You Only Roll When…
A blog post about the skill system in Traveler recently helped me better concretely conceptualize the “only roll dice when people are going to die or things are going to explode” method I’d originally attempted to detail in the rules for my abandoned dark military sci-fi RPG, eXpendable.
I’ve always been really fond of that bit of design work, and am happy I was finally able to expound on it in a clearer fashion. Since eXpendable is highly unlikely to see the light of publication–it just never came together as a whole–this is the clarified method, minus rule-specific bits, for those who may find it or the reasoning underlying it useful to their own approach to play.
The players together with the GM build the scenes and hence the narrative by conversing with one another, exploring the places and situations they’ve built and taking various actions with additional or altered details filled in by the GM.
No one rolls dice for any of this.
That isn’t what rolling the dice is for. This is all just deciding things through talking about what is going on and what happens.
Especially, no one makes rolls simply to do something a character is presumed to be able to do or is good at doing–no one rolls to see if their character can use some skill or quality they are known to have. Instead, the character is simply assumed to be successful:
You can fly a starship, you can hit a target with your gun, you can work the laser array, you can track a fugitive, you can build a robot, you can cook a meal, you can set a bone and bandage wounds, you can unlock the sealed door, you can hide in the air duct, you can tie your shoes.
OR YOU CAN’T.
No one rolls to attempt something outside or beyond their character’s ability or experience; the character is presumed to be unable or unsuccessful:
You can’t unlock the security door, you can’t jump the chasm, you can’t pilot the alien shuttle, you can’t stop the bleeding, you can’t reprogam the artificial intelligence, you can’t disarm the bomb, you can’t bluff the security officer, you can’t track the alien creature, you can’t tie your shoes.
Again, this is all decided by talking about what is going on.
The players say their characters do something (and the GM, if necessary, responds with “you do” or “you don’t”) and the GM can respond with whatever results or consequences or reactions come after that as appropriate. No one rolls simply because they want a character “to try to be able to now,” because DAMNIT, JIM, I’M A DOCTOR, NOT A NUCLEAR PHYSICIST!
The characters can just do things, whatever those things are. Or they can’t do things, whatever those things are. And that’s just how it is.
This includes those few times when even having the appropriate skill or quality isn’t enough because of details the players don’t know:
The character goes to open a door, but there has been a cave-in behind it; the character tries to hack a computer system, but its security is way over their pay grade; the character tries to pilot a shuttle, but its engines are offline due to a missing power core.
These are the situations in which a GM might have to step in and say the character doesn’t just succeed or fail–that the expected doesn’t happen.
In this way the group builds up narrative exposition, because the conversation the players and GM are involved in is about establishing a situation, building tension, creating problems–creating a “this is bad” situation, and then moving it into “it’s going to get worse” territory.
The players have their characters do something, and the GM has other characters respond with something or has something happen in the environment in response to that, and the characters respond to those things, and the GM responds again to those things. And they do this until there is a real crisis point–a big one–that the characters are desperately trying to get out of because otherwise IT’S GAME OVER MAN! GAME OVER!
Then dice start rolling. Because that’s what rolling the dice is for.
But note, not for mere need or danger. Only once the characters are deep into the shit, when they have gone beyond whatever trouble has already been established, the situation absolutely requires something outside what they are normally capable of and that will result in death or injury or explosions–in things becoming much worse than how bad things already are–at which point, whether or not they could normally, characters can try anything and maybe succeed, even things normally outside their purview.
It is the GM’s job is to escalate situations to that crisis point–responding to the players in ways that push the scene towards one. Even so, it’s OK for a scene or two to go by without any real crisis–trouble can still arise, but nothing the characters can’t handle–if the conversation between the players and the GM works out that way.
The GM can let the players talk through a scene, establishing a situation and their characters, without the GM adding anything but simple details. He does not have to tell the players if their characters succeed or fail–he can let them run with the narrative a bit, build the world a little–because characters either can or they can’t.
But then the GM slams them hard as consequences build up fast, and they do something really stupid, they make a huge mistake, something they did or didn’t do before comes back to haunt them, and it is suddenly all on the line.
The security turrets are down and you can’t bring them back on-line, the motors that lift the exit door from the hangar have lost power and it is too heavy to lift, AND squad Omicron-9–the Confederate Furies–are breathing down your neck. You’ve sealed up an interior door to keep them out while you figure out what to do, but they blow it off its hinges, throwing molten slag everywhere–one of the two halves of its panels is blasted into and pins your heavy weapons expert to the floor. Omicron-9 charges through, pulse rifle blasts blackening the bulkheads. WHAT DO YOU DO?
This is the deep shit. The make-or-break moment. That’s when rolling dice becomes important.
Otherwise, don’t bother.
And maybe not all of the players are involved in rolling dice right then, because some characters might not be at a crisis point…yet. Those players continue conversing with the GM as normal, their characters doing things or not doing them, building the scene and poking at it, contributing their character’s actions and reactions, until that crisis point arrives for them.
The reasoning behind setting it up this way was because I have always found “rolling to prove competency” creates disappointing, unrealistic situations: the famous archer who can’t hit a barn from two paces, the ex-army werewolf warrior who doesn’t land a single blow in an entire game session, the master thief who can’t pick a stumbling-drunk dunce’s pocket, the strongman who can’t lift a small crate, etc. These kinds of situations, and similar, have inescapably created frustration and annoyance for players; they do not add to the fun, promote realistic characterization, or create tense drama.
Automatic competency is about letting character concepts shine, about the characters being what they say they are, and then pitting them against odds greater than what they are capable of. It’s about making what matters really matter–letting players show off their characters so that when it all comes down on them, everyone at the table knows this is a true test, a real turning point, because now you have to roll.
The cyborg lifts and hurls away the heavy crates that have fallen on their sniper while laser fire causes tiny explosions around them; the heavy weapons expert charges across the battlefield, his personal shielding lighting up with hits; the field doctor stabilizes the unconscious tech specialist…
But no one rolls any dice. These aren’t crisis points.
The sniper’s player rolls defense to see how badly injured he was, if he can still aim steady; the weapons expert reaches the other side and his player starts rolling to attack and defend against half a squad of riflemen; the player of the tech-averse field doctor rolls in a desperate attempt to finish bringing the squad’s automatic turret on-line…
Roll. Because this is way beyond them.