Ask Angry: I’ll Keep My d20

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

This week, I’m going with a Twitter question I received from Twitter and Twitcher @TheRedVipre. Check out his Twitch channel at TheRedVipre for a really broad variety of video gaming and interactive content.

The Red Vipre asks:

What are your thoughts on Star Wars: Edge of the Empire? Particularly elimination of numeric dice rolls in favor of GM/Player interpretation?

I love that sort of question because it’s an easy question to answer. It’s just unabashed opinion. Correct, well-thought-out opinion, of course, but opinion nonetheless. The reason I seized on this question in particular though is because it actually ties into a question that actually really kicked off my entire blogging “career” (I can’t even type that with a straight face) five years ago: the argument about binary resolution and whether you can use it to run a good, story-based game.

First of all, I like the Star Wars games from Fantasy Flight Games. They are decent games. In fact, I liked them before they were Star Wars. See, most of the mechanics – particular the dice pool mechanic – in FFG’s Star Wars actually started in FFG’s Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing Game. That was the third edition of the RPG, the first FFG published (they had previously been published by Games Workshop alongside the table-top war game by the same name and the space version, Warhammer 40,000). And they introduced a lot of really cool mechanics that were so buried under useless and expensive cardboard components and fiddly bits and cards and s$&% that no one liked it and the whole game got scrapped. Which is a shame because you can play the game without all that crap using just the three published hardbacks. But, it’s FFG, and they were trying to publish an RPG with a board-game mentality.

Anyhoo, the core of the whole experience (both the SW and WHFRPG) is the dice mechanic. Here’s how it works. You have a pile of all of these special dice that are color-coded for your convenience. And whenever you have to roll to resolve an action, you build a big ole pool of dice. You add some blue dice for your stats. You add some purple dice for the difficulty of the task. Black and white dice for minor advantages and disadvantages. Yellow dice for specialized training. And red dice to represent significant opposition. Once you fill your fist with dice, you roll them all. And different symbols represent different things. First, you count success symbols and failure symbols. If you have more successes than failures, the action succeeds. Then, you count lucky breaks and sucky bummers, to see if you get a little extra boon or bane. Then you count serious critical symbols, the critically good and critically bad, to see if you get some amazing happenstance or terrible disaster. Then, you interpret all the dice to figure out what the hell ACTUALLY happened in the story.

Now, if that sounds complicated, I’m going to let Star Wars off the hook. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy to remember what symbols and what dice mean what. Mostly. It’s a learning curve, but it’s not too terribly steep.

The advantage of that system is that a die roll is rarely just a success or just a failure. You roll the dice and maybe you shoot the Gamorrean Storm Trooper or maybe you miss, but if you get lucky besides, you might force him to take cover and throw a yucky black die into his next attack because he’s ducking down to avoid your shot. Or you might not only miss badly, but explode a computer console and cause all sorts of disaster. And that’s a lot of fun.

At least, it should be.

But the fact of the matter is, given the choice between a d20 vs. DC and that pool crap, I’ll take my d20 every f$&%ing time.

Having run a bunch of Star Wars (and the Warhammer game before it) and also having watched a bunch of games being run, the first and most important thing to note is that the mere act of building the dice pool is a major break in the flow of the game. And I don’t just mean that it’s time consuming. It IS time consuming.

But more importantly, players tend to look at the dice pool and modify their action based on the dice pool. “oh, man, that’s a lot of difficulty dice, I’ll do this to add an advantage die.” There’s a lot of talk about the dice and the action that creates the die roll is constantly being edited until the dice pool is to the character’s liking. Now, I admit that every game has some of that. D&D has its share of “I’ll take a penalty? Then I’ll move over there before I fire” crap too. But gaming the dice pool becomes a MAJOR activity. And that means people are playing the dice instead of the action.

But worse, the dice become the focus of the game another way.

When all I have is a d20 roll that says yes or no, I – as the GM – am encouraged to figure out all of the consequences of the action. That is, if some idiot player tries to bully the king into giving the party some help with threats of violence, I decide how the king reacts to that. Whether the action succeeds or fails, the choice to be a bully has consequences. Whether the king is cowed into submission or refuses to help, the king’s attitude is forever changed by the choice to be a dick. At least, that’s how it SHOULD work. I know a lot of GMs don’t think actions through like this, which is why I wrote thousands of words about How to Use a Skill System and How to Adjudicate Actions.

And that means, the focus is entirely on the choice. The players choose what outcome they are digging for (aid from the king) and how to dig for it (threats of violence) and the story (as dictated by me) determines the possible outcomes (help vs. ejected from the court) and the potential consequences (a pissed off, vengeful king). The die roll is just there to decide the outcome. Everything else is determined by the choices the player made and the world they made those choices in.

I find that all very pure. It minimizes the focus on randomness. The dice can’t do anything. They are constrained. They can only answer specific yes-or-no questions that we – the players and GM – ask them. No more, no less.

Narrative dice mechanics, on the other hand, they f$&% with things. They demand interpretation. I might decide that a particular action doesn’t really have serious consequences that stretch beyond the outcome, like trying to pick a lock vs. breaking the lock, but in Star Wars, if we get a bunch of those special symbols, the system suddenly DEMANDS we add more story elements. Now, some people like that. Some people really like being blindsided by surprise story elements. And I’m not faulting that. But worse yet, what if the players specifically chose to pick the lock instead of busting the door down BECAUSE the consequences for failure are much smaller. That is to say, it doesn’t make noise, it allows them to keep the element of surprise. They can’t choose that. They can’t choose a more difficult, more time consuming path to avoid consequences because the dice will decide when disaster strikes.

Me? I don’t like that. I like the players’ choices to be front and center in determining what can happen. Along with my interpretation of the world and the action of the NPCs. I don’t want a bunch of hunks of plastic suddenly demanding to have a say in what happens. I don’t want random change to reach that far in the game. But that’s just me.

Narrative dice mechanics actually give the dice a lot of power. And they change the focus of the game. Instead of rolling the dice to answer simple questions but mostly writing the story yourselves (as players and GM), the game of a narrative dice mechanic is interpreting the dice and building a story based on what they say. I like a more pure, story-and-character driven experience which, paradoxically, is not what you get from narrative dice systems.

Now, I’m not saying binary dice systems are real role-playing and narrative dice systems aren’t, even though I know a certain number of f$&%wits out there are going to see it that way and start screaming at me over it. They are both different ways of telling a story. And they both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Binary dice systems rely on a GM to use them properly. To understand the difference between consequences and outcomes and to understand how to structure and pace a narrative. They rely on the GM to assess possibilities and to think about how the larger world might be changed by every action. It’s constantly about keeping both a larger story and a larger world in your head and adjusting both according to choices.

Narrative dice systems rely on the GM to improvise on the spot and to invent new story elements whenever the dice demand it. They put a lot of pressure on the GM to think on the spot. And often, to revise an entire scene to include a new consequence or outcome. And, quite frankly, a good GM with a narrative dice system should have some sense of when to ignore the dice. Narrative dice systems aren’t great for newer GMs. They take a level of finesse because all of the things I already mentioned – structure, pacing, tension, and the larger world are still important – but the GM now has a random factor to deal with that also affects all of those things.

Here’s where the real problem lies though. When misused or misunderstood, narrative dice systems convince GMs they don’t have to understand structure, pacing, tension, and the larger world. They imply a crutch. And so the GM never develops the skills needed to handle those things. Meanwhile, when misused or misunderstood, binary dice systems can create a very boring game because story elements are missing, like far-reaching consequences. However, that game quickly becomes unsatisfying and so most GMs in that situation eventually start to recognize something is wrong and try to work around it. Binary dice systems force the GM to become a better GM or run a sucky game. Narrative dice systems allow GMs to just leave out vast chunks of their GMing skill and never realize what they are lacking.

But the whole thing is very much a tradeoff.

As for the fight that basically defined my website. I was talking one day (five years ago) on Twitter about running a good mystery game in D&D. A fellow Twitter GM chimed in with the statement that was IMPOSSIBLE to run a good mystery or even a good story-focussed game using a binary dice system like D&D. I set out to prove him wrong. First, I yelled and sweared a lot. But second, I decided to write a series of articles about running a good mystery game in D&D. But I realized, the first thing I had to do was fill in a gap in many GM’s education because D&D didn’t really explain how to use dice very well at all. So, I wrote an article called Four Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System. And people LOVED it. But not because of the promise of running good mystery games. They loved it because it was the first time any GM had ever sat down and discussed the thought process behind a die roll and how to use them right. And so, that ballooned into five years of articles about how to be a GM. The mystery series never came to be. Maybe someday.

So, personally, I will stick with my binary dice system and my quest to teach every GM in the world how to actually run a game right instead of giving in to letting a random number generator handle the heavy lifting necessary to tell a good story while also running a good game.

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23 thoughts on “Ask Angry: I’ll Keep My d20

  1. Uh oh. It sounds to me like you just promised to write about mysteries in D&D as an article series after you finish up the current run in “How to Build an Adventure”.

    • Step one: Devise a plot where players begin with incomplete information, and with each passing milestone in the story (adjust to scale/scope), more information is revealed to them, where the climax occurs in tandem with the final peice of the puzzle being revealed (or the final piece causes the climax.)

      Step two: Do not @#T^%ing suck as a GM, bottleneck your adventure on specific individual clues, or adjucate like a !#%^@%^ing squid-for-brains.

      Step three: Profit!

  2. >> Narrative dice systems allow GMs to just leave out vast chunks of their GMing skill and never realize what they are lacking.

    I think that’s the point of those rules. It’s supposed to take the GM skill out of the equation.

    • Well, it’s supposed to help prop up weaker GMs, but there’s no reason a good “narrative” dice system can’t leave room for a good GM to do their thing. The real problem with this article is that it takes the most absurd example of a “narrative dice” mechanic it can find and then acts like the problems generated by that system apply equally to everything. Apocalypse World engine games, for example, leave plenty of room for the GM to do all the things Angry is complaining that the EotE dice system doesn’t let him do, while still providing injections of the unexpected.

      • There’s always one “but what about the *world games?” Well, guess what: yes, they do very kindly leave the GM some leeway. Which is really nice of them, isn’t it? But not too much, though. Can’t have the GM f$&%ing with things.

        If you give someone a wheelchair, you’re making it really easy for them to never learn to walk.

    • If you take GM skill out of the equation, you’re creating a world of unskilled GMs. And turning GMs into computers. And people won’t want to DO THAT S$&%. So you’re creating a world of either CRAPPY GMs or NO GMs.

      GM skill is an amazingly powerful thing. In fact, it makes truly wonderful games. Without it, the game can only follow procedures. Basically, it’s just a PnP video game. F$&% that world and anyone who prefers it.

      For more on this: read what I wrote here:

      • Bad Gming – > need of structured game to limit gm’s bad behaviors – > nullify the need to improve Gming – > Bad GMing.

        THIS is our present, a problem that feeds in the problem itself. The only solution is to TEACHING this art called “GMing”, starting from the very basics.

        “They have their narrative systems, we have an Angry”.

        • Crutches and wheelchairs are great for veteran players like me, who (to quote one of my players) “used to be a gamer, but then I took a responsibilities to the knee.” My guess is they’re also good for providing a low bar to entry for new GMs. GMing is really hard and a lot of work, and games that make it easier without sucking are doing something right.

      • For once, I disagree with you. I’ve been in love with RPGs for almost 30 years now, but my group doesn’t have a natural GM. As the most GM-amenable bi-gamer, I’m usually stuck with the job. I don’t have the same kind of free time and energy for gaming that I had when I was 20. (I have a wife, kids, and a demanding job.) But my players still want an interesting game. So lately I’ve been falling back on crutches like splatworld games. And you know what? They hit the spot. They help me give my players a story that isn’t complete crap without a whole lot of preparation on my part. Is it as fun as the D&D and W:tA and 7th Sea games we played 15 years ago? Not quite. But it’s the best we’re likely to get this side of retirement, so I’m grateful we’ve got them.

      • “If you take GM skill out of the equation, you’re creating a world of unskilled GMs. And turning GMs into computers. And people won’t want to DO THAT S$&%.”

        I am not convinced that is true. I have noticed more then a little desire to remove power from the GM’s hand and just have them control the actions of the bad guys.

  3. This reminds me, thanks for letting me (and all these other people that you know, at best, through the internet) date your teenage skill system!
    I agree with your thoughts on dice mechanics and the importance of the decision by the player/character. By the time you pick up your dice, the most interesting thing, the decision to do something that called for that roll, has already happened. Following that premise, you should only add complexity to the dice mechanics if that makes those decisions more interesting.
    For that to work, the player has to have some sense of the risk/reward they are taking/aiming for. Ideally, they should be able to gauge that risk/reward by just thinking about the game world, not the game mechanics. For example, saying that on a particularly bad “climbing” roll, you don’t just not progress, but actually fall is complexity that does influence the decision to climb and ties in naturally with the game world. On the other hand, deciding that the very excellent “opening chest” roll your player just rolled means that there is more gold in the chest, is not.

  4. I played the Firefly RPG for a while, which involves rolling a bunch of dice of different types for attribute, skills, items and situational factors, and a 1 always means a “complication” (I.e. something goes wrong, even if you succeeded). There was a lot to like about the game, but the thing that stopped me really enjoying the game was the number of times the GM had to stop and rack his brains for a complication when the situation just didn’t suggest there should be one. The game felt like Firefly except that the writing was nowhere near as good, because it was full of these contrived plot points put there by the dice. Sure you could house rule that if no complication springs to mind then just ignore the 1s, but then why use this mechanic in the first place?

  5. Okay, for once, I’m finding the GM snobbery here to be offensive.

    GMing is a lot of work. You’ve said so yourself. You’ve also said that people shouldn’t have to read hundreds of pages of internet blogs to figure out how to do it. But wait! Here come some games that allow people to run games without having to spend hundreds of hours figuring it out, and we poo-poo them as “no leaving the GM enough leeway”? For serious? How DARE they! How dare D&D! How dare the DICE not leave us any “leeway” to decide whether the PCs have actually succeeded after all because we changed our minds!? A pox on all resolution systems, for they force us to use them! And then we get all snobby that they’re not teaching us to walk? What a terrible metaphor. How about another one? It’s like learning how to drive a manual transmission? In theory, in allows you greater control over your car. In practice, it probably doesn’t make a bloody lot of difference to your average car trip. Or maybe they’re like composite baseball bats, where they result in you hitting better, but still require you to hit! Ugh. Metaphors.

    C’mon guys. This is silly. The GM has an poopton of leeway, even in EotE, nevermind in more flexible games. Not only are they deciding whether something is worth rolling in the first place. They get to decide what the consequences ARE. (If there’s no chance of consequences, why are you rolling?) And GMing with no system support other than “Yeah, I guess they succeed” is hard. We have people who’ve been doing it for years and still do it badly. And we have people who’ve been doing it for hours with PbtA games and do it better than those old timers, and are enjoying it more.

    So what’s the problem again?

    • There is no problem. Get the f$&% over yourself. I was asked MY opinion of a particular system. And I explained my reasons. But that’s all it is. MY opinion and MY reasons. I didn’t say you were wrong to like one system over another. I was asked about what I choose to play. Maybe take note of this paragraph:

      “Now, I’m not saying binary dice systems are real role-playing and narrative dice systems aren’t, even though I know a certain number of f$&%wits out there are going to see it that way and start screaming at me over it. They are both different ways of telling a story. And they both have their strengths and weaknesses.”

  6. Hoping this series makes a comeback soon. I know I’ve got a question in the queue and I’m sure I’m not the only one… 🙂

  7. I played a couple of games of FFG Warhammer and did enjoy the weird dice. The thing that I liked about them was the degree of success in combat. Where your attack did more damage depending on how well you hit. D&D kind of has that with the damage rolls but when you roll low it feels like your hit was stolen more than a high damage feels like a good hit. I also always liked throwing a ton of dice on the table. It always feels good to roll lots of dice at the same time. Maybe that is why I always liked Shadowrun.

  8. I don’t really understand your argument here (I mean, I understand the point you’re making, but I don’t understand why you’ve come to such a conclusion). I’ve played a lot of FFG’s Star Wars, and I’ve recently played a lot of Hero System and D&D 5e (the only D&D I’ve played, but I like it a lot). I don’t see how the narrative dice force you, as a GM, to use the same consequences for the same chosen action at all. I saw the little plusses and minuses as little nudges, nothing more. Nothing as drastically as you described.

    Take the lockpick vs bashing the door down, why do those actions have to have the exact same base consequences given success? Shouldn’t they have very different consequences? For example, why can’t the base consequences for success be “the door opens with a click”, while the base consequence of kicking the door in is “the door loudly slams open.” Then any positives or negatives are adjudicated according to the base. Maybe if the lockpicking is really good, the door opens completely silently, potentially giving the group advantage against those inside. Maybe the door was kicked completely off its hinges and it hits a guy inside the room. Maybe the lockpick is poor, and the door squeaks when opened. Maybe the door kick is poor, and doesn’t quite open all the way on the first kick and it takes slightly longer to open, spoiling the element of surprise for the party.

    I don’t really see how this is any different than in D&D a rogue deciding to pick the lock vs a fighter deciding to kick the door in, except now you’ve got some random prompts for flavor. Shouldn’t the consequences be based primarily on the action, and not just the level of success?

    I just don’t see what the narrative dice took away from you, that’s all. And as a pretty new GM (roughly a year now), I can tell you it really is a handy prompt for a weak GM to make things a little more interesting than they would otherwise be, particularly while they’re trying to figure out how this whole GM’ing thing works. It also gets a GM used to expanding on these kinds of elements, so that if/when they decide to move to a binary system, they’ll notice the missing flavor and possibly try to add it in themselves, like a good GM does.

    I can also see why all of those prompts could be annoying for someone who doesn’t need them, so I’m definitely not suggesting your opinion is wrong. And I DEFINITELY think your friend who said you can’t tell a mystery with binary dice is 100% wrong. That’s just stupid. Narrative dice don’t magically make you a creative person.

  9. Pingback: Wonky Dice: Why WHFRP 3rd Edition is Better than Star Wars | Rolling the Hard Six

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