Skip to main content

Trust the Dice for Your Fiction

Sometimes, GMs, you could trust the dice more to work for your game's fiction. Let me explain what I mean.

Gamers like to come up with more and more rules to specify outcomes of complex fantasy situations that emerge as we narrate events in the game. It's been a basic impulse since D&D began to make house rules adding complexity to take account of the things players want to know. Where did your arrow hit the barbarian warrior? We want to know. Hit location rules and tables give some answers, but those are complex and can slow play. And then, once we know that the arrow hit the barbarian's leg, or arm, or chest, we want that to matter. More rules pile on to explain how it matters.

Instead of making a new game rule or subsystem for each particular situation, or a new ruling, the dice as they are can decide the outcome with the parameters you already have. The parameters for "success" and "failure" with the dice are already fictional. You can just let them be more meaningful for the fiction than you usually do.

Let's consider some examples.

It's common to find advice for GMs to the effect that dice can reveal the world for you. For example, failing a roll to pick a lock may just mean that the lock can't be picked, or that it's broken, or that the door is jammed. It's not merely about the character's success or failure. The "failure" with the dice gives an opportunity to define the world in ways that are not just about the character. "That old lock is just jammed."

The player's stat used for the lock-picking test can determine something about the world itself. It indicates how challenging the fantasy world is for the PC, not just the PC's raw ability in a world where all factors are equal. The two sides are indistinguishable.

A PC comes to a barred window. Can the PC with a crowbar bend one of the bars enough to wriggle through them? There are lots of ways to make rulings on this. If you don't have stats worked out for the bars, or you have not predetermined the total strength required to bend or break them, you can let a Strength roll determine not just the character's success, but how hard the bars are to bend or break. This gives you improvisational freedom and makes the game a gamble for the player, not a fiat by the GM.

Along these lines, I was chatting briefly with ktrey about narrating combat. (Check out ktrey's terrific blog, with its many awesome random tables.) The question was how much narrative power players should have when it comes to narrating their own attacks in combat.

Here was a situation. You, the GM, ask players to narrate their attack in combat. You want them to be engaged in the creative give-and-take, to contribute to the narration. What if a player says, after landing a blow, "My character slashes the orc's forehead, causing blood to pour down his face"? Sounds cool, right? So you, the GM, nod your head and continue the excitement. But then the next round the player says, "Hey, shouldn't the orc attack me with some penalty because there's blood in his eyes?" The player is using her own narrative fiction to negotiate a personal and specific boon in the dice-odds of the game.

And this is where ktrey had a great answer (which he welcomed me to cite here). You can tell the player, "Let's see what happens when the orc attacks you. If he misses, we can say that the blood in his eyes played a part in his failure." It's an inspired GM technique.

To me this illustrates what I mean when I say "Trust the Dice for Your Fiction." Let the dice and the predetermined odds determine how meaningful the fiction of your narrative is.

You don't need a lot of little modifiers and rulings. The dice odds already express the uncertainty of outcomes in the game. A character's or a creature's stats already express how well they are likely to perform in risky situations, such as bloody combat. You don't need to fiddle with the odds any more than that.

This approach is a license for freedom in narrating the events in a fantasy game without hesitation or squabbling over rules and rulings. Let the dice serve your narration without requiring your narration to mess with the rules further. Now, if you prefer to let the narrative modify the odds meaningfully, that's fine, too. Reward players for their clever tricks and strategies. By all means, allow smart play to matter for the odds. But this method, trusting the dice for your fiction, provides one way to avoid haggling about the odds at the table. You don't need to make new rulings for cosmetic narration. The uncertainty of the dice outcomes takes care of that already. File this in your repertoire of GM skills.


  1. Thanks, Illusory Sensorium, for the kind words. Your observations are right, and I agree that it's blurry. That's why I think "trust the dice for your fiction" is one technique among many GM techniques, not a hard and fast rule. It's all about converting dice results into shared fantasy. Like Chris McDowall, I favor granting the players transparent odds.


Post a Comment