“…and you miss!”: Roleplaying and Rollplaying in Combat

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Randall, in his blog RetroRollplaying, wrote a post about the idea of doing away with “to hit” rolls. His post was inspired by a post at Eleven Foot Pole titled No Roll to Hit: Rationale. Both Randall’s and Eleven Foot Pole’s posts focus on “to hit” rolls in 4e D&D, but I’m going to comment on dice rolling in gaming generally

I have the worst dice luck in the world — just ask any player or GM I’ve ever played with. The DM of the main D&D (3.5) campaign  I play instituted point-buy for creating character stats after watching me roll 6 (or was it 8…can’t remember) sets of stats with no score over 10 in any of them…and that’s using the 4d6 method. I ran a Vampire game with a Sabbat pack that missed every single attack role — usually botching in the process.

So as you can imagine, I’m a big fan of dice-less games. I run Amber Diceless and my Storyteller games tend to run very “dice light”. In fact, my World of Darkness players used to tease me that the one game they forgot dice would be the one game they actually needed to use them! However, there are certain games I feel need to be played with dice and AD&D tops the list. Maybe it’s tradition. But a D&D game just doesn’t feel complete without lots of dice rolls.

Especially in combat. Yes, it’s disappointing to miss. Yes, it’s frustrating to come up with a great idea for an attack, then roll a 2. Yes, it can be boring and lonely watching all the other players dealing damage when your dice won’t even let you connect. Believe me, I know. I’ve gone through many combats in my gaming career (both as GM and player) where I missed every single roll.

But guess what? I wasn’t bored. Just because I missed (even all the time) didn’t mean I wasn’t involved in the combat. I respectfully disagree with Eleven Foot Pole’s statement that:

Having waited a full round of initiative and then achieving nothing is functionally identical to skipping your turn.

Sure, it is… if all you’re doing is waiting until “your turn”. Players focused on getting “their turn” miss the point of having a party. If all you have to contribute to the game is points of damage, why are you there, instead of an NPC? This isn’t intended as a snide remark, but a genuine question. What can your character give that goes beyond damage points? An important thing to remember is that role playing doesn’t stop when you start rolling dice. Okay, how did you miss? Why did you miss? Can something be salvaged from your attempt to try next turn? Did your miss unexpectedly aid one of your teammates? Missing as frequently as I do, I’ve learned to think beyond the numbers.

Granted, the responsibility for some of this falls on the already overburdened shoulders of the GM/DM. Players will be able to think beyond the numbers better if the GM gives them something more than numbers to think about. Sure, things are going to get really boring if, as a GM, all you say is, “You miss.” But if as a GM, you say “Your stroke goes past his shoulder as he reflexively jumps back. As a former soldier [if the PC is],  you can tell this was a skilled counter-move — you’re definitely fighting a highly-trained opponent.” Here, the PCs blow may not have done any damage, but they’ve learned something about their enemy, something that may or may not become important later, depending on what you decide to do with it.

If you want to make every action a PC takes be useful, I have an alternate idea: rather than making every attack hit, make every attack worth something, even if the PC misses. For example, the first PC misses, but in doing so, he causes his opponent to duck into the swing of another PC’s sword. Okay, the second PC gets to inflict the damage, but the first PC also contributed to that damage. If you can stress damaging and overcoming an opponent as a team effort, the entire party can be brought into the action on every turn and not just when they happen to hit.

I agree with Eleven Foot’s concern over introducing new players. I think we do need to take the extra step to help new players learn to be good players. Especially if a brand-new player is entering a group of experienced players. But I disagree that allowing a player to hit every single time is a good way to do that. I think it sends the player the wrong information about how RPGs work. Sure, you’ve eliminated the “to hit” for your game, but what’s going to happen to that player when they join someone else’s game? Or play at convention? They’re going to be in for a shock and probably even worse frustration if they don’t know that misses are part of RPGs in general.

Now don’t get me wrong — I’m a big one for changing a system to suit your style of play. If you want to play without “to hit” roles, more power to you! But if we’re talking about bringing new players into the hobby, or making automatic hits the default standard, I think we need to take a closer look at why we want to eliminate hit rolls and find another way to solve those problems.

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