Monday, November 6, 2017

Avoid Shoelacing Rolls, And Watch Your Game Improve

Khantos Harr is one of the realm's strongest men. With shoulders like granite blocks, and hands that could crush an ox's skull, he can cleft a horse in twain with a single swing of his huge ax. A mountain of muscle, it's a wonder the stitches on his jerkin hold together when he flexes his arms, loosening up for battle.

With a character described that way, and with the stats to back up the description, there is no reason he should ever fail any average test of strength. Everything from shoving open a stuck door, to hoisting a keg onto his shoulder, should be things that are taken as a given part of narration. The same way a magic-user might cast a cantrip with a flick of the wrist, or how a ranger can ignore brambles and walk easily down the most treacherous forest path.

Why the hell am I rolling for this?
Despite what seems obvious, there are a lot of DMs out there who insist that a PC makes a roll for literally everything. You want to walk across a crowded tavern? Make an Acrobatics check. You want to find your fork? Better make a Perception. Oh, you're having a glass of wine? I don't care if you have a Constitution of 22, make a Fortitude save anyway!

We call these shoelacing rolls, and they never, ever make your game better.

Rolling A Die Should Mean Something

Generally speaking, when you pick up your die, that means something. There's a chance you fumble your attack, and hit your enemy's shield instead of driving your blade into their heart. You might miss a slight hitch in someone's voice, tipping you that they aren't telling you the whole story. It's that knowledge that if you screw up trying to disable the device, you might set it off in your face.

Boiled-down, you shouldn't have to roll dice for things your character should understandably not fail at which have no real consequences. Otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time constantly calling for unnecessary rolls. If players get used to you making them literally roll every time they try to take an action, then pretty soon rolling to attack a pit fiend will feel a lot like rolling to dismount your horse without falling into a mud puddle.

So, what's the alternative?
If you haven't read the Chronicles of Darkness, there's a chart in the attributes section I would recommend reading, and re-reading. You find it near the Strength stat, and it specifically lists the amount of weight a character with a corresponding score can lift without a roll. You find a similar chart in the game Scion, where the Feat of Strength table lists what sorts of things are possible for characters whose raw physical power meets certain pre-determined levels (rip an unfortified door off its hinges, punch through concrete, stop a truck in its tracks, etc.).

While we may not have a corresponding chart for many D20 games (EDIT: My mistake, we totally do. As a commenter pointed out, the Carrying Capacity chart lists what a character can lift and carry, and how difficult it is, based on their Strength scores. In Pathfinder, you find the chart on page 171 of the Core Rulebook), I'd recommend taking the time to absorb the spirit of those charts into your DM mindset. In short, set benchmarks in your mind for what levels of skill, and what raw attributes, render certain challenges a given. Because while Khantos might be able to easily hoist a 400-pound chest onto his shoulder without a problem, his Dexterity is nowhere near as extraordinary. So while he'll get a pass for certain feats of Strength, he will have to make the same Dexterity checks as anyone else with his score.

With that said, though, he can probably tie his shoes without having to roll a DC 5.

What Are The Consequences of Failure?

Some folks are, no doubt, contemplating leaving acidic comments along the lines of, "Well, why shouldn't dragons just automatically hit the party members, since they have such high stats? Wouldn't those rolls be pointless, too, by your logic?" So, in order to nip that in the bud, I will point out the central pillar of this piece of DMing advice.

If the consequences of a roll wouldn't matter (or they would exist only to undercut a player), then don't bother with the roll.

Dice don't make inconsequential things important.
For example, let's go back to Khantos. Sure, it's no big deal for him to lift heavy burdens, and carry them into the inn, or to haul them out of a dungeon where there are no traps, and no one is shooting at him. The reason you shouldn't ask for a roll in those situations is because if the player fails it, nothing of consequence happens. All you're going to do is undercut the presentation of character who is effortlessly strong by making him fumble a task meant to give an impression of just how muscular those thews are.

Now, say that Khantos wants to smash an enemy's rib cage in with the huge maul he just picked up. Yes, Khantos is still just as big and powerful, but now there's a consequence to his failure (that consequence being that another character doesn't get his chest cavity pulped, and may survive to riposte and stab Khantos in the throat). So, while that huge Strength score makes it more likely that he'll strike true, he still has to make the roll because the consequence of failure matters in this instance. The same is true if Khantos is climbing a rope, and wants to catch someone falling past him. Yes, his powerful physique means he could normally just pick that person up and fireman carry them, but if you catch them while climbing there's a chance you both fall. So in that circumstance, you require a roll.

At the end of the day, ask why you want the players to make specific rolls. Because we already make a lot of rolls in any given campaign. We don't need to make them to get out of bed, sharpen our swords, or put on our armor so we can go start doing things that actually matter.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday. Just remember, when exercising your powers as a DM, do so thoughtfully, and responsibly. For more gaming content from yours truly, check out my Gamers archive, or head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio for skits, advice, and more! If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support Improved Initiative, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some love my way. Every little bit helps, and for at least $1 a month I'll send you some sweet swag as a thank you.


  1. Good article as always! Nice tips to smooth table interactions and player involvment, to get this adventure up to speed!

    I feel I should mention, though, we DO have these kind of tables and charts in the d20 system too. Just not next to Strength, Dexterity and ability scores, as it should be, but in the carrying capacity and "character fluff" section that no one bothers to work with (who has the time to calculate carrying capacity and apply maluses each time loot is given?), as for example, on the d20 open document :

    Back to Khantos, who wants to lift a huge stone portcullis blocking his way. Assuming his 26 of Strength, he can lift overhead his maximum load of 920 lbs. Since the door was "only" weighting 500 lbs, he can lift it, all while smiling and flexing for his friends to pass through the door, presumably without any rolls, because the table and the lift overhead rules said so.

    Keep the good work, M. Litherland !

  2. To add to the previous comment...Sorry for nitpicking, but, lifting that portcullis isn't that cut-and-dry, given there might be a mechanism that forces it down - more to work against!

  3. I would note that people die slipping and falling in their own homes all the time. Your bathroom is, statistically, more dangerous to you than terrorists. Also, lots of people who are otherwise very competent are going to inadvertently cut themselves today making a sandwich. In a more simulationist game, crazy mishaps where the super strong guy accidentally drops the heavy object he's lifting will need to be accounted for, although admittedly the odds should never be 1 in 20 or anything close to it

    1. I think the key word there is "simulationist". Most RPGs are not trying to ape reality; they're storytelling tools. It's the same reason combat, falling, etc. isn't "realistic". It isn't meant to be. It's meant to provide a tool for balanced conflict resolution. If a DM is using that tool to essentially undercut players, and to waste everyone's time on meaningless stuff, that is a problem.

      And if you're playing in a game where cutting your finger while making a sandwich is a viable, important thing that needed to be resolved with a die roll, then I would question whether the game is interesting enough to keep playing.

  4. This is really sound advice. I've noticed major improvement in games I'm in that followed it.

    One thing of note that stands out a lot for me that stands out, even though it does mildly violate the "roll if there's consequences" advise was when my group finally stopped making me roll UMD out of combat to activate wands. Whenever I'm playing PF, I almost always spike UMD and provide support casting, usually in taking some of the strain off our healer by packing wands of cure light wounds and lesser restoration, but I also pack some other various scrolls and stuff. But, rolling UMD after combat during long periods of safety just to give the ranger amd barbarian in our group 30 castings of clw really did nothing to help the game. Sure, there's a 5% chance for the item to stop working for 24 hr, but given how our party carried like 4-5 wands (most people bought their own, even though I was the designated wand monkey), this was never an issue. It cut post combat looting/maintainence by about 20 minutes.

  5. The purpose of the die roll is twofold: One part is to determine results that are in doubt. The second is to tell some story when the DM himself needs to be surprised.

    So sometimes a die roll is not about failure or success but rather A or B at a dramatically aporopriate fork.

    I do agree that rolling dice overmuch and for trivial reasons is just stupid. The glass of wine example is the ultimate in trivia, unless the wine is poisoned.

  6. Sometimes players shoelace themselves. In my game (which you can listen to as a podcast if you like) a PC recently rolled to look through a window. They got a very low roll and decided for themselves that their character couldn't see. I honestly would not have told the player to roll at all if they had just said, "I look through a window".
    The result was funny, so I kept it in.