D&D players love to roll dice, but I wish they would stop bringing dice to VR Roleplays. Let me tell you why, and what can be done about it.
Dice In VR Roleplay
Roleplay in Virtual Reality has strong roots in tabletop roleplays like Dungeons And Dragons. That’s only natural, tabletop is a wildly successful and well-established roleplay format, meaning that many fresh VR Roleplayers already have tabletop experience. Those familiar to tabletop are used to settling contests with dice. If you are one of those new VR Roleplayers, read here to learn more about VR Roleplay.
Contests for this article are any time a player faces a challenging situation that might require a game mechanic to determine the outcome. That could be an attempt at a difficult alchemical process, an arm wrestling match, the persuasion of a guard, or the cleaving of a goblin in two.
In most tabletop roleplays contests are settled by dice. You roll one or many dice of a specific number of sides, add or subtract some kind of bonus or penalty, and determine the outcome. This adds a sense of randomness and unpredictability to the roleplay. For many players, these kinds of mechanics are integral to their roleplay experience. Others like me would disagree, but we’ll get to that later. First, let's discuss some alternatives.
In VR Roleplay, dice are cumbersome. A big reason for that VR Roleplay is just more fluid and active. The GM doesn’t have to describe the castle walls. The clothes and gestures of an NPC are right there for the player to see. Instead, there is a lot more time spent simply acting and reacting. This makes stopping to roll some dice a little bit jarring, and in the meantime, it’s tough to take out a character sheet and check your bonuses mid-session. This leads to simplified and streamlined methods of handling contests.
There are about as many methods of avoiding dice as there are stars under the sky, but I’ve selected a few that I think are useful that are easy to use in your next VR Roleplay experience.
Rock Paper Scissors
One way you can solve contests without using dice is a simple game of Rock Paper Scissors. It’s an obvious choice: Almost everyone knows how to play Rock Paper Scissors and it can be resolved in seconds. We used Rock Paper Scissors in a game called Ambitions, where various cutthroat ministers and knights are deciding the king's successor, by cunning or by force. If two players duel, the outcome is decided by a quick bout of Rock Paper Scissors. In one round, the winner beats the loser. If one of the players has some kind of advantage like the element of surprise they need only win one round while the surprised player needs to win two.
Importantly, Rock Paper Scissors is not meant to replace roleplaying the outcome. Once the winner is decided, players continue to roleplay, integrating the outcome into the scene. Rock paper scissors happens at the start of a duel and tells you who’s going to win, but it wouldn’t be nearly as immersive if the losing player just keeled over right then and there. The duel goes on, swords are crossed, but the outcome is decided. Players have the opportunity to make it dramatic, say their final lines, or to knock the losers' sword away and spare their life.
Pick A Number
Another solution is the Pick A Number system that was used by the winning team in a VR Roleplay Game Jam that I hosted. This system is sort of like rolling, but can be done without going into your menu and finding a dice roller. It’s helpful for those coming into VR Roleplay from tabletop for the first time and who are still working their way through all the unfamiliar concepts.
Pick A Number has the GM choose a number in their head between 1 and 15. Let's say they picked 7. The player would then try to guess the number. The closer the player got, the better the outcome. Let's say the player guessed 9. With a difference of two, if the contest was fairly easy the GM would allow a success. But if it were moderately challenging, the player would succeed with some kind of penalty. The lock clicks, the door opens, and an alarm sounds. If the contest was extremely difficult, the player would only succeed upon guessing the correct number.
Another option is to simply predetermine the outcome. This can range from making certain actions a guaranteed success to making pre-session agreements about the outcome of specific events. Sometimes players are more interested in experiencing a story than their autonomy over characters. This could be contentious, as a lot of roleplayers might consider this to be a game on rails.
My perspective is that players should do what they find fun and there’s a huge number of people who enjoy roleplay with predetermined outcomes. It’s called Jubensha, otherwise known as "Scripted Murder". Jubensha is a game where players all act out a murder mystery while reading from a script they’ve never read before. You might not have heard of it but Jubensha has been cited as the third most popular form of entertainment in China, it’s wildly successful and starting to emerge in western roleplay spheres as a story-driven roleplaying experience.
Roleplay without Mechanics
Speaking of playing for the fun of experiencing the story, there’s also the option of roleplaying without game mechanics. I know that's scary, without mechanics and damage numbers, how do you know if you're winning? Is it even roleplay? Winning in roleplay isn't about winning fights. I believe you're winning in role-play when you're having fun and contributing to the fun of others. I've interviewed a lot of people about their experiences in VR Roleplay, and most tell me that what they get out of it is a good story. To me, winning is really about having fun, ensuring others are having fun, and telling a good story together. You don't gamified mechanics to do that. There are other ways to separate roleplay from make-believe.
Roleplay is separated from make-believe or improv by the intent to tell a cohesive story within an established setting. When a group of people come together to consciously play out a story within a particular setting, that’s roleplay. There are guidelines you can use to keep things in line with the story everyone's looking to tell and unexpected twists and turns naturally develop as players act and react to events that unfold. You don’t need gamified mechanics to make that happen.
This is a lesson learned from Live Action Roleplay, or LARP for short, which has already gone through the process of trying to take tabletop roleplay mechanics and apply them to an environment better suited to fluid experiences. There’s an entire genre of LARP dedicated to immersion above all else called Nordic LARP, where game mechanics are seen as something that gets in the way of living as someone else for a moment, and instead, people focus on the artistic expression of a roleplay where everyone is in it for the experience.
As a roleplayer who’s in it for the story, I find that the Nordic LARP philosophy best suits me. I prefer not to roll any dice, but to choose the narratively interesting option when faced with a contest. I "Play To Lose", a term that apparently doesn't sit well with North Americans so it's also called "Play To Uplift". Playing to uplift means taking the loss for narrative purposes or generally not thinking of yourself as the main character. Instead, you want to play to uplift the experiences of those around you and trust that they will do the same for you. When you get roleplayers together who are all playing to uplift, magic happens. Roleplay progresses naturally and game mechanics start to just feel out of place.
Everyone has different preferences and there’s no one size fits all solution. I host one-shot roleplay experiences weekly in the Aexia community and almost all of them pull heavily on the philosophies of Nordic LARP. Other GMs in the community tend towards either that or simplified mechanics like rock paper scissors. Newer GMs often come from tabletop RP and try and find a way to fit dice into the mix because that’s the way they are comfortable with roleplaying. And that’s okay, although many of them do make the transition towards simplified methods.
If you are interested in experiencing a VR Roleplay for yourself, you should join the Aexia discord community. We’re even creating our own VR Roleplay platform called Aexia which you can play on Quest 2 headsets as well as Steam VR for free. It’s in closed beta right now and the first of its kind, a roleplay platform designed to cater to those VR Roleplayers who have spent years adapting roleplay to the VR medium. We want to make it easy to jump into VR RP regardless of your experience and there are beginner-friendly roleplays being run in Aexia all the time. Come check us out. We’d love to share the magic of VR Roleplay with you, that’s our passion and nothing makes us happier.