Thursday, March 18, 2010

Behind the GM Screen : Dice Rolls

I was reading an interesting blog over at Stargazer's World about whether a GM's dice rolls should be secret or out in the open. In his experience he has been like most of us, a GM rolls dice behind a screen. But in the article he talks about building trust with players by rolling out in the open. The following statement is about a GM who rolls openly for the group.

"There a trust between players and GM and when things go bad, the GM knows that he did mess up the balance of the encounter. In a game where you roll secretly as a GM things often go out of hand, but since nobody notices when you fudge the rolls, you get away with it. There’s no way to improve your GMing skills that way – at least not that aspect of the game."

Since I come more from a Sandbox campaign background balancing encounters in not the problem of the GM. They are what they are. If low level players think they have the ability to take on a group of trolls that is their choice and not the GM's job to whittle away most of the trolls to make the encounter a bit more fair. The players have a choice to get the heck out of there. I think this is a difference between 4th edition where they balance encounters to give the best challenge without making it impossible for the characters. Which is pretty interesting how they have the challenge ratings set and I've got no problem with the system. But since I play in an OD&D version sandbox campaign, 1st level players can accidently walk up upon an angry dragon. First level jerky anyone?

As for not improving your GM skills in that aspect of the game. I can see his point, but I disagree. During combat I like showing my players my dice rolls. I think it adds excitement. There is no fudging of the dice. Everyone gets into it and tries to cast the evil eye on all my rolls. But when a player is detecting lies, searching for secret doors or searching the room to roll open at this point does a disservice to the players. If they fail their secret doors search then a second player might continue to search until they know they have succeeded by seeing the roll and then move on. Ideally, your players would move on regardless of the first roll, but most of the time they won't.

I don't think by concealing your rolls your players will distrust you as a GM. Most of the time it is easy to tell when someone is fudging the dice, for or against. The GM is responsible for running the adventure and as players you know whether you trust a GM or not. Just because a GM may roll in the open there are several other ways they can cheat players. So if you don't trust your GM from the beginning than why bother?

When rolling behind the screen it's not to hide the roll, but to add to the experience to the game.


  1. Good post, Rob. I've never had this come up as an issue when I played as player or GM (although my teen daughter is convinced that I am constantly out to kill her character, but that is as close as it gets). When I play online with Gametable, I use the online public dice macros for combat (although I do have a mystery monster macro that I use when I don't want the players to know the to hit bonuses). I use real dice for random encounter rolls, ability checks (like listening at doors or searching for traps), and these the players do not see. This works well for me as I rarely rarely rarely fudge combat related rolls (I can't think of the last time I did) but I will reroll random encounter outcomes if I am tired of giant rats.

  2. If there's no trust, there's no trust--it doesn't matter where a GM's rolling.

    I don't typically use a screen, but we tend to play at a big table, so the player's can't see my rolls. Since we have the same goal (having fun) I don't think it has ever occurred to them to care whether I "fudged" a dice roll or not.

  3. @Trey: Amen. And I'd have to say that no one has ever even brought up dice rolls. When I am not the GM, I don't worry about GM dice rolls. Non-issue all the way around. It is interesting using Gametable and allowing players to see my combat dice rolls--they enjoy it but would not have a problem if they couldn't see the roll results.

  4. There are different dice rolls, though. The thing is that the GM rolls and then describes results based on those rolls. In combat, since there are usually clear rules for things, players can see the rolls and know what they mean.

    Outside combat, exactly what the rolls mean is usually up to the GM. But players will still try to interpret the rolls, and groan or cheer when they see them, and some of them say (as a joke, or statement of foreboding or ego) that so-and-so happens - pre-empting the GM. So it can be good to make those rolls in secret, that gives the GM the chance to do their job without interruption... :)