Dice! They’re great! They’re lovely little number-generators, each one able to dictate your life or death in a game! Roll them around in your hand and then sling them across the table where they’ll make a little plastic clattering noise! Unless they’re not plastic… there are metal dice, and dice made of fancy stones, or bone! Bone dice! Wow!
Gamers and dice have a very emotional relationship. I once asked a game designer why his system demanded people roll whole handfuls of dice and he explained that players love it. If you roll one dice, it’s okay, but more dice and more often means more of a tactile experience. It draws the attention of players and makes them do more than just check their character sheet to see what they can do. Quite simply: More Dice = More Fun.
My brother used to have a ‘lucky knee’ he would roll his dice on. Mainly the dice used on his knee was a green translucent d20 with little bits of glitter inside. He believed it would grant him high dice rolls. My old roleplaying group (and some of my current players) believed the dice from the original Heroclix miniatures starter sets to be ‘Devil Dice’ which would almost always roll high. I called my d20, “Playersbane” as it worked against players when I was running a game and against me when I was playing. I lost Playersbane I in my late employer’s grave, Playersbane 2 was eaten by my dog and now I’m up to Playersbane 3.
I realised that I’m going to be talking about roleplaying games a lot here on Hooting into the Abyss. There are several indie games which don’t involve dice, or have a bare minimum interaction with them and as long as the system works well that way then good for them. As a lot of the people looking at this blog either only know dice from miniatures games or classical board games, I thought I’d prepare this handy guide to identifying dice, why they exist and some of the reasons they’re used. I’ve also got some favourite dice which will be listed here.
These are not technically real dice, but some games will still use them. Some crazed dice companies have made real dice with 1-2 or 1-3 sides, either experimenting with the shape of the dice or simply renumbering a six-sided dice to fit their sinister ends.
To replicate a d2, you may as well flip a coin but coins aren’t dice and we’re here to play with dice! Just get any even-sided die and roll that with odds/evens being a result of a one or a two.
For a d3, you get a six-sided die and use a result of 1-2 as a one, 3-4 as a two and 5-6 as a three. Easy enough.
* The main use of a d2 is as an insult. In systems like Hackmaster, where everything has a ton of arbitrary tables and unnecessary dice rolls, doing 1d2 damage is… well, it’s not dignified. Luckily most games don’t use them
* In most d20 System games, your punches, kicks and headbutts will do 1d3 damage, if you’re not trained. So a d3 is a slap from someone who’s not been in many fights.
Four-Sided Dice (d4 or “caltrop”)
These are possibly some of the easiest dice to identify. They’re like little pyramids pointing upwards, or possibly stuck in your foot if someone’s knocked one off the table and forgotten to pick it up again. Non-gamers, this is a horrible inevitability. They’re not an exact pyramid, as they need four equal sides to roll. Depending on the maker, they’ll have your result either on the top or the bottom of the die, but it’ll be the number that’s visible on every side.
* A d4 is a small weapon in Dungeons & Dragons. A dagger in a rogue’s hands, or maybe a magic missile from a wizard, automatically hitting but not doing much damage.
* A d4 is how healthy a wizard used to be in the old D&D systems. So that dagger from earlier or a weak spell would murder them.
* Comics like Knights of the Dinner Table show the d4 being used in several punishing rituals, such as walking across a hallway filled with them. I am 90% sure this has been done by old school gamers. Those guys were crazy.
* My least favourite use is when it was a substitute for the content of a room in D&D. For instance, “You enter the room and there are 1d4 kobolds.” That’s it. Adventures like The Sunless Citadel filled their dungeons with tons of rooms like that. Where’s the flavour? Where’s the fun? What are they all doing in that room, and why aren’t there toilets in this dungeon?
* If you are building a tower or a little man out of your dice, the d4 has to be the top. Fact.
* My favourite use comes from a game called Spycraft. Each starting character had a pool of three or more Action Dice. They were able to be added to dice rolls before or after they were made to modify them or trigger special effects. I ran this system a lot at conventions and found handing out physical d4’s to be better than just using glass beads or jotting it down on paper, they became a currency and a practical tool. As spies level up in Spycraft, this dice gets bigger, but I keep my spy games fairly low-level as a whole.
Six-Sided Dice (d6 or “Normal Dice”)
The little cubes everyone thinks of when ‘dice’ are mentioned. These are the dice you probably have kicking around your home already. When breaking people into the hobby, or into board games, starting with a game which uses the d6 might make them feel familiar and comfortable. After that, it’s time to break out the d10,000! Yes, there’s a d10,000.
* A d6 might be a slightly better weapon than the lowest kind, such as a shortbow or a short sword. Basically anything short.
* Board games like Arkham Horror use a handful of d6’s depending on your skill, and instead of adding the numbers together you count every 5 or 6 as a success. So a d6 counts as a third of a win against monsters like Cthulhu. RPGs like me recently-reviewed Shotgun Diaries do the same thing, except only a 6 is a success against the zombie horde.
* In the classic West End Games Star Wars RPG you roll a ton of d6’s. You would make a dice pool depending on your physical or mental attributes, your skills, equipment and force powers. I ran a light vs dark side two-player game where the players stalked each other through Tatooine. In between the eerie silence of players communicating only with secret notes, there would be duels using upwards of 20d6. It was joyous madness. I wouldn’t recommend the system as a whole, but the ludicrous nature of it all was a hoot.
* My favourite use for d6’s is in John Wick’s Houses of the Blooded. You make a ‘pool’ of dice depending on various character factors and try to get a result of “10”. Difficult on 2d6 but amazingly easy on 8d6. So you can add extra parts to your success or failure by holding dice back from your pool. By secretly wagering an amount of dice in one hand and rolling another, the risk and reward are far greater. “I hide from the spectre” becomes, “I hide from the spectre and see the dessicated husk of his last victim, and the victim’s holding a scroll with forbidden magic on it.” There will be more on Houses in the Future.
Eight-Sided Dice (d8)
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. The d8 is used in most systems which use different dice types, but doesn’t have a system all of its own. Even twelve-sided dice get that. A d8 looks a bit like its sexier cousin, the d10, but with more even, triangular sides.
* In games like D&D the d8 is the cleric dice, representing their health, the damage of a mace, the amount they can heal at lower levels. Showing that it’s still a good supporter but little else.
* It’s a good base for a tower of dice, given their large, flat areas and less-spherical nature than a d12 so it’s not as easy to topple or roll.
Ten-Sided Dice (d10 or “The Dice the Good Games Use”)
The d10 looks a little like the d8, only its sides are in a slight diagonal, its points slightly pointier. It doesn’t roll 100% accurately as a lot of old schoolers will tell you, but I’ve said before that they’re hardcore crazy mofos. There are “true d10’s” which are d20’s with only single digits.
The other problem with the d10 is that the “10” side tends to be reflected with only a “0”, which confuses more new gamers than you’d think. Some introductory RPGs come with 10-siders which include the full “10” result to stop this confusion.
* The Buffy RPG uses a d10, but only players roll it. The narrator doesn’t touch dice as all the drama is supposed to come from the players. They act when they choose to and they react when the narrator chooses. There’s a little chart showing how good of a result the player has rolled and they can narrate accordingly.
* In White Wolf’s World of Darkness game, d10’s are used to make a pool of dice and each rolled result of an 8 counts as a success, each ten allows you to keep that success and roll again. For instance you roll Strength + Brawl to punch someone, which could be 5 dice in total. Try WoD, it's great.
* In Legend of the Five Rings and 7th Sea, there’s a slightly more complex idea which is still fun. You roll an ability (eg; Finesse) and a skill (eg; Rapier) amount of dice but you only keep the ability. What’s left is your result. You keep putting dice in and out of a dice pool, mixed with an early version of John Wick’s wager system from Houses of the Blooded. This time you make the roll more difficult by guessing that you’ll do better at this roll than the target number the narrator sets you. If jumping across that roof requires a 10 or higher and your rolling 6 dice, then keeping the best 3, you could get away with ‘raising’ the difficulty to a 15 for a better result. It creates a nice risk/reward system which is my favourite use of the d10.
|Twelve, Twenty and Percentile Dice|
Twelve-Sided Dice (d12, or “Barbarian Dice”)
The d12 looks like an angular boulder, it clatters across the table without finesse, its large, five-sided faces making a good amount of noise. The twelve-sided dice is less spherical than the d20 and known for pretty much one reason…
* The barbarian. In Dungeons & Dragons, the largest of the weapons use the d12, greataxes, greatswords. The d6 might be the ‘short’ weapon dice, this is the ‘great’ weapon dice. It’s also the dice a barbarian uses to determine their starting health. If you’re playing a barbarian, get rolling that d12, if you’re not, back in the dice bag it goes. Sure there are probably some uses, but the barbarian gets the lion’s share.
* In games like Marvel and Deadlands, people’s abilities go up by the size of the dice, from the pathetic d4 to the mighty d12. This means you might roll a d4 for Intellect and a d12 for Reflexes, so you know what you’re more likely to be able to get a high result with.
* My favourite use sees the d12 get its own game, (unlike the neglected d8). In Steve Jackson Games’ “Pokéthulhu”, delinquent children fight each other using monsters which are a mash-up of Lovecraft’s mythos beasts and the Pokémon. The d12 is used as both a dice to roll, and to represent the angular ball the monsters are kept in. That makes the dice a physical representation and a mechanic. Lovely.
Twenty-Sided Dice (d20, the dice of “d20 System” fame)
With several triangular faces, the d20 is the most ubiquitous dice in gamer circles. Sure it’s not the mainstream d6 which everyone knows about, but this dice is a geek icon. You’ll see the d20 on t-shirts, used as the icon on several websites, on dice apps and in the name of the most common RPG rules set, the d20 System.
* The d20’s relationship with gaming was solidified with Dungeons and Dragons, the aged powerhouse of roleplaying. You would roll your old dice (some which had to have their numbers filled in with wax crayons) and that would determine whether your man hit a monster. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons made the complicated THAC0 (To Hit Armour Class Zero) which was a lot more work than its worth, but still has a place in many weird old gamers’ hearts. Finally, the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons created a universal system in an “Open Gaming License”. Suddenly anyone could publish an Open Game License (OGL) game which included Fate, the d20 System and others. The d20 System brand which gave people a logo to stand behind and to entice gamers. It was a great idea which created a glut of awful products, along with a few good ones. In the present there are fewer releases and only a handful of established names from the survivors of the d20 glut. Pathfinder and the Spycraft/Fantasy Craft games, for instance. All of these systems use a d20 plus numbers to achieve a target set by a narrator. Now it’s not just fighting, but anything is dictated by the d20. Running, jumping, lying, gambling. The other dice are used too, but to a much lesser extent. It’s not the d8 System, after all. Those dice are relegated to rolling the amount of health you have or the damage you do. Literally everything else is done with a d20.
* My favourite use doesn’t actually involve the d20 system. It’s in the long-dead Alternity science fiction RPG. In Alternity you roll a d20 as a ‘control dice’ and modify with by adding or subtracting a ‘situation dice’. A low result is best, so rolling a d20 and having to add three more d20s to the roll is a nightmare, as well as a handful.
Percentile Dice (d100 or d%, or “Bubba” for the true d100)
A d100 is another ‘not real’ dice. Kind of. Most people use two ten-sided dice, described in my last article. You nominate one as the tens and one as the units. Some even come with 00 to 90 written on them instead of 0 to 9.
There are real d100’s though, which look like oversized golf balls filled with… I don’t know, sand or something, to weigh them onto one side. They have a ton of tiny numbers and a plastic outer shell with tiny flat circles to keep it on each rolled number’s side. It’s not practical and it’s barely legible.
* A d100 roll is used in games most often to determine your odds of success in simple percentages. In Dark Heresy, you might have a Pistol skill of 35% and know that 35% of the time you’ll hit. Call of Cthulhu does the same kind of thing.
* Speaking of Call of Cthulhu, my favourite use of the d100 is in this game. It’s all about madness and mysterious unknowable, unpronounceable monsters. You roll a d100 and compare it to your Sanity Points. If you get above your current sanity score, you lose points. Occasionally (rarely) you gain a handful, but life in Call of Cthulhu is reflected by the slow descent of your mental faculties. Asking a group of players to roll for sanity and watching their faces drop is great.
* Another Cthulhu-based point. The only time I’ll generally use Bubba, the giant true d100 I own, is for people suffering 1d100 points of damage and/or sanity loss. I’m a cruel narrator…
I’ll have been a roleplayer for 20 years this December and I’ve yet to see a game I want to play which uses a d30. They’re too rarely used for me to even bother having any in my collection. They’re like bigger d20’s, but even less popular than the wishy-washy d8.
Thousand and Ten-Thousand-Sided Dice (d1,000 or d10,000)
There are crazy people out there, and sometimes they get let near the dice. We love them and fear them. In this case, they’re the people who saw the d% and just kept adding zeroes in case hitting a head wasn’t enough on a hit location table, only hitting the upper half of the left ear would do. Games like Hackmaster 4th Edition, a satire of the strange and unwieldy world of old-school gaming, use these dice for critical hit tables and random encounters. Is there much of a point? No, but it’s a d10,000 and that’s hardcore!
Fate Dice (dF or “Fudge Dice”)
I’m not normally a fan of a system which has to use its own dice. Fantasy Flight Games have done this with the new Warhammer Fantasy and Star Wars RPGs. Fate is different. It’s precious. It’s a system I was introduced to by systems which sections of it under the OGL (Houses of the Blooded, Starblazer Adventures, Icons). These games used normal dice and made me susceptible when I heard there was a proper version coming out using 4dF.
Fudge was the name of a system which predated Fate and the dice kept the name until recently, confusing people who came into Fate recently (like me). The master of the Fate System, Fred Hicks, has started producing his own Fate Dice instead which is great as Fudge dice were really hard to track down.
Fate/Fudge Dice are basic six-sided dice, except that two sides have a plus sign, two have a minus sign and two are completely blank. People playing Fate-powered games have a skill or attribute which already has a numerical and narrative value (a 2 is Fair, a 3 is Good). They roll four Fate dice (4dF) and that nudges their result up or down by -4 to +4. This means that if you are Fair at Shooting, you’re most likely going to remain Fair at shooting when you use your skill, but you could go hideously wrong, or amazingly well. The four dice create a curve of success and failure.
The Yes/No Dice (aka The Executive Decision Maker)
This is a six-sided die with “Yes” and “No” on three sides each. When people have needed an outside decision-maker, the Yes/No Dice has been invoked. And I don’t just mean in gaming. Sure, in a game a player will sometimes think about doing something awful and let the dice decide. That way they can blame the dice for their behaviour. But no, I’m talking about things like a non-gaming flatmate telling me that she didn’t know whether to go to the pub or the laundrette. I handed her the dice, and in rolling it, she could say that the dice had decided. That’s the wonder and the horror of the dice. In having something else take agency, she was satisfied in going to the pub and less guilt-ridden.
I love strange dice. I have a dice with weather and a dice with a bunch of smiley faces on it. Unlike the other dice which tell you how well or badly a player or narrator did, these can add flavour to a game.
As the narrator, I’ve often rolled the weather dice so I’ve got a random extra narrative factor. The group approach the town and it’s raining. Guards are under a makeshift shelter, merchants are running around covering stalls, children are playing in the mud much to the annoyance of their parents. Or maybe it’s sunny and there are travellers who are picnicking on the roadside, the guards are in lighter armour and crafty merchants are selling cooled water for inflated prices.
The face dice is the same kind of narrative prompt. How are the guards feeling? Maybe they’re happy and let the players through with no fuss. Maybe one of them is pissed off and lets the characters be his outlet for frustration. Maybe one of them feels cheeky and after a prank or two they have either a friend or an enemy.
These things make a game far better than, “You enter a town.” It adds a sense of place, a sense of investment. Maybe the group love the town and hate the guards, maybe one of them wants to join the guard. All because they had a good or bad experience there. A boring experience might lead to them burning it down and not giving a crap about the story you planned. Ninety percent of the time, bored players equal everything burning down. Otherwise it’s only forty percent.
Some people may insist that they have a lucky dice or that you never touch their dice. These aren’t all gamers with a laundry list of disorders. Some people have had their dice with them when they conquered the Earth, or when they saved it. Maybe when they became king or killed a giant spider. They’re a tool, a weapon, a narrative aid. They add a little bit of randomness in a story you and your friends are telling to each other.
In writing this, I realise that I love the tactile concept of dice and might have to integrate that into my roleplaying more.
Hopefully this has helped non-gamers understand a little of what dice mean to games, what they’re capable of in games and in future articles, what I mean when I say phrases like “4d10” or “dice pool”.
What are your favourite uses of dice? Which dice do you love or hate? I’d like to hear any comments, ideas and foaming dice-based madness in the comments below.