How D&D Dungeon Masters Can Benefit from Uncertainty Beyond the Dice Roll: The Art of Losing Control
Updated: May 10, 2019
In any D&D campaign, players want to know the rules of engagement. A wizard thinks they need to know what to prepare for to be as efficient with their spell choices as possible. A rogue wants to know if there are traps ahead so they can disarm them. They want to know what they are walking into. They want to know everything.
Players demand certainty.
Some players are paralyzed by uncertainty. They refuse to move forward until they have at least a degree of confidence about a positive outcome for their choices. This is natural for real choices but when playing Dungeons and Dragons, it is not real life and there are no real world consequences for our character’s actions, yet we often play as though there are.
But Dungeons and Dragons is a game that at its core embraces uncertainty.
How do we simulate uncertainty in Dungeons and Dragons? Through the rolling of dice.
Interesting drama emerges from the chance for failure. Would we be as on the edge of our seats if we knew what was coming? How would things play out? Do we want to know who wins the Super Bowl before we watch it? If we knew the winning hand in a game of poker, would we still keep betting?
D&D is at its most interesting when both the players and the Dungeon Master do not know what is going to happen next.
It is the Dungeon Master’s job to carefully introduce uncertainty into the story.
D&D is a game of collaborative storytelling facilitated by dice. Dice simulate uncertainty for branches in the narrative. A die should only be rolled when a branch is desired. It is deeply unsatisfying to the players when a die roll (success or failure) feels like it didn’t matter.
For example, a group of adventurers encounter the simplest of obstacles, a locked door. The thief attempts to pick the lock with their thieves' tools. The branches in the narrative represented here are:
A) The door getting unlocked
B) The door staying locked
If the players fail to open the door and it still opens somehow anyway, they feel like their time was wasted and that they don’t matter. They feel like they have no agency in the world. They no longer feel like they are collaborators in the story.
DMs can devalue their players by introducing the illusion of uncertainty when they had only one outcome in mind.
Beyond the Dice
How do we preserve the magic of uncertainty without introducing a branch in the narrative—without rolling any dice? How do we communicate what is in our imaginations while still leaving things to be explored? How do we say your character doesn’t know ‘“x” without implying there is something to be known?
In a recent D&D session my character stated a belief about the world to a fellow player, a wizard:
“Aren’t all the gods imprisoned?”
The wizard’s response (to the DM), “Does my character know this to be true?”
The DM replied, “No, what Rife [my character] just said is his opinion, and it may or may not be true. It is up to your character to decide if he agrees with it. But, no, it is not common knowledge.”
This was done without a die roll. If the Dungeon Master had called for a religion or a history check it would have been up to the dice to decide whether his character believed it or not, but with either success or failure the player would have assumed there was something to be known. The DM ruled this piece of information as an opinion that is not common knowledge— certainly uncertain.
Dungeons and Dragons is a game fundamentally about uncertainty. It is the burden of the Dungeon Master to carefully control where to introduce the chance for failure into the story so that the players feel they have agency.
I will continue to explore the concept of uncertainty in Dungeons and Dragons through a series of articles in the coming weeks with: On Traps, On Puzzles, On Skill Checks, and On Railroading.