D&D General Why We Love Dice in Our RPGs (Part 2) (+)

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
This is a second post in what I hope to be a continuing series looking at some of the basic ideas behind TTRPGs (hereafter "RPGs"), design, and theory - especially in terms of dice, with a focus on Dungeons & Dragons.

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!

Today I learned that since Part I of the Dice Series, What Does the Choice of Dice Mean for the RPG, I have written eleven (11!) different threads, including one that was about the subject of dice and games without even being the continuation in the series!!!! I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, other than procrastination is a helluva drug.

The first post was a lengthy discussion of the origins and use of dice in TTRPGs, and this post is going to be an examination of why- why is it that we love using dice in our RPGs? What is it about dice that provides, for some, that "game-y" feel that I have been discussing? Again, the reason for this focus is that when we talk about RPGs, we often discuss all sorts of theoretical aspects, but we tend to overlook something that is quite fundamental to most games- the dice that we use.

This will be shorter than the first post, but since some people don't enjoy reading longer essays, I will nutshell the ideas in the next four parts here. The first part discusses, again, why dice impart a different feel to games - that "game" feel. The next two parts discuss what I think are the primary attractions to using dice in RPGs- a constellation of attributes that I refer to as "ritual" and "gambling." The fourth part will conclude the essay by looking forward to the next in the series, by examining why understanding these difference matters by using the specific example of the history of critical hits in D&D.


1. Not All Games Feel the Same
-Impropriety is the soul of wit.

A long time ago, I was involved in a triple speak competition. For those who are unfamiliar with this concept, the exact rules vary, but the rules at this competition were as follows: each speaker was given a word, and they were to begin a public speech about the word. 90 seconds in, they were given a random second word, and they had to incorporate that word into the speech. 90 seconds after that, they were given a third random word, and had to incorporate that word into the public speech. Every person had to speak for a total of five minutes. Each speaker was graded on a number of criteria, and prizes were awarded for the top three speakers. It was nerve-wracking and thrilling, and certainly required a some amount of skill- there was a noticeable difference between people who had worked hard to become better extemporaneous public speakers and those who hadn't.

At roughly the same time, I was involved in an ongoing game with a roommate that we would play after long nights of partying called ¿Quién es más macho? aka, the Twenty-sided die game. The rules were simple.
A. Both people roll a d20.
B. The lower roll drinks the numerical difference. (If A rolls 17 and B rolls 12, then B drinks 5.)
C. If the two rolls are the same, then roll again and the loser drinks double the difference.
D. Continue until one person proclaims the other "Mas Macho" or until either person is unable to continue.

Now, why bring these two things up? Because the illustrate a point that I've been hammering at for a while, and do so without invoking Wittgenstein. Despite the fact that one thing involves skill, and the other involves ... um ... mas machoing, I refer to the triple speak even as a competition, and the twenty-sided die drinking game as a game. But more importantly than just the language used to refer to the two events, is the feel of the two events! They felt very different (and, if you were losing Mas Macho, VERY VERY DIFFERENT until, of course, there was no feeling at all).

When playing RPGs, like D&D, this is something we can intuitively understand when thinking about the when and the why of employing dice mechanics. For example, you are probably fine with using an average for your character's hit points, right? But while people use averages to calculate DPR when theorycrafting, how many tables would be totally fine using averages for damage rolls? To hit rolls? For combat completely?

To fully examine the use of dice in RPGs, I think we start with the idea of why we like to use dice. Again, there have been many other attempts to introduce resolution mechanics to RPGs, from narrative/diceless to alternative methods (Jenga, cards, etc.) to different RNG (random number generator) methods like spinners, yet none has proved popular. Why? Well, I think it boils down to two reasons- ritual and gambling.


2. Ritual de lo Habitual
-He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other.

Before getting into the primary appeal of dice in RPGs, it's important to discuss what differentiates dice from other RNG methods. Why not .... spinners? Why not pulling random chits out of a bag? Why dice?

Most of us are aware that there are apps that we can use on our phone that simulate any dice roll we want. Yet, in my experience, in face-to-face games (and even most games over discord and similar systems), there is a strong preference for using actual dice. Using something else- whether it's a phone app, or a spinner, or pulling chits, is almost always disfavored. Perhaps this will change as more people move to VTTs, but that moment has not come yet. The question I am looking at here is- why?

Old D&D players never die- their dice collection just becomes too big for this mortal coil. The physical nature of dice. The rolling of dice. The different kinds of dice that you can buy and collect. The ability to switch from one die to another when that die "stops rolling good." The very idea of the game itself is tied into the nature of dice- "d20," and the rituals and practices around it. When looked at and examined closely, this also might illuminate why so many people return to D&D after playing some other system for a while ... I mean, it's great to roll some d6s, LIKE MONOPOLY, but don't you just feel all those other dice calling to you?

Would history have been different if Gygax hadn't acquired a set of polyhedral dice because they were starting to be offered in the United States at the same time as D&D was being developed? Quite possibly, yes. But it isn't. And so we have generations upon generations of people that have grown up associating "funny dice" with RPGs, and collecting and enjoying everything associated with those funny dice. The power of ritual, the comfort of the familiar- it applies to the dice as well.


3. Gambling as a Virtue
-It is always more difficult to say the things you mean than the things you don't.

Now we get to the big one- gambling. Dicing, in terms of playing games, and gaming (gambling) appears to predate recorded history. It obviously speaks to something fundamental in our nature. I'm sure we are all familiar with the concepts of partial reinforcement and why the disparate outcomes that gambling produces can have such powerful effects on people. That same variable reward has been weaponized not just by casinos, but by shady app developers as well (and don't get me started on loot boxes).

But while the motives are far different in RPGs (or so BigRPG would have you believe .... MUAHAHAHAHAHA!), many of the underlying concepts are the same. D&D (and similar RPGs) reinforce playing through partial reinforcement schedules, especially in combat. Every single time you roll, you might not get a good result, but the fact that you don't get that good result makes the positive reinforcement even stronger.

When looked at in this way, certain design decisions can be either more, or less, sensible. In other words, some RPGs will feel more "game-y" than others, because they are more like gaming (gambling). Now, if you accept this paradigm (you don't have to, as I am sure you will say in the comments!), think about how this might re-cast certain conversations.

A common repeated conversation on EnWorld is an argument about whether or not you need to have "death" of PCs in D&D in order for the game to be meaningful. Now, if we accept the gambling analogy, we can look this discussion in the following way-
A- My character is my stake. I enjoy increasing my stake through risking it (increasing in level, getting more items, etc. through adventuring). Occasionally I suffer setbacks. But it's only fun for me if I know that the risk is real- that I could lose my stake.
B- I find that setbacks are risky enough. I don't want to play at a Casino where I could lose everything.

Not perfect, but illuminating. More importantly, understanding that dice qua dice are important for gaming let's us evaluate what make them "fun" to the game in a new manner.


4. Conclusion and Critical Hits
-When a person asks you for criticism, they are only asking you for praise.

What, you thought you could escape without a history lesson? HA HA! Do you know me?

Once we understand that people enjoy the dice in and of themselves, we can realize that we can leverage these attributes into the game itself. One feature of this is the lottery, or "jackpot" nature of gambling. For example, every time you roll a d20, and it comes up with a 20 ... do you feel a little thrill? Because of the unlikeliness of it? Do you ever feel like it's "wasted" when it's on some random roll? Yeah, though so.

We can see how the nature of dice can influence the game. Gygax was famously against critical hits as a concept, spending time in the DMG to discuss combat as an abstract concept and that critical hits (and other similar features) were completely inappropriate to D&D. And yet ... every time you roll a 20 .... doesn't it feel like something special should be happening? So in addition to various houserules and homebrews and 3PPs, by the time of 2e, they just changed the rules to make the rolling of a 20 more special. Suddenly, a natural roll of 20 always hit, regardless of the AC of the target (not true in 1e, unlike BECMI). More importantly, 2e introduced critical hits as an optional rule ... an optional rule that most tables quickly adopted.

In the end, the purpose of examining this is to try and think differently about some of the concepts that get overlooked. For example, there are systems that specifically go out of their way to remove the importance of die rolls, or that remove binary results from die rolls, or that always provide a "fail forward" mechanism- and these are great systems! But it's also worth examining what makes other systems popular as well, and, perhaps, how to leverage those strengths. Which will be part 3, if I get around to it.
 
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payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
1. Not All Games Feel the Same
Its true, even games that use the same dice (D6) can feel very different. I love exploring these differences and think feel is why I also love variety and am not prone to finding the one game to rule them all.
2. Ritual de lo Habitual
Meh. I'll admit at a time all the dice variety spoke to me. I couldn't wait to find the right situation and rule to bust out different types and quantities. I find myself at this point though losing my taste for the D&D variety and actually prefer 2-3 D6 type systems. I cant deny though this is a very strong attraction among TTRPG gamers.
3. Gambling as a Virtue
Absolutely. I think you nailed it as to the more "gamey" an RPG is the more likely it is to have these risk mechanics involved. That is a big draw to many. In games that lean away from dice rolls and risk, I think there is a stronger pull towards storytelling and role playing that takes that place.
4. Conclusion and Critical Hits
I can see why designers dont like critical hits. They be real swingy and are hard to account for. Though, you are correct folks love some crits. Just look at the 1DD thread on monsters not critting anymore...

Personally I really miss crit threat ranges and multipliers from 3E/PF1. That really got my gaming (gambling) senses tingling. To offset the swingy nature I often gave out meta currency like hero points so players could play courageously without fear of that risk being ultimate (as long as they manage their resources of course). Also, if a wave of unlucky RNG hits pile on at no fault of their own, they have a way to save their bacon. Kind of like having cake and getting to eat it too. YMMV
 

soviet

Hero
I think the primary appeal of dice is that they are a tactile experience. It helps to ground what is otherwise a mostly intellectual pursuit into something physical and real. More importantly, it makes you feel like you're in control of your destiny a little bit. If only I'd rolled that other dice instead, if only it hadn't bounced off the cheeto, if only I'd rolled it harder/softer/further. You can feel the sense of the road not taken in a way that doesn't come up on a card draw or a digital random number generator.
 

soviet

Hero
Its true, even games that use the same dice (D6) can feel very different. I love exploring these differences and think feel is why I also love variety and am not prone to finding the one game to rule them all.

Meh. I'll admit at a time all the dice variety spoke to me. I couldn't wait to find the right situation and rule to bust out different types and quantities. I find myself at this point though losing my taste for the D&D variety and actually prefer 2-3 D6 type systems. I cant deny though this is a very strong attraction among TTRPG gamers.

Absolutely. I think you nailed it as to the more "gamey" an RPG is the more likely it is to have these risk mechanics involved. That is a big draw to many. In games that lean away from dice rolls and risk, I think there is a stronger pull towards storytelling and role playing that takes that place.

I can see why designers dont like critical hits. They be real swingy and are hard to account for. Though, you are correct folks love some crits. Just look at the 1DD thread on monsters not critting anymore...

Personally I really miss crit threat ranges and multipliers from 3E/PF1. That really got my gaming (gambling) senses tingling. To offset the swingy nature I often gave out meta currency like hero points so players could play courageously without fear of that risk being ultimate (as long as they manage their resources of course). Also, if a wave of unlucky RNG hits pile on at no fault of their own, they have a way to save their bacon. Kind of like having cake and getting to eat it too. YMMV
Bacon and cake together? I must investigate this hypothesis further
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Bacon and cake together? I must investigate this hypothesis further
6f24c27b-ff0c-4112-94ca-1c1e82a4cfdc.jpg

Bon Appetit.
 


Clint_L

Hero
There's a reason the most popular actual play show, by far, is called "Critical Role" (and it's not just the double entendre). Those guys are professional entertainers, trained to recognize the fun mileage you can get out of a notable event, like a natural 20 (or a natural 1).

Great read, as always. Two factors that I think are also really important to consider is the value added by dice as story randomizers, and the particular role that progression plays in conjunction with dice.

1. To the former, I think that dice, along with rules on how to interpret them, are really what give D&D it's shape. They are the random mutations that determine how the story evolves, to a more or less significant degree, depending on the size of the sandbox that the DM is comfortable working with. And it now occurs to me that I could explore the evolution analogy a lot more rigorously, but maybe another time. Anyhow, randomization is what makes the story fun, IMO. I love that even as the DM, I don't know how it is going to come out (this is one reason that I rarely run full, pre-written adventures as the outcomes tend to be too predetermined).

I think the real possibility of character death is an important narrative trope that is linked to dice and randomization, but that is simply a question of taste. I like art that includes tragedy, but I think this is a good discussion to have at session 0 so that everyone is on the same page.

2. I've previously written about the way that dice create a partial reward schedule, and am in full agreement with you here. It's probably common knowledge, but in case it isn't, intermittent reward patterns are incredibly powerful at affecting behaviour. Not just in humans. It's universally hard-wired into your brain stem, so the root evolutionary causes have to be pervasive.

What lately I've been lately speculating about is how the partial reward schedule created by dice-rolling in an RPG interacts with character progression to create an addictive response. The whole point of progression is that you slowly earn advantage on your dice rolls - tasks become easier to succeed at, and your chance of reward goes up (incidentally, I think this is why it is important that a natural 1 always fails and a natural 20 always succeeds, so there is always a chance, either way - I therefore think D&D should codify both). I speculate that we keep coming back because we love the potential to improve our reward schedule. Like, love it at a primal level, even if it is here being expressed in a highly abstract way.

What is fascinating is that progression in most games is often mostly an illusion - yes, you get better but your tasks get commeasurately harder, so you are effectively running on a treadmill. I find it fascinating that the idea or illusion of progression is possibly just as compelling as actual progression.

To your point about the tactile and other pleasures of dice...hmmm. Hard to separate nature and nurture in this regard. My first instinct is to talk about collectibility, sensation, etc. but I have been conditioned to value particular forms of these things. I notice that when I play with new students who have no experience of D&D they are absolutely fine with rolling on DnDBeyond (plus it does the math for them). I offer to lend them dice, and about half are not interested. I don't think there is necessarily anything inherent to the human species that makes physical dice objectively more attractive than virtual dice, but I would love to see a study.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
I used to be a big fan of keeping the target numbers hidden, but I was eventually persuaded by the Angry GM to stop doing that.

His reasoning is that there’s a tension between rolling the dice and seeing the result, and not knowing the target messes with the pacing. Instead of going: roll dice ⇒ result meets target ⇒ woo-hoo!; it’s more like: roll dice ⇒ wait to hear success or failure ⇒ etc.

I eventually gave it a try, and I find myself agreeing with his reasoning. It’s also one of the reasons I like old-school saving throws and static targets in PbtA games.
 

soviet

Hero
I used to be a big fan of keeping the target numbers hidden, but I was eventually persuaded by the Angry GM to stop doing that.

His reasoning is that there’s a tension between rolling the dice and seeing the result, and not knowing the target messes with the pacing. Instead of going: roll dice ⇒ result meets target ⇒ woo-hoo!; it’s more like: roll dice ⇒ wait to hear success or failure ⇒ etc.

I eventually gave it a try, and I find myself agreeing with his reasoning. It’s also one of the reasons I like old-school saving throws and static targets in PbtA games.
I always do this, and I always state target numbers and do the maths beforehand so I can say 'you need to roll a 10 to save' or whatever. It brings a genuine tension and excitement to the game.
 

Argyle King

Legend
Absent being able to actually swing a sword or conjure a spell, I believe that rolling dice creates a mind-body connection to help bridge the gap between imagining doing something and physically doing something.

That is to say that the tactile sensation of picking up dice and tossing them is, on some level, associated with taking a physical action. Likewise, dice interact with our other senses: visually we can see them; we can hear them plonk against the table. Mentally, that replaces the clanging of a sword against a shield or the sparkle of a spell.

I believe that's also why some game mechanics can "feel" unintuitive or too dissociated when there's too much of a gap between fluff and crunch. When what we're doing physically doesn't have a good relationship with the mental/imaginative outcome, the activity becomes emotionally unsatisfactory.
 
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