When All You Have Is a Hammer – Smallville and Dice Rolling

Some thoughts after our most recent game:

One of the most important parts of a roleplaying game, the life and breath of how it actually works in play is when you roll the dice, how often you roll them, and how you interpret them when you do. Yet this is something that is often skimped on in design, and even more so in rules writing.

The reason for this is a lot of game designers have come to their own conclusions and assumptions about dice rolling, and are so used to those assumptions they cannot help but design around them. Sometimes they try to communicate those assumptions, but only so many of them get through.

For example, you’ll often see a lot of games say things like “only roll dice when it’s important or dramatic”. That’s fine advice – unless, like me, you think that the GM shouldn’t be deciding what is and isn’t important. That’s not my job, that’s the game’s job. Or the dice’s job. If the dice make something interesting happen, then that’s interesting. Let them decide. And roll them as often as possible. But a lot of games are designed from the point of view that dice rolling kills roleplaying or at best interferes with it. But I tend to think it feeds it. Plus I also like rolling dice. I might roll dice to see if you cross the street okay. If you roll a critical fumble, that means you get hit by a car. Which tells me that somebody tried to run you down and murder you. And thus we have plot out of nowhere.

You can’t do those kind of things in some other games. Or you can, but the system fights you. The point is, applying that kind of logic to Smallville can get you into trouble, because the same question comes up again and again: “What do I roll?”

I mean, you’re crossing the street – how do I choose which Virtue that engages? Which relationship? It’s just the street! For a less facetious example, let’s imagine you’re trying to swing from building to building like Batman on his batrope. It’s just a physical action. It doesn’t have a heart and soul of why.

Now, there are lots of ways to deal with this problem.  First of all, you could rethink the whole thing, and remember how the game works – that you don’t roll unless it matters. And that’s cool, but that’s now why I’m writing this. I’m writing this for GMs who are still learning how the game works and have ended up in this situation. They’re used to rolling the dice all the time and now they’re in a position where the player doesn’t understand because the GM has asked for a basic dexterity roll and their character sheet doesn’t HAVE dexterity.

Option two is try to fudge it: ask the player why they are swinging across the street, and whom for. This is not ideal, because now the player thinks you’re insane. He was swinging across the street because a) he wanted to cross the street and b) look cool doing it and he rolled dice because YOU told him to. Now you’re asking him to justify crossing the street because of who he cares about? Not good.

So what is the solution? The solution – at least for me – is to have your players think before the problem happens about primary motivations and primary relationships.  That is, guide your players in to thinking about why their character does Most Things. Now, this might also not be obvious, but for the kind of games where you might call for a dodge check, it usually is.

Let’s consider, for example, Batman. Batman has his fair share of angst, yes, but he also has an overriding drive: to bring justice to the streets of Gotham. In Smallville terms, he’s got the Value “JUSTICE I am justice incarnate d12”. And whom does he care about most? Who shaped his life? I’m going with his parents. He’s got “MY PARENTS were gunned down in front of me and I must avenge them d12”.

Of course, it won’t always be as obvious as it is with Batman. Many classic heroes have two or three defining traits. Spiderman has DUTY but is also funloving (probably POWER I love slinging my webs and making snappy comebacks d10”) plus is also full of angst when his duty conflicts with his LOVE for the people closest to him. Spiderman has lots of issues, and is much more of a Smallville appropriate character as a result. And again, characters playing their first game might not be so easily able to identify their central personal angst straight away. But they can always change it.

The goal is simply to have the players identify their general chief motivation and most important driving factor in shaping that motivation. This way, they never have to ask “What do I roll?” because if there is any doubt, that’s what they roll. Why does Batman do everything so damn well? Because he trained himself to be the perfect machine. Why did he do that? Because of his need for Justice, after losing his parents.

Yes, Batman has other issues, but they’re not there all the time. And that’s the point of this: GMs and Players alike may find adjusting to Smallville tricky. By giving them something to hold onto and roll all the time, they can use the system easily and simply and then be ready when the angst comes up. Eventually, Batman will have to decide if he should keep hiding behind the mask (TRUTH) or if he can be there for the woman he loves (LOVE) or if this is about revenge (DUTY) instead of justice. And that’s the moment he has to use a different stat and engage with other issues. Likewise, mostly he focuses on losing his parents but slowly he realises he can’t use those dice for dealing with other people, and he comes out of his shell.

I’m not saying Batman needs therapy, although he does and it would save a lot of money spent on armoured gauntlets. I’m talking about building a bridge from standard roleplaying to Smallville roleplaying, and you do it through making sure your players have a hammer to fall back on. Yes, this means that all they may have is a hammer, and they’ll be rolling it all the time. But that’s okay because in Smallville, your hammer is what drives your character. If Batman ever shut up about justice, he wouldn’t BE Batman. So what happens is that all the players gain a much better sense of who the character is. And if the character decides he really isn’t that guy, he has a mechanical incentive to go through personal change so he can raise a different Value. It also doesn’t matter if they constantly look for nails (to complete the aphorism), because hey, that’s what Batman does – he magically finds crimes that help him deal with his need for street justice.

Note that this won’t work quite so perfectly with people who don’t want to play characters with ANY emotional hooks. But it will help them get a leg up into the game. They at least now know what dice to roll, should the GM ask for a roll. The GM doesn’t have to stop a dramatic scene while Batman looks for his Batrope skill. And we learn what Batman cares about.

Give your players a hammer. They’ll learn to use the rest of the toolbox later, if they want.

The Wheelman Rolls Out

Sometimes, I’m a perfectionist, and getting all the stuff I wanted in this took an extra week or so. It’s not just how to tuck the Wheelman into your list of Roles, but nine new talents, full breakdowns of Secondary Roles, rules for chases, races and games of chicken, pregen characters and more.