• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is coming! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

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?

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

log in or register to remove this ad

Not all Traveller editions do that. Specifically, only Classic, Mega, and Mongoose do.
T4 is dice by difficulty, 1d6 to 5d6 <= Att+Skill
T5 is like T4, but with no firm upper cap on difficulty. Astrogation tasks can get way up there.
T:TNE is 1d20 <= (Att + Skill) * Diff Mod.
T20: Traveller's Handbook is, of course, 1d20 for skills, full set of polys needed for combat, just like D&D 3E...
And GT and GTIW are the GURPS Standard of 3d6 for tests.

And to be thoroughly pedantic, Even CT isn't consistently 2d6 + skill for 8+... that's just the combat system and some of the skills; a number are not rolled, but just provide benefits. Navigation, for example, isn't rolled for most of the time, it's just needed when plotting a course. On world, it requires a throw (unspecified dice) at +1 per level. Medical isn't rolled to treat injuries; it mostly is just if you meet the requirements, you provide the needed medical aid for the healing rules, Skill 1 to treat minor wounds, skill 3 to treat serious ones. Medical does have the occasional roll - but only for waking up low passage passengers.

Many people apply the combat to hit mechanic broadly, but I have it on good authority (Marc Miller himself) that Marc has always used Xd6 vs Stat+Skill outside combat. This is corroborated somewhat by Book 0 including odds for 1d6 to 5d6... and, once free of Loren's editorial oversight, with T4, Marc reverted to it. And stuck with it for T5. Likewise, one of the CT adventures slipped through a 3d vs combined strength.

Classic Traveller's actual rules remove a lot of what would be rolled in later editions and/or other games, by just thresholding upon skill level.

Another game with reduced dice: BTRC's CORPS 1E/2E. The mechanic is if skill > difficulty, no roll needed, difference is used if a result margin is needed; if skill less, then 1d10 > 11-(2*difference) to succeed, and the margin is derived from the die roll vs the needed die roll.
There was considerably more rolling of 2D6 + Modifier vs. Difficulty after DGPs Task Resolution System was published for CT. No "buckets of dice", but more frequent rolls for a lot of skills than before. I loved CT (and MT) with the Task System. With the standard targets for different difficulties it made the game... smooth.


Once I turned 40 I immediately noticed I was having trouble seeing, its was practically overnight. I wear progressive lenses because I cant see close or far away. but those only help so much which is aggravating when a pair cost $450-$650. I loathe the idea of carrying around a main pair of glasses, a pair for reading and maybe even a pair of prescription sunglasses. In order to read anything I need an unusual amount of light, whether its a text message, a book or dice, so I can sympathize.
It's sadly why I can't buy dead tree books anymore--I need a pdf so I can enlarge the text.

aramis erak

There was considerably more rolling of 2D6 + Modifier vs. Difficulty after DGPs Task Resolution System was published for CT. No "buckets of dice", but more frequent rolls for a lot of skills than before. I loved CT (and MT) with the Task System. With the standard targets for different difficulties it made the game... smooth.
Agreed... but that was also mid 80's. and not Marc's method; the DGP Task system encouraged a lot more rolling than does CT RAW.


With regards to being able to add numbers quickly or do other arithmetic, some people you would think would be good at this aren't.

I've done a wee bit of tutoring for people over the years...including other software engineers, who most people tend to think of as being good at math. But I've seen somef software engineers who struggle at basic arithmetic. And I'm not talking about adding (or doing boolean logic on) binary, octal or hexadecimal numbers either, just plain old base 10 numbers.

I've also tutored other people and it is actually very common for people to struggle with arithmetic. What I have tended to notice is that many people have had poor math teachers who don't explain concepts well. Explaining negative numbers is a good example.

But on the other hand, I have also noticed that people give up too easily. They think "I'm not good at math", so they give up and set up a mental conditioning. And they think this way, because they see how easy it is for others. They see how easily others do it, and just think "I will never be as good as that so why bother?". But to me, that's like watching LeBron James play and deciding not to train at basketball because they won't come even close to being that good.

Are some people just incapable of doing math? I fear that may be a cop out answer, but it's possible. Maybe there's some wiring in the brain that makes mathematical reasoning possible. I think this is a dangerous mindset to take though, because it cuts off the possibility of improvement.

But after helping people with math, the most important thing is to be patient. Help them out. See if you can explain things, like how to add a negative number. Never be condescending, because that just reinforces the idea that they just don't have some kind of innate talent, rather than realize it's also a trained skill.

Lucas Yew

My usual "preferences" for dice in games are as follows (exceptions might happen):

1. Use a single type of dice. Preferrably a platonic solid bigger than a d4 (so no d10 nor d100, yuck); the classic d6 cube is the best for its availability, followed by the d20 for its sumbolism.
2. Just add the results; avoid the awful dice pool which makes only each individual dice of value >= DC count, especially if you roll more than 3 dice...
3. Love the bell curve. It gives more power to bonuses and penalties.

Agreed... but that was also mid 80's. and not Marc's method; the DGP Task system encouraged a lot more rolling than does CT RAW.
Yes, I know (on both counts). I have CT, MT, TNE, T4, T20, and both versions of T-5, the original and the slip case versions. On the whole I prefer the relative simplicity of the original Traveller paired with the task system to give an easy to apply, consistent, method of skill resolution.


GURPS uses a "bucketful of dice"? Where? Compared to what? It will sometimes use a handful of dice for damage, and that's all.
Poor GURPS - everything people want to criticize, they will put GURPS on the list.

Also, "Adding sums quickly is easier for experienced players who are practiced in making quick calculations on their heads". Come on. Seriously?

Related Articles

Remove ads

Remove ads