Thursday, July 12, 2012

When I Use Dice

Dice are, to me, an answer to a question.  If I already know the answer to the question, I'm not sure what dice have to offer.   If I don't know the answer, then yes, dice are great.

Where it gets weird is when I have one answer to the question and another player has a different answer.  Dice are absolutely a way to determine which answer is right, but I am starting to wonder if it's a good way to do so.  it feels like throwing out some amount of mojo (and consciously avoiding a shared understanding) in favor of oddly shaped oracles.

In the absence of dice, such a disagreement might be born out of hidden information - you as the player  may think your guy is a better swordsman than the black knight, but I as the GM may have a different understanding.  That's fine, that's high-trust GMing, but it works.

On the flipside, dice make a lot of sense in the absence of hidden information.  if the players know everything the GM does, then there should be clear consensus regarding which questions don't have clear answers.

But when there's hidden information and dice? That seems like an invitation to trip over your own feet. It's also the most common arrangement in gaming, so it can obviously work, and that fact casts an interesting light on the role of trust.  The success of hidden information corresponds directly to trust, which seems obvious, but gets interesting when you realize that dice are often considered arbiters, more 'fair" than the GM.

And that seems self contradictory - trusting the GM enough to allow hidden information but using dice as some sort of totem of GM distrust seems... kind fo screwed up.

None of which is to say dice are bad.  But it's making me think a lot more about those times reflex demands that I turn to them.


  1. Replies
    1. Tricky without context, so I'll pull it back to a broader thought. Every game includes diceless resolution, and most games include diced resolution, but there are methods and models used in diceless games which don't seem to cross pollinate. So much so that it just sounds and feels weird to refer to any part of D&D as "diceless" because diceless has come to mean something more than just the absence of dice (though it would take work to think what all those things are).

      So how do you mix that oil and water? Is it possible to have a diceless game with dice (at least some of the time).

      It's not a new question - hell, part of the origin of FATE is that Fred and I wanted to fold more randomness back into our Amber games - but I find it looming large in my mind lately.

  2. I think there's a key distinction between finding the answer in a single round and in multiple rounds.

    In a game without dice, after the first time you ask the question of who is the better swordsman the answer is revealed (assuming they aren't sword-sharking or something). In a game with dice, you gain clues as to who is the better swordsman. If you roll high and they still win, your PC is probably the inferior swordsman, if you roll low and you still win, you're likely better.

    Thus dice are way of adding noise to the revelation of information if you have multi-round answers. After a few rounds have passed, if you're paying attention and aren't too unlucky, the hidden information may be revealed in time to start asking different questions.

    1. I see where you're going, Greg, but that seems like an unintended side-effect and not a design goal of using dice.

    2. Jeremy: I'd completely agree, but I think that this unintended side-effect might provide one reason as to why low-GM trust design makes such heavy use of dice.

      There's of course no reason you need to use dice as your information revelation mechanism. It's just a mechanism that we're fairly used to.

    3. I think you're totally right, but I think it reveals something that is tangential, but VERY powerful - the distinction between atomic answers (who is a better swordsman) and more granular answers (how this fight breaks down over time) is ome that speaks more to the questions asked.

      That is to say, if you don't like granual combat, then you're not asking the granual question. And that is...hmm, super useful to consider, because that is a MUCH more interesting and problematic disconnect than a mere disconnect regarding answers. A difference in answers I can smooth out. But if we're asking different questions, then there's a lot more to resolve.

    4. (which is to say, "Yes. And dammit, now you have me thinking more. Dammit")

  3. For me as a GM, I love the dice. Because they add in "I don't know."

    I know that the Black Swordsman has a skill of 5, and a player a skill of 3; so statistically, the player is going to lose, but the dice add in a "what if" factor into that, what if something happens so the BS stumbles, get the light in his eyes, or slips just as the PC strikes.

    Sure I can adjudicate that dicelessly, but the problem with diceless in my head is simple - the range of results are going to be what I can create in my head, there's going to be minimal variance, and dependent on entirely my players' real life interpersonal skills at pitching an alternative solution.

    1. I wouldn't generalize it that far any more than I'd suggest that going to dice reduces everything to a numbers game. There may be a seed of truth to it (revealed when either approach goes wrong) , but the reality is that you can easily get excitement layered on top of those numbers, just as the unexpected can absolutely emerge dicelessly (most often as a result of synthesis of ideas). There is no hard and fast either/or to it, there is only a matter of which approach or combination of approaches is going to be more in line with what you find satisfying. Diceless isn't any kind of magic bullet, but neither are dice.

    2. That said, I'm not really disagreeing - to come back to my thesis, dice are a great way to answer certain types of questions. Just maybe more every question.

    3. It just ties back into the conversational point above - my interest isn't generally "who is the better swordsman" because that isn't interesting barring some sort of system where, I, as DM, am constrained in the opposition I can construct; instead, what interests me is the idea of "how does this conflict play out?"

    4. Sure, but it's not a limitation of "Who is a better swordsman" vs "How does this conflict play out" - both are potentially boring questions, especially if the only difference between them is procedural. The interesting question _should_ vary from situation to situation, and either one of those might eb a very interesting question in the right context.


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