As a player, I love rolling dice. It is empowering and somehow makes me feel more in control of events. But as a DM, I realize that rolling dice can, in some situations, provide players with meta-information that may affect the choices that they make. For instance, a player’s reaction to being told she didn’t detect a secret door will be influenced by the knowledge that she rolled either a ‘1’ or a ’20’.
Role-Playing vs. Roll-Playing
This is an overarching concern that must always be kept in mind. I am an ardent supporter of having players role-play their way through situations opposed to letting the dice dictate the outcome. Often times there is still a randomness to the outcome of an event, but I let the odds be influenced by the role-playing involved. If the role-playing is sufficiently convincing, the player may gain +1 or more to the roll, or I may even allow success based solely upon the players’ description of their actions. If role-playing was unconvincing, I let the dice determine the outcome, possibly with penalties to the roll. In any event, if role-playing can potentially affect the outcome, it should always be considered.
When Should Dice Be Used?
Before discussing who should roll the dice, it is probably prudent to define the situations in which dice should be used at all. Here is a short list, that grew quite quickly. I’m sure I still managed to leave out a few:
- Initial abilities
- Physical attacks (melee and ranged)
- Variable spell effects (such as healing spells)
- Saving throws
- Detect secret/concealed doors, direction and depth underground, etc.
- Skill checks, including: thief skills, social skills, knowledge checks, etc.
Obviously, this is something best left entirely to the player.
Although, I’ve heard of games where players are completely unaware of their ability scores, hit points etc. The DM tracks everything, telling players that their characters are weak/strong, dumb/smart, clumsy/nimble and that a hit does minimal/serious damage. I’m intrigued, but it would involve a great deal more work on the DM’s part and I’m not sure how I’d feel about this method as a player. It certainly would eliminate most meta-gaming and min-maxing while promoting role-playing.
Generally, players need to know their opponent’s AC in order to determine if they hit. This immediately tells all the players at the table how tough a creature is (which is certainly meta-information). One solution is for characters to roll 1d20, add bonuses, and tell the DM the result. This still supplies the same information (when players see which attacks hit or miss), but there is potentially a delay in acquiring this information which roughly corresponds to what combatants in a RL situation would observe/deduce. Generally, I leave attacks and damage entirely up to the players, implementing the alternative method above for special/unusual monsters that the players haven’t seen before.
Again, I’ve heard of DMs that (secretly) roll attacks/damage for all the PCs, telling the players whether or not they hit and whether it was a glancing blow or a solid hit. I don’t think I, nor my players, would like this approach. But then again, we’ve never tried it.
For the most part, my players roll their own damage. However, certain monsters are immune/resistant to various types of damage, or require special weapons in order to hit. Unless specifically asked, I don’t inform them that these creatures aren’t taking damage (or full damage) for a few rounds. Similarly, they may not notice if the creature is regenerating, so I don’t offer this information for a few rounds either, unless they have reason to suspect that this is the case. It would probably be best to use passive perception to determine who notices these things and how soon, but I’ve never done that.
Variable Spell Effects
Like damage, variable spell effects (whether it is magical damage or healing or something else) is something I leave to the players. I can’t think of any specific instances where I make exceptions.
I always allow players to make their own saving throws. The consequence of failure is often severe. I don’t think it is fair to roll for the player and then state their character is dead (or whatever the consequence is) without giving the player the opportunity to at least feel like they are taking part in preventing the outcome.
Detect Secret Doors
Detecting secret doors is a perfect example of when I believe the DM should roll the dice for the player. As stated above, if the player rolls a “1” or a “20”, that roll will affect their reaction when you tell them that they did not detect a secret door. There should always be some doubt as to whether or not there is a secret door there and whether they simply failed to detect it. This applies to determining direction and depth underground and all similar abilities.
Detecting secret doors, and other racial/class abilities, are really just a subset of skill checks. I treat all skill checks similarly; I roll them for the PCs. However, if role-playing can affect the outcome, I require the players to role-play what they are actual doing in order to perform the action. How they role-play the action may indicate automatic success or failure. Short of that, it will most likely result in a bonus or penalty to the DC. In any case, I always perform skill check rolls for my players.
Should the DM Roll Secretly
When the DM rolls for the players, obviously it should be rolled in secret. That is the whole point. The result of the die roll presents the players with meta-information that affects their decisions. There should always be some uncertainty as to why an action succeeded or failed.
But occasionally, you run into people that believe that all rolls should be made out in the open. I’ve given my reasons why I don’t agree with that in certain situations, but there are other concerns that I haven’t addressed yet.
First, let’s address player rolls. Many DMs insist that players make all rolls out in the open, use d20s numbered 1-20 (opposed to 1-10 twice, each set colored differently), use a d10 numbered 1-10 and a second numbered 10-100 for percentile dice, etc. All of these stipulations assume that players are cheating and that actions must be taken to prevent this. Clearly, this is insulting to the players and, as a player, I would refuse to remain in such a game. This is a game between friends and there must be trust or there isn’t truly a friendship.
As to DM rolls, I believe that all DM rolls should be made in secret, for the reason given throughout this article: to prevent meta-gaming. I don’t mean to imply that players are attempting to meta-game, but when presented with meta-information, players have no choice but to meta-game. Once they are in possession of certain information, it is impossible to act without being influenced by that information.
Even amoung those that favor making most DM rolls in secret, some don’t see the problem with the DM rolling out in the open for attack rolls, damage rolls, etc. But these sorts of rolls can be even more telling than anything else.
Imagine that the players are fighting a group of gnolls. Most of the gnolls need a 19 or better to hit the player’s fighters. But then the DM rolls a 5 for one of the gnolls and states that it is a hit. Clearly, this will gain the attention of the players. There is obviously something special about this particular gnoll.
This is a world of magic, where gods are real and take an active hand in the events within that world. The gods, magic items, zones of magic, and all sorts of other sources can affect events going on around the characters. These influences are represented by bonuses/penalties to die rolls, or even automatic successes/failures, to player actions and or monster/npc actions. If the DM rolls every die out in the open, players will become aware of these influences (meta-information that they shouldn’t be privy to). If the DM rolls out in the open most of the time, and in secret when one of these influences are at work, the sudden change in behavior can be just as obvious.
What all this boils down to is that, imo, it should be the DM (not the dice) that tell the players the results of their actions. Whenever seeing the die roll removes the uncertainty of whether an action failed or succeeded, or why it failed or succeeded, that die roll should be performed (in secret) by the DM, not by the player.