Dice Are Not What You Think
Dirty dice design secrets revealed! Roleplaying’s most commonly held mechanical underpinning is due for deconstruction
What are dice? Specifically, I mean in terms of the table-top rpg experience, what exactly do dice do? Ask a player and they’ll tell you the pat answer, that dice represent the element of luck or random chance in the game. The idea of dice as an exterior luck factor is commonly held in the ttrpg space, but I believe it’s a gross misunderstanding.
To say that dice are the random element is all good and well in theory. You can see how games are designed around that premise. Players conceptualise their actions, the GM frames context (at least in games with GMs) and the dice supply the random factor that illustrates all the messy complex factors within the imagined space, rather than have them fall within the parameters of provided context and individual characterisation. It sounds like a great recipe for verisimilitude! But at the table, the way players behave about this random-element, tells a different story.
Listen to what players actually say in the moment. A player rolls well, and what do they say about it? “I did really well.”
That’s not a matter of chance. That’s a measure of performance.
What is Luck to a PC?
The knee-jerk response might be, “sure, dice represent how lucky the PC is when making an action”, but I think that does not work. Conceptually, at least so far as it is intended in a design framework, luck simply cannot represent the success-potential of a PC’s actions because that would contradict the relationship between player and PC necessitated by play.
A player buying into a PC (that is to say, the player’s ability to imaginatively embody the characterisation) is predicated on defining who the PC is. A PC exists only in a conceptual space relative to its imagined environment and peers. In simpler terms, a PC exists based on predicted action—what they are supposed to be good at and what they are supposed to be not good at—a structure of meaningful differentiation against other PCs and NPCs in the in-game world. To effectively conceptualise a character, a PC’s ability to swing an axe, for instance, can’t be largely a matter of luck, because that would contract the game-world buy-in. If that is the case, then you’re talking about a structure where a roll of luck and a character are completely separated from each other, like in many board games. In order to be conceptualised as a PC at all, they’re supposed to be skilled at swinging the axe, not lucky at swinging the axe.
Of course, mental conception of a PC also exists in variations in the minds of other players around the table, but for the sake of this argument let’s stick to just the relationship between a player and their own PC.
The only real instances of luck in a ttrpg are when dice do not involve conceptualising character; like rolling on a random table, or when the GM uses an unmodified dice in a straight-up fate situation—high number means good thing happened, low number means bad thing happened, that kind of thing. That’s pure luck. But as soon as there is character involvement in the mechanics, we’re no longer talking about luck.
Really, it should be the purview of modifiers or shifting target numbers (often a roll Statistics fill) affecting the dice that represents the factor of skill that a PC brings to the chance-environment, but even as players look at their character’s modifiers and statistics as the make-up of the PC, when it comes to the action performance at the table, the dice instead inherit that conceptual function. Dice may be imagined by players to represent luck, but the results are treated as an evaluation of PC performance. Roll well? I was awesome! Roll poorly? I suck, sorry guys. Players take the dice result personally.
Deconstructing the Disconnect
Why is this happening? I think there are a few levels to this. To ease this analysis let’s assume the player is invested with representing their character and their character alone, and not, as is the case in some systems, with responsibility for the game in-world.
Looking at a die, it seems to be a random number generator, which suggests a concept of luck. So when the system says dice represent luck, that seems reasonable. But then players are encouraged to occupy the headspace of their character singularly. With a player rolling the dice, the underlying assumption is always that they are rolling with relevance to their own PC’s behaviour, since their PC is the lens through which they see in the in-game world and system as a whole. The design space may dictate that dice represent a cosmopolitan of unknowable factors embodied as Luck, but since the only gateway into play for the player is the PC, when the dice roll, the player imagines the dice as it applies to their PC directly. The player in the act of rolling is taking on responsibility for the outcome of the situation. “It’s all up to me.”
I think it is ultimately ease-of-play that changes the role of dice into being performance-based. Even GMs couch dice results in PC performance because it’s a lot easier to conceptualise on the fly than to explain why something didn’t work out by chance. How that works out at the table is usually in the form of unflattering failure.
The Dice Hate You
Let’s look at this from the perspective of uncharacteristic and embarrassing PC failure. To most people who play ttrpgs regularly, recognition of that disjoined aspect should be obvious, even if the causes haven’t been characterised before.
If the dice did represent luck then when a player rolls poorly the understanding would be that their PC performed excellently and it just happened not to work out. Then the “swing” of dice would not be in conflict with character behaviour. “Oh, you did a good job, but—by chance!—the rabbit just happened to have a hole nearby that they ducked into.” But instead results, even on the GM side of the table, are characterised by performance, “you fall down in the mud diving after the rabbit and it gets away”, even if the PC is supposed to be a super-excellent expert at that particular manoeuvre. This conceptualisation of action ultimately runs against intended design.
Now, I do not believe that all game systems should all involve a PC being “awesome”, just that ttrpg designers should be mindful that intended play experience should roughly match play expectation, or deviate with reasonable justification, otherwise players are going to feel a conflict with what a system promises in its book and what it delivers at the table. That is to say, mechanics should match the game’s themes. Conflict between the agreed fiction of the game (you are good at this) and how the mechanics are conceptualised and executed (you are an idiot and fell in the mud) can harm the play experience. “I should be an awesome hero swinging my axe. Instead I’m an idiot falling in the mud all the time.” It’s funnier to have a character fall on their face, obviously, but that just supports the idea that ease-of-play is at least partially responsible for dice-as-performance, even if players will still tell you they represent luck.
I think it’s significant that even when a PC is unlikely to succeed at a dice roll, the conceptual space dictates a hope that the PC will perform with uncharacteristic aptitude. This moment of punctuated action reveals that the player’s expectations are seated in known capabilities in a fairly static state, ignoring the likely swing of wildly improbable results that would come with dice-as-luck. (I’m using the term “punctuated action” to describe that moment when free role-play is abandoned and the rules structure takes hold. I did a whole blog post on punctuated action, here [https://www.radiojamesgames.com/post/punctuated-action-in-diceless-mechanics]) This is also to say that when the text of the ttrpg says your character should be one thing, a player will continue to hold to that ideal even if the mechanics dictate otherwise. What breaks first in the player’s mind is the system, never the character.
System Variation Problems
Please note this falling-in-the-mud example is more and less extreme from system to system—ones with stronger base competence (like dice pool systems were results have a tight predictability) close that conceptual gap a bit, whereas a system with more “swingy” results—like ones using single d20s—make this “you fall flat on your face, you stupid expert” a more public problem at the gaming table.
Some systems have sought to mitigate this with complex bell curves (anything with dice pools) but I’ve found that creates some other conflicting side-effects. Specifically, if the player can expect that their PC succeeds almost every time they roll, they tend to get very offended when failure does happen. Worse, the player could adopt the attitude of, “why am I bothering to roll if the result is always the same?” Dice lose their meaning, both as perceived luck and as an evaluation of performance. In trying to patch the problem, other problems are created. There is a sweet-spot, I think, but it’s hard to find, and most systems don’t.
One ugly fact of ttrpg design is, in many systems, dice are the placebo for punctuated action. Even when the situation should not be resolved with such a swing of success-failure, most ttrpg systems call on dice in order to signify the importance of the moment. The intent is to signify an event as noteworthy, but dice mechanics do not usually accommodate broad application. Giving dice more opportunity to roll, the problems with dice become more obvious. What dice are actually doing at the table is judging your character, and in the case of over-use of dice, they just present more opportunities for your PC to wildly fail. This can lead to wild conflict between what the themes of the game (or even the text of the game) tell you your PC is like, and what the mechanics of the game determine your PC is in-action.
I’m not sure how to get around this. A ttrpg system cannot perfectly adjudicate when to roll dice and when not to without robbing the system of its organic sense of flow, perhaps by locking it down under such rigid procedures that a sense of personal freedom is lost. Even when dice are lesser-used or absent from the ttrpg design it still requires a judgement call by the GM or by mutual agreement of when to punctuate action. Ultimately, a ttrpg using dice-as-luck would have to be capable of enforcing that concept of luck, or choose to design around dice-as-performance.
What to Learn From This
So, what’s the take-away? Is there merit to a ttrpg design approach that would lean into the at-table practice of dice-as-performance? Is there a way to better represent PC aptitude and weakness without it straining against the swing result of dice, divorcing it as an evaluation mechanic? How do we get to pure luck? And, do we even want to? This is all a can of worms for another time, but the point remains: dice are not what you think.
Radio James Games
This article is also posted as part of the Indie Game Developer Network’s (IGDN) blog series, because I've been doing a lot of stuff with them recently. You can check out more of their blog content here: https://www.igdnonline.com/blog