Your dice don’t hate you – they love you. (Maybe a bit too much.)

On the essential masochism of roleplaying games.

I never got the whole “dice superstition” bit. Tabletop gamers, by and large, intersect with the atheist and scientific community pretty heavily; but they get weird about dice, because dice are the fetish links we have to the mysterious otherrealm of Chance, itself a unifying plane of almost every bloody game we play.

For instance – it is entirely common behaviour for a gamer to say that a dice “isn’t treating them well” and roll a different one next turn, because it will “behave” better. Sure, it’s cute, but people treat this stuff seriously.

Some people don’t like it when you touch their dice. I’ve had people sat next to me snap at me for rolling their D100’s in a game of Call of Cthulhu. I guess it’s like praying with someone else’s rosary… or, maybe, casting with their Tarot cards. These are personal tools of communion, often expensive and special ones, and we can get pretty protective over them.

(My one habit is sorting my dice so they all read the maximum value; I can’t honestly say why I do it. It doesn’t influence luck. Back when I was just starting out, the other guys who’d been playing for years did it, so I figured it was best to copy them if I wanted to fit in. It stuck. Maybe that’s why everyone does everything.)

Anyway, I’m rambling. What I’m here to say (with that slightly clickbaity title) is that your dice totally love you. Your dice are obsessed with you. They want you to be the most important person in the world.

This illustration doesn't make a lot of sense at this point in the article, but I swear to god it's relevant! TOOTHSMACK!

This illustration doesn’t make a lot of sense at this point in the article, but I swear to god it’s relevant! DENTISTRY!

WHAT?

“Bullshit,” I hear you say, because I installed microphones in your house while you were aslee

“Bullshit,” I imagine you saying, because no-one’s installed microphones anywhere don’t be silly, “I wanted to decapitate a goblin last week, and I rolled a 2, so I got run through something rotten by that goblin and my character died!”

Hey, I’ve been there. I’ve been furious with my dice in the past; I remember, one time, I’d spent two turns (and these are 4e turns we’re talking here, so that’s about twenty minutes in total) climbing to the top floor of a building so I could leap across the gap in the street and eviscerate a Wererat Mage crouching on the rooftop.

I leap, and trigger my daily power; it’s designed to mess up the target pretty badly, and make it easier for my mates to kill ’em afterwards. I describe steeling myself for the leap, running to the edge of the roof, and….

I rolled a 2. The ultimate insult. A 3 is sad, but leaves you within at least a hair’s breadth of success. A 1 suggests events conspired against you. A 2 is grey, uniform, pap, tripe. They might as well replace the 2 on the D20 with “SKIP YOUR TURN” in big red letters, although that probably wouldn’t fit on the dice.

THEN I REALISE I’M JUST TELLING YOU ABOUT A DICE I ROLLED THIS ONE TIME

Sorry; sorry. The point is that I became almighty angry all of a sudden; I’d invested time, in the two turns spent climbing, and I’d invested character resources, in my daily power, and I’d invested emotional energy by describing my attack in flowery terms. I banked a lot on the roll, and it was found wanting.

“Fuck it,” I said, staring at the dice. “Fucking nothing happens.” Because if this was a film, or a book, and we’d watched a character go through an elaborate set-up for an attack, we’d expect that attack to do something. I had a bit of a sulk. (The GM, out of a kindness that was in no way deserved, gave me a re-roll, and I hit, and the story continued.)

Conversely – remember that time you rolled a 1, and everyone groaned because maaan, ones are BAD, and the GM screwed your character over but it was funny, right? And you weren’t happy with the results in-character, but it made the fight more interesting, right?

Because you want adversity. You want to see your character abused.

NOT IN THAT WAY, JEEZ. WELL, OKAY, MAYBE IN THAT WAY, AND THAT’S FINE IF THAT’S HOW YOU GET YOUR JOLLIES, BUT NOT IN MY GAMES, CHIEF

Roleplaying games, at their core, are exercises in adversity, in masochism. We make characters, grab the GM, and say – “We’re really happy with these people, now – fuck ’em up for us. Pull their hair. Get their faces dirty. Kick them in the shins. Find out what they like then destroy it.” Because that’s the ethos of drama, isn’t it, at least in the Western world? Triumph over adversity.

And we’re signing up for drama (well, most of us are, some of us want to mathematically represent what it would be like if we were elves, and if that’s you, sunshine, you’re on the wrong blog and probably spent twenty minutes drafting a snarky response to my Shadowrun piece in the comments section), so we’re willingly putting ourselves through this, because it’s fun. Because we’re at a remove from it, handling it through character proxies, and none of it’s real anyway.

But adversity brings change, and change is fascinating. When we roll the dice, we’re saying – I want something to change. I want to make an impact. The biggest problem is when nothing happens. There’s a drum roll and no payoff – the beat rises, but it never breaks. We crave narrative bursts. We crave cause and effect, no matter what the effect is.

Sucker for punishment John McClane, here, re-enacting the famous scene from Heavy Rain

Sucker for punishment John McClane, here, re-enacting the famous scene from Heavy Rain. There’s a man who looks good getting knocked about.

YOUR DICE ARE AGENTS OF CHANGE

Your dice don’t want you to do well, in the same way they don’t want you to lose every combat. Your dice don’t care if you win or lose. What your dice care about is feedback. They are the output from your input. And when that output is “Nothing changes,” that can be frustrating, if you’ve invested yourself or your character into the roll.

In short, your dice are your fans. And fans love to see their idols victorious, but they love to see them have shit piled upon them along the way.

Here’s what you have to do – this is a viable option for the GM, too – bear in mind that whenever you roll dice, something changes. When you roll and you hit, the change is obvious – you hit the guy, his hitpoints go down, rinse and repeat. With some gamesmasters, when you roll a 1, the change is obvious too – events conspire to fuck up your intentions in the worst possible way.

So – what happens when you miss? Ask the GM. Narrate it yourself. Change something. You didn’t “miss” the guy – you just didn’t hit him. Why? Are you distracted? Nervous? Scared? Overconfident? Did he parry your attack? Does he just grimace and shrug off the blow? What happens when you don’t connect? Is he scared, happy, angry, mocking?

The Apocalypse World rules (blessed be their name) have this baked in, and the GM is in charge of describing how the world changes as a result of player actions. D20 games don’t, and as I’ve been hinting heavily throughout this article, D20 games are my meat and drink.

SMACK MY ASS AND CALL ME SALLY

Next time you roll a dice, ask the GM – “What happens?” If they say “Uh… nothing,” then look at you a bit funny, mess yourself up. “Maybe the gnoll grabs my weapon and pulls me towards her.” “Maybe the goblin leaps back out of the way and shouts to its friends that I’m an easy target.” “Maybe I over-balance and get knocked to the floor.”

If you’re worried about heaping negative modifiers on yourself, then… don’t. Don’t do that. Adversity is fun. Struggling to succeed is fun. Picking the optimal selection in every situation because it results in the lowest hitpoint loss is dull, and anyway, if you wanted to never lose hitpoints you’d just stay at home all day.

Hopefully your GM will agree, though, and maybe they’ll learn that the reason you’re here is to have them kick the shit out of you and for you to come through it grinning. They’ll see that every time you pick up the dice, the world should revolve around you for a split second, even if that rotation knocks you to the floor.

FURTHER READING

If you want to read a cracking mechanical breakdown of self-inflicted punishment in games, read this D&D 3e rules variant called Raising the Stakes (it’s on page 6, but the document is strong throughout). It pushes the “kick me in the teeth” bit to before the roll, which makes everything seem fairer, but it requires a bit of work from your GM because it relies on mechanical feedback, not colourful descriptions. (It’s also just a great example of the ethos I’m pushing for – everything revolves around the characters, as far as the lens of your game is concerned.)

Apocalypse World is a very clever post-modern RPG, and you should just read the damn thing if you care about indie games in the slightest. It has informed the current generation of RPGs to a huge extent, and if you don’t like the core setting, I can guarantee that someone’s written one more to your tastes.

FATE‘s Fate Points reward you mechanically whilst punishing you in the fiction, which is a perfect way to encourage the sort of masochism-at-a-remove that makes for great stories. The system isn’t as punchy as AW, but it has a much broader focus – and it’s pay-what-you-want! Which is nice.