Rolling Dice and the Myth of the Perfect System

I’ve been thinking about dice rolls, how they work, what they represent, why we can’t agree on what makes a good dice mechanic.

Let’s start simple, a Thief picking a lock, one of the oldest skill checks in gaming. If the Thief player rolls less than or equal to their Pick Locks percentage, they pass and the Thief opens the lock. It’s a good solid mechanic, the Thief either gets the door open or not, while the player either passes the roll or not. It’s easy to understand how the real-world roll relates to the game-world fiction, it’s good verisimilitude.

So why do some people hate mechanics like this? Well, there are actually lots of reasons why they might, but it comes down to what question is it they are asking the dice.

Every dice roll is a question. In the case of the above roll the question is, “Is this Thief skilled enough to open this lock in ten minutes?” The answer is a simple yes or no. Some people don’t like the mechanic because the Thief can just try again, and that’s perfectly reasonable, multiple dice rolls until you succeed can be dull, or might break verisimilitude. Wouldn’t the Thief just give up? How long does a set of flimsy lock picks last anyway? Maybe these players would rather make a single roll which asks “Can the Thief open the lock and how long does it take?” There are dice mechanics which can do this but one roll of a dice pool might not feel as similar to what the Thief is doing so some verisimilitude is lost

Other groups might want to ask “What are the consequences for the Thief unlocking this door?” In this case the Thief is guaranteed to get through the door but the roll decides if they are spotted or if it takes too long or the lock picks need to be replaced or maybe they roll really bad and it turns out that the door is tapped and now the Thief is poisoned. This is more abstracted and the roll doesn’t really represent the Thief any more, it’s an event table which guarantees that something happens.

Back in the day some GMs tried to maximise their players’ suspension of disbelief by prohibiting their players from rolling the dice or even knowing the rules by which the game was played. The assumption being that any time spent thinking about the rules of the game was time which wasn’t spent thinking about the fiction.

Many games would not just ask, “Is this Thief skilled enough?” but, “Is this Thief dexterous enough, skilled enough and appropriately equipped?”

Games with meta-currencies like Fate ask “Is opening this door important enough to you and also have you suffered enough compels to earn it?”

This is one of the simplest questions to ask of your dice, and there are so many different ways to resolve it. There isn’t one best method because each game has its own focus, each GM has their own style and each player’s brain is unique.

Have you ever seen people on social media ask something like, “What happens in your head when you solve 83+75?” Every reply is a different process, and that’s just a fairly simple maths sum.

When playing an RPG you are already trying to track an imaginary world and the actions of the other PCs, you are inhabiting a person you made up, deciding what they are doing and how best to describe that to the group. You are tracking your PC’s motivations and fears, their relationships with PCs and npcs. You are considering what might be behind the door, whether it is worth the risk of picking the lock. You are also paying attention to the real world, drinking tea, gathering dice, trying to add to the game with your own thoughts and actions but not dominate it. Then after all that, you have to pick up the dice and apply the results of the roll to your PC and the scene.

It is a lot, but it’s basically just socialising and storytelling, two things that most humans are pretty good at. Like the maths problem though, each step of the process can be different for every person, so it’s no wonder that different game mechanics click with some people but not others. With a little luck and experimentation you should be able to find a game system which represents the fiction and interweaves it’s mechanics in a way which flows nicely through your thoughts.

So try different systems, find the ones which work well for you and your friends, the ones which answer the questions you want to ask. And try not to take it to heart when someone expresses shock that you managed to find the fun with a system they bounced off of.

Photo by Balázs Utasi from Pexels

2 thoughts on “Rolling Dice and the Myth of the Perfect System

  1. This is a side note, not really relevant to your point (which is a good one), or maybe even reinforcing your point. Anyway…

    > “Is this Thief skilled enough to open this lock in ten minutes?” […] the Thief can just try again

    In my opinion, no, they can’t. The dice already answered that question. If you roll again, you need to ask a different one.

    The new question can be as trivial as “is this thief skilled enough to open this lock in TWENTY minutes?”, but that may be fine if there are consequences: maybe there are guards patrolling, maybe there’s “a clock ticking in the background” and time is precious, maybe every try has a chance to break the tools and jam the lock. These consequences aren’t necessarily included in that roll, they may be separate questions. My point is, trying again isn’t necessarily dull if every time is a risky choice.

    I wouldn’t do that, by the way. I tend to be in the “one roll should be enough” camp: either the lock is opened, or something happens that moves on the action and prevents from just trying again.

    1. I agree. I am usually in the camp of try once and if it doesn’t work, try something else. In oD&D the thing which makes the difference is those ten minutes matter. Random encounters, torches burning low, needing to stop and rest at some point. Time is valuable.

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