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Isn't RP about writing? Why include dice?

For some of you, perhaps even the majority, RP is entirely a writing exercise. Story is king, and dice - not to mention math! - seem like anathema, a way to lose control over your characters and your stories.

If you have a strong background in "mechanics" based RP, this article won't contain anything new. But you might find it's useful to explain the concept to friends and RP partners who aren't yet convinced that dice can be anything other than restrictive.

If you've always wondered what dice were for and how you could use them in collaborative story-writing, read on. You might be surprised how simple and useful they can be!

How do you use dice, anyway?

Let me be clear: There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of dice systems on the planet. Some are insanely complex. In this tutorial, I will be presenting one super-simple dice system that anyone can get started with in just a few minutes. It uses concepts that are inherent to many other dice systems, and you are free to modify it to suit your needs.

This is an ideal system to introduce in a RP group that is beginning to get large enough to have some communication gaps about how much power or skill is normal and fair for a single character to have, but it could work equally well for one on one RP where you want to add a little more surprise!

In this tutorial, we'll use a 1d20 (That's one die with 20 sides) to make all of our rolls.

When you come upon a situation where the outcome is contested or your character has a chance of failing, you only need two pieces of information:

  1. How difficult is the action, on a scale of 1 to 30?
  2. How much skill does your character have in that action? (Typically on a scale of 1 to 5)

Having trouble picking your numbers? Use these handy charts to make it easy:

Sample Difficulty Chart

  • 1 Super easy, impossible to fail, don't bother rolling
  • 5 Easy
  • 10 Mundane
  • 15 Challenging
  • 20 Hard
  • 25 Ridiculous
  • 30 Ludicrous

Sample Skill Chart

  • 0 Average (what a random person off the street could be expected to know about the topic)
  • 3 College Education in the topic
  • 5 Skilled professional
  • 7 Legend
  • 10 Planet-wide best, practically godlike

And yes, it is possible to have a negative value to a particular skill. For example, if the average person in your character's universe knows how to read, but your character is illiterate, you might consider giving them a negative number in reading and writing.

Transforming dry numbers into the engine of a juicy story

It might not look like it at a glance, but these numbers can mean big things for the story you're writing. Take this example:

Han Solo and Princess Leia are sneaking around on the death star. Suddenly, an alarm goes off. They've been found. They begin running down the hall, but behind them, a door opens, and stormtroopers begin firing through the archway at their fleeing backs.

Han's player decides that the best thing to do will be to shoot the door panel to make it close, cutting off the laser fire for a moment and allowing them to get to the "safety" of the next room.

Now, Han is a reasonable shot. He's been doing this all his life. Let's say he's so good that he has a bonus of +5 to shooting. That means that even if he rolls a 2 on the die, he gets to add 5 free points to it every time he aims at something. This is Han's skill.

The other thing that we need to know is the difficulty of what he is trying to do. This shot is VERY difficult - he is running the opposite direction, the target is very small, and he is under fire and doesn't have time to stop and aim properly. So we pick a high number to represent the difficulty.

The players agree that the target difficulty is 20 -- That means that Han must roll a number 20 or higher to make this shot successfully and get the outcome that he wants. As you can see, if Leia, who has NO bonus to shooting were to try this shot, she'd have a very low chance. She'd have to roll a "natural 20", or miss.

But Han, with his bonus of +5, has a better chance. Not a guarantee.

Although this has required a lot of explanation, so far it's actually been very simple and streamlined.

  1. The character Han made a decision to do something, and declared his skill in that activity.
  2. The players determined how difficult it would be.
  3. Han's player makes a roll.

This is actually where things gets awesome for you as a writer and as a player. You get to be surprised what happens, and you get to do improv writing.

If Han rolls anything 15 or above

His +5 allows him to carry the day! He shoots the panel and the door closes.

If Han rolls anything 14 or below

He fails. But how does he fail? Now you get to write this part of the story. Did he just miss the panel? Did he turn to take the shot, but a stormtrooper fired just then and he was forced to duck and run without taking the shot at all? He's shooting at a control panel next to an open door with people on the other side of it -- did he miss and shoot a stormtrooper in the leg instead? (You might let him have shot an enemy instead of the panel if he very nearly made the roll, but failed.)

If Han rolls a 1

Rolling a 1 is usually considered a "botch", a massive stroke of bad luck, the worst thing that could happen. You don't normally allow bonuses on a 1. Han does not necessarily get his +5, because his luck was so very very bad.

Write something that makes your characters miserable. Create tragedy. Maybe Han's gun jams and he is defenseless for the rest of the scene. Maybe Han hits the panel, but that's not how doors work, they don't just magically close when you shoot their controls -- the door stays open, and the shrapnel from his shot is ejected back toward them and badly injures Leia. Write his horror as he catches her in his arm and struggles to make it to the next room, and now, with his arms full, the next shot he takes will be even HARDER to make. Tension mounts! Desperation is in the air! I have played with people who pray to "botch" their rolls because it creates so much IC drama and action and emotion.

If Han rolls a 20

Rolling the highest number on a die is usually considered a major success, where things went better than you expected. Perhaps with the fire of love in his heart, determined to protect the beautiful princess, Han whips around and gets off two shots. He hits the door panel AND, as the door is coming down, he manages to shoot a stormtrooper in the chest. The dying man falls backward into his buddies, toppling them all to the floor and buying Han and Leia a few more precious seconds to get away. They whoop in triumph, their spirits suddenly bolstered. Perhaps there is still hope!

What's the next roll?

Your next roll might involve picking a lock, or trying brute strength to open a door, or seeing if you are fast enough to dive underneath a closing blast door. You can't know until you write the next leg of the story. Even in a fight, you don't just roll frantically, you decide what action your character will take -- how they will throw a punch, what they will aim for, how they recover (or don't) from failures. And story unfolds this way.

How often should I roll dice?

This system is intended to help in oddball situations, and stay out of the way when you just want to RP an emotional exchange, dialogue, or a normal day-in-the-life of your character. Unless you like to play non-stop combat, you will probably find that you roll very rarely.

You might consider rolling at these times:

  • Two characters are in direct conflict, and you want to make sure that the outcome is fair for both players.
  • You want to be surprised by the outcome.
  • There is a reasonable chance that your character could fail (such as attempting something very difficult, or something they know nothing about)
  • There are significant stressors on a situation. Though your character might be an excellent driver, perhaps they have trouble controlling a car while they are being shot at.
  • In situations where your character does not have direct control over the outcome. This can help you to play off the environment around you as you would another character -- Looking for roses at 2am in a small town? Roll to see if you successfully find a store still open, or if you must resort to climbing a fence and stealing from the neighbor's garden.

Even a simple dice system like this one lets you pick likely difficulty levels for achieving something, whether it be an action on person or environment, then question in a way that makes sense, is fair, takes into account everyone's skill, but isn't 100% predictable.

It might be skewed in someone's favor, but you never know what weird luck will occur, and then you must explain WHY the underdog won that round. It has to make sense. Weird luck occurs in real life. Even experts make mistakes or have fate conspire against them. And dice help reflect that, resulting in very interesting writing as you seek to explain the circumstances that conspired to create that luck.

You end up playing off the world in a similar way that you play off other writers -- you do improv writing based on each outcome and reaction that you receive in response to your character's choices. It doesn't replace playing your character in any way, it just gives you more to play off of and eliminates lengthy "but my character is so much better/faster/stronger" debates.

And that's why dice can be awesome, even for freeform players.

Convinced that dice could help your group?

If you're convinced that adding dice to your RP or group could be useful, we also have a guide on creating your own simple dice ruleset.