Rolling for Roleplaying: the Virtual Roll

Player: “… and after enumerating the logistical problems, I finish up by explaining that if the King invades now, he’s just repeating the same mistakes that doomed Badon IV when he marched into these very lands two hundred years ago, a fatal error that brought his glorious reign to an ignominous end.”

GM: “Ooooh nicely done! Now roll your Diplomacy!”

Player: “… I roll a 3.”

You’ve seen it happen. A player says something really interesting, really moving in character when trying to use a social skill, but cannot back it up with dice to save their life.

The first urge as GM is just to say “well forget the numbers, that sounded good to me, it works.” Good call, but the downside is that then you are just ignoring character stats entirely, which penalizes players who maybe aren’t so eloquent or pithy but still built characters who are supposed to be charming masters of discourse.

A better solution would be to combine roleplaying and character stats, taking the best of both worlds. How would you do that? How about assigning a virtual roll based on how good the roleplaying was, then apply character abilities to that virtual roll just like normal? Let roleplaying replace the dice instead of having the dice replace roleplaying.

I’ll use d20 as a specific example, but the concept should work for any system that uses dice to resolve social interactions.

The Virtual Roll

When a character roleplays a social action that would normally require a roll, instead of the player rolling a die the GM assigns the result of the die roll based on the roleplaying (“your speech was good enough that we’ll say you rolled a 15”). If you want some consensus democracy you can let the whole group decide what the virtual roll should be, or even just let the player assign their own score — it all depends on what kind of group you have (insert social contract here).

The default is a 10 (aka taking 10) even if you don’t roleplay at all or have nothing interesting to say. This is important because the goal is _not_ to penalize people who aren’t up for roleplaying. You should only assign a number below 10 when the player uses an argument that is particularly bad for some reason (like threatening the king, or unintentionally citing a bunch of mistakes he made recently and is still sore about).

Assign a number that seems right to you. A 15 is nicely done, and a 20 is reserved for really impressive roleplaying (naturally). You shouldn’t have a hard time coming up with the virtual roll, because you’re already used to thinking in terms of these scores — years of gaming have given you a keen sense of how good it would be to roll an 18, for example.

Now that you’ve determined the virtual roll, just proceed to add skill ranks, ability modifiers, etc to the roll and resolve the results as you normally would.

Let’s take a classic diplomatic example:

A PC knight tries to convince a weary king to join the war and save the besieged city. The character has a moderate Diplomacy score, but the player is making really good arguments, bringing in the King’s past, the plight of the people, rah rah rah.

After some consideration everyone agrees the knight did a very good job, and the group decides on a virtual roll of 16. He has a Diplomacy +6, so he gets a total of 22. Not bad.

To make things interesting let’s say another player is against the idea, and her character is trying to point out all the flaws in the plan, how it will mire the country in an unwinnable war, etc. Her priest has very sharp social skills, but the player is just saying “err, I tell him it’s a bad idea. It will go badly. Really badly.”

The priest doesn’t throw in any roleplaying, so she just takes 10, but her Diplomacy is +11 so she gets a 21. Or since she isn’t roleplaying, you could just have her roll as normal.

An interesting side effect is that you even though you aren’t penalizing people who don’t roleplay, you may encourage people who normally don’t roleplay much to do it a little bit more because of the small incentives. A player can say nothing and get a 10, but maybe if he says just a little bit, tries to get in character just a smidge, he could get an 11 or 12 pretty easily.

Is this enough to encourage some players to roleplay a bit more? Maybe, maybe not.

Why not just use bonuses?

But wait, you ask, why not just give a bonus for good roleplaying? Isn’t assigning a 16 about the same as giving a +6 bonus? No! A bonus changes the possible range of success (i.e. in this case you can a get a maximum 26 instead of a maximum 20 before factoring in your stats), whereas assigning a roll doesn’t change the range at all since you still can’t “roll” higher than a 20. And let’s face it, no matter what kind of bonus you assign the dice are still pretty random.

But what if you like the random? Well in lots of cases there is still randomness on the NPC side of the roll. If the PC rogue is just trying to deceive the NPC king, you are still rolling for the king’s ability to sense deception. There are also whacky things you can by making part of the die random and part assigned (using a d10 instead of a d20 and calling the other half the assigned score part) but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the student.

Cinematic d20

And then there’s the big question: why just social skills? What about applying a virtual roll to other things the players do? Sure, if the player works out a cunning plan to build his fortress where the marshes run up to the fork in the river to make it hard to storm, assign him a high virtual roll for his War Architect skill. Attentive readers may even now be considering how to use this idea to make decision-driven Spot checks without giving up on having some characters more perceptive than others.

How far can you take it? Try running a bar room brawl where you assign virtual attack rolls based on how interestingly players describe kicking a stool to trip someone up or swinging from a chandelier to tackle a ruffian. Or assign virtual saving throw rolls based on clever descriptions of exactly how the players avoid the fiery dragon breath, or magic rolls based on florid descriptions of mystical mumbo jumbo. You can even mix it up and let some people roll, some people roleplay, as you prefer.

Can you really transform D&D into a cinematic story game just by changing this one rule? Try it and see.

    Ben Robbins | August 29th, 2007 | | show 12 comments