Examining Dice Rolls

There are two seemingly conflicting schools of thought that exist in the TTRPG gaming space. One side posits that adventurers should be mostly capable individuals, after all if they weren’t they wouldn’t make it very far. With that in mind it is believed that a thief attempting to pick a lock should succeed at picking that lock. They are a thief after all. Picking locks is what they do. The other side’s argument is much less logical, but is also pretty hard to deny: Rolling dice is fun. It adds suspense. It adds drama. It adds thrill.

Both sides have good points. Adventurers should be mostly capable at what they do, and players do enjoy rolling dice. So how do we make this work? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Part of the problem is the way many RPG’s frame task resolution mechanics. There is a target number you are attempting to roll: Either a DC set by the GM, or rolling under a stat, or some other target. This frames the experience in a way that seems pretty clear: Either you succeed or you fail. Now some GM’s and some game systems add some shades of gray with the idea that you can fail forward, or succeed at a cost… Which is great, but I think that’s still missing the mark.

Design the roll for the moment and frame it around what the stakes actually are. This is easier said than done, and the example I’ve chosen is admittedly a softball. This isn’t meant to be a ready to deploy solution though. This is a philosophy that I believe we should all be internalizing and doing our best to pursue.

Let’s now take the thief picking a lock. What kind of lock? Doesn’t matter, door, chest, chastity belt. Whatever it is. The thief has found their way to a lock they want to pick. The thief will succeed, that isn’t in question, they are a capable adventurer after all, but the player still wants to roll dice.

GM: “You’re in a high pressure scenario, and this is less than ideal circumstances. It may take you somewhere between 1-6 minutes to get this lock picked. You also know there are guards on patrol. Depending on their pace it may take you longer to pick this lock than it takes them to come across you. We’re going to each roll a d6 to determine how soon the guards come, and how long it takes you to pick this lock. Before we roll i want you to decide the maximum amount of time you would spend trying to get this open. If you roll over that number, then you stop before the lock opens. If that number, or your dice roll(whichever is lower) is lower than the guards, you are home free. if it’s over, then they catch you in the act”

Thief: “I don’t think I’d spend more then three minutes trying to get this open”

From there things can proceed many different way’s depending on how the dice come up. As long as the guards roll over a 3, the thief gives up and gets away in time. if the guards roll 3 or under then it’s up to the thief’s roll. If there is a tie then you can extend it.

GM: “The lock to the door clicks open just as you hear the guards coming around the corner.”

Thief: “i slip inside Quietly”

The gm rolls a check to determine how attentive the guards are. They are deep in conversation, and miss the soft click of the latch as it closes behind the thief.

Again, this is obviously a softball example, but it cleanly shows the philosophy. Before calling for a rote check, ask yourself what the scenario is. What are the stakes. From there design a check to meet your need. In many cases a standard skill/attribute roll for whatever system you are using may still be the best way to handle things. In some cases there may be a chance for a better solution. Embrace the better.






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