Interlude: Pre-Rolling

The author, Brent, a large blonde beardy man with glasses, wearing a grey wizard's hat.

A cunning new hat appears!

Back when I ran a whole lot of Pathfinder on a regular basis, I got in the habit of pre-rolling a bunch of d20 rolls. Before a session I would roll the d20 a bunch of times, say twenty or thirty, and record those numbers in order. Then when I needed a roll for an NPC or a monster, I would simply use the number at the top of the list, cross it off, and carry on. Because I wasn’t stopping to make dice rolls all the time it gave me a certain flow in my GMing; I could glance down, see if something was going to succeed or fail, and continue on without breaking my description. If I started to run out of numbers I would simply roll some more during breaks or when the players were discussing their plans.

I don’t run a bunch of d20 based games these days, but I was thinking about this the other day and wondered if it could be applied to players. What if players pre-rolled a bunch of d20 rolls at the start of their Pathfinder 2e/D&D 5e session? Then as the session goes on, whenever the GM asks for a saving throw, skill check, attack roll, and so on, the player can just pick a number out of their pool. And at the end of a session any unused numbers are tossed, players re-rolling new numbers at the start of each session.

All the elements of a “traditional” check are still there: the player has rolled a d20 and applied modifiers to see if they beat a target number. But pre-rolling grants the player extra elements of choice and control. They can decide how important success is at any given moment. How badly do they want to pass this skill check? Or is more interesting to fail now, maybe preserving success for a future moment? Do they save that Nat20 for a saving throw or an attack roll, and do they use it early in case the session ends before you get the chance?

Added to this, what if you had them pre-roll a set number of times, say ten or fifteen. During play they get the choice: you can roll for this or use one of your pre-rolls. But, once all your pre-rolls are used up in a session, that’s it, you don’t get any more until next session. Do they take their chances or use a pre-roll for assured success? Suddenly that Nat20 pre-roll becomes a precious thing indeed, assuming you can use it before the end of session. And maybe that becomes a way for the GM to reward players, granting allowing them to take one or more pre-rolls into the next session.

Of course this can be done with other systems besides d20 Fantasy. Call of Cthulhu, Star Trek Adventures, Cypher System, for instance, could all use pre-rolls this way. It could also work with Powered by the Apocalypse systems, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the specific game.

I know one argument against this is the potential to lose those amazing moments of rolling a clutch Nat20 or the humorous Nat1 that comes at just the “wrong” time. I would say those moments are still possible, especially if the player chooses between rolling or not. And if you roll a Nat1 during pre-roll, now you can decide: am I going to leave that there and ignore it, or am I going to deploy that a narratively fun moment? A good GM could even make that the basis for allowing a player to carry a good pre-roll to the next session, rewarding the player for using a low roll in an interesting way.

This is something I’m mulling over, but what do you think? Drop a comment below or give me a shout on Twitter, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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