Player Choice: DC VS AW

TabletopRPGs have their roots in a universal phenomena: Playing Make Believe. I’m sure we all remember those times as a kid when we would prowl around the house and shout “Bang! you’re dead!” and the other would respond “No! I dodged it, you missed!”. Initiate tumbling match, and start the game over again.

Tabletop games became popular because they give some form, function, and limits to playing Make Believe. “No, you didn’t hit me because my gun is bigger than your gun.” Eventually, the rules began to expand, and chance was included to make the game tense. The element of random chance also obfuscated the outcome, giving the players the possibility of overcoming a great challenge. “Alright, heads I hit you, tails you hit me.”

You get the idea. Rules become more strict, grids were drawn, ranges, THACO, percentages, multi-sided dice, etc. Now we have 400+ page field manuals detailing rules, options, exceptions, tables, and lists. Why so many rules? Why do things get more complicated than “heads you win, tails you die”? Well, the answer, of course, is choice.

People want to make their own choices, and solve problems however they see fit. That’s what makes TabltopRPGs far superior to Video Games. In a video game, you may be able to jump, shoot, and use items. But every problem has a limited number of solutions; with games like Deus Ex being praised for offering more solutions available than normal.

Tabletop games have an INFINITE number of solutions available to any given problem. The GM can react to anything the players do….well, most things anyways.

Since the GM can react to what the players want, then the rules can help determine the outcome of the player’s actions. There are several main ways that most tabletop rule systems facilitate this, and I’ll go into some of the popular ones, with its strengths and flaws.

DC Checks

I covered this issue a bit from the GMs perspective, but I wanted to revisit it from the player’s point of view as well, since DC Checks aren’t nearly as painful for the players.

To sum up, almost every task has a difficulty level, and in order to complete a task successfully, players must be able to roll the dice higher than that number. Since most games provide ways for players to gain all sorts of bonuses from their items, experience, or training, the players have direct control over their chances of success. Depending on how they create their characters, and what they choose to focus on, players can better ensure victory in different areas of capability.

For example, if I want to play an archer, then I would put a lot of points into my archery skills. I now have a +10 to all my archery rolls. If I have to roll a 13 to hit the bandit, then all I really need to roll is a 3 or higher: giving me an 85% chance of success. That’s pretty good! I will most likely hit the bandit. However, if someone gets the jump on me, and I need to roll a 9 or higher to use my knife, I won’t get that bonus. Using my knife only allows me a 55% chance of success. That’s better than half, but it shows the consequence of focusing on archery instead of one-handed weapons. That’s a player choice that I made, and it directly impacts what kinds of choices I am good at in the game. The dice are random, so it’s possible I might fail with my bow, or succeed with my knife, but statistically, I get to decide where my strengths lie.

Narrative Resolution

Apocalypse World is the example I will use, since it’s what I am most familiar with, although I believe FATE works similarly. Apocalypse World doesn’t have difficulty checks, and in general there is less rolling involved. Instead, the way that characters describe their actions and the storytelling methods directly affect what rolls are made an why.

Apocalypse World doesn’t set a goal for success, instead it creates 3 possible results of every action that requires a dice roll. AW has a long detailed section on when to roll, and when not to roll. I won’t get into it here. Every time you take an action that triggers a dice roll, there are 3 possible outcomes:

10+ is a Success! you did exactly what you were trying to do!
7-9 is a success, but with some cost or setback. You succeed, but something bad still happens.
6- is a failure, and you did not accomplish or finish what you were trying to do. Something bad happens

EVERY roll has these outcomes. You can get some bonuses, but only up to +3, which brings a middle to a full success, or a failure to a middle success. The bonus isn’t enough to change a complete failure to a complete success.

Using the example above, I have nearly the same chances with the bow as with the knife, or with my fists, or with the wizards staff that I borrowed, or the grenade passed into my hands. EVERY rolls has nearly the same chances, allowing players to basically do whatever they want, instead of focusing and pre-planning what they are good at. To make up for the lack of player builds and skill choices, AW encourages narrative explanations and fitting consequences.

Narrative explanations mean that players describe in great detail what they are doing, and how they are doing it. Then, they roll the dice, and the GM tells them how things worked out. Usually, a player will succeed in what they are doing, but it will have some unintended side-effect, which is was makes it so important to describe what and HOW you are doing that.

GM: “The goblin fires an arrow towards your gut from across the room.”
Player: “I dodge the arrow, put my head down, and charge forward, my sword raised high, and bring it down on his head.” *rolls an 8*
GM: “You make it to the Goblin, and slay him, but now you’re on the other side of the room, surrounded by the other goblins and split from the rest of your group. What do you do?”
GM: “The goblin fires an arrow towards your gut from across the room.”
Player: “I pull a knife from my belt, and throw it towards his head.” *rolls an 8*
GM: “You hit the goblin, and as he falls, he triggers one of the traps laid by his companions, causing the ceiling to start crushing everything in the room. What do you do?”

The consequences of an action are DIRECTLY related to the action you took, and it requires a lot of creativity and quick-thinking on behalf of the GM to handle those things.


Both of these systems have their strengths, and their weaknesses. Recently, my group has started to realize that EVERY roll they make in Apocalypse World has similar chances and results. This kind of takes away the fun for them, and after 5-6 months of playing, it’s time for us to move on.

Numenera has a simplified difficulty system, and it allows players to customize and build their characters to be better at certain things than others. Right now, my group loves it. Who knows, we may switch back to AW eventually, or try something completely different.