Variant: Dice in RPGs vs. Boardgames
I’ve been thinking about dice lately. The last Variant post was even about re-rolling the little guys. Over the past week, I was remembering (with some nostalgia) the dice I would roll as part of the many role-playing games I ran or played. There, the dice were often essential to the creation of a good time. But when I sit down for a board game, I usually find that dice impede my enjoyment. So what’s up with the inconsistency?
First, many newer games use dice in new and interesting ways. They are no longer a simple success check, but instead are used as workers (Troyes) or for resource selection (Macao) and are available to all players. So we are going to except those from the discussion and talk about dice as success checks.
A success check creates uncertainty about a course of action. You can add in all the modifiers you want, you can give bonuses to yourself or lower the defense of your target, but in the end a polyhedral will tell you whether your efforts were fruitful or not. That’s great in the RPG setting. In an RPG, the purpose of the game is not only to overcome it’s obstacles, but also to tell a memorable and involved narrative. The best stories are those where the heroes (or player characters) experience failure along the way. Dice are a great way of injecting that failure into the story and forcing players to deal with loss. In my experience, too many players (though not all) would never fail a single check without the aide of the dice and the game would lose tension and become dull. And because the narrative continues from week to week, those failures have time to play out thematically through the rest of the story.
That same characteristic, though, makes them abysmal cubes of hate in a board game. Generally, a board game isn’t so much creating a narrative as trying to pit the players against each other strategically. In that sense, it can be utterly demoralizing to create the superior plan, lull your opponent into a trap, and then have the dice tell you that, despite all odds, your opponent just won. Lame! Especially since the encounter is essentially over without any resulting benefit from having to experience the failure. Put simply, the aim of the typical boardgame is different than the aim of the typical RPG and they shouldn’t be using the same mechanic. Dice are well suited to one, and ill suited to the other.
Of course, there are exceptions. Board games that try to evoke RPG-esque themes, like Arkham Horror or Legend of Drizz’t, are able to keep dice in to good effect. Both games try to create an aura of potential failure consistent with the games that spawned them. Plus they are both cooperative games. With no real opponent, the game needs some element to thrust failure onto the players. Flash Point is another co-op that uses dice to make things difficult for the players.
In the end, dice are a means of injecting uncertainty into the actions of the players. And, while that can be a great thing for narrative driven games – especially RPGs – it is a terrible mechanism for single session strategy games. There is no pay-off for the failure as there can be in an RPG. It’s failure for failure’s sake and often adds little to the game.