Worlds of Design: Too Much Dice?

Game designers: You don’t need bucketsful of dice in your RPG rules!

Game designers: You don't need bucketsful of dice in your RPG rules!


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Please Note: I'm not against dice themselves. I’m not saying that using dice is bad in game design. It depends on what you want to achieve. If you want a game rather than a puzzle, some kind of chance or uncertainty is required, and dice is a common way of introducing that. What I'm saying is you should not need huge numbers of dice.

The User Interface​

Dice are part of the user interface (UI). The UI is very important in video games, but it exists in tabletop games as well. (While video games might not overtly use dice, many use randomizers that are equivalent to dice.) The difference may be that there are usually more than one person involved in a tabletop game so mistakes will be more noticeable, and that tabletop interfaces have settled into many familiar techniques because of long use.

It Started with a Single Die​

When RPGs originated, we already had the example of the many Avalon Hill wargames that used a single D6 and a lookup table to resolve combat. We don’t know who originally used a 20-sided die to resolve situations in games, but it certainly had the effect of avoiding the use of several dice, and did not require use of lookup tables any more than several dice do.

There is an outstanding virtue of using more than one die: you get a “normal” or Gaussian curve of the sum rather than a linear result. That is, the results in the middle are more common than the results at the “edges”—with two dice a sum of 7 is six times as likely as a 2, twice as likely as a 10. Yet with the D20 linear result you have enough distinct choices that you may not need a Gaussian curve, and in many cases you don’t want a non-linear Gaussian result in your resolution.

For example, if you need a 10 to hit, and you roll a D20, you have a 55% chance of success. If you roll 2D6 and sum, you have 1 chance in 6 (16.66%) to hit. With the sum of 3D6 the result would be different again (the average roll there is 10.5).

Some Examples​

The best-known examples of “bucketfuls of dice” in tabletop role-playing games are Shadowrun, Champions, and GURPS, but there are many others. Some of these systems count successes instead of adding up results. Combat also involves a lot of dice checks, which might make more sense in modern setting where guns are involved and results are more likely to be lethal. Over time, these systems have been refined to be easier to use, but some designers are still including massive die rolls in their games.

Several years ago I watched an atmospheric post-apocalyptic RPG session. The campaign setting supplement that I read for a couple hours during one session contained virtually no rules references; they were descriptions of places, people, technology, etc. It was a setting that cried out for a simple set of rules so that players could savor it. The game rules, at least as the people I watched play them, were quite complex and required large numbers of 10-sided dice. Any activity check required a player to roll several D10s and add the sum.

When there was any combat (there was a lot) it was worse. In some cases there was a to-hit roll, then an avoidance roll, then a determination of hit location, then armor absorption of damage and recording how much had been absorbed by the armor at the particular place. This often required someone to roll a lot of D10s.

Why This is a Problem​

Large pools of dice create a complex set of mechanics, which has unintended consequences that end up burdening the players.
  • Adding Isn’t Easy. Adding sums quickly is easier for experienced players who are practiced in making quick calculations on their heads, but it may not be as easy for new or younger gamers. They have to think about the result, instead of just seeing it.
  • Legibility. Different dice have varying levels of legibility. It’s not as easy to read a D10 as a D6, and that issue is compounded the more dice the game uses.
  • You Need a Lot of Dice. Rolling a lot of dice also makes for more problems than rolling just one, such as dice falling off the table, and a shortage of dice (especially D10!). In the above example, players ended up passing D10s back and forth because only one of them had enough. This all wastes time while no one is having fun.
In the next article we’ll explore how dice shapes a game’s play.

Your turn: What RPGs minimize or even eliminate dice rolls?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

I'm more of a barrel full of dice guy than a bucket full.

Jokes aside 2d10 + skill level is probably my favorite resolution using minimal dice.

With 2d10 If you set a high skill check, say 18 for a history check. The guy with no skill knows the answer 6% of the time and the +5 killed guy 36%. With d20 this changes to 15% for no skill and 40% for +5. Too much chance of the no skill guy. With the d20.


I dont care how many different dice are needed in a game as long as they have purpose or add a unique aspect to a TTRPG. I think WotC's Alternity from the late 90s was a good example of this. d20 core dice and d4, d6, d8, d10 and d12 modifier die. I was disappointed that more of those rules weren't incorporated into 3E D&D.


We played a simpler game with the younger kids where there was only a d6. Fighters hit on 4-6, clerics and thieves 5-6, and wizards on a 6. There was a couple more basic rules, but everything only used the d6. We found it fine for a game or two over the weekend, but not for a bigger campaign when we could use all the dice.


Not your screen monkey (he/him) 🇺🇦🇵🇸🏳️‍⚧️
Personally, I like a mix with some games. Many of D&D's rolls are quickly accomplishable with a single die roll. But there's still something satisfying with rolling a handful of dice for some damage - whether it's a fireball, a sneak attack, or a critical hit by a smiting paladin. Rolling a bunch of dice offers a bit of a thrill.

But it is definitely true that dice methods can produce different feels for the game, even in the same genre. The differences between Champions and Mutants and Masterminds, when it comes to dice, is particularly stark. You need 3d6 for most tasks in Champions, 8-12d6 for most damage. And it covers fairly gritty, superhero attrition well - but I find it slow. In Mutants and Masterminds, you never need more than a single d20 for pretty much anything. It's not attrition-based, but also handles superhero combat well, if a bit more swingy (you have the potential to get a KO result on a single hit), and I find it faster (though dealing with conditions and remembering what each one means is a bit slow).

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