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D&D General What Does the Choice of Dice Mean for the RPG? (+)

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is a first post in what I hope to be a continuing series looking at some of the basic ideas behind TTRPGs (hereafter "RPGs"), design, and theory.

Note that this is a "+" thread. For purposes of this thread, please do not discuss anything related to the Forge, Ron Edwards, or Forge Terminology (source). Either good or bad, positive or negative, different or indifferent. If you would like to discuss the Forge, Ron Edwards, and Forge Terminology, please feel free to make your own thread and discuss anything related to that in that different thread. Thanks!

The method of resolution within an RPG can have a great effect on the game itself. While there are numerous different ways to look at resolution mechanics, I would like to put up this starting thread to allow people to discuss their thoughts on how using dice can affect the experience of the game, and how the use of dice- both the different types of dice that we use as well as when we use them and for what purposes affect the games we play. While I will refer to other games, I will also predominantly be discussing D&D (and similar games) in these threads simply because those games have the widest audience. In thinking about the different issues presented by the use of dice in RPGs, I was influenced by the on-line syllabus of Paper Machines, a seminar on making tabletop (board) games that was taught at the University of Victoria by Jentery Sayers, and thinking about the physical and cultural manifestations of dice in games as well as the choices we make in different dice types.

This first thread is going to concentrate on what the choice of different dice means for the game, and why the choice of different dice can provide a signal to gamers given certain norms regarding the use of dice.

A. Taxonomy of Games and Randomization Methods
Like all of my friends, you're a lousy judge of character.

Before starting, it's helpful to examine different types of games and what I mean when I talk about "dice games" such as D&D. Overall, I would say that there are four different types of games in terms of resolution mechanics:

1. Dice Games. For various historical reasons dating back to the evolution of D&D from wargaming, Dice Games make up the majority of the RPG market and are the focus of this first post. Dice Games are all those games that rely on dice, of any type and in any combination, for the resolution systems and mechanics of the game.

2. Diceless Games. Diceless Games are those games that do not have any randomized method for resolution. Examples of this would include games like Amber and Nobilis.

3. Non-Standard Resolution Mechanics. NSRMs are those games that use some method other than dice for events and/or resolution mechanics but still use a randomization method (or partly skill-based method) for resolution- spinners, cards, Jenga towers, and so on.

4. Derek. Derek are those games that you never play because every time you sit down to play them, Derek comes over and starts drinking and the next thing you know you're waking up and it's three days later and you're in Vegas surrounded by empty taco wrappers and undressed people of uncertain provenance. DEREK!!!!!

Obviously, games might use different approaches to resolving situations at different times during the game- for example, OD&D famously used dice to resolve combat but tended to be diceless for social situations. For purposes of this starting post, I will be posting my thoughts about dice and thinking about games that use dice (even if they don't use dice for everything) as Dice Games. Finally, while the choice of using dice for RPGs is, quite obviously, a choice worth exploring, it is arguably so wide-spread within the hobby that it is mostly notable when that choice is not made- when a designer uses anything other than dice for the mechanics of an RPG.

B. Description of Different Dice Games
My friend described D&D as the tofu of RPGs- it could be molded into whatever it needed to be, but it was never as satisfying to him as a steak. My advice to him was to stop eating it.

Next, a brief detour into the primary different types of dice games in RPGs. Again, this is probably super-obvious stuff, but I'm trying to establish a base-line for discussion.

1. d6 Dice. These are all the games that use d6 as the only die. Maybe they use a lot of d6s. Maybe they use them in creative ways, like dice pools. Maybe they have creative modifiers. But in the end, it's just d6s, all the way down.

2. d20 Dice. I am using "d20" as a stand-in for the games that use any subset or variation of the "standard" dice as pioneered by D&D for RPGs- d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. If the game uses only d12, then that's a d20 dice game for discussion purposes. If it uses d4s and d8, it's a d20 game. In effect, this is the name for any dice game that uses more than just the d6, up to and including the full set of standard D&D dice.

3. Non-Standard Dice. This encompasses any and all games that use some type of non-standard dice. A d5? Required d30s? Maybe it uses d6s, but instead of numbers it has fancy symbols for all the sides? If it uses dice, and it's not a d6 game or a d20 game, then it's an NSD game.

4. Derek. You thought you escaped Vegas relatively unharmed, but now you're in Bat Country. Ahead of you is a long and winding road filled with terror and likely death, behind you is the unshakeable and implacable pursuit of several dozen local and state law enforcement agencies, and next to you? Derek, passed out with a bottle of tequila in one hand and a half-eaten sheet of blotter paper in the other. You want to stop, but then you remember .... what's in the trunk. DEREK!!!!

A brief note- As I will discuss further on, I think that there are useful distinctions, especially historical, when it comes to games that are primarily based on percentiles (d00) and those that use the standard array of D&D dice. But those differences are subsumed by the d20 / d6 dichotomy that I think is more useful to explore.

C. Initial Pass- Why Does the Choice of Dice Matter to the Game?
People say I'm pretentious, but I'm the most important person in the lives of everyone I know and most of the people I haven't met.

RPGs are unlike most other board games in that most of the time, you are simply purchasing rules and not purchasing the dice. And for that reason, it would appear that the choice of dice that are used in an RPG tends to matter- at the very least, it often says something about the game itself, given the standardized nature of dice overall and in the hobby.

Allow me to explain- if you look at walls in America, you will see that there is a standardized electrical outlet. You don't have to worry about the plug that goes in, because ... we have a standard. Sure, if you want to be pedantic, there are two types (with and without grounding). But it's standard- just like the majority of things that require a die have standardized on a d6- whether you're playing Monopoly or Craps, you know you'll use a d6. Every house has some of them and you can always raid the attic and a break open that dusty copy of Monopoly if you need one in a pinch.

On the other hand, if you know someone with Apple products, you know that they'll have a "lightning" cord. If they don't own those products, they won't have it- but this is also a standard, albeit a somewhat less-common one. This is the D&D suite of dice- if you're into RPGs, you have these dice. In fact, you probably have a LOT of these dice. You can find them on-line, or buy them at your FLGS. But if you're not into RPGs, then you might not have the full suite from d4-d20.

So before getting into any mechanical choices, the choice of dice in a game can have a big impact on how the game is perceived from a cultural point of view. Think to yourself- when you see a game that uses just a d6, what immediate assumptions do you make about the game? Are there any? What about a game that uses percentiles, or the full d20 line? Do you feel differently about that game than you do a d6 game?

My initial impression is that the choice of resolution mechanic impacts our feelings toward the game, and our belief in the use-case of the game. Imagine if WoTC announced, for example, that OneD&D would go to d6 only- how would that make you feel? Why? I think that everyone would immediately have strong and visceral reactions to this announcement, even before there was any specifics as to what the actual resolution mechanic employed would be.

D. Cultural Norms and Assumptions Have Built Up Around Dice Use in RPGs
The job of a good scientist is to take an exciting question and provide you the most dull answer.

Many other people have written great histories about the happy historical accident that led to the use of the "Platonic" dice set in D&D. Originally, Arneson was primarily using a d6 to run his Blackmoor variant, and while the d20 was used (with Tractics being the early forbearer), very early D&D was primarily a d6 game, with some d20, and the rest of the dice used sparingly. Over time, of course, and especially with the more widespread use, in 1980, of the pentagonal trapezohedra d10 that we are familiar with today, we saw the codification of the standard D&D Dice Set - d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20 (the "d20"). With that brief background, it is helpful to think about the early evolution of RPGs and the influence that they had on early cultural assumptions about dice.

Disclaimer- I am discussing my thoughts on the history here. Feel free to discuss your own thoughts in the comments!

When D&D first came out in 1974, and for many years thereafter, the majority of games released were either clones of D&D or were derived from the OD&D rules. The spread of the "standard" d20 set was ubiquitous, and defined the nascent RPG market. As such, for most gamers and most games, d20 was considered the way to do RPGs! In fact, while other games quickly spread throughout the market, the use of d20 was a stand-in for RPG gaming in general. For many people, the use of "just" a d6 for resolution would remind them of children's games (board games), which was quite a contrast.

As the 70s moved into the 80s, we continued to see an increasing emphasis on more when it came to design. More universal systems and more complicated systems, with more rules and more complicated rules. While we could discuss rulesets from Star Frontiers to Phoenix Command, one thing became increasingly clear during that time- d00 was often used as a stand-in for modernity in rules. While classic games, even ones like Lords of Creation, would still use the d20, many games that wanted complexity but also wanted to appear apart from "standard" D&D would resort to more heavy use of the d10 and d00. For example, when WFRP came out, it was notable in that it used the d10/d6 combination.

Now, while there was a general gestalt about d6 being for "lesser" games, it was certainly true that we saw many seminal games in the 70s and 80s move forward with a d6 as the sole mechanic- from Traveller to GURPS to Ghostbusters. All of this is fascinating, but is the past- a lot changed with the OGL and the spread of the d20 both in terms of the name and as a more open mechanic. From there, we end up in our current situation, with a pretty strong dividing line between larger commercial games, which predominantly use d20 to smaller and indie games, which predominantly use d6. So that's the history ... but what does it mean? What, if anything, are the cultural signifiers of these different decisions?

E. d6 and d20- What Does it Mean?
I had finally learned the most useful skill of the internet age; one does not admit defeat; one merely changes goals.

Wait a minute- what about that other category- you know, NSD (non-standard dice)? Well, if a game is using NSD, then they are making a statement that this game is special, and that they require (and expect) lock-in. After all, requiring you to use specialty dice means that you are required to get those specialty dice if you want to play the game- dice that might not be available in the future, or if you lose the dice you have. Even if the dice are merely "mapped on" versions of standard dice (a d6 with symbols), the loss of the actual dice is usually a great inhibitor to playing because you have to pause and "map" all the dice rolls of a standard d6 to symbols. Because these games are so (relatively) rare, and because the message NSDs send is pretty unmistakable, I am not sure that they are very interesting from a design perspective- at least not worthy of a deep dive.

Instead, I think it's much more interesting to look at what the difference is when you look at games that are d6 only, and games that are d20 (the D&D set or subsets thereof). What are some of the cultural assumptions and baggage that go into deciding one or the other?

1. d20. When you are releasing a game with d20, you are making a number of implicit statements. That it is a "serious" game that serious players (who already have these dice!) play. That it is a commercial game. That the game will have multiple different resolution mechanisms. Moreover, these is always the implicit promise that there will be variety in terms of dice rolls- and that these variations will matter. A d20 game will be firmly within the framework of the "greater D&D universe" (D&D, clones of D&D, games that use the OGL, etc.).

2. d6. A d6 resolution system, on the other hand, will often carry with it the idea that the game will have simpler (or simplified) resolution mechanics. That there will be less variety of dice rolls, and that the dice rolls will matter less. A d6 mechanic will often carry the promise that this game is not D&D, and instead can be seen as outside of the bailiwick of D&D. In addition, it presumes no barrier to entry, as everyone has a d6.

3. Derek. There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.

On the one hand, I don't want to put too much into this- there are long-standing commercial games that have used the d6 mechanic, from GURPS to WEG's D6 system. It is also entirely possible to go to itch.io and find indie games that use d20. But ... just think of the major commercial games now. D&D, PF, Call of Cthulhu ... all of them using the d20. On the other hand, think about the most prominent indie games, or the rules-lite games that you are likely to see. That's right- d6.

So when looking at the different games, and the dice used- before we get into the mechanics of the dice themselves, and the methods to resolve, it helps to remember that the choice itself has a meaning. Regardless of the actual mechanics or the fit of the choice of dice to the game, the use of specific dice often can tell us something about the presumed place of the game within the hobby.

This is what this initial thread and discussion is about- what do you think the choice of dice for an RPG means for the game? Before knowing anything else about an RPG game, does the knowledge of what dice it uses tell you something about the game, and what? What cultural signifiers do you think are built into the choice of dice?

So Ends Part 1. Part 2 will be about RNG in gaming, variable reward through dice, and what methods enhance or obfuscate the abilities of players to estimate the odds of success (and why that matters).
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Moderator Emeritus
I wonder if this was inspired by MCDM's choice to use non-standard dice (or at least standard dice with non-numerical markings), which I have mixed feelings about.

On the one hand, I love weirdo dice, collect them, and sometimes even find uses for them (I am a guy who developed a d12-based version of determining random encounters just to use the d12 more - and who had d12 based more granular Axis & Allies rules back in the day when I wanted a 6-hour game to last 9 hours instead :LOL:).

On the other hand, I am pretty sure non-standard dice are a mistake. While MCDM has mentioned packaging dice with their game and making it easy for other parties to make and sell the special dice for cheap, I think that 1. numbers are more intuitive than symbols, meaning the cognitive load esp. while learning the game will be higher, 2. accessing the game quickly and easily is not possible if you happen to not have the dice (for example if you find the book for sale used down the line). They plan to include some charts for interpreting normal dice into the special dice, and while that is a good idea, it is also kludgy.

I am very interested in the game, but I think the dice aspect narrows the audience. But what do I know? I am not an RPG marketing expert.


One aspect I attribute to d20 games over d6 games is binary results i.e. pass/fail resolution. I don't expect to find degrees of success in a d20 game like I would in a d6 game. I'm aware exceptions exist for both, and I'll be honest, I'm not even sure my stereotype is accurate if one were to do a tally. None the less, pass/fail resolution is my immediate expectation for a d20 game in the current era.

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I believe both of those would be classified as d20 games for the purposes of the thread. (See B.2 in the OP.)

That‘s exactly correct.

2. d20 Dice. I am using "d20" as a stand-in for the games that use any subset or variation of the "standard" dice as pioneered by D&D for RPGs- d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. If the game uses only d12, then that's a d20 dice game for discussion purposes. If it uses d4s and d8, it's a d20 game. In effect, this is the name for any dice game that uses more than just the d6, up to and including the full set of standard D&D dice.


I'm the Straw Man in your argument
Then there's DCCRPG, which goes beyond the standard set of D&D dice and uses every die size it can get its grubby little mitts on... :)

More dice means more randomization which means your carefully crafted plot or character arc gets tossed out the window. ETA Get ready to improvise!

Where's Derek? Me and Hunter S Thompson want to go hang with that guy.


That‘s exactly correct.

2. d20 Dice. I am using "d20" as a stand-in for the games that use any subset or variation of the "standard" dice as pioneered by D&D for RPGs- d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. If the game uses only d12, then that's a d20 dice game for discussion purposes. If it uses d4s and d8, it's a d20 game. In effect, this is the name for any dice game that uses more than just the d6, up to and including the full set of standard D&D dice.
I disagree,

When I look back at my V:tM games, they positively qualified as DEREK. Then again, it was the late 90s...


I'll admit that I don't entirely understand why I'm not perturbed by FUDGE dice but I am by dice for the Genesys system or whatever weird dice MCDM pick to use.

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