Theory Context:”Say Yes or Roll the Dice”April 12, 2016
Back in 2004, Vincent Baker released Dogs in the Vineyard. It had quite a few good design things in it, but an idea which found it’s way into the general tabletop scene is “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”.
Like many of the things that spilled out from the Forge forum crowd, it would become a thing people say, shifting the idea and losing the original context. Now you can find people arguing “But if a player wants to have their character punch the planet in half in my gritty realistic detective game, do I have to say yes or roll the dice?!? This is ridiculous!”… So, context.
First, it’s important to know the basic structure of Dogs in the Vineyard – the player characters are special religious deputies, whose job is to go into towns and fix their conflicts and problems.
There’s basically two axis’ of conflict: whether the situations violate the social norms of their religious society, and whether the situations are morally bad as you personally judge them (as players, as characters, etc.). The characters are basically put in a tight spot to make things better for the community, while much of the community actually resists or is in the midst of internal strife.
Ok? That’s the mission structure. The actual dice rolling conflicts are pretty involved, often lasting 30 minutes or more. Along the way, the characters make a lot of choices, mostly involving whether it’s time to use violence or time to use words, and how much consequences they’ll risk.
You are set up to run into conflict, and conflict is an involved affair.
Say Yes or Roll the Dice
Now, here’s the actual section on Say Yes or Roll the Dice:
Drive Play Toward Conflict
Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.
If nothing’s at stake, say yes to the players, whatever they’re doing. Just plain go along with them. If they ask for information, give it to them. If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there. If they want it, it’s theirs.
Sooner or later – sooner, because your town’s pregnant with crisis – they’ll have their characters do something that someone else won’t like. Bang! Something’s at stake. Launch the conflict and roll the dice.
Roll the dice or say yes. Roll the dice or say yes. Roll the dice or say yes.
Notice how the primary point here is that it’s about character agency and figuring out when and where to use conflicts. If there is no conflict, if the characters are unopposed? They succeed. Period. If they are opposed, then it’s time to set the stakes, and then push through the mechanics to see what comes out on the other side.
Also notice that this isn’t about avoiding the use of mechanics, rather, it’s about making sure you’re not blocking the players from getting to the meat of the situation – which, when you reach it, is exactly what the mechanics are for.
This doesn’t say anything about genre breaking things, or impossible by your judgement of reality… it’s with the assumed group understanding of what the genre and character capabilities are (the book has 2 chapters laying out tone, social structure, etc. on this), and here we’re just talking about pacing and pushing towards the point when the player characters and the NPCs come into conflict with each other, and choices have to be made about what you’ll do about it and prices you’re willing to pay.
If you want to export it, then there’s basically two ideas you’d be using:
- Characters succeed at things within their ability unless something is at stake that matters for the focus of your game.
- Drive play towards those conflicts about the things that are the focus of your game.
If your game is tightly designed, this is pretty easy because the mechanics and the advice in the game are already pushing you this way.
If your game is designed without a tight focus, or, worse, just badly designed, then you have to do a lot of work to figure out what the focus of the game you are going to run is going to be, and you’ll end up ignoring a lot of the skills/powers/mechanics, etc. that aren’t going to be used. You’ll need to tell the players about this so they don’t waste time creating characters with abilities that won’t get used, or spending time learning rules that won’t matter.