D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

I’ve been thinking really hard recently about why I enjoy some Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games over others.

Let me explain; we run a gaming session where the DM chair is a hot seat – we take it in turns to run a game that lasts 3 or more sessions to keep the game fresh. We play once a week for about 3 hours. The world is continuous, so whatever happens in one adventure still happened when a new DM takes over. We each have a personal pool of characters we choose for each new adventure, which kind of builds up a nice cohort experience (oh cool, today I’m playing alongside Sam quick-fingers, I love that guy!)

Switching DMs has its good points; we never burn out as the DM and if a style of play or game session isn’t working, we aren’t stuck with it for too long. We have our own styles of adventure design and things go well.

What I’ve struggled with over the last couple of years is the fudging of dice rolls as a DM. I know I do it on rare occasions to ensure that most of what I’ve written is never missed, so long as the narrative of the game is maintained, and I know it happens with the other DMs in the group, and of course outside of that group (I play D&D over a large area of players).

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What am I talking about?

Dice fudging is when you, as the DM, roll your dice behind your nice screen in secret and choose to omit a certain dice roll for whatever reason; avoid killing a character by accident or in a lame fashion, making that save for the NPC so the encounter has some meaning etc. I prefer the term dice manipulation, as we’re not always disregarding the dice wholly, we’re just trying to make our session better.

It isn’t cool for a player to fudge their dice rolls – we call that cheating, so why do we as DMs accept it as part of our game?

I’m in two minds about it currently, and I’m hoping to put a case forward for each style of play.

Benefits of dice manipulation

When we manipulate the result of a dice roll, often we are doing so to keep our narrative on track and stop the train from derailing itself by chance. This isn’t really a bad thing, as the effort we put into the design of the game and the story should be fully realised. Sometimes the party will miss a vital clue or aspect of your game which they really need to see, so it is more of a gentle nudge.

Encouraging new players to games like D&D may require them to enjoy their first few sessions in a safe environment. Since our first characters to the game are often the fondest, losing that character can really put a new player down, especially for the younger ones.

As a DM, we can cover up our mistakes by smoothing over something we hadn’t taken into account, such as forgetting about a creature’s ability to survive certain conditions (or not) or realising too late that the monsters stat line makes it too easy to kill a character in a single, easy to hit roll.

These ideas are all fine and dandy, but when we take a closer look, are we not just pandering to players expectations of an easy game or covering our own shortcomings of a poorly written or thought out adventure?

Why we should NOT manipulate the dice

For better or worse, luck is part of the game – it’s why we use dice. As mentioned before, in a situation where a player decides to manipulate the dice roll, we call it cheating. Technically the DM can’t cheat as they are the arbiter of the rules and guidelines, but the element of chance should stand up to our rolling too – if there’s a critical roll of the dice that decides the outcome of the whole adventure, chances are we’ve done something wrong in our design step. Whatever the roll is, the players must keep to it, so why shouldn’t we?

The game is hard and so surviving the game should be the greatest reward of all. If we take away this element of danger from our players, we’re allowing them to succeed with ease and that isn’t in the spirit of things. Nothing adds tension to the game like knowing your DM is not averse to wiping your lovely creation out with not so much as a grin.

Every action has a consequence, and if the players rely on stupid ideas working when in the reality they didn’t or shouldn’t, we’re not doing them any favours. Knowing the action could fail, knowing that their character is on the knife edge means they come up with creative but believable ideas and they accept that chance alone is not enough to succeed.

Both styles of DM are valid, I think, and I will expect that if I change my own style to the harsh reality check, then those players I game with are likely to get a little miffed. But they’ll do the same to me, which may rekindle that aspect of the game which I desire most…

Ball-tightening fear.

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In an odd sort of way I’m chastising myself for allowing my player base to get it too comfortable, which has turned both running a game and playing a game stale, unrewarding. A bit of realistic grit in their eye will help my style of game. To that end I have, over the last few months, stopped:

  • Handing the players treasure they wouldn’t have found,
  • Avoiding critical hits – they take that damage and they smile at me for it,
  • Creating useless traps that rely on dice rolls only.

Some things I have started to:

  • Create encounters that don’t completely challenge the party right away – I want them to feel like they’re in control right up until the last encounter, where the bad guys don’t mess around.
  • Punish stupid ideas, unless I find them completely amusing – think you can kill a bear with a teaspoon? Try it…

And the result of these changes?

Fully engaged, role-playing groups who soak up the atmosphere and think wisely about what they do. They don’t always get it right, but when they do they really do, and when they don’t? They often end up travelling home to rest before planning another expedition out.

Let me know if you’ve experienced anything I’ve mentioned. We can learn from these opinions…

J.D Ferris, CC

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