Maybe some of you have seen something like this before:
Player: “I want to see what’s behind this bookshelf. I hit it with my axe. I get a 3 on my attack roll.”
Storyteller: “Well… that doesn’t seem very effective. The bookshelf doesn’t move.”
Player: “Okay, I swing at it again. 5.”
Player: “Not good enough? I try again. 1.”
Storyteller: *Sigh* “The bookshelf falls on you. You take 6 damage.”
These rolls are boring, and this scene is a clear failure in my eyes. Not on the part of the PC, who can’t get a break with that bookshelf, but on the part of the storyteller and the player. It plays into two misconceptions that crop up in RPGs, either of which can eat into the fun of your game.
One: A character is limited by the numbers and abilities on their character sheet.
That’s false. Characters can do anything; their options aren’t limited to what’s on their character sheet.
Two: Players have to roll dice in order to accomplish anything.
Also false. Characters can do things without rolling dice; you only need to roll when there’s something interesting at stake.
RPGs are games of make-believe. The dice and mechanics exist to mediate conflicts or disagreements in our collaborative imaginary worlds. Dice can also be used to disclaim decision making, but I’ll cover that later.
Let’s go back to those misconceptions.
First, player characters aren’t limited by the abilities on their character sheets. If a player wants their character to do something, they can say so. Some ideas might work and some might not, but the numbers and abilities on a character sheet are just additional levers and tools for a character to use, to let them expand the reach of their ingenuity. If players want to spend some time making stout wooden props to hold up a portcullis, and have ready access to sturdy wood and wood working tools, that’s that.
Second, if a player wants to do something and there’s no conflict with interesting stakes, there’s no need to roll any dice. Players can simply narrate their actions, engaging in free-flow make-believe with others at the table. Each game group’s definition of “interesting stakes” will vary, but I strongly encourage groups to ask themselves this question: is failure interesting, or is it boring? If failure is boring, rolls probably aren’t necessary. Storytellers, with all their secrets, should probably have final say over whether failure is boring—I’ll come back to that later.
Let’s look back at that scene above, without either of those misconceptions.
Player: “I want to see what’s behind this bookshelf. I move it.”
Storyteller: “Okay, it’s a little heavy with all the books in it. That’ll take a little while.”
Player: “Oh, I offload the books, and then move the bookshelf. Do I have to roll?”
Storyteller: “Cool. That’s faster. And no need to roll, there’s nothing at stake. Behind the bookshelf…”
No rolls necessary, just narrated actions that fit with our understanding of the characters in the fiction. Also note, there’s no reason for the player to insist on rolling dice here. It makes sense to ask whether a roll is necessary, but without interesting stakes rolling just takes up game time.
Now, what if we looked at that scene, but as a conflict with interesting stakes?
Player: “I want to get into the secret passage behind that bookshelf before the baddies get here. I push the bookshelf aside.”
Storyteller: “Okay, you can hear the baddies coming down the hallway. If you want to move the bookshelf before they get here, that seems like a test of your Strength.”
Player: “Yikes, I’m weak. But you said there was a crowbar here before, can I use it? Maybe wedge it in against the wall, near the bottom of the bookshelf, and pull?”
Storyteller: “Sure. I’ll give you advantage for that. And crowbars are awesome, so even if you fail you’ll make a little progress.”
With interesting stakes, that roll is suddenly something we care about. Failure isn’t boring—if anything failure is a little too exciting. The player used the fictional world around their character instead of relying solely on the numbers on their character sheet, and they only rolled because there was a conflict with interesting stakes.
Now, that note on using dice to disclaim decision making. Sometimes, a storyteller (or player) struggles to decide something: this is a fine time to roll dice to decide what happens. As long as you’re using it like a coin flip with more sides instead of checking for ‘win or lose,’ you’re good.
Here’s that note on storytellers and interesting failure: storytellers can also call for dice rolls when the only interesting stakes involved are in-game time. If the PCs are going to find a clue but it isn’t clear how long they’ll take, their rolls can be used to determine whether they find the clue quickly or slowly. When time matters, this adds tension of its own. Obviously, when time doesn’t matter this roll doesn’t matter much either… but sometimes players just really want to roll some dice, and this is a mostly harmless outlet for that.