Worlds of Design: Too Much Dice?

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

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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

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For me, I found capping the dice pools at 6 (with a 10 hard cap), and not doing the counting of successes thing, makes for a pretty quick and sleek approach
 

Aldarc

Legend
There are games with "bucketful of dice" that require substantially less arithmetic than games where only one die is used.

For example, Cortex Prime games involve rolling 3 to 6 dice in a pool. However, the math only involves adding the two highest values together. That's it. That is pretty paltry when compared to running a game like D&D or Pathfinder ("Mathfinder"), which may involve d20 + Mod + Skill + Proficiency + other bonuses.
 

loverdrive

Prophet of the profane (She/Her)
Right? Hard to take the author seriously when he thinks that 3d6 for GURPs is a bucketful. Had his third example been Tunnels & Trolls, I'd have given it more consideration, hyperbole just never sits well for me.
I mean, a rifle in GURPS makes multiple shots that deal ~8d6 damage each, individually affected by armour so... There are plenty of buckets and arithmetics there.
 

timbannock

Adventurer
There are games with "bucketful of dice" that require substantially less arithmetic than games where only one die is used.

For example, Cortex Prime games involve rolling 3 to 6 dice in a pool. However, the math only involves adding the two highest values together. That's it. That is pretty paltry when compared to running a game like D&D or Pathfinder ("Mathfinder"), which may involve d20 + Mod + Skill + Proficiency + other bonuses.
Precisely why I love the Cortex Plus and Prime versions of the system: they have all of the crazy "dice tricks" from SFX, but the addition is ultimately going to be at most 3 dice, usually only 2, and most often d6, d8, or d10. The numbers remain pretty constrained, but there's loads of "strategy" in which tricks you can employ.
 

MarkB

Legend
There are games with "bucketful of dice" that require substantially less arithmetic than games where only one die is used.

For example, Cortex Prime games involve rolling 3 to 6 dice in a pool. However, the math only involves adding the two highest values together. That's it. That is pretty paltry when compared to running a game like D&D or Pathfinder ("Mathfinder"), which may involve d20 + Mod + Skill + Proficiency + other bonuses.
Or Forged in the Dark games, where you'll be rolling anywhere from 1 to 4 or 5 dice, but there's no maths required at all - you're only interested in the highest result you rolled.
 

ART!

Deluxe Unhuman
I think it would be a good idea to keep neurodivergence in mind when designing dice mechanics, but I don't know enough about how different neurodivergences interact with that kind of thing.

EDIT: To expand: is it easier for a person with autism (or insert neurodivergence here) to add the results of 3 dice, or to count successes (say, 4 or higher) on those 3 dice? To use a D&D 5E example, is it easier for a person with a common neurodivergence to read the result of a d20 and add their proficiency bonus, or to roll a d20 and a proficiency die and add them? I honestly don't know the answer to these questions.
 
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Lord Shark

Adventurer
Or Forged in the Dark games, where you'll be rolling anywhere from 1 to 4 or 5 dice, but there's no maths required at all - you're only interested in the highest result you rolled.

Or the Director's Cut system (Broken Compass, Household, Outgunned), where you can be rolling up to 9d6 but you're looking for sets of the same number instead of adding them up.
 

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
Personally I like dice and math over exposition, they are often instantly clear as to what is going on. It is probably one reason that all of the big games use them. We were playing one game with a pie shaped "clock" which I just hated tbh, I mean I could sort of grok that, it just rubbed me the wrong way.
 

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
I think it would be a good idea to keep neurodivergence in mind when designing dice mechanics, but I don't know enough about how different neurodivergences interact with that kind of thing.

EDIT: To expand: is it easier for a person with autism (or insert neurodivergence here) to add the results of 3 dice, or to count successes (say, 4 or higher) on those 3 dice? To use a D&D 5E example, is it easier for a person with a common neurodivergence to read the result of a d20 and add their proficiency bonus, or to roll a d20 and a proficiency die and add them? I honestly don't know the answer to these questions.
The autistic teen that I gave my book to, his Mom said he loved math, and numbers. I think it unfair to say ND equals "can't do math".
 

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