GM Tips: You Don’t Always Need to Roll

In most roleplaying games, rolling dice is an essential part of the game. It adds a nice spice of randomness in determining whether you succeed at something. Want to hit the monster with an axe? Roll to attack. Want to pickpocket the shopkeeper? Roll to steal. Want to move silently past the guards? Roll to sneak. It’s a pretty good system, and most of the time rolling dice is a lot of fun. But I want you to read this example and see if you notice anything off about it:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. 12?
GM: No, that’s not high enough. The door holds against your assault.
P: Can I try again?
GM: Sure.
P: [Rolls]. Damn, 9. Can I try again?
GM: Sure.
P: [Rolls]. 13?
GM: Nope.
P: Can I try again?
GM: Okay.
P: [Rolls] 11?
GM: Nope.
P: [Rolls] 14?
GM: Nope.
P: [Rolls] 18?
GM: Yes, that’s high enough! You slam your shoulder into the door one final time and finally it gives way and thuds to the floor. You and your companions enter the room and continue searching for the wizard.

Scenarios like this one happen all the time. The player wants to do something, rolls, and fails. So they try again. And again. And again. Until finally they succeed and the game moves on. So what’s the problem here? The problem is that the rolls are pointless.

Think about it this way: when should we be rolling dice? In my opinion, there are two conditions we need to meet to justify a die roll:

1)     The action has both a chance of success and failure; and
2)     The action’s success or failure carries consequences.

In the previous example, neither of these things are really true. While we could fail an individual roll, since we can keep trying over and over at no cost we are guaranteed to eventually succeed. There’s no real risk of failure. Frankly, the door might as well not exist since we know for certain that we will ultimately break it down.

So as a game master, how could we improve this door challenge? I have four suggestions:

Option 1: If Success/Failure is Guaranteed, Don’t Roll

We already do this a lot in game without realizing it. We don’t ask players to constantly roll Constitution checks to see if they suddenly stop breathing, or Dexterity checks to see if they trip while walking down the street, or a Strength check every time they want to pick up an item. Instead, we only call for these rolls when there’s a chance they might not be able to do it. We ask for a Constitution check when they are trying to hold their breath underwater, or a Dexterity check when they are running on ice, or a Strength check when they try to pick up a massive boulder. Same thing goes for if something is impossible. For example, if a player tries to throw their dagger straight in front of them so hard that it flies all the way around the earth and hits the enemy behind them, in the vast majority of cases we don’t need a die roll (unless there’s some magical shenanigans going on). The game master can just say “nope, that did not work” and move on.

So if you want the players to break down the door, just let them do it:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: Yes you can! You slam your shoulder into the door and it gives way and thuds to the floor. You and your companions enter the room and continue searching for the wizard.

And if you don’t want them to break it down, don’t let them try:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: No, the door is too strong. You’ll have to find another way.

Option 2: Make Failure Add Pressure

While option 1 is valid sometimes, it gets boring if you use it too much. After all, dice rolling is fun! So what if failing once or twice isn’t the end of the world, but if you fail too many times there will be consequences? Here’s an example:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. 12?
GM: No, that’s not high enough. The door holds against your assault.
P: Can I try again?
GM: Sure.
P: [Rolls]. Damn, 9. Can I try again?
GM: Sure.
P: [Rolls]. 13?
GM: Nope.
P: Can I try again?
GM: Unfortunately, before you can try again you hear a group of guards shout behind you. They must have heard you banging against the door and have come to stop you. You and your companions turn around and ready your weapons. Everyone, roll Initiative.

Adding in a combat encounter is an easy way to add pressure, but there are tons of other ways to do it. Maybe if they take too long the evil wizard will escape. Or maybe they’ll summon a giant demon. Or maybe they’ll murder some puppies, idk, evil stuff. The point is that if you keep a tally of how many times the party fails at a given task (or how many times they fail across an entire dungeon/campaign), you can use it to create scaling consequences.

Option 3: Make Failure Limit Options

This is a pretty classic solution. If you fail at something, you can’t try it again and are forced to try something new:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. 12?
GM: No, that’s not high enough. The door holds against your assault.
P: Can I try again?
GM: No, the door is too strong. You’ll have to find another way.

While this might feel bad to the player, it actually is an opportunity for the whole party to flex their problem solving skills. Now instead of trying to smash it over and over again they’ll need to get creative. Maybe they could search around for a secret button that unlocks the door. Or maybe they could backtrack and try to find another passage forward. Or maybe they can use a teleportation spell to warp the door to another dimension, idk, players are weird. Keep in mind that if you want to use this option you should think of at least a handful of ways your players could solve their problem. A good rule of thumb I use is think of at least three ways the party could succeed. If you can think of at least three the party can probably think of something.

Option 4: Make Success Into a Spectrum

This one involves a bit of planning. Instead of using a normal Difficulty Check (DC) to determine if an action succeeds, you could set multiple DCs which indicate varying degrees of success (i.e. <6 = critical failure, 6-10 = failure, 11-15 = success, >16 = critical success). Here are some examples:

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. Natural 20!
GM: Nice! You manage to shatter the door with one mighty punch. Because you did it so swiftly you are confident that no one will have heard it. You and your companions enter the room and continue searching for the wizard.

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. 13?
GM: You slam into the door and the impact echoes down the hall behind you. You charge again, harder this time, and you can feel it begin to buckle. Finally, with one last hit you break the door off its hinges and tumble with it into the room. Just then, you hear a group of guards shout behind you. They must have heard you banging against the door and have come to stop you. You and your companions turn around and ready your weapons. Everyone, roll Initiative.

Game Master (GM): The party has just snuck into the evil wizard’s castle. Before you is a locked iron door. You see no doorknob, no keyhole, and no switch to open it. What would you like to do?
Player (P): Can I break it down?
GM: You can try. Roll a Strength check.
P: [Rolls]. Oh no, a 1!
GM: You charge into the door and feel something crack. For a moment you think it was the door, but then the pain begins to radiate through your body. You’re pretty sure you’ve broken something in your arm and you take [rolls] 8 points of damage. The door looks unharmed.

You as a game master have a lot of creative freedom with this method, which can lead to a lot of interesting scenarios for your players. You can also tinker with the DCs the create the perfect challenge for your players (i.e. How many DCs you want? How spread apart are they? Do you want a DC for critical failure? Do you want one for critical success?), but I’d suggest having around 3-4 different potential outcomes. Keep in mind though that it can take either a lot of preparation or improv skills to do convincingly, so you may not want to use this method all the time.


That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ve got you to think a bit more about when you should roll dice and when you shouldn’t. If you’ve got any other tips about dice rolling, please leave them in the comments below!

 

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