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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.

Ron Edwards's picture

Seven months of hiatus? No problem. In fact, I think it's a good thing, so that Lorenzo could process through the multiple threads he'd found here, participate in a lot of relaxed discussions, and play some games with me and others. Here's the direct link to the session inside the playlist.

For those following the Compact Stories and Kinfolk consulting, I highly recommend viewing this as well. It's precisely the opposite: from the moment of checking for surprise to the moment of triumph or defeat, everything about confrontations is in place. The authors would be very happy, I think, to stay there and keep streamlining, smoothing, and adjusting, possibly forever; it's their safe place.

But what is a monster in terms of player decisions? What changes on a player-character's sheet specifically due to those decisions? What happens to a location due to whatever happens concerning a monster? How do the results of any of these things fuel preparation for later?

Most RPG design forks past these questions into un-fun territory: either "I dunno, set up another fight," or "well, we have metrics for that, if the location's Peace points hit 0, riots erupt; if the realm's Peace points hit 0, war breaks out," et cetera.

Among these consults, and as demonstrated through play-experiences here, I'm opening this up to view.

LorenzoC's picture

I'll leave here some of my reflections from after the session. I'll try to be as general and "universal" as possible but I'm afraid some things will be specific to my design - take them with a pinch of salt.

I think all the stuff about filling dots and adding numbers ("we've been here, we did that, so now we're +2 with Elves and we can mark down a Safe Retreat) is obfuscation, at least for my desired style of play. I'm no stranger to putting down stuff on paper and Ron certainly noticed from all of my work that I probably wouldn't do much damage if I tattoo'ed "Less is more" on some body part I look at every day, but in this particular case I feel over-indulging in mechanizing those interactions and evolutions (both in setting and characters) may just get in the way.

And I do have some of this, in the current design, after all. If we stay at the most basic layer of the question ("What did the character come out with from this adventure?") we have a few of the usual things (money, perhaps equipment), a few things done a bit differently (you get "experience", but you need to use skills to level them up, and the various perks have requirements tied to things you've done) and a few things tied to Lifepaths (like those we discussed, ie. the Merchant having new partners and so on). It's all fine and dandy but it doesn't address the real problem. 

I've been thinking about how other games address this issue and I've noticed that not that many seem to do. We briefly touched on Circle in the discussion (and why it works). Another game that may be interesting in this regard is my friend Umberto Pignatelli's Beasts & Barbarians (a Savage Sword setting).
B&B digs into the Sword & Sorcery tropes to introduce a brief phase that happens between adventures, in which the player characters carouse, bet, make bad investments, marry and all other sort of unsavoury activities that lead them to dilapidate all riches accumulated during the previous adventure. So if and when you decide to pick up your character again, you're always in the perfect situation to go adventuring - ie, you're broke and possibly on the run. It's simple enough, but the roll can easily lead a creative group of players in interesting new places (you get to see how you wasted all that money, and possibly make new enemies or friends in the process), and for a game that doesn't aim at creating a continued narrative, it's a good mechanism in my opinion. 

Now, for my game (or the type of game I like to play), my honest impression is that "what you come out with" from an adventure directly ties into what you bring into the adventure. And if I had to bullet-list it:

  • it has to be personal
  • it has to be relevant to the setting and adventure
  • it has to have explosive qualities
  • it need to have potential for growth

So far most of my work in this direction has focused on one very important question players need to answer when creating their characters, which is (prepare for something quite banal) "Why is my character doing this?".
The reasoning is simple: "we're playing a game" is a good enough answer, but in this case I want to ask something more, because the answer to that question becomes an important tool in the GM's preparation work.

We often gloss over that question, in my opinion, replacing that answer with some grand background about personal revenge and overthrowing empires, but my concern here is less grandiose. The characters in this game are people who get told "Spirits and flesh eating demons have been infesting that abandoned church for decades, and we all keep clear of it" and immediately decide they'll walk there and actively look for the horrible things. They look at a map and see "here be dragons" and think "Let's hope it's true".

It is clear in my mind that these are damaged, exceptional people with priorities that would be alien to most of the population. Whatever they are - ambition, greed, catharsis, even the aforementioned revenge - these motivations overpower the natural survival instincts and the societal pressure to settle down and live quietly and reproduce. So I want these motivations to matter.

Here's where the four points become important. The adventures must be personal - the characters must want something out of it. Knowledge, wealth, power, people - you name it, but the answer to the question and the lifepath choices of the player need to find echo in the GM's preparation, somehow. This is a delicate issue because even the smallest misstep leads to preprogramming ("the character is looking for love, so I'm creating a love interest perfect for her, and it's totally going to happen!"). 

Relevant - this is both the simpliest and the hardest point. I'd look at Runequest here - if you stick to the cults, chaos features and all that, motivation and evolution will flow naturally from all the elements in the setting. When you play a Circle knight, your "profession" becomes relevant to what you do whether you agree with it or not, and however your knight feels about it. This reminds of one particular role we often explored playing Warhammer (the Witch Hunter/Inquisitor) that always managed to create interesting motivations that had lasting effects on the character, no matter how it was played. There's no real need for expectations about how a character will behave - in fact, it's the conflict with those expectations that emerges from decisions taken in play that makes those boundaries work. 

The last two points don't require explanation - but they're the reason why "revenge plots" never work. Anything that revolves around a single event concentrates the potential about that moment - it's not self-refreshing, it doesn't grow, doesn't change. At best it becomes a goose chase from place to place and clue to clue, but what I think we need here is something that allows players to take what happens to their characters and make it part of who the characters are, and that allows GMs to take what the characters do and turn it into the backdrop (setting?) for future adventures.

So to summarize this overly long rant - I feel procedures and instrumentation are useful, but a very big part of this is going to hinge on commitment and ingenuity from all players at the table, and the most powerful tool to invite that is the setting. 
And I'll be explicit in saying that I don't find that answer particularly reassuring because (at least for me) it's much, much easier to write down mechanics and calculate probabilities and perfect procedures than trying to measure up to what someone like Greg Stafford was capable of. 

Ron Edwards's picture

The curse of good work for the past two and a half years has arrived: the archive of "check this out" isn't small.

Here are the posts (one session each) for my consulting with Tor Erickson about this exact issue:

Proto-concept from D&D play

To Crawl or not to Crawl

The merchant’s wife

Manticores R us

We did an additional session for which my microphone was hooked up wrong, so it couldn't be presented.

LorenzoC's picture

I'll definitely take a look at those.

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