From AC to DC: How to Make Dice Rolls More than Just a Number
From AC to DC, RPGs, are filled with numeric thresholds that determine a character’s success or failure. Adding up die rolls, attack bonuses, proficiency bonuses, and weapon bonuses can leave players feeling like they’re taking a math test, rather than fighting an epic battle with an ancient being of darkness. Similarly, Dungeon Masters (we call them Quest Masters) are left juggling so many numbers from stat blocks, effects, and traps, that immersion falls to the wayside. While math can easily become the focus of the game, it’s important to think about what die rolls mean and how they should affect the story.
Die rolls shouldn’t be a checkbox for whether a character succeeds or fails. They’re an opportunity to introduce story elements for each player. The critical success is a great example of this: Not only do you succeed, but you succeed so spectacularly that it becomes a flavorful, exciting moment for your character. Instead of saying “You hit the ooze with your sword for 27 points of slashing damage”, you might say “In an explosion of energy, you sprint towards the ooze, swinging your sword down in a curving arc that slices it in two. A shower of acidic slime sprays forth, as the ooze lets out an otherworldly wail, its body pooling lifelessly on the floor.”
This experience can be seen in Matt Mercer’s “How do you want to do this?”, where he gives agency to the players to describe and epic success their character has had, and then weaves it seamlessly into the narrative. Taking the opportunity to narrate critical successes draws the players into the game, and creates opportunities for role-play and creative experiences that you can never get from just stating the number on a die.
Critical successes are not the only opportunity Quest Masters (QMs) have to create this experience, though. Every die roll, whether it is a success or a failure, can tell a story. Perhaps a character rolls a 14 on a DC 15 check to calm a frightened wolf pup. Rather than just saying “you fail”, perhaps the pup approaches you cautiously, but at the last moment bites off the character’s bracelet and playfully runs away, potentially leading to another encounter or a plot hook. Barely failing an insight check on the wolf pup, a character may not realize it is a werewolf, but sees an intelligent glint in its eye as it runs off, leaving the players to guess and interpret what that might mean.
Critical failures can be as much fun as critical successes. When rolling a Nat 1 for trying to brew a potion, instead of telling the character that they failed and the potion simply does nothing, what if instead they are able to still create a potent concoction. Perhaps they mixed up the ingredients and created a polymorph potion instead of a potion of flying. After drinking the potion, the character unexpectedly turns into a goose, allowing them to continue with the plot and be able to fly where they need to, but with an unexpected twist.
These are the kinds of details that make games memorable and fun. No one wants to play an RPG just to be told they’ve failed; they want to create fun and interesting stories, while having good experiences with their friends. Instead of taking a dice “failure” as a true failure, think of it as an opportunity to create something new and unexpected.