DM Advice: Command the dice, command the table
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
In Roll at your own risk, we explored the dangers of rolling a d20 when it simply isn't warranted. The eager fighter, more than capable of clearing a 12-foot wide gap, made an unprompted ability check to determine if they were successful. This impulse to roll can, at times, cause more trouble than the dopamine hit of challenging probability is worth. Therefore, it's important the Dungeon Master commands the dice at the table.
In essence, rolling an ability check is an optional, extra step sandwiched between "players describe desired actions" and "the DM narrates the results." It falls to the DM to indicate when a roll should be made by any given player. This is commanding the dice.
An ability check tests a character's or monster's innate talent and training in an effort to overcome a challenge. The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.
PHB. pg 174 | Using Ability Scores
This means no wild west dice rolling! I know that doesn't sound fun, but...
There are a few benefits to maintaining this command, which I will gloss over briefly:
We avoid introducing unnecessary risk (see aforementioned Roll at your own risk)
We establish a tenable pattern session to session that reduces DM mental strain and provides the players with a consistent framework to play in
Players are free to focus on meaningful interaction and declaring their intent (a topic for another day)
In practice, what does this look like and why is it better than the wild west way?
There are two takeaways from this simple example:
The player states what their character is doing, rather than saying they're going to roll to do something.
A cadence between the DM and the players is established.
The cadence can be defined as such:
DM describes a scene
[Optional] Players inquire further
[Optional] DM supplies more information
Players describe how they act in this scene given what they know
[Optional] DM prompts players for an Ability Check or Saving Throw, if applicable
DM narrates the results
This is the pattern mentioned earlier. It gives the Dungeon Master a structure to work within and creates a dialog with the players. At many tables, this is preferable to rolling like a rogue cowboy because it maintains order and flow. There's a lot more to be said about this pattern, which I'll save for later.
Commanding the dice is a social contract and requires cooperation from the whole table. Ideally, this is agreed upon in the crucial Session 0. It's important to understand the DM "commanding the dice" doesn't mean controlling or limiting the players' interactions, or how the party interfaces with the shared world. It's only meant to facilitate a smoother gaming experience by allowing an organic cadence to emerge.