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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Hot Take: I’d Rather You Cheat Than “Play”

This post might be a bit weird and confusing, but this is something I’ve wanted to try to explain for quite some time now so I’m giving it a shot. I’d love to get other people’s thoughts on this, so please feel free to leave a comment. Cool? Cool. Okay, here we go.

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater

Cheating is when a player purposefully violates the rules of the game in order to gain an advantage. Think of card counting in Blackjack, stealing money from the bank in Monopoly, or using an aim bot in an FPS. In most cases, cheating caries consequences that extend beyond the game (such as being forced to forfeit the game, being banned from playing again, or having previous victories nullified). The decision to cheat often comes down to a cost/benefit analysis, where the player weighs the risks and consequences of getting caught against the benefits and rewards for getting away with it (if you want to learn more about cheating, you can check out this video).

Now don’t get me wrong here, cheating is pretty awful. Cheating can very easily ruin the game for everyone and you shouldn’t do it. But there’s a key idea behind cheating that I want to highlight, which is that cheaters acknowledge that the game matters, but choose to disobey its rules. While this is certainly disrespectful to the game and the players, it at least acknowledges that the game exists and has some value. Which is why there’s something I think is worse than cheating: “playing.”

Magic Is Everywhere…Until Its Not

Magic Circle copy.png

Originating from Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and popularized by Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play, the Magic Circle refers to the boundary between the game and the real world. It acts as a barrier that allows players to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in the game. For a moment, the Magic Circle allows the game to matter, even if the game has no impact on the outside world. This might feel a bit lofty and abstract (and if you want to learn more about it this video might help), but the main point here is that the Magic Circle is necessary in order to facilitate play. If the circle is ruined, play is ruined along with it.

This is where “play” comes in. Have you ever played a game with someone that just doesn’t remotely care about the game? Someone who doesn’t pay attention to what’s happening, doesn’t try to learn or understand the rules, is always distracted or on their phone, or belittles the game constantly? In my opinion, this person isn’t playing the game, they are “playing” the game. “Playing” is when someone participating in a game makes no active attempt to engage with the game’s systems or rules. Why do I think this is worse than cheating? It’s because, unlike cheaters, “players” don’t acknowledge that the game matters at all.

Like I said before, maintaining the Magic Circle is critical for a game to exist. If that circle breaks, so does the player’s suspension of disbelief needed to play. But when someone cheats, as awful as it is, it doesn’t necessitate breaking the Magic Circle. Sure, if the offense is severe enough it can shatter it, but cheaters want to maintain the Magic Circle because they believe that the game has value. After all, you wouldn’t cheat if you thought the game was unimportant. This is part of why cheating is typically done secretly, because cheaters don’t want their violation to be known because it would break the spell. But “players” don’t care about any of that. They don’t care about the game and have no desire to maintain the Magic Circle at all. This means that they are constantly openly eroding away at it, until eventually it doesn’t exist anymore. And once that happens, the game is ruined for everyone else that actually wanted to play the game. So while cheating can break the circle, “playing” will break the circle.

“GAME used RULES! PLAYER is confused!”

Sometimes, despite your best intentions, you just can’t get into a game. Maybe you find the game too confusing, or too complicated, or you just straight up don’t find it fun. And that’s okay. Not every game is for everyone, and you might not find out until you’ve started playing that a game isn’t for you. But whenever you agree to play a game with other people you are making a promise to them that you will attempt to maintain the Magic Circle as best you can. Sometimes, if you’re having a particularly terrible time, you might fail at that. But you can at least say you tried. But if you come into the game intending only to “play,” you’re going back on that promise. All you’re doing is dooming the game from the start and wasting everyone else’s time.

If you want to play, you’re always welcome. But if you only intend to “play,” please stay out of the circle.

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The Deck Archetype Spectrum

If you’ve played a deckbuilding game before, such as Hearthstone or Magic: The Gathering, you may have heard other players talk about deck archetypes. Usually it’s in the form of an argument about what archetype a given deck falls under, or which one is the best/most fun to play. But the thing is, deck archetypes can be confusing and sometimes the lines between them are fuzzy. So today, I wanted to propose my way of classifying deck archetypes: The Deck Archetype Spectrum!

There are two axes to my spectrum: Speed and Synergy. Speed refers to how quickly your deck intends to win the game. For example, an aggressive deck that aims to defeat their opponent as quickly as possible would be a fast deck, whereas a deck that intends to make every card count and to outlast their opponent would be a slow deck. Synergy refers to how much individual cards rely on the other cards in the deck to be powerful. An independent deck would be a deck where the cards in the deck are powerful in their own right. By contrast, a synergistic deck may use cards that are fairly weak on their own, but that can be used in specific combinations to become extremely powerful.

To give some examples, I have plotted some of the most common deck archetypes onto the spectrum below. I’ve also given some brief descriptions of those archetypes in case you’ve never heard of them. If I missed one of your favourite archetypes, leave a comment and let me know. Or even better, see if you can figure out where it should go on your own!

Spectrum Image.png

A few final notes about this spectrum:

  • Both Speed and Synergy are relativistic terms. This means that where exactly a deck falls depends on what other decks exist in the game. So while one day a deck might be classified as Aggro, if faster decks get created it might shift to being considered Tempo or Midrange by comparison.

  • No deck archetype is inherently more or less fun than any other. Fun is subjective, so play whatever kinds of decks you want. We here at Cloudfall won’t judge you for the decks that you like to play, even if we personally don’t enjoy playing them.

  • I consider this spectrum a work in progress. If you have any suggestions for making it better, let me know in the comments below!

Aggro (Fast, Independent)

Your typical aggressive deck. Its goal is to finish the game quickly by playing lots of cheap, strong cards. It will sometimes interact with what the opponent plays, but will prioritize attacking the opponent directly.

Face/Burn (Very Fast, Independent-Synergistic)

A hyper aggressive deck where it only cares about beating their opponent as quickly as possible. It will always attack the opponent directly unless it is immediately apparent that it will lose otherwise. Cards in the deck tend to be independently powerful so that the deck can be more consistent, but will sometime utilize synergies.

Midrange (Average, Independent-Synergistic)

The middle ground between Aggro and Control, Midrange decks can adjust their speed based on what they’re facing. This allows the deck to be the aggressor or play defensively depending on the matchup. These decks vary a lot in terms of synergy.

Tempo/Zoo (Fast-Average, Independent)

Similar to Midrange, Tempo decks can adjust their plan somewhat based on what they are facing. However, their goal is to control the speed of the game and push incremental advantage over time. This means that in most matchups it tends to be the aggressor. Cards in the deck are independently strong since the goal is to play the strongest thing possible each turn, and synergies can make achieving that goal inconsistent.

Control (Slow, Independent)

Your classic slow deck. The goal of the deck is to clear the opponent’s threats over and over again until you can play a few large threats to end the game.

Fatigue (Very Slow, Independent)

An extreme version of Control that plays for the long game. Unlike typical control, Fatigue doesn’t run a specific win condition, but rather doubles down on survivability to outlast anything their opponent can throw at them.

OTK/Combo (Slow, Synergistic)

Similar to other slow decks, OTK decks also try to stall the game. However, their goal isn’t to outlast but rather to draw a very specific set of cards which, when played together, instantly win the game. This means that they often run a lot of card draw in order to reach their combo quickly.

Tribal (Fast-Slow, Synergistic)

Tribal decks are a difficult type of deck to classify. They can be any speed, though typically they are fast-average. Their defining trait is that all of the cards in the deck are highly synergistic, such as all being the same tribe or card type. Often this means that individual cards are relatively weak, but grow significantly more powerful the more of them are played.

Mill (Average, Synergistic)

Several card games have the rule that if your deck runs out of cards, you lose the game. In those games, some decks are created specifically to force their opponent to draw too many cards too quickly so that they deck out and instantly lose. These decks tend to play similar to OTK decks, except that they can often reach their goal faster.

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