Today’s guest article is by Jeff Lees, who posts on the Stew as Leesplez. Jeff lives and works in NYC and has been GMing for about 9 years. This is Jeff’s second article for the Stew (his first was Saying Isn’t Feeling: Evoking Emotional Engagement in Players. Thanks, Jeff! –Martin
Improvisation is an essential part of role-playing games, for both the players and the game master. Many GMs, myself included, love improvisation, and we rely on it to fill in the holes we decided to leave when preparing for games. However this often means that we’re improvising important story elements and game details, details that really matter to the players. As a GM I purposely leave these game elements undefined so that they can be reconciled in game through improvisation. Yet obviously deciding upon important details in game can often make a GM seem unprepared, or even capricious. If the players ask what the weather is like, and you respond with “ummmm” for five seconds, then answer with poor weather that will hamper the players, it can leave the impression that you’re being arbitrary. The players can tell you had not decided on that particular detail in advance, so they will wonder why you choose the option you did, especially when your decision is detrimental to their characters’ progress. To avoid this awkwardness I developed the “High or Low” method.
I use the “High or Low” method when I need to come up with details in-game, both when asked for by the players and on my own. When I have to make a decision I turn to a player and simply ask them “high or low.” For the sake of example let’s say they pick “low.” I then roll a die, typically a d6. If the result is closer to what they picked (so I roll a 1, 2, or 3 for “low”), the details I’m deciding upon are generally in their favor. If they picked the opposite of the roll (4, 5 or 6 for “low”), then the details are generally not in their favor.
Before I go into the many benefits of this method, let me provide some examples. Let’s say it’s nighttime, and the players want to adventure, so they ask how dark it is outside. I say “high or low,” they say “low.” If I roll a 1, then it’s a clear night with a near full moon (so generally good visibility). If I roll a 6 then it’s the new moon, and cloudy (so pitch black). If I roll a 3 I tell them “it’s not great, but okay enough to get around.” If I roll a 4 I say “it’s not great, you have some trouble seeing well enough to get around.” As a GM you can also easily quantify the roll. A roll of 1 is only a -2 to perception check, whereas a roll of 6 (because the player’s said “low”) is a -8 to perception.
Or let’s say the players unexpectedly go to a tavern and start a fight to show off their superior strength (tavern fights shouldn’t be too unexpected, but this is just an example). The GM hasn’t prepared for this, so they turn to a player and ask “high or low,” and they say “high.” The GM rolls the d6 and gets a 6! Things go in the players’ favor. Perhaps several NPCs challenge the players to a fight, but the NPCs aren’t as powerful as the players, so the tavern patrons watch and cheer and the players beat their challengers. But what if the GM rolls a 1? Well then everyone in the bar throws their food at the players, or runs away in terror, as ten Town Guardsmen come rushing into the tavern ready to arrest the players. Roll in between 1 and 6? Then the results are somewhere in between the scenarios above.
Another example: the players are trying to sneak into an enemy encampment. During prep the GM could plan out the exact forces in the encampment, their patrol patterns, and where every enemy soldier is located. Or the GM could improvise most of those details! As the players approach the perimeter the GM asks “high or low,” and they say “low.” The GM then rolls the d6 and gets a 2. So when the players try to sneak past the perimeter the guards they come close to are generally inexperienced and have low perceptions skills. The GM rolls their perception, fails, and the players sneak by unnoticed. The players then go over to the ammunition depot to plant explosives. They ask the GM what type of ammunition is stored here, and again the GM asks “high or low.” They say “high,” and the GM rolls a 6. The GM tells them the depot is loaded with TNT, so their explosives will react with the TNT to cause a much larger explosion! The players then head to the enemy general’s tent, with the goal of killing him. As the players approach the GM asks “high or low,” and they answer with “high.” Except this time the GM rolls a 1, not good for the players. When the players confront the General they find he’s in the middle of a meeting with a squad of special forces soldiers, on top of his personal body guards.
It’s important to remember that this method should be used to decide upon details within an already set parameter of possibilities. From the example above, this method shouldn’t be used to decide whether there are perimeter guards, whether there is an ammunition depot, or whether there are special forces within the base. Those should be the parameters set during prep, and the “high or low” method should be used to decide upon the details within those parameters. How perceptive are those perimeter guards? How much ammunition is in the depot? When the scene evolves and the special forces turn out to be meeting with the General, the GM has prepared the stats for these special forces soldiers ahead of time, but left how and when they would appear to improvisation.
The Benefits of the Method
As a GM I’ve always relied heavily on improvisation, and this “high or low” method developed spontaneously. I don’t remember when I conceived of it, other than that it was in-game, but ever since I’ve made sure to use it every chance I get. The obvious benefit for a GM is that planned improvisations means less game prep, and I personally feel that improvisation makes a game more fun and exciting for the players and GM. And I’ve found many other benefits to this method over the years as well.
The first added benefit I’ve touched on already. Rolling dice to determine in game details is much more “impartial” then just contriving the details, and it avoids those awkward situations where players feel like the GM isn’t “being fair.” Randomness is always fair. Even if you hide the die results from the players, by simply asking “high or low” the players know that you’re using it to determine the details of something. It also makes the players feel like they have a little more say and control over the game. Involving the players in the randomization/improvisation process can make them feel more involved.
The second benefit is that it grabs players’ attention. I always ask a specific player “high or low,” and I usually ask the player who looks the most disengaged at that moment. Even if the outcome of the die roll has nothing to do with that specific character, asking “high or low” pulls their attention back into the game. Two players are chatting? Instead of just saying “hey guys, pay attention,” ask one of them “high or low.” Maybe you don’t even need to determine anything, you’re just using it to pull them back into the game. Using the method brings everyone’s attention back to the game, which leads to the next benefit.
The method adds tension to the game. Tension isn’t so much a factor when the players ask the GM something directly and the GM uses this method to answer, but GMs should use this method to decide upon details before he reveals them to the players. When they hear “high or low,” the players know something important is coming. There’s nothing quite like asking the whole party to make a perception check, then immediately asking for a “high or low.”
Variations on the Method
Many times the GM wants to conceal the result of the high or low roll, but often it’s fine for the players to see the result. If that’s the case, then ask one player for a “high or low,” then ask another player to make the roll. It only increased the feeling of involvement and the attention the players pay to the game.
Another variation is to use more than a single d6. I GM a GURPS game so I will often roll 3d6, but a d20 is great as well. Both option introduce the possibility of a critical failure or success. So if the players ask about the weather, and pick low, and the GM rolls a d20 and gets a 20 (in this situation a critical failure), then perhaps there’s an earthquake, flood, tornado, or some form of natural disaster.
Randomness Isn’t for Everyone
A word of warning: to use this method you have to be very comfortable with improvisation, and able to be creative with only a second’s notice. Also be aware that using “high or low” can sometimes imbalance a game. If the players get a string of good “high or low” roll they may feel unchallenged, or too challenged if they get a string of bad “high or low” rolls. As a GM using this method, you also need to be careful not to inadvertently introduce elements into your game/setting that you don’t want to be there. Be mindful of the consequences for the setting and plot. Unplanned interactions and situations can often develop into their own plot arcs, for better or worse.
It is also difficult to anticipate how long a game will last when you are planning on improvising many of the plot elements. During prep, it’s easy to overestimate how much of a game’s time you can “pad out” with improvisation. In my experience, it often leads to games being much shorter than I anticipated. But the reverse can also be true, depending on the interactions. Finally, it’s also very easy during prep to say to yourself that you can totally rely on this method, and then in game look unprepared and sloppy because you didn’t prepare enough (something I’ve fallen victim to many times). Like I mentioned above, use this method to what, within a set of already decided upon parameters, happens in-game. Don’t use the method to decide upon those parameters.
All that being said, if you’re like me and love to improvise, you’ll find this method serves you well. It’s a method of improvisation that actively involves the players, keeps their attention on the game, and adds tension. As I mentioned above this method developed spontaneously, in game. My players enjoy it, have come to expect it, and I’ve found it very useful as a GM who purposefully leaves details in the game vague so that improvisation can occur naturally.