The Crash of the Dice

Like anyone my age trying to justify his playing silly role-playing games, I sometimes pretentiously opine that narrativism in RPGs is superior to the simulationist approach. If you're just coming into this already old debate, simulationism has its emphasis on rules creating an internally logical game world, while narrativism focuses on the needs of story-telling instead. In their extremes, the Simulation RPG uses physics formulas and chaos math to recreate a world as logical and as random as our own, while the Narration RPG does away with dice and rules altogether and lets a group of people tell a dramatically satisfying story. Most RPGs fall somewhere between the two.

I would describe myself as primarily Narrativist. My interest is in play acting, creating events and characters on the fly, and placing each adventure in the context of a larger story. Nobody dies on my shift unless it's dramatically appropriate. And yet... No matter how evolved your sensibilities are, no matter how much you deride traditional RPGs as offshoots of Risk and Monopoly, there's something inherently satisfying about throwing dice, isn't there?

Games have tried to do away with dice either through pure Narrativism (Amber Diceless), or with allegedly innovative alternatives like tokens (Marvel Universe RPG) or cards (Marvel Saga), while other games have propped up the dice industry by requiring an obscene amount of dice (D&D is nothing when you consider Shadowrun's dice pools). I've found that while Narrativism is prized in my groups, so is dice-rolling. Players get fidgety when they haven't thrown down in a while.

Here's the secret function of dice: They represent the momentum of a story or scene. The way they bounce and roll on the table. Their crashing noise, thunder above the characters' heads. And you have to buy into that. When urgency is required, point to a player and forcefully say "ROLL!" It gets the juices flowing. Once everyone has mastered the basics of the rules, dice actions should move and create a rhythm you don't want to slow too much for "interpretation". And therein lies the Narrativism. I fudge dice rolls all the time because it doesn't matter what the dice says, outcomes need to be dramatically appropriate. But the scene still needs momentum, and that uncertainty that creates suspense.
Dice crashing suddenly behind a GM screen creates paranoia. Players trying to change their luck by abandoning badly-performing dice gives them a Narrativistic sense that their characters are trying to turn the tide. Asking for a roll creates a 6th sense for a character who is no doubt more alert than his or her player.

Whether we want to admit it or not, dice are very much a part of the game.


Anonymous said…
"Asking for a roll creates a 6th sense for a character who is no doubt more alert than his or her player"

An excellent point here, i tend to treat dice rolling as a sometimes chore in my games, but an idea like this is likely to change that treatment.
Siskoid said…
Well, if my random musings helps one person, it was worth committing them to...uhm... paper.

I'm like you, I'd still rather have the least possible amount of dice-rolling, which makes fight scenes a lot more exciting actually. There's a sudden flurry of activity, just like in the game world.
De said…
I will never forget when my Robotech RPG group wanted to play capital ship combat. We must have rolled 25-30 die for combat and damage checks. It also took about 15-20 minutes for each character's turn.

We never did that again.