Checks, Saves and Rolls: When?

No post on my homebrew system this week. That has been shelved for a few weeks until I can get a proper writeup of the system as it stands done.

Instead, this week, I’m going to try and answer a question that has plagued roleplaying games since the dawn of time: When to roll dice?

“Roll for initiative, suckaz!” – Tiny Tina, Borderlands 2

You might think this an easy question to answer.. After all, most systems spell out explicitly what to roll dice for and when. That is, until you start reading a little more into them and you find out that everything’s not quite so cut and dry.

There are a number of competing philosophies floating around with regards to rolling dice and if we’re going to really dig into them, we’re going to have to compare them. So without further ado, let’s get things started.

First up there’s the D&D school of thought. D&D’s rules say (paraphrased) ‘Roll dice when the GM tells you to make a check’. Geez wizards, that’s really useful. I never would have figured that out. There are a couple of situations that explicitly call for a roll but those are almost exclusively confined to combat situations.

Next, we have the most commonly used description of when to roll dice. I think I came across this one in Vampire: The Requiem first, though I’ve seen many systems who use similar wording. Like in D&D, there are certain prescribed situations for when to roll what dice exactly and much like in D&D, they’re confined mostly to combat situations or specific abilities that allow some form of resistance. However, unlike D&D, for other situations, they offer a guideline of some sort. ‘Roll dice when a character attempts something that has a chance of failure.’
Excelent. At least now I can stop making those athletics checks to walk around a room. Most systems like this even offer basic difficulties for their checks, which can range from the reasonable to the downright idiotic. Anima: Beyond Fantasy, for example, has a difficulty for routine checks. That is, things like running up stairs or reading a letter. Which is all fine and good until you do the math and realize that an average person has about a 50-50 chance of flubbing those rolls. Good times.

The dice determine life and death, fortune and fame. But mostly death.

Third we have a system that I like very much but does tend to get a little gamey. Apocalypse world and its descendants are very clear about when to roll. The system has a concept called ‘moves’ that describe exactly when to roll and what to roll as well as a description of exactly what happens when specific results are obtained in a roll. An example of a move would be:
Go Aggro: When you try to seize something by force or secure your hold on something, roll +hard. On a 10+ choose three options, on a 7-9, choose 2. On a 6 or less, bad things happen.
– You take definite hold of it
– You suffer little harm
– You inflict terrible harm
– You frighten, impress or dismay your enemy
The implication is that whatever option you don’t choose doesn’t happen. So if you didn’t take the ‘You suffer little harm’ and your character is going up against gun-toting raiders, they’re going to get shot. If you don’t choose to frighten, impress or dismay them, they’re not going to be impressed by your display of violence, no matter how cool.
As you can see, the system’s very clear in what to roll and when to roll it. However, it doesn’t have any means of dealing with situations that don’t fall neatly into the moves that exist, which is a bit of a shame.

There’s one last method of dealing with rolls that I know of. Well, actually it’s more like two radically different philosophies but their wording is so similar that they have to be mentioned in one breath. There’s Burning Wheel’s philosophy of ‘Roll dice or say yes’ and there’s ‘Say yes or roll dice’. These will seem different but to a programmer like myself, there’s a big difference. In Burning Wheel, the default answer is to roll for it. In the second philosophy, saying yes is the default. This is also clearly represented in the rules for Burning Wheel, as they are very focused on rolls.

Anyway, I’ve just spend a good chunk of text yapping on about systems that exist and how they do it without mentioning a word about what the right way to do rolling is. That’s because there isn’t one. The right moment to roll, the right amount of rolling and even the way you roll are all up to the game you’re playing and your group.

However, there are a few good ground rules. Rule number one: Is it interesting to roll? This goes back to the rolling to run up the stairs roll I mentioned earlier. 90% of the time, running up the stairs would not require a roll and I wouldn’t even mention it. But those 10%, when a fell beast from beyond the stars is chasing your character and they’re scrambling to get their plasma carbine? You can bet your ass I’m making you roll! The inverse is usually also true. If I can’t think of something interesting if the roll fails, i’ll usually gloss over it.
Rule two: is it a simple binary? Rolls are almost always a scale, never quite true or false. Sure, in something like D&D, there’s a difficulty and if you make that you succeed. But even that is a binary. Attacking someone and just barely getting their AC is going to get you a description of your character scrabbling and just barely getting a hit in, whereas getting a natural 20 will result in you looking awesome doing. If the check is a simple yes/no, I’ll often just ask the player. “Hey, does your character know about famous elven musicians?” or “This lock seems pretty complicated, probably a Gellermann design but you’ve got plenty of time. Does your character know how to pick it?” In situations like these, often the player will take the prompt and give you the correct answer based on what they know about their character.
And the third rule: Does rolling create a situation where interesting paths may be blocked in one or more of the possible outcomes. This one probably requires the most explanation.
The classic example for this is the survival check to find tracks. If the party fails the check, they find nothing and the adventure is halted. Checks like these are terrible and should be avoided at all times. In my case, I usually let the party track them, make the roll and if they fail, they’re slow, or get ambushed or get turned around. Never an immediate failure. But sometimes that’s the conditions and if ‘the adventure stops because you rolled too low’ is an option for any roll, put the dice down because there’s no roll happening.

So those have been some thoughts on when to roll. I might do a follow-up on asking players for info without a roll if there’s interest.

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