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

Faolyn

(she/her)
Let's say a system uses custom D6s, with one Circle, two Squares and three Crosses.
  1. If you roll at least one Circle, it's a full success.
  2. If you roll at least one Square, but no Circles, it's a success at a cost.
  3. Otherwise it's a failure.
Is this a comparison?
Technically yes--you're comparing the shapes.

However, shapes are (probably) less likely to cause difficulties in people who have dyscalculia or vision problems where one number might look like another.
 

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ART!

Deluxe Unhuman
Technically yes--you're comparing the shapes.

However, shapes are (probably) less likely to cause difficulties in people who have dyscalculia or vision problems where one number might look like another.
This is another problem, actually - I think some dice are too similar-looking for new players, and even for experienced players: I've been gaming with polyhedrals for 40+ years, and I still have to make sure I'm grabbing a d8 and not a d10, and vice versa.
 

Faolyn

(she/her)
This is another problem, actually - I think some dice are too similar-looking for new players, and even for experienced players: I've been gaming with polyhedrals for 40+ years, and I still have to make sure I'm grabbing a d8 and not a d10, and vice versa.
Hah, yeah. There's been a few times I've rolled a d12 instead of a d20!
 

aramis erak

Legend
Let's say a system uses custom D6s, with one Circle, two Squares and three Crosses.
  1. If you roll at least one Circle, it's a full success.
  2. If you roll at least one Square, but no Circles, it's a success at a cost.
  3. Otherwise it's a failure.
Is this a comparison?
Yes. One per die, or more. Initially, at least.

If used frequently, it can change to pattern recognition. Some GURPS and Hero fans can roll 3d6 and give the result sans calculation. Lifelong Traveller and T&T players can usually do so for 2d6. T&T players often can also make patterns totalling 10 pretty quick, given the buckets of dice.

on your graphic example, I've had a player who, despite playing FFG SW for almost a year across 2 campaigns, albeit a multi-year gap in between, was still stuck in comparison to mental image mode. Same said player needed the custom dice for YZE games (Alien, Vaesen, T2k and Blade Runner). Because of just counting symbols, rather than numbers, they were considerably faster at YZE games with the custom vs Talisman RPG with its 3d6 total... but they have a learning disability re math.

I'll also note: My current players are upper teens to upper 20's, excepting my wife. They didn't get drilled nearly as hard as my generation did on rote memorization of math facts, nor on chain addition. I've had to teach the chain addition strategies to several ostensibly adult individuals, including one who was a math major...

Now, one of my players hadn't done well at math - SpEd student, dyscalculia (sp?)... they never got exposed to pipped dice until they started gaming. They were counting every pip with a pencil for a year or so...
 

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