Overusing Dice

Revisitation: a series of posts that each feature a quote from a classic source along with a short discussion. Quotes that make me question some previous assumption I had about the game or that seem to lead to otherwise unexpected consequences will be preferred.

From the Rules Cyclopedia, page 148:

New Dungeon Masters often make the common mistake of using random dice rolls to determine everything. An entire evening can be spoiled if (for example) an unplanned wilderness encounter on the way to the dungeon goes badly for the party. The DM must use good judgment in addition to random tables. Encounters should be scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure; whenever possible, they should be worked into the story the characters are playing out.

Likewise, the DM may choose numbers instead of rolling for the amount of damage, number appearing, etc. This may be necessary to allow for a more enjoyable game; heavy damage early in the game may spoil the fun.

It’s always interesting to see divergences from current dogma in older books. In this case, the difference really is dramatic. This advice is exactly the opposite of what many people now would consider to be old school play. My RC has a copyright date of 1991. Is it possible that the Second Edition ethos has already begun to infiltrate the basic line by this point? I’m not familiar with the Mentzer boxed sets, so I’m not sure if this language originally showed up there as well.

In any case, I can sort of see the argument for adjusting encounter strength. I am not in favor of that now, but I don’t think it fundamentally changes the game. But choosing numbers instead of rolling for damage? Seriously? Talk about moral hazard.

21 thoughts on “Overusing Dice

    1. Brendan

      Good call. There is a very similar paragraph in the Cook/Marsh Expert booklet on page X59:

      “But I rolled it!” A common mistake most DMs make is to rely too much on random die rolls. An entire evening can be spoiled if an unplanned wilderness encounter on the way to the dungeon goes badly for the party. The DM must use good judgment in addition to random tables. Encounters should be scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure.

      It does not suggest conforming to a preplanned story or choosing damage numbers though.

    2. Brendan

      And here is Mentzer Expert page 25:

      Overusing Dice

      A common error while Dungeon Mastering is the use of random dice rolls to determine everything. An entire evening can be ruined if (for example) an unplanned wilderness encounter on the way to the dungeon goes badly for the party. The DM must use good judgment in addition to random tables. Encounters should be scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure.

      The DM may choose a number within the given die range rather than roll for the amount of damage, number appearing, etc. This may be necessary to allow for a more enjoyable game; heavy damage early in the game may spoil some of the fun.

      The Mentzer Expert book is copyright 1983. So that language about picking damage is from before the Rules Cyclopedia, and before Second Edition.

  1. George

    Interesting. To many old-schoolers this sort of talk would be considered blasphemy. But I happen to agree with the passage. If I get a random roll I don’t like, I may very well choose to re-roll it or assign a value that is more in line with the game I’m running.

    By the way, I don’t believe there is one “right” way to play D&D. It bothers me when people say “you’re playing it wrong.” There is only one thing that matters: is everyone having fun?

  2. Pat Henry

    I can’t agree “this sort of talk would be considered blasphemy” to old-schoolers. You simply could not play the early games without “winging it.” There was not a table for every situation, and so nothing to roll against.

    I think old-schoolers in particular would much more commonly agree “encounters should be scaled to the strength of the party and should be in harmony with the theme of the adventure.”

    Only once the tables began to proliferate did the temptation enter to make randomness a storytelling device. Just thinking through that sentence suggests how limited the returns on this practice can be.

    1. Brendan

      I can’t speak from experience here, as I starting playing in the early 90s with Second Edition, then took a 10+ year break starting in 1999 (and thus completely missed playing Third Edition, though I was aware of it). So, my knowledge comes entirely from reading the old rule books and reading the current OSR discussion (some of which obviously comes from “old timers”).

      That being said, the traditional structure of a B/X campaign was expected to start out in the dungeon, and progress to the wilderness for the medium levels, and then focus on founding and managing a domain during the high levels.

      That is why the Basic set only talks about dungeons and wilderness adventures are introduced in the Expert set. (There is a game reason for this too: dungeons are easier to manage than wilderness for the referee.) I mention all this because of the idea of encounter scaling. Based on what I have read, encounters are not so much scaled to the party as they are scaled to the locale, and players have some knowledge about the danger level of each locale. That is, there is a certain assumption about the challenge inherent in the first level of the dungeon as compared to the second or third level of the dungeon, and compared to the wilderness.

      The referee is not throwing these locales at players, the players are choosing which locale they wish to explore. Hence, I think, the current antagonism to the idea of scaling encounters. I think this ultimately comes down to the idea of freedom and consequences in the sandbox. If your group of first level PCs wants to venture into the Demon Wastelands, should you make all the monsters weaker to accomodate that choice? I think many old schoolers would say no.

      One other thing I would add (that was quite a revelation to me personally) is that encounters need not be considered things to fight but rather obstacles to overcome. From this perspective, there is nothing wrong with encountering a powerful monster as a low level party. You can trick it, or run away from it, or flatter it, or maybe even pledge service to it. And some monsters (like level-draining undead) seem to be a pretty bad risk/reward trade-off for fighting no matter how powerful your character is.

      I guess the question lurking behind the original post is:

      Is the disdain for balanced encounters primarily an old school thing or primarily an OSR thing?

      My personal sense is that there is actually quite a bit of innovation (not just excavation) in the OSR, so I would not be surprised if the disdain of scaling is at least partly a new thing.

      Some other on-topic posts that you might be interested in:

      – Grognardia: On the Oracular Power of Dice

      – Lord of the Green Dragons: DMing Philosophy

      – OD&D Discussion: Scaling challenge by level in the old school

      – RPG Blog II: Setting Organic Boundaries

      – Hack & Slash: On A List of Ways You’re Ruining Your Game

    2. Pat Henry

      I think we all (?) understood the basic mechanic that descending into levels deeper than a party’s average class level (“choosing our locale”) was always a perilous and probably fatal exercise. That’s why the traps that threw players down a few levels were always a bit more terrifying than the usual gimmick. The tone of the game usually changed at that instant from a fanciful treasure hunt to “let’s get the heck out of here!”

      As you note, I think the balance comes from offering players a relatively fun sandbox to play in, but otherwise being indifferent to mercy should they choose the path less taken.

      As for random encounters, IMO the best remedy is a policy of a paucity of treasure from such encounters. Wanderers usually don’t carry oodles of gold, so more is to be gained by avoiding rather than confronting them. The big problem w/ D&D in particular is the tendency for players to want to go up against everything they bump into. A few bloody noses with a reward of but a single bent copper coin might evolve them…

    3. Pat Henry

      “Is the disdain for balanced encounters primarily an old school thing or primarily an OSR thing?”

      Sorry to butt in again, but this is a great post and provocative thread.

      I guess I challenge the premise that either the old school or OSR have an inherent disdain for balanced encounters. The entire structure of OD&D was built around a premise that character levels were balanced in relation to one another and to the monsters they encountered. Stocking the first level of a dungeon with 1 HD monsters was a challenge 1st Level players could likely endure. And so on, deeper and deeper with higher and higher levels.

      This is what gave the game its gamey-ness.

      So it could not have been the old school that held a contempt for game balance, since they designed that right in. Nor can I easily believe that the OSR, trying to recapture that fun and heady original goodness would hold this game essential in low regard.

    4. Pat Henry

      …following on…

      If a disdain for balance came, I’d say it arrived in the era of Deities & Demigods and Unearthed Arcana and Manual of the Planes. Call it Late 2e.

      These tomes emphasized high levels of play and sort of encouraged open-ended Man vs. God sorts of encounters. Really hard to adjudicate balance, and–since they were out of the confines of dungeon walls, really difficult for a GM to keep play from spinning out of control.

      You even had EGG putting forward the Barbarian class, insisting (rather petulantly) it was balanced, but everyone playing the game at the time knew it was not. Kinda like the old AD&D Bard and Monk classes… things starting to go sideways….

    5. Brendan

      It’s not butting in! My goal in blogging is conversation. Thanks for participating.

      The issues of balance between player character classes and the issue of scaling encounters to party strength are different things.

      But back to the topic of encounters… yes, OD&D dungeon levels “by the book” are mostly predictable, but according to the wandering monster tables (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventure, page 10), 1 in 6 WM encounters on level one will be a level four monster! That means that on average once every 36 turns (or 6 hours), PCs exploring the first level will be confronted with a fourth level monster! Along with one third level and two second level monsters.

  3. George

    Pat – what I mean by that statement is that I’ve met a lot of “old schoolers” who are big advocates of “Let the dice fall where they may.” Some of these old schoolers have written lengthy blog posts about how it’s wrong to alter or fudge a dice roll to further the game or the drama.

    I share your sentiment that pure randomness doesn’t always equate to better gaming.

    1. Pat Henry

      Ah, understood.

      About the specific example cited above, i.e., a random wilderness encounter unraveling a planned scenario, the purpose of these random checks IMO was to prod dawdling players. Players that wanted to listen three times at every dungeon door and poke and prod every room for treasure were likely to arouse some wandering encounter.

      To their credit, the OSR clones are better at explaining this play distinction than the originals (see OSRIC, for example, @ p.139).

    2. Brendan

      Ah, that’s a good point about random encounters existing to emphasize the nature of time as a resource. So perhaps a meaningful distinction should be made between “tax” encounters and “placed” encounters?

  4. Drance

    I’ve never understood why some are so vehemently against modifying dice rolls. Like anything else in gaming, it really is only a problem if abused. I only fudge damage rolls, and only if I want to draw out tension in a combat. There’s something to be said for the drama of a tough struggle versus combat being cut short by rolls. People insist that it’s ROLEplaying and not ROLLplaying, but yet they’ll slavishly follow the dice.

    1. Brendan

      This is hard for me. If as a referee I save player character A by reducing damage in one case, shouldn’t I also save player character B in another case? In fact, in any other case? What’s the heuristic for when it is fun to let a player character die? Once you open the door to such dice fudging, doesn’t that fundamentally break referee impartiality?

      Have you seen Beedo’s post about killing Strahd?


      That’s an interesting (if somewhat extreme) example of letting the dice fall where they may, and everyone at the table seems to have enjoyed it. Now, the players might have been singing a different tune if it had been Strahd that had dispelled them rather than the other way around.

    2. Pat Henry

      I think I would adjudicate this gently. If players are really playing well, being creative and smart and innovative and true to their characters, I would not let some weird outlying roll of the dice spoil an evening of play. By some grace of the gods, perhaps they can be saved–a rock falls, separating a dying party from the monstrous horde…

      If their playing is uninspired or common, even foolish, let the dice fall where they will.

  5. Christopher O'Dell

    Two comments:

    1) I like to say that I use tables for inspiration, not dictation. That means that I’ll often look at tables, especially during prep, and choose a result instead of rolling for it, and sometimes I’ll roll a few times on a table before I accept a result, or I’ll roll a few times and then notice that there’s a result I keep *wanting* to be rolled, so I’ll just take that. Most of the time I’ll go with whatever I rolled up, but I don’t hold myself to do that every time I roll on a table.

    2) I once played in a game run by Tavis Allison where we got a random encounter of something like several hundred gnolls. Tavis didn’t choose something else, but we were able to talk our way out of fighting them because we played it really smartly (and be “we” I mean the more experienced two or three players who did the talking- we had about 9 players, I think).

    It’s totally possible to use your imagination to come up with something that fits whatever you rolled up on a table but isn’t an immediate death sentence. It does admittedly take more work and skill, and that’s one reason why I *don’t* always use the first result that I roll up on a table, since I don’t have decades of refereeing practice. Being able to take any result and re-package it into something interesting and dangerous but that doesn’t guarantee death, all more quickly than I can roll up a second result on a table, is what I aspire to.

    1. Brendan

      Absolutely. I think that gnoll example is a great example of how encounters need not always lead to combat (and in fact probably shouldn’t unless both sides feel like they have a chance of winning).

  6. Brendan

    One other general comment I would add is that I strongly agree with the idea of using tables as inspiration rather than dictation, but it makes a big difference to me when I am consulting the table. If it is during pregame design, I am much more likely to discard a result and roll again, or just pick something (like during dungeon stocking).

    I guess I’m saying there are several different ways to use randomness:

    1. Imagination priming. This is like the idea of deep design from Matt Finch’s Tome of Adventure Design. I doesn’t matter if you take or leave any particular result because no concrete player outcomes hinge on the result. If you decide to place the tower of the dread archmage in hex 5, no PCs will be harmed.

    2. Setting up situations. This is like rolling on a wandering monster table. What you get will have a dramatic impact on actual PCs, but the final outcome is still uncertain. Throwing out a random encounter that you think will be “too hard” or picking something you think will be “more fun” breaks the impartiality a little bit, but not horribly, especially if you don’t do it too much. One easy pitch every once in a while is not going to harm the overall integrity of the game.

    3. Resolving situations. This involves saving throws, ability checks, damage rolls, etc. These outcomes ultimately determine life and death for characters. I think these dice are the least acceptable to fudge.

    1. Christopher O'Dell

      I like your breakdown, and agree with it. There’s definitely a spectrum of acceptability when it comes to not listening to dice, and it gets less and less acceptable, I think, when you’re getting closer and closer to direct, immediate consequences for players because of dice fudging.


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