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October 20, 2017

Players Self-Assigning Rolls

Get your players to stop making die rolls you didn't call for.  

It does more harm than you think.

I get most of my inspiration for blog posts from RPG forums, where I read and help answer questions from DMs.  When a problem comes up a lot, I see a lot of good solutions from talented DMs.  I also get to refine my answer by writing it out for different people with the same problem.  Eventually, I write a post about it here so I can link back to it for them.  In this article, I'm using 5th edition D&D for my examples, because the most recent iteration of this question I saw was in a 5e D&D group on Facebook, but the problem happens in just about every RPG out there.

The problem I see all the time on that Facebook group is players self-assigning die rolls.  Self-assigning die rolls is trouble for reasons I'll explain below.  It happens when you describe the situation, and then the players describe their actions, assign themselves die rolls, and then roll them, all without the GM's involvement.  It looks like this:

"The mural depicts sorcerers of ancient Netheril forging some powerful magic rod, consisting of seven segments each four to six inches long."
"Arcana 19.  What do I know about the sorcerers of Netheril?"

"The hallway ends in a twelve foot square room with candelabras mounted on the walls, a carpet in the center, and no other features.
"Perception 24 - are there any traps or secret doors in this room?"

"Pleased to meet you, master Underhill. Rooms here are one gold piece per night each, double occupancy, and that includes all your meals. Ale, too. Wine and spirits are extra."
"Insight - I got a 17 - is the innkeeper planning to betray us?"

The player jumps in and rolls the dice, then you, as the GM, simply react as if you had framed the challenge and assigned the die roll.  Only, you didn't.

It may seem like the players are doing you a favor and handling some of the system for you, quickly getting it out of the way so you can get on with the roleplaying.  It's not.  Self-assigning causes a lot of problems.

First Problem: Bias
Players will consciously or unconsciously choose to frame the die roll in the most favorable way for their character.  Even players who have no intention of gaming the system are more likely to remember the skills and sub-systems they invested in for their character before ones that they didn't.  The Warlock knows all about the Arcana skill, so she rolls Arcana.  Netheril is ancient history, and the mural depicts an historic event; so this should have been a History check.  Similarly, the Perception check maybe should be Investigation.

The GM calls for the roll, not the player.  However, players might suggest a skill.  For instance, if the GM calls for a History check to understand the mural and the player fails, the player might say "I failed the History check.  Can I discern anything about the magic rod using Arcana?"  The GM still gets to decide, and the GM should still frame the check.

Second Problem: Framing
Players don't frame the die roll stakes -- you do.  Take a look at the Perception example, above.  This has to be the #1 most common way players self-assign die rolls.  They take it upon themselves to roll Perception checks without the DM telling them to.  The reason they feel so comfortable throwing Perception checks around is that even DMs rarely assign failure stakes to Perception checks, and when there are no failure stakes, the rest of the party can try the check if the first player fails.  But remember GM 101:  Every die roll should have interesting stakes for both success and failure!

The Perception check in the example above is poorly framed - the player needs to say what they're doing -- how they're looking for traps and secret doors.  If that action happens to come across a trap or secret door, the DM can call for the appropriate skill check at that point. You can't just stand outside the door and look around the room and see all the traps and secret doors.  They're better hidden than that!  Failing to find a trap should always cause a problem (usually the problem is triggering the trap).  More on trap framing, below.

Every roll should have both success and failure stakes.  It's the GM's job to make the world react to the PCs' actions.  When a GM says, "nothing happens," the GM is derelict in their duty, in my opinion.

Third Problem:  The Inevitable Success Shuffle
When there are no failure stakes, or nothing happens on failure, the players do the inevitable success shuffle.  That's what happens when player 1 fails the check, and player 2 says "OK, I try too."  If player 2 fails, player 3 tries.  Repeat ad nauseum.  It's a huge waste of table time.  Player-assigned die rolls almost never have failure stakes.  That means there's no cost or risk to them.  That's why players are so quick to throw the die and call for their own checks.  They can't fail!  Literally!  Rolling a 2 just preserves the status quo.  To actually fail, something bad would have to happen.

But it's worse than that.  The inevitable success shuffle makes success almost inevitable.  See, even if every PC has a 0 in their skill, odds are one of the die rolls will come up lucky.  I'm dropping some science here:  If five people roll 1d20 each, there's a 98% chance one of them will roll a 10+, there's an 83% chance one of them will roll a 15+, and there's a whopping 23% chance one of them will roll a natural 20.  Put another way, if the chances are only 30% that any individual party member will pass the check, if all five roll, the chances are 83% that one of them will succeed.  The players aren't trying to cheat, and none of this is illegal according to the rules; but it's an "exploit" to use a video game term. 

Not only does this effectively "game the system," it's a huge waste of table time.  After going through the work of evaluating and responding to the first die roll, the second player announces that they're going to try.  And so on.

Fourth Problem: Too Many Rolls
If they're doing them at all, the players are probably making self-assigned skill checks as a sort of "minesweeper" in your game.  They're making Perception checks to avoid landmine traps or missing out on treasure and secrets.  They're making Insight checks to avoid being tricked or set up.  They're making Intelligence checks to avoid missing critical information.  They're making Stealth checks to avoid being caught by sentries.  The problem is, they're doing it preemptively.

When the players get to self-assign minesweeper checks, they'll always self-assign minesweeper checks.  There's no cost to doing so (see the second problem), the best PC always uses their best skill (see the first problem), and they almost can't fail (see the third problem).  If you're not giving them hints when there might be a trap, they only fall in a trap when they fail to make minesweeper checks.  All that adds up to a huge incentive to keep doing it. 

Fifth Problem:  Perverse Incentive
What's more, odds are you've rewarded the players for doing it or punished them for failing to.
"The hallway is 10' wide and 50' long with a thick wooden door at the end."
"I check for traps.  Perception 24."
"You spot a pit trap with spikes five feet into the hallway."
You just rewarded self-assigned minesweeper checks.
"The hallway is 10' wide and 50' long with a thick wooden door at the end."
"I walk up to the door."
"Five feet into the hallway, you fall into a pit trap with spikes.  Make a Dexterity save, DC 20 to avoid falling and taking 21 points of piercing and bludgeoning damage."
You just punished the players for failing to self-assign a minesweeper check by hiding a landmine and blowing them up with it.

Now, let's work on fixing the problem.

Fixing the Problem 1:  Fixing Traps

"But Jon!" You protest, "how do I use landmine traps if I don't conceal them from the players!?"

Landmine traps are the worst.

Don't use landmine traps.  I could go on a big rant about landmine traps in D&D, why we use them, where they came from, and why they suck...  But I already did.  Read it here if you're interested. They're only potentially interesting in combat.

"But realistically monsters would hide their traps!"

Sure!  Monsters lay landmine traps all the time, but they're boring and stupid unless there's also some opportunity to spot and avoid them.  Realistically, monsters aren't perfect.  There's always some clue. 

If you use landmine traps with no hints, a trap is just a random HP tax, and the only mistake the players made was not self-assigning enough Perception checks.  Yuck.  I guarantee if you use landmine traps with no hints, your players will become paranoid minesweepers, and your fun dungeon exploration will become a grinding slog full of mechanical crunch and little else.

Real quick, here's how you do that hallway trap:
"The hallway is 10' wide and 50' long with a thick wooden door at the end.  You spot a few kobold tracks in the dirt and grime."
If the player doesn't use a minesweeper at all:
"I walk up to the door."
"As you walk down the hallway, something catches your eye.  Roll Perception."
"You see lots of concealed kobold tracks on the floor.  Through their obfuscation, you can see that the creatures' tracks veer sharply off to the right side of the hallway for no apparent reason, then stray back to the middle.  What do you do?"
See?  This is how to use Perception well.  It's best to call for Perception checks only when success spots the danger in time and failure triggers the danger.  Only call for a Perception check when the player declares an action that takes them through the relevant area.  And by "through" I mean where the trap would be triggered, or away from the hidden treasure, or past the secret door (not getting treasure or not getting a tactical advantage - those are great failure stakes).

What if the player fails their Perception check?  That's when the landmine goes off.  But you gave them a hint.  They missed it.  Then you gave them a Perception roll.  They failed that.  Now they get a saving throw.  How much more generous can you be?  Right?

Fixing the Problem 2:  Assume Competency, Build Trust

What we're doing here is assuming competency.  You build trust in your players when you show them that you assume that their characters are competent.  That way they don't feel like the base assumption is that they're bumbling idiots who forget to tie their shoes unless a player says so.  When you assume that the PC would open their eyes and look around before stepping on a trap, the player doesn't feel the need to call for their own Perception check once every five feet of hallway.  The player knows you know that their character isn't a rube who's never been in a dangerous situation before.  The player can trust you.
"Oops.  9."
"You see some kobold tracks on the floor.  By the time you realize the tracks veer sharply of to the right, it's too late, and you've already stepped on the false floor.  Make a Dexterity save, DC 20."
What if the player becomes suspicious (f'ing kobolds) and takes a minesweeper action?
"Does the pattern of tracks hint at a trap or something?" (Alternately, "I follow the tracks in case there's a trap they're avoiding.")
"They've made some attempt to conceal their tracks.  Roll Investigation, DC 15."  (or Survival DC 15, for the tracking version)
"18.  Success."
"You deduce that there's a spiked pit trap five feet into the hallway.  There's a safe path to the right, which you deduce from their tracks.  Though they've tried to conceal it, they always avoid that one section of hallway.  Once you know exactly where to look, you have no trouble spotting the plaster-covered wood of the trap door, prying it open, and seeing the nasty spikes 20 feet below." (The Survival version would just take them safely past the trap, without revealing it; but that's usually good enough)
And if the minesweeper action fails?  None of that "nothing happens" crap.
"13.  Failure."
"Though they've tried to hide their tracks, you notice that they avoid one area of the hallway.  There's something there.  You prod at the suspicious section of floor, and there's a loud crack, crash, crunch! as you dislodge the trapdoor, dropping it 20 feet into a pit full of spikes.  Whatever's behind that wood door up ahead heard the sound.  What do you do?"
I used a different failure condition than the obvious one in this example.  See this post for more ideas on advanced failure stakes.  For the obvious "you fall in the trap" failure stakes, see the failed Perception check example, above.

If you run it right, where there is no trap, the players won't feel any need to make a minesweeper check.  Where there is a trap, you drop a hint that they'll probably catch on to.  If the players are smart, and they are, they'll investigate.  In the unlikely event that they miss the hint, see above - they might fall for the trap.  But here's the key:  If they fall for the trap, it's not because of the failed die roll.  It's because they missed your hint (and then failed a die roll).  In other words, it's a fun game, not a landmine.  

Fixing the Problem 3:  Fixing Insight

This "assume competency, drop hints, make it a fun game" strategy applies to every kind of hidden information and hidden danger!  Consider the shifty innkeeper situation. 

Let's use a strategy of assumed competency to correct a player's misinterpretation: 
"Pleased to meet you, master Underhill. Rooms here are one gold piece per night each, double occupancy, and that includes all your meals. Ale, too. Wine and spirits are extra."
"I think the innkeeper might be working for the Zhentarim and plans to betray us. I want to know if he recognizes us or knows we're Harpers."
"Based on his innocent look and jovial greeting, the innkeeper doesn't recognize or suspect you. He's honest."
The player misinterpreted your description, seeing something sinister where you didn't intend it.  No roll is needed. You can treat the player's request as an automatic success. 

But if you want to, you can make them roll. 
"I think the innkeeper might be working for the Zhentarim and plans to betray us. I want to know if he recognizes us or knows we're Harpers."
"OK, let's see how subtle you are in your suspicion.  Make an Insight check, DC 15."
"12.  Shoot."
"The innkeeper looks like he was going to say something else, but when he sees your steel-eyed look, he shuts up and won't make eye contact.  You're pretty sure you have nothing to worry about from the innkeeper, but now the innkeeper is worried about you."
I'm applying stakes other than "you learn nothing" again.  By being suspicious and then mishandling the situation (with the bad roll), the PC has added a little color to the situation.  Maybe nothing will come of it, or maybe we'll improvise this into a real conflict later.  A successful Insight roll represents a much less impulsive approach.
"I got a 22."
"You're real subtle, leading the innkeeper through some seemingly innocent small talk that would make a Zhentarim spy sweat, but he doesn't pick up on any of it, and seems to enjoy shooting the breeze with you.  It's getting close to dinner time.  What do you do?"
But that's about a player being paranoid, seeing a hint of treason where there was none intended. 

What if the innkeeper really is a threat?  What if you really did drop a hint?

If there's no difference between your shady Zhentarim innkeeper and your upright innocent innkeeper, the players have to be paranoid -- especially if you once used a shady innkeeper to betray the PCs once and didn't telegraph it. One bad innkeeper, and they're going to suspect every innkeeper from then on, forever.

Always give them hints when they should be suspicious, and then make the challenge figuring out what they should be suspicious of.  That's a tricky concept, but I can explain better it if you've ever heard of this series of movies called Star Wars

One of the most famous "betrayal by a host" scenes in media history is the Cloud City sequence on Bespin in Empire Strikes Back.  Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO flee to Cloud City to stay with Lando Calrissian, Han's old partner in crime.  Lando has betrayed them, and they all get suspicious pretty quickly.  If this were an RPG, what happened is that they got to Cloud City and met Lando, and the GM dropped some hints that Lando had an ulterior motive, but not what the motive is.
Leia: "Something's wrong here - no one has seen or knows anything about 3PO. He's been gone too long to have gotten lost! ...I don't trust Lando."
Han:  "I don't trust him either, but he is my friend." 
Immediately after that bit of expository dialog, Chewbacca finds C-3PO in pieces, waiting to be recycled, brings the parts back to Han, and then they get really worried. The stakes get higher and the tension rises. Lando arrives and invites them for drinks; and unaware exactly what is going on, Leia, Han, and Chewy go with him and walk right into the trap.

That's an example of how it works: "We saw the clues, we got suspicious, but we didn't realize the nature of the trap." Cite that sequence to players who don't understand that alert, suspicious people can still be surprised.  It's the difference between being suspicious and knowing what to be suspicious of.

Here's how you signal to them that they need to use Insight.  If the innkeeper was shady, you'd make that clear with your dialog:
"Pleased to meet you, master... Underhill you said? Is that right... Hmm... Anyway... Rooms here are one gold piece per night each, double occupancy, and that includes all your meals. Ale, too. Wine and spirits are extra. You, uh, look tired. You'll be wanting to get out of that armor. Can I take your things up to your rooms while my daughter gets you something to drink?"
See, there are enough clues in there to make the players suspicious, and even if they miss them, you can point back to them later.  But let's assume your players pick up on your hints.
"Good sir, we'll keep the armor on for a while. Why are you so eager to take our bags?"
"'I... I just saw you were weary and was offering to save you the effort, sir... I meant no harm.' Go ahead and make a group Insight check. DC 12. If more than half of you fail, you'll be caught when the trap springs."
[Most of them succeed.]
"You're sure the innkeeper has something planned, so you watch his eyes while you challenge him. They keep darting to the door - the only exit from the inn that you can see. He's waiting for reinforcements, and they're probably going to be here soon. What do you do?"
Now let's look under the hood of that example.

GM Hints - Player Investigates - GM Frames a Check
The GM calls for the Insight check as soon as the player challenges the NPC or takes any action to investigate. This is just another minesweeper check, but the player had a hint, so it's not just routine.  But it's the GM who frames the check. Not the player!

The Heart of the Problem: It's Just No Fun

The difference between "Hint - Investigation - Check" and routine minesweeper checks has a massive, practical impact on your game.  Review the fun formula for RPGs before we get into it.

If minesweeper checks are routine, then there's no tension.  You make an Insight check with every single NPC you meet, or at least anyone who could legitimately pose a direct or indirect threat.  Sometimes the NPC is a traitor.  Sometimes they're honest.  Sometimes you succeed at the minesweeper check.  Sometimes you fail.  None of the outcomes are caused by your decision as a player.  All of the outcomes are caused by the GM and the dice.

So back to the fun formula.

Story -> Problems -> Tension -> Excitement -> Fun

When you don't hint at a problem in the fiction, there's no story, no story problem, no tension, no excitement, no fun.  It's just a routine check, and it has one of four outcomes (see the diagram below).  Only one of those outcomes introduces a story problem -- the yellow circle.  Everything else is either no problem or no problem detected.*  

The "we failed a check to detect trouble" outcome (marked *) represents dramatic irony:  The players know there might be trouble but the players have to pretend they don't know about it.  With mature players, dramatic irony can create tension (excitement, fun), but because they self-assigned the check, they don't know for sure (OOC) if there is trouble.  That weakens the dramatic irony tension, so it's not as fun.

* dramatic irony
On the other hand, when you drop a hint, you've created a story:  The innkeeper is acting fishy.  When your fishy innkeeper could spell trouble for the PCs, it's a story problem.  When that story problem's outcome is uncertain, there's tension.  Tension is exciting.  Getting excited over an RPG is fun.

Failure Stakes
The example Insight group check is framed with failure stakes. The success stakes are the implied inverse of the failure stakes. "Go ahead and make a group Insight check. DC 12. If more than half of you fail, you'll be caught when the trap springs." See how the player doesn't know exactly what the trap is or what the Insight check will reveal?

The players have to trust that a good roll will have a good outcome and a bad roll will have a bad outcome and they will be treated fairly by the GM. Trust is a big deal in player/GM relationships.  If you don't have that, stop reading and go be more generous to your players until you fix the trust problem.

No Self-Assigning Means no Inevitable Success Shuffle
The GM framed it as a group check instead of a single check.  If the player had self-assigned an Insight check and failed, without any failure stakes, nothing happens, right? Then what? You know what!  Inevitable success shuffle. 

There's a reason group checks exist. In fiction, if your friends all trust the innkeeper, they're going to think you're just being paranoid when you're like "Guys! He's trying to ambush us!" "No, man, he just sees we've been on the road all day. Why would an innkeeper be ambushing us? We've got magic great-swords and he's got a rolling pin. You need a drink, dude."

Tactical Advantage
The roll stakes set up a tactical advantage that's relevant in every kind of RPG from Pathfinder to Fate Accelerated.  If the PCs are prepared for the reinforcements, they can choose where the conflict takes place.  They can take the fight out in public, where the reinforcements are likely to hesitate; they can barricade themselves in; they can run away before the reinforcements arrive; they can lay an ambush; etc.

Failing the check starts the encounter. The players can't even object: They had their chance to spot the ambush, and they failed the roll. Their characters may have been suspicious, but suspicious is not the same as informed and prepared. Like Han and Leia, they knew something was up, but they didn't know what it was.  They missed that telltale glance at the door.

By the way, if your innkeeper's trap is more distant, frame it this way:

"Make a group Insight check, DC 12. Either way, you're suspicious. On a failed check, you are eating dinner in armor, weapons at the ready, when the attack comes. On a success, I'll tell you the nature of the attack before dinner."
See?  I'm setting up an Empire Strikes Back situation where the players might know to be suspicious, but without getting more information, they will still fall for the trap.  Let's assume the group check fails.  Now we have tension coming from two directions:  The hints the GM dropped about the innkeeper add tension, but now the dramatic irony of the players knowing they failed the group check.  They know that there's an attack coming at dinnertime and they don't know its nature!
"OK, so things go fine all afternoon. There's a fire and the innkeeper tells some good jokes, though you keep your armor on and guard up. Dinner is beef stew with bread and ale. You're all worried about an attack, so I assume you're not getting drunk. Where are you in the room while eating dinner?"
"I'm eating by the door, standing up, pacing. I pretend to drink the ale, but just nurse it slowly. Maybe pouring it out in a potted plant or something to look like I'm drinking more than I really am."
"I'm back by the hearth, away from the window. Acting casual.  I have hot tea with my dinner, in case I need to throw it in someone's face."
"I'm eating at the table in the middle where I can see anyone approaching through the window.  Is that right?"
"Right. You've got a good view, but anyone approaching can see you, too."
"That's fine.  I try to act casual." 
"I'm eating at the bar, on my third helping of stew, fourth helping of ale."
"Stay sharp Ragnar!"
"Sure, sure, I can handle my ale! (Nope! My Flaw is I like to drink to excess. So I do!)"
"Cool.  Take Inspiration for acting out your flaw."
"OK, everyone make a DC 20 Con save vs poison or fall unconscious. Ragnar, you have Disadvantage on the check."
"Aw $%i#!"

Other Self-Assigned Rolls

Though information checks like Perception and Insight are the most common rolls players self-assign, there are other situations players self-assign rolls.  This article is already pretty long, but I would be remiss if I didn't at least touch on them.

Sometimes they roll initiative before the GM calls for it, assuming the GM is going to use the tactical combat system to resolve a fight (hint: you don't have to use the combat system for every fight).  That's easy to deal with.  Just say "hold your horses!"

Sometimes they self-assign Stealth checks to hide, which can actually be helpful in a D&D or Pathfinder combat if they're playing characters who need to hide in combat a lot.  Outside of combat, and outside those RPGs, make the player back up and then frame the check before they roll.  Stealth failure stakes are some of the most fun situations in any RPG.

Sometimes players make assumptions about how you want to handle something and just throw some dice, thinking they're saving you time.  They'll walk up to a locked door and make a Dexterity (Thieves' Tools) check or leap over a chasm and roll Athletics before you call for the roll.  These players are often over-eager.  Maybe they've got a little bit of the rules lawyer in them.  Ask them "don't you want to know what the DC and stakes for failing that check are before you tell me your roll?"

You see self-assigning all the time with social skills.  it's a special case of the "players make assumptions" situation, above.  The PC will walk up to an NPC, tell a lie, and then the player will announce "22 Deception!" or whatever system equivalent your game uses.  In my experience, this impertinence causes PCs way more trouble than it's worth, because in social scenes, GMs hate being interrupted by system unless they're the one doing the interruption.  And GMs are happy to push the situation and call for yet another check. Once the Rogue with +10 Deception has committed to a bluff, the NPC will turn to the +0 Deception Fighter and say "the guard looks at Ragnar and says, 'are you here to deliver something, too?'  Your reaction might give you away.  Give me Deception, DC 10 or else the guard gets suspicious."  I think GMs generally have good instincts to push back on players who thrust their stats into conversational scenes before they're called on.

Exception: Player Character Special Abilities
There's one situation where the player knows more about the framing of a die roll than the GM does, and that's exceptions to the rules caused by player character special abilities.  PC special abilities often frame the stakes of the die rolls they require very specifically, to limit how broadly they can be used.  Because the die roll is already framed up, the player can usually use the ability and throw the dice without the GM prompting them without causing any trouble.  The GM isn't really free to frame up the die roll in many cases.  It doesn't really matter, then, if the GM called for the roll or not - the system says the roll is required, the system says what to roll, and the system says the stakes are. 

Player Agency

The last thing I want to talk about is the concern some readers might have that denying players the opportunity to self-assign die rolls takes away their player agency.

Player agency is the ability of the players to control the shared imagined space of the game.  When we deny players the ability to have their characters take an action or have that action be meaningful, we deny their agency.  

Putting a stop to self-assigned checks does not deny the characters' actions, and it only makes their actions more meaningful by giving them more opportunities to make meaningful decisions.  

When a player becomes suspicious about a 5' square of dungeon tile and rolls a Perception check, there is no action - just system access.  The action would have been "I lean over and look closely at the tile, prodding and prying at it with the tip of my dagger.  I'm worried that it's a pressure plate."  The GM isn't stopping the player from taking that action.  The GM is simply insisting on making the system decisions related to that action. 

Further, because a lot of self-assigned checks come up around hidden information, a GM who follows my advice and gives a lot of hints is giving the players more agency by pointing out opportunities where their actions can make a big difference in the events of the game world.  Without hints, hidden information is more likely to be like a landmine (whether it's a treasonous NPC or a hidden trap).  It's almost entirely out of the players' control other than choosing to sweep for mines or not with no reason other than an abundance of caution.  That's not a lot of player agency.