When Dice Attack



My experiences at Salty Bay Con last week got me thinking about the conflict resolution systems in roleplaying games. I realized that there’s a problem with games like Pathfinder and the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons that handle combat or skill challenges by rolling a d20, adding modifiers, and comparing the total against a static target number:

When the dice betray you, the game grinds to a halt.

In my Pathfinder session, I saw the largest run of poor rolls I’ve ever seen in my entire career in roleplaying games. No one could consistently roll higher than a 3 or a 4. Rolling a 5 was a miracle; a rolling a 6 required divine intervention, complete with the clouds parting to reveal legions of cherubs strumming golden harps.

The GM, bless him, did his best to keep the game in motion  – even after the cleric fell in the 10′ x 10′ x 10′ pit and failed every Climb check he needed to extricate himself, and the paladin fell on top of the cleric, and the killer fungus dwelling at the bottom of the pit engulfed them both, and the ranger failed every Strength check needed to try to pry them loose.

I still enjoyed myself, but every time we confronted a task that required a dice roll, we whiffed it. Ultimately, this killed any sense of agency we had. Rather than being a bold group of intrepid adventurers, we were reduced by bad luck to the Keystone Kops. We weren’t playing our characters; the dice were.

I think this is why the system presented by Hackmaster is superior. Instead of trying to overcome a static number, all skill contests (including combat) require both the GM and the players to roll dice and compare the results. This way, if the players roll poorly, at least the possibility of the GM rolling equally poorly remains. It doesn’t matter if I roll a 3 if my opponent rolls a 2, and in the end this preserves the illusion of agency that is crucial to a good roleplaying experience.

2 Responses to “When Dice Attack”

  1. 1 John D. Kennedy

    With the exception of that Angry Green Invaders game, I am the King of bad dice rolling.

  2. 2 Rob Hill

    When my dice betray me, I always blame it on the years of Axis & Allies that conditioned my hand to try roll low.
    Solid science, I know.

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