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Opportunity Actions: Put Down The Dice!

This past weekend, I ran Encounters at PAX East. I had the time of my life. It felt like DM Boot Camp, and, in a lot of ways, it truly was. I ran one group after another, watching different players create different group dynamics, frequently with the same group of characters. Seeing these different interpretations of the same characters was absolutely fascinating. Not only that, I also found myself constantly adapting my DMing style, pushing out in direction I hadn’t tried before.

That being said, I noticed a strange trend among some players. I don’t know if this is the result of D&D‘s rule set by itself, or an effect of people relying on those rules slightly too much. The trend is this: I found players reaching for dice when doing so was absolutely unnecessary. What I say here may sound like sacrelige, but I say it with abandon. If it seems like a weird point to try to check your skills, then you should put those damn dice down!

Now, I don’t want to make this sound like I’m complaining. I’m certainly not. I’m also not criticizing anyone for wanting to roll dice when they wish to use a skill that a character and player do not share. What I’m going for here is the notion that there is a habit that some players have (and this doesn’t make any of you players out there bad players) that makes them believe that every use of knowledge or skill is ultimately defined by a die roll modified by what’s on the sheet. I’m here to provide a guiding hand, saying that there are times when no roll is necessary.

An Example

This actually occured during a game I ran. I feel strange saying this, because I don’t know who’s reading this, and if the player this exchange happened with reads this, I don’t want to make this person feel as though he or she is ‘doing it wrong’. Nonetheless, this is perfect illustration of what I’m getting at.

  • Me: There is a difference in the overgrowth here. This graveyard seems regularly and possibly recently tended to.
  • Player: (grabbing a d20) I do a Nature check to see if I can figure out what makes it look this way.
  • Me: Put the dice down. You know.
  • Player: How would I know?
  • Me: …it seems regularly and possibly recently tended to.
  • Player: What does that mean?
  • Me: (really not being sarcastic) Have you ever seen an overgrown cemetary? Have you ever seen a well-maintained cemetary? In this overgrown area, this cemetary seems strangely well groomed for a place that hasn’t seen activity in decades.
  • Player: (a light goes on. He speaks to the other players) Guys! I think someone’s been here. I think they might still be here!

Taken out of context, this conversation seems silly, but I understand the mentality. The player saw something he didn’t understand. He wanted to understand it, desperately so. Instead of taking in the information and forming a reasonable idea of what’s going on, he knew his character was some degree of a naturalist. Were he actually there, he would likely have noticed what was going on. I won’t begrudge the disconnect. My explanation might not have been entirely clear, and in the absence of any better viewpiece for the layout, he might not have been seeing the world I wanted him to see.

The important thing to note here is that he immediately reached for his dice. I can’t exactly remember, but he could have likely been clutching that d20 the whole time. I think it comes from a culture of wanting to entrust the multi-sided object with all of the knowledge in our fictional universes. As players and DMs, we should take a minute. I offer a cathartic exercise. Pull out your dice. Grab the one you use most frequently (a d20 in the case of D&D). Hold it up. Admire its many sides. Enjoy the way light reflects off of it. Roll it a couple of times. Love that sound of a polyhedral device bouncing around on a hard surface. Pick it up with your thumb and forefinger. Stare intently at it. Now, say to it firmly, “YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!

Do you feel better? I know I do.

Players. Trust Yourselves.

You know what you know. Within reason, you can carry that over to the characters you play. A DM will tell you if you step out of line, but overall you should be able to gauge when a die roll is needed, and when rolling a die just slows down the process.

Trust Your DM

It’s been said before, but every DM should want to bring a good experience to his or her players. Those that don’t often find themselves without a play group.  This being the case, as a player, do your thing. Many times, a DM that is paying attention will take what you describe, and ask for a roll based on it. This means that either you’re doing precisely what will satisfy the challenge, or you’ve suprised the DM in such a way that he or she wants to see where it will go. In both situations, the events of the story, and your movements within them, are bringing things to a point where you are given the opportunity to earn a reward. Success in this roll means you earn information or other favors that move the story forward.

I often find when someone comes up with an unexpected way of looking at a challenge (a secondary skill in a Skill Challenge), I’ll give something from some other place in the story as a reward. Maybe I’ll drop a clue of what’s to come later. Maybe I’ll pass along something that was missed earlier. The point is that good play should be rewarded, on both sides of the screen. If the DM is playing well, he’ll watch his players become more and more immersed the game’s story, and there’s nothing more satisfying than that. If players play well, they’ll be wrapping the story around themselves, rejoicing in their successes, and working to overcome their failures. Stories become deep, exciting, and, most of all, fun.

The best part is that a roll of the dice really only plays a supporting role in making all this happen.

Another Example

During the same game, I had a player get tongue-tied talking to an NPC because this player botched a Diplomacy roll. I should note that the player rolled a die before anything was said. The scenario made it clear, however that there was nothing to be gained from diplomacy in this interaction. This is what followed:

  • Me: Do you mention the name?
  • Player: I can’t. I only got a five on my Diplomacy check. I probably can’t even introduce myself right.
  • Me: Forget the check. You know the name. How important do you think it is here?

This illustrates my point as well. Don’t let the dice imprison you. Sometimes even the best effort, by one strong in a skill, just isn’t enough. When that’s the case, you won’t need to roll. For example, you’ll never convince a loving mother to abandon her child, no matter how many twentys you roll. Never preemptively roll.

If you’re at my table, I’ll be likely to ignore the roll even if one is required, and ask you to roll again after you take the time to interact with the circumstances. Being a major proponent of handing out bonuses, if I like what I hear (and I’m not that tough a critic), I’ll give you a +2. You’ve earned it.


Remember: We’re role-playing. I understand that not everyone is a fantastic improvisational actor. Die rolls only really show how the world reacts to your actions. They are not your actions. If you follow this line of thinking, you’ll hopefully start to reach for the dice less often, opting instead to work things out for yourself. Open up to the possibilities, and save the dice rolling for those times that the DM asks for it.

Your comments are welcome.

Watch your threatened squares.

IMAGE NOTES: The pile of dice was first posted at Ben’s RPG Pile. Check it out. It’s a good site.

Update 3/21/11

  • This post got a mention in Roving Band of Misfits’s podcast, Level Up – Episode #5 They don’t mention this post by name, but it is listed in the show notes. Even if you only go because I’m sending you there (yeah, right), check out Level Up. It’s a good podcast, and they’re just getting started!


The Opportunist (a.k.a Seamus) has been playing D&D and/or some other form of RPG for the last 24 years. For the past two years he has been at the head of the table, behind a screen, in the role of the DM. He began at Cub Scout Camp, played through high school, and still enjoys gaming today. Seamus is a graphic designer by day, a devoted husband and father of two all the time, and an all around good guy. That is, until you get him behind the DMing screen, then he can be a nightmare (in a good way, no, really!).

21 Responses to “Opportunity Actions: Put Down The Dice!”

  • Good article. In my games, I try and cut down on some of the dice rolling by giving routine or easy information to people who are trained in a skill. “Ah, so you’re trained in History? Then you know that the Earl was badly wounded by an owlbear while hunting deer and can’t produce an heir, no roll needed.” Social interactions especially I would prefer to just keep it straight roleplaying with little rolling involved. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t, especially when you’ve got people who have that big PC/player divide (ie, a charismatic PC with a shy player or a charming player whose PC has negative numbers on their social skills). But it’s worth trying for anyway.

  • What I’ve seen played to good effect in the case of the player/character divide is to let players’ strengths assist other players’ weaknesses. For example, a player with roughly average intelligence playing a character with an INT over 20 would have the luxury of being able to discuss possible solutions to conundrums with the entire group, simulating the much greater mental resources the character actually has.

  • I was afraid this would be about striving for completely dice-free roleplaying, but I found that I agree with most of it. I often just let my PCs know things, and I would generally prefer that they only roll when I ask, though I think they’re usually just trying to be helpful and show that they’re willing to risk a roll.

    Confession, though: I sometimes get a little tired of how proud some people are of their skill bonuses, and I think I sometimes short circuit the need to roll, just so I don’t have to hear any gloating.

  • Amen, bruddah!

    So many players use the character sheet to limit their interaction with the world rather than actually interacting with the world and immersing themselves in the story. It’s backwards to the way I was raised in gaming: Let’s try something and see if I break my fool neck.

    I blame video games to a certain extent. Having the possible actions limited by the character sheet is built in to video games, and I think this way of thinking has bled over into tabletop RPGs. It’s a challenge to retrain younger players who grew up being molded by their gaming consoles.

    Never let the dice get in the way of your story.

  • “Die rolls only really show how the world reacts to your actions. They are not your actions.”


    This is both the argument for why we use dice (against those people who insist we should allow DM fiat to determine every NPC reaction) and the argument for not using dice.

    I can see why the player reached for the die. The die, the skill check, is the way to get more information than the DM has given. And I think in part it’s because 4e published adventures and monsters are written in a way that there’s always more information to be had with a successful knowledge check.

  • Some of the best advice to players is to leave the dice alone until directed to use them. Assume that you will succeed until the GM (who is refereeing the session) indicates that you need to let random chance determine success. Always default to this simple rule:

    Ask for clarification, then Assume success, finally Roll to check if directed.

    If you’re abusing the Assumption part of the rule, the GM will reign you in with requests to check for success… that’s their job.

    Using the example of the graveyard, let’s assume the player didn’t realize you explained the reason for the odd nature of the foliage (or perhaps they didn’t hear you / understand / whatever.)

    The ideal response would be something like:

    * GM: …seems regularly and possibly recently tended to. [description]
    * Player: Can I determine why? [clarification]
    * GM: Yes, it seems … [explanation]
    * Player: OK, how recently the area was attended to? [assumption]
    * GM: Roll a Nature check. [call for check]

    Only now do the dice get to make an appearance.

  • Good post man! I have to admit, as a player I’m a dice roller, and as a DM, I’ve been known to expect a lot of checks to be made. This really gives me something to think about though.

  • @InfrequentDM and Kevin:
    Personally, I like it when a player asks me if they can make a check to get more information. That helps me realize sometimes that my description might not have been clear enough, and I give them what they need to know. The other side is that if I determine that what they’re asking for requires them to look more closely, then I allow a check. Either way, I don’t think it’s unfair for a player to ask for a check. Just make ure it means something.
    I might also add, for Kevin’s example, I still wouldn’t have asked for a check. That did indeed happen (I left it out of my example), and all I did was look directly at the player and ay very deliberately, “*Very* recently.” If nothing else had worked, that drove it home.
    I’m glad you can take something away from this. I know I personally want to now get a dice bag that has “Security Blanket” printed on it. :P

  • Intresting articale and very well timed for myself as I found my self questioning the skill system of 4E in a similar situation, this time I was on the player end however.

    In a recent game we had been searching a partially ruined frozen tower, littered with corpses. A low roll on a skill check revealed nothing of interest about these corpses. When I asked OOC if they displayed any heraldry I was told they did so. It was a relevantly important piece of information and could have easily been over looked if I did not continued to investigate. Should the DM have given us this information from the start, or at least when the perception check was rolled? Even if that check was a failure with regards to finding something hidden on the corpses surely a blatant detail like that would have been noticed instead? Is this the sort of thing Passive Perception should cover?

    When entering another room, after noticing a distinct lack of means to access the higher floors I asked “Judging by the shape or the room, the rubble or how intact certain areas area are can I gather whether there is buried in the snow, or was a staircase in this room now ruined?”

    The DM asked for a Dungeoneering or Perception check, this game was played online and running very slowly even a dice roll taking extra time. “I’ve been in a room before, surely I could have an idea without rolling.”, DM “If you are inspecting something closely you need to roll.” My thoughts; so when I actively search for something, there is a chance I won’t notice something, at level 1 with a passive perception of 19 it would be safer to rely on that?

    Number-wise, if we inspect something closely are we more likely to fail to notice something than if we look over the room generally. I wouldn’t say so. I’d say a more important question is; when we investigate something closely how likely are we to notice something we aren’t looking for in particular?

    There turned out to be a secret door in the room, I assume had I rolled high enough he would have revealed this, even though this wasn’t what I was searching for initially. His answer was simply “No.” To me this is very unintuitive, again my passive perception is 19 and I rolled above average anyway. This could have easily devolved into a number of throw-away dice rolls. A gentle nudge would have been all it would have taken to encourage us in the right direction “You don’t see any way, or in fact even the remnants of any way of accessing the above floor. A pattern you have noticed throughout the building so far.” Immediately this would have clued us in to the idea of a secret door. Again had I been the DM I may has went as far too have given an auto success if the player hand said they wanted to look for secret doors. Or at least a significant bonus if they rolled another perception check and I believe they had the idea of finding the door in mind. Perhaps the DM didn’t want to give us it on a plate, perhaps that’s why he chose to ignore our passive perceptions. But would it have been any worse than having us discover it by random chance?

    I’m completely open to the fact I may be wrong on this with regard to how it should be done by the books. But his sticking so rigidly to the rules really affected my enjoyment of the game, perhaps I was wearing DM goggles and I apologised to the DM if he felt I was over critical but if I have to question a game mechanic when doing something as simple as looking around a room something is wrong to me.


  • Also; I like the way you approach things in your example play Kevin. I’m not suggesting you are using this a concrete format but I don’t think this approach requires a player to wait till instructed to roll a die. I appreciate that this is your preference though.

    For those with players who like to be rolling; If the player had done so as soon as they had asked if they could tell why the graveyard appeared to be well maintained, there is no reason you couldn’t give them that information and then effectively save that die roll till they ask a question more reliant on the roll.


  • @Lee
    Well. To answer to your point, I would never have a secret door that’s so hard to find yet necessary to move things along. I’d give that one away, unless there was another path.
    Passive Perception represents things you might find if you weren’t particularly looking. The pattern on the wall, for example. If you’re looking for a secret door, you have to roll, but if it were my game, I would assume you’d keep looking until you found something, so I’d give it to you. This would be the equivalent of taking 20 in 3.5. Important details should NEVER be reliant on a die roll if it keeps you from moving the plot forward. You should get all relevant information at the outset, and anything requiring a roll is some little thing you could probably live without, but makes things more interesting.

  • @Lee: The example isn’t really concrete, just an interpretation of what I believe the system should look like given the example. In reality, players at my table often initiate dice checks that result in the following:

    A. Nothing new is possible to be uncovered.
    B. Something not hidden that simple searching should uncover anyway.

    Neither really require a check in my opinion and as a result in most systems (all flavors of D&D for example) the die roll is superfluous at best since I’d likely return the information regardless of the roll.

    However, in some systems (BRP, TS:SI, KORE, HTTYD, etc.) success in skill checks may result in advancement in a given skill. I know we’re talking about 4E here so the inclusion of these systems might seem far afield, but I prefer to arbitrate when a check is necessary and when it isn’t. Doing so helps to avoid countless rolls for no reason leading to discussions on when rolls are appropriate or necessary or if a specific check should result in advancement of a skill.

    To mitigate this, in regards to your examples, I further extend the Investigative style of Trail of Cthulhu so that:
    1. If something is obvious it is given/discovered regardless of both player request or dice checks (that is, I’d describe it outright – much like your heraldry example or the state of the garden above.)
    2. If it’s not obvious, sought, but not hidden, I grant it if asked without need for roll. (An answer to your staircase or structure under the rubble query for example.)
    3. If something is hidden and sought, then we’re into dice check territory. (Obviously the secret door search falls here.)

    Again, not concrete, but good rules of thumb.

  • “Important details should NEVER be reliant on a die roll if it keeps you from moving the plot forward. You should get all relevant information at the outset, and anything requiring a roll is some little thing you could probably live without, but makes things more interesting.”


  • I used to be like that guy. Over the past few months, I’ve changed my play style. If I pick up a die, it’s because some Action is about to happen. I’ve come away with the expectation that mundane info will be given to us by the DM, therefore a die roll means something extraordinary is about to happen. It’s a push to let me as player create a scene or incentivize the DM to do something.

    For instance, in a recent game I rolled a d20 for a nature check and with my good result declared that some plant we were looking for could be found under a certain type of tree. I did this at a point when the players were struggling to come up with what to do next. Of course the DM could have vetoed it, but this was a way for me as player to affect the story and also to move the group along to the next scene: looking for that kind of tree.

  • Sounds like you have discovered the principle of Say Yes or Roll the Dice, most famously expounded in D Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard. Nice!

  • @Mendez
    Fair enough, but I think it holds across all systems. As long as you’re creating a solid story, dice should be the assistants.

  • Hehe – great dice picture;) That was one of my favorite shoots. The light blue dice always roll best for me. Very nice on the article. I just kept nodding my head as I read it:)

  • @Ben – Thanks for taking the picture. Since I didn’t pay for it, I thought I could at least link over to your site. :)

  • No harm, no foul. I always consider it to be an honor. The D&D community is like no other – we help each other every chance we can (cause we’re good like that).

  • […] Blog Article: Put Down the Dice! at RPG Musings, […]

  • This is very refreshing article, to read real help and advice from experienced DMs and players. I could not more wholly agree with your sentiments about distancing ourselves from our dice more often to encourage more immersive play. Your quote about how the dice determines how the world reacts around your player, rather than vice versa, is absolutely key in my experience. It was further driven home when the 4e Skill Challenge system was designed; my players would so often feel terrible that they were responsible for a failure using one of their stronger skills, but I have spent as much effort as I can making sure they understand that it was the randomness of the world that they did not predict, not the lack of acumen they’ve been training in for their entire careers. There was no way you could have known there was a sink hole below that perfectly smooth layer of snow that tripped your Acrobatics check up. It’s not your lack of skill, it was the randomness of the world.

    Great article, I’ll be coming back for more.