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Hot Button: Rolling Dice, A Move too Far?

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On March 2, 2011 @ 7:32 am In GMing Advice | 28 Comments

A few weeks ago there was a funny (if stereotypical) episode of Community that revolved around a game of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (yes, it’s not a mistake). While the show did a very good job of portraying a session, probably the best I’ve ever seen in a television episode (as opposed to, say, Jesse), there were some deviations in the way they presented the mechanics. One of these changes really stood out for me.

The Dungeon Master rolled all of the dice.

This is an idea I’ve kicked around every once in a while. If the Game Master (to use the game-neutral term) rolls all the dice, then the players have no idea how well they’ve rolled except for the GM’s descriptions. It frees them from the mechanics and allows them to focus solely on their actions. The GM doesn’t have to worry about modifiers giving away a creature’s target number as the players hone in on what they need to hit. Having the GM roll also virtually eliminates cheating (and, let’s be honest, covers fudging as well).

One the few occasions I’ve brought it up, however, I’ve always gotten a negative reaction from some of the players. For them, rolling dice is part of the game and they just didn’t feel like they were playing an RPG without it. Even pointing out that computer/console RPGs take dice rolling out of the hands of the players fails to sway them.

In the end, I never felt strongly enough to go against the tide and force it on my players, but I have been curious as to whether it works.

So how about you? Have you ever run a game where you rolled all of the dice? What were the players’ reactions? If you haven’t, is this something that you’d consider? Do you think it’d be beneficial to take the dice away from the players?

Note: I’m using “dice” as in “players get to control their own randomizers.” I realize that most LARPs don’t use dice and there are many diceless RPGs out there. I’d like to limit discussion to games where rolling dice/pulling cards/flipping coins is usually in the hands of the players.

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Hot Button: Rolling Dice, A Move too Far?"

#1 Comment By KernelPanic On March 2, 2011 @ 7:46 am

I could see the benefit of this in some sort of semi-experimental increased immersion game. Hell, you could even let the GM keep all the character sheets which could lead to players being overconfident or unsure of themselves. It’d be interesting for sure, but the risks would be significant. Also, depending on the system used, some details would have to be told to the player (spell slots, say) and that’d let a savvy player calculate most of his/her stats.

However, in an ordinary game the GM can have my dice when he pries them from my cold, dead hands. Aside from things like spot and find traps, which have to be rolled behind the screen, everything else gets rolled by the player in front of everyone else. It’s part of the ritual of the game and, to my group at least, is a significant part of the charm. We tried using programs to roll our dice for us, but gave up. Too much fun to roll the dice ourselves and put some zest and verve into it. :)

#2 Comment By lebkin On March 2, 2011 @ 8:04 am

I definitely have some of KernelPanic’s point of view. The dice is a ritual of the game and is part of the players enjoyment. It’d be a cold day in hell before they completely gave that up.

On the other hand, as a busy GM, I could see going the other way, giving all the dice rolls to the players. The DM has enough going on behind the screen. Let them roll the attacks against their characters, calculate the math, and figure out the result. This would take a burden off my shoulders, letting me focus on other things.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On March 2, 2011 @ 9:00 am

I cut my teeth on White Box D&D and EPT. Poly Dice were rarer than Hen’s Teeth so it was natural that once the character creation was done with, the GM rolled all dice.

I count those as some of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played.

But to most gamers, dice rolling is part of the fun. WoC decided to put that out in the open in D&D 3.5 (and possibly earlier editions and different games too) and there’s no shame in doing it either way.

But I think that the experience for me is a tad more immersive if I ain’t rolling the dice *PROVIDED* I feel I can trust the GM.

On a related note, it’s funny, but as a GM I had gravitated towards finessing on behalf of the players over the years. It was the Stew articles on Savage Worlds and rolling in the open that switched me back to “take your medicine” dicework. The jury is out as to which is “better”.

#4 Comment By Jesse Estes On March 2, 2011 @ 9:05 am

I think a large number of gamers have negative connotations to GM only rolling because for most, they associate the rolling with the action. You take an action, you roll the dice. The roll is the action, and if they aren’t rolling, they don’t feel like they’re doing it.

#5 Comment By BryanB On March 2, 2011 @ 9:18 am

Dice are a part of the fun for everyone at the table. While I wouldn’t mind a GM rolling a hidden check for me from time to time, I wouldn’t want the GM to be making all of my rolls. I’d miss it too much as a player.

That said, I once tried to have my players allow some of their rolls to be made by me behind the screen and the result was a near rebellion by the players. Players just want to chuck their own dice and I really can’t blame them. It is fun.

#6 Comment By GeoffA On March 2, 2011 @ 9:31 am

Here are a couple of my thoughts on the matter:

1. It depends a lot on the game system. I don’t want to start a fight between the pro-D&D and anti-D&D factions, but something like 4th ed. D&D puts a lot of emphasis on the tactical combat side of the game. A big part of making and playing a character is manipulating the numbers, though use of various powers and abilities, so that your character is more successful. That makes a lot of details for a DM to keep track of if one person is in charge of rolling all the dice, and it means the players have a heightened interest in wanting to know the numbers of the combat.

It some game that is more about social interaction and atmosphere, where there is less die rolling in general , it might be easier to put all the dice in one person’s hands. For example, if I were playing Call of Cthulu and the DM told me that some hideous monstrosity with lost of teeth just bit off my characters arm that gives me enough information to work with. I should be freaked out, and scared of this thing. I shouldn’t necessarily be thinking about whether it has a 40% or 60% chance of biting off my other arm.

2. I think this would be a lot easier if you had some sort of computer to help take care of all the number crunching. In the not so distant future when we can put our gaming maps on giant touch screens, then you could just tell the computer what attack your character is going to make and it could roll all of the dice “behind the screen”. That might actually be a more attractive option since you wouldn’t need to keep track of +2 to hit because the target is dazed, or +1 damage because you are standing in the cleric’s zone of smiting. It could speed up the game, and allow people to focus on making decisions rather than totaling up numbers.

3. It involves a lot of trust in the DM. The DM has total power to fudge any die roll he (or she) wants, and it would be very easy to introduce problems with favoritism or railroading. There are certain people I would trust with this responsibility and a few that I would not.

#7 Comment By cwhite On March 2, 2011 @ 9:49 am

@lebkin – In FATE games my group has played, the players do all the rolling. If the GM tries to hit a PC, they make a dodge roll; if a PC tries to hit the GM’s NPC, the player makes an attack roll.

Its fun for the players, but when we played, the GM kept reaching for dice. I really don’t think we could sell it the other way, where the players had to give up their dice. The only place I could see this happening is an acting-heavy game, dare I say a LARP. (Thus, in games I play, I could never see the players giving up their dice.)

#8 Comment By Sarlax On March 2, 2011 @ 10:05 am

As GM I can’t see ever doing this. Mostly this is a gut reaction. Rolling the dice feels to me like a right that a player has, as much as it is the player’s right to decide his character’s actions.

I think it would also deprive players of an important kinesthetic connection between their choices and the consequences. If the GM rolls the dice, the hit or miss doesn’t *belong* to the player. The player didn’t get a critical hit, the GM did. The player didn’t fail the Bluff check, the GM failed it.

The video game analogy cuts both ways. Could you take the controller out of your friend’s hand, ask for their decisions on dialog choices (for instance), and convincingly argue that your friend was playing the game?

#9 Comment By Trace On March 2, 2011 @ 10:15 am

My $0.02 – I’ve got enough to do as a GM without rolling for the players, as well.

#10 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On March 2, 2011 @ 10:17 am

Instinctively, I strongly dislike the idea of the GM rolling the dice. Dice are power, in a weird way.

However, as Roxysteve pointed out, it would probably be a pretty cool game, if you could get past the trust and power issues.

I could also see a LARP storyteller using a dice roller on a smartphone to resolve conflicts. It would retain some of the “is he good, or just lucky?” flavor of the reality they’re trying to emulate.

#11 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On March 2, 2011 @ 10:42 am

If it were up to me, I’d do exactly the opposite, and have the players roll ALL the dice.

I think it was done on the show for a creative reason only, though. It created dramatic tension for the moment when they needed a single roll. The viewer knew where to look for the crucial roll.

It eliminated for the viewer without knowledge of the game “why is he rolling here and not there.” It simplified the presentation.

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On March 2, 2011 @ 10:47 am

Well, how about we split the difference and go with “if you can see the effect your efforts have, you get to roll the dice. If you can’t, the GM does”?

Trap detection, translation of texts (and speech on behalf of others), spells in which the effect is not discernible without physical interaction – all GM hidden rolls.

Healing, crafting and hitting things with sharp steel – player rolls.

Now what do we do with that “pick lock” skill? Depends, but if you suddenly announce “I, the GM, will roll this time” you totally telegraph the trap possibilities of failure, engendering a possible “I’ve changed my mind. I *don’t* pick the lock” weasel gambit (and the subsequent time wasted arguing the toss).

So we have to add “Anything that *might* have hidden consequences” to the GM rolls. Maybe.

Once again it boils down to personal preference. In a perfect world your players wouldn’t identify strongly with the characters and would be able to role play failures properly. But the mark of an enjoyable game is just such an identification – “*I* pick the lock” not “*My character* picks the lock”. Speaking personally, as a GM I strive to get players into that exact headspace in every single game I run.

Hmmm. Seems the problem is to know when the players are lost in their character and when they are observing it/her/him from a distance. Then, of course, the pesky players don’t get organized so at any instant in time some of them are playing one style, the rest the other.

Stupid players.

#13 Comment By ferrumveritatis On March 2, 2011 @ 11:05 am

I’m a GM and player. I KNOW that my fellow players cheat. I’ve seen a “1” rolled and the player claimed he crit’ed. It’s tough to play along side this player one day, then be his GM the next. I hate cheating and lying at the table.

I’ve also imposed a metagaming penalty ;-) This may sound rigid. But i think it has helped the players play their character instead of playing each others characters.

I’ve insisted, as a house rule, that all dice rolls be in view of the GM. But it sort of slows things down.

I really like the idea of just having the GM roll, both as a player and a GM. And allow/encourage GM descriptions of the actions and focus on the story rather than on the mechanics.

I think you should imbed a poll on this.

#14 Comment By BishopOfBattle On March 2, 2011 @ 11:22 am

@GeoffA – I agree with a lot of what GeoffA had to say.

Generally speaking, for me I have enough to keep track of. I don’t also want to be tracking what my player’s bonuses to attack are, what status effects are combined between the whole party and the monsters, etc. The GM’s job is already complicated enough. I don’t need to add to it for minimal pay off.

As a player, I would also be oppossed to it in most tactical games. Games like D&D that have a lot of crunchy numbers going into decisions, you want to see how your rolls factor in.

The scenario I could see it in would be more abstract games. Games that focus a lot more on roleplaying or drop most of the tactical aspects of the game. Mystery games, horror games, etc where the focus is on how you roleplay with the environment/characters would be a great place for the DM to do all the rolling behind the screen.

#15 Comment By Drone On March 2, 2011 @ 11:47 am

As a player I would feel really uncomfortable with my DM taking “control” of my character. As others have said the ritual of rolling the dice for my character is key to the experience. HOWEVER, and feel free to call me a hypocrite, as a GM I would love to roll for my players in all things but damage. I think it would really add to the role playing element.

#16 Comment By gerald On March 2, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

Players feel like they are masters of their own fate when they roll the dice. You simply can’t take that away from them without diminishing the experience. The videogame equivalent would be like watching a CPU-controlled character fight instead of pressing the buttons yourself. The difference between simulation (passive) and action (active).

And while it’s important for the players to trust the DM to be fair and impartial, I can’t help but feel that as a player, they’ll always think that “the dice never lie, but the DM just might.”

#17 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On March 2, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

Consider also, there are game systems in which all rolling is done by the players. Defensive rolls, etc… are changed to modifiers to the player die rolls.

If you wanted to have a system in which the players get all the rolls, but the results are still hidden, you could always set up some kind of system where you (as GM) randomly re-map what rolls MEAN so a 20 isn’t always a 20, sometimes it’s a 1 and sometimes it’s a 7. This would be horrible to actually use for a number of reasons, (it could be made less-so but it would always be ugly) but would actually be interesting to play around with to see if it’s the act of die rolling itself, or the knowledge of your results that players enjoy more, etc…

#18 Comment By Dehavik On March 2, 2011 @ 1:03 pm

I’ve gotta admit, I loved playing without dice. I had a GM bring that idea out and I thought it was awesome. We tried it several times and, as a player, I really enjoyed it. For me, the storylines and action within an RPG is what brings me back to the table. Playing the character is the way I interact within the story, rather than rolling the dice. I found that I couldn’t slip into a metagame mindset and focused rather on what the character could or couldn’t do; what they would try in the actual story circumstances, not something I could see or do from my perspective as a player. I was focused on the story and the character, rather than the die roll. It encouraged me to play more “real”.
I think this was mainly due to the motivation I had as a player. If someone has a different motivation then I think it appeals less.

#19 Comment By Darkechilde On March 2, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

A few years after I first started playing, I read a fantasy series called The Guardians of the Flame, by Joel Rosenberg. It’s about a group of college students who participate in a fantasy role-playing game, and are magically transported to the world of the game by their gamemaster.

While the mechanics are changed a touch (I always assumed to avoid lawsuit for infringment by TSR), the one thing stipulated in the novel was that, after character creation, all dice rolling reverted back to the GM – which was quite a shocking idea that long ago. In fact, the players in the novel took it a step further, and memorized their character’s inventories and spell lists, so as to immerse themselves in play as much as possible.

I’ve experimented with this, and my players invariably rebel – they like controlling their own destinies through the dice rolls, as other people have commented. However, many of them have further explained it’s because my rolls are generally atrocious anyway.

Now, in my Deadlands campaign, I don’t mind them rolling – it’s a lot of dice to keep track of. Since I have them posting their characters to our Obsidian Portal website, I can refer to that page if I need to secretly roll a stat or skill for them.

However, when I was running D&D 3.x, I didn’t have Obsidian Portal yet, and wanted to keep rolls like sneak, hide, and sometimes spot check results secret. So, I had each player put ten columns of d20 rolls on a sheet of paper with many of their stat and skill bonuses across the top of the page, and kept the pages in my binder – if I needed a secret roll, I’d take the next roll on the page and cross it off – I was using the players’ rolls, but didn’t even need to alert them that something may be up by asking for what their Spot or Hide check may be.

The only thing, these days, that makes me want to take over all rolling is that I have a few cheaters among my gaming groups, and so far, nothing has worked to prevent the cheating. :(

#20 Comment By The_Gun_Nut On March 3, 2011 @ 5:11 am

Just out of curiosity, what episode of Community was it? I’m curious to see how the game was portrayed in the episode, now.

#21 Comment By Lelldorianx On March 3, 2011 @ 7:18 am

I love Community and I loved this episode. I had to look past the liberties they took and just enjoy it.

I found the episode to be very creative and thoroughly thought through by some former AD&D player, but if we take their playstyle and applied it to — say, my group — then the players would be driven to madness. :)

There are two ways to look at this, IMO:

1) Your point. It forces players to be buried in the story of the game.
2) Opposite from your point: it draws players into the game, giving them a feeling of control over their success.

We all have bad roll streaks. In Community, they were rolling in the open. If I were to consistently roll terribly from one player, they’d feel much worse about it than if they rolled poorly; it’d be a more let-down feeling, and probably end in them asking to roll their own dice.

That’s what I think :)

#22 Comment By Necrognomicon On March 3, 2011 @ 11:04 am

I wouldn’t mind doing this in a crunch-light system, but it could certainly become an onerous task in others.

Just recently I switched the system on the campaign I’m running from Strands of FATE (highly recommended) to Savage Worlds due to my group’s obvious desire to ‘play with dice’. One player closely associates RPGs with polyhedral dice, another had just bought a cool new set that was gathering dust, another needs something to futz with at the table, etc.

I do like that SW’s mechanic means there is a much greater chance of a player using all of the different polyhedrals in a single game session, whereas in D&D, due to size/weapon/class/etc. considerations, one might _never_ roll a d8 in an entire campaign.

#23 Comment By Kilsek On March 3, 2011 @ 11:12 am

That Community episode was awesome! I laughed, I cried, I hated Pierce more!

My guess is there’s something important and wonderful about holding your own fate in your hands with something tangible and fun like dice in a pencil-and-paper RPG game.

The expectations and social interactions of this style of game are different enough from video game RPGs, despite the similiraties and technology available to bridge some of the gaps or capture certain rules or calculations.

#24 Comment By DocRyder On March 3, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

I have too much on my hands as it is without having to know what all the PCs’ mods are on their rolls to try to roll for them.

I’d prefer to reverse that, as was the case with The Whispering Vault (http://www.roninarts.com/store/default.php?cPath=5_19), in which players do all the rolling and the DM simply adjudicated the results. This was done by giving the opponents’ stats as difficulty numbers the PCs were trying to beat, and failure or success determining damage, when needed (as I recall).

#25 Comment By reemul On March 3, 2011 @ 5:20 pm

A friend who sometimes DMs (except his world-building for a new campaign is starting to become Duke Nukem-like) introduced me to the idea of the DM generating rolls for things that simply *asking* the players to roll about gives away too much, pretty much entirely passive perception-based rolls. He builds a simple spreadsheet full of random d20 rolls and prints it out for games. As events come up, he takes the next number, crosses it out, adds the relevant modifier, and comes up with the final answer. Simple, and no noise behind the screen except the faint scrritch of pencil on paper to give away that anything significant was happening.

I’ve been tempted to use that in my GMing when I’m feeling lazy. I go to the other extreme with secret rolls – overload the players. I occasionally roll behind the screen and make a note. Sometimes I ask one or more players to roll, or make a skill check, and then simply make another note. If I really want them to be nervous I’ll make them all roll then ask who beat a given target number – a multiple of 5 (who beat a 25?) probably means a game event. A non-multiple of 5 (who beat a 27?) means an opposed roll and *somebody is out there* They know some of the rolls are just noise, but the important thing is that they don’t know which ones. All other rolls I leave to the players, it’s their character, they are in charge of it’s fate.

Of course, I’m also known to throw blank notes or stage directions to players (look at Stacy then write 17 on this note and hand it back) so that the *real* notes aren’t as obvious. But I’m easily amused by that.

#26 Comment By Necrognomicon On March 4, 2011 @ 10:15 am

@DocRyder
Your recall is correct regarding Whispering Vault’s mechanic. (I have it in my ‘oddities’ collecton) There is a difficulty table for simple actions, and NPC vs. Stalker rolls have a modifier table.

Oddly enough, the rules give the GM the option to make rolls between the NPC characters if they so desire.

#27 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Sunday Six: 2011-03-06 On March 6, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

[…] Hot Button: Rolling Dive, A Move Too Far? […]

#28 Comment By antonatsis On April 12, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

well from my experience(i am quite young ’24’)i have seen that its better to let the players roll the dice for one simple reason when a dice is bad most players feel better if they are the ones to blame if they missed a roll that the DM rolled for them…sometimes you see that they generally don’t like it and since this is a game i don’t think rolling the players dice is a good factor for their fun at least in my experience of players!
(sorry for my lousy English not a native speaker so please bear with me )


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