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December 16th, 2007
10:39 pm
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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.

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

Current Location: ~/bedroom
Current Music: Hazel Blue, "The Fog"
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(10 comments | Leave a comment)

Date:December 17th, 2007 07:18 am (UTC)

Cue discussion of people who apparently have Story Dice in their Real Lives in 3… 2… 1…

[User Picture]
Date:December 17th, 2007 07:38 am (UTC)
Well, if you put it that way -- I am forced to conclude that I have a Story Dice marriage.

(0. :))
Date:December 17th, 2007 08:57 am (UTC)

The thing about the story of your own life is that you don't have to worry (as much) about getting flamed by critics for inserting yourself into it.

[User Picture]
Date:December 17th, 2007 02:10 pm (UTC)
Hah. yes. I must admit most of the time I prefer Story Dice to happen to my *characters*. I am rarely up for that much stress in the real world. Even if I think I have a Story Dice marriage, too.
[User Picture]
Date:December 17th, 2007 07:34 am (UTC)

Bonus footnote

Story also seems to love her running gags.

One of our thieves, Zack, started the game with a sap that we've nicknamed along the way "The Sap of Death." Virtually everything he's hit with it has gone down in a single blow; and virtually everything he's attacked with it, he's hit. (The most notable exceptions have been the monsters that have inexplicably and single-handedly fought the entire party to a standstill, like the boar we tried to hunt that dropped two of our four party members and greviously wounded a third.)

It got to the point that, at the beginning of Saturday's game session, Aaron (the GM) turned to Cole (Zack's player), and said, "By the way, mark down on your character sheet that your sap is a masterwork weapon. I'm ruling that since it's been behaving like one for this whole campaign, it must in fact be one."

This is no small thing for a group of characters whose total wealth can be measured in three sets of stolen armor, the weapons we started the game with, and less than 10 gp worth of possessions and coins.
(Deleted comment)
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Date:December 21st, 2007 12:43 pm (UTC)
Ha! Yeah, sometimes Story just says "Not your time. Get back to the campaign and go kick some more butt first."

My RIFTS character Rikchik owes everything to Story saving his bacon early on. In the first play session, he had to steal something from a dragon. I made the boneheaded mistake of sneaking in while his MDC armor was in the shop for repairs, and woke the thing up -- so I was in a position where any hit would have instantly pancaked him beyond medical help. Rikchik managed to not only dodge the first blast of fire breath (needed an 18+ on d20, scored 18) but also lose his pursuit in the alleyways (and then sewers) of the city.

That first roll was purely matter-of-fact; Tim shrugged and told me something that boiled down to "Make this dodge or you die," and I shrugged and let the dice fall where they may. But it also ended up being integral to his character -- he wasn't a brave ratman to begin with, and that one action pretty much ate up eight or nine gaming sessions' worth of courage, so he spent a lot of time bragging about it and being an utter coward whenever danger reared its head.

Ironically, his cowardice ended up getting him branded the Hero of Lazlo halfway through the campaign: he had a failure of nerve and teleported away from the military base we were trying to sabotage right before one of the other characters rolled a hideous botch and set off a fusion bomb that vaporized everything within half a mile. He quietly spun a white lie about his early departure, and took credit as the sole survivor of the selfless heroes who had halted the war. I'm pretty certain Story was looking over his shoulder then, too.
[User Picture]
Date:December 17th, 2007 09:38 pm (UTC)
Man, if that weren't too long for its needs, I'd suggest you submit that to Tales from the Table in Knights of the Dinner Table.
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Date:December 18th, 2007 05:26 am (UTC)
In history too, you go against the Best Story at your peril.

Talk about rolling an epic botch: Send out the greatest and newest ocean liner in the world. They ignore ice warnings because they want to send postcard-type radiograms for the passengers (botch), they see an iceberg dead ahead (botch) too close because apparently it was darker ice than normal (botch) in water so calm there were no waves breaking on it (botch) and the helmsman orders full reverse, so the churning water from the propellers disrupts flow over the rudder and ruins its efficiency (botch) so the turning away, which he shouldn't have tried anyway, (botch) doesn't make the ship miss the ice OR hit square on, either one of which it would have survived. Instead, the ship just barely touches the iceberg. Which turns out to be the deadliest thing that could possibly happen. Botch botch botch. And what's more, the whole scenario was an obvious enough danger that a novelist wrote about a Titanic-sized liner named Titan hitting an iceberg and sinking-- in 1898. 14 years earlier. What kind of botch is that?

Yeah, the boat sank, get over it! But we can't forget it, because the story is so perfect. There have been far worse disasters, as far as loss of life. One of them was a stupid RIVERBOAT on the Mississippi, where 1700 or perhaps as many as 1900 people died. Yet I don't think most people even know her name. Nope, the Titanic sticks with us because the Story Dice had taken over.

Or in June, 1942, the invincible Imperial Japanese Navy had almost won yet another stunning victory when three squadrons of dive bombers, the very last attacking force the US had in the air, happened to arrive over the Japanese carriers at exactly the same minute-- and one of those groups had been lost, wandering around in a search pattern, and was almost out of fuel. Talk about your critical rolls!

Sometimes the story just has to happen. It's just supernatural. Personally, if I see a great plot line coming, I'm staying out of the way.
[User Picture]
Date:December 21st, 2007 12:49 pm (UTC)
Absolutely true -- and thanks for the historical anecdotes; I hadn't been aware of the background of either incident. (Now, see, this is the sort of thing that they should mention in high school history class; it would make it infinitely more fascinating than the lists of names and numbers they drill in ...)
[User Picture]
Date:December 19th, 2007 01:21 am (UTC)
That kind of game sounds like a lot of fun...
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