Let the Dice Fall Where They May

Though I began gaming in the 80s the 90s proved to be very formative in my gaming style. I absolutely ate up story-based games like Vampire: The Masquerade as well as the story-based style seen in D&D 2nd Edition products.

One of the frequent elements of that style is not letting the dice get in the way of the story. I'm not going to bash that gaming style - I had a lot of fun gaming that way, playing through the Forgotten Realms Avatar-trilogy of adventures and managing to have a great time, despite its strong element of rail roading. It's a style and if everyone is having fun with it then there's nothing wrong with it.

One of the dangers with that style is players can turn into spectators or actors for a story designed by the GM (or a pre-packaged adventure). You'll have villains who absolutely cannot be killed in the first encounter, events that must happen no matter what the players do. One of the innovations I've seen over the last decade is game systems which incorporate these assumptions into the game. For example, in various FATE games (such as Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files) if your freedom of action is restricted by certain story or genre elements you get rewarded for going along with it in the form of FATE points. At the same time you can spend those FATE points to override that loss of narrative control. This, in my opinion at least, is a good way to run such a game. It removes the players from being passive observers but still drives towards telling a story, with modifications to prevent it from simply being the story the GM wanted to tell. I think it emulates well what you'll often hear writers of fiction say when they indicate the characters they created dictated a different ending. For example, Stephen King indicated he was surprised to discover some of the characters he created for 'Salem's Lot chose not to go along with the horrible end he'd anticipated for them.

"Old school" games typically advise against this sort of play. In my experiments with such games, Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) last summer and my recently begun Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS) campaign I've tried my hand at the style of play. One consistent piece of advice I've seen in such games is letting dice rolls be binding. To the best of my recollection, I first read that in Hackmaster and saw it furthered in Dungeon Crawl Classics with advice for all die rolls to be in the open. In both games I've operated in this manner. In both cases I used random character generation. In our ACKS game I had each player roll up five characters and generate two PCs. Since we've typically had around four players per session I've had players run both characters at once. DCC has players generate four zero-level characters and whoever survives the first adventure (if anyone does) gets to be 1st level. The only allowance I've made is allowing 1st level characters to start with maximum hit points.

It's probably worth noting that I've not gone fully random, allowing the dice to determine the contents of every hex - but it's something I may end up doing as I've only detailed the hexes immediately around the starting home base.

The obvious reason for writing all of this is to discuss how it plays. I'd have to say it represents quite a change from what I'm used to. Generally speaking I'd roll the dice behind a screen. Which means I might fudge the results. "Well gee Bob is down to 3 hp and so 10 hp damage would pretty much finish him and it's first encounter of the night so it seems anticlimactic to kill him now." There's pretty much zero chance of me doing that. It makes the word an unforgiving one, where even the brightest, most skillfully played character can get unlucky. But it also discourages trusting to luck unless there is no other choice. But it also adds to accomplishments - most characters have penalties to at least one ability score, some several. That max hit points I give out is still subject to Constitution penalties which several characters in the group have.

I'd like to think this makes success all that much more noteworthy. In both DCC and ACKS games I've seen characters who are pretty much average people scrape their way through some horrific scenarios and escape by the skin of their teeth - or die trying. It also makes death, oddly enough, less frightening. The odds of your character perishing in his or her adventures are decidedly greater than zero so be bold (but not foolish) while you live. I've grown to greatly enjoy the mortal wounds table in ACKS - our poor band of adventurers has a number of persistent injuries....

I'll likely talk at a later point about the effects of removing a set plot in a later entry, but I do find the randomness coupled with players in more control of their destines really leads to the players determining the plot line and importance of various events and locations. The player of the cleric, for example, was rather interested in undoing the defilement created by an unholy altar to Orcus while another player was more interested in moving on to a tomb they had been gathering keys to.

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