Monthly Archives: September 2009

Exclusive Rolls (and Roles)

Consider this long-standing piece of gaming wisdom: only call for a roll when it actually matters to the game. This answers to certain obvious stupidities, like making people roll to walk across the room, but it plays out in a lot more subtle ways. For example, the killer app of the Gumshoe system addresses this issue when dealing with clues in a mystery. Since you need to find clues to move things forward, don’t call for a roll, just let people find them. It’s a neat trick, though like most such tricks I think the lesson is more useful than the mechanic itself.[1]

The line between what obviously should be rolled for and what should not can get pretty fuzzy and is shaped by GM and player expectations. One game may only expect a roll when something would be considered difficult, while another game might only call for rolls when dramatically appropriate. This is all well and good, and there’s a lot to explore in this space, but one thing I rarely see addressed is the question of who is rolling.

This struck me while I was flipping through Cold City this morning[2]. There’s an example there of picking a lock, which is used to illustrate the question of when you should or should not call for a roll. CC handles this very clearly – if the lock needs to be picked to move the story forward then don’t roll – but the example twigged something in my mind. If I had picked something like lockpick or burglar as my concept, I would feel pretty ripped off if other people got to pick those locks without a roll for the sake of drama.

I would feel like my choices are being devalued. I am the lockpicking guy, and if I’m there I should be picking the lock. Even more importantly, if I’m not there, then my absence should matter. Couched in dramatic terms, my absence should make that lock dramatically important because it is not about the lock, it’s about me.

This is rarely a problem in systems that call for a roll based on difficulty – in that case the lack of skill will make itself known quickly, and the value of the skill is illustrated – but in any other game, this is something to watch for. On the simplest level, this is a matter of looking for the skills that only one character has taken, and remembering to flag any incidence of that skill as potentially dramatic, especially in the absence of the character, In their presence, you’re welcome to forgo rolls so long as it’s understood that the reason they can forgo rolls is because the character is awesome.

It also might call for a bit more of a nuanced understanding of the system. For example, if you’re playing storyteller and one person has 5 dots in a skill, even if others have 1 or 2 dots, then that skill is still probably their bailiwick, at least in their own mind. Similarly, things like specialties or merits/advantages might be flags of things the character has a stake in.[3]

The bottom line is that it’s totally cool to not call for a roll for something that is not going to be fun or interesting, but you need to keep the specifics of your characters in mind when you make those decisions. The decision of when you do and don’t call for a roll is a quiet but powerful way to show respect for their role, or to just as easily disrespect it entirely.

1 – The lesson, that you should not let information fail to reach the characters when its needed, is easily ported to other games that call it out less explicitly. it’s a great example of a rule teaching a technique.

2 – Cold City is awesome, and I’m totally not criticizing it here, it’s just what got me thinking.

3 – Contacts are a great and often problematic illustration of this. Since GMs and published adventures usually have specific NPCs written up to give characters information, thought is rarely given to what contacts the characters do or do not have. That ends up sucking for the guy who actually bought some contacts, because if Joe NPC is always going to show up in accordance with the game’s needs, those contacts are effectively flagged as secondary. Not to say every NPC in the game has to flow through the character with contacts, but things need to tilt that way, even if it means rewriting or re-using the occasional NPC.