LESSON Using Dice in a Forum Roleplay

Discussion in 'ROLEPLAY SKILLBUILDING' started by Jorick, Oct 2, 2015.

  1. Introductory Things

    As the title indicates, this workshop is all about using a dice system for a roleplay, specifically for play-by-post roleplays. They work a little differently than tabletop RPGs, so the dice system you use shouldn't necessarily be identical to what you'd find in Dungeons & Dragons or similar games. It is possible to adapt a tabletop dice system directly to a forum roleplay, but that ends up being a little silly because demanding rolls for all the things you make players roll for in a tabletop game would slow the pace to a glacial crawl. There are smarter ways to use dice for play-by-post roleplaying, and this workshop aims to help you discover and use them.

    If you're familiar with tabletop roleplaying games then you probably don't need a primer on the terminology involved with dice systems. However, for the rest of you, here's a little glossary of terms I'm going to be making use of to avoid confusion down the road.

    XdY+Z: A shorthand way of saying what kind of dice you're using and what modifier values might be affecting it. X is the number of dice; Y is the number of sides on the dice; Z is the modifier value. 1D20 (or just d20) = one twenty-sided die, 4d6 = four six-sided dice, 3d10+2 = three ten-sided dice with 2 added to the roll result, etc.

    Modifier: A number added to or subtracted from the result of the dice roll to reflect someone's skill, beneficial or harmful conditions, and so on. A skilled swordsman might have a +3 modifier to hitting a target, whereas being blinded might give him a -5 modifier to a roll to hit a target.

    DC: Difficulty Class or Difficulty Check. A number that represents how hard an action is. A roll result must match or beat the DC of an action for it to be successful. Also called DL or Difficulty Level in some systems, and probably has other names as well. Attacking a random peasant in a d20 system might have a DC of 9, whereas hitting a trained fighter might be a DC of 15 or higher.

    Why would you want to use dice for roleplaying?

    This is a question I've seen a lot of forum and chat roleplayers ask in not so many words when the idea is brought up, so I figure it's worth answering here. There are two main things dice in roleplays do that may appeal to you as a GM or player: they add in an objective way to determine success or failure, and they add some randomness and chance to the mix. In most roleplays the player characters might as well be gods because they almost certainly succeed in whatever they try to do, and that does a lot to remove the tension from fights and such. Participating in those sorts of roleplays is like watching a show for meant for kids that has fighting in it: you know the hero is going to win in the end, so the fight itself is never dramatic in the sense of it being a real struggle, it's just a neat action scene where they might show off some cool moves. On the other hand, a roleplay that uses a dice system can end up being more comparable to a show like Game of Thrones, where nobody has plot armor and sometimes the heroes die and the villains reign victorious. It adds a lot of potential for greater story depth, both in forcing actual hardship upon characters and having actual surprising outcomes at times.

    That said, dice roleplays are not for everyone. As disparaging as I may have sounded talking about roleplays where success is more or less guaranteed, that kind of thing can be tons of fun and there's nothing wrong with that. Using dice is meant to give players a challenge, make them be more strategic about how they approach problems by having each character play to their strengths and shore up the weaknesses of their fellows, and in some cases to make player versus player conflict have a conclusion other than the players arguing about whose character is stronger for like 3 pages of the OOC. If you prefer to just have fun and write cool things with other people on the internet, no worries about the luck (or lack thereof) of the dice possibly ruining your plans or killing your character, then keep on doing what you're doing and leave dice for the sadists like myself who enjoy seeing their characters suffer and get eviscerated.

    Picking Your Dice

    The sort of dice you decide to use will have a huge impact on just how random the roll results are and what sort of numbers you'll want to use for your DCs and modifiers. I won't bore you with tons of math, but consider the possible rolls of a 1d20 system versus a 3d6 system. The d20 has a 5% chance to roll any number 1-20, whereas a 3d6 roll can roll anything in the range of 3-18 and has a 0.46% chance of rolling 3 or 18 but a 12.5% chance of rolling 10 or 11. The reason for this difference is all to do with probabilities, but you don't need to worry much about the math involved; if you want to see the full breakdown of how likely it is to roll any given number with a particular set of dice you can find calculators for such things online; for example, AnyDice is a pretty good one (thanks @Insomnant for posting it here in this thread). The main thing to take away from this is that certain dice setups are more random (d20 has an equal chance of rolling the middle and high/low numbers) and others have a curve that makes the numbers in the middle of the range more likely to be rolled. The more random your dice rolls are, the more likely it is for your players to get horribly wrecked by the results, and vice versa.

    The most common high randomness dice I've seen in use are d20 and d100 systems. On the less random side, 2d6 and 3d6 seem to be pretty common. You can always do something else if you like, maybe got 8d8 because you're obsessed with the number 8, just pick something that suits your purposes as far as randomness versus predictability is concerned. There's also something to be said for simplicity: making a system where you roll 2d4 and 3d6 and 3d8 and 1d20 for everything may seem like fun, but good luck trying to figure out the roll probabilities on that and balancing your system accordingly. Keeping things simple for both yourself and for player understanding is generally a good thing, so keep that in mind as you make decisions for your dice system.

    Setting Up a Difficulty Scale

    One of the main things you as a GM will need to do with a dice system is decide how difficult certain actions are. To do this consistently, it is helpful to set up a scale for what number rolled by the dice correlates to what level of difficulty. The higher you set these numbers in general, the harder it will be for players to succeed at doing things; the lower you set these numbers, the easier it'll be for them. If you've decided to use some setup with multiple dice, now would be a great time to go look up the roll probabilities for it if you have not yet done so. It's easiest to set a difficulty scale when you know how likely it is for a roll to be a certain number or higher. For the sake of simplicity in this guide, I'll be using example numbers for a d20 dice system.

    First you ought to select a midpoint for your scale, the number which will be the average difficulty for a task that requires some skill or luck to complete effectively. Let's say you decide that the average difficulty will be an action that has a 50/50 chance to success or failure if the person doing it isn't trained to do it and has no other advantages or disadvantages in play. For a d20 system, this would be 11; when you roll a d20 you have a 50% chance of rolling 11 or higher and a 50% chance of rolling lower than 11, thus it's a perfect DC number for a 50/50 chance action. This average action DC could apply to anything from effectively striking an equally skilled opponent in combat to sneaking past a not-very-attentive guard to convincing a cop that you didn't have anything to do with a murder that you did not in fact commit.

    From there you simply adjust the DC of an action according to how difficult it is in comparison to an average task. Hitting an enemy that's a little more skilled than you might be a DC of 13, whereas sneaking past a group of attentive guards who know someone is going to try to sneak in could be a DC of 19. On the flip side, attacking someone less skilled than you might be a DC of 9 and sneaking past a guard that's asleep at his post could be a DC of 2. It may be helpful to write out a list of example situations that you feel warrant a certain DC, because the more reference examples you have the easier it'll be for you to apply a DC to anything strange and unpredictable that your players try. It's your job as the GM using the dice system to decide exactly how challenging certain actions ought to be, so you need to have everything in place to do that effectively, but after that the decision making for how things turn out is left up to the dice themselves.

    Critical Failures and Critical Successes

    A mainstay of tabletop roleplaying dice mechanics is the idea of critical failures and successes. These would be rolls at the very high or very low end of the possible range for the dice being used: in a d20 system, rolling a 1 would be a critical failure and rolling a 20 would be a critical success. The actual impact of these things is up to the GM: some like to say that rolling a 1 means you automatically fail no matter what plus something bad happens to the loser, and rolling a 20 means you automatically succeed no matter what plus you to it extremely well or also get some bonus out of it; others prefer to say that a 1 is just a plain failure without extra consequences and a 20 is just a highly skillful completion of whatever task was rolled for. Having the amazing fails and spectacular successes for critical rolls can be a lot of fun, but if you want a more serious and realistic setup then perhaps keep it calmer. You can always just not use critical rolls at all, if you prefer. It's all up to you.


    There are a lot of different ways to do modifiers, but generally speaking they are things that make a character more or less likely to succeed at certain things. They could be derived from the use of an attribute system like in tabletop RPGs, or they could just be positive modifiers for things characters are trained in, or they could be granted by environmental conditions that affect actions, or pretty much whatever you like. Just as with deciding how your difficulty levels scale, you'll have to decide what sort of numbers you want to give as modifiers because different dice will warrant different modifiers, and those numbers ought to reflect just how skilled a character is with some skill or just how much an environmental factor impacts things or so on. A +5 is good in a d20 system, powerful verging on overpowered in a 2d6 system, and barely worth notice in a d100 system, so picking reasonable numbers for your dice selection is important. As with deciding on a difficulty scale, modifier use is a way you can alter how easy or hard things will be on your players.

    The common tabletop RPG way of using modifiers is by the use of attribute and skill systems. They assign characters values for things like strength and intelligence, and based on those numbers the character may get a positive or negative modifier to actions that use those attributes. They also often have sets of skills to show what a character is specifically trained to do, aside from fighting, which just give positive modifiers to reflect that training. I'm not going to go in depth on how to make and balance such systems here, but if you're interested you could do a lot worse than looking around at tabletop games and just copying whatever parts of them seem worthwhile to you. These systems often come with things like hit points for all characters, as well as certain levels of damage done by types of weapons and certain spells and whatnot; while you can use these things, for a forum roleplay it may be better to go with subjective judgment on how much an attack hurts something because that'll give you a lot of narrative control over battles and allow you to tweak things on the fly to make for a more interesting fight or to end a fight that's dragging on too long. If you choose to use hit points and such you might want to just full on copy a game's mechanics entirely in order to maintain the balance they have.

    As for environmental and situational modifiers, there are a few ways you can handle them. First, there's the classic way of simply giving the character a positive or negative modifier number to their roll when doing certain actions. Alternatively you could do it sort of the other way around by modifying the DC of certain actions to reflect things like trying to do some parkour style movement through a field of boulders being harder while an earthquake is affecting the area; this effectively does the exact same thing as giving the character roll a modifier, but it makes things a bit cleaner since you're just altering the DC you're assigning to a task instead of throwing more numbers at rolls. If you want something completely different, there's a mechanic introduced into the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons that is a sort of novel way to handle these things: advantage and disadvantage. Instead of playing with numbers, having helpful aiding conditions may give a roll advantage while interfering and annoying conditions may give a roll disadvantage. What this means is that the roll is done twice and if it's an advantage roll the higher number is used, but if it's a disadvantage then the lower roll is used. Finally, if you're using a dice system that uses lots of dice, you could reflect positive conditions by giving the roll an extra die or two and reflect negative conditions by taking dice away from the roll. Any of these could work, and there are probably other methods out there that I've never seen, so pick whatever seems right to you and do a bunch of test rolls to make sure the mechanic isn't far more beneficial or harmful than you would like.

    Applying the Dice System to a Forum Roleplay

    Once you've got a system figured out and you've tested it some to make sure it works to your liking, the next step is to actually put the thing into play. This is where you are likely to have the biggest differences between a tabletop RPG and your forum roleplay. In a tabletop game, since it's generally played live the GM can require rolls for tons of stuff. Consider, for instance, someone running into a burning building to save an old woman trapped on the third floor. In a tabletop roleplay the GM might call for a long series of rolls to determine the success or failure of various things: multiple constitution rolls to resist heat and fire damage, a dexterity roll to avoid falling debris, a perception roll to navigate through the smoke, a persuasion roll to convince the old woman you're there to help, a strength roll to try to carry the old woman out, another constitution roll to resist being overwhelmed by the smoke, another dexterity roll to avoid the burning beams that fall to block the door out of the room, and finally an acrobatics roll to try land safely when jumping out of the window. Trying to do all that in a forum roleplay would either murder the pacing by way of making players do tons of tiny posts for each bit of action before a roll comes up or it would be a huge annoying burden on you as the GM by making players have to collaborate every post with you to give them roll results as they come up, not to mention the potential annoyances that might come from players posting things that you know require a ton of rolls but they just assumed they did it well and posted saying such because that's what they're used to doing in forum roleplays.

    Instead of messing with that sort of nonsense, I would suggest going light on the dice. Combat is the main thing to use dice for, and that can be a simple affair. Have your players write how they want to attack, but no auto-hitting because you'll have to roll to see what the outcome is. Set a DC for what it takes to hit the enemy (or get complicated if you want and roll for that enemy to try to dodge or block, making it a contested roll rather than a roll versus a DC), roll for that player's attack with any applicable modifiers applied, and then write the results of the attack attempt. It can work out exactly the same way as any roleplay without auto-hitting allowed, you're just using dice to decide the general outcome instead of being completely arbitrary about it.

    Another aspect that can be left to the dice is any sort of investigation or examination of places, things, and people or to check if the character knows anything about a particular topic or object they've encountered. For places and things you can roll to see if they notice anything unusual or partly hidden, and for people you can roll to see if they can tell that the person is lying or afraid or whatnot. If you're not very good or comfortable with writing descriptively, this can allow you to half-ass it by just saying “there's a room and a man standing there looking at you” and then rolling their perception (or whatever you want to call it) to see if they notice the door hastily hidden behind a tapestry or that the man is nervous and afraid. Instead of writing something like “there is a tapestry on the back wall that looks a little askew, and the man is out of breath and faintly sweaty” you can do the rolls and if they're successful give something more firm, like so: “you notice that the tapestry is not hanging straight as it should and you can see some wood behind it in what is otherwise a stone wall, and the man is visibly distraught, possibly nervous or afraid.” Since you've rolled and decided that the character has noticed and analyzed these things, you can come out and say it straight instead of leaving it purely to the player to notice hints and interpret them correctly. As for rolling for character knowledge, anything given in the world lore that isn't clearly laid out as a secret or not widely known should be assumed as given character knowledge, but for anything else it's a good way to give information about things without resorting to more common forms of exposition.

    Social interactions between player characters and NPCs can be ruled by dice as well, but this isn't something I personally care for. Objective determination of success is nice, but some things should have room for artistry and nuance. As with some of the specifics of combat (how badly things are hurt when they get hit, for instance), I like to use social interaction as a story controlling force that is all up to me as the GM. I prefer to let players succeed or fail based on how exactly they approach a social situation (do they bribe that guard to let them pass, or intimidate him?) rather than just leaving it up to dice. While it makes total sense that even a prodigy of fighting could miss an enemy, it makes little sense for a character who is a cowardly weakling to not back down from a heavily armed barbarian just randomly out of nowhere because of a poor dice roll. If you disagree, go ahead and use the dice for social things. Both methods work, they just work differently and toward different goals.

    The general rule of thumb is to keep dice rolling sparse for forum roleplays. A D&D player might be fine with rolling a dozen times just to get through one complex action, but the pacing of forum roleplays doesn't work well with that sort of thing. Decide which things are actually important enough to warrant a roll instead of just assuming the character can do it, then only roll for the important things. If they want to find a weapon store in the town, you don't need to make them roll some kind of investigation check to look around or a persuasion check to ask a passerby, you can just let them find the store or tell them they looked for a couple minutes only to discover that no such store exists there. Rolling for forum roleplays should be reserved for overcoming obstacles that matter, not for minor things that will hold up the story for no good reason.

    Closing Things

    That's pretty much it. One thing I didn't find a good place for was to emphasize the usefulness of doing a ton of test rolling to account for your various modifiers. You can certainly get by with figuring out probabilities and making sure you like the numbers, but there's nothing quite like practical experimentation to make sure you're comfortable with whatever system you come up with. Also, transparency of rolls and DCs with players is something to consider: do you tell them all the exact mechanics and results, or do you keep that as a GM-only thing? There are pros and cons to transparency and secrecy, especially in that a long explanation of a dice system might drive away a lot of roleplayers, so think it through and pick whichever method is right for you.

    Also, as you likely noticed, there wasn't much there in the way of specifics on numbers. That would have inflated this already lengthy workshop to a ridiculous size, so I just didn't bother. If you've got any questions about that sort of thing, feel free to ask in this thread and I'll try to help you out. If there's a lot of demands for a more meaty explanation of dice probabilities and how they can affect a dice roleplay, then I'll probably write a workshop on it or perhaps throw out a resource with probability tables including various levels of modifiers for easy access.

    And that's everything. Now go make some dice roleplays, and always remember to offer appropriate sacrifices to the dice gods before boss fights.
    #1 Jorick, Oct 2, 2015
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2015
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  2. Here's a great dice result probability calculator you could link to in your guide: AnyDice
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  3. Hahaha, I just realized I left my little note thing in there that I meant to replace with a link to a probability calculator. Thanks for the help covering my mistake, @Insomnant. XD
  4. Haha, yeah I saw the placeholder and figured you just hadn't found one yet. XD

    Great post though! I've been thinking about this subject for a while, and intend to start up a game with dice rolling so this was a very useful second perspective on the matter. =]
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  5. @Jorick That was exactly what I was looking for. I honest to god, never thought about having people rp normally when they go for an action, then having them roll to dice to see if the sword slash they aimed at the leviathon's neck, would hit. BRAVO. :3

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