Rags to Games
For a while I’ve referred to to the roleplaying games I write and draw and design as OSROWHY games – “OSR Or What Have You.” Then a couple of days ago Ben Milton of Questing Beast mentioned (previously used by The Retired Adventurer since 2012) the term “adventure game” and, more specifically, tabletop adventure game (TAG). I’m more partial to roleplaying adventure game (RAG), because I don’t always need a table with my adventure game, but I do always need a bit of role play.
So that’s cool, having a nifty word to describe it.
Playing At Community
In adventure games (RAGs and TAGs both) we’ve got one of my favorite communal activities, where a bunch of us humans gets together, makes stuff up, pretends to be imaginary characters acting and reacting in a joint imaginary world. Some folks like to run games like this without a referee player, personally I prefer them with a referee.
Why does a rag need a referee? I played cops and robbers, or nazis and partisans, as a child, and one of the biggest challenges that always came up was the showdown.
The One: “I got you!”
The Other: “Nu, uh! No you didn’t!”
The referee is there to decide whether The One’s rubber-band projectile actually struck The Other or not. The decision made, play can continue.
The Oracle of Dice
But how can one referee an imaginary battle? Between the Blues and the Greens? Fantasy football between dragons and mindflayers? Nobody knows the outcome, not the players, not the referee.
That’s where the dice come in. The dice are the referee’s tool for portraying the possible. The referee plays the role of a dice-talker petitioning the oracle of the shared imaginary space for answers.
The referee can use use the dice as a broader oracle, to determine tomorrow’s weather or the politics of the kingdom across the mountains, the personality of a toadstool fairy or how the Moon died and was reborn. The dice are a tool, a conduit to the fantastic, and the result of the dice is the oracle made manifest. The referee interprets the oracles numbers and words according to rules and whim, common sense and common story.
As dice-talker the referee has two key tasks: they determine the question to ask of the dice and they can give final interpretation on the results.
The dice need not always be consulted, but they are always there – ready to bring clues, to create form out of chaos.
The Transparency of Dice
From my very first encounters with roleplaying adventure games, I encountered calls for a more realistic game, with better mechanics.
The first such influence was the AD&D dungeonmaster’s guide. I imbibed that overly baroque monstrosity and I created intricate classes and overdetailed worlds.
Later, in high school, I discovered probability theories and bell curves, and many people on the Internet discussing in painstaking detail what the best maths for the perfect gaming mechanic for their precise game should be.
It’s still a popular canard to moan and groan about the mechanics of D&D and how it’s unsuited to this genre or that. I think that canard is blanched, plucked, gutted, packed, and well past its sell-by date.
Whether a roleplaying adventure game uses one dice mechanic or another, or three, is largely irrelevant——so long as it or they are simple and intuitive enough for a 12-year-old to grasp easily. When the dice make it possible to ask clear and transparent questions, and receive unequivocal answers, they’re fine as oracles and make the referee’s job easy.
For example, a 1 in 6 is less likely than 3 in 6. An 11 on a d20 is 5% better than a 10. The increments are stable, the maths is simple, the numbers are manageable.
Then there are opaque dice mechanics. Rolling two dice is already pretty opaque. Rolling two different dice, three or more dice, adding and subtracting dice, and other weird combinations? Oh, you are gone.
Quick! What’re the odds of rolling 2–5 on a 2d6? Hurry! Compare that with the chance of rolling 2–5 on a d10.
When a game uses opaque dice mechanics—even as simple as 2d6—the stakes are harder for the players and referees to gauge. Who’s going to remember at the table that rolling 8 or less with 2d6 is equal to 72.2%? Why should they have to? Don’t get me started on dice pools.
When a roleplaying adventure game uses an opaque mechanic, it should be clear why it is doing so. What is gained by removing insight from players and referees and reducing their agency? There can be games that want that, fair enough, but they should explain why.
The Chaos of Dice
Now, D&D isn’t a game that often uses dice in opaque combination. 3d6 get used for ability scores, 2d6 are often used for encounter checks, reaction rolls, and morale. And, perhaps in the most bizarre example, high-level wizard spells like the fireball do 10d6 damage (hint: there’s a 68.7% chance of rolling between 30 and 40, inclusive).
A common argument is that this is more realistic. The results cluster around the average and are not scattered around. After all, that’s just common sense, isn’t it? Things tend to average out and follow a bell curve, don’t they?
I think this is utter nonsense and try to do away with opaque dice at all times. Three reasons:
- The real world is long stretches of boring (bell curves) interspersed with unpredictable moments of interesting (dangerous). Why do you want to add all the boring to your game? You don’t have to be realistic, add the interesting instead!
- A 3d6 roll is basically a d216 with very clustered central values. A 2d6 roll is a d36. If the roll leads to a table look-up (encounters) anyway, why add the extra step of adding up dice? You can just have variable result distributions. For example; roll d6: 1–3 terrible, 4–5 bad, 6 good. If you want a bigger die, use a d30 or a d20. There’s enough steps to play with there.
- Finally and crucially, I have limited time to play roleplaying adventure games, and when I play, I want to have wild adventures. I’ve done the “cave with goblins,” the “hex crawl,” the “dung ages simulator.” It’s been enough. I want my dice and my tables to regularly deliver extreme events and unusual challenges. I want a picaresque of rare riddling beasts and whimsical battles with windmills, hysterical changes of heart, and indignant soliloquies.
There is something special about rolling a 20, a critical hit, on a d20. I love criticals and exploding dice, the scariest encounter (usually the dragon) and unexpected failure on what should have been a trivial test.
They bring the challenge to the players: how will you get out of this mess this time?
And that, after all, is what an episodic communal roleplaying adventure game is really about: making messes and getting out of them, while exploring wondrous new places and meeting strange new friends.
Oh, and sometimes, about stealing the golden aircar of Mizandoul Maker-of-Mirages from the treasure horde of the Synchronized Union of Friendly Friends of Earth and Raruka (S.U.F.F.E.R.).
Hey, time for the self-promotional thing! I run the stratometaship patreon where I publish the metal roleplaying adventure games I write and illustrate. It’s a buck a chapter, and so far a chapter a month, and lots of folks say the writing isn’t half bad. You can also just share it around—visibility matters! Thanks and welcome to the Year of the Pig! May the Dice Gods rain blessings upon you in their oracular wisdom.