Roll Call 5: The Dice of Death
Should dice really have a life-or-death authority over the fate of the heroes in a roleplaying game?
As a decision-maker, NO. As a confirmer of Karma, they can.
Let me explain and give a couple of examples. My older brother, who’ve I discovered actually reads this blog, believed in the “tyranny of the dice”. Or, at least that’s what I felt he did. One time during a game session he ran, the characters, trapped in a Lost World sort of alternate world, were caught out in the open by the dreaded “wandering monster”. My brother rolled the dice to see what sort of monster it was.
It was a T-rex. The characters were in absolutely no shape to take on something like that, and if it wasn’t for my magic-user having a light spell to temporarily blind the beast, it would have caught us and likely killed us. I never told him at the time, but I thought that was taking the dice too far. Sure, a wandering monster in this alternate world, fine. But something that our characters not only could not stand up against but had little chance of running away from and escaping? That was too far. I recall a completely different incident, where the characters were beset upon by wraiths, poor little 2nd and 3rd level characters. My Ranger managed to incapacitate one by an unlikely series of rolls involving a thrown chair. Again, though, it was a situation unbalanced for the characters, and only that luck saved them from certain death.
So, when I started Gming, I decided I could not be so…Darwinian. Not that I encouraged player stupidity, mind you, but unlikely and rare catastrophe were not things I liked. As an example, as a GM, the players were searching through some Kobold caverns for a lost evil temple. A kobold archer targeted the cleric, and scored a critical hit by the dice roll I made, but I didn’t let that happen. Why? Because the PCs were doing as right as they can, and without the cleric to heal herself, the characters would likely have been ground up like hamburger getting to the evil temple (it was a bit of a railroad, the only way out was through). So, I let the archer hit the cleric, but didn’t make it as fatal. The cleric survived, albeit with few hit points, and it made the fight at the temple more exciting, but not a death sentence.
To use a last counter example, once, a character decided to slip away from the party during the night they camped in some mountains, and try and find a rumored Blue dragon lair. This character was not a thief, and this was long before the skills system that would have even given him some hiding ability. (he was a plain Fighter). Even so, he made it to the cavern Razamatazz (sue me for not being creative on the Dragon’s name) was sleeping. Did Hazzard go for the obvious choices I pointed out as subtle hints? No, he decided to take an entire trunk of gold and jewels.
Needless to say, this woke up the dragon, and needless to say, after Hazzard got electrocuted, his friends paid heavily for a Raise Dead spell. When the dragon breathed lightning, I did not shirk from the damage results, even though it was something like 40 points of damage, and Hazzard failed his saving throw. His own stupidity bought him the farm, and in that case, I didn’t feel bad about the situation. He had made his own bed by his actions.
So I don’t let the dice undercut my decisions or the player choices, it reinforces them. I think that blindly following the dice’s tyranny, to the point of character death, makes a fetish of the things, and it is less fun.