Changes in Attitudes: Dice and Play

I want to expand on some thinking I did after my post about Charisma checks. One of the things that I touched on was the concept of how the dice were used; specifically my comments about old school D&D play and the rulings vs. rules concept.

One thing that is important to remember in that conversation is that it isn’t just about not having the players roll most of the dice (or roll many dice at all) but the fact that the DM often rolled a lot of dice and there were a lot of rules.

If you play old school D&D as the table-driven, largely emergent experience it was designed to be, then the DM would potentially roll a lot of dice during every game session. Wandering monster checks could be a spiral of rolls. The DM rolled the thief’s move silently and hide in shadows checks for them, etc. It was a lot easier because the mechanics surrounding those rolls were largely easier to adjudicate and therefore didn’t require the same amount of cognitive load that a lot of more modern iterations do in terms of dealing with encounters, fights, etc.

But the shift in game design to a more skill-based system involving more rules that encourage less need for rulings is a big shift. Not only does it move the action of rolling more onto the plate of the players, it also changes fundamental assumptions about how the game is played, the balance of responsibility at the table, and the nature of the relationship between players and DMs.

One of the big things is pretty straightforward. In a game system that puts the onus of success and failure strictly on a dice roll/rule instead of a ruling, it is natural that players would want to appeal to the dice more often. The DM is unreliable compared to the dice. I know if I succeeded or failed instead of always wondering if there was more to find or more to know or more to do… Now, how you feel about that is probably pretty personal and both lines of thought have merit so I’m not here to tell you how to play but I do think that the set-up changes the interaction a lot.

I thought about this a lot when I was reading a recent game called, The Forbidden Lands. This game is interesting. It’s a post-apocalyptic hex-crawler where you are explicitly scavengers out in the badlands. It’s not really a D&D experience as it is dice-pool and talent-based with some very un-D&D mechanics. But it’s got a weird dichotomy in it. You have to roll dice (and fail at rolls) to gain a currency in the game that powers your race and class abilities. But the game specifically tells you “never roll the dice unless it is absolutely necessary.” Players are likely to want to roll the dice because that’s the only way to earn their powers. And there is a developed skill system that encourages tests. So it’s weird to direct the players to want to avoid rolling.

There are other aspects of this shift too. Play at the table is different. In a game with minimal rolling on the part of the players as they “do their thing” there are different interactions. Players spend more time describing their actions and parsing out what they want to do vs. calling for a roll. Again – how you feel about that is up to you – but the shift is clear. There are just different things to concentrate on when you don’t have a detailed skill system.

A lot of this also interacts with a shift in the view that, in Gygaxian Dungeon Master Guides, the game was the responsibility and under the authority of the DM. While this could lead to hard feelings and bad games with dictatorial DMs… it also empowered good DMs and left a lot more wiggle room in the play-space than some modern editions of D&D (really looking at you 3.5 and 4). You may not like the “all-powerful” DM construct (and many good reasons exist not to like that view) but the shift does significantly impact the way we play at the table in predictable ways. And there are stresses that this shift creates which don’t always solve the problem, just push it in different ways – brutal rules-lawyering and a tendency by players and GMs to hide behind the rules are just two examples.

I don’t mind complex rules sets that give clearer answers but I’ll admit, shifting to a game where the DM rolled for stealth-type actions and didn’t tell the player the result again was a shot in the arm. I loved it.

Again, it’s not important so much to decide if one way is better or not… some people like different things. I think what’s important is to understand that your favorite RPG (or mine) don’t exist in a vacuum. There is a continuity of mechanical development which co-exists in a kind of loop with an evolution of how games get played, “at the table.” And the end results of changes anywhere on the loop affect the other parts.

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