This is RPG-ology #34: Invisible Coins, for September 2020.
This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Invisible Coins on July 27, 2001. It is only slightly edited for republication here.
You’ve probably heard the line about our strange and beautiful relationship—in which I’m beautiful, and you’re… well, I’ll assume you’ve heard it. My relationship with Multiverser creator E. R. Jones was, from the beginning, strange on both sides. There were many things about us that appeared similar (to the point that we were mistaken for brothers, and sometimes still people aren’t certain which of us the bearded dark-haired bespectacled faces in artist Jim Denaxas’ sketches depict). But the more we got to know each other, the more it appeared that we did many of the same things for very different reasons.
He wore a beard because shaving was inconvenient. I wore one because I didn’t like the feel of the sweat and oils on my face after shaving.
We both put ice in our coffee. I did it because I’m not very patient about beverages, and would certainly burn myself on it before it cooled. He, on the other hand, preferred his coffee cold, a throwback to his army days when that’s the only way he could get it. (And he was the cook.)
We were both highly respected for our skills at running Dungeons & Dragons, both of us having begun some time in 1980. My reputation was that I was closer to the book rules than just about anyone else. He, on the other hand, built his entire game on that phrase in the preface, “the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game,” regarding the rest of the system optional. We learned much from each other in the process of playing together, but our games were never the same, perhaps in some sense not even remotely similar.
And both of us had the habit of periodically tossing an invisible coin into the air and catching it, slapping it on our wrists ostensibly to see whether it was heads or tails, when someone asked a question which required thought. I did it as a stall tactic—while I pretended the coin was in the air, I had time to think before answering. It’s very like the professor who when a difficult problem is posed takes a long draw on his pipe and lets it out slowly (although I suppose the politically correct image today is probably a lazy sip from his coffee mug): you’re waiting for the answer, but my action obscures the fact that I don’t yet have it.
But E. R. Jones’ reason for tossing the invisible coin was very different, and quite enlightening. To him, the coin was a bit more real than it was to me. While it was in the air, there was a sense in which it could come down as either heads or tails; while it was in the air, he wondered which way it would land. While it was in the air, he let the question wash through him. By the time he caught it, he was already hoping, wishing for the coin to come down one way or the other, as if it could come down the wrong way and disappoint him or the right way and reward him.
And when he knew which way he wanted the coin to land, he knew what he wanted to choose.
Many times in my games I have to ask myself what I want to have happen. This is not always so simple a question as you might think; if I’m asking the question at all, it suggests that I’m conflicted, that I see several good (or maybe no good) directions. I can probably enumerate reasons to support any specific choice. Knowing what I want is not straightforward.
I could wish for a pocketful of his invisible coins. Forget coins—with the complexity of some of my choices, I need invisible dice.
But I have them. I have as many as I need. I watched my strange friend roll invisible dice, and heard them clatter on the table, and even saw him hand these invisible dice to players in his games. Oh, they didn’t look invisible at the time—they looked like ordinary dice. But what you saw wasn’t what he saw; and once you understand what he saw, you can see it, too.
It was often said of his games that the rolls didn’t matter. He knew what was going to happen, and handing you the dice was a way of making you feel like you were involved in the story which ultimately he was telling. He created the illusion that this was your story, but in the things that mattered it was his. I myself said that his original Multiverser mechanic appeared to be to roll the dice, look at them, and decide what it was he wanted to have happen. I went so far as to tell him that we couldn’t package that, so we were going to have to create mechanics that would achieve the same result for anyone who wasn’t him. Perhaps these are unfair notions; I believe still that I made a difference in the games in which I played. But I also think that he often used dice to hide his own control of the game.
And that’s what I’m going to recommend to you. In most games, your players don’t have to know a lot of the details they think they know. What’s my chance to hit this target? How would you know that? How much damage can this thing take before it’s dead? How would you know that? How badly can it hurt me? How would you know that? What would happen if I tried this? How would you know that? Consider all the things the player or his character really doesn’t know (or shouldn’t presume he knows, at the very least). No player should ever be in a position where he knows without question what a die roll is going to mean.
So hand the player the dice, and let him roll them. As the dice are falling, your heart will be rooting for someone or something—there will be an outcome you find yourself wanting. Once you know that, the die roll is almost irrelevant. Sure, if it’s what the player would see as an obvious success or failure, you should honor that perception (they’ll get very suspicious otherwise). But if your heart tells you that the players need fear in theirs, that is, if you’re hoping that roll will fail, turn the story that direction; and if your heart tells you it’s time for them to win, give them clues that they can do so.
A forum poster of my acquaintance has said, “We don’t need no steenkin’ dice.” That is very alien to my mindset. I am still the referee who perceives the game as fair if it follows the rules and who interprets the die rolls strictly. My D&D players know that the world they explore was designed in great detail long before they saw it, and that generally nothing was made based on my knowledge of them or their characters. These are good things, and I will not trade them for the flexibility of games which tell the story I want to tell and drag the players along for the ride.
But I have learned that much more of the story is in my hands than I once dreamt. And I’ve learned to use that, not to my advantage (I, after all, am the referee, the neutral arbiter of the game), but to the benefit of the story, to make the outcome more fun for everyone. I control so many of the elements unknown to them. If they don’t know the facts, I can change them on the fly. I don’t have to be locked in to my notes. I have to deliver excitement to my players.
I also have to find out if E. R. Jones is in any way related to me. Something must explain these weird similarities between us.