Historic purpose: Winning or Loosing

Roleplaying games developed from the so-called 'table top wargames', in which gamers simulate battles between various armies.
In table top wargames each player brings an army of miniature puppets that are placed on a table representing the battleground. Each of these soldiers has ‘character-statistics’ that define strengths, weaknesses, (dis)advantages and a range of physical or magical prowess. Elaborate system-rulebooks describe what happens when dice roll one way or the other; if an attack was successful, and if so, how much damage was done.
Roleplaying started when each player would represent only a single character. The miniature would be placed on the map of a dungeon; a hero on its quest to recover a treasure in a maze full of monsters. Again, the dice would decide if the character was successful or not.
Roleplaying: A Different Focus

Many Roleplaying Themes and Settings are not so focussed on combat-situations, but aim for social intrigue or wits in stead. In Table Top Roleplaying players only need their dice to simulate physical feats; to determine what happens on a physical level. Dice can be used to determine what happens on a social or mental level also, but most players prefer to roleplay what their characters do as much as possible. When your story focuses on social interaction and wits, there is no need for dice, because RP determines the outcome.

Roleplaying: A Different Purpose

Roleplaying evolved from a Wargame into Storytelling, but the dice and the rulesets remain as remnant of this time. Dice are integral to wargames because they are about winning or losing. In Roleplaying however, this purpose changed; Gamesmaster and players cooperate to create a mood and a story that is interesting and enjoyable for all participants. Winning or loosing is but a means to this purpose. Victory or defeat is a happening in the story of the player characters that they can act and react upon.
Truth be told however; since players tend to identify themselves with their characters, winning and loosing remains a very important aspect of most games.
In most cases, a story will be enjoyable when a (group of) player(s) experiences both, defeat and victory. In most cases players look for a sense of accomplishment at the ultimate victory; when their characters overcome their challenges by the most strenuous efforts, planning and cooperation. It is part of a good story to have real challenges and a gratifying end.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Dice in Storytelling

I think we can all agree that dice have no ‘feel’ for the storyline or interesting character development. In worst case scenarios they can make your story run in undesired directions that frustrate players rather than entice them; for example when a player character dies for no reason other than a botched roll.
Also, when you’re in the midst of describing the scene, or when your NPC is in a sensitive discussion with one of the player characters, taking out the dice and extensive tables may very well disrupt the mood and the sense of realism that was so carefully build.
So No; Ultimately in Storytelling you should not allow dice to decide the overall flow of your story. You and your players have the helm, should have the helm. There may be instances however in which you can use the Dice as a ‘marketing tool’ to:
• allow for surprising developments that do not (need to) influence your main plot
• increase the sense of tension
• to offer players the impression that ‘they decide how the story goes’
• to ditch decisions that you do not want to make or be held accountable for
Let’s zoom into these uses to specify:

Using the Dice to Surprise

Using dice to determine an outcome will take the game in both surprising and inspiring directions that you did not anticipate on before. How much you leave to ‘chance’ is entirely up to the preference of you and your players. Some player groups are more amendable to take the flow of events as it comes, whereas others prefer intuition or cooperative Roleplaying to decide upon where the story leads them.
In general however, it’s wise to limit the power of the dice. You should not ask for roles that may result in an outcome that you do not want; and if you do them you need to severely limit the scope of its effect. For example: The PC ends up severely wounded but not killed. The pc manages to recover a portion of the riddle, but not sufficient to solve the full mystery.

Using the Dice to Entice

A ruleset and dice; statistics and chance, can help with generating a feeling that ‘anything is possible’. Since the results are up to the Dice, the storyteller can’t safe the players from a botched roll, so they need to plan their action best as they may. When all works out well, the players may sigh relieved and let out a heart-felt; ‘That was close!’.

The Dice Decide: A Convenient Myth

Players like to think that they have the power to influence and change the story. Why? Players want to have the impression that a story can go anywhere; that they determine the stories flow. When they wanted to slay monsters and solve riddles without interaction or hope of influencing the story, they could as well hook into a computer adventure game. And yet, many storytellers have a tendency to work with a fixed script in their mind in which the outcome is set in stone. Players don’t want to be puppets to witness the storytellers’ tale; they want the story to be about their characters.
There is, by the by, nothing wrong with what players want, at all. In fact, a storyteller should try to intertwine his plot-ideas with the personal plot of the player characters. It is the only way to create a game that is interesting to all participants.

The use of dice to determine an outcome will offer players a sense of power in this regard; Players believe that nothing is set in stone because the ends depends on how they roll. Truth be told however; this is a poor mans gamble. Experienced storytellers and players know that the rulebook or the dice are nothing compared to the storytellers godly powers since she determines the numbers and strength of the antagonist anyway.
When the player-character erroneously picks the red wire to disarm the bomb, it was the red wire all along. When the party is exhausted the Evil Priest will summon up only three skeletons in stead of ten. An experienced storyteller will make sure that ‘stats’ of the opposition are just about right to match that sense of ‘near victory’.
In the case of extreme luck or misfortune surprises may happen and bring about tweaks. But if all else fails, there’s always the next scene’. The Dice do not decide who wins or looses; but to uphold the illusion that the victory was earned.

Using the Dice as Shield

Most games live and prosper by the grace of player-involvement. But as everything this is a two-faced coin; Involved players will be your best players because they identify with their character. They will be enthusiastic, proactive and a driving force in many ways. Involved players can be a pain because, regardless of ‘story’, winning or loosing tends to cause some OOC feelings of exhilaration or frustration. After all, the player is not privy to what you may be planning; that the pc’s defeat now, is part of the learning curve for future victory.
Thus it happens occasionally that even the best of players turn out disappointed when their character faces defeat. When it was –you- that decided the character would fail, -you- will be the target of the players heat. When your NPC’s won in favour of the PC’s, you may be accused of putting your NPC’s above your players; playing –against- your players in stead of –with- them. When another PC succeeded, you wouldn’t be the first storyteller to be accused of OOC favouritism, justified or not.

Using statistics and dice to determine the outcome of a given endeavour, may help you to deflect such accusations. After all, when you claim that the outcome will be decided by the dice, the players will be under the impression that all PC’s and NPC’s have a more or less equal chance to win. Of course this is not the case. But hey, when the player-character goes down at the 5th horde that you sent at him, you can’t really be blamed for the players luck running out on him, can you?
Well.. in this case the players probably will, but when you are sufficiently creative and wily about setting up your scenes, your guiding won’t be as obvious.

The Dice to Resolve Inter-Player Conflict & Strife

‘Let’s play cowboys and Indians.’
‘I am on my horse with a gun and I shoot you.’
‘Yes, but I have a shield to stop the bullet and my spear pierces your horse.’
‘An Indian shield won’t hold a bullet, and my horse runs too fast.’
‘Does too, because it’s a very good shield and I harpoon buffalo’s all the time’.
‘Does not, because mine is a shotgun and my horse is much quicker than those cows.’
‘Does too, because the medicine man cast a spell on it, just like my spear.’
‘Well, my shotgun loads super bullets with kryptonite, just in case, and your spear just happens to deflect when it hit the saddle.’

In some ways, role-playing is not so very different from what children do when they play games of imagination and fantasy.
Different desires may arise at crucial situations. Some players aim to be the hero of the day, every day. And sometimes your player characters may find themselves in direct opposition. Although mature players will be happy to Roleplay an occasional loss, player opinions about who’s time it is to suffer or shine, may differ.
Players often are emotionally tied to the fate of their PC, have different interests, different RP styles, and different things that they enjoy in the game. Moreover a players’ perspective often is limited to the findings of their PC.

Because the storyteller holds a broader overview, the storyteller often is the referee that decides who achieves what, who wins and who looses. A good storyteller may be able to balance successes between players thus, that all end up satisfied with their characters actions. Mature players may be able to negotiate an acceptable outcome for all.

The most important reason for the use of rulesets and dice lie herein; to protect storytellers from having to make such decisions, and facing the consequences of such. Rules and dice are unbiased and utterly objective. They offer an impression of equal chances to all and hence are perceived as a fair way to resolve such situations.
It doesn’t always work however. Many rulesets have flaws, can be abused by so-called ‘twinks’ and when application of the rules is unclear in a given situation; rules-lawering between players may intensify the OOC quarrel, rather than resolve it.

Now you are aware of the most important purposes of the use of Rulesets and Dice, it’s for you to decide if, and how you wish to apply them. In the end your choice will depend on your groups RP style and dynamics. In the end it comes down to trust; if the players will trust you and each other to decide in their best interest. Trust is not lightly given however, and it may take more than a couple of sessions to earn.

Choosing Roleplay over Roll-play

We are of a mind that the most gratifying Roleplay occurs when storytellers can cooperate and trust each other to weave interesting stories. Random choices will not offer you a solid mixture of what all participants want. You can still use the dice when the need arises, but we vouch to use them in a conscious way; when you or your players cannot come up with a better alternative yourselves.
Such a scarce use of Dice may make use of extensive Rulesets obsolete. When dice are needed to make a decision any person of average intelligence will be able to determine what the relative chances are, and translate them to a dice-roll.
For example: When a player character is a knight facing a stronger adversary, you can instruct the player to roll a single d6 in order to determine the outcome in advance: 1: the pc ends up near dead, 2: the pc ends up severely wounded, 3 the pc ends up wounded, 4 the pc ends up slightly bruised, 5 the nemesis is wounded, 6 the nemesis ends up near dead.
You may tweak the outcome as the player comes up with interesting ideas while describing the various strikes, defences and parries. As long as the player has the impression that he has a fair and somewhat realistic chance, the purpose for using the dice is well covered.

To go where no Ruleset has Gone before.

The main advantage for using the freeform Roleplaying format is that it will allow you and your players to focus on Roleplay and Storytelling rather than staring at stats and rules. You will have more freedom to take your story in new and undefined directions.
You need not wait for a rulebook to be published any longer, but can choose and play in any setting you want; Pick a book or a movie that inspire you, a world that you wish to explore, or create your own setting altogether.

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Original Work is licensed under a CC Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 US License.