Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Cutting Down Skill Rolls

Playing an RPG doesn’t mean the dice need to be rolled for every action. The old adage of “Role-playing not Roll-playing” rings particularly true to me. Here are a few things I try to do when I run a game:

“Yeah, But Does It Affect The Outcome?”

Seriously. If it doesn’t affect the outcome do not roll. But what does that mean exactly? Let’s unpack it a bit. So what do I mean by outcome? In this specific context I’m speaking about the results as impacted by the player characters. If it doesn’t directly or even indirectly affect the PCs, then honestly it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a computer simulation (but the GM does stop rendering the game world when the players aren’t involved) and you literally don’t need to know everything that is happening at every moment. This is a mistake all GMs make at one point or another – experienced or not. It’s just something that happens when you get too wrapped up in the campaign.

“Okay, But Is it Really Important Right Now?”

If your house is one fire, the stove is on, and you just burnt your tongue on your coffee, which one do you worry about first? In more gamist-speak, the GM needs to gate which thing should be rolled for right then and then decide what is the most important and if it is important enough to even roll. This can be a difficult job for new GMs, but most of the time it’s obvious to old-hands. Typically, I like to look at it in “zones of closeness to plot”:

  • Very Close: It affects the outcome of the immediate plot in an overpowering way.
  • Close: It affects the outcome of the immediate plot.
  • Moderately Close: It can affect the outcome of the immediate plot.
  • Sufficiently Close: It might affect the outcome of the immediate plot.
  • Not Close: It won’t affect the outcome of the immediate plot.

“Fine, It’s Important, But Should I Roll?”

Ok, it’s important, now what? Well, first off, is it going to subtract from the current momentum of the game? There is nothing quite like “Then, you get in the castle and . . . make 37 Perception rolls to notice stuff.” In my Aeon superhero campaign for GURPS we cut this down with a simple fast and light rule:

Assume that if a player character could have made for a skill that requires a margin if his skill is 14 or higher then his margin is simply skill level – 14.

This dramatically speeds up play and allows the GM to describe the scene as its happening instead of later on revising it. Now, this was intended for things like Search, Observation, etc., but there is no reason why it couldn’t be used for Holdout, Stealth, or any sort of contested skill the GM or player may not have said was being used.

Now that is for a cinematic campaign. Dialing the campaign’s realism notch up, you could state that the margin is based on skill -16 (basically, a really narrow No Nuisance Rolls perk), while dialing it up you could assume it was based on skill -12. I didn’t institute this campaign wide (though I intend to when the wheel comes back around) and restricted it to one skill per Extra Option perk – which worked just fine.

Picking Over the Bones

So what’s left? Not much, as a GM you eventually pick up on what’s important for reasons of “plot” an what’s important to the players. I know some players and GMs hear the word plot and they just desk flip, but it’s not railroading if the players buy the tickets to ride. Hmmm. Perhaps more on that at a later date.

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