Who Rolls?


The idea of rolling to attack has been central to D&D since the very beginning.  However, the game has been inconsistent about non-melee attacks in this regard.  The concept of “saving throws” as defenses actively rolled by the players made the defensive side feel more active.  It let players feel like they had the control in their hands when it came to surviving major non-melee attacks like a dragon’s breath weapon or ingested poison.

The question of who rolls in a given situation is a pretty important one.  If you have to roll, you’re necessarily engaging with the mechanics of the game.  You presumably care about the results of the roll, and so making the player the active roller in a defensive scenario seems like kind of a bright idea.

On the other hand, there’s something to the elegance of a consistent system.  I think something feels “right” about the active participant in a contested action rolling the die.  This extends to wizards casting spells against non-Armor related defenses.  In 3e, wizards feel more passive, because you announce your spell action and then wait to see if the enemies can roll to beat your set casting level.  In 4e, the mechanic was flipped back to making the player the active participant.

I’m curious what the readers think about this decision by 4e to make all defenses static, and have all active players roll the die.  On the one hand, it gives the system some consistency and lets player-character spell casters toss the dice.  On the other, it stops engaging the players when it’s not their turn.

It seems to me we have the following mechanical options:

  • Active party always rolls the die
  • Active party rolls the die for common attacks, defensive party rolls the die for special attacks
  • Player characters always roll the die, whether they are attacking or defending
  • Both parties roll the die

Historically, both parties have not rolled dice for a contested action because, well, it’s swingy and would slow the game down.  It would also lead to possibilities of having the player roll an 18, only to have the monster roll a 19 on defense.  Averaging out the defenders score has no mechanical impact on the frequency of success or failure, but it does allow the player to enjoy high numbers and be consistently penalized for low rolls.  It’s also faster to resolve.

I think I’m between making the active party always roll the die, and letting the PCs always roll the die.  Allowing the PCs to roll the die would make them active on their turn and on the enemies turn, and would let them feel like they own their own fates.  This would be a bit slower than having the GM roll for the active actions of the monsters, and can also remove some of the mystery if the GM is hiding die rolls to avoid giving away the strength of combatants.

3 thoughts on “Who Rolls?

  1. Andy

    Between those two I am in favor of the active party rolls the die. I actually really like the idea of the PCs always rolling the die but I think it will make the entire system very difficult to create (especially for spells). Does that mean that all spells (not to mention special actions, class abilities, etc) have to have a PC version and an NPC version? The PC rolls to hit each enemy on the PC version of fireball, but when the PC is attacked by the fireball they roll to evade and the NPC doesn’t roll anything? I guess I’m open to the idea of how that would work, just doesn’t seem very intuitive to me.

    It’s particularly worrisome because I think creating spells is going to be one of the most difficult and time consuming things about creating this system. Tough to keep spells balanced. Having to figure out both sides of the spell equation so that the PCs get to roll all the time seems complex and IMO may create a larger problem (complexity) than it solves (action autonomy).

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      From a D20 system perspective, it’s pretty easy. Assume your roll is 10, then add the bonus – and that’s the DC. You’re basically averaging out one side of the roll so that if the other participant’s roll is high, they’re never “screwed” by an even higher roll by the opponent. Same with a low roll.

      Basically, there’s no difference between having the active party roll or the defending party roll, and converting those numbers is very simple. On top of that, I plan on using a simplified monster set up that would have powers that basically set the number up for you based on monster level.

  2. Pingback: Defenses | Lost Worlds

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