Narrative Play Style – How and When to Roll Dice (Part 01)

A check.

There’s a lot packed into that five-letter part of the game. What’s is it, when do you get it, what should happen with it, etc…

I’ve read (and argued) the differences in when and how to use the roll-for-outcome mechanic at the heart of any RPG (and certainly D&D) for years. Like political or economic opinion, there are some consolidated camps of true believers in their “way” and the only real judge of whether any of them are the “right way” is in the challenge and enjoyment of the players.

They’re the only audience.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I want to endorse a method of resolution that runs a bit counter to some common playstyles. But, in practice and “field testing” for years, it’s been my favorite and the one that’s created the most enjoyment for me and my players.

As there’s a good chance many have written on this in the past, I’ll just say that I’ve always thought of it–regardless–as the “Narrative Play Style” (as opposed to other styles I’ll identify toward the end in contrast).

Definitions–Because We Need To Speak The Same Language

Let’s get the lexicon out of the way (my background is years of Philosophy and Project Management, I like “terms” being clear):

  • Check – I mean this to say, for our purposes, the conventional skill check and the basic ability check. Attack actions are very, very detailed and well written about–this is moreso about the use of dice outside of combat for things that don’t have a hundred pages of nuance dedicated to them. This is the use of Athletics or the attempt to Swim or the want of a Performance or the attempt to figure out if someone is lying. Skills and activities much like them. A Check is an activity in search of a result to move the story or goal of the PC forward, adjudicated with dice. This, for now, is apart from Saves as well.
  • Challenge – Further, I mean challenge to represent whatever is the space between that activity being done and the result being clear. It is the object in the way, the disposition that is to be changed, the NPC that is deceptive, the audience that is uninterested, the door that’s stuck, and the puzzle that’s unsolved. The check represents the PC’s attempt, the challenge represents the possible conflicts to that (as simple as the DM can make them), the result comes naturally from that. Some challenges are known ahead of time, some are not–whether a PC or a player knows is dependent on lots of factors.
  • PC – The Player’s Character. I make this point here because its easy to forget that we’re talking about what a PC knows, sometimes, versus what a player knows. A PC may know how to tip a barman at a local inn, the player may not; the player may know (or at least believe) that a monster has a particular ability, but the PC-as-created may have no reason to know that. This in and out of game knowledge is always an issue for any game.
  • Player – Clearly, the Player playing the game using their PC. Simple.
  • Result – This is the outcome of the check, and it stands for not just the immediate outcome but all ways in which it effects both the player and PC. Most of the time (with some few exceptions) these are the same for both PC and player. And sometimes the result has broad effect in the world (impacts other players) and sometimes it has limited effect to the moment.

The Goals of Any Play Style

Virtually every Play Style wants to keep a balance or a green-light hovering over six main areas/elements of any system of skill checks or resolution mechanics:

  • Intuitive – the check should meet up with what a normal person in the real world might expect of the attempt with a margin for error as wide as the difference between what they understand as probable and what their character can do
  • Narratable – the check should be describable in an interesting way that doesn’t demand a lot of boring repetition by the DM to keep it in the story world; not just following the specific motions taken, but elaborating the whole scene surrounding it as well in a way that’s easy, quick, and doesn’t detract from other player’s time or play
  • Uniform – the check should not telegraph anything about the world beyond it; this is to say that there should not be a difference in how two separate but completely identical situations are adjudicated due to what comes next in the story
  • Consequential – the check should have some meaningful cost either in fail conditions, loss of resources, or prevention of further activity for a meaningful time; this isn’t to say there should always be a consequence to doing anything, only that for things involving dice
  • Cooperative – the check should, as often as is reasonable, encourage multi-player engagement; some activities>results are necessarily lone for a PC (and are great story when done so), but wherever possible (and erring on that side when in doubt) events allowing co-op play make a better game than isolated specialization
  • Creative – the check should, as often as is reasonable, encourage creative problem solving; some activities>results are necessarily straightforward for a PC (and not everything needs to be a puzzle), but wherever possible, events allowing creative solutions make a better game than a menu of pre-determined ones.

In all my time reading or debating this with other great DM’s both in the real world and online, we all at least agree on the idea that these are the goals. It’s in how we achieve them or how we prioritize them that the differences show. There are those passionate about interpreting Consequential to mean that if an action has no meaningful adventure impact for a predetermined game path or module, then it should be a check and those who thing that everything a player wants to have their PC do should be rolled and they will invent a fail consequence for it each time… both believe in Consequence, but approach it differently.

Narrative Play Style

So, my play style–and the one I passionate advocate–treats the goals like this:

There are some activities that are too easy for a PC to meaningfully fail at (lifting a cup to their lips, listening to a conversation they’re sitting there for, or even picking a simple lock when their bonus for the check would be +10 regardless). It’s up to the DM to take the ability of the PC, compare that to the difficulty of the activity and decide whether it requires a roll at all. This means the same activity by two different PC’s may have one rolling and one not rolling. None of it having any relation to anything other than those factors: how hard is it and how capable are they. In these, there may be no dice and auto-success described by the DM.

There are some activities that a PC may or may not fail at due to the nature of the challenge. My favorite example is a stuck door–it’s a simple, common, and easy to understand challenge that could be part of any larger context at all. In this article, that’s going to be my go-to example: “The Door is Stuck”.

For those activities that a PC may or may not fail at (based on ability and difficulty overlapping), in my games they get a chance to try it. Their attempt, however, is isolated to the time, place, method, and assistance they’re taking advantage of to accomplish it. The consequence for failure is an inability to try in that way again for the remainder of the scene.

So, what that means is:

  1. The door is stuck. The player wants to open it. They declare that their PC is going to shove that door open.
  2. At that point, the DM checks the difficulty (let’s say DC10) against their ability (let’s say a bonus of +5) and because there’s a chance of success and failure, asks for an Athletics check. Note, the player doesn’t ask for the check (they may, but the DM should not tell them whether they need one or not before they decide to do the action). Only after the commitment to the action for their PC does the DM say whether the dice are needed. The player shouldn’t know if it’s an automatic open because its easy or even an autofail because it’s too hard (also possible)–not until the PC knows and they won’t until they try.
  3. So, the DM asks for a check and if it passes, the door is knocked open. If it fails, the door remains stuck. We’ll follow the path of “if it remains stuck” for now…
  4. For the rest of the scene (maybe in-game time of a half hour or more, certainly less than a short-rest), unless some variable changes significantly, all continued attempts by that PC to do the same thing will result in the same consequence. When the player rolls, they aren’t just rolling for that one moment’s action (out of combat, again), but for their PC’s ability to do the activity to particular level for that scene. This doesn’t make the door impassable, it just requires new factors.
  5. The player then has their PC ask another PC for help–a mechanic in the game itself. One agrees and now the variables have changed. Instead of the lone PC throwing himself against a door, now both are–and the first PC is advantaged this time on a retry. If they succeed, both pull off the door opening together and the game continues. Let’s follow failure again…
  6. The player fails again, now the scene stands with both PC’s trying and maybe repeatedly, but ultimately finding themselves unable to budge this door. That combination of factors is a failure. This door is just stuck. So the original player has his PC grab a crowbar from his pack–a new variable–and describes how his PC is taking care to wedge it in the doorjam good, maybe using a hammer to really drive it in there, puts a foot on the wall and pulls as hard as he can. The introduction of new tools and methods is enough to warrant a new check, with the tools and possibly advantaged again. It they succeed, it opens with a crack, but we can follow more failure…
  7. So, different tools and combinations of two or three of them pounding away may still lead to failures. It’s possible they just all had a bad day and that door remains stuck. So, they take a short rest, maybe, or a good amount of time and the PC spends that whole time examining the door carefully, testing its weak spots–maybe just catching his breath and staring at it angrily. A new scene is them rested and ready and the PC may try all over again (and may try any of his failed methods).

At the heart of it, that’s a Narrative Play Style. Where the check has a narrative consequence, not just an immediate effect. Failure means a whole story subject of possible attempts are a failure, it means the roll isn’t just for the action of putting a hand on a door and pushing at the shoulder that one time, but it represents the best the PC can do given that situation at that place in the story.

Why It Works and How

I’ll get to objections later, but for now I want to talk about how this achieves the Goals that every system hopes to achieve and where its weakest and strongest on them. I’ll go in reverse order:

It encourages constant creative gameplay because it rewards players for coming up with new ways around the conditions of their failures. The attempted balancing act across the narrow log over the gorge fails early on and by coming up with a clever use of rope and crawling, they get to try again. It keeps the game from devolving into “try the same thing over and over and over until I get it”. A better story.

It encourages cooperative play, rewarding players for including other members of the party when they fail by giving them a new shot at the goal. When they fail to charm the Duchess, the only way to resolve it is to try something more interesting or descriptive than they did the first time. The first time, they led with a joke (and failed the roll) and she rolled her eyes and turned to others to ask who these fools were. A quick conversation with the bard in the party as he helps by chuckling convincingly at the otherwise stale humor gives the PC another chance to charm the Duchess.

It’s highly consequential–failure means a significant series of activities is now closed to the PC, success means not having to go down the road of solving anything. It drives PC’s to be ready with their best chance of success early on. Rather than try openly, and then retry a few times, and then maybe try something else–it drives them to see a door stuck and more often ask their teammate to help them with the crowbar, right at the outset to decrease wasted time and narrative embarrassment as they have to creatively retry a thing.

It is very uniform. There’s a predictability in it. The roll is the standard, meaningful, scene-making chance. It isn’t dependent on anything outside of itself and the best attempt that can be managed in that time and place with resources at hand. The door is not automatically easy because there’s nothing behind it, nor is it suddenly the only door in the hallway requiring a check because it does. It treats all doors the same. The player can expect that what they went through with one door will be similar to what they’ll go through with the one next to it or the one three weeks from then in another place–irrespective of the larger story needs of the game. This creates certainty.

It is highly, highly Narratable. The DM doesn’t have to break down individual attempts of the same thing over and over, the actions come packaged with all the importance of the scene. When there is success, he may describe success and where failure he may describe failure, but he is unburdened with having to do so with tiny, meaningless iterations of attempt and can busy himself with the larger descriptions of significant attempts at a thing. The DM gets to narrate multiple party members doing a thing more often, interesting methods and tools and consequences, and keep a mystery about the world.

If there’s any area that this play style does have more challenge, it’s in the intuitive nature of its play. The truth is, the “all or nothing” methods of those who like rolling for everything and then inventing consequences from it (which always felt like an enormous sink of time and distraction to me) or auto-succeeding anything that wasn’t on the path to a new fight or puzzle to sweep away the less important (to the overall game) activities… those are more intuitive. I admit that. For this method, players need to know the expectations and be encouraged to have starting equipment to take care of their failures. They need to be brought into the style through example and the DM has to spend some time (a session, I’ve found, with new people) holding the line on tiny repeated attempts at things (especially social things). Once understood, it works beautifully, but it is less intuitive than some other styles.

In another post, I’ll do some contrasting and comparison between styles for everyone and show where some are stronger on some goals where others really lack on a few.

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2 comments

  1. I think this method makes a lot of sense and it is close to how it is run in one the.Games I am in. But one concern I had was with the asking for help, especially in regards to the Guidance spell. Generally, what happens is the rogue tries to pick a lock or something and then fails, then as a cleric I cast guidance on him. I feel this is a good enough variable change, but it feels repetitive and a little cheap. I mean, narratively it makes sense that if I saw the rogue struggle I might summon a little of my god’s power, give him a tap and say “Try it now” But something still seems off about it. Maybe it is just how I do it and make it more descriptive rather than jiat saying, “I’ll cast Guidance on him.” Any other suggestions for improving this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I’m a big fan of fluffing divine spells and skinning them to the deity. It would be worth the occasional Inspiration to the cleric for them to actually describe the “prayer” their goddess expects when she empowers him with Guidance.

      Like

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