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Scenario: player rolls to attack, rolls a 1. Next round, rolls a 1. Round after that, rolls a 1. Fourth round, rolls a 2.

This really happened today. He was going back and forth between two different dice too.

It just so happened that this whole encounter had outrageously unlikely rolls and the players seeing more low single digits than they had any right to, while the DM was rolling four d20s all at once for an area attack and getting four 20s.

At some point or another, all the role-playing in the world doesn't save you when the dice are just not in your favour. What is a DM to do in such situations where players are getting frustrated at the dice and, as a result, are getting upset with the game?


EDIT: I wanted to update the question with regard to edgerunner's answer, because the big problem I was experiencing wasn't just the bad rolls and the bad game mechanics consequences, but the bad player attitudes. Players would roll low and wouldn't be excited to role-play failure, they would just sigh and end their turn or walk away from the table. It got to a point where it was difficult to engage with the players who were rolling badly because they were disengaging with the game.

So in regards to edgerunner's answer of making an awesome story out of failure, I really like that answer and I'm going to pitch it to my group, but I want to open things up a little bit and stress the psychological disengagement that happens with bad rolls, the players who stop trying to do anything, roleplay or otherwise, when they're overcome with dice frustration. How can I help them get back into the game?

Maybe this is only a problem in certain game systems like D&D 4e (full disclosure: we were playing 4e) where many aspects of the game are heavily mechanics-driven: you use a power, you miss, your power does nothing, you "waste" your turn. A player's entire contribution to the game is predicated on the dice "allowing" them to contribute.

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marked as duplicate by wax eagle, MadMAxJr, Oblivious Sage, wraith808, Simon Withers Mar 5 '13 at 4:16

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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Can you describe why it was a problem? Why didn't the player have their character run away, or otherwise change their course of action? The whole point of using dice is that they're unpredictable, and responding appropriately is important—the dice aren't going to save you if you don't save yourself. If it's possible to have "wrong" dice rolls, why use dice? –  SevenSidedDie Mar 4 '13 at 1:29
    
If your problem is with Goblin Dice, maybe modify the system you are playing. Most games will have (at least) a very small chance of failure in combat for the players, so that it's more exciting. Unhappily, this means that occasionally this small probability will come up. –  Dakeyras Mar 4 '13 at 10:33
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Have you considered that it might be their dice. I have always rolled badly and went and got some Game Science precision dice and the problems seams to have gone away. –  David Allan Finch Mar 4 '13 at 17:22
    
It's worth noting that if a person attempts to write down a random sequence of zeros and ones they will usually badly fail to write down enough and long enough successive sequences of just zeros or just ones. The point is that any dice based game will tend to have what appear to a person, to be long strings of peculiarly bad failures and/or long string strings of such successes (enough so that some people sometimes believe something called "luck" is in force when it was just their unfamiliarity with what real randomness looks like). –  John Robertson Mar 4 '13 at 20:12
    
Good edit! That's a much more interesting problem than just what to do about a string of low rolls. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 5 '13 at 4:02

9 Answers 9

up vote 23 down vote accepted

I'l go against the grain here…

Don't ever fudge rolls or help the player. It will rob them of their agency, and it will probably piss off other players. Besides, not having risks and consequences will make them into careless players at best or actually turn them into murderous cretins.

Changing the system may help with the probabilities of having to deal with such a situation but that may not be feasible for every game. And even in the best system, you will find yourself rolling horribly every once in a while.

So my core advice is, roll with it but make an awesome story out of failure. Make sure that the player's failure is not in vain, and is definitely spectacular. Use it as a hook to introduce plot complications, add interesting twists to the story that will challenge all the players. Turn it into something memorable.

That way, your players will probably ask for more failures.

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+1 Completely agree. The risk of failure is an important part of every game, otherwise there is little to no sense of fear or urgency in the players. And who wants to play a game that always tilts in their favor? I also think the idea of making failures into story hooks is a great, great idea. Kudos. –  Matt Hamsmith Mar 4 '13 at 14:56
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+1 indeed. If players can't fail then there is no point in rolling the dice, as the outcome is already decided. Only ever make players roll the dice when failiure is relevant and creates an interesting story. –  Phil Mar 4 '13 at 15:23
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+1. Don't anybody think that these incredible bad luck cases are one of the more funny things that happen while roleplaying? I saw one time a character lose all his willpower points to neutralize botches in Vampire (house rule), and still see the character burned by even more botches. This player was quite pissed off, but the table was laughing as they couldn't believe their eyes. As the GM is not a bastard, he did not kill the character, so in the long run, it wasn't a big deal. –  Flamma Mar 4 '13 at 16:27

Talk to the players.

There are mechanics and practices you can use to soften this up, but randomization will inevitably lead to occasional failure. I've got some links at the bottom of this post that you might be able to use in specific situations, but ultimately this is just a hazard of the dice-based RPG experience. It's not an experience to be trivialized though, so I've got a lot more to say:

Fudge it.

  • I once let players drastically decrease an enemy's armor by taunting her into a rage (despite having no game mechanic to justify it), just because the fight was going to be insanely harder than I intended otherwise.

  • Just fiddle with the numbers. Grant bonuses and penalties on the fly, etc. There's a link or two at the bottom about how to do this gracefully.

Fudging isn't useful in the long run, but if you just run into the problem once or twice per campaign then it's acceptable.

If you want a gentler game, change systems or institute houserules.

  • Most of the time, this is just the result of observational bias: it's easier to remember the natural 1s than the 10s and 12s because the 1s have a bigger impact. In that case, the player should probably suck it up and deal. Randomization is part of any dice-based game, and the system the group chooses will determine how cruel the dice can be.

  • Some systems mandate that natural 1s are automatic failures, but often that's actually a variant or house rule. For example, in D&D 3.5 it's a variant suggested on page 28 of the DMG. Regardless of the system's actual stance on the issue, houserules can soften the blow.

  • Change systems. Not all games have the massive randomization spread of d20 games. Games with dice pools have gentler probability curves, and some games go even further: FATE's dice pool is designed so that the majority of the time you'll be rolling between +1 and -1, making skill modifiers the major factor in success. Games that run on d%s also have potential for gentler randomization, though they can just as easily turn brutal depending on the specific rules.

However, I've had a player who rolled low more consistently than really should've been reasonable (every session for years), so I've thought about ways to help him out.

Change how you roll

  • Dice aren't perfect; most dice are slightly weighted just because of the way they're made. Try several different dice.

  • Some people think die rolling is a physical skill. Use a dice tower to take that out of the picture.

  • Try a digital roller. Read up on them, as some are more "truly" random than others, and there are a lot of roller programs and apps out there.

Don't roll.

It's more or less possible based on the system, but in D&D 4e we were able to design PCs who never roll attacks (a warlord/shaman hybrid who granted attacks to others, and a magic missile wizard), and one who exploited Hammer Rhythm to never care if he hit or not.

Other people have similar problems.

Some of these questions aren't exactly your issue, but the answers might help!

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I think someone else's edit got eaten by my own simultaneous editing. Oops. –  BESW Mar 4 '13 at 2:08
    
Just to point out, I've had the exact same problem with a dice pool system: rolling, say, a 6 dice pool, one guy consistently gets 4-10 successes (using 10-again) and another tends to get 1-3 tops. –  Yamikuronue Mar 4 '13 at 15:10
    
"Dice aren't perfect" -- Very true, although some dice are more perfect than others. Have a look at high precision gaming dice. Here they are on Thinkgeek. The accompanying videos are especially enlightening (and entertaining). –  Eric Mar 4 '13 at 15:15
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I don't like the "fudge it", especially in the way you described it, but +1 for everyghing else. –  TimothyAWiseman Mar 4 '13 at 16:36

The pragmatic answer: That's how the game works. Dice rolls are independent events. With a fair die, it will eventually all even out. We use dice to decide the outcomes of events, and there's always a chance that bad things will happen. We're playing the game to find out what happens.

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It all depends on your group and their style.

In a group that is somewhat simulationist and likes the dice, let it stand. Yes, sometimes you get strings of low rolls. This is natural. Sometimes you get strings of high rolls, this too is natural. In a group that really makes significant use of the dice, let the dice fall where they may. Unfortunate, random events happen in real life too.

In a group that is a bit less simulationist, you can start invoking DM fiat to make things go better for the player. I do this liberally, but then in most groups I deal with the players know that I use DM fiat freely and know that it will be invoked immediately to prevent certain things like unplanned PC death. This works well for my group, but it would work less well for a group that leaned more towards the tactical combat.

And, I know I saw somewhere else that dice decks have been mentioned as a way to smooth out the randomness curve. Essentially you have a deck of cards with the numbers 1- 20 (or whatever is called for). When you need to roll, you draw the top card, use that as your result and remove it from the deck. When you run out, you shuffle again. You could add a bit more shuffling by shuffling in a blank card and then shuffling when you hit that. If done without the blank, you are gaurunteed to see exactly as many 20's as you do 1's. (I would like to credit this, since I'm sure I saw it first eleswhere on rpg.stackexchange, but I can't recall where.)

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"Dice decks" is what is known in computer game development as a shufflebag algorithm. It guarantees you stay near the theoretical probability distribution even for lower sample rates (which is typical for roleplaying sessions). They are easiest to construct for single dice (i.e., uniform probability distributions): just have a card for each side of the die. Die rolls that approach a bell curve will quickly require more cards to be faithfully represented. Cf. 1d20 needs 20 cards, 2d4 needs 16 cards, 3d4 needs 64 cards. Basically XdY => Y^X cards. –  Eric Mar 4 '13 at 19:39

I've been that player. Here are some things my GM has done to help.

  1. Give out items that affect dice mechanics. Even a once per session reroll can make a difference. Just having that option in my back pocket to reject a die roll is empowering enough that I can happily brush off a series of 2s.

  2. Suggest character abilities that don't use as much luck. If I'm playing a spellcaster, this means reducing rolls as much as possible. To use a D&D example, if I have to roll spell penetration, followed by a ranged touch attack, then the target rolls a save, and only then can I roll for damage, well, I'm going to roll a 1 somewhere along the line and blow it all. I try to take spells that rely on only one die roll. Better yet, spells like Solid Fog are effective without rolling anything.

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Sadly, some game designers appear to have no or very little knowledge of probabilities resulting in dice rolling that can either cripple or empower an encounter. To be fair, not all systems do suffer from this -- Fate, for example. If you know enough about basic statistics(1) then you can recognise those. Then, you can (read: should) modify the system. I believe that this is your player's problem, not that they are "unlucky".

As a solution to the above problem, you can have the player roll a number of dice and either average the result or take the second (say) best one. This drastically changes the probabilities of the roll.

Alternatively, you can give the player bonuses based on their descriptions and general role play that mitigate the dice roll.

(1): Las Vegas is a monument to the failure of teaching basic statistics.

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I've noticed that a lot of modern, indie, narrativist games grant resources to characters when they fail, which can be used at a later time to make success more likely. This relates to the standard Hero's Journey/Emperor Of Everything storyline, where the hero gets his butt kicked mid-story in order to come back and win in the end.

So try this: every time a player fails a roll, for anything, give him a token. Let them spend tokens later for a one-time bonus to any roll later.

This means every failure comes with a consolation prize and some interesting future choices for the player to make. This is particularly important in that it defuses some the frustration felt when a perfectly good plan is spoiled by cruddy die rolls.

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Don't make all the character survival or even success depend on luck. Give some not-random opportunities to the players.

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As mentioned, digital dice rollers (website or application) are useful and when coded properly seem to be as mathematically random as it gets (whether mathematically random actually appears "fair" however is up to the individual).

If that process is a bit awkward, one other option would be for the GM to have a printed spreadsheet of randomly generated values with a column for each die value in the game (generated before the game by a program or a website). Each time a random die roll is needed, it's read off of the sheet and then crossed off. One other benefit to that is all you need for gaming is a stack of papers (character sheets & dice roll sheets), rule book(s), and pencils.

My gut feeling is it's best for the GM to manage that paper because given to the players, it would be tough to make sure that everyone's being honest. Players could "use up" some poor dice rolls on iffy random skill checks until they get to the good rolls. You could fold the paper and clip it to keep future rolls hidden if the players insisted on having their on roll sheets.

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