Sunday, May 27, 2012

Random Fate

Watching the home team get swept in a three game series is actually pretty anticlimactic after watching them get shut-out in the first game, and completely self-destruct in the 9th inning of the second. Even so, after last night's fiasco, I skipped game three (which, as I said, they lost) and instead spent the day at the Northwest Folklife Festival. The weather was beautiful, the fiddle music and sea chanteys were great, and the smell of corn dogs and cannabis mingled to give a carnival atmosphere to an event that, in recent years, has become an absolute crush of thousands of people. The family had fun, especially the boy, who was only four month old at last year's Folklife...he spent his entire bath routine babbling about what a great time he had (or so we assume from his pantomime and answer to our own queries).

As I was saying, it sure beats the hell out of watching your ball club lose its third straight in as many days. But you know, I will watch more Mariners games this year (at least if they're on in the pub at the same time I'm eating dinner). And it's not because I'm a big baseball fan, either (I'm not). The M's have been terrible for years, being incredibly deficient in the way of hitting (something kind of important for winning games). But even though they don't always win...hell, even though they have a propensity for losing's still fun to watch. Because there's always the chance they'll win. They do win sometimes...sometimes blowing up even good teams (they swept Detroit and beat the hell out of Texas this year, for example). There's always a chance, and it's fun to see how that chance plays out. I'm not talking about betting or odds-making (I'm not into gambling)...I'm just talking about the entertainment value of watching events unfold; events over which you have little (if any) personal control.

Sooo...have I talked about dice before?

Probably not any more than in passing. Which is fine...they're truly a very small part of the role-playing experience (some RPGs don't even bother with 'em), despite the pages and pages of text often devoted to various (dice-driven) mechanics in an RPG.

In case you haven't noticed the badge I wear on this blog, I'm one of those gamers who are content to let the dice fall where they may. I don't "fudge" dice rolls. That is to say, if I'm running a game (as a DM or GM) and the situation calls for a die roll, then the result of the die roll doesn't get adjusted by my fiat to result in something more "appropriate."

Is this about fairness and impartiality? It is not. I'm going to paraphrase the game designer Greg Stolze from his essay in Wild Talents: the dice may be impartial, but their application and interpretation sure isn't. And part of the GM's responsibility (and the reason he/she's often stuck with the job of interpreting those dice) is to provide a structure to the game that enforces the logic of your particular game's setting.

Stolze is a pretty smart guy. He points out (in the same essay) that if what you really cared about was "fairness" and "impartiality" you could simply flip a coin whenever there's a dispute that needs resolution to come up with a simple yes/no, succeed/fail answer. Of course, no one wants to give Lois Lane even odds of knocking out Superman with one sucker punch, so we have rules and randomization to determine (what Stolze calls) "degrees of likelihood." After all, it should be tougher to take down Jimmy Olsen than Superman, right?

And as Mr. Stolze also points out, gauging these "degrees of likelihood" and working the odds (and playing these odds) is a fun and entertaining pastime.

Now, please allow me to expand a bit on Mr. Stolze point of view:

The use of dice as a "randomizer" is only appropriate when all possible outcomes are interesting and acceptable.

Got that? The same applies to other methods of fortune generation (drawing cards, flipping coins, whatever). If the possible result of the randomizer doesn't produce an interesting and acceptable result, then you shouldn't bother with the randomizer. Period.

I'll give a quick example: let's say you're playing a game like, say, Mutants & Masterminds. Ol' Captain Protonik is fighting a number of street thugs because, well, they were doing something thuggish. Say, Protonik's player is having a really bad day rolling dice...he loses initiative to the street thugs. All three manage to hit him, and despite only needing to roll a 4 or better to save versus damage (the thugs are using pipe wrenches), he rolls a 1, 2, and 3 and gets all bruised up. Then he misses with his super punch, by rolling a really low roll. Say the next round goes similarly bad and now when he rolls a 1 or 2 on his damage save he is stunned, losing his actions for the round. What if things just get progressively worse with Protonik being bludgeoned unconscious in the alley? This is the equivalent of seeing some street toughs kick the crap out of Superman. Except that you'd never see that happen in a Superman comic unless kryptonite is involved.

But in M&M it IS possible. Sure, it's it's unlikely the Mariners will go on a tear and win the pennant this year. But unlikely doesn't mean impossible. I've seen player characters go whole sessions, with multiple multi-round combats and challenges, and fail every single die roll they attempted (attacks, saves, initiative, skills, etc.). That happens. It's bad luck or an off day. Heck, the PC might still be an effective, contributing member of the party...assuming they are proactive with their other (non-rolling) input and ideas.

But is it acceptable and interesting for Superman to get thumped by the likes of Turk and Grotto? (old school Marvel players will catch that reference) No, not really. I mean, yeah it's entertaining (personally, I'd get a kick out of it) but it's certainly not appropriate in terms of logic of the game setting. And if I, the player, wanted my character to BE the equivalent of Superman, I'd be pissed off at being humiliated in this way. That's not what I signed up for!

But that's part of the M&M game; that's the way the system is designed. You can ignore (i.e. "fudge") the die roll...but then why bother rolling the dice at all? If failure and humiliation are not possibilities, then why make those things possibilities of the randomizing force? Don't bother making the player roll a die if you already know what the end result is.

Of course, some might ask why you bother playing the game at all, when you could just be writing a short story detailing what happens to the characters.'s nearly 2:30am. I started this post a little late, and my brain is shutting down. I'll catch it up tomorrow after I've had some sleep.


  1. i believe that an important skill for any gm is to get a feeling for when to randomize and when to choose an event or a course of action.

    balance and timing is key.

  2. @ Shlomo: Sure...and that's learned through experience.

    But so many games start on the foot that "'s how we use the dice. Here are The Rules; here is the almighty game mechanic." And GMs reading that feel beholden to following it...right up until it sucks to do so.

  3. My own comment on dice rolling was written gosh, two years ago nearly:
    Universal Mechanical Precautions

    If had to write that again, I'd try to be more concise, but also include more support for narrating things out over rolling, and a
    digression comparing the linear randomness of a straight d20 roll with a bell curve of 2dsomethings.

    wow, I hardly ever write a blog entry anymore.

  4. I agree in that I think that you should not roll the dice *if you are not prepared to accept all possible outcomes*.

    As for humiliating failure: If it's built into the system - and it need not be, there are plenty of new school systems where this could not happen! - then we should deal with it.

    Failure often sucks when you're in-the-moment, but makes for the best stories in the long run.

    Superman gets beaten up by some punks? Wow.

    I once saw a player roll and add up 20D6 and get a sum of 24. I was there. I still talk about it. Wow.

  5. First, some nitpicking:
    Assuming you're using the first edition of Mutants & Masterminds (the only edition to feature Protonik as a hero archetype), Protonik's 10 ranks of Protection mean that he is totally invulnerable to the blows dealt by wrench-wielding thugs (damage rating 3 in your example). No roll is needed.

    Second, some expansion:
    If Protonik had 10 ranks of Amazing Save(damage) instead of Protection, things could have gone the way you described. However, Protonik could have spent a hero point in several ways to alter the outcome such as temporarily increasing his Defense, Ignoring the first round worth of bruising, gaining an immediate Recovery check, or re-rolling any of his failed checks with a minimum result of 10.

    Third, the question:
    M&M has Hero Points, True20 has Conviction, D&D 3.5 added Action Points, Star Wars has Force Points, 4e has a ton of feats and powers that allow re-rolls under specific conditions, etc....
    Given that many rules systems have mechanics which allow a player to re-roll unfavorable results, what are your thoughts on this trend to make "fudging" the rules PART of the rules?

  6. @ Sovereign: Ahh...I see I wasn't reading the rules closely enough; Protection reduces the damage bonus rather than the DC of the attack. So all the characters with Protection 10 are completely immune to the damage of non-Super Strength attacks from opponents of PL 10 or less...unless those opponents have the Penetration feat...unless the character takes the Impervious extra...

    [sigh...I stand corrected but yet another reason why I dislike M&M in general]

    RE #2 Do you really want to be spending your hero points against alley thugs?

    RE #3 Not sure I understand the question. Are you comparing Hero points to "fudging?" I see these as two very separate entities. Hero points (or Fame/Fortune points which are seen as far back as Top Secret and the James Bond RPG) are a resource that provides a degree of narrative control to the player; a metagame mechanic. Karma points in Marvel did much the same thing, except they were easier to earn and use (though with the potential for being lost as well).

    "Fudging" is an arbitrary decision on the part of the GM. Players are not allowed to "fudge;" if they roll a "1" on a saving throw and say, "Oh, I rolled a 17," that is called "cheating" by the general public. Saying, "I spend a Hero point" is using a finite resource, the use of which is part of the challenge/decision making process of the game.

    Allowing the GM to alter the results of a die roll at a whim is nonsensical to me...even if done (as Star Wars would say) in aid of making the results more "dramatically appropriate." Dramatically appropriate" is purely in the eyes of the GM...some GMs might find it appropriate for PCs to be gunned down by stormtroopers, while other GMs feel it only appropriate to allow death at the hands of some random "Darth of the Week," while a third group of GMs feel it is NEVER "appropriate" for PC heroes to die unless they are purposefully sacrificing themselves. One can never make GMing STYLE to be can only create consistent rules.

    FOR EXAMPLE: if you decided (as a game designer) that PC heroes should never be killed by stormtroopers or "minion-types" in your space opera game, you might as well write it into the rules: "Damage caused by minions is CAPPED at wounding player characters; PCs can never suffer mortal injury from unnamed mooks." That's not very hard is it? And then ALL the GMs that choose to run your game will have a consistent way of playing withOUT needing to resort to "fudging" dice rolls.

    What does fudging do besides: A) allow GMs to arbitrarily dictate the course of events (i.e. railroad), and B) keep players in the dark as to how the rules work (since they might be changed at any time). At least with Hero Points, they know where they stand at a particular moment.

    Um...did that answer your question?