrum you’ve identified but with entirely functional games throughout, in which the talking-points and dice outcomes are fun pieces of a whole, with no-points and no-dice at either end.

* Thanks for pointing this out in your email! I’d forgotten about it.

LorenzoC's picture

I've been listening to Ron and discussed this with him for a while now and I fundamentally agree with everything that was said here, expecially in narrowing down what doesn't work (for me) in those systems.

FATE in particular is the pinnacle of a design model I find incredibly useless and frustrating: when a game wants to reward me for playing my character well, or for being particularly colorful, or just loud. Now I can think of some games that does something like this in a satisfying way - you have something like this in Savage Worlds in the form of awarding Bennies, or Ron's Sorcerer in the form of bonus dice, or even Inspiration in D&D5. Now the important difference between this and FATE in my opinion is that these systems come at the end of the process, and not in the middle. If I recall correctly Ron uses the expression "celebrating the medium" to explain how to award those dice and I like that idea: something cool happened, someone did something that surprised the table, we just had a moment that as the culmination of play made us go "damn, this is what it's all about" and we celebrate that. We didn't go searching for it. FATE makes it the point of the game, and thus it normalizes it (and makes it irrelevant). And I think it's very tempting to do something similar (I have a few similar traps in my current design that I need to address and burning with very hot fire). 

Now addressing the real point, which is meaningful decisions and not fearing dice (something I'm very guilty of at times), I wonder if it could be useful (borrowing old but still very relevant definitions, at least to me) to look at things from a Fortune in the End/Fortune in the Middle perspective.

On the binder that holds all my printed and scribbled rules and playtest materials and annotations there's a post-it that reads "When life gives you lemons". My idea is that if the dice roll doesn't give you a binary outcome but something you need to work with then you have more room for meaningful decisions.
In the current design of my game the actual roll comes relatively early in the IIEE process. You make your roll, you obtain a margin of success. After this, your opponent still have to decide how and how intensely they want to defend, you both get to choose which effects to trigger from individual dice, and then if some success is left you get to decide what to do with that (right now the tables are very boring and all damage based, but the end goal is having stuff such as "ok, I'm left with 5 points, do I go for damage or I do a bit less and pin the guy down, do I do damage now or apply a bleed" and so on. 

D&D4, despite being very FitE oriented, had some of this in the form of effects. I would roll for damage, yes, and if I missed that wouldn't happen, but I had a lot of "before the roll move, after the roll do this, if this and this happen then you can do this" that allowed for meaningful decisions.
One of the most interesting moments was when you were picking one option and said "I don't even care if I hit, I need this part of the ability right now". If things have meaningful consequences on a situational level, and I need to be in the middle of the situation, possibly after I rolled my dice, faced with a choice that has a clear impact on my survival... well I think that can work. The dice are still integral to the situation, bounce is happening because that's what informs the situation I'm in. But even if I've been given lemons, I can still make lemonade, instead of just saying "that sucked, next".

Ron Edwards's picture

In this one, Thessa fights a minotaur. I'd sure like to do it over, understanding the mechanics a little better now. I would have thrown energy into her evading her way through and past the monster, then run to get out of there. As it was, she lived but grievously scathed.

There are some pretty important points made throughout this session. It's been added to the same playlist as above, but this link goes directly to its beginning.

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