When Dice Go Bad

twenty-sided-diceIn almost all roleplaying games, we use dice to make the gamy part of our roleplaying game fun. Nobody knows if your barbarian will hit the giant snake with his broadsword, if your occultist can banish the eldritch entity, or if your pilot can outpace the exploding supernova until the dice are rolled. This creates tension at the table, as players cheer critical hits and groan at critical misses.

It’s all fun until somebody gets pushed out the action by the dice. Recently, I  watched an rpg game and saw a single bad roll sideline a player. She had taken a prisoner, no one else seemed interested in anything but combat. As the battle wrapped up it was obvious the PCs were in no danger, so she took her prisoner aside and began to question him.

nicubunu-RPG-map-symbols-JailhouseWhen it was her turn she would ask a question. On her first round she got to roll the die, and she rolled poorly. That was it. From then on, each turn the GM had her get stonewalled while the other players finished up a combat, took treasure, and had a good time. She got to sit out for 20 minutes while everyone else had fun. All because she tried to think out of the box, and try something new.

This broke a great rule I try to remember to use in my games: Never roll the die unless failure is interesting.

“Na, na, I won’t talk” is not interesting. In fact, I felt like the player was being punished for being creative. I don’t mean to pick on the GM, who was doing an overall great job. I’m sure I’ve done this a million times, it’s just easier to see when I’m observing a game from the outside.

So what would be interesting?

midkiffaries-Ruffled-MapNo roll Have the prisoner spill some beans. It was a low level prisoner, so he probably didn’t know much, but he could provide a small clue or two, something to let the captor shine in the spotlight.

Perhaps he could tell the PC where the bad guy is who hired him. Maybe you were going to give the players this clue anyway, but by giving it to the captor you make her look good.

Fail Forward When you Fail Forward you let the player roll, but if the roll is bad, you still give them something, but with a twist. When this player rolled badly, the GM could of said something like “You try to look tough but trip over your own shoelaces, but the cowering prisoner doesn’t seem to notice. He says, ‘OK, OK, I don’t know much, we were hired by this weird guy…'”

And then drop a good clue (where the weird guys camp was), and a not so good clue (how to get there avoiding mentioning the hidden guards in the pass).

explosionMake the Failure Interesting While a little bit of frustrating the players can be fun and motivating, a long sequence of stonewalling the PC got old fast.

What if the prisoner started shaking and then heating up? He had some suicide device that was going off. Maybe the PC could disable it fast before he burst into flames? Maybe the PC could find the map hidden in his cloak before it went up in smoke?

Happy gaming!

3 thoughts on “When Dice Go Bad

  1. Great points here about the need for interesting consequences before calling for a roll. The failure *and* success results should be meaningful to the story, or no roll needs to occur.

    However, the situation with the interrogation suffers less from the problem you identify than the one I see (or think I see, with the decision making of the GM). Perhaps a little more info is needed though: Sounds like the GM ruled the interrogating was underway, even though it had failed. Or that the party was split, so things ended up happening in turn-by-turn for everyone else, while the one player was busy with an extended action.

    I see the poor decision to involve rolling a lot in games I’ve watched too, and so I am glad to see advocacy for better storytelling and adjudication; just trying to understand the other point you made.



    1. While the player rolled once to interrogate at the start, they kept telling the GM they were trying to really threaten the captive, roughing them up and so on. Most rounds the GM just had the captive thumb their nose at the player with no roll. They got to roll to see if they roughed up the tied up captive, and missed!

      I know the GM was working with a new system, and in his case was probably overloaded. But I’ve seen veteran GMs do the same.


  2. I think that more GMs/DMs/STs need to put interesting consequences for failure, as well as concede more on rolls for things that don’t really matter. It’s like you said: the prisoner didn’t know much anyways..so it shouldn’t have been dramatic.

    Liked by 1 person

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