Player-facing Rolls

Yesterday night I played the John Sinclair Abenteuerspiel for the first time. It’s a German roleplaying game based on the popular John Sinclair pulp horror novel series. In the game you play monster/ghost hunters employed by the Scotland Yard. Is it as campy as it sounds? You betcha! But that’s not what I want to write about today.

The system used by the game features player-facing rolls which means all rolls are made by the players and none by the GM. I’ve seen this in only a couple of other games (mostly Monte Cook’s Cypher System games like Numenera, The Strange, et.c) and the more I encounter it, the more I like it.

A bad habit which this feature immediately eliminates is cheating dice rolls by the GM. I’d guess most of us have done it and over time you realize it’s a bad idea. You might think you’re helping your players, but in reality you take their victories and their defeats away from them. Some players might not care, but it may totally ruin the game for others.

It also quite literally puts the dice back into the players’ hands. It their dice rolls that count. The GM is just setting difficulties and running the show. This can also be very relaxing from a GM’s standpoint. You don’t have to worry about killing your players because of a couple of dice rolls seemingly defying probability. The players also are less likely to see you as their opponent. You don’t roll the dice, they have fate in their hands. Overall it might not change much, BUT it feels different.

What is your stance on the dice taken away from the GM? Please share your thoughts below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

12 thoughts on “Player-facing Rolls”

  1. I admit I have never played using player facing dice so this is all purely hypothetical but what happens when the characters may or may not noticed an impending ambush? If I roll the dice and the observation check is failed then I don’t have to tell the players anything and they are not alerted to any possible danger. If I have the players roll the dice then they are immediately alerted to a fact there is something. I am sure my players are not the only ones in the world who will be influenced by the temptation to meta game just a little bit with this information.

    I know GMs that either make fake rolls to keep their players on their toes and I guess you could get players to make totally unnecessary dice rolls but that is just adding unneeded interruptions to the role play.

    Here is an idea for you to try one day.

    Use random number tables. All the games I play use either d100 or d6. I have booklets of 10,000 random rolls. So I as GM never need to use dice. If I wanted to make a subtle skill check then I can just pick the next number on the table. I use a highlighter pen to mark each roll as it is used.

  2. I very much like how all player dice rolls mean the chips fall where they may. I roll all combat dice in the open in any event, but I think the player rolling their own doom is different, as you suggest, and I expect it makes for quicker combat too (always good).

  3. I don’t like them. I feel like I am just a director of a film rather than the universe. When I, as GM, roll dice, I am surprised what the universe wants to do (my unexpected die results); the players then hope to steer their passage to their desired goals. As a Rolls Player Facing GM, I dictate, ‘monster does X damage unless you can Y.’ I feel captive, superfluous; like I could be replaced by a solo module. I play RPGs to be a world builder and GM, not to act as a Turing machine.

  4. I really like the idea. Players making all the rolls means they feel empowered, and failure/success is entirely up to them. Symbaroum also uses this mechanic.

  5. It probably suits less crunchy rules better than games that normally require more rolls by the GM.

    It also can reveal too much information. If you are rolling the A track for my villain and you roll poorly but it still hits you then that tells you something, if you roll amazingly well but it misses then that tells you something else.

    If I roll the attack and tell you it was a glancing blow that did 5 damage you have no idea if I rolled 5d6, 5d10 or 1d20.

    The more I think about player facing rolls the more issues I can see with them. How do you play a really powerful villain who is just toying with the characters and not really trying to kill them if the players see all the combat rolls?

    1. Try to access this mechanic from another point of view. When you don’t roll as a GM, your NPCs / environment / general obstacles don’t “try”, they just “do”, and the characters roll to avoid the threat! So, you don’t roll to check if the villain successfully tracked the PCs. Their decisions and preparations tells you WHEN the villain will show up (early? later?). Because the villain WILL show up, otherwise it wouldn’t be an exciting story, right?

      1. Yeah, but you don’t really need to roll the dice in that example — the villain will show up, so why have villain do a tracking roll? When will the villain show up? When it is thematically/dramatically most appropriate.

  6. When I’ve run a game that was set up around player-facing die rolls (usually a variation of running FATE or Fudge, where that’s an optional way to run the game)… my fiance _hates_ it.

    In her observation, her good rolls all go to defense (ie. roll high so the enemy misses you), and her attack rolls get the other end of the statistical distribution. So, yes, she gets the benefit of the enemy missing her, but she also rarely gets to hit the enemy. Which drags things out into a much longer than necessary battle.

    She would rather have her rolls only be about her character’s success/failure, and have environmental or NPC or antagonist rolls come out of the GM’s bell curve of statistical results.

      1. What doesn’t make sense about it?

        There’s no balancing issues, it was a completely fair fight. It really is a perception issue: if you always roll really well (for yourself) when you are doing your defense roll on the NPC’s attack, but you seem to roll mediocre on your attack rolls against the NPC, then it’s going to seem like you’re wasting all of your really good rolls (when compared to something like D&D when you only ever roll your attacks, and don’t roll your defense).

        Like I said, it’s entirely an issue of player perception. But the entire concept is an issue of perception. Some people (myself included) like the idea/perception that all of the agency is in the player’s hands: including the attack rolls made against that player’s character.

        Some people don’t share that perception, because they see it more like being burdened by the rolls initiated by the NPC.

        Both are wrong (or both are correct, depending on how you want to look at it), because the math is the same no matter who rolls the dice. And assuming the hand and the dice are both fair, the dice don’t care whether you’re doing traditional rolls or player facing rolls.

  7. I’ve tried it because it sounded novel but didn’t end up enjoying it. I quickly realized that part of why I play RPGs with dice is because I ENJOY ROLLING THEM! I noticed that a key element of my enjoyment was gone. So i reverted to more natural rules where the person taking the action rolls the dice. It feels better to me.

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