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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

"Only Players Roll" is the Exact Opposite of Good Design

I know it's become a trend lately, in some RPGs in certain quarters, to have a system where the GM never gets to roll the dice, and only the players roll for everything.

Now, in some cases, we could say that there may be nefarious motivations for this, based on a longstanding distrust certain groups have toward GMs in general; there's been for a long time a line of thought among certain gamers that the GM should be if at all possible 'deposed' from "power"; and if that's a motive then forbidding the GM from rolling dice is a particularly egregious case of anti-GM paranoia; it presumes that the GM will "cheat" on his rolls and thus abuse the players. 

But let's ignore that for a moment. Let's assume that these games have no anti-GM bias going and their motivation for making all rolls the responsibility of the players is some kind of attempt instead to make the game somehow more 'fun' for the players.  If that's the case, this mechanic is still really bad design.

It misses the point, you see, of the fundamental purpose of the RPG: to Immerse in a character you play in an emulated world.

It would seem the people who push forth this notion of taking the dice away from the GM never really got that point. A lot of them are some of the same people who were at one time trying to equate Immersion with either Fraud or Mental Illness, so go figure.

But for most gamers, as fun as rolling dice can be, the real epic moment is that instant where you are totally immersed in the game, where you are just your character, and almost forget you're playing a game.  Where it feels real.

Any time that you are suddenly interrupted and told "roll the dice" is a moment that snaps you out of that state, at least a tiny bit.  It interrupts immersion.

There's a reason why players of games like Amber, Lords of Olympus, or Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, end up talking to everyone who'll listen (and some who don't care to) about these intense roleplaying experiences, campaigns full of epic character development and close personal attachment to the game: it's because in these games, the rules almost disappear for the player.  You just know your strengths and weaknesses, and you just play your guy. You don't have to fiddle with points, you don't have to interrupt what you're describing to roll the dice.

If anything, if the point is to get the best possible roleplay experience, the exact OPPOSITE of what the anti-GM crowd are suggesting is the ideal scenario: the GM should roll all the dice.

That's a theoretical, of course. There are plenty of players for whom the rolling of dice is part of the fun, even if it's not the central aspect of RPG play.  And there's a reason why the formula that's worked so well all these decades is one where both GM and players roll dice at particular times and to varying degrees. But really, of the various options (no dice, GM  rolls all, Players and GM both roll, only players roll), the least useful for developing roleplay and immersion is the scenario where all the dice-rolling responsibility falls on the players.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Poker + Rattray's Marlin Flake


  1. I think you're making a false assumption that having the players roll means that they are rolling more dice than they might otherwise. Of course, without mentioning which games you are referring to I can't say. The games I've played (Dungeon World) for example, which shifts rolling onto the players, have far less rolling than the tradition Dungeons and Dragons.

  2. Great insight. The two D&D episodes of the sitcom _Community_ have the GM (Abed) rolling all the dice. They do this partially for the format of the 22-minute sitcom format, but it also works to really immerse characters in their actions, and let 'fate' be up to fate.

  3. but Dungeon World is a good example of an RPG (heavily infused with storygame-elements) that:
    a) dislikes and does not do Immersion well
    b) distrusts the GM and "neuters" them, seeking to take away as much of their power as possible.

  4. "Only players roll" is probably a symptom of storygame influence on the RPG scene. I'm not at all convinced that this is a bad thing. Some groups will always prioritize immersion -- for them, the GM should probably handle all of the mechanics (character sheets, rolls, etc). Other folks get off on the tabletop wargame elements of D&D, or maybe they love the feel of rolling a natural 20, or maybe they like to metagame with fate points/bennies/inspiration.

    In my group, players prefer rolling a save rather than having the GM roll to hit them. As a result, I write homebrews where only players roll. That said, I try to minimize time spent on mechanics -- there's no fiddling with modifiers or whatever -- in order to get back to playing.

  5. I don't buy the "it's a wargame" business. Gamers who enjoy D&D (or other RPGs) tactical nature would probably want to roll their own dice, sure, but they'd also definitely want the GM to roll dice against them as that's a standard part of the "adversarial" experience.

  6. I always thought it was just to give the already-harried GM one less thing to do.

    1. Those must be very different GMs from me. I really question how many GMs feel being allowed to roll dice 'harries' them.