Thursday, January 12, 2006

Why do we trust the dice?

Last night, members of my household sat me down and we had a bit of an intervention. It seems that it had come to their attention that I'd never seen either of the Kill Bill movies. This was, mostly, an intentional oversight on my part. While I certainly appreciate his ability to craft a film, I am not an enormous fan of Tarantino.

That said, I am glad to have seen Kill Bill. It generated a number of thoughts that I think are relevant to tabletop roleplaying. I'll probably post more than just this entry on it. Though it isn't my intention to provide a review here (and I will avoid spoilers), I feel compelled to say that the movies were utterly gratuitous in their depiction of fight scenes. Throughout the films, I was constantly thinking about how different scenes would be mimicked in different roleplaying systems. The conclusion I came to? The main character, if she were a player character in a traditional rpg, would have died several times over.

In most rpgs, character life and death ultimately depends upon randomness. Does and attack hit you? Roll the dice. Does the damage done by the attack exceed your hit points/body/health levels/damage save roll? If so, your character is dead or dying. Is this the way to tell a compelling story?

I don't think that it is a spoiler to tell you that the main character in the film is in a lot of fights. Many of these occur in immediate succession. To portray this in an rpg would entail a lot of dice rolling. Dice are random. If our purpose is to tell a compelling story, why do we trust randomness to lead us there? It rarely makes a good story if, for example, your crusading hero falls in combat with a dozen guards just before he makes it to confront the leader of the evil cultists. (There are, of course, exceptions. There are always exceptions. We might, for instance, want to explore notions of futility or some such.)

Note that I said, "if our purpose is to tell a compelling story." There are other purposes we might have. Ultimately, our purpose in playing games is to have fun. Different people will, of course, find different things to be sources of fun. Not everyone finds storytelling to be the most enjoyable aspect of roleplaying. How many of these potential sources of fun are served well by trusting the lives of player characters to chance? The one that springs to mind is the competitive challenge of tactical combat. This comes as little surprise: roleplaying in its current form owes its origins to wargaming. That is what gave birth to Dungeons and Dragons, after all. I can see how randomization can play a significant role in making tactical combat simulations fun. If you think of combat in roleplaying games as a sort of mini-game within a game, then I can understand why randomization might be used. If we care about the outcome of the mini-game (as we generally do in rpgs), then why do we trust the dice to lead us to the best possible outcome for fun?

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