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During a recent D&D game, a question came up about friction in the game mechanics between the resource-management portion of play — that is, the selection and deployment of daily powers — and the vagaries of random chance. Does it suck too much to have a daily power wasted on a bad die roll? Isn’t the daily power a resource the player should be able to spend and not be usurped by random chance? Doesn’t risk undermine the player’s resource management? Doesn’t it rob meaning from the decisions made in the design of a meaningful play turn for the PC?

I say this as the player of a Warlord with the daily power called Lead the Attack, which grants a nice fat bonus to hit to potentially the entire party if I hit with it, in addition to doing three times the weapon damage. If I miss, it adds an anemic +1 to hit and leaves the Warlord without his most useful contribution to the party — without that power, my Warlord is a meager martial combatant with the ability to occasionally shift someone one square or so. (In contrast, our fighter can shift another character a number of squares equal to their full speed — why isn’t that a Warlord power?)

My immediate response is: No. Risk doesn’t undermine the choice, because the risk is apparent. Risk must be part of the equation the player finagles when selecting when and how to use a power. The game isn’t one of resource management but of risk management, with resources involved.

If that doesn’t fly for you, though, think about this untested mod for the game:

Roll the die at the beginning of your turn and then select the power, attack, or Skill you want to employ using that number.

Thus, when your turn comes around, you roll a d20 and use the number generated to determine what course of action you want to take. Say you roll a 14, which you think is enough to hit the AC of the monster you’re facing. You therefore choose to try out an encounter power, much more confident that you’re going to hit with it. If you miss, it’s because you underestimated your enemy’s defenses — the choice was truly yours. As combat goes on, and a monster’s defenses are gradually determined by watching hits and misses go by, the player doesn’t choose when to employ a daily power and then hope to get lucky; instead, he waits around for a die roll good enough to warrant unleashing that daily.

Does this work? I don’t know. I haven’t tried it yet. It seems to me, though, that it subtracts the visceral rush of risk when using a daily power — the chance that it might fail — and potentially leads to a lot of waiting around on the player’s part. You know that feeling when you declare you’re about to use a daily power? Is it worse to have that feeling of participation and adventure undermined by a bad die roll, or is it worse to lose that feeling altogether as the bad die rolls come at the top of the turn and shut down the player’s options?

In other words, is it worth shifting suspense around for the sake of making PCs appear competent?

Alternately, think of it as roleplaying the information given to you by the dice — the roll informs the player early what quality of action he has forthcoming and the player selects an action that dramatizes it. Not every action is equal, still, but the player knows in advance whether he’s about to begin a turn of excellence, mediocrity, or woe. Then he takes an action to match.

This is what I do when making things like Diplomacy checks, sometimes. The idea being that it undermines a character too much to have the player give a decent speech or find a solid argument and then see that performance undercut by a natural 2 on the die. Instead, I sometimes have players roll their Diplomacy (or Intimidate, or whatever) check first, and then roleplay the result. It asks dramatic questions like, “How could your character mess this up?” or “What does a brilliant diplomatic maneuver look like from your character?” instead of using the die result to randomly determine whether or not the target NPC is, say, somehow offended by a perfectly reasonable argument.

But can this be shifted to combat? Let’s see. I think I’m going to give this a shot in my D&D game tonight and report back to you tomorrow.

Here’s the rough rules I’m anticipating:

  • Roll a d20 — this number determines the quality of a standard action for this turn. If it’s a lousy roll, the player is free to simply not take a standard action or to attempt something that does not require the roll (like shifting twice).
  • The roll can be applied to a move action (e.g. an Athletics check) [only if a standard action is not taken?].
  • The roll cannot be used when making a saving throw.

I’ll be using a brief in-setting excuse for the game-rule experiment (a flash of divining magic gives the characters the temporary power of foresight, maybe), but — and this is important — I don’t think it’s necessary. The characters don’t need an excuse to appear more competent, necessarily. They’re adventurers. It’s fine if they appear competent.