How I Play: Dice and Decisions

This is a post about one aspect of how I, personally, like to play roleplaying games. It reflects my personal tastes and the norms I’ve adopted from the roleplaying scene I belong to. Ours is a strangely insular hobby: over the 20 years I’ve played roleplaying games, I’ve done it with fewer than 30 people, with the exception of a few convention games and online experiments. I think my experience is typical. Because of this narrow range of experience, I’m always interested in reading about how other individuals and groups like to play, either because they’ve chosen to deliberately, or because it’s the norm they’ve grown up in the hobby with. This post is for others like myself, who share that interest.

I like to roll dice. I like the act of rolling, the sequence of preparation, anticipation, and resolution, and I like the idea of it, subjecting a measure of my freedom to the will of randomness and adapting to the unpredictable. I hear people say they played a session and never rolled dice once, and I know that would never happen to me – if the GM never prompted a roll, I would still roll on my own to guide my actions. How and why? To answer questions like the following:

  • This is a clever idea I just had, but would my character think of it? Roll Intelligence.
  • Do I go along with this plan, even though it seems rash? Roll Will, or Wisdom or something.
  • How do I feel about this NPC? Make a reaction roll. (In GURPS – in a system that lacks such a mechanic, I might ask the GM for the NPC’s Charisma or equivalent, and base my roll on that and whatever trait on my sheet seems most relevant.)

Now, I’m not saying I do this all the time. I like to immerse myself into my character up to a point (not necessarily as far as I can, but that’s a subject for another post), and if the decision feels like I’ve already made it just by thinking in character, I feel no desire to go for the dice. And if I’m not particularly immersed, for whatever reason, I may adopt a director stance (if that’s what it’s called) and make a decision based on what I think will lead to entertainment – maybe go along with what I perceive as GM guidance, or whatever gives spotlight time to an entertaining or lately sidelined co-player. All that’s something pretty much every player does, as far as I can tell. But not everyone I know rolls for decisions like these, and some seem to find it puzzling. Why would you do that? Well, part of the reason is what I stated at the beginning: I just like having to adapt to surprises. The dice put me where I didn’t plan on going, and lead me to improvise.

I can understand one specific objection very well: that using the dice this way is distancing; that it gets in the way of immersion and places a barrier between the player and the character. Now, I understand this objection, but my experience is almost exactly the opposite. When I roll for decisions, you see, I sense no obligation to do as the dice say. In fact, the roll is most useful to me when I look at the result and immediately go “No, that’s not right! That’s not how I feel about this.” That’s a sign I know, implicitly, something about my character that I didn’t have the perceptiveness to articulate or apply to the question, until I actually put myself on the spot – and now I’m a step closer to knowing it explicitly, a step closer to knowing myself in character. I think that’s not too far from how we get to know ourselves in real life: when we find ourselves in a situation where we thought we’d go one way, and are compelled to do otherwise.

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