When do you use dice?
One of the things I love most about Twitter is the constant flow of ideas that you can get from those you follow. Carefully curate your follow list and you can have a near endless feed of whatever you like. If you take a look through my list, you'll see that much of what I'm reading comes from the gaming industry - whether the Pros like Mike Mearls and Chris Perkins, or other bloggers and at home DMs like Emerald Samurai and Sly Flourish. My suggested YouTube feed is pretty much the same; it's a lot of gaming related content interrupted by the occasional suggestion for a movie trailer or whatever songs I've listened to obsessively while writing.
This week's feeds have had the serendipity of stirring thoughts on RPGs that I occasionally wrestle with: the complete disconnect between our approach to combat and other physical actions with our characters vs how we approach social and mental actions. It's a conversation I've had with my husband on more than a few occasions, so I was amused when it came up in the context of how to make rolling initiative not be a hard break in a roleplaying game (see this Rollplay Presents video - excellent for its content, not just the D&D bits).
And this morning, I saw this from @NewbieDM.
If there are two words that every tabletop RPG gamer knows, loves, and occasionally dreads it's, "Roll Initiative." We've all been trained, regardless of the systems we prefer to use, to understand that these two words know we're entering a phase of the game that holds a greater risk of death to our PCs than most others. We break out our d10s, d20s, etc and for some of us become more engaged than we were in the time leading up to this point.
For combat, we are all perfectly fine with using dice and stats to determine an outcome. After all, our PCs are magic users, swordsmen, swashbucklers, or laser-rifle wielding amazons; we, as players, are none of these things. It makes sense that we would use the game systems to determine the success or failure of our PCs.
To me, this is also why we have a hard break and sudden shift from the rest of the game when entering combat. We go from talking about our actions, acting out our conversations, to suddenly we're rolling polyhedral and describing their results.
We approach combat entirely differently than we approach anything else in the game. This creates a disconnect between the combat and other portions of our experience, making it a discrete segment of our games.
It may just be my experience with World of Darkness, but I break most game actions down into three rough categories: Mental, Physical, and Social. Anything you want to do in a given game sessions probably fits into one of those. WebDM has a good video that talks about the pillars of gameplay being Combat, Social, and Exploration, which I can also get behind. For this article, I'm considering Exploration to be a Mental exercise; it may involve some physical traits, but you do it to know something.
To a large degree, how we treat these pillars of gameplay and which features most heavily in our games will come down to what the group wants to play. If you have five players who all want to be murder hobos, then you're probably not featuring intricate political intrigue for them to figure out - unless you're just enjoying their attempts to cut the Gordian Knot.
Meanwhile, I'm Storytelling for a cabal of mages that lack much in the way of combat proficiency. They cautiously creep through areas, do their best to plan out their actions, and then bumble headlong through the execution of those plans. It's a very different feel than many of the combat-centric games I've seen.
Most of the examples of mental and exploration play I've seen involve a few rolls to determine results and then a brief blurb about what those are. Researching the demon you encountered in the alley? Give me a series of research rolls, tell me where you're doing those rolls, and then I'll give you some info about it. Want to know more about that holy symbol? Roll a Religion Check. What's waiting for you in the mist? Roll Perception.
In these examples, we do very brief rolls to determine what our character knows or can experience and then move on. It's a limited use of the dice.
Put the Dice Down
The other part of mental areas are those where, for some reason, we all put aside the fact that we're playing characters with very different mental stats from their players, and very different experiences.
Suddenly, your game calls for the use of a Puzzle. It's a door that won't open unless you can figure out the correct sequence of hieroglyphs to touch. It's a riddle given to you by the floating skull in the middle of the temple. Or maybe it's a dead body in your living room that you're fairly certain you didn't put there.
For whatever reason, we've all decided to put down our dice and try to solve the puzzle as our players. We begin wracking our brains for twists of phrases that would allow us to figure this out. Sure, we might roll a perception check to see if we notice anything too odd about the blood spatter. We might even roll an arcana check to determine if that brazier in the middle of the room is related to anything, but by and large, we try to solve the puzzles on our own.
Now, I'm not saying this is wrong. It can be a very engaging thing to throw yourself into, and at the end of the day, that's what we're after in our gaming experiences. I'm not calling, "Wrongfun!" at this; if you enjoy it, then by all means, do it.
But why do we feel that we should use our own real-life intelligence scores to determine what our characters can come up with?
Can't We Talk This Out?
The flipside of the coin is that when it comes to social tasks, we often like to just talk through things. This is, admittedly, a large part of Roleplaying. You choose the dialogue, or at least the dialogue approach, and try to talk, seduce, intimidate, or persuade your way through.
This is where I have to give Kudos to systems like D&D. There's a spot for the high-Charisma character to be the face of the group. This is the bard you throw out front to talk to the NPCs; the rogue that's great at negotiating prices; the Paladin that clears the way through the angered citizenry. They roll persuasion/seduction/intimidation and clear a social roadblock for the group; you advance to the next round.
I spent decades playing online, text-based games (MUSHes), where the play was very frequently free-form. In this context, you're often RPing without a GM around to decide how things will go. The players come together and, using a common understanding of the shared ruleset, GM themselves through almost every situation. It's a system of play that has its pros and cons, to be sure, but for the most part, it works.
Where this system starts to break down is in the area of social combat. It's not just a simple check to see if you can lie to the guard at the gate. You're now trying to use your social skills to influence the actions of another PC. And we all know, gamers have an innate sense of PC entitlement in the game world.
Social Combat: An attempt by one character (PC or NPC) to influence a PC via the use of social skills.
Note that I'm defining it here as social combat only if the attempt is to influence a PC. I rarely see people get up in arms when you're trying to influence an NPC, and it's rarely more than one or two rolls. Persuading an NPC is often no more of an impediment than unlocking a door (usually one roll, but man, when that fails it's a memorable and laughable experience that leads to all sorts of shenanigans).
People get upset over the idea that they are not in control of their character's reactions to social situations. I've witnessed players get angry because someone rolled a successful bluff against them and they were supposed to believe the lie that was just told, yet this same player is entirely ok with taking physical damage due to roll. They just don't like the idea that their agency might be hampered.
Respecting the Character
My ideal gaming group is one where everyone respects not only the other players but also the characters. If I play a character with a high intelligence, then I expect my character to be treated as if they had a high intelligence. The same goes for social skills; if I make a character with a golden tongue, then treat my character appropriately. It shouldn't matter if I, the player, am super intelligent. It shouldn't matter if I'm an awkward geek that fumbles most social interactions in real life; the character is not me. It's a fantasy, a dream of something I want to be for that session.
Is there a way to do this while also being engaging with the players? I mean, even I agree that if I walked up to your elaborate puzzle, rolled a nat 20, and said was just like, "I solve the puzzle." that's pretty boring. Where's the middle ground?
In most of my games, I try to go somewhere in the middle. It's easier for social situations, where you can rp out the interaction and, regardless of how you as the GM feel about how it should go, you can then roll to see how the characters involved feel about it.
But where's the middle ground on mental tasks and puzzles? Should I just decide that the 12 years and 150,000 gp I spent on Wizard College Tuition left me with an inability to solve riddles, a crippling debt, and a staggering amount of trivia on alchemy?
Leave comments below, or on Twitter, and let me know how you handle these things in your games.