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What Is Dice Roleplaying?


Commie Menace
Welcome to another tutorial with The Meanest Senpai.

In this one, I’m going to try and teach you the basics of dice-supported RPs. I want to try and explain what it is and why you might like to try it.

What is a dice roleplay?

You know, if you asked me that question a few years back, I would’ve just stared at you blankly. To me, the default roleplay uses dice. So I’m going to say RPG when I talk about dice-supported roleplays, and FF (or freeform) to refer to the kind you are probably more familiar with.

So, what is an RPG, in this sense?

For our purposes, it’s like any other roleplay you might have encountered - you make characters, they interact, you collectively tell a story. Someone is probably guiding the whole thing with a driving idea about setting or plot and probably playing a character, too.

Except the setting is, usually, a sprawling pre-written thing thousands of words long which helps to define and guide the characters, and inform the plot.

And the RP uses a system, normally employing dice, to represent various elements of the setting and likewise inform the plot.

But wait, how does that work? Well, have you ever been a roleplay where a character was described as strong, but their strength was a little inconsistent and not always taken into account? Where magic did… something, but the scope and usage was kind of nebulous? Where certain elements didn’t quite fit together?

In RPGs, the dice or ‘softer’ systemic elements fill in those gaps to realize various character traits, world elements, and magics. You’ve played videogames, right? How about Dragon Age? You know how you can use, say, Cunning to fast-talk around another character as long as your Cunning is high enough? In our RPGs, you can do that pretty much any time you want, with any character you want, if it feels appropriate. You do it by rolling dice, which interact with your Cunning trait in some minor mathematical way, and succeed or fail. Higher usually means a better chance, but even low ones might succeed sometimes, unless your GM decides there’s a minimum of talent necessary to try and fool the Arishok,

That was our Dragon Age, kids. We sat around a table rolling dice while one of us made it all up as we went along.

The stats you may have heard of are abstract representations of characters and items - these things exist as bundles of numbers in our world, representing what they are and what they do in your setting. Different stats are used to indicate what is important within the setting, measure the abilities and limits of a character, and usually interact with dicerolls or other systemic elements to drive events.

But Why Use Dice?

There are four main reasons to use a system, which might not involve dice.

  1. Reinforcement
  2. Fairness
  3. Diversity
  4. Pacing.

Reinforcement, to me, is the principal benefit of a system. It’s a very simulationist leaning, on my part - the dice are an abstraction which represent events in the world. Therefore you want your system to reinforce things about your game - the setting, the magic, the conflicts, the theme, the tone.

Consider: the adorable Golden Sky Stories is an RPG about magical animals helping children with troubles in their lives - especially helping them to make friends. The three resources at your disposal are Dreams, Feelings, and Wonder. The game encourages you to use the power of friendship to non-violently resolves everyday problems, and actively penalizes violence by taking away resources and damaging your connections to other people.

By contrast, Warhammer 40k: Dark Heresy has a lot of rules for violence, possession, demonic magic, fear, sickness, lying, injury, stealth, feats of strength, theft, etc. Dark Heresy’ll fuckin’ kill your character and not think twice, as the dice mechanics include hilarious tables of critical failures (from halitosis-induced heart-attack to head explosion by lasrifle misfire).

One game uses the system to reinforce an everyday setting of low, but important stakes and an emphasis on non-violent solutions, and the importance of friendship. Dark Heresy uses the system to reinforce a chaotic, violent universe full of demons, aliens, and heretics with the option for sci-fantasy horror, or outright black comedy.

Is this beginning to make sense?

Fairness is something anyone who has ever complained about Mary Sue’s and godmodding will understand. It makes the scale of tasks and conflicts clear to everyone and concretely indicates those areas where one character is more skilled than another. It also allows the GM, assuming there is one, to set challenges based on what the characters can do.

Diversity is used here in terms of mechanical or talent diversity, rather than in a socio-political context (though I can see myself writing a tutorial on that, too). It allows you to highlight the differences between characters and their methods. Bruce and Brenda are similar characters, for example, but while Bruce has Dexterity 5, Strength 3, Brenda has Strength 5, Dexterity 3. Bruce can pick locks and sneak and handle a bow, which tells you something about his past or preferences. Brenda hits like a truck, wears heavy armour, and can hold a door shut against the zombies, which also tells us something about her.

It also gives you a handy way to showcase the skills of a character, give them a role to fulfill and support the other players while also letting them do something awesome that no one else could have done.

Pacing is related to fairness - the scale of the plot, the central conflict, can escalate as characters gain more points in their systemic representations. It’s a bit like a Metroidvania videogame - as you pick up new tools, new techniques and locations become available. Or, alternatively, a reason why they start fighting thugs with clubs and end by slaying a dragon.

There’s another benefit, which is the fun and challenge of chance inherent in a dice-based system. Your character may fail - so how do they move on from that? And if a character unexpectedly succeeds where the GM was counting on failure, how does the GM adapt? How differently do things play out?

About Rolling

Now, maybe you’re thinking that his means any time your character does anything, you need to roll, and possibly even wait for the GM to come and arbitrate the result. Depending on the system, and there are many of them, this isn’t necessarily true.

See, a system typically assumes a GM, and one typically assumes a GM understands the rudiments of narrative and pacing. Which means a good GM will only make you roll when failure and success are equally interesting. If something has to happen for the plot to work, the GM typically won’t make anyone roll, or if your character is sufficiently skilled the idea of them failing at the task is ridiculous a roll may be dispensed with.

Knowing what to roll and what it means will vary by system, but most RPGs are written in such a way as to make this as easy for you as possible (or they at least make the attempt). And ideally, you and your group can work together to help each other figure the rules out.

The golden rule, though, is that if some element of an RPG is a problem for you, you don’t have to use it. That means you can even lift the setting out and use it freeform, if you like, and not worry at all about the mechanics. It’s about telling stories and having fun, at the end of the day, so as long as you talk it over with your group you can make the changes you need.

Where To Start?

FATE Core and Risus are both easy to learn, versatile, and can be downloaded freely. Check out both and see which you might prefer! FATE probably functions better around a table in real life, while Risus is a bit easier to learn and can function more comfortably on a forum like ours.

If you can find four other interested players, you can also PM me to run an introductory, tutorial game for you - assuming I have time and you're committed to playing rather than dropping out.

This tutorial is probably one of my weaker ones; if you see problems or have questions please don't hesitate to post so I can improve this a bit.

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