Friday 13 April 2012

Feeling Lucky?

Here's someone who could use a lucky roll...
It's funny, Stacey seemed surprised when I said I was posting about "luck rolls". Turns out she thought they were part of the core D&D rules, which shows how long I've been using them. Pretty much forever, I think.
Calling for a luck roll: When you're unsure about how things should pan out, ask one of your players to make a "luck roll" by throwing a D20. If the result is high, the odds work in their favour. If it's low, complications arise. 
Simple stuff really, and I'm guessing you do something similar in your own games. In fact, you could argue that my luck roll has its origins in random encounter tables, or - more precisely - the Luck skill in Call of Cthulhu. You'd be right, but as it's probably the single most important rule I use, I still think it's worth writing about.

1: Luck rolls make you a nicer DM
Let's say your group is busting an important character out of jail. Everything's going to plan, but your sense of drama says you need to present a hitch. You're winging it - in fact, the whole operation has come out of the blue - and you make the mistake of applying a little too much pressure. Now your players think you've been unfair; that you cracked open the big guns to crush their cool plan.

If you'd asked for a luck roll beforehand, things may have seemed fairer. Because here's an important point: sometimes the result always equates to a hitch; you're just working out the degrees. If you frame your encounters using a bit of chance, you may find your players more forgiving:
DM: "The Stonewater Gaol is never left undefended. Tonight, as you creep toward the guard room, it just comes down to who the Baron has left on duty. Make a luck roll."
After all, good players expect a hitch. They just don't want you to be a dick about it.

2: Luck rolls add drama
I don't know about you, but rolling dice seems as much a part of D&D as role-playing a character. I'm not a role-playing purist, so I've never been that impressed by tales of "a whole session went by and we never rolled a single die!" Sure, too many skill checks can bog down play - and generate unwanted failures - but a well-timed luck roll can inject some much-needed drama. Especially if you ask your players to choose who rolls: I've seen whole groups paralysed by fear, with nobody daring to step forward!

Not that the results even need to be that dramatic. I like calling for a luck roll just as the players do something mundane, such as opening the door to their local tavern. If they throw high, their old friend Boris is in town, with a mug of ale and a story from the road. If they throw low, it's the local fishwives' weekly knitting convention. All the roll does is add some drama to an otherwise mundane event.

3: Luck rolls make the world seem real
In a good campaign, nothing is planned all that well. You may have a story arc you want to tell, and you may rail-road that to varying degrees, but even the most story-driven games should feel like they're taking place in a reactive world. Too many planned events and contrivances, and the whole thing ends up feeling mechanical. Adding chance shakes things up.

It makes sense. In the real world, our lives aren't so focussed: good turns happen out of the blue, or left-field challenges emerge when they're least expected. If we were to write our own autobiographies, we'd probably include some of these incidental things, if only to make our stories feel genuine. For your campaigns, a dash of the incidental makes your world feel human, even within a tightly-confined story.  

4: Luck rolls make you think more as a DM
Sometimes I find myself settling into a pattern of cause-and-effect based around challenge - a typical DM's way of thinking. If they make a mistake, I raise the odds. If they do well, I reward them. Luck rolls give me a chance to step outside that box and think differently.

Let's say they've killed the troll under the bridge and are headed back to the village. My internal game designer says the villagers should lay on a big feast and toast their new heroes. Calling for a luck roll as they pass through the gate raises possibilities I may not have thought of otherwise. What happens if they roll a "2"? Perhaps the Baron turns up, looking for that escaped prisoner? What if it's a "20"? Let's say the King is in town, dressed as a beggar to better observe - and reward - his good subjects. More interestingly, what does a "7" mean? Something not so bad, but then, not so good either... now that's something to get you thinking!

5: Luck rolls can present a fair "out" - or seal a character's fate!
This one goes back to Call of Cthulhu, which is famed for being a very challenging game. Such lethality works fine for one-shots, but can be a bit unforgiving for longer campaigns, where you want a bit of player investment in their characters. For that to work, they need to know you won't kill them needlessly. The problem is, things can sometimes go very badly, very quickly.

Hence the Luck skill. Now, I'm not sure I play this quite as I should, as I'm pretty sure it's supposed to work something like this:
Player: Hey, any chance I know someone at Miskatonic who could decipher this manuscript? 
[Luck Roll] 
Keeper: Wow. How about Professor Armitage, director emeritus of the uni library?
Whereas I usually end up playing it like this:
Player: So that's it? I'm backed in a corner and this thing can't be hurt? 
[Luck Roll]  
Keeper: Okay, the headlights of a passing car sweep across the room, causing the creature to wince and snarl at the window for the briefest of moments. What do you do?  
D&D is a lot safer than CoC, but I sometimes find myself pulling similar tricks just to be kind. A well-timed luck roll can throw a bone to a player who's in serious trouble, yanking their character out of the fire for just enough time to change tactics. Take Sandy's picture above: digesting in the belly of a beast? Now that's a good opportunity for a luck roll. Yet by the same token, such a roll can also seal a character's fate in a way that seems fair. After all, you gave them a chance!
Keeper: Yeah, that's not so good. The creature takes a step forward, and with a single, effortless swing, it separates your face from your head. You're dead. 

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