One thing you learn as a GM is that sometimes you need to ensure that rolls are fixed. And that is okay. Here is why.
When you transition from player to narrator (or GM), your long-ingrained sense of fair play makes fixing rolls feel like cheating. For a player, it would be. Players faking rolls spoils the game for everyone because it means they are no longer engaging with the system. When you narrate (GM), you are the system.
The primary function of a DM, GM, the narrator (or whatever your system calls the role) is to ensure the players have fun. You are there to present a compelling narrative, to arbitrate rules, and present obstacles for players to overcome. Luck should have nothing to do with it.
Why is there no save DC?
For example, in TPK: Ambush on the road to nowhere, there is no reflex save to avoid getting pelted with toxic globs. There is no perception DC for spotting the ambush only for spotting apple trees. If we were to rules lawyer the situation, yes there should be a perception DC for spotting the very well hidden goblins. However, for storytelling purposes, they’ve had time to prepare and you just did not notice them. Whatever perception you rolled their stealth check was that +1.
Part of the story and the encounter experience is not the fight itself, which a well-organised party should be able to win. Shield the healer, and put your tank(s) in the thick of it. But when you are done, and HP is low (and mounts might be dead too), you have to resource manage your characters continuing life to get the party to safety and recovery.
Moreover, the weakened party is more vulnerable making minor “on the road skirmishes” threatening and thrilling. That is the whole point of an encounter where TPK could happen.
Why are the dice rolls pre-determined?
In another encounter (not quite ready for you yet), I actually telly ou to roll some random dice and then announce a result. The rolls are fixed in advance. There is a good reason for fixed rolls.
The purpose of dice rolling is that it signals to the players that something is going down. They don’t know what, and they don’t know what the possible comes will be. But that rattle of dice adds tension to the moment.
From a player perspective, this is functionally no different to randomly determining what happens. The only difference is, all your efforts went only into the repercussions of the outcome. An outcome selected to be the most interesting one possible for the players.
The truth is, those dice rolls are not really dice rolls. They are storytelling tools. The sounds are non-verbal communications about the game.
They also serve another purpose. As a GM if you point to a character and say, “you stepped into a trap. It bites hard at your ankle. You are stuck and take 10HP and 2 bleed damage.” You know what will happen.
The player will say, “why are you trying to kill me?” They attribute the damage to you, the GM.
Instead, add a few ominous dice rolls before you say that and suddenly the event is attributed to the gods of dice, the fates, or just bad luck. In other words, the rolls are fixed to help the players engage with your plot point authentically. No one will challenge that you put one of your players in a bear trap. Instead, they will work together to get him out of it.
Now’s a great time for a “random” attack, if you ask me.
Your job is to make the encounter fun
When you run a game, you are doing a whole other type of role play. You are role-playing fair and impartial. The truth is you are the hand of cruel fate. You bring carefully timed disaster onto the players to see them get out of that one.
What I enjoy most about running a game is seeing my players so enthralled with their characters that they talk about them all the time. It has been over a year since a last ran a game and those characters are still talked about (as are their adventures, locations, and their greatest adversary).
It is one of the easiest ways to keep a game fresh – just do something unexpected. If it happens to flummox the players that’s just an added bonus (and a lot of fun as well).
Mix things up even if you have to make them up
What I enjoy almost as much is figuring out which enemies, skills, and abilities they most undervalue or underestimate and make them suddenly very important.
For a party that favours swords and perception checks, I’ll throw in a puzzle that needs various knowledge skills to progress. If they have the skill, they can solve it there and then but if not they have to drag the book back to town and dig up the nearest wizard and pay for getting schooled.
For a party that has wised up to the need to have some knowledge skills in the group, maybe I’ll have an NPC offer to get one of them into the castle but dressed as a butler – disguise check. And I’m going to roll those perception checks in opposition for real.
A party that has taken to intimidating the locals in lieu of a diplomacy roll. Say hello to a very well equipped town guards that are ready to stand up for the rights of the common folk. A party with too much gold that is getting buy with bribes? Meet my righteous and law-abiding paladin.
Turn strengths into weaknesses
Sometimes a little “dice fixing” can be used to usher in moments where the player’s greatest strengths are no longer the bulldozer they are used to.
GM: You have been discovered. The guard looks angry.
Player: No problem, I’ll use diplomacy to talk my way out of it. *rolls*
GM: *fakes a roll* The guard is not interested in your excuses. You are under arrest.
Of course, not only preordained outcomes can be sued to subvert player expectations. Sometimes you can stack the DC so high the skill is never going to cut it.
For a player with sneak attack and high stealth who has started to treat her ability like unlimited use invisibility, I’ll give them a well-lit street and guards with a very good perceptions score. Now, what are you going to do? Talking is a free action in case you’d forgotten…
“The rolls are fixed” is not a cheat, it is a tool
Like any tool, abuse fixed rolls and the players will notice and the game will seem forced. You want them to feel like they are champions of their own fate with a “fair” chance to make things happen. However, every now and then “fair” needs to bow before “good story”.
Overuse of this tool is called railroading and it is bad for players. Seriously, stop that. It sucks. Railroading destroys the illusion of free choice. But, like a little salt on your chips or the odd snack before bedtime, a little bit never hurt anyone.
Use the sound of dice well and it will enable you to keep your players on their toes at all times. Just don’t overdo it.