In the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, the idea for this post is not completely my own. It was mentioned in passing on the Dice of Doom podcast many episodes ago, and got my wheels turning. Since then, I have been testing the idea, both with my own group and with all of the tables I judged at Gencon. It works beautifully.
Getting players to go beyond naming off powers and actions in a generic way and move into being more descriptive can oftentimes be a bit like pulling teeth. Sure, it’s easier to say “I use XYZ” power, or “I’m going to make an athletics check to jump,” but there is something lacking in the story when players don’t participate in the narrative to the same extent as the DM. That is to say, the story and game are richer when players are as descriptive as possible with their actions. While I don’t think that there is one single rule that can help DMs to increase the level of description that players engage in, I do think that the following rule goes a long way. (While this does work with attack powers, I’m specifically going to address using it with skill checks because that’s how I use it most often)
Players are to narrate actions after they know the outcome of their roll
Why does this work so well? If you ask, “what are you saying with this diplomacy roll?” before the roll, you’ll always get a flowery speech from the player, also known as the “right answer.” The player is doing this for a very specific reason. They want the mechanical +2 to their roll. Plus, who is going to assume that their character is about to suck?
(We must also consider that the story encounters a problem when the speech is wonderful, and the skill check is a failure. What does that represent? How does a DM or a player reconcile a perfectly persuasive argument and all the right social manners with an unsuccessful roll?)
The great thing about asking “what happens?” after the die roll is this: the result has been determined, and that will guide the role playing in a definite direction. Many times players need that guidance to help them tell the story. (Heck, the DM needs that guidance too; for them however, it’s not in the form of a die roll, but in planning the plot and scenes ahead of time.) Ask after the roll, and you’ll get a whole range of situation descriptions from absolute failure all the way up through wild success. When a player knows the outcome of their efforts before describing them, it engages the imagination in a broader way. A player no longer has to imagine only what heroic success looks like, but they must also think of ways that a skill check or attack could be stymied. Oh, and did I mention? Narrating failure is fun.
Expect that doing this will be a bit awkward at first. Players don’t always expect to hear “Your skill check is an abysmal failure. What does that look like?” But as you get better at asking the question, and the players get better at coming up with an answer, you’ll find that player engagement will increase, and that there will be more laughter around the table. You may even find your players narrating their outcomes without being asked. (By the way, saying “All I see is my feet,” noticing irrelevant details, or acting distraced in response to a failed Perception check isn’t funny. And no, it was never funny. It’s also a terrible example of what I’m advocating in this article.)
One final note: don’t overdo it. I don’t encourage my players to narrate every single attack, nor do I ask them to narrate every skill roll. Turns would get even longer, and we don’t need that. Plus, sometimes there’s just not a whole lot to be descriptive about. Be judicious as to when you ask the question – wait for key moments in the story or for moments when a character succeeds or fails by a wide margin.
So what about the +2 bonus to the roll for “good roleplaying”?
The DMG gives DMs guidance for granting a +2 bonus to rolls for good roleplaying before the roll. In our diplomacy example, that +2 is why we get flowery speeches and “right answers.” There are a few ways to deal with this, and still preserve the integrity of narrating actions after the roll. Choose the solution that works best at your table.
- Add a contingent +2 – the +2 bonus will only push the roll from failure to success a percentage of the time. Instead of granting the +2 before the roll, mentally add it onto the result, and decide if it will make a difference in the outcome of the check. If it will, inform the player that they’re going to have to “try something crazy (or drastic, or unexpected) to get it to work.” See what they come up with, and decide if it’s worth a +2. The great thing about this method is the story for failures is practically built in – because they tried something “crazy” and failed, it won’t be hard to extend descriptions to WHY it failed, and hilarity is sure to ensue.
- Allow players to describe what they’re going to “try” to do, and award the +2 based upon that bit of description. This solution is the addition of a small 3 letter word to their descriptions, but makes all the difference. Instead of describing what the character is ACTUALLY doing, the player is instead describing what the character PLANS to do. When the degree of success or failure is determined, the player can then describe where the plan had unexpected help, or where it went awry.
- Award generic +2’s after the fact. The +2 is generally awarded for immersive descriptions and player engagement in the story. If a player does these things based upon the outcome of their skill check, award them a +2 to a future skill check (for example, in the form of a poker chip) after the fact. This particular method doesn’t hook up the specific skill check and story description with the bonus, but players may appreciate the increased flexibility of the bonus. You may find them describing skills that they auto-succeed on, just to get a +2 bonus on a later skill check where they really need it. And isn’t that really the point of the +2? You want more story, more engaging description, and less “I don’t need to roll. I auto-succeed on athletics.”
As I mentioned in the intro, the simple switch of asking “what happens?” after the roll has made a huge difference at my tables. I think I saw the biggest effect at my Gencon tables when players often seemed caught off guard by the switch, but quickly picked up on what I was asking. Give it a shot – there’s no time investment on your part. In fact, you may find that there’s less of a narrative load on your shoulders, as your players take on more of the storytelling. Everyone wins.