Saturday, January 5, 2013

Leaving Nothing To Chance

As I prepare for Kapcon this year, I’ve noticed something different.  No dice.  That is to say, for the first time I can remember, none of the games I’m running use dice of any kind.  Thinking about the absence of this gaming staple, led me to reflect a little on the role of chance in a ‘con scenario.

Chance features in two main ways in old-school convention games.  The first is through investigation, with the GM offering information to characters via a successful skill roll – everything from “can I track the orcs through the forest?” to “can I tell if he’s lying?”

The problem with employing chance to investigation in a convention game is that the GM almost always wants the players to get the information they are seeking.  In 3-4 hours there is precious little time for false leads, or stonewalling.  It kills time, frustrates the players, and, at worst alienates them from the scenario.  

Of course, there are ways around this.  One is to skew character skills so they are very likely to succeed in critical areas – although this begs the inevitable question of, what happens if they should fail against the odds?  Another is to frame it differently, by changing the question from a binary information/no-information response, entirely dependent on luck, to providing degrees of success or levelling a time cost or similar for failure depending on the roll.  This tends to work best when the stakes are explained before the dice are rolled, and often involves a degree of impovisation by the GM.

The GM can also make the dice roll a fiction, and simple provide the information either way, which, if the players catch on, may lead to the perception that the system is little more than a camouflage for GM fiat.   

The second manifestation is in combat or action scenes.  These raise the stakes, as the result of a failed roll is more likely to be transparent to the players.  Theoretically a character may be killed, or suffer a catastrophic injury through a series of rolls.  As few GM’s are willing to allow characters to be eliminated early during a scenario, this often leads to similar responses to those I outlined previously.

In addition, the GM screen provides a way for the GM to disguise, or change results ‘in the interests of the story’.  In addition to potentially eroding player trust, this also has the disadvantage of camouflaging the role of luck in the game, which can really add to the flow of a game, and is often a leading source of stories told by players about the game afterwards.

Some games, like the Gumshoe system, have tried to separate these areas, guaranteeing players the clues in the investigative phase of the game while keeping an element of chance in action or combat.  Other, more modern games encourage more negotiation or narration from the players, to get at the essence of what lies behind a roll, and bring the outcome back to a broader context of characters and story.

I’ve used pretty much every technique I’ve described at one point or other over the years, including trying Gumshoe to split out the uncertainty of investigation.  This Kapcon I’m running almost exclusively EPOCH scenarios, where the players collectively make all the key choices.  Investigation is optional and as GM I have considerably less say on which characters are eliminated, and when, then any of the players due to the role of the Hero/Zero cards.  My only special power comes in breaking any potential ties in an audience ballot.  And I don’t think I’d have it any other way.  Chance can add a lot of spice to a convention game, but like any seasoning too much or too little has the potential to spoil the overall effect.


  1. I've only run one game at a 'convention', and although it went down well with some of the more serious gamers, I felt that going for a less dice intensive game would have been better for all concerned.

    I don't think I would ever do away with them, as I always like the risk of things going wrong. Even in a short game with not much for drifting away from the plot, I like the challenge of thinking on my feet and letting the dice fall where they may. Might just be me though.

  2. Thanks for the comment Paul. I agree that there is much fun to be had by letting the dice fall where they may - let me ask you (out of interest) would you allow a character to be killed within the first hour of a 'con game if the dice dictated that it be so?

  3. Though I agree with the overall sentiment that dice in Con games are often a problem, I think you bypass what I consider to one of the most important uses of dice (when combined with skills) - it is a subtle way to distribute spotlight time between PCs and get the PCs across.

    Though a GM may have a prediction for a certain result for the PCs when the dice are rolled, the GM will often flexibility over which PC succeeds or carries the scene. Using dice conveys quite a bit about the PC in play, both to the player of teh PC and the players as a whole. It subtly encourages players to take certain actions over others and also highlights what the PC is good and bad at.