Oct 26

GM Advice – The Dice Matter




The dice matter.

There are times when I wish they didn’t, but they do. As a player, I go into most games with the goal of rolling dice the least amount of times possible. If never is an option, that’s what I’m going for. I really enjoy the social aspect of role playing and find combat a bore most of the time. But not everyone plays the game like that. And that’s okay.


When we role play we are (most of the time) assuming the role of someone else. Maybe a person who lives in a far flung galaxy, a primitive earth, or a realm of pure fantasy. We generally will incorporate ideas we understand (greed, lust, love, honor, pride) as we embody these beings to facilitate the telling of amazing stories with them. In many games, we define characteristics of these beings with numerical values and use these values to answer questions about them. How strong is my character? How fast? How smart? Can they wield a laser sword, cast spells, or smite evil?


Clearly, many of these things are beyond our actual earthly abilities. But as a player, I do not need to be able to actually swing a sword effectively for my PC to do so. I have numerical abilities and attributes that help me determine, within the game, how successful my PC is at swinging that sword. If I’m playing a less than honest character, I do not have to actually pick a lock at the table for my character to do the same in the narrative.


Then why is it, at some tables, we don’t want the player with the Rogue, for example, to roll their ‘Detect Traps’ ability, but accurately describe the method in which they search for a trap? And why do these players get penalized (and their PCs injured or killed) if they say or guess incorrectly?


Or for another example, why are there times when a player wants to roll ‘Gather Information’ and they are told that they must “act it out”?  In general, it’s a bad introduction to the hobby when a new player attempts to use a character that isn’t an exact fit to his or her real life personality and then gets penalized for doing so.


I find the game to be much more fun when the Rogue DOES describe how they are searching for traps. I love it when a player gives rousing speech at the table and the DM is inclined to say ‘”that was so great, don’t even roll, you pass your inspiration check!” But as DMs we need to ensure that every player at our table has fun, especially our newest players who are least likely to  know why a bag of marbles , or a pocket mirror, or an 11’ pole are so valuable for dungeon delving. Not everyone is comfortable enough yet to affect a (likely terrible) Scottish accent and give a speech before the Clan Chief of her Dwarven Cleric.


An easy solution to all of this is to let the players roll first and then describe the results. Knowing that the action will be successful will direct them into very vivid descriptions of how it happens. If they know they’ll ultimately fail, they can get equally creative with how badly it goes. And if they happen to comfortable role playing, they can act out what happens accordingly.


As the DM, I want to emulate the behaviors I hope to see in my players. As a player I want to emulate the behavior I want the other players to have. In both cases, however, that desire does not override the responsibility I have to make sure that EVERYONE is having fun.


As a gamer, DM, and now podcaster, I pride myself on how many new players I’ve helped bring into the hobby. I’m thrilled with how many DMs I can someday play for, because they felt comfortable as a player at my table, had fun, and began a lifelong journey into our hobby.


Those of us who have survived the Tomb of Horrors or died thousands of times until we learned when and where and how to search for traps should not be gatekeepers to the hobby, but ambassadors. Everyone should have equal chance to have fun when playing and that’s why the dice matter. They are the equalizer between those who are just starting and those who have played for years. They add a randomness that can keep even most experienced player engaged as the battle unfolds or a crumbling tower collapses around them.


If someone (especially someone new) says “Can I roll Gather Information?”  I believe the DM should respond something like, ”Yeah, you spend a few hours walking around the tavern district. You buy some people a drink and you listen as others talk about rumors. You find a beggar and give them some alms and maybe a cup of soup and through all of that you learn . . .” How to roleplay.  At least that’s the goal; over time the player will figure more and more of this on their ownt. Next time, or maybe the 10th next time, they may say instead, “I want to find some beggars and give them food, see if they’ve heard any gossip and of course watch out for the thieves dressed as beggars who are after my coin.” When this happens, your response as DM can be, “perfect, roll your gather info check with advantage!”


Being a player who happens to have some real world skills that translate well to the game is a precious thing. If you can do accurate voices for characters, are quick-witted enough to snap off a lie in real time for your Bluff check, or can sing a tune for for your Bardic Music, that is wonderful. On occasion, I want those players to feel good about their talents and translate them into grand successes or auto-successes. But I can’t do that every time, at least not when I have a mixture of talent levels at the table. Positive reinforcement only works if each person has equal chance to earn that reward. If I am unable to get that reward (like an auto-success because I’m good with a quip) then that becomes a negative for me and I may lose interest in even trying.


As the DM it’s your table and your game, but I encourage you to ensure you are welcoming to new players as they begin their journey into our world and that is why the dice matter. 


I hope this has been helpful and remember, “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right!”




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