Inspire Confidence – For the Love of Dice

Dice are a nearly universal constant in board games and table top role playing games. There are a few diceless systems, such as Amber (out of print) and Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, or Dread which uses a Jenga tower to build suspense and determine the success of actions, otherwise most role playing games use dice to help determine the outcome of challenges. That means that if you’re reading this blog, you probably own at least one set of 7 dice ranging from a d4 to a d20. You might even own a special bag, box, or the coveted Crown Royal bag (which you can get without the whisky) full of them. We own a shoe sized flannel bag full of randomly assorted dice in addition to dozens of complete sets of standard assorted dice, d10s, d6s, and other game specific dice of various materials far too numerous to list.

In a game where our fates are determined by the random roll of the dice, as such, some gamers have developed methods by which they treat their dice, whether with reverence or distain, depending on their performance at the table. I performed a completely unscientific call for dice rituals among my gaming friends on social media. Below are some of the things gamers do to prime/train their dice for high rolls.

Dice Rituals

  • Placing all dice with highest number up.
  • Stacking the dice in this manner in descending order of size: d20 (base), d12, d10, d10, d6, d4 as the pinnacle.
  • Lining the dice up in ascending or descending order of number of sides.
  • Placing all dice with 1’s showing, to get it out of the way.
  • Only using matched sets and swapping out entire set if one die is not performing acceptably.
  • Using a specific set per character, per game, or per system.
  • Color coding dice for each character.
  • Color coding dice for type of effect – metal dice for weapon attacks, black dice for stealth/sneak attacks, blue for water/ice effects, red for fire effects, etc.

    Encouraging dice to perform well.

  • Auditioning/test rolling dice before a game to determine which set is “hot” and use it that gaming session.
  • Never letting someone else touch your dice – carrying around sacrificial dice for others to use.
  • Putting underperforming dice in time out or dice shaming.
  • Threatening underperforming dice with replacement (this is how I personally ended up with so many dice).
  • Encourage dice to do well by dedicating a board in their honor (also mine or rather those at our table who felt the need to call out 3 natural 20’s on my dice in one combat on February 22, 2009. This fine feat has never been repeated from any of my dice.)

Dice and random game play

We all know that there is a lot of statistical math out there on the probability of a die rolling any given number at any given time. There are dozens of websites dedicated to the study of probability math, it’s been many years since I studied or used probability and statistics, so I invite you to check out those sites, they are quite illuminating. I did find the Ars Technica article on the “fairness” of dice worth sharing given the topic at hand. What I would like to discuss is whether or not that kind of randomness needs to be included frequently in the game or not.

First, a caveat about randomness. I have a friend who was a game designer working for a large board game manufacturer. They revealed a licensed trivia game that included an electronic die roller, which happened roll the same number back to back during the demo. The repeating random number generator really bothered the executives, who asked that the number generator be made to not roll the same number twice in a row, because that didn’t feel “random” to them. We played said game and once we figured out the programed number progression, we were able to plan our moves accordingly. Not really a challenge for a room full of gamer nerds.

One more than one occasion I have heard of people using dice to introduce randomness into a game or story they are writing. Using dice to determine which creature appears from a random encounter table or the card you pull from a Deck of Many Things is to be expected, that’s how those situations are designed. However leaving important design decisions to random happenstance can fail to capture opportunities to make something meaningful, instead it may end up feeling like you have a random placeholder.

Having a reason behind a design decision can propel ideas, just as having a random generator table is really just a list of recommendations that you can use or discard if there’s something “better” for your group. For example, if you’re including a published adventure as part of an establish home game, you might choose to swap out monster encounters to better match monsters that appear elsewhere in your greater story to give the sense of cohesiveness (and make you look like a genius GM).

On the other hand, having your players roll for everything they do feels a lot like micromanaging to me. This is definitely an opinion here, but sometimes giving players agency to declare they are doing something and having it happen feels empowering as a player and allows the story to be as much about their PC hopes and desires as much as the GMs. The players are not the GM’s toys to play with, they are portrayed by thinking people who very well may grow weary of dancing to the GM’s tune if it fails to resolve into something meaningful or at least makes sense. I have played in games where we rolled for everything and typically I was relieved to change games and move on from the minutia of it all. When was the last time you, as a person, let dice decide the outcome of your everyday real life? I’m willing to bet it wasn’t very recent. The toss of a coin may break ties or decide which team gets possession of the ball/puck first, but it feels like folly to go through life on random dice rolls, unless you’re devoted to Desna.

Monica Marlowe

Monica Marlowe is the 2015 Paizo RPG Superstar. Winning the contest launched her freelance game designing career. Her winning adventure, "Down the Blighted Path" and PFS scenario "Captive in Crystal" are available through Paizo. She’s publishing additional gaming materials under Marlowe House and through 3rd party publishers. Monica is also active in the ongoing education in gender, sexual, and racial equality in the gaming community. Driven by a desire to see a more diverse gaming community, Monica has joined the Know Direction network to help and encourage all gamers, veteran and new, to find their voices. Monica lives in southwest Ohio with her husband, Andrew, and 2 children, Kate and Thomas.