The hidden different games in “when do we roll dice?”

January 18, 2023

I’ve been reading a lot of small indie games lately and, in a certain way, many of them fall into a category I call a “game kit”. If you were completely new to roleplaying, you’d see a lot of basic instructions and charts, but not really enough to fully know how to run a game; if you’ve done a good chunk of roleplaying these short games can basically skip over key procedures because it’s assumed you’ll be able to construct it yourself from prior knowledge – hence “kit”.

Anyway, a bunch of them fall into a paragraph on doing some type of skill check or saving throw, and usually it’s “roll under your stat” or “roll over (target)” or something equally simple.

What’s left out, and what makes a fairly heavy difference in game play is “when” and “how much do we modify?”

Consider the scenario of a sneaky character trying to get past some guards and how different the situation is based on which way you run it:

Flat Rolls, No Question

“Roll vs. your Dex”. No modifiers. If there’s a risky situation, the dice roll. I generally dislike this sort of thing, but I see it used VERY OFTEN in play. I could also see a few design use-case scenarios, such as a game that tries to discourage some specific thing.

We roll but there’s low modifiers

“I’m going to lob a rock at the stack of crates down the alley so it’s loud and they fall down and sneak around while they’re investigating” “Oh cool, add +2 to your roll”. Low modifiers means the character stats/skills play the biggest part and the player’s input means a lot less. I find this kind of thing generally discourages players and you end up sliding back towards Flat Rolls, No Question when people simply decide it’s not worth the creative fatigue.

I think it’s a fine option when you’re abstracting a large situation – “weeks of research” “hours of talking up contacts on the street” etc. because the players only have to come up with a general angle rather than specifics.

We roll but there’s high modifiers

This means player choices matter as much, or more than, the stats, and I generally like that, with the only drawback to this being that it’s high creative fatigue for players and high “translation” work (figuring out fiction to modifiers) for the GM. “Oh that’s a smart idea! Add +8 to your roll.”

Games where individual dice rolls feed into a larger cycle (“When you roll a 1 get 5 XP” etc.) you don’t want to skip out on dice rolls, but it also means more work for each of them.

We only roll when it’s a very close call

Some games the expected default is that it’s going to be “GM’s fiat, 90% of the time, roll the dice 10% of the time” or something like that. It means player choice and the situation take the precedent, but if there are mechanics that key off the dice, they matter rarely or not at all. “Don’t even roll the dice, that plan is smart and it works.”

Now all four of these are totally viable ways to play a game, but all four give you a very different feel for how the game works. And when the game kit just says “roll under your stat” without indicating elsewhere what expectations are around rolling the dice when and where? It can lead to quite different experiences of the game. (For me, I remember playing Basic D&D and not knowing that the expectation was that the GM would be making judgement calls, which meant lots of TPKs because by default, a lot of the math and situations work against the players without them.)

And while this has come up a lot for these small games, it’s also quite common in larger game texts as well. I remember a 300 page book with 4 pages on GMing that only covered weird edge cases and not… the moment to moment of play.

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