Bad Luck

Nothing’s quite so frustrating in a tabletop roleplaying game as waiting 5-10 minutes for your turn to finally come around, rushing into battle, rolling your dice… and failing to do anything. Whatever dice check you needed, you failed, and now your character swings wildly at nothing. You groan and then sit there for another 5-10 minutes until you can (hopefully) try again.

We hate this. We hate luck-gated turns. And what’s worrying: luck-gating* is prevalent in TTRPGs.

(*Preliminary Google searches reveal that “luck-gating” isn’t yet a word. Let’s coin this bad boy.)


Attack rolls and spell checks are a common mechanic throughout RPGs for determining if your character can do a thing. Before you even get to do the thing, you first roll some dice to see if you’re allowed to. Even in RPG-based board games, we see this mechanic come up. In Mice & Mystics, it’s making sure you roll more swords/bows than the enemy rolls shields. In the D&D Adventure System board games, it’s an attack roll against an enemy’s armor class. It’s a roll that you have to pass before you even get to see how powerful your thing will be. And it’s frustrating.

Luck-gating takes skill, strategy, and tactics and binds them to random probability. This isn’t bad for rolling damage or rolling skill checks—RPG aspects that benefit from some randomness—but when being able to take a turn is gated behind a random roll, then luck becomes the main gameplay mechanic. When luck is the primary gatekeeper, then players stop attempting risky plays and instead lean into higher probability plays. Which of my attacks is most likely to pass the attack roll; let’s do that one every time.

You can even see in D&D 5E that Wizards has tried to diminish luck-gating. Player characters quickly gain big bonuses to attack rolls while leveling up and can manipulate gaining advantage (rolling twice and taking the higher value) so that players spend far fewer turns simply missing.

Because if you’re missing on a luck roll, then you’re just plain missing out on getting to play.

It’s the biggest reason that we didn’t include attack checks in IRIS. From the beginning, one of our design principles has been that a player can do something on every turn, without having to first pass a dice roll. When you play a card, the effect happens. And then you might perform a roll to determine the potency of the effect.

We noticed a similar gameplay design in the board game Gloomhaven: you play a card, the thing on the card happens, and then a modifier deck and the enemies’ stats determine how powerful the card effect ends up being. This is wonderful! This avoids luck-gating while still allowing some random probability.

If you’re designing a game with dice rolls, stop to consider if you’ve included luck-gating. Can players perform a guaranteed action on every turn, or do they first have to pass a dice roll? What would happen if you let every action be guaranteed to take effect?

Guides, Dev DiaryHM