Friday, April 23, 2010

Should DMs Tell Players What They Need To Roll?

I am currently running two D&D campaigns – one using the original D&D whitebox rules, and one using Labyrinth Lord, which is a clone of the early ‘80s Basic/Expert Sets. In the Labyrinth Lord game I usually DON'T tell players what they need to roll to hit an opponent in combat. I allow them to deduce how tough their opponent is by whether or not their die rolls produce an effect. In my whitebox game I usually DO tell the players what they need to roll to hit.

I have noticed something interesting happening in the whitebox game. With each die roll there is a certain heightened tension where everyone is gathered around the table with bated breath, watching the die, hoping it will come up nice. It's like playing craps in Vegas. If a hit comes up there are cheers and high-fives, if it's a miss there are groans.

Contrast this with the Labyrinth Lord game, where each die is quickly thrown and then followed by a short discussion of what the opponent’s armor class might be. A somewhat more cerebral gaming experience, to be sure.

As an experiment, in our last whitebox game I switched over to the “secret to hit” roll. The cheers were instantly replaced by the armor class deduction discussions. Very interesting.

I made a post at the OD&D Discussion board asking other DMs if they tell players what they need to roll to hit an opponent in combat. Twelve people responded. Only ONE person said they regularly share this information with players… Lo and behold it was James Raggi who said:
“Such secrecy bugs me, as it serves no purpose other than to give me more stuff to keep track of and I'm not so interested. I just tell the players their opponents' AC, and they tell me if they hit. I figure anyone locked in combat will have a pretty good idea of how difficult it is to damage their opponent anyway.”

One of the twelve respondents, Finarvyn (the OD&D forum administrator), said he sometimes tells players what they need to roll:
“Often I'll not tell the players the first time they encounter a monster, but after they hit a time or two I'll share that information to save time.”

TEN of twelve were all very adamant about not telling players what they need to roll. I think these views were summed up nicely by howandwhy99:
“Never. Or for any roll. It defeats the entire design of the game, if a referee does this. IMO it is the purpose of the game for the players to figure out what works and how through play.”

It is interesting to note that the original 1975 TSR character sheet had no AC / To Hit chart (or saving throws, armor class, or hit points for that matter). This implies a gaming style where the DM kept track of most target numbers:

Image from The Acaeum.

Contrast the 1975 character sheet with the 1980 character sheet (what I use for all my games), which clearly states the "TO HIT ROLL NEEDED", along with savings throws, etc. This implies the players should have and use this information:

Based on my own thoughts, and input from the OD&D Forum posts, I tried to summarize arguments for both styles of play...

Arguments in favor of telling players:
  • It seems reasonable that a PC could quickly surmise its opponent’s toughness
  • Vegas-like excitement for rolling a target number
  • AC/To Hit chart on old TSR character sheets implies this should be open knowledge
  • Faster and easier
  • Makes it harder for DM to fudge

Arguments in favor of secrecy:
  • The player, not the PC, should surmise its opponent’s toughness by deduction
  • Your roll model Dave Arneson said "Don't ask me what you need to hit. Just roll the die and I will let you know!"
  • Adds a fun mystery element – players need to track rolls to infer opponent’s AC
  • Makes it easier for the DM to fudge
  • The first TSR character sheet did NOT have AC/To-Hit chart (for those folks who want to keep it "Oldest School")

I enjoy playing both ways, so for a time I'll probably try Finarvyn's model and switch back and forth depending on the situation. For weird, new, or mysterious opponents keep it a secret. For common stuff like goblins let them know. We'll see how it goes!