“When do we roll the dice?”

May 13, 2020

I try to make an effort to play with folks new to roleplaying since they often bring new ideas, and ask good questions for things you’ve internalized and forget to examine.   We did a big talk/geek out session recently and one of the players asked “How do you know when to roll the dice/not roll the dice?”

I think this is a great question, because that “not roll the dice” is also when you decide “it just happens, no question” as well.

Is this a challenge given the genre expectations?

The example I used is “Can Spiderman climb that wall? Yes of course Spiderman can climb the wall unless some real wild stuff is happening to actually make that a challenge.”

I point to genre expectations because it usually highlights what IS and what ISN’T considered a reasonable focus for conflict.  Some games will set these things in their mechanics, but many do not, and you’re forced to find a guideline yourself – genre expectations are usually a good place.

Tied into it is also the sort of character specific questions as to their background and expertise, which, in turn, also defines something as a challenge or a freebie.  The sailor knows what a good sailing wind is, no need to roll dice.  The baker knows good fire wood, etc.

Incidentally, when I run investigation-ish situations, I try to consider what certain PCs would notice/figure out just on the basis of their training and give them that info for free – it shows their character at their expertise.

Is there an interesting failure or success result?

If there’s no interesting failure, then you have to think about what you’re asking the player to do – roll the dice for a boring outcome.  The running joke had become “Roll to tie your shoes – oops you’ve fumbled and strangled yourself.”

If there’s no good interesting outcomes, don’t roll the dice.  (Also, if it seems like something that should have interesting outcomes, maybe the problem has to to do with the situation and loading the stakes higher?)

You’ll also notice this is why, for most games, stuff like “bargain with the shopkeep” and “Cook a pot of stew at camp” aren’t actually that interesting to play out.  Ryuutama is one of the few that actually does track all this, though the fact is that it’s basically loading up all these camping things into how well rested/fed you are when it comes to more obvious danger/hazards.

Are we spinning the wheels here?

This is a big one.  Sometimes players get stuck in a loop – explaining what they’re doing, arguing back and forth.  “Ok, there’s a conflict, let’s roll the dice.”   The thing is, this doesn’t block the player from doing things, but it does mean we’re not going to spend a ton of time on this action.

The other benefit of making this call is that it requires players to do a few things.  First, it helps me figure out what the goal is if it isn’t clear – “Are you really trying to convince them to do XYZ, or is there a different angle here?”

Second, they have to commit for the action.  Rarely does it turn out to not be a thing that is a real conflict, but when it is, I get more clarity on what’s happening “Oh we’re just roleplaying our characters bickering” “Ok, well, it’s been 10 minutes of it. If no one has anything serious, I’ve got an idea for the next scene.”


The best thing is when the mechanics make it an easy question by tying clear fiction situations to clear procedures (“If swinging a sword, roll X”), but if you can’t have that, making guidelines for yourself improves the consistency of when this happens.

And consistency is necessary for the group to understand how to play together.   If the basic idea of how the game works (in a play sense, in a “system as we actually play it for real” sense) keeps changing, players can’t really predict how to do things in game and make meaningful choices in any sense.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.

%d bloggers like this: