Tag Archives: die rolls

How to Wring Maximum Drama from a Roll of the Dice

Often the most exciting moments in Dungeons & Dragons come from die rolls. When we throw the dice, dungeon masters and players alike surrender control to chance. Dice add surprise and risk to the game. See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.

Every D&D game has rolls important enough to grab everyone’s attention. Does the dragon’s breath weapon recharge? Did the inspirational speech win an ally? A die roll can spell the difference between victory or defeat, and sometimes between life and death. As a DM, you can spotlight these moments to heighten the drama and excitement.

Even DMs who typically roll in secret can benefit from making some rolls in the open.

  • Choose rolls that bring high enough stakes to grab attention.

  • Make sure you feel comfortable honoring the outcome of the roll, whatever it brings.

  • Announce what the roll means. “If the lich fails this save, it dies. Otherwise, it’s turn comes next and it has an 8th-level spell ready to cast.”

  • Announce the target number. For maximum drama, don’t make players wait for you to interpret the results. Tell everyone the number to look for on the die. “The lich needs a 13 or better to save.”

Then throw the die into the middle of the table. Let everyone watch the roll together and share the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

For some rolls a DM would usually make, I sometimes ask a player to make the roll. For example, I almost always ask a player to roll to see if a monster’s big attack recharges.

D&D’s lead rule designer Jeremy Crawford favors this trick too. “Sometimes I love making it impossible for myself to fudge rolls and will have players roll for me. Partly because as any DM will be able to attest, it’s too tempting when you tell yourself I’ll just roll to see what’s going to happen, but then you look at the die and think ‘eh, I don’t really like that result.’

“There’s something powerful about giving it to the players, and then we’re all agreeing we’re handing over the decision to fate. When I’m feeling particularly impish as a DM, I like having the players do it especially when it’s something bad because then they don’t feel like the DM did that to me. You rolled the die.”

We don’t use this stunt because we worry that players think we can’t be trusted with the roll. Instead the trick works because we all can feel like if we want a certain roll strongly enough, we might sway the outcome. Sure, those of us who play D&D rather than Las Vegas recognize that sense of control for a lie, but we feel it all the same. That feeling heightens the drama of the roll. The DM didn’t make things go wrong. I rolled the die.

The trick of explaining a roll, naming the target number, and then having a player cast the die works especially well for random encounters.

In a dungeon, the threat of random encounters forces urgency on players. Instead of slowing down for painstaking caution, and instead of stopping to chop down a locked door, characters have to keep moving. In the wilderness, random encounters give a journey more weight than “You spend three weeks travelling from Waterdeep to Neverwinter without incident.” (Sometimes you may want to fast-forward through a trip; other times distance should matter.)

For random encounters to benefit your game, players need a sense of the threat of wandering monsters. Nothing makes the threat more obvious than saying, “You’ve spent an hour in the tomb. Someone roll a d20 for me. On a 17 or higher, something bad happens.” See You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (and so Do I).

You roll for random encounters wrong (and so do I)

Original Dungeons & Dragons made rolling for wandering monsters more a core part of play than rolling a d20 to hit—d20 rolls were in the optional combat system that everyone used. Over the years, as D&D evolved, random encounters fell from favor until they neared extinction. In second edition, DMs emphasized story and saw random events as an unwelcome distraction. By fourth edition, battles consumed so much time that one random encounter could devour a session.

Random monster

Random monster

The designers of fifth edition recognized the value or random encounters: The threat of wandering monsters gives players a reason to hurry and to avoid the 5-minute adventuring day. Random encounters make distance and travel meaningful. See “Three unexpected ways wandering monsters improve D&D play.”

Traditionally, dungeon masters roll for random encounters during a session, behind the screen.

With players accustomed to this secretive approach, a DM can ignore die rolls and script every wandering monster in advance. Their players will never know.

I have a confession. Sometimes I roll random encounters before a game session so I can grab the monster miniatures that I need. By rolling in advance, am I diminishing the game? What if I just skip the rolls entirely and choose “random” encounters that suit me?

I my last post, I considered the advantages of using random rolls to shape your game. One benefit is that die rolls separate the players’ success or failure from the game master’s fiat. This benefit only comes if you make die rolls in the open and if players have a sense of what the rolls mean.

Few rolls swing the course of the game more than those for random encounters, so making these rolls in plain sight makes sense. But unless the players know what a roll means, the DM may as well pretend to read tea leaves. The chance of an encounter qualifies as secret information for the DM, so rolling for random encounters conflicts with the benefit of open rolls.

Nonetheless, a DM can reveal enough to make open encounter rolls meaningful without spoiling secrets.

Player characters exploring a dungeon or wilderness probably have a sense of what inhabitants they could encounter. Underground, investigators notice either dust and cobwebs or signs of traffic. In the light, rangers and druids know an idyllic path from monster infested wilds. Some PCs bring backgrounds or skills that give more insights. PCs may know a place by reputation. As a DM, you can rely on all these factors—and possibly on some checks—to gauge what to reveal about potential random encounters.

In the past, I would relay such information purely in terms of the game world. “As you travel the Stranglewood, you see signs that confirm its reputation for monstrous predators.” Now, I might add some game mechanics to the flavor. “For each day of travel, you could encounter wandering monsters twice. I will roll on a D20. Higher rolls lead to encounters.” These details help players decide strategy, and players enjoy strategy over guesswork. Plus, players endangered by wandering monsters will  act with urgency.

Some dungeon masters worry that revealing the mechanics of these rolls spoil too many secrets, or that it foils the players’ sense of immersion. I used to agree, but a Living Forgotten Realms adventure changed my opinion. In Agony of Almraiven, players face the challenge of freeing a brass dragon from a net as Thri-kreen harass the beast. The encounter combines a skill challenge with a combat encounter. Before I played this encounter, I disliked it. I hated the mechanical artifice of skill challenges, and this one came with a handout that let players check off their successes. Still, I dutifully handed out the sheet and let the players tackle the skill challenge as a game within a game.

Players loved it.

I ran Agony of Almraiven six times, and every time the players relished this challenge. The experience did little to improve my opinion of skill challenges, but it reversed my opinion of occasionally letting players glimpse the nuts and bolts of an adventure. Players enjoy immersion, but they also enjoy playing the game as a game. For example, players can immerse themselves in combat encounters even though they know all the rules behind them.

The original D&D game exposed the mechanics of wandering monsters without making play less compelling.

For random encounters to benefit your game, players need a sense of the threat of wandering monsters. Don’t show your encounter tables, but do explain that an hour delay leads to another roll, and that if you roll a 20, they will probably meet something nasty. Then roll in the open.

Have I dropped my practice of pre-planning random encounters? Not entirely. I strive for some transparency, rolling in view to see if an encounter occurs. As for the specifics, I might roll and prepare a few options in advance. During the session, I let the dice choose among those I prepared.

Note: The random encounters in an upcoming Adventurers League Expedition inspired this post and the last one. Will this adventure benefit from its randomness? I don’t know. In a convention setting, time and pace pose the biggest challenge, and random encounters make pacing harder. On the other hand, I always learn something when I run something new, and I’ll be running the final version of that Expedition a few times at the Winter Fantasy convention. As always, I hope to see some friends of the blog at my table.

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

Two totally fair ways to foil metagaming that I lack the nerve to try

At last week’s game, the characters searched a room. After the first searcher rolled low, another decided to redo the search. The searching and the low rolls continued until someone rolled high enough to prove that there was nothing to find. Meanwhile, I rolled my eyes at the obvious metagaming. If the scene had mattered, I might have told them that the characters lacked any reason to repeat the search. When players make perception, insight, and knowledge checks, players routinely glean information from the number on the die. This bothers me.

The obvious solution to this problem is for the dungeon master to roll informational checks for the players. Players hate this. Some of the fun of the game comes from rolling dice. If the DM rolls for your character, you start to feel a loss of ownership. You feel like a bystander watching the game rather than participating. Also, players enjoy having the unearned information from the number on the die.

So I tolerate the metagaming and I let the players roll. Besides, it may not be entirely unfair for the number on the die to give the players hints, because when you attempt something, you often have a feel for how well you did. Of course, in life, your sense may be wrong, while if you see the die roll, you know. (In life, the worse you are at something, the more likely you are to overrate your efforts.)

In the early days of the hobby, I learned a technique that I like better than rolling for the players.

When players make stealth, perception, insight, and knowledge checks, let them roll as usual, but also roll a d6 and keep the result secret. If you roll anything but a 6, treat the player’s die roll normally. If you roll a 6, flip their die roll so 1 becomes 20, 20 becomes a 1, and so on. Tell them the outcome of their action based on the inverted result. Now the player who rolled a 19 can feel fairly confident that there is nothing to find, but not certain. Now the player who rolled a 2, but feels a hunch that the informant is deceptive just might be right.

I’ve never used the method in play, because I know players will object to losing the unearned certainty that comes from knowing the die roll. Perhaps I’m not a mean enough DM.

Are you mean enough? If you plan to use this method, tell your players. They should know that the hunches they base on their rolls may be inaccurate. If you’re quick with arithmetic, you can flip a d20 roll by subtracting 21 and throwing out the negative. Otherwise, just create a table by writing the numbers from 1 to 20 alongside the numbers from 20 to 1 at the edge of your DM screen.

How do you feel about rolling for the players or otherwise adding uncertainty to perception, insight, and knowledge checks?