When Not To Roll

One of my friends had a story about a roleplaying game he was beta-testing at a convention, and that some feedback he received—from one of the playtesters, a professional game designer—was he called for too many perception-type checks. It got him thinking about their over-use. It got me thinking as well; back when I was running D&D/Pathfinder campaigns, I knew skill checks were something I relied on as a fallback. Not sure what to do next, have the players roll something. And it can be more of an issue with notice-type checks since they tend to be all-encompassing, covering all visual and auditory information that the characters obtain, meaning they’re rolled more and more often for sometimes incidental details.

It also reminds me of a Serenity game some of my friends played in that sounded quite horrible—the characters were scrimping by with fuel and supply costs, raising chickens in the cargo hold for food. Turning the solid Serenity setting and rules into Adventures in Spreadsheets wasn’t the relevant part; it was the inversion of rolling too often: the characters, especially the pilot, had nothing to do. The pilot’s plight coined a meme for our group: Roll to take off; Roll to land. You’re playing a hotshot ace pilot; now, you get to roll your peak skill for the most banal of actions. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Or yet another memory: my college roommate’s first Shadowrun campaign, where another player had to roll to use Google Maps. (And, due to the way the GM interpreted Shadowrun 4th, the fourteen-die pool resulted in a glitch/botch.)

In thinking about it, I realized I was calling for a lot more of those fallback crap rolls than was warranted. It’s a problem in a lot of games I played as well. (I’ve been with some GMs who would use rolling as a stall tactic, to figure out what the players were rolling to find.) There’s a lot of times where a character would be able to make certain assumptions or complete certain actions without a roll, particularly if they’re trained and motivated (such as 5th-level D&D characters or starting-level Fate characters). It’s a part of Gumshoe’s design philosophy and an element in how it handles acquisition of clues and knowledge. Also part of why I vaguely dislike Gumshoe as a system—shouldn’t every game already promote, or at least accept, those concepts?


With RPGs, rolling dice is one of the most visceral elements of the game, particuarly in terms of a roleplaying game’s “game” elements. Picking up dice and rolling them is fun. It’s tangible. There’s the thrill of the gamble, relying on luck and fate. You could roll a nat 20; if you roll a 1, well, there’s hope for the future. It’s a level playing field—nobody can out-think, out-roleplay, out-create, out-argue anyone else when it comes to dice results. And there’s a strange love/hate relationship with games that use “funny dice”—those outside the normal geek polyhedrals, like Fudge dice, Ubiquity dice, FFG’s Star Wars Dice, etc.

And yet I think GMs need to step back and evaluating if the roll we’re calling for is necessary as a roll. Rolling for red herrings and less-significant events is still an important part of the game, but I think over-rolling can cheapen the experience and de-value important rolls. It’s also time-consuming, moreo if everyone is making some crap roll, and downright painful if you’re using dice pools.

A big part of understanding Fate is wrapping your head around Aspects—and that Aspects are always true—and how that causes them to act as permissions. If you have an Aspect that says you’re Always Armed, well then, there will always be a time in the narrative where you have a weapon of some kind. Or if you are disarmed, it’s just for a scene, or there’s that one switchblade in your boot that your adversaries missed, allowing you to cut through the ropes binding you or pick the cell’s lock (or whatever). If you have an Aspect of Jedi Warrior, you’re a Jedi warrior; if you have Master of the Mystic Arts, you use magic. If having such powerful Aspects is a problem, the GM should have discussed using Force Sensitive or Apprentice Mage at creation.

(There’s also adhering to your game’s fiction—your setting, tropes, themes, etc.—that Fate is seeming to absorb from Dungeon World. If you’re playing average shmoes in a horror setting, you’ll end up rolling for things your pulp heroes or space pirates or fantasy adventurers could manage without breaking a sweat. It’s part of the reason I dig the idea of campaign/world Aspects, codifying and translating the setting’s concepts into permissions.)

Fate design theory dating back to Spirit of the Century has pushed GMs to call for a roll when there’s meaningful results from both success and failure, pushing to re-interpret what situations require a roll. The example, I think, was a bottomless pit—the traditional call would be for a save-or-die roll, do you make it across the pit or fall to your death. The alternates for a failed roll included things like a) hanging on to the opposite ledge by your fingers, b) realizing the pit was too wide and you’d have to find another way across, c) making it only appear bottomless, and putting something interesting at the bottom, or d) just not calling for a roll in the first place, since if the characters are badasses living their own story, why wouldn’t they make it across?

To circle back to the beginning—to me, a character with an Ace Pilot Aspect has already established themselves as an ace pilot, as the Aspect grants them that status. There’s no reason to make them roll to land or take off (other than for our own sense of inbred, memetic humor); it’s a crap roll that exists to consume time and lose focus. There’s no reason takeoff and landing would be a challenge to an ace pilot with no external complication (sabotage, weather, a compel). Failure would add little to the game. What, are they going to have amazing adventures in red tape as they argue with the bureaucratic air traffic controller for runway privileges? Does failure mean they crashed and died—scrub the game because of one player’s dumb luck?

I’ve already discussed this concept (admittedly less coherent than this post) with a few GM acquaintances in the past few months. One was a GM considering an expanded Pilot skill, and breaking Electronics out of Academics for using computers and sensors and tech. Both were choices for a Fate Core campaign where the players would play hotshot mecha pilots in the farthest-flung future. To me, those sound like prime candidates for things I wouldn’t require players to roll—concepts I’d rather trim than expand.

The reasoning behind Pilot as above, unless there’s a disparity of knowledge between characters… which there shouldn’t be much of, since they’re all ace pilots. (Is it down to “who can out-ace everyone else,” dick-waving with numbers?) For Computers, it’s due to how far advanced the future-tech would be from our already bewilderingly advanced gadgets: when I need something, I pull out my phone and talk at it. It’s a Moto X, so I can just say “Okay, Google Now…” and it will start pouring through the databanks or pulling up an app, even when locked with the screen off. Try to imagine a Moto X with 500 years of technological innovation. Finding information in the 25th Century using a computer isn’t a Computer roll to me, it’s Investigate. In other cases, do you really need your Future Dudes to roll to use Future Google Maps? What is that saying about the setting or the characters?

It’s a tough line to walk—I’m not the “all role, no roll” type of guy, hence why my fallback urge is asking for some random die roll, to make it feel like stuff is happening, to trigger the mechanical parts of the game. But I think when you ask for a die roll, consider whether it’s a valid roll or just rolling dice for the sake of hearing plastic clatter. I think it will lead to the rolls that are asked for having more of an impact.

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