Cavegirl posted about the function of dice resolution and stats in a certain kind of tabletop roleplaying game. In her words: we use dice rolls and game mechanics to make a decision on the GM’s behalf when the outcome is otherwise in doubt and hard to adjudicate. I agree with the value of all the functions she lays out for using dice. However, there is another substantial use for dice in this kind of game. As resolution systems, dice provide answers, but they can also provide questions.
The principle that dice come out only or primarily when the referee is at a loss or resolution is difficult excludes or deemphasizes pursuit of oracles, when the referee or players consult dice for inspiration or to expand the set of possibilities. The invocation of fairness suggests that dice exist for determinations that might otherwise seem impartial or unfair.
Framing the process as adjudication imposes or implies a set of juridical assumptions. Jurisprudence relies heavily on the idea of precedent and extrapolating future outcomes from past examples. In the context of roleplaying games, the precedent or fact of the matter is the campaign setting, the scenario, the dungeon map, relationship matrices, the personality of non-player characters, and so forth. Following the above principle, the dice come out in the moment of play when the interaction of those elements with player characters is unclear or fraught with potentially deleterious consequences.
Many of the ways in which I find that dice contribute most to the richness of play fit uncomfortably within the adjudication frame. For example, the random encounter check seems more about varying the pattern of experience than about resolving any particularly difficult determination, even though it does represent an immediate moment in the game world. Similarly, stocking the dungeon functions to help a referee create unstable equilibria rather than resolving an outcome. Other examples include many multi-table generators, in the mode of Appendix D: Random Generation of Creatures from the Lower Planes from the original Dungeon Masters Guide, or the procedures in Gardens of Ynn (automated version), or my apocalypse generator. Telecanter’s “Generating” blog tag provides many more examples.
Randomness in the generation of player characters can also be about providing inspiration. There may be an aspect of impartiality to rolling for, say, ability scores, where there is at least a superficial sense that players may want one outcome more than another (though to be honest, having good or bad ability scores makes little difference in the kind of games I like to run). However, determining other parts of characters randomly—such as class or appearance—is less understandable as maintaining a fair playing field and seems more about facilitating creativity by expanding potentiality that might remain otherwise unexplored by players. While less common, I have also observed non-referee players turning to the dice as oracles occasionally at the moment of decision during play, such as rolling to determine a character’s motivation rather than deciding based on character personality as established or situational imperatives.
In terms of dramatic structure, dice can contribute to exposition and rising action, as well as falling action and denouement.
In terms of complexity, dice can expand the set of possible situations as well as contracting a set of possible outcomes into a consensually established single fictional outcome.
Breathing in, breathing out.
I like your analysis, as well as Cavegirl’s original posting, but suggest an important additional raison d’etre for how dice results are valuable in game play: by providing unexpected outcomes. You touch on this a little, in terms of describing how dice reinforce (or vary, sometimes) the background norm experience for a setting, encounter, character, stat, etc., but don’t touch on the inspirational possibilities that outlier results can create—which seem, so often, to be the triggers for the most-memorable gaming stories (in my experience, at least).
I touch on this idea a little as part of a recent post on campaign structures @ https://grodog.blogspot.com/2019/11/campaign-structures-vs-adventure-structures.html
RPGs are games with systems, so random events can and do significantly impact the play of the game and the outcomes of actions in the campaign, within the scope of the systems used. When the key villain rolls a 1 on a saving throw and is charmed, or disintegrated, or plane shifted away to the Seven Heavens—or whatever!—that’s probably not a result that the players (and their PCs) or the DM (and the NPCs, monsters, etc.) have necessarily prepared for. So the nature of random results inject random outcomes into gameplay which the players and the DM have to run with, respond to, and manage as complication during each and every session.
As an example, in one of my levels of Castle Greyhawk at GaryCon several years ago, Player 1’s character was slain by a beholder’s death ray in the same round that Player 2 shot a lightning bolt down the hallway, hitting both the in-the-midst-of-dying PC and the beholder. Player 1 asked if the lightning bolt might restart his heart in the moment of death, like an EMT’s defibrillatior. I said, “Sure, that’s possible although pretty unlikely—you need to roll a 20 for that work.” And Player 1 rolled a natural 20 right then and there! 😀
I think that these outlier moments have meaning and importance because they are rare—had I simply decided by DM fiat to allow the PC to live, it might have been cool in the moment, but would not be as memorable today without the natural 20 driving the outcome.
In the way you describe, the randomness almost provides a sanctification function, verifying to the players the extraordinary and unlikely nature of the outcome. This function does seem to be distinct from creating or resolving uncertainties in the moment of play.
Yeah, that’s a great post! It is on my list of recommended reading (see tab above). Maybe worth a link here where I mention oracles above.
Hi! Daisy-chaining off this thought process here, reading this and Cavegirls got me thinking of the mythic/ritual elements of dice and chance etc.
Let me know what you think, if you’re so inclined