GM-Player Trust in an Open Roll System

Games like D&D have the game master (GM) secretly think of a target number (TN) for the player to roll against. In traditional RPGs, the hidden information of the TN adds a level of uncertainty and excitement for the players. The players generally shouldn’t know exactly what they’re up against, mathematically, instead relying on the GM’s descriptions to judge how difficult a task or enemy will be. However, in Hostargo, I have chosen to use an open-knowledge TN called the challenge rating (CR), where players get to not only know what this number is, but they will know it before they roll.

Hidden TNs are a tried and true method that has worked in RPGs for decades, giving the GM considerable control over the flow of the game’s events.. But newer games have shown us that this isn’t the only way. Games like Apocalypse World use such a simple engine that the players always know not only the chances of success, but the results as soon as they roll. Games like Numenera do exactly what CRs in Hostargo are going to do: the GM says a number, and then the player tells the GM the result.

The biggest issue with the secret information system is trust. When the GM withholds information about the game, players have no insight as to whether or not the GM is being ‘fair’. This often leads to misfortunes turning into grudges; feelings of being ‘robbed’ and ‘railroaded’ can ruin a game, even if the GM wasn’t actually fudging numbers.

“Open roll” systems takes away some of the mental burden from the GM: often the most burdened player at the table. Having the player do math and comparisons helps keep the GM focused on the scene’s events. An open roll system also helps the GM keep the game ‘balanced’, in terms of relative numbers. The GM is forced to keep the numbers exactly as they should be, ensuring that, in the views of the players, the numbers are consistent. This helps keep everyone grounded in both the rules and the game world.

In practice, I’ve found that secretive rolls slow the GM down in the already most time-consuming aspect of most RPGs: tactical combat. The players often deduce the TNs down to a few possibilities anyway, so the benefits of the numbers being secret are quickly lost. Open CRs, on the other hand, also allow the players to see exactly how institutional factors like cover, fog, and flanking are affecting their battles. Having this information in the open provides structure, and keeps players focused on ‘the game’ at hand.

Tactical combat brings us back to trust. In general, players will have less issues losing a particular battle when they know the GM wasn’t rigging the game against them. You might be thinking, “but the GM can always rig the numbers and story against the players”. True, but once a scenario is set up, players take pride in ‘winning’ with what is presented, and feel lame when the GM controls the scene with numbers rather than story elements. This conversation starts to get into good GMing practices, but open rolls simply removes this possibility altogether.

Additionally, Hostargo will be focused on games where the players play as law enforcement, so having that feeling of fairness is important to the overall atmosphere of the game. In contrast, games where evil reigns supreme (e.g. horror games) might benefit from secret TNs, since it adds to the mystery and uncertainty of the game. Hostargo is also going to be a generally action-heavy and combat-focused game, meaning that I want every last ounce of speed I can get out of my engine, and pulling pressure off of the GM is a great way to do that.

I have decided to go with an open-roll, non-secretive CR system for Hostargo. These systems can work well; having their own benefits and feel compared to more traditional hidden TN systems.