A Tale of Two Twenties
Continuing on from John’s post about dice and how they affect sessions, I wanted to go into some more detail and tell two stories about how the roll of the die has affected games I've played.
There we were, after months of play and a year of in-game investigation. Sian the Jedi Investigator finally tracked down his fallen brethren, and was going to put a stop to him and his illicit cyberware smuggling schemes once and for all. They faced off for the final confrontation. Initiative was rolled. The player went first.
He rolled a natural 20. A crit. He rolled again to check for critical damage. Another natural 20.
I was faced with a choice. How would I handle this? I didn’t even get to start my evil villain monologue! After a slight hesitation, I went with the choice that I thought would best serve the story. Sian would sever his opponent’s head in one quick stroke of his saber. This event would come to be a funny anecdote, but it definitely wasn't how I had the end of this story planned.
Fast forward some time later. This time, I’m a player. The GM has just introduced the first major villain in the story. He was smart enough to start the evil villain monologue BEFORE the players could muck it up. That same player from the first story then declared “I’m going to shoot him in the face.” He then proceeded to roll two natural 20s in a row. Our GM was faced with the same choice I had been. He looked through his papers, scrambling for an answer, pleading underneath his breath “Please don’t kill this guy.” He eventually said something about a magical force field, rendering the other player’s successes moot.
Now, both of us could have handled these situations better. I didn’t have to have my “final boss” killed in one stroke, and he didn’t have to ignore the player’s roll. But either way, we both were struck with having to change our stories, and not because of some brilliant plan of action or a player subverting our expectations, but because of the roll of a die. And unless you’re setting out to play that kind of dungeon-crawling adventure, having to work a story around a natural 20 is, in my opinion, not very fun at all.
That’s a large part of why the Over/Under system was designed to control dice outcomes. A character’s ability should be the arbiter of whether they succeed or fail, not a random chance that provides a 5% guaranteed success (or failure!) In the process of being a Dreamweaver for Of Dreams and Magic, I’ve still had stories go off track and been surprised. But it’s when a player comes up with a great idea, or decides he’d much rather travel to Santa Fe himself instead of trusting an NPC to do it. Never have I had a story go off course because of one good or bad roll.
Good luck out there, and don’t let them catch you monologue-ing.