The story the dice tell
In any role-playing game, there are three storytellers. There’s the Storyteller themself (or the GM, DM, Holmeister or whatever your favorite role-playing game calls it). Then there are the players — they add the stories of their characters to the game, and how they react to the plot helps to form that story. And then there are the dice. They literally determine the success or failure of just about everything that the PCs and NPCs do. All three are important.
We’ve written a lot about constructing a plot and handling curve balls, surprises, and mistakes as a Storyteller. We’ve also written a lot about how players add depth to the story and shape the arc of the plot. But the dice are just little plastic number generators, so how much do they really contribute to the story? Maybe more than you might think.
The dice are what adds an element of chance and risk to role-playing games. Without dice — or some other means of introducing randomness to the game — then the Storyteller and players just sort of argue or agree about what happens. And when I was a kid, before I owned a single RPG manual or dice, that’s exactly how I ran games. I was just sort of telling my friends a story that they made characters for. They told me what they wanted to happen and I decided if it worked or didn’t. It wasn’t a bad way to play in kindergarten, and I could probably make it work now with my adult group, but we like our game systems. We like a bit of chance and risk.
So we have these little plastic agents of chaos. The players still tell me what they want to happen, but then the dice have a say on if it does or doesn’t. And since everyone at the table agreed that our numbered lumps of plastic get to tell us what happens, we’ve got to respect them. For Storytellers, that means that if a player rolls and succeeds, then they succeed. If they fail, then they fail. The Storyteller and the players are trying to tell a story — but so are the dice. That’s usually why it’s best not to lock mission-critical information behind dice rolls, because you can never be absolutely sure that the dice will let them have it.
If you absolutely need something to happen for a plot point, then don’t roll for it. When you or the players fail that dice roll, your choices are to scramble to find another way to make your plot point happen, or to override the roll and make it happen anyway. Neither of those are good options.
In one game, we watched a player ace their roll to lie to someone — and without a roll to counter it, the Storyteller just declared that the NPC saw through the deception. If you need this NPC to do their thing, then don’t ask for a roll. Let the character lie and then the NPC can just point out how they were never going to fall for it. But once you let the player roll, you have to abide by it, if only in part. Maybe the NPC sees through the deception, but the character’s lie was convincing enough to introduce doubt, make them hesitate, give the PCs a chance for a surprise round or to pull off something else. They don’t convince the NPCs, but their awesome roll earns them something.
Think of it like a No But. “Do I convince the NPC with my bullshit?” “No, but he’s now confused enough that he’s going to radio his boss to be sure.” Maybe they didn’t convince the NPC that they’re the tzarina of Tokyo, but bought themselves a moment to react instead of being grabbed right off the bat. Because they rolled well, and when we let the dice fly, we all agree that those little numbers mean something.
Not everything needs to be a roll. You’re not obligated to roll for everything an NPC does, or to let a PC roll for wildly impossible actions. Common sense is a good guide, and it’s okay to let the narrative decide things, too. Just because we give the dice power over us doesn’t mean that the other two storytellers at the table — the Storyteller and the players — have lost all their agency.
If something needs to happen, then make it happen. If you can’t afford to let something happen, then don’t let the players make a roll that you can’t let them succeed. But when we add that random element, now it’s time to improv. You’re going to need to Yes And and No But your butt off. That’s a part of the job.
A benefit of crisis scenes — besides making non-combat scenes more exciting — is to create a middle ground between plot and chance when they need to be more carefully balanced. A crisis built around fleeing an exploding space station is going to have a definite end — escape. I mean, I don’t want a TPK; then our game is over. But even though this thing is going to happen — the base explodes, the characters get away — the players and the dice determine how it happens. Do they escape by the skin of their teeth, injured and limping to their ship which is then damaged as it barely flies away? Or do the PCs have a clever idea and smoke their rolls to make it happen, flying clear of the space station in dramatic slow motion while it explodes behind them? The Storyteller gets to tell their story, the players get to introduce their own ideas for getting through it, and the dice tell them if it goes well or poorly.
An RPG ideally lets all three storytellers tell their stories together. Sometimes the Storyteller gets to advance their plot, sometimes the players change the course of the game, and sometimes the dice have the final say. By mixing it up, you keep dramatic tension high, and the interaction of the three storytellers makes things exciting. That interaction of narrative, free will, and blind chance are what make role-playing games an experience that no movie, video game, or board game can ever match.