What Good Is A "No Roll" Scene?



Again the campaign didn’t meet this week, so here’s another “regular” article for ya’ll.


Never let dice get in the way of immersion
Last week I wrote on when you should and shouldn’t call for a roll.  Well, this week I played in a friend’s one-session suspense game, and it got me thinking about a scene type I call “No Roll ‘Ems.”  

A No Roll Em isn’t just a scene that doesn’t involve dice – such as most conversation scenes with NPCs, or most “declarative action” scenes where players are taking inventory about their surroundings or the like.  No, it’s a scene where skills or abilities are being used, but where rolling is unnecessary. 

Some examples:

  1. Player is searching for a way into a locked, abandoned house.  Why no dice here?  Asking you questions (about the layout, the doors, the windows) and trying different alternatives makes the player feel like he really is breaking in somewhere – the quiet, the feeling of trespassing, and the expectation that there’s probably no one and nothing inside all settle around him to make the scene immersive. 
  2. Player mingles with a large group of NPCs, listening to conversations to overhear what they know about X, their overall opinion about Y, or if there’s a Z nearby.  No dice needed here because whatever you tell the player gives him some kind of information – even, “you don’t hear a single persion mention X, Y, or Z.”
  3. Player attacks a monster that was really only there as a clue to indicate something about the environment he’s in… and the further dangers it may contain.  As in example #2, it doesn’t matter how much damage he does to the monster – it can be more or less insta-killed – since the monster’s presence itself is the important thing.
  4. Player describes the route he takes to sneak into the governor’s mansion, where you know the real adventure material begins.  (Last week’s post is basically a whole article about this one.)
Note that because the PC is in fact using skills (investigation/lockpicking, savoir-faire, fighting, climbing/stealth) in all of these instances, it may be the GM’s first instinct to call for a roll.  The thing is, dice-rolling wouldn’t make any of these scenes more interesting.  And it might even distract from the roleplay and immersion of the scenario.

Don’t worry that you’re making it “too easy” by not calling for a roll.  No Roll Ems aren’t about the easy/hard paradigm – they’re about exploration.  Behold the benefits, as I see them:

First, rolling dice puts the player into a mindset of pass/fail.  The action either succeeds or it doesn’t.  But when a player is allowed to ask questions about and interact with the game world without shifting his attention to the dice, he’s feeling out his environment – experiencing the game world in an almost tactile way.  Magic!

Second, as he’s getting to know your game world, you’re getting to know him and his character: how he thinks and what he pays attention to.  Your attention is solely on him and his choices – and what you want to throw into his path next.  Why turn an opportunity to learn about your player into a pass/fail die roll?

Third, keeping the dice in reserve except when the prospect of failure is personally interesting to you puts you, the GM, into the mindset of thinking up creative failure consequences.  As we’ve discussed before, more creative failure consequences than “you take 1d6 hit points” is crucial to a good story.