Wednesday 14 November 2012

The Pros and Cons of Pre-Rolling

Well, Team Adventure is about to set out on a long wilderness jaunt in pursuit of the renowned, much-desired and possibly entirely fictional Holy Sword. I know where it is and to get there, they’re going to have to cross a lot of hexes.

They’ve done this before, of course; long-term followers of this blog will recall their journey to the wood elves and their descent into the resprayed Lichway. One thing that marked the journey there and back again (see what I did there?) was a large number of random wilderness encounters that I diced up as they entered each hex. Even I didn’t know what was coming, how many of them there would be and the outcome of the encounter.

Now, however, I’m faced with a bit of a decision. Should I pre-roll the encounters so that the wait for me to consult the charts, roll the dice, do the calculations, determine the numbers and – inevitably – work out how much treasure said monsters are carrying, if at all is short-circuited?  They’d still meet the monsters, but I’d know in advance what was coming and be able to keep the game flowing.

Or should I stick with the old method, wherein I’ve as much idea as the party what’s lurking round the next tree or bluff?

There are arguments for and against each method.

Pre-rolling, as I’ve already said, speeds things up no end. The party can start counting the loot (assuming they win) almost as soon as the last monster has fled or hit the ground. I can also, if the monsters are intelligent, plan ambush or battle strategies, rather than just hurl them against the party in a head-on charge. I can prepare lairs if the party want to try and track the monsters back to their hidey hole. I can even work out a linking plot to make the encounter that little bit more interesting than ‘monster of the day’.

Of course, there is a problem with pre-rolling; I’m only human and these are kids I’m gaming with. Hell, I’d be as bad if it were adults. Although the DM is supposed to be a neutral facilitator of environment interaction, a party that’s been badly mauled by trolls is going to be in serious trouble if the dice decree a dragon flies over their heads. If I’ve pre-rolled the encounter but the party don’t know I have, I’m at liberty to fudge the results. To a sandbox extremist like myself, that’s something I don’t like to do deliberately but it may be that I find myself doing it unconsciously.

The only defence from accusations, either from oneself or the players, that one is somehow fudging (and it is worth recalling that fudging for one person can sometimes mean fudging against another) is to adhere rigidly to the will of the dice. I refer the reader back to one of the most insightful comments I’ve ever heard about sandbox, from the Great Sage Beedo “The dice are there to protect the DM from himself”.  Some of the most interesting and exciting situations in the Team Adventure campaign so far have arisen out of random encounters, which – when combined with the decisions that players have made based on those encounters – have generated entire plot strands. Had I intervened, even slightly, in the randomness of the roll or the decisions that the players made afterwards, things would have been different – no less enjoyable, perhaps but with a sneaking suspicion that the fate of the players was not entirely in their own hands.

Of course, even offering the players as wide a choice of options as possible still implies a certain amount of interference from the DM because he’s the one who chose and allocated those options in the first place.

It all comes down in the end to how much I, as a DM can trust myself to respect the oracular power of the dice, yet at the same time have access to the knowledge the dice might choose to impart ahead of time. Just as life is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of the random events that happen to us, the true meaning of the events that random dice rolls set in motion becomes apparent long after the dice have stopped rolling across the table. 


  1. One solution, though time consuming, would be to have a bunch of pre-rolled and prepped lairs with treasure and battle plans all ready to go . . . then randomly select from those.

    You know exactly what will happen if the players run across the bugbear lair, but you aren't sure as DM where that lair is.

    1. I was going to suggest a similar idea: make a deck of encounters out of index cards with randomly rolled encounters, vignettes and unusual events.

      Someone posted a while back about having boxes of index cards arranged by terrain type for sandbox games.

  2. Awesome post.

    Letting the randomness turn into its own story, or rather letting the players turn the randomness into their story, is what sandbox is all about.