Fictional Causes in d20 roll-over systems



You have all seen the problem:

I attack.
You miss.
I attack.
You hit!
12 damage! I attack.
You miss.

How do you guys go about making HOW the heroes do things just as important as WHAT they do?

How do you make attacking a monster not just a mechanical cause with a mechanical effect, but also a fictional cause with a fictional effect in the system?

I think one way to do this without changing much of the system is in monster design. Have mechanical effects for the monster based on how it is being attacked.

Have the Monster Stats be something like this:

Skeleton: 10HP + 2 rolls

When hit, choose one based on the details of the attack:

  • Attack goes through bones, no damage
  • ribs are smashed, all Attempts HARD
  • skull is knocked off, next attack try to grapple enemy
  • etc.

This way the GM needs to know HOW the hero attacks.

It’s sort of like reverse Monster AI

The harder question is: how do you make the world like this?

How do you make sure the Strength check to jump over the chasm and grab the outstretched friend of your ally just before the wolves get to you is more than just a roll? How do you make the details of HOW they scramble over and jump required for the system?

Oh, and I am specifically trying to stay within the d20 system.

Thoughts? Or am I just crazy? :stuck_out_tongue:

Inspired by reading this:


I usually just throw some flavor text out to the players. They rarely simply miss. Rather, the bandit chief ducks low under your swinging blade. The cultist jumps back at the last second, as your axe tears through his robe rather than his skin. Your laser pistol makes only a glancing blow against the robot’s upper arm.

It doesn’t take much effort on my part to sprinkle these little descriptions into the fight. I try to emote a bit to keep the energy up for my players.

I like your altered attack patterns based on what happens, but I’d likely forget all of it in the heat of the moment, even if I had the stat block up in front me! I do try to shuffle up tactics: falling back, regrouping, simply running away, etc.


Yeah, adding in flavor text seems to be the easies way to add a bit of detail. But it’s not strictly required by the system, so if people are worn out, had a bad day, etc. That can slip up and the quality of the game can suffer.

Example, “I want to dodge out of the way of the minotaur’s charge” clatter of dice “You are dying and now partially stuck to the stone wall of the cavern, what do you do?”

Do you see how the details of the hero’s action don’t matter? You go straight from Intent to Effect. Completely skipping how the hero dodges out of the way, and skipping the execution of the dodge itself. This example would work completely fine in most games and the system would just chug along.

So, how do we make sure the rules literally don’t function unless they have input from the fiction?

This way, describing your hero doing things is mechanically important to the functioning of the system of the game.

Am I making sense?


I applaud you to try and find mechanical ways to make such description required. I caution you to ensure such mechanics don’t slow the game down.

I wholeheartedly echo @skippy that their misses are your golden opportunities to be the biggest dork at the table and inspire your players to do the same.

At my table, I promote PbtA’s technique: Begin and end with the Fiction. If a player falls into the “I attack” trap, I simply ask, “what does that look like?” My players are really good about answering this creatively.

Side note: I should use all five senses in this situation. “What does that sound like?” “What does that feel like?” Thank you for giving me the opportunity to level up! :smiley:


Sure. But since we’re all playing a make believe game, there are always going to be times when the rules don’t accurately reflect what we’d all like to see in our mind’s eye.

You want to dodge the minotaur? Good idea, roll for DEX against the room target number. The beast is coming at you full bore, so it’s HARD. rolls and misses You feint to the left before jumping right, but the minotaur is not fooled and your jump propels you into the giant axe swinging at you!

The result of the hero’s action was determined by the roll of the dice. If you don’t want to rely on random results, then don’t require a roll. Oh, you want to dodge the minotaur? Tell me what you had in mind. Tumble directly toward him, rolling low on the ground and using your years of training in Crumbo’s Curious Circus? Hell yeah, you can do this move in your sleep, no roll. The monster plows past you, while you deftly run over to the rune-covered stalagmite.

It’s a balancing act between the Rule of Cool, how much plausibility and verisimilitude you and your players like, and how much everyone enjoys rolling the dice.


Note that in this scenario, the only thing the hero player did was communicate they wanted to dodge, and roll dice.

I want to move the dice rolling to after the player of this character describes what is in bold, and have that affect their roll somehow. Or at least the effects of their roll.

It’s not about rolling of dice versus Rule of Cool. I still want randomness, and I still want the randomness to determine the hero’s results. I just want the choice of how the hero dodges to matter to the dice.

@Andreas, super good point about not wanting to slow the game down. I definitely don’t want to do that.


the way that i like to treat this (on top of flavorful descriptions and encouraging creative actions by taking creative actions with my enemies) is to sometimes give my enemies CHUNKS.

they might have a chunk for their arms, torso, head,legs, whatever… anything that can be separated as a special or unique function of that monster. if it were a dragon and the players were targeting the head/ throat they may disable the fire breath, or if they described toppling a column onto the wings, it may lose the ability to fly. generally i try to give monsters 1 of these chunks per heart of health.

like i mentioned above, i also try to lead by example in a lot of this. taking actions that arent directly attacking the party, or manipulating things in their environment to gain an advantage tactically. i would have the dragon slam itself into the cliffs knocking boulders onto the party, or make a pirate swing on a rope while holding their sword out (dealing extra damage on impact from the momentum), a party of goblins set fire to the building, forcing the party to escape or burn. involving the surroundings and planting a few props in each encounter to be interacted with are great ways to get the players to think creatively, outside the “i attack, i deal damage” mentality.


in this specific instance, this is why i think Easy and Hard rolls are so important. i dont let my players just say “i wanna dodge the minotaur”, i ask more details from them with questions like “what does that look like” or “how do you want to try that dodge”. if it sounds like an effective plan then i award them an Easy roll. if they pick something outlandish or unreasonable, then its Hard.

i also will go beyond the easy and hard mechanic into what i like to call Effortless/ Risky rolls. the mechanics behind that are that they function similarly to easy and hard rolls , but in “Effortless” the crit success range is 18-20 instead of just 20, and in a “Risky” roll the crit failure range is 1-3, instead of just 1. i feel like that REALLY rewards great creative choice/ scenarios where they have a significant advantage, or punishes reckless decisions/ shows them how dire of a scenario they are in.

It took me a while to realize how crazy this mechanic can get, but if the target is 13 and the rogue tries to pick a lock with his thieves tools then the roll is Easy, maybe Effortless if they specialize in breaking and entering, his number is 10… whereas if the barbarian tried to pick the lock but had no training or tools it would be Hard, maybe even Risky (maybe he could jam the lock for good) and his number would be 16. that is a 6 point difference based on who is doing an action/ how they are going about it

so if you want to find a way for the players to think of how their character would move in more detail in the fiction, modifying the circumstances of a successful roll can be a great tool in your GM kit :slight_smile:


Ooh! I really like the idea of CHUNKS. I think traditionally they are 1 Heart for a chunk. But you could totally divide the Monster’s abilities up this way. Something like:

Skeleton 10HP +2 rolls
[3HP, arms] = Spear Attack
[3HP, legs] = Charging spear attack
[3HP, head] = chanting skull attack

Then when a hero attacks the skeleton, you need to know what they are targeting.

Yes! changing the Target is another way to do this. Easy / Hard. It’s been right there all along and I didn’t make the connection.


yeah, i suppose you could break your chunks down below 1 heart. it will be a good bit of extra work to do it that way, though doable. im a little lazier lol, i only give these chunks to bigger enemies who have more health and i let 1 heart = 1 chunk of super ability. that way not every mook has like 5 options to target, but it gives the big bads and mini bosses a bit more punch, and more reward as you make progress on taking them out.


Lots of good advice already.

I try to be Narrative during combat. Misses aren’t always misses, but ineffective attacks.

“Your hit slides into the ribs of the skeleton but the bones don’t crack”

“Tang, you hit gets deflected on the skeletal arm”

“Just as you started your swing, you noticed this other skeleton bunching to lunge at you, it distracts you enough to have you miss”

“ the skeleton shows surprising agility, and it just dodges your strike”

”Your attack screeches right along the top of the skull, leaving a line of clean bone”

Remember, every miss gives the character a +3 if they repeat their attack on the next turn. I extend this beyond easy, missing 4 times in a row sucks big time, +9 is usually enough, + 12 has always has for me, but usually very much not needed, as they roll a 19 or 20 at that point.

Something else, you can always make 2 creatures = one heart. It’s like having 5 Hp but not exactly. It adds narrative coolness.
“ Your strike goes right through the spine and The follow through leaves it lodged right into the middle of the skull of the second skeleton, the skull stuck to your sword. as you pull it away.”


I don’t expand on the +3 every turn, because eventually that becomes crazy… but sometimes I do replace the d4 timer with 13th Age’s Escalation Die which raise the party’s attacks to +1 until +6 in that same amount of turns!


This makes a lot of sense and echoes what you see in some Apocalypse World-style games )e.g. fellowship).


So what we want everyone to do is colorfully describe what they are doing instead of explaining mechanically.

1st make sure this is actually how the group wants to play. Some players play for different reasons.

Then set up this rule: if you say “I attack” or “I go stealthily” or any thing else mechanical… Then they are at disadvantage or their check is hard.

If they explain what they want to do or are doing then the penalty doesn’t apply. So saying “with my sword I spin and slash at the monster” or “I slip into the shadows along the wall as quietly as I can” doesn’t trigger the additional negative mechanical effect. Roll as normal.


I used to think this way too, that I hit/you hit was too boring. But after having delved into games like Fate and PbtA, I learned that this can severely slow down play, and players can often sit empty eyed with something called “Creative Fatigue”. Having to come up with colorful descriptions for everything, especially in combat, can end up being a chore, and kill the momentum of a harrowing combat, as each player holds their breath until it’s their turn.
If everyone has to sit through each other’s narrative, it ramps up the “I stare at my cell phone” behaviour.

What I tend to do, instead, is do a GM recap, where I call out the most exigent threats.
“I attack. Hit. Do 12 damage.”
“Angarax, you’re up. A minotaur has just bullrushed Tim into the wall, and he looks like he’s hurting bad. But those orcs are advancing on Jane, and you don’t know if she can hold them off alone. What do you do?”

If all a player is doing, is continue swinging their sword in an already established engagement, don’t try to force narrative descriptions on it. Most likely the player just wants to kill off the opponent swiftly, so they can narrate what they want to do next. And swinging the sword is the least exciting thing going on.