At the core of most pen and paper role playing games is a dice mechanic of some kind. Dice provide players with a means of arbitration, sparing them from that familiar playground debate of, “I hit you,” versus, “No you didn’t.” They also have the potential of adding to the drama, giving players the opportunity to perform extraordinary feats against the odds, or fail in spectacular fashion.
But if you are running a game there will be times when you are better off skipping the dice and going straight to the results. Almost universally, this will be when the players’ characters are not directly involved in the action.
Rolling dice takes time. When players roll dice for their actions they generally need to announce what they are attempting; what they are doing should be transparent to everyone involved. The other players will be aware of the stakes and feel some degree of emotional investment in the outcome.
This is not often the case when the Dungeon Master runs a conflict between Non Player Characters (NPCs). A DM’s resources are infinite, and NPCs can easily outnumber the players in any encounter. Large encounters can take hours to resolve and the players should not feel the burden of waiting for each NPC to roll their attacks against other NPCs.
My simple rule is to adjudicate casualties if no players are involved, no matter the scale of the conflict; if you must roll, make sure the players know what each roll is for so that they may participate, albeit vicariously, and feel some measure of attachment to the outcome. Few things are as bad as having all the players sit and wait while the DM goes off on a solo mission.
Many DMs will choose to introduce powerful NPCs to the players through a show of force. Years ago I was running a campaign where I made such an attempt; I wanted to awe the players with my NPC’s prowess by having him singlehandedly dispatch several middling opponents.
It was a disaster.
Nearly every roll I made for him landed in the “automatically fail” category, in spite of his staggering bonuses, and it was only by the intervention of the players that he even survived. My star NPC had been reduced to a damsel in distress, and I dropped his story rather than mitigate it with levity. Consequently, if I need to introduce an important NPC I will typically do so through exposition, thereby saving the players’ time, and avoiding potential embarrassment.
If you have an event scripted then do not roll for it, and avoid making rolls when the players are not involved. This does not mean you need to deprive your players of their impact! By all means, change the script if the players intervene, or have your mass combat swayed by the (mis)fortunes of the players. If the players are dead set on saving an NPC otherwise fated to die, make the rolls and keep it fair – you have done well to motivate your players in such a case. Always make sure that what you roll for has meaning.
E.G. is a long-time friend of d20horizons. His RPG experience (as player, DM, GM) goes back 30+ years and include such games as Robotech, Ninjas & Superspies, Heroes Unlimited, RIFTS, TMNT, 1st- thru 4th-Edition D&D, L5R, and the Palladium RPG. Not to mention card- and board-games such as Heroscape, Magic : The Gathering, L5R, Axis & Allies, and Munchkin. And a mastery of video-games, from Atari up to present consoles, too numerous to list here.