December 16th, 2007

geekier than thou

The phenomenon of "Story Dice"

With the roleplaying campaign in full swing (episode 5 of "CSI: Luvine" is hopefully on its way), our group is starting to experience a phenomenon discussed in awed whispers by gamers worldwide:

Story Dice.

Let me explain.

Have you ever had a moment where the pressure is on your character to do something that will singlehandedly change the face of the game story? Where it all boils down to a single roll, and everyone at the table leans in, and the die tumbles -- to come up right in the sweet spot, bringing the whole group to their feet in cheers?

If you haven't, you're missing out. This is the roleplaying experience, the crack cocaine rush that keeps us all chained to the table.

(This is not, however, Story Dice.)

Have you ever had a gaming session where your dice just run hot, giving you long strings of fantastic rolls and a heady sensation that you own the campaign world?

If you're a roleplayer, you probably have. Lady Luck smiles on everyone now and again.

(We're still not at Story Dice yet.)

Have you ever been at a gaming session where everyone's dice are hot -- where everything the group does is tinged with epic, because you're all feeling bold enough to take on challenges beyond your level, and you pull it off anyway?

(That's not quite Story Dice -- but that's getting close.)

Story Dice is all of these things -- but the phenomenon transcends them. When you have Story Dice, there is another narrator at the table. The gamemaster sets the scene, and the players determine their path, but it is Story herself that writes the tale.

It has nothing to do with luck. You don't roll well because your dice are hot. You roll well because there's Story on your side.

There are two things that distinguish Story Dice from hot dice. One: You will still roll poorly -- but when you blow rolls, you will blow them in awesome ways. Mediocrity slinks offstage. You see more 19s and 20s, but you also see more 1s and strings of crap rolls. These happen because Story decreed things needed to get more interesting. And this is the critical point: It all fits together.

Need an untrained thief to get past some ridiculously tough locks to sneak into the mayor's house? No problem, when you get a critical success (the only result that would succeed) on the second of two rolls you had decided to make before switching tactics. Twice in a row. Need to search the daughter's room for the nightgown the head of the Thieves Guild challenged you to retrieve? Go ahead and fail all seven 50% chances in a row (call 'high' or 'low' on a GM roll). Just about to do something you'll regret, like assaulting the daughter at knifepoint to make her remove the nightgown she's wearing? Watch your accomplice downstairs find a laundry hamper by blowing two Search rolls and then finally rolling a fantastic success at the last possible moment. Then call a high-low roll almost on the numeric nose to see a nightgown on top of the heap.

The kicker: After all that, when the two characters upstairs heard Simon's signal and snuck back to confer with him, Mike (the player, in real life) said "The laundry hamper!" and smacked himself on the forehead. By house rule, unless you specify otherwise, all dialogue and actions are mirrored in-game, so I pointed at him and said, "Roll Move Silently for forehead smack." The die tumbles, and Story reminds us that she heard him: Natural 1 for a botch.

Two: Story Dice affects the GM as well. Not only are you getting plenty of criticals and botches, but so is he.

(For instance, when Mike's character Seth smacked his forehead with the echo heard 'round the house, the GM rolled low enough on the sleeping victims' Listen checks that they never even stirred. Story often favors her protagonists.)

Earlier in the session, Seth and Zack were stalking thieves in the alleys, trying to engage in a little vigilante justice and claim some bounties set out by the town guard. The two level 0 peasants went to an area frequented by a renowned (level 3) footpad, and caught a glimpse of a form darting through the shadows. They melted into the darkness themselves, and what followed was EPIC NINJA BATTLE.

Hide and Move Silently checks all around: nobody, including the footpad controlled by the GM, scored less than a (modified) 24 on any stealth skill. Even with some fantastic Spot and Listen checks, all three of them remained hidden, stalking each other through the darkness.

The incredible stealth continued through a second round of die rolls. The GM's luck kept pace with our thieves', churning out 18s and 19s on the dice left and right. A round of universally mediocre Spot/Listen checks kept the tension high. On the third round, the high stealth rolls continued -- and I cracked a joke that if this continued, sooner or later they'd have to find each other, if only by virtue of picking the same hiding spot. But both of the players managed to barely notice the footpad as she skilfully flitted between shadows. Two sneak attacks* and a player-won initiative roll later, our mighty peasants had sapped a far more experienced thief into unconsciousness, without so much as being seen.

Later, when we went to break her out of prison, we revealed we were associates of Dallion Maliceblade, the game's big-name criminal mastermind. The GM rolled to check her reaction. One botch later, and she fainted dead away. Little things like that.

Story has flirted with our characters from the start of the game -- there have been moments of perfect narrative success throughout. But the last two sessions have been one long dance with her. Since fleeing from Ballard's Grove, we should have been captured by slavers, and having evaded that, should still have been slogging north through the wilderness, trying to evade pursuit as we snuck toward Reich. Instead, we routed their entire camp -- then stopped in a nearby town to buy horses, and ended up forging an alliance with the local Thieves Guild.

I say this like it was a casual thing, or like it was our plan all along. But seriously, our goal was just to do some breaking and entering in order to scrounge up enough gold for transportation. Things just snowballed from there to mugging thieves to breaking them out of prison to bluffing our way into a deal with their leader. Suddenly, we have allies, hiding places, and leverage.

Why? Not because we were trying to. Not because the GM wanted us to. Just because Story said so.

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* Remember, these are level 0 characters. By "sneak attack" I merely mean "caught her flatfooted." They didn't even get any bonus damage dice.