I’ve been speeding up my Rise of the Runelords game in order to finish before a player has to move away. This involves a lot of going through the remaining modules and figuring out what I can skip with minimal impact on the story but a lot of time savings at the table. While I’m mostly cutting whole side quests and such that are interesting but mostly thematic filler, another thing I’m noticing a lot more is rolls for no reason. The two examples I noticed in particular are one where Will saves are necessary to force though a set of magical barriers and one where Climb checks are needed to get up oversized stairs. In neither of these cases in there likely to be any time pressure or other consequence for failure: the players will just keep rolling until they get it.

Many modern games, particularly ones with a strong narrative focus, explicitly recommend that GMs not call for rolls unless there is an interesting result for both success and failure. If that’s not the case, the GM is encouraged to simply narrate the result, taking into account the character’s skills. But this method seems at odds with the intuition of a gamist.

This conflict is, in my experience, most evident in the use of the Perception skill (or whatever it’s called in a particular game). Many GMs I’ve gamed with have an innate response of “roll Perception” to most queries for information from the players, even if there is no real time pressure and the GM wants the players to have the information. Conversely, at least for my players, “I search…” statements are automatically followed by lifting a die to prepare for a roll, and they often seem disappointed when I just give them the information (usually, “there’s nothing here to find, don’t bother rolling”).

Put simply, many players and GMs seem to have the core notion that a result isn’t meaningful unless it comes from a die roll. Narrating a result strips out the notion of success against difficult odds. In the RotR examples, even though there’s nothing interesting, narrative-wise, about rolling until you succeed, for the gamist, rolling to see who climbs to the top the fastest is a meaningful difference (even if the disparity in Climb skills makes it obvious who will win). Similarly, some Skill Challenges in D&D 4e seem set up so the adventure can grind to a halt if not successful.

At root, this all comes down to the growing attempt by tabletop games to create mechanics for everything else that are as robust and enjoyable as the mechanics for combat. In many games, but D&D in particular, there’s often very little chance that the PCs won’t win any given fight (unless they jumped something they shouldn’t have jumped). However, the results of combat are granular enough that there are clear gradations of winning: did the party make it through without a scratch or did they get injured? How many limited resources were expended for the win? So far, that experience has not been replicated in the non-combat parts of games (though many systems try with social conflict, to greater or lesser success). It seems to me that, with rolling outside of combat and with Skill Challenges in particular, the goal is to capture the fun of combat in the rest of the game, but, without creating a game with as detailed a list of options and resources for everything as for fighting, this isn’t really possible.

Ultimately, the converse might be easier: simplifying combat so much that it doesn’t differ so drastically from every other skill roll in the game. Would a game where combat was resolved as simply as anything else ultimately streamline the desire to roll for situations without interesting consequences? Or would it just make for a boring game?