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!


  1. I usually started the fight without telling them the monster's AC, but as the fight went on and they were figuring it out on their own, I would just give them the number. Less for me to keep track of.

  2. I'm with Raggi on this one. There are many more compelling mysteries in D&D than the Armor Class of the goblin guards.

  3. I'm with Rients and Raggi - telling them just moves things along faster at the table. And that excitement you talk about is definitely there.

  4. I'm surprised that I actually agree with James on an aspect of DMing.

  5. Great post. I think there is a tendency to forget how rules/rulings literally affect play at the table.

    I think this is one of those counterintuitive things that makes having these discussions (and being observant like you were) so valuable. It seems like not knowing the target AC would be very dramatic and create excitement.

    But what actually happens is you just have to keep rolling until the DM says you hit. You never know that you just missed.

    I'd wondered about this myself, but now I'm sold: unless there is something deliberately mysterious about a creature, players will know the target AC.

  6. Thanks everyone for the great comments! It's interesting to see how different these responses are compared to those from the OD&D forum.

    @Telecanter: I was kind of surprised by the player reactions to the different approaches. Like you, I always assumed that mystery AC was more fun for players, however I wanted to keep things super-simple for the whitebox group so I went for full AC disclosure...

    The impact on actual play really became clear to me during a nasty goblin battle where players KNEW they had to roll a 14 or 15 or they might get killed next round. I really began to sense this gambling-like tension that was pretty cool and exciting. YOU KNOW WHAT YOU NEED, NOW ROLL OR DIE, MY FRIENDS!

    In "secret to hit" games you only get close to this kind of tension during the initiative roll.

  7. Speech is Silver
    --Silence is Golden.

    Dave and Phil Barker knew what they were talking about. ;)

  8. Wow, it just depends. Personally, I assume that most players have a general idea of the various ACs of monsters in the game...maybe that's a false assumption, but whatev...and that they have more important cerebral challenges than "figuring out the opponent's AC."

    On the other hand a NEW monster or particularly tough NPC with magical defenses? It's all right to leave 'em guessing (and I generally find heightened tension there, as well, as they still try to roll as high as possible).

  9. I always give the player the chance of success in non-combat situations. Generally one of them might walk up to a pit, peer in, peer across, and ask me if it looks like he could jump it. I figure it out and say something like "If you were unencumbered and had a running start, no problem. If you don't have one of those, roll (50% chance). If you're heavy and can't run up, no chance." I tell them this so they can make an informed decision on whether to try or not. Environmental puzzles seem commonsense to me from the perspective of the adventurer.

    However in combat I generally have them tell me the total roll and I tell them whether they hit or not. I have noticed the attempts at AC calculation. I do this because I think it's not so obvious how hard it is to injure something. On further reflection, I should tell them the AC as soon as someone hits, because now they know. I certainly wouldn't tell them the AC before anyone took their turn!

    I think the difference is the time to plan / evaluate and the obviousness of the difficulty. In the case of a leap outside of combat, you have plenty of time and you've been leaping all your life, so it should be clear how hard it will be. But if you're hitting a Giant who has stony skin and wears furs, how are you supposed to know how hard it will be to hit just by looking at him for a moment as his tree trunk club swings toward you?

    I think I might switch to giving AC information after Round 1 of combat ends, or after the first successful hit.