Have you heard of dungeon masters who keep character sheets from players and who make all the die rolls? Instead of revealing hit points, these DMs say, “Your character feels badly injured and close to death.”
To improve a TV audience’s immersion and to avoid numbers, the Dungeons & Dragons games on Community adopted this style. The creator of Community, Dan Harmon, brought this style to his HarmonQuest live-play show. For performance, the style makes sense.
Some real DMs also took the style for simulation and immersion. They explained that the characters’ don’t know their numbers, so why should their characters? In theory, hiding the mechanical guts of the game lets players focus on the game world and on immersing themselves in their characters.
In practice, when a DM takes such measures, players see a control freak. Players worry that the DM will fudge numbers to force a plot. But even when players trust their DM’s impartiality, the hidden numbers create discomfort. The game rules serve as the physics of the characters’ world. When the DM hides numbers and mechanics, the players lose some ability to make good choices for their characters. They feel robbed of control.
Also, everyone likes to roll their own dice.
Aside from performing D&D for an audience, most stories of DMs hiding the game’s numbers date from role playing’s early days. Then, gamers experimented with styles of play that no longer seem appealing. In White Dwarf issue 75 from 1986, an article titled “Gamemanship” recommended preventing players from reading the game rules. “Players who haven’t read the rules will be unable to spring anything ‘new’ on you.” The author, Martin Hytch, aims for better role playing, but he seems like a control freak.
Nowadays, tales of DMs who hide the game’s numbers from players seem like legend. Any DMs committed to the style probably wonder why no one wants to join their game.
But every DM weighs how many game numbers to share with players. My research turned up contemporary game masters willing to hide a character’s hit points from their players.
Martin Hytch would approve. “Telling a fighter he has lost eleven hit points can have a totally different effect if the DM says, ‘The beast strikes you in the face, breaking your nose.’” I suspect few players share Martin’s devotion to immersion.
A mere description of damage leaves players confused about their characters’ conditions. The broken-nose example falls particularly short. In the DM’s estimation, does the injury leave a character halfway to death, or just a little battered? The DM knows. In the game world, the fighter knows. Only the player feels baffled.
The characters see, hear, smell, and touch the game world. They sense more of their world than even the most vivid description shows the players. The characters bring years of training and experience. They know nothing of hit points, but hit point numbers provide a measure to bridge the information gap between a character living the battle and the player at the table.
DMs rarely hide hit-point and damage numbers from players, but most DMs conceal difficulty classes. Until recently, I kept DCs to myself, but now I typically share them.
As with hit points, the difficulty class number helps span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and a player learning from a DM’s description. When a rogue decides whether to climb a wall, she can see the bricks, mortar, and slick condensation. She can compare to walls she has climbed. At the kitchen table, a DC just sums a character’s experience.
Some folks object to sharing DC numbers because they feel numbers hinder immersion. But hiding the DC leaves plenty of immersion-foiling game in the check. The player still looks up numbers on the character sheet. They still roll a dice and add the result to a number on their character sheet. What’s another number?
In games like Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, and GURPS, players make checks by rolling under a skill number. These games put a chance of success on the character sheet and make hiding difficulties cumbersome. These games still thrive. Even though players almost always know their chance of success, no one accuses Call of Cthulhu of undermining immersion.
Characters might have more trouble telling the odds of making a saving throw than the difficulty of a jump or climb, but the benefits of revealing save DCs encourage me to reveal them too.
Especially with a high-stakes save, revealing a DC heightens the drama of a die roll. When a character’s fate rests on a roll, when a roll seizes the table’s attention, a player can figure the number they need before throwing the die. A known DC tells players that the DM can’t fudge the line between success and failure. Then the moment the die lands, everyone knows the outcome without asking the DM for an interpretation. By revealing a DC, the DM sides with the players. No one sees where the next roll will take the game. Only the dice decide.
As a DM, revealing a DC frees me from any urge to nudge the narrative by moving a hidden target to land a success or failure. My transparency shows players that their characters’ fate rests on their choices and the luck of the die rather than on a DM’s whims.
Revealing DCs also speeds those situations where several players need to make a roll. Instead of forcing each player to report their role to learn an outcome, just announce DC and let them figure the result.
None of this applies when the characters can’t know the difficulty of a task. Don’t reveal DCs for checks…
- made to gain information using skills like Insight and Perception.
- involving a non-player character’s state of mind, such as with Persuasion and Deception.
- where characters know too little to estimate a difficulty.
The rest of the time, try sharing DCs. I think it makes my game better.