Dice Tales: Different Challenges

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the seventeenth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


There was an issue hidden in last week’s post, which some of you may have noticed, because it’s a common topic of debate among gamers. Let’s pull it out and look at it more directly.

Characters in games can face multiple kinds of challenges. If you remember back when I posted some examples of character sheets, the attributes on the White Wolf example were broken into three categories: physical, social, and mental. This corresponds well to different types of challenge; we might also add “magical” to that list.

These things are not created equal.

Short of a boffer LARP, where players are actually fighting with foam weapons, nobody expects you to have the physical skills of your PC. When it comes time to fight or swim a raging river or dance or pick a lock, your own skill is irrelevant; all that matters is what’s on your sheet. In a tabletop game, you roll dice to answer the question “how well did I do?” In a LARP, you again look to the mechanics — mostly; there are exceptions. A “puzzle LARP” might have an actual prop you interact with to represent picking a lock; it’s unlikely to be an actual lock with actual picks, but it might be a game of Jenga or something, and if you knock it down you’ve set off an alarm. And when it comes to artistic performances in a live-action game, well, there are many gamer anecdotes told about the guy who couldn’t sing as well as he thought or the girl with three years of training pretending to be a prima ballerina. But everyone understands that no matter how bad the singing or dancing was OOC, their characters should react as if it were as good as the sheet says it should have been.

When you talk about mental and social challenges, though, this gets more complicated.

It’s easy to handle the fact that a PC knows more about a given subject than the player does; most systems have a “knowledge” or “lore” ability, and the GM just feeds information to the player based on that stat. But what about reasoning? What about the stuff that isn’t really about what you know, but rather what you do with your knowledge? How do you play a character who’s smarter than you are?

I had to deal with this in my Scion campaign, because the PCs, being the half-mortal children of gods, were supposed to be far beyond mortal capacity in their chosen fields. Two of them were superhumanly intelligent, but I didn’t want to just feed them answers and plans all the time; that would turn the entire process into them parroting what I had said a moment before, which isn’t very fun. I could theoretically handle it from my end by just deciding that any plan they made was a good one, and shaping my own responses to suit . . . but there are limits to that approach. Too often it winds up feeling less like the PCs are really smart, and more like the challenges they’re facing are not very substantial. I decided instead to crowdsource their intelligence: those two were permitted to consult with the other players in a way that would normally have been metagaming, on the grounds that five minds were better than one. “Is there something I’m forgetting to consider?” and other such questions became commonplace, as they relied on one another to shore up holes in their reasoning. And when their plans got underway, if something came up they hadn’t anticipated OOC, they could roll to see whether their divine intelligence ought to have led them to expect and prepare for it.

Did it rise to the level of actual godly brains? No, because we’re all ultimately still human. But it helped. And it was more fun than just rolling the dice and having me tell them what do do.

Social stuff is even harder. After all, this is role-playing, not roll-playing — a distinction commonly made when this question comes up. It’s kind of painful when the actual dialogue and behavior is wildly inadequate, but the dice say that no, that was the most persuasive argument you ever heard. “You should risk your entire kingdom and your life to help us, because, uhhhh, I say so.” <roll> “Success. Now you have to do what I said.”

But if you take the dice out of it . . . then you’re basically limiting the characters to what the players are capable of, in a way you would (outside of a boffer LARP) never dream of doing when it comes to combat. This is why I say the issue was buried in my last post: if you recall, the two examples where I had players make rolls ahead of time were both major conversations, ones where the skills of the characters really needed to matter, but I also didn’t want to kill all tension and forward momentum by stopping to grab the dice. Rolling ahead of time and deploying the results at appropriate moments or asking the players to craft their RP around what the dice had said was my way of compromising, of letting the sheet matter without letting it replace the roleplay entirely.

There are other ways to compromise. The Exalted game system has a feature calling “stunts,” where you can earn bonus dice on your roll if you make a good OOC effort to describe what you’re doing or play it out. They apply this to combat as well as to conversations, so that an exciting description of how you flourish your blade and charge at your opponent brings the same kind of reward as a really persuasive argument, but if you just say “I attack him” or “I ask him to help us,” you can still roll. I like that approach —- but it still has its problems.

First of all, if you have the stunt before the roll, then what if the roll winds up not matching its overture? You might give a fantastic speech . . . and then bomb your roll in a way that ought to mean you said “You should risk your entire kingdom and your life to help us, because, uhhhh, I say so.” It’s possible to come up with reasons for why your great stunt face-planted, but it’s a pain. The second problem, though . . . stunting again privileges certain player abilities, separate from character abilities. The player with the judo background describes a better Knockdown maneuver than the one who’s never sparred; the socially adept player can come up with a better manipulation attempt than the one who’s a social klutz.

And this isn’t just about playing somebody smarter or more charismatic than you are. It can be surprisingly difficult to play a character who is dumber or more annoying — or, in the latter case, get other people to react to your annoying behavior appropriately. This is particularly true in a LARP, because the mechanics intervene less frequently. My husband played a character intended to be the brilliant guy who’s so obnoxious about how he presents his knowledge that people don’t want to listen to what he has to say. Unfortunately for him (sort of), he’s a really gregarious and friendly guy in reality, so all the other players kept cutting his PC way more slack than his actual IC behavior merited. His taciturn tabletop PC in another game was more socially limited because he had a terrible dice pool for matters of etiquette, and that helped guide not only NPC responses but his own RP; without the mechanics, it can be difficult to hobble yourself, even when you want to.

Ultimately, there’s no simple answer to this —- no solution that neatly resolves the entire problem without any side effects. Each group has to decide what answer they’re the most comfortable with, whether that’s letting people forgo the RP and just roll, roll in advance and work around it, stunt first and then roll, or let the dice go and live or die by their own brains and charisma. A novelist can take as much time and advice as they need to write things they’re not personally very good at, but in a game, you’ve got to find some way to keep the ball rolling in a satisfying manner.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: Different Challenges — 6 Comments

  1. Probably outside the scope of this particular section, but I’d be interested to hear your take on playable flaws, especially as related to disability.

    • Mmmmm, good question. I think I’ll try to include that when I go into the actual creation of character — mechanics, relation to player identity, etc — which is a whole series of posts I’ll tackle at some point, though I’m not sure where in the lineup it’ll come. I’ll make a note of that for the future, though.

  2. “The Exalted game system has a feature calling ‘stunts,’ where you can earn bonus dice on your roll if you make a good OOC effort to describe what you’re doing or play it out.”

    This mode of challenge is exactly the reason I had a blast playing Superfight at one of my husband’s cast parties where normally I don’t enjoy card games (or even most party games) at all. It didn’t hurt that the game comes with built-in kibitzing or that players are not required to commit to more than one round unless they feel like it, but the basic concept of combat by persuasive over-the-top argument was a very attractive quality.

    • I really enjoy that sort of thing, yeah (though I forget to utilize it as much as I should when GMing). But I do see why some gamers aren’t as fond of it; if that kind of thing isn’t your strength, it can feel like a roadblock instead of a fun challenge.

  3. I feel this as a player and it’s why, as much as I like the concept of roleplaying, I usually end up saying, “My character wants to try X, what do I roll?” and doing rollplaying instead. (The big local system hereabouts seems to be Pathfinder, which at least allows me to do that. With some indie systems I’d be hosed.) I know it’s not as fun and I feel bad about it, but I am very poor at roleplaying/acting, and I am even worse at thinking up things to say under time pressure. I did have some involvement in play-by-email (both as player and GM) ages ago and found that with time pressure ameliorated, I did much better.

    • I hear you. There are certain kinds of things I just can’t come up with on command; I usually wind up saying something like “the NPC finds some elegant way to say X while implying Y.”