I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Friday, February 20, 2015

When not to roll, and why examples are important

Having spent a few posts writing about dice, I feel like adding a quick note on when not to roll dice. You have probably heard a few takes on the subject already. Here's mine.

Many people will tell you that you should only roll dice in very specific circumstances. For example, only when there's risk, uncertainty, unpredictability, opposition, etc. I agree - dice rolling should be reserved for a few situations, while most circumstances should be managed with conversation, automatic successes, and so on.

The thing is, that kind of advice is heard so often it makes you wonder why people are rolling so many dice in the first place.

The reason, I believe, is that although most games will tell you upfront when to avoid rolling the dice, they will also tell you the opposite, over and over again, albeit implicitly.

Let's look at the "take 10" rule, for example. It says:

When your character is not being threatened or distracted, you may choose to take 10. Instead of rolling 1d20 for the skill check, calculate your result as if you had rolled a 10. For many routine tasks, taking 10 makes them automatically successful. Distractions or threats (such as combat) make it impossible for a character to take 10. In most cases, taking 10 is purely a safety measure —you know (or expect) that an average roll will succeed but fear that a poor roll might fail, so you elect to settle for the average roll (a 10). Taking 10 is especially useful in situations where a particularly high roll wouldn’t help.

The fact that not rolling when there's no distraction or threat is optional is problematic. Rolling is assumed even for routine, mundane tasks, when it should be the opposite (you might have the option of rolling the dice if taking particular risks, for example). Even if we accept that this option will be taken by the players most of the time, the whole game have tons of examples of rolling dice, and very few examples on using skills or abilities without rolling.

Like many books, the SRD mentions taking 10 a couple of times, but mentions rolling dice hundreds of times.

Take the Craft skill, for example. Since the skill is mostly related to to mundane, harmless tasks, it would make sense to give examples of taking 10 or otherwise ignoring dice when describing it. Instead, we get this:

To determine how much time and money it takes to make an item, follow these steps.
  1. Find the item’s price. Put the price in silver pieces (1 gp = 10 sp).
  2. Find the DC from the table below.
  3. Pay one-third of the item’s price for the cost of raw materials.
  4. Make an appropriate Craft check representing one week’s work. If the check succeeds, multiply your check result by the DC. If the result × the DC equals the price of the item in sp, then you have completed the item. (If the result × the DC equals double or triple the price of the item in silver pieces, then you’ve completed the task in one-half or one-third of the time. Other multiples of the DC reduce the time in the same manner.) If the result × the DC doesn’t equal the price, then it represents the progress you’ve made this week. Record the result and make a new Craft check for the next week. Each week, you make more progress until your total reaches the price of the item in silver pieces.
So, in theory, you can take 10 for such mundane tasks. In practice, you get long, complicated examples on how to resolve this task with a d20, with very wonky results, not only because of the "swingyness" of the d20 in this circumstance but also because it leads to a world in which a shoemaker cannot be sure how long it will take them to make a shoe.

Why not just spend 1/3 of the cost of the item in materials, and them just adding 10 plus your skill rank in silver pieces every week?

Appraise gets the same treatment:

You can appraise common or well-known objects with a DC 12 Appraise check. Failure means that you estimate the value at 50% to 150% (2d6+3 times 10%,) of its actual value.

This means that an ordinary person doesn't now the price of a common item much of the time. Commerce must be a very strange activity in this world. And should you be really rolling to know the value of a well-known object?

Another thing that bothers me is that many "mundane" skills have rules on trying again, implying that you would roll the dice the first time you tried. Take knowledge, for example:

Answering a question within your field of study has a DC of 10 (for really easy questions), 15 (for basic questions), or 20 to 30 (for really tough questions).

Try Again
No. The check represents what you know, and thinking about a topic a second time doesn’t let you know something that you never learned in the first place.

So, yeah, it sounds like you are supposed to roll the dice and, if you fail, bad luck - you have never learned basic questions within your field of study. If you have a +5 skill, you have never learned 45% of thew basic questions in that field.

I used the SRD, but you can find examples in any game. Just browsing through GURPS 4e, for example, I can find a suggestion of making a Driving/IQ roll "for basic map reading" and "to recall rules of the road" (p. 188), although I'm sure there are generic rules for NOT rolling in routine situations.

Again, you might say that nobody really uses this rules, but my point is that, time after time, these game lose good opportunities to give examples of NOT rolling.

When rolling the dice is just a bad idea...

To give you a glimpse on an alternate way of doing things, consider encumbrance and STR: most games explicit tell you how much your character can carry based on this trait, and rolling to see how much you can lift is seldom mentioned.

There are many possible solutions. Replacing a few examples of "trying again" for a few "ordinarily, you MUST take 10 when using this skill" could solve some problems (including not trying again, since the result would be exactly the same unless circumstances have changed).

But what I would really like to see are more examples of getting results without rolling.

Here is a quick take on knowledge, for no particular system:

Skill + INT
4: You know all the basics within your field of study.
8: You also know little-known information on basic topics, and basic information about little-known topics.
12: You also know little-known information about little-known topics, very obscure information about basic topics, and basic information on very obscure topics.
16: You know all that it currently known by experts within this field.
20: You may have a few theories of your own that would take the field even further. Time to test them!

Synergy, circumstantial and equipment modifiers, a bonus for appropriate backgrounds, and other modifiers still apply. You may still roll when debating other experts, searching for a book in a library provided that the library is currently on fire, and so on.

If every "routine" skill or task had a few examples like that, there would be little need to constantly remind players that you don't need to roll for everything.

Note: for a particularly good take on skills, see Hack & Slash. The author's notes on skills were an important inspirations for this post.

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