Apologies for missing last week’s post; was dealing with some minor illness on my end, and schedules kept piling up and preventing me from getting back to it until now. Continuing with this ongoing series about handling unhelpful die rolls (if you missed parts 1 and 2, check them out here and here respectively). So far we’ve looked at the extremes for both success and failure, bu this week we’re going another direction and discussing the unhelpful moderate roll. Pass or fail, these rolls are the ones that are humdrum rather than humdingers, and don’t give you any useful leanings one way or the other to flesh out the story in an interesting way. There are several circumstances where these can come up and many ways to handle them, so let’s crack on and start taking a look.
One of the first points to consider is whether or not the thing you’re rolling for has a lot of plot relevance in and of itself. We’ve all had situations where some sort of Skill check should really be called for, but the circumstances just aren’t that dire or pressing where you’re going to have a whole lot of direction to take it, and are just rolling the dice to go through the motions. Say your players are hiking through a mountain pass and come in contact with a cliff face to scale. The cliff isn’t sheer, the surface has plenty of hand holds, there’s no combat or time limit, and nothing particularly interesting at the top other than more trail to progress on, and your players are experienced climbers. The situation calls for a Climbing roll, but really the only way things could get interesting here is if they fail.
Remember that if you’re going to roll dice, there should be some amount of excitement to the outcome, regardless of what it is, and if you’re setting up a situation where that can’t happen, then there isn’t much point to rolling. You could of course change the scene to add some excitement, create some higher stakes so that rolling matters again. This can create problems, however. Generally speaking, greater risks tend to imply greater rewards, and while sometimes the reward is simply the ability to continue the mission, that can get old quickly if overused. Sometimes you just need a calmer moment for everyone to take a breath. You might consider if the dice need to be rolled at all here. Since there are no real stakes, you could just make this a ‘gimmie’ test and not bother with the dice. This must also be used sparingly, as certain Skills that often get used in low stakes situations aren’t as appealing to invest in if you never roll them. If you’d like a way to still put numbers to it, there’s an aspect to the Step system that is useful here. Mathematically, the Step you are rolling is the average result those dice will come up with (and yes, this does take roll ups into account). A technique I’ve used in my games along those lines is to allow a player to simply take their Step as the result without rolling the dice when there are no major stakes and their Step meets or exceeds the target number. This speeds up game play and still gives players a reason to advance the Skill even if they don’t roll it as much.
Spells are a common one where you just need the effect and rolling the dice for it would be needlessly cumbersome (though often you need a number for the result to determine effect). Something like casting a light spell when entering a dark area with no immediate danger, or just sending off a message. Again, simply taking the Step is a quick and effective tool here to get a result without needing to roll for it. You could also take a spell that would normally require re-rolls for multiple castings and just handle them with one result. To use the previous example, say you’re creating a light for each person to explore the dark. You could just have the player roll the spell once and say that same result is repeated for each casting. This is particularly useful for new players who still need to roll in order to learn the mechanics, but don’t need to roll for the same thing multiple times to get the point.
So, what if you’re in a pivotal moment of the story, a die roll is made, and the result is just average? Moments with a lot of dramatic tension leading up to a die roll can feel like a let down if the result isn’t particularly impressive one way or the other.
For example, let’s say your group has been questing for a particular treasure chest for months; after arduous travels, they’ve found it, get it moved to a safe spot to pick the TN 20 lock, and they get a 23. A success, but not super high to go on about very much, not even a just barely success to play up how it was a near thing. In this instance, to keep the scene interesting you’ll want to focus less on the Skill test itself and more on the results of finally getting to see what’s inside. Let’s also consider if the test failed with something like a 15. Not a catastrophic failure, not a near miss. Again, to keep it interesting you’ll want to focus more on the results than the roll itself, how for the moment the mechanism of the lock eludes them and remains the last hurdle between them and their prize. The key here is to avoid the simple “The test succeeds” or “The test fails” answer, and instead focus on descriptions that play up on the feelings of anticipation and excitement in the moment. You want to make it less of a game giving results for actions and more like what you would read in a book that is telling a story.
Have you developed any other tricks to keep mundane die rolls in your games interesting? Any thoughts where you might use the tricks discussed here? Let us know on Discord, and we’ll catch you with the next installment.