by Mike Shea on 4 December 2017
If you get anything out of this article, consider these shared experiences:
In the lower levels of Dungeons & Dragons combat encounters, characters generally have one action they can take and it's usually tied to a single d20 roll. If that roll goes poorly, they miss and it's the end of the turn.
Combat only goes on two to three rounds in typical battles so its not too rare that a player will miss for an entire battle. Even in a four hour game, it isn't impossible that a player just rolls poorly the whole game, never getting to do any of the cool stuff they had intended to do.
We DMs spend a lot of time thinking about how to make our games more fun but we're not likley to take on the responsibility of poor rolls that the players make. That's just the luck of the dice, we might think, and we're not wrong, but that doesn't mean the player deserves a poor experience in the game. We DMs have a lot of tools at our disposal to try to boost up a player's experience when the dice turn against them.
We can go back to the basic ideas of Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws and consider that good games come from oscilating hopeful and fearful beats. Too many poor rolls and a player's experience turns to hopelessness and frustration. When the players's dice are going against them, we can drop in some hopeful beats to bring them back up again.
How can we do this?
First we must notice that it's happening in the first place. We DMs have a lot on our plate and may not pay much attention to the fact that one player's rolls have just sucked. We're so busy managing the pacing of the game for everyone that smaller details like this can fly past us unnoticed.
Noticing poor luck requires that we first know it can be a problem and then watch the body language of our players. If they remark that their dice are working against them, usually on the second poor round of rolls, we can take a moment to jot it down on our campaign worksheet or write it down on a 3x5 notecard.
Constantly reading our player's attitudes towards the game helps tremendously in seeing these sorts of things. If they're sitting back reading their phone it might not just be boredom or adult ADD, it might be that they're frustrated with how things are going.
Once we have identified that such a downward beat has developed in one particular player, we can act upon this by dropping in a boost.
We're stealing the term "boost" from Fate but we're repurposing it a bit. In Fate, boosts exist as a piece of the mechanics when dice results tie with a check. We're using the term more loosely to encapsulate some effect or option that pops up when a player is having a string of bad rolls.
How often should this happen? Probably on the second or third bad roll. A single bad roll isn't unexpected, and, if the game is fast enough, two isn't so bad either, but three can really suck the fun out of an hour of gameplay. Your mileage may vary of course. Use it when you see the problem.
These boosts aren't hard-coded house rules. They're just small things we DMs can do to make the game more exciting for players who are having bad luck.
Here are a few examples. Many of these came from dozens of responses to our Twitter thread on the topic.
Offer advantage or inspiration within the story. When a player has a bad set of rolls, we might describe in the narrative how that character's relentless attacks might put an enemy off balance or otherwise give the characters an advantage over their foes. We can choose either advantage on the next round or inspiration depending on what fits the story. Granting advantage and providing inspiration are, in general, wonderful improvisational tools for adding upward beats in 5e D&D. Many others responded with the idea of adding the 13th Age escallation die for that player, giving them an increasing attack bonus as their misses stack up. I'm a bigger fan of advantage in this case since it's a large boost and you only have to give it once.
Discover advantageous terrain. When a player has a bad string of luck, perhaps they discover some advantageous terrain. They might discover high ground or how the arcane energy of these ancient statues doesn't appear as dormant as they thought. We DMs can improvise some of these situations as the game goes on, thinking about the room and its features ahead of time. By scoping it as a feature discovered by the character who missed all of those times, it gives the impression that the character helped with the discovery instead of just being a bump on a log.
Reveal a secret. When a player rolls poorly, their series of misses might somehow give them insight into a secret or clue previously undiscovered. Perhaps they find out the vulnerability of the enemy. Maybe they miss, smash the wall, and reveal an ancient frescoe that describes the thousand-year history of the slaying of a dead god. With our secrets and clues in hand, we can use these failed rolls as a chance for a new discovery, perhaps a discoery at a cost. Maybe that frescoe being revealed shows a truth so horrible it requires a madness check (one of my favorite checks).
Quite a few responders to our Twitter conversation on this topic stated that misses are misses and we shouldn't bend the story at all to make up for this. D&D is a game built on random rolls of the dice and sometimes a bad string comes up. It isn't our job to coddle players when these bad strings come up.
I don't subscribe to this train of thought. My job is to run a fun game for the group, period. A bad roll isn't the same as making a bad choice. It's literally random. I won't make wands of magic missiles fall from the sky every time someone rolls two failed attacks, but I see no problem at all with finding ways to give characters a boost when the dice seem against them.
We can each make this choice on our own for our own game. If you're group is enjoying it just fine, misses and all, than these ideas likely doesn't serve you. If, however, your players feel like their wasting their time when their character isn't effective round after round, perhaps we can use our infinite narrative control to boost them up.
Keep an eye on the players, be aware of their frustration, and bend the universe to give them an edge.