On Damage Rolls

Maybe it’s because my roots lie in wargaming but it’s curious to me just how attached I am to the idea of the damage roll in my roleplaying games.

I’m not sure when I started to come across the idea of fixed damage in combat but the first steps in that direction were early on in my experience. Certainly by 1995, when I came across Fudge, the idea that a weapon might deliver a fixed amount of damage wasn’t a new one. What made Fudge palatable was the idea that the degree of success with the attack would add or subtract from that fixed value.

Where I noticed a strong sense of balking against fixed damage was when Dungeons & Dragons added the fixed average numbers as a quick way to adjudicate damage from an attack. That was possibly Third Edition but is definitely a feature of the modern game. It’s a feature I have always chosen to ignore… no matter how convenient using an average might be.

9d6 damage?!

The question is why? Playing the Cypher System, a game I totally enjoy in every other regard, the biggest turn-off was fixed damage values. It’s simple and it makes logical sense. So why do I balk? I think the answer has three elements.

To begin with, rolling to attack and then rolling for damage is something I am very much used to doing when gaming. It comes from the traditions of wargaming that I grew up with: hex-and-chit board wargames tended towards this mechanism; later on, learning to play Warhammer with miniatures, the pattern was repeated. As with all beliefs, one of the strongest reasons we can feel our ideas are correct is because it’s something we already assume to be true. The assumption has never been seriously thought through.

Secondly, roleplaying games based upon the original Dungeons & Dragons model tended to repeat this structure of game play: roll to hit and roll to wound comes as part of the DNA of early RPGs and we simply experience it over and over as we explore different systems. When we find a game we are comfortable with then we are likely to gloss over the fact that feeling comfortable isn’t necessarily the same as that game being a good design.

Finally, I think that I enjoy rolling dice enough that I tangibly miss the chance to roll for things I am used to rolling for. In other words, I enjoy the tactile engagement that rolling dice brings but I also enjoy the fluctuations between high and low results that arise from random generators. When faced with a fixed average value I feel like I am somehow missing out on the high value results. This is true but also misses noticing that the chance to roll a low result exists too.

Taking the average is mathematically sound. It’s faster than making an extra dice roll. It offers a confident prediction of what will happen if I make the attack roll, which increases my sense of effectiveness with the character. But it also loses much of the emotional and tactile part of gaming which is bound up with rolling the dice.

In the end, we are not playing these games for rational reasons. They are entertainment and they are designed to be fun. For me, rolling the dice (high or low) is fun. On the other hand, if you want to speed up your play and skip rolling, taking the average is a good way to go.

Game on!

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