When the GM Rolls

I should be working on something else, but a question came up in conversation that my brain has been worrying like a bone: When should the GM roll dice?[1]

For a little bit of context, it’s important to be aware that there are several game designs in which the GM never rolls. The most famous example is probably the SAGA system, though Apocalypse World has also brought the practice to mind for many. For players unfamiliar with these games, this may seem counterintuitive at first, but it’s fairly easy to imagine. Most systems are fairly symmetrical, so the average outcome of die roll + modifier is roughly in line with difficulty, which means that changing which side is active (rolling) and which is reactive (using a passive value) doesn’t actually change the outcome.

To illustrate more concretely, let’s suppose your opponents has an attack modifier of +5 and is rolling d20 to try to hit your armor class of 16. He needs to roll a 11 or better to succeed, straight up 50/50 change. However, suppose instead of an attack modifier of +5, he had an attack _value_ of 16? Rather than roll any dice, he would just act as if his attack roll had totaled 16. Similarly, rather than an armor class of 16, you had a defense value of +6. When he attacks, you have to roll d20 and add that 6, trying to beat his 16.

It’s a weird shift, but it doesn’t actually change much of anything about the system.[2] Modifiers still get applied without changing the math at all. This also works for skills too: Trying to sneak? Stealth vs. a fixed difficulty. Trying to spot someone sneaking? Perceptions versus a fixed difficulty. Easy peasy. In short: EVERYTHING is a target number.

Of course, this is not the only model. Apocalypse world’s system isn’t symmetrical (it’s not attack vs defense), it’s based on rolling for outcomes, and all the “tables” you’d roll on (the moves) are purely for players. There’s no question of the GM rolling because there’s no place where she _would_ roll.

Bottom line, this is a design option, but it’s a curious one, and also a bit contentious. Some GM’s love it, viewing that it gives them less to do during a game so they can focus on other priorities (those priorities varying from GM to GM). Other GMs find it off-putting, usually because the techniques of die rolling are part of their kit, important to their sense of drama or communication.[3]

Personally, I have a great intellectual appreciation for the GM not rolling. It keeps the players proactive, even in otherwise reactive situations, and I’m a lazy enough guy to appreciate the release. However, in practice. it falls short for me when I go cold turkey. It’s something that’s very hard for me to put my finger on, but I feel that I am not suitably engaging the game, and that my decisions and rulings have too few limitations. I enjoy the bounds that dice put on things, and I use them for oracular purposes (LINK: http://rdonoghue.blogspot.com/2010/03/arbiters-and-oracles.html) as often as I do as arbiters, perhaps even more often. In retrospect, one of my stumbling points with Apocalypse World was that I was not comfortable raining more-or-less unchecked fire down on the players when the dice turned against them. It felt like cheating.

Anyway, all that was a big prelude to come around to the question: When should the GM roll dice?

Obviously, different systems have specific answers to this, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at. It’s not something I’ve thought about generally speaking when kicking around design.

The big answer seems to be “When there’s an outcome the GM doesn’t know” but that’s deceptively simple. It begs the question of why the GM doesn’t know. Most often, is it because uncertainty is desirable for the same reasons uncertainty is useful for players, and perhaps unsurprisingly, those are the kinds of rolls that can most easily be passed from the GM to the player.

Other reasons for uncertainty really revolve around what the GM _should_ know, and that’s kind of interesting, because that’s a pretty profound design decision – it has a lot of implications for the GM’s role and authority. Consider something very old school – reaction tables. Games like AD&D used tables to determine the reactions of NPCs. Now, whether this is an assertion that the GM shouldn’t make these decisions or a tool to save him the decision-making (much the same way a random table for encounters save the headaches of filling in blank areas on the map) is not as important as the fact that it could be either.

Still, while that speaks to certain issues, I’m not sure it does so informatively. Turning it on its ear, maybe the question is what the GM rolling the dice signals.

Curiously, what it doesn’t signal is that something interesting is about to happen. That’s a key one, because one might expect that to be the case, but the reality is that when something interesting is about to happen, the GM usually calls for a *player* to roll dice. There are a few tension-building techniques that look like the the GM is rolling to make things happen, like rolling for no apparent reason to make players nervous, but they’re not actually mechanically relevant.

What it does signal, at least to my mind, is that the GM is now subjecting himself to the rules. By rolling the dice, he is making an announcement that the decision which follows is going to be subject to the outcome of the dice. This is, I think, why dice fudging can be such a visceral issue for people, far beyond it’s theoretical impact. It takes something the GM is communicating very explicitly and makes a lie of it.[4]

Does it signal anything else? That something is happening, sure, but that’s usually already quite clear. Sometimes it communicates details about what’s happening, but that only applies in systems where the number or type of dice use signifies something. That is, a double handful of d10s is a meaningful way to communicate to Exalted players that their enemy is a scary badass, but in D&D, all d20s are pretty much the same (though you can do some stunts with pulling out the REALLY big d20).

At the end here, I don’t feel like I’m any closer to an actual insight. Lots of things that work part of the time, or offer limited insight. I feel like there’s something here, but I can’t quite see to the heart of it. Still, I feel like I’m closer to sense of how to use the point at which the GM rolls as something to get purchase on in a design.

1 – Here’s an important note – I don’t have an answer to this, and I don’t swear I will have one by the time this is over. If I had an answer, the question would not be nearly as compelling, so this is mostly me airing out my thought process.

2 – Ok, that’s a small lie. You need to decide on defaults, so in the case of d20, you create attack value by assuming the NPCs always roll 10s or 11s. Either is about right (stupid averages) but it’s an important decision. I tend to vote 11, and players win ties, which is mathematically closer to 10.5.

3 – There’s also a concrete mechanical impact on systems that involve competitive die rolls (attack vs. defense) that is best illustrated by the Fudge dice used by Fate. The usual 4df roll generates a curved result from -4 to +4, but because each die is neutral, your odds are never going to get any better by changing the number of dice. This is important because when the GM rolls 4df as well, it’s the same as if the GM had rolled nothing and the player had rolled 8df, for a result from -8 to +8, but with no better odds of success. In situations like this (or in any game where there is rolling on both sides of a contest), there may not be a change in overall odds, but the range of possibilities broadens. That may or may not have any mechanical impact, depending on the system, but it’s somthing to keep in mind.

4 – While I don’t think this reflects on the broader issue of whether or not GMs should fudge dice rolls, it definitely suggests a reason it’s such a hot button topic.

11 thoughts on “When the GM Rolls

  1. jessecoombs

    What about the psychological difference of having one player (The GM), not rolling the dice with the players. Maybe requiring the GM to roll to do stuff just like the players puts her on more friendly ground with the players?

    “We’re all playing the same game here. I’ve got to roll for my guys too!”

  2. Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions)

    I’m not sure what this portends, but is post has me contrasting these two things in my head:

    GM: Something is about to happen. Roll the dice!
    Player: I got an 11.
    GM: Okay! The goblin pops up and…


    Player: Something is about to happen. Roll the dice!
    GM: I got an 11.
    Player: Okay! I pop up and…

  3. Thomas D

    That’s part of my desire for rolling the dice. All the people at the table are players, even if we give one a title. Yes, I’m the GM, but I still want to play the same game as everyone else at the table.

    The other thing that I dislike about the GM-never-rolls games is it artificially highlights the separation of roles in the game. In all these types of games that I’ve played, (and even some arguments I’ve heard from people who like these types of games), it’s implied (or directly stated) that will free up the GM to focus on bringing the story. This simply reinforces the division of the narrative: it’s the GM’s story and we’re just playing in it. The games I (and my group) enjoy playing have shared narrative control. Why would I want to put up barriers to that?

  4. T.W.Wombat

    “What it does signal, at least to my mind, is that the GM is now subjecting himself to the rules.”

    Bang on. At the point when the GM’s dice hit the table, the GM is no longer the main guiding force of the world but rather just another player. And as a GM, I find rolling dice tedious – especially when there are 30 minion types trying to pull down the heroes through sheer numbers.

    I like to fall back on my LARP philosophy: Using the rules is your final fallback position in the world of the story. Theatre-Style LARPers tend to emphasize storytelling, and I’ve inherited that in some aspects of my GMing. So if the players can’t work out the story themselves, only then do you bring the rules in and start rolling dice. With this idea, rolling dice almost feels like failure, though in a dice-intensive game like D&D you really can’t avoid it.

    Also, I think the Amber Diceless RPG deserves a mention here. I like it because the fixed mechanics force the players to change the type of conflict during play and come up with scenarios that will be advantageous to their characters. Granted, some player maneuvering can get a little contrived, but it changes the player’s creative emphasis from character building (D&D: “This feat and this power work well together, so I’ll add it to my combat options list”) to playing (Amber: “How can I trick Oberon into giving me his Trump deck since he can completely pants me in Warfare?”).

    The GM almost needs to place the opposite emphasis – D&D requires more focus on improvisational playing since any combat could cause a TPK though a run of bad luck, while Amber requires more up-front design with flow charts since much of the conflict outcome is pre-determined. I’m not trying to draw a hard line here since both design and play skills are central to a GM’s role, but rather focus on some of the subtleties.

    Taken to an extreme, the question of the GM using dice in the game (I’m thinking both GM and Player dice use here) turns into sort of a design-time vs. run-time philosophy question. Does the GM fit the characters into the overall story design and run combat as more of a storytelling exercise with a pre-determined outcome, or does the GM let the dice fall where they may and deal with the (possibly unanticipated) consequences?

    Hm. I wasn’t sure where I was going with this comment, but I find there’s more to think about on the idea of dice use vs. game design…

  5. Reverance Pavane

    One advantage of the idea that the DM always rolls the dice is that players get less concerned about the mechanics of the game. A lot of my early games as a player were like that so I probably view rolling the die as the gamemaster’s perogative. Certainly, as a player I don’t miss not rolling the dice.

    I do know that I often feel strange when gamemastering The DM Never Rolls games. A lot of it is the psychological impact of “I want to play too.” But a lot is the fact that I want the dice to be an oracle of what is happening.

    One little considered benefit of both sides roll in a game design is that it generally flattens the bell curve, meaning the more extreme results (eg critical vs fumble) are less likely to occur.

  6. jenskot

    I’ve found in games where the GM doesn’t roll, players are more ok with failure. It feel less like something that is done to them and more a risk they chose to take to get what they want.

    It can also create a sense of openness and fairness.

    As a GM, I also find it cuts down on handling time.

  7. Will Hindmarch

    I spent a lot of time running the SAGA system, and it was my first introduction to games in which the GM doesn’t roll… until I realized it wasn’t. I hardly ever rolled when running certain previous campaigns, either, just because I wanted to put the emphasis on the characters versus the world. That is, certain things DO happen unless the characters are there to change things.

    I’ll write more about this on Gameplaywright, but I often turn to the dice as a GM to use them as fair oracles. When I concoct two different possible outcomes to a PC action, I call for a die roll—often from the players, but sometimes from me—just to get that telemetry from fate. I could just choose, but sometimes getting the impartial input of chance validates the unexpected AS unexpected. As said above, it makes it feel like a collaboration has happened, rather than a decision on my part. Instead of me, the GM, deciding, we’re all reconciling our imaginary story with the inscrutable hand of the die.

  8. Mick Bradley

    Lots of good fodder here, as always. But the thing that jumped at me the most is your example about the psychological/drama value of the GM grabbing a handful of d10s vs. rolling a d20.

    I haven’t had a lifetime of exposure to D&D, so often when the GM gives us a hint of what an adversary looks like – or when something just blatantly shows up in our path – most of the folks at the table can suss out what monster it is simply from years of using the MM. But most of the time, the oh-shit level of difference between an ettin and a displacer beast is totally lost on me. So, my oh-shit is based on my secondhand reaction to everyone else’s.

    But in a dice pool system, when the GM pulls out a fistful of dice to represent an adversary’s potency, I’m totally able to feel the oh-shit moment without ever having to know anything at all about the average threat level of the baddie based on my knowledge of the MM.

    I don’t really have a point here – but I suppose it does speak to the notion that if/how/when a GM rolls dice has a big effect on the drama of play.

  9. Jim Pacek

    A few years ago, I was running a home-brew FATE fantasy game. I almost never rolled the dice. Almost all of my monsters had a combat score like Great or Superb or Epic and I told the players to “beat them or they beat you”. It worked very well.

  10. Lisa Padol

    I think I’m oddly all right with a GM fudging a die roll so long as the GM is good enough I can’t prove it was done.

    I know that sometimes I will roll dice when it means nothing, as a cheap psychological trick. I’ve done it less often over the years because I’ve been doing less die rolling overall.

    In theory, if I roll dice as a GM, I should be all right with any outcome. In practice — well, I remember one session, years ago, when all of us decided, unanimously, that we just didn’t like the result the dice called for. So, we overruled the dice.

    Now, it’s certainly valid to look at that as a failure of the system, or of our judgment about when to roll the dice. But, and I think this is another part of why fudging doesn’t always bug me, it’s also valid to look at the whole process as a way of forming consensus. We now know what we want. The dice are an odd tool to help us figure that out, but that is what happened.

    Currently, I’m running straight Call of Cthulhu, the Tatters of the King campaign. Someone suggested I make Sanity rolls for a bunch of NPCs. I did not roll for the one case I had planned. But, I did roll for all of the other NPCs that sort of popped up (folks were at a play, and it turned out that everyone decided to go with a date, not just the one PC I knew would do so). I had no Sanity stats for the NPCs, and I think we sort of agreed that 50% was a good ball park figure. Those rolls I made honestly, as I was okay with any result, and we got some unexpected results there.


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