This Friday, I showed Freebooters on the Frontier to yet another a new group of players. Everyone told me they very much enjoyed the game, and there seemed to be strong interest in reconvening. One of the players, a very experienced gamer (who it turns out had in fact been a backer of “The Perilous Wild” 🙂 commented that he very much enjoyed our particular game, comparing it very favorably to Dungeon World “classic” and other games, and pointing out that he especially liked the extent to which each of the players had been involved in the story and the action. We talked specifically about this had occurred in some part due to a technique I use called “passing the die.” I thought I should share it here.

What I do is have players pass a large d6 (or other token) around the table, using it to indicate which of them will be asked to make the next “procedural” move (almost always a “Travel” move). After we resolve that move—and everything that follows directly, the die is passed to the next player.

I proposed—and we adopted—this method after noticing that certain players in each group would “claim” very regular moves that they’d be likely to succeed at. The most wise player is most often chosen to Scout Ahead. The most intelligent player always Navigates. This is fine and well within the fiction, and makes perfect sense, but more rolls means more chances to earn XP. This proved to have a pronounced effect on uneven advancement in our travel-heavy games!

Now, “passing the die” definitely tinkers with the core mechanic of Dungeon World, so I’d like to state at the onset of any discussion that my groups tend towards “collaborative improvisation.” In this style, players tend to agree that it’s OK to share control, at least to the extent that it enhances everyone’s enjoyment.

So if “the die” (or the shell, or the plastic unicorn, or whatever) indicates which player will be in the spotlight—either during the day’s travels, or on watch, or during whatever open-ended (passive, procedural) situation arises, play also passes around the table. This could be “SCOUT AHEAD” or “NAVIGATE” or “MAKE CAMP” or “STAY SHARP”, “MANAGE PROVISIONS”, “MAKE A SAVING THROW”, or whatever move seems appropriate. I’ll then tailor the fiction so it asks for the required move from the player holding the die.

To be clear, the turn-by-turn cycling does NOT necessarily mean—in the fiction or otherwise—that the “best” character isn’t really the one conducting an activity they are clearly best at. Rather, we use the fiction to focus on our “surrogate” while leaving room for other actors and agents to carry on however they imagine.

In many cases I will ask the player with the die to tell me how they become pivotal in the move of the moment. If they need help, we’ll come up with something together.

Here’s an example for SCOUT AHEAD: “As the others talk (and talk and talk) about what the scout found (or didn’t find) you [impetuous thief] grow tired of waiting and wander away to look again over the valley below. Roll +WIS to see if you notice anything out of the ordinary.”

Here’s an example for NAVIGATE. “While planning the route, there is some disagreement about which way is best. As it happens, eyes somehow turn to you [dim warrior] to cast the deciding vote. Roll+INT and let’s see what happens next…”

Here’s one for MANAGE PROVISIONS: “Have you noticed that every night this priestess cooks the same bland Northern-style food? When she asks you to watch the pot, you [clever mage] decide to ‘tweak’ the recipe a bit. Let’s see how THAT goes… Roll +WIS.”

So, as I’ve said, this method is working great for us. Dungeon World is already very good at distributing XP during typical RPG combat situations, where each character’s beefy “prime requisite” score results in lots of successes, plenty of narrative advances, and regular-enough failure. Here, the chances to roll for more individual moves are shared as well. In a sense, “non-combat fun” is also therefore more evenly shared. Aside from these mechanical aspects, I find that the play style which emerges reflects the micro-push-and-pull of real life character-driven situations in a fun and familiar way.

So that’s how and why we pass the die.

If there’s interest, I’ll post more of my thoughts on this, covering how I sometimes (objectively) ask players to use an ability that is NOT specifically the one mentioned in a given move, or how I try to “forge the fiction of failure” around the kinds of character substitutions that occur.

9 thoughts on ““PASS THE DIE””

  1. I’m certainly interested in knowing more. I love it as a way to shift the focus and distribute spotlight time. What do you mean by “objectively” asking players to use a non-specific ability?

  2. OK let’s discuss objectivity, which I feel a GM should seek when asking players to roll against abilities other than those that are specifically called for in the travel moves.

    First, a word on the purported problem. Since ALL of the FotF TRAVEL moves except “Make Camp” hinge on WISDOM or INTELLIGENCE, Clerics and Mages will often be at an advantage when making these rolls, simply because their players typically pump those scores.

    This in fact causes the very pattern of play that gave me the idea to start asking players to “pass the die” in the first place. But then, if the brainy characters are still going to be at an advantage when the die is passed, we’ve distributed the rolls but not de-skewed them, and the problem is still there, in part at least.

    When I realized this, I began to look for a way to VARY what might be required during travel. I now regularly ask players for rolls against abilities that would bring their different strengths and weaknesses to bear.

    (Aside: I ruled out changing all travel moves to “ROLL + NOTHING” because, frankly, that’s less fun. I ruled out, “Describe what ability you use and roll +that ability” because frankly, I want to drive both success and failure, again, mostly for fun.)

    I naturally gravitated towards using the fiction. This isn’t hard to do with a bit of imagination. Ask the cleric what she has to nimbly execute (Roll +DEX) during the scouting mission. Make the mage roll +CON and describe what it is like to endure hard travel so his companions can in fact press on along a difficult but advantageous path while navigating. Make the fighter roll +CHA and describe how she convinces the party to trust her instincts about which trail to take. Ask the thief to roll+WIS and detail what went right or wrong when he tried to “lend a hand” while the Solor the Omnipotent was managing provisions.

    In setting these moves up, I use phrases like, “As it happens in the course of a day’s travel through an unknown wilderness…” or “Momentarily finding yourself slightly ahead of/behind the group, you get the strange feeling that…” Or I ASK: “Tell me, Objaarus of the Slaan, how it is that your own strength is being tested by this stretch of the journey across Vetheyideha?”

    The trouble with all this is of course that it would be purely subjective to simply take away the intelligent character’s chance to navigate smartly or the wise character’s ability to scout well at every turn. How then does a GM decide when a character should be handed a random “Passing of the Die” roll that capitalizes on their scores, versus one which potentially poses a steeper challenge?

    The classic way to handle this might be to simply roll a d6 and roll+ the score indicated (1=STR, 2=INT, etc.) This embraces the random spirit of our beloved game, but I’ve found it can seem TOO random when you combine “who happens to have the die” “what do they happen to be doing” and “what do they happen to roll.”

    What I’ve leaned towards lately is secretly noting which characters have had what strength/weakness tested by travel in the current session. I have a GM’s sheet I’ll share that works nicely for this. It’s pretty unobtrusive. By the way, it’s also nice to throw in a few rounds where everyone gets to use their best score (“An auspicious day!), or their worst (“A cursed journey”) or either… (roll +luck and I’ll tell you what to do next).

    What I NEVER vary is that UNDERTAKE A PERILOUS JOURNEY is divided into two rolls, each with its distinct rewards or consequences as listed in the rules under SCOUT AHEAD and NAVIGATE (though I don’t always call out the names of these moves during play anymore). Likewise, within the fiction, I don’t strictly peg SCOUT or NAVIGATE to a given order, or a given time of day. You can imagine scouting, navigating, scouting some more, navigating some more, and so on, all day and into the night, as new twists unfold in a journey. “In the late afternoon, you’re investigating the possibility that the best way might to a safe rest may in fact be to head west around that great bluff. That’s when…”

    So in closing, if you like asking players to “Pass the Die”, yet feel that this does not result in a controlled and even fair chance at success and failure (XP), try mixing up what you ask them to roll, but don’t do so off the cuff, or you risk inadvertently replacing one skewed system with another.

    PS: Remember back when I said that we should assume the best people for each job are regularly doing that job—but we still want to pass the die to encourage broader participation at the table and spread the XP love? One thing that I’ve found is fun is to set up a sense of this specialization by weaving multiple characters into the fictional setups: “Berenga, you tried to heed the wisdom that old Shand imparted to you earlier about scouting for this trip. You really did. You had the strength, after all, to swim across to the island, but you just couldn’t listen about not wandering to far, could you? Now you find you may in fact be lost. I need you to roll +INT so we can find out how long it takes you to find your way back to camp with news of your discoveries, if any…”

  3. Really like this, we just ran a session and I’d decided to really focus the story on one of the players who needed to do some fleshing out of his character, which led to some complaints from others who weren’t as involved in those scenes.

    Something like this could be a great reminder to shift things around and keep everyone – if not in the principle action, at least sharing focus.

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