I want to talk about a truism in game design theory that you should only roll the dice when something is at stake. In a discussion of scaling skill DCs over at nerdnyc, cawhis wrote:
My interpretation of scaling the DCs is that what’s easy for a lvl 1 isn’t even worth rolling for a lvl 10, right? […] If you’re making a lvl 10 character roll to see if he can climb out of a 10 foot pit, that’s kind of lame. That shouldn’t even be an issue for a lvl 10 (personally, I don’t think it should be an issue for a level 1 either unless there is something at stake, but that’s a different story).
chrisg replied: “There’s something at stake! Whether or not your character starves to death before either escaping the pit or punching your DM in the throat.”
This helped me clarify something I’ve long felt about the issue of stakes. It’s not enough to make sure that every dice roll has stakes, or that every decision has consequences. A good game should make sure that playing out the results will be more enjoyable than being punched in the throat.
Sucks along one axis (not limited to 4E, just using it as an example):
- dice version: Make a Dungeoneering check to see if you can get comfortable enough in this cave for this to count as a rest.
- decision version: Do you want to pursue the monsters fleeing with the captive, or pause for a short rest?
- unenjoyable consequences: OK, since you didn’t regain any encounter powers, the next combats are going to be a long slog drained of the usual tactical choices and boring for all of us!
Sucks along another axis:
- dice version: Your attempted burglary is interrupted by [roll] an orphan waif holding [roll] a battle-axe.
- decision version: The wives and children of the slain guardsmen rush at you, maddened by grief. What do you do?
- unenjoyable consequences: So, every time you’re go to town, you’re going to encounter weeping relatives and ever-increasing attempts by the authorities to bring you to justice. No, I’m not persecuting you, I’m just playing out the natural consequences of your antisocial behavior! This isn’t fun for me either, you know.
What should a conscientious gamemaster/designer do about decision points with stakes that you don’t actually want to follow through on? I dunno; being aware of the possibility of this happening is the first step. You could have a discussion about lines and veils beforehand, to make sure consequences stay out of everyone’s squick zone or are dealt with off-stage. You could try not to set up situations that will have likely repercussions that won’t be fun for you to game out. And you can find ways to resolve things more quickly when playing them out in detail will be unpleasant. Being aware when this is going on – staying in tune with whether you’re having fun as you play – is the next step.