11 Dice Rolling Tips

From Johnn Quatre

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0138

A Brief Word From Johnn

NPC Essentials Review

My eBook about GMing, designing, and managing NPCs received it’s first review. Cool! Check it out at: http://www.gamewyrd.com/review/113/GM_Mastery%3A_NPC_Essentials

On Holidays – #139 September 8th

It’s time for a little vacation next week and there will be no issue sent next weekend. Issue #139 will be in your Inbox September 8th. Have a great long weekend!


Johnn Four
[email protected]

11 Dice Rolling Tips

On the surface, the dice rolling tips discussed below might be better served up in an April Fool’s issue. Dig a little deeper though, and you discover a fun, simple, and effective GMing tool.

Dice rolling is a meta-game issue. The characters and NPCs don’t actually roll the dice, we do. It’s a GM <–> Player situation; however, any opportunity to increase session tension and be a better entertainer is worth looking at, imho.

Next time you roll the dice, consider yourself an entertainer, much like a magician. If a magician performed all of his tricks without embellishment, his/her show would last about 5 minutes. It’s all the dancing around, the melodramatics, and the props that create the high entertainment value and drama of magic shows.

In this same spirit, pause for a moment before you next throw d’em bones at the game table and look for opportunities to entertain your players and make a dice roll at the same time.

Open Rolls

Many GMs already roll their dice out in the open for all to witness. If you don’t, then you might consider it for the following reasons.

  1. Increases Tension
    The players know there’s no mercy any more if the GM reveals all rolls. No fudging, no take-backs, no overlooked bad results. The dice call the shots, and that can greatly increase tension.
  2. Creates Or Restores Player Trust
    If you’re in a situation where the players think you’re cheating or fudging and they wish you wouldn’t, then open dice rolls are an answer. The players can see the dice and are happy that things are on the up-and-up.

Note, this is often just a style issue. Some players and GMs expect secret rolls and fudging, while others abhor it. Discuss it with your group, as there’s no right or wrong answer here–just personal preferences.

Brings Back The Game

At one point, many years ago, I was fudging so much behind the screen that I wasn’t even looking at the dice. I might as well have gone diceless. I felt the dice were in the way. I wanted the best and most dramatic results to occur and the dice didn’t always cooperate. The only reason I was rolling at all was because the players expected it.

I eventually began to crave the dice again though. Part of the fun of GMing for me is being a spectator as well as a referee. I wanted to bring back the dice and let them arbitrate success and failure again–“bring back the game” I called it at the time.

The best way to do this was open dice rolls–no fudging is allowed when your rolls are bared.

The “20” Effect

For my group and myself, at least, a 20 is a magical number on d20s. It has a special effect on us when we roll it, regardless of the game system we play nowadays. Arms fly up in the air, players shout, everybody’s excited. I believe it stems from years and years of D&D attack-criticals house rules. Pavlov would have had a good chuckle at us. [ People And Discoveries ]

Open dice rolls makes this effect a group experience. When I roll for NPC allies in a critical situation, and the d20 rests with a 20 face-up, there’s much celebration. It’s an instant reaction, which I feel is more powerful than if I roll behind the screen and then announce a natural 20 roll.

The downside to open rolls is that you have less ability to arbitrarily manage events. Whatever is rolled before the players is what you must use to make your decisions. Clever players can also use rolls and results to reverse engineer their foes’ abilities. It’s a GM and group style issue, so weigh the pros and cons carefully.

Secret Rolls – Perpetuate The Mystery

Rolling your dice behind your hands or a GM screen is also great for creating tension. It makes the players wait with baited breath to learn whether their characters live or die, are successful or are failures, perform like heroes or fail like fools.As an entertainer, your job is to make the world behind your screen mysterious, wondrous, and compelling. It’s forbidden ground to the players, which therefore makes that territory worthy of their curiosity and interest.

Use this to your best advantage. Many players greatly enjoy knowing there are maps, notes, and information tucked away behind a barrier that they can only discover during the game.

In the same spirit as magicians then, turn your secret dice rolls into entertaining “magic shows” with props, drama, and great showmanship.

For example, picture this scene:

The characters have finally discovered the throne room and are charging the orc king and his elite guards. The PCs hack first and take a couple guards down, and the party’s toughest warrior smashes through to reach the first throne step.

You cry “the orcs attack back!” and perfectly time the first die roll with the end of your last word. “Aha!” you exclaim, but provide no further explanation. More dice rolls, more exclamations.

The players are getting nervous now. “He’s rolling a lot of dice back there,” comments one. “Yeah, and a lot of aha!’s too,” says another.

Time drags out and tension mounts, though it’s just been a few seconds in real time. You glance up at the warrior’s player and grimly shake your head and roll more dice. You scan the results, leap out of your chair, scream and yell, and do a little victory dance.

Players are hanging their heads now, afraid to hear the results. The warrior’s player has his face in his hands. The table grows deathly quiet.

Still standing, you grab a sheet of pink paper from behind your screen and consult it. To the players, the paper has magically emerged from behind the screen and they wonder what its colour signifies and what its contents mean to their PCs.

You pick up a d10, take a few steps backward, swing your arm in a pitcher’s wind up, and hurl the dice at your screen. You run up to check the result, consult the pink sheet, and then perform a few bodybuilder poses in smug victory.

The players are beside themselves and start demanding to know what the hell is going on. That was the cue you’ve been waiting for, and you finally begin to deliver the results. The PCs are still alive, but just barely, and the orc king has just quaffed an interesting potion…

That example was a little over the top, but it works, and is ideal for important story points, big battles, and other special campaign moments.

Mixed Rolls – Open And Secret

These days, I’ve adopted a system of using both open and secret die rolls. I’ll roll behind my screen until a particularly important moment arises and then I’ll make rolls public for all to see to increase tension.For example, if an injured character is down to just four remaining hit points/health and their foe scores another hit, you could make the damage roll in the open and in front of the PC’s player.You could also make a point of letting everyone know that if you roll higher than a four, the PC is going down. That’s an obvious calculation, but you increase tension even further by announcing it.

Open Rolls – Hidden Die

Sometimes the game’s location or circumstances prevent secret rolls, yet you want to keep the particular dice rolled a secret to prevent player meta-gaming.The solution is to roll a bunch of dice at once and just track the result of a particular die that you mentally pick out before the toss.

Roll Behind The Screen And Roll Loud

When you make important rolls behind your screen, try to make them as loud and noisy as possible to capture player focus and attention, and to increase tension.For example, roll:

  • On the table surface
  • In a cookie tin
  • In a can
  • In a glass or cu
  • On a ceramic plate

Intimidation: Roll As Many Dice At Once As Possible

Whenever you have an opportunity to roll multiple dice, make an effort to do it all in one roll. This will have a positive visual and physical impact on game tension.For example, if a foe has just unleashed a 12d6 attack on the poor PCs, avoid rolling three groups of four dice, or rolling one die and multiplying it by 12. Instead, gather up all 12 six-siders, hold them up high over your head, and roll them all with one grand flourish of the arms.

The Semi-Automatic Roll

Got 20 arrows or bullets to roll for? Consider the semi- automatic roll where you roll each attack rapidly, one at a time. After each roll, yell “Bang!”. And after each successful hit, cry “Ouch!”. After 20 rolls, and several ouches, the players will be sweating in their seats.

Create A Dice Strip

It’s faster to roll for several PCs at once, but keeping track of which dice result was for which PC sometimes gets confusing.One solution is to create a labelled dice strip that you can place your rolled dice on or push dice up against.Write each PC’s name on a piece of paper or cardboard. After a multi-PC roll, just place one die on each PC name for fast sorting and on-going reference.

You can accomplish the same thing by putting sticky notes near the bottom of your screen and placing dice rolled underneath each sticky and against your screen for stability.This method also works for foes. Create a numbered strip, roll for all the foes at once, and place one dice on each number for quick calculations. You can associate the numbers to your notes or to numbers on miniatures, if you use them.

Lift Your Screen Once In Awhile

Don’t be afraid to show players particularly interesting rolls for dramatic effect by lifting your screen for a brief moment. Players will spot the natural 100, 20 or 1 roll and their hearts will beat faster.They’ll also be intensely interested in getting a peek behind the screen and into the secret world of the GM–the real reason for momentarily lifting the screen. It’s the forbidden zone suddenly revealed, which creates even more game excitement.

Reveal Secret Player Rolls When The Time Is Right

Players must make secret rolls too. In many situations, you don’t want to reveal a result because the character wouldn’t know how successful they were and so the player shouldn’t either.If a player’s secret roll is interesting however, feel free to reveal it to them to increase excitement and tension. For example, if a character tries to detect traps and the player rolls the best possible result, show them their great success and let the player celebrate.

Dice Rolling With Body Language

We’ve already touched on the topic of using body language to enhance dice rolls, but it’s a subject worthy of it’s own tip.A survival trick I once read when dealing with wild cats is to stand your ground and slowly spread out your arms and legs to make yourself look as big as possible. This could make the animal think twice about attacking, something that turning your back and fleeing might not do. :)Apply this tactic to your dice rolls as well. Be an actor. Seek to intimidate, enthuse, excite, or enervate through your body language:

  1. The Arms
    Rolling generally involves arm movement. How many different arms movements are there to shake and dramatically deliver dice to a flat surface?
  • Windmilling
  • Pitcher’s Wind-Up
  • Around-The-World
  • Piston
  • The Wrist
    While your arms are flailing, you can get even more rolling action by using your wrists as well to gyrate your hands and whatnot.
  • The Legs
    Crouch, bend, kick, or move your legs however you like to enhance your roll.
  • The Body
    Throw your whole body in to it! Dance, shake, rattle, and roll.
  • The Face
    Deliver your best evil grin, smug look, or grimace of fear and worry while rolling. Don’t forget the post-roll expression either:
  • Relief
  • Fear
  • Worry
  • Humorous
  • Sound
    Feel free to grunt or make a noise while rolling and during the release. Pretend the dice are a heavy burden that you’re finally unloading and grunt as you roll. Laugh maniacally. Give your players the raspberry. Whatever works to entertain.

Put all this body language together into your Dance Of Dice and make your rolls memorable ones.

Consider mimicking various foes with body language to deliver rolls. For example:

  • The Puke Roll. Are the characters facing a disgusting opponent? For each roll, act like your puking up the dice and roll from your chin onto the table in one final stomach heave.
  • The Snake Bite. Whenever the characters fight snakes, extend your arm fully outwards and bend your forearm back from a stationary elbow. Wind your forearm slowly back like a cobra about to strike. When your arm reaches a 90 degree angle, lash out suddenly, throwing the dice in the same movement. Making hissing sounds also helps here.
  • The Hack Roll. Pretend you’re swinging the same weapon as the foe and release the dice at the point of imaginary contact between foe’s weapon and PC’s body.

Another trick is to associate a certain rolling move or dance with a villain or rival NPC. This will endear the PCs to their foes even more!

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For some additional, humorous dice rolling techniques, check out this article, “Fun With Dice

Announcing A New Book Series: GM Mastery
A Collection Of Game Master Help Books

Our first book: NPC Essentials is a collection of tips, techniques, and aids designed to help game masters inject detailed NPCs into any role-playing campaign. Inside, readers will find advice on designing, role-playing, and managing NPCs during the entire lifetime of their campaigns. Also included are NPC archetypes, charts, and an example NPC-centric adventure. Written by that hack writer Johnn Four. Now available!



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Try a free Test Drive with adventures at Pinnacle Entertainment Group

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Using A Player Character As The GM’s “Mole”

From R. D.

As a GM for the Star Wars RPG, I had a player, whom we will refer to as John, who was difficult to deal with while gaming. John could be described as the self- preservationist/powergamer. He was a rules and stats lawyer who examined the books in detail to find the most powerful combination of stats, skills, and abilities with which to arm his character.

He also had to have the most powerful weapons and best equipment and actively sought such things out during the campaigns. Another problem was that he loved to gain info and keep it secret from the other PCs just in case he needed an advantage over them or could barter it for something he wanted.

John was also disruptive to the flow of the adventure. He would put other PCs at risk in order to keep his character from injury or death. He also would not take risks or go into situations where he felt his character would be injured or killed. Taking the easy way was his norm much to the dismay of the other players.

For example, one situation required that the party confront a Hut crime lord that had vital information pertaining to their mission. John, fearing an ambush, chose to stay on the ship. When the other PCs debarked, he lifted off, effectively leaving them stranded and at the mercy of the Hut’s henchmen. The other players were upset but I assured them this was good roleplaying, which they grudgingly accepted.

When the conversation got ugly and the Hut’s guards drew their blasters, John swooped in and blasted the Hut with the ship’s cannons thereby destroying the only source of the information the PCs had and throwing my campaign into a spiral because I needed the Hut later for another encounter.

So how did I deal with John’s play style?

Simple. I made him my mole.

When I started a new campaign, I met with John before the session started and had him roll up a powerful new Dark Jedi character roughly the equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi (the other PCs had eventually killed John’s previous character). This character was to be an agent of the Emperor yet was to pretend to be a Light side Jedi character during the game. This would be the grand secret John could keep from the other players.

During the campaign, I often met with John before everyone else arrived and roleplayed an exchange of information between John and other agents of the Emperor or the Emperor himself. These were mainly secret instructions for a particular goal he was to accomplish.

John played the role of the Light Jedi well, acting nobly, for the most part. Sometimes he seemed to have more information about enemy doings than he should have making the other players suspicious. We began covering this by note passing or rolling the dice to simulate John using the Force to divine information. Since his stats were so powerful no one usually questioned it, thinking it was great they had such a powerful tool in one of the party members.

John even took another Force-sensitive PC under his wing as an apprentice! Through subtle roleplaying, John tried to steer the young Padawan toward the Dark Side. This did raise suspicions in some of the players, but overall nothing was ever brought up. John, deceitful creature that he is, played his role well.

Eventually, John was revealed to be a Dark Jedi when, on order from the Emperor, he turned on the other PCs and tried to kill them. He offed one PC but wound up in a saber duel with his own apprentice and was killed (John actually let himself be killed in an unusual turn from his normal play habits). The other players were mostly caught off guard but a couple had been expecting something like that to happen. Hey, if some were surprised then I consider it a success.

The mole tactic will probably never work again with that group but I will definitely try it again with another group. After the experience of doing it once and a little refinement, I bet I can surprise the whole group next time.

Some tips based upon my experience:

  1. Don’t let your mole’s character be too powerful. This unbalances the game for the other players. Give them enough power to have an advantage without making them nearly invincible.
  2. Meet with your mole away from the other players and give him/her only the information pertaining to their particular goals for the next session. Don’t divulge too much info about your plans for the game. The mole needs to have fun figuring things out as well. That’s roleplaying! Also, roleplay these meetings to keep in context with the game and the campaign.
  3. Don’t pass an overabundance of notes to the mole while playing. This makes the other players suspicious of what’s going on. It also looks like you favor the mole’s character over the other PCs.
  4. Reveal your mole to the other players only at a climactic event. This helps increase the tension and surprise, particularly if they are in mortal danger and suddenly discover that one of their own is really an enemy whom they must suddenly deal with.
  5. I recommend that only an experienced roleplayer be your mole. Newbies don’t have enough experience to keep a poker face or to come up with creative excuses and ways to allay other players suspicions.
  6. If your mole gets himself/herself into mortal danger, don’t compensate for them or bail them out! Showing that kind of favoritism REALLY builds suspicion that you favor that character or, at the very least, have something special in mind. If the mole gets killed, too bad. Go with it. I also would advise that you don’t reveal to the group that you had a mole and make sure the mole keeps his mouth shut, too. Wait a while and you can let him/her be your mole again and maybe the final surprise can be salvaged.
  7. Finally, secrecy between you and your mole is ALL- IMPORTANT! Stress to your mole the ultimate importance of this secrecy. If even one player voices suspicions, then the ultimate surprise will be spoiled for everyone, most of all YOU!
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IRC Tips

From Dave R.

This is a quick pair of tips for people who are running IRC games.

  1. If you are running an IRC game and have one or more NPCs who are going to be interacting with the players throughout the session, use multiple instances of your IRC client, so that rather than changing your nickname, you just change to that character’s own client and type there.This way the players know who the important NPCs are throughout the session. It works very well if you have a major villain in mind.
  2. This tip is for anyone using multiple IRC clients or windows for different characters when running a game. Make sure each window has its own color scheme. That way you can tell at a glance who’s going to be saying something and make a lot fewer mistakes.

I hope these help keep people in the moment for an IRC game.

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Lists Of Names

From Anarchy Scott

Hey, about the names thing – another good way to get names is to pick them from one of these two word lists (they’re mainly used for programs that guess passwords).

There are two files, one for male names (3901 of them) and one for female names (4955 of them). I have them up on my site at:

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The World Moves On (Campaign Tip)

From Lyos

First off, thanks for such a great E-zine, it’s helped me out of trouble so many times it’s not funny. Keep up the good work.

I’ve noticed that some GMs think the PCs are the only people that make an impact on the world. Their worlds tend to be 2 dimensional rather then 3 dimensional. NPCs have lives away from when the PCs interact with them though, and this should show in game play.

Take for instance, a GM who has designed a villain with a goal of taking over the kingdom. The GM drops hints through the game session about this evil villain, but instead of running off to save the kingdom the PCs find something else more interesting to do in another kingdom.

Forcing the PCs to go fight the villain is the wrong thing to do. It takes away from the enjoyment of the game as a PC should be free to go wherever he pleases.

But what about when the PCs eventually find their way back to the kingdom? Some GMs will keep their villain open so when the PCs get back they can go fight him. That would mean the villain has basically gone into stasis for months or years though, just waiting for the PCs to come back.

Instead of the world standing still while the PCs are away, the world should move on. Using the same example, the PCs have been gone for months but now the villain has moved on with his plans and perhaps has even succeeded in taking over the kingdom.

Now, instead of the mission being “stop the evil villain taking over the kingdom”, it becomes “get the evil villain off the throne”. Or maybe the evil villain is thwarted by another group of adventurers while the PCs are gone, and upon their return they hear all sorts of stories from other NPCs about the valiant heroes who saved the kingdom and are now getting all the rewards and respect the PCs should be getting. Can you say jealousy ;o)

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Getting Ideas For Games

From Michael ‘Bloosh’ Leger

I was recently on holidays, visiting my hometown. I decided to see what there was to do by checking out the local tourism booth. Well I started checking out their *free* booklets and found a section on ghost walks and day adventures. I got so many ideas for adventures I thought my head was going to explode. I was up all that night writing on scrap paper for a full campaign. All based off of a tourism booklet, go figure.