Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #2 - No Roll for You

I've been playing RPGs for a while and I've seen plenty of good and bad rules & mechanics.  This is intended to be a regular or semi-regular discussion of notable mechanics, good or bad, and what I like or dislike about them.

No Roll for You

For the past nine months (and not counting games at GenCon) I have been playing almost only a single system: Numenera.  Numenera uses the Cypher System (which is also used by The Strange). There's a lot to like in the Cypher System, but I think the one thing I feel most strongly about is that I, as GM, never need to pick up dice.
sounds of people leaving
Some are likely to check out right there. Dice rolling and RPGs are about as synonymous as they come, and the prospect of not being able to roll funny shaped dice may be a turnoff for some. I didn't think anything of it at first, it was just another thing I hadn't seen in a game before.

After reading through the rules I started to understand the intent; doing away with opposed rolls means that players are rolling against set difficulties.  This is hardly new in game design, D&D has always had fixed defensive values against which the players and GMs roll to attack, or save, or use a skill.  The difference here is in shifting away even the fixed target GM rolls to the player's side.  Now instead of a GM rolling against a fixed player defense, the player rolls against a fixed NPC attack value.

It doesn't seem like much, but it gives the GM a great deal more control in balancing encounters.  The critical fumbles and critical successes, both reviled and lauded respectively, become the sole domain of the PCs.  If a great deal of critical hits come up in combat and end an encounter quickly the players feel the glory.  Likewise the players feel the burn of all the fumbles.

There's no longer the chance of a combat going poorly for the PCs because the GM rolled well, nor any chance that an encounter will play out too easily because of poor rolling by the GM for the NPCs.  This is no minor effect, after all the GM isn't playing against the players, and so they should be the ones enabled to feel triumph or failure. It also means that the abilities of the characters are at center stage at all times.  A player can invest in the style of play, the strong and weak points of their character, that they want to have.  This is player agency at its best.

The GM not having to roll dice also means not having to fudge dice rolls to make the game better (there are better ways to do that, and I'll touch on them later), and with no need to fudge rolls (or roll at all) that allows a GM to bring down the biggest barrier between themselves and their players: the GM screen. GM screens are both a physical barrier and kind of social barrier.  It's the GM screen that helps to generate the mentality that it's the players against the GM, when in truth the GM is a player too.  The GM and the players should all have a common goal: to have fun. Setting aside the need for a barrier between them can help GMs and players work together better.

Some people will argue that the GM screen also serves as a useful tool beyond hiding rolls by providing space for GM reference materials.  While I agree that they can serve this purpose I would argue that such materials can do their job lying down on the table and need not interfere with the GM/Player relationship that is core to the RPG hobby.

In the end I don't know if this would prove to be a mechanic that could translate to other games, but I know it is a big part of why I like the Cypher System. Further I think that it is a good way to help both the players and GMs feel in control of their own sides of the game.