Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On Dice and Freedom

This week, I have been meditating on freedom. It started Monday, when Beedo recounted how his players managed to turn Strahd into dust. He then followed that with a meditation on The Will of the Dice. For myself, I equated the plethora of choices we have today as RPG players with a golden age of our hobby.

Let me begin by stating this basic assumption:

If we deny that God is creator and deny that He creates us with His image and likeness (described in part by the concept of inalienable rights), tyranny must necessarily follow.

I say this because if there is no higher power — no unchanging divine creator — who endows us with rights, it falls to humanity and governments to bestow rights. Inevitably, this means the person or group with the biggest gun and the will to use it will determine who has the right to do what and who doesn't. Throughout history, mankind has demonstrated this reality. It is also no surprise that those countries and peoples that most aggressively turned their back on God ended up being some of the bloodiest and most tyrannous in human history.

I would like to apply this basic assumption to our hobby, and, specifically, to the act of rolling the dice. This is counterintuitive, but "slavery to the dice" is actually freedom, not slavery.

In the same way that denying God results in rights being bestowed and taken away by man and therefore tyranny, denying the ability of the dice to determine events in an RPG session results in the GM determining results in a game session. This, while not being anywhere near the deprivation of evil regimes of the present and past, is still a form of tyranny.

Let me explain. When we allow the dice to fall where they may, we actually are validating the choices made by the players. If one or more characters die or a boss villain dies before his time, these are the direct consequences of their choices. By allowing these choices to come to their full fruition by trusting the dice, we enshrine and ensure player freedom. To do otherwise is to not only deny that freedom, but to render player choice meaningless.

I can already hear many of you asking the question, but isn't it an old-school axiom that the DM's word is law? Yes, it is. Referees/DMs/Labyrinth Lords (or whatever you wish to call them) are indeed the final arbiter of the rules and have the final word on what happens inside their world; however, each and every one of us who run an RPG have made the choice to cede that control to our players by the very nature of playing the game. If we wanted total control, we would write short stories, novellas and novels, not play RPGs. The dice are the mechanism by which we cede that control — they are the means by which player choices are validated every time they choose to do something dangerous.

We further choose to cede control of our world to the dice every time we make a roll. When we roll a random encounter or roll a reaction roll we have already made a choice — that we would rather be surprised by the dice rather than making that call ourselves. If you do not want to be surprised, or if there is a result on a table you are unwilling to deal with you do not have to make that roll. You have the power to choose not to roll and just arbitrarily choose the result you want.

By allowing the dice to fall where they may, you are validating your own choice to cede control of your creation to a random table. The reward of this choice is not just surprise, but a chance to be creative enough to make such a random event fit seamlessly into the given situation. If these things weren't so rewarding, why would we do it in the first place?

And now, my tax:

The Tabard of St. Gavril

This unkempt and worn jerkin bears the Cross of St. Gavril and has a short prayer embroidered along the inside seem. Though it appears to be worthless, it radiates of magic. When donned by a Lawful character and the short prayer is recited, the wearer is bestowed with a Bless spell. This effect may be used once per day.


  1. Your basic assumption is wrong, because whoever holds power decides what God's will is (the guy upstairs doesn't micromanage these days). That aside, I enjoy the blog and your perspective every time.

  2. @Claytonian
    the guy upstairs doesn't micromanage these days
    He never has, because to do so would destroy His creation — His image and likeness in us; however, as someone who has seen miracles, I can say that He is definitely active.

    whoever holds power decides what God's will is
    There certainly have been many folks in power who have tried to decide what God's will is...the problem with that is revelation stands in direct opposition to these attempts. In the end, they always fail.

    That aside, I enjoy the blog and your perspective every time.

  3. I was considering a article on Freewill and gaming for my blog, You bring up some good points. For me I am a product of Freewill and practice daily.

    I can't seem to not like your blog, it is by far vastly superior to my corner of the 'Verse...


  4. @Eric
    Thank for such kind words...don't know how true they are, but thanks much the same.

  5. Interesting. Couldn't disagree more with your 'basic assumption' but still find myself agreeing with you on the game part.

  6. I'm so glad I found this blog; Dave, you explore the moral and ethical issues that touch upon both gaming and life in a wonderfully thoughtful way.

  7. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! I love gaming philosophy stuff like this and agree completely with what you wrote here. I dislike GM fudging because it takes away that intangible factor that gives weight and meaning to player decisions. Let the GM be a referee and may the dice fall where they may.

  8. Interesting. Couldn't disagree more with your 'basic assumption' but still find myself agreeing with you on the game part.

    You get a similar argument from existentialism, if that's more up your alley.

  9. @Anthony @Drew
    Wow. Thanks.

    Interesting. You agree with the principle of my basic assumption (because it is the same point I make about RPGs) but couldn't disagree more...which part?

    Having gone down that road, I found existentialism doesn't really have the meat to prevent tyranny in the way that accepting God as the bestower of rights does.

  10. I can totally get behind the premise, "fudging the dice renders player choice meaningless". You said it much more concisely than me!

    And if their choices are meaningless, why play a game and not watch a movie or read a book?