3 benefits of letting die rolls shape your game world’s reality

The other day, I read a playtest version of a Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League Excursion. Instead of the usual linear series of encounters, this adventure introduced an unprecedented element of chance. From the start, random encounters lead players onto different courses. The final showdown can occur in a randomly-determined location. Much of the combat comes from random confrontations with 1d4 of this or 1d6+1 of that.

dice_oldThis unusual element of chance led me to consider the benefits of giving the dice control over much of a role-playing game characters’ fate.

Random chance increases replay value. From the seeded worlds in Minecraft to the random dungeons in Diablo, replay value concerns video games more than tabletop games. In D&D, only the most devoted organized-play participants replay adventures. For those folks, letting the dice shape the game yields variety from a single adventure.

Random chance creates surprises for the game master. The dice can add unexpected ingredients to the game master’s plan for a session. This can add to the fun. Plus, adding the unexpected—or just working to make sense of it—leads GMs to inspiration. For example, during a session where my players traveled by boat, the random combination of a waterfall and drowned ghouls forged a memorable encounter.

Nonetheless, when I serve as game master, my players’ choices create enough surprises for me. If your players never surprise you, then you probably haven’t given them enough freedom.

In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from weighing choices. Before you let a die roll plot an adventure, ask whether the players’ decisions could provide the same spin. For example, rather than having the players randomly meet a faction in the dungeon, let them uncover enough clues to choose which faction to pursue. Or on a small scale, if a charging demon faces many ripe targets, ask if anyone wants to taunt the creature. Arrange choices so that even you cannot imagine which the players will select. Practice by splitting slices of cake to share, and then giving your kid brother first pick.

Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the game master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the GM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the game master wants the dice to take the blame. To assure my players that I don’t meddle with their characters’ fortunes, I roll dice in plain sight. A good GM acts as a facilitator and impartial referee, not as a Fate who controls destiny.

As a game master, do you ever roll a die to check which player character a monster will target? Years ago, as I plotted my monster’s tactics, I left the players to figure out the creatures’ motivations. If I rolled a die to choose a target, I did it secretly.

My secret approach led players to complain that I singled out their characters for attack. Apparently, all the players felt singled out, and they were especially singled out when they rushed into a crowd of monsters. (I never single out players. Unless they boast that they never take damage. Then maybe a little.) So I switched my approach. Now I help players understand why they get targeted. Sometimes the clues come in character. The monsters say, “You hurt Grog, so now you die,” or “Slay that accursed priest first, so he cannot heal the others.” This peek into the monsters’ choices gradually improved the players’ tactics.

When monsters lacked an obvious target, I started rolling in plain sight to decide. The die roll may cost a bit of immersion, but players cannot accuse the die of playing favorites.

To impartially settle questions about the game world, many GMs use die rolls. For instance, when the player of a drow asked whether burning wreckage on the battlefield made enough smoke to shroud his PC from the sun. I rolled. “On a 1 to 3, then yes.”

Random rolls reduce the GM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite game master and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

Next: Random encounters

8 thoughts on “3 benefits of letting die rolls shape your game world’s reality

  1. Geoffrey Greer

    I like this article. Rolling in plain sight is something I have been doing for a long time, having many times as a PC felt that the GM was just rigging the game. The only rolls I conceal anymore are the ones that you really have to in order to maintain uncertainty, such as search for traps/secret doors and the like.

    This piece also goes hand in hand with a number of recent articles I’ve been digesting about freeing up the GM to be a game “facilitator” rather than a game “master,” and giving the players are more active and creative role in the fantasy-building process.

    Recently, I’ve been trying to adopt the mentality of “the dice are players, too.” When there is a situation whose outcome does not NEED to be determined by the GM, and it can’t or shouldn’t be determined by the PCs, then we consult the dice, and the dice therefore play their role in building the fantasy as well.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Geoff,
      Thanks for commenting. Glad you liked the article. I’m charmed by the notion of treating the dice as participant that you consult.


  2. Jarrett

    I’ve enjoyed having the players make the open rolls.
    Example: a wizard summons a magical creature …
    “Roll 1D20 to determine the size and another 1D20 to tell us how dangerous it is.”
    “How quickly do the rioters notice you? Toss a D20.”
    Seems to add to player engagement.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Jarrett,
      Good suggestion. I agree! I always used to make the players roll to see if the monster recharged a power. If everyone worried that the dragon might breathe again, then nothing captivated the players like the recharge roll.


  3. Matty

    I very much agree with the virtues of random chance. For one thing, it helps even things out. Sometimes some players may have a tendency to fall into the background when a more vocal PC tends to dominate the proceedings.

    After a while, my players pick up on the logic of attacks. Generally a dull monster, a run-of-the-mill mob, will attack the shiniest, most heavily armoured and armed PC…the one it judges to be the biggest threat, capable of doing the most damage. Intelligent villains will attack the cleric or the spellcaster. In the context of my Middle-Earth campaign, orcs attack elves, goblins attack dwarves, hobbits eat everything…But this article certainly adds food for thought.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Matty,
      Thanks for commenting. Your post makes me think that I should do more to play up those orcs-vs-elves-type animosities at the table.


  4. The Iron Realm RPG Podcast

    For characters to live and die by the dice is an oldschool tradition. Take this away and it becomes less of a challenge. More of a narrative. Only real danger can create true victory. And yes, the dice can create very real danger.

    Even a character who is doing well might suddenly be subjected to a critical hit and die on the spot. Dice kill. Sound tactics are increasingly required by the players. Anything less invites certain death.

  5. Pingback: How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks | DMDavid

Leave a Reply