Dice Rolling & The Illusion of Control

My players and I recently had the opportunity to test out a new set of rules. No, I won’t reveal which or what level the tests are at, though I will admit that the rules in question are not ours. A heated conversation began to develop over the control of dice—who rolls what and why. Some people insist that random elements in gaming are vital to its enjoyment factor. Not only that, but who controls that element of chance is also important.

Role playing games at their core involve the interrelationship between static values and dice rolling, with some games promoting more rolling than others. West End’s D6 system had virtually no static values—the attributes were listed as dice rolls, so Strength could be expressed as 3d6+2. Each time you needed to roll for a Strength check, you would roll those dice and compare the result with the target value. Amber involved no dice rolling whatsoever. D&D embraced a common middle-ground of fixed values and dice rolling. Where who you were was static but what you did was not.

Rolling dice is vital to ensuring chance in gaming, of having the possibility of failure, even though players will do everything in their power (even to the extent of embracing superstition) to increase their probability at winning. I have seen players throw dice across a room in frustration after a string of bad results. Some have lucky dice they keep in separate containers. There was even a study which showed that players tend to roll a dice gently when the result is required to be low and vigorously when the result is required to be high. I had one friend that joked that in order to acquire high attribute values for his character, it necessitated him “rolling like a waterfall,” resulting in ridicule from the group when another player didn’t follow these instructions.

How someone rolls is not what concerns me of late; it’s about why we roll, who rolls, and how often we do so. This is somewhat connected to the psychological quirks listed above because despite dice being unemotional, non-magical, inanimate aspects of chance, players still insist in being control of them. Who rolls shouldn’t matter unless you introduce the possibility of cheating, yet show me a player that would prefer someone else make his attack roll. Rolling dice makes the player believe he is actually contributing to combat beyond his presence of character. The GM is handling combat; dice rolling is one of the only ways a player can control his own fate…even when he actually isn’t.

Tabletop games are known for their prevalence of dice rolling, more often because of their dependency on the D6. Warhammer is one such game, where hundreds of dice are rolled in the span of a one-hour game. Sure, Toughness and Power values are fixed, but attack rolls are still made for each unit, and said unit can often be required to make an armor save. I remember rolling 60 D6s when a squad of hormagaunts assaulted a line of tau warriors. The gaunts scored a hit on a 5+, wounding on a 4+. So of the 60 dice, 25 of them would come up with a hit. Those were re-rolled, with 13 coming up with a wound. The dozen warriors then rolled their 5+ save and five survived. That’s a lot of dice rolling for what amounts to two minutes of combat. Thankfully the system is built so that determining hits and wounds are easy. Factor hit points and alternate defense values, and suddenly it takes a whole lot longer. The time to finish a battle in a RPG is expected to be minutes not hours, so role playing games have made attempts to shorten this. One way is to simplify how damage is inflicted (singular hit points rather than hit location charts). The other is to reduce the number of dice being rolled. D&D has maintained the aged and stalwart Armor Class—a fixed value enemy’s are required to hit to inflict damage. Although some players still prefer the variable defense system like the one found in R. Talsorian Games (Mekton, Cyberpunk), many have embraced the concept of fixed defenses. Fixed damage values are less common, especially with games with large hit point values.

The predominant trend with all these games, both RPGs and tabletop, is to place the responsibility of die rolling in the hands of the attacker and not in the target. If the attacker has six attacks, why does the target have to be the one laden with rolling that many times? You might think this to be a common assumption, but there is one noteworthy exception, D&D spells. Despite the rules regarding melee or ranged attacks, almost every edition of D&D has employed an opposite mechanic with spells. If a wizard casts a spell, he sets a fixed value and the targets have to all make save rolls. A wizard doesn’t roll any dice, but neither does he have to waste time or energy doing it. And people, especially gamers, are all about moving quickly with the least amount of energy. I had a player that would roll his attack and damage dice with the same throw, stating that he wanted to save time during the game. This same player was laden with numerous complaints during our previous game from him playing a wizard, forcing the game to grind to a halt whenever he cast a spell. Was he slow? No, but each time he cast a fireball, the GM, meaning me, would have to roll a save for each target. Then I had to adjust the hit points for those targets, full damage for fails and half damage for successes. Already dealing with the numerous opponents in combat, I was now responsible for rolling defenses as well. 4E alleviated this with probably the best contribution to the franchise yet, fixed defense values for Ref, Fort, and Will.

Players may want control over their own defenses, but in truth, all they are doing is gaining a false sense of control by rolling dice. Meanwhile, the GM is laden with far more dice rolling than he should be required to make. Even minions had fixed damage values in order to make the GM’s role easier. I for one prefer avoiding unnecessary dice rolling, especially in a combat heavy game. I mean if you are required to roll your defense against spells, why not do away with AC altogether and make every player and every creature roll for their defenses. If I took anything back from writing my Amethyst Pathfinder game, it was the fact that this mechanic was never addressed. As I have always preached, many games are written for the players in mind and not the game runners, and I would sure like to meet the GM that pines for the day when he was required to make twenty saving throws for an army goblins.

The last point about reducing die rolls is that it increases the value of character skills as a balance. In Mekton, your skills had a value between 1 and 10 but your attack dice was D10. Your enemy mirrored that range, so in a scale between 2 and 40, half of that could be decided by skill. If you employ larger dice, like D20s, then you would be required to increase the character bonuses to match, otherwise you reduce the character’s contribution. Then it becomes a crap game more about who rolls the higher value rather than who has the better character, and individual character bonuses become insignificant (or at least devalued). What good is your character if he is statistically only slightly better than a commoner? Unless you are running a game about commoners. In which case, go right ahead.

Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

6 thoughts on “Dice Rolling & The Illusion of Control

  • February 28, 2012 at 1:51 pm
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    I totally agree that the DM has enough to do without rolling more dice, and I’m almost always a player when I’m at the table.

    I’m starting to wonder if 4th Edition has it backwards, in a sense: in order to make the game easier for the DM to run, they should put the vast majority of dice rolling in the hands of the players. I wonder what the math would be on converting 4e defenses to 3e-style save bonuses…

  • February 29, 2012 at 2:04 am
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    I think you have you editions confused. You state that you agree that “the DM has enough to do without rolling more dice” but then ask later “if 4th Edition has it backwards”. Well, 4th Edition DOESN’T have it backwards. Converting 4E defenses to 3E is actually a counter-argument. Remember, it was 3RD EDITION that made the DM roll for the saves of all his monsters. 4th Edition had it right that the person making the attack took responsibility for the rolling.

    • March 5, 2012 at 8:18 am
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      Heh, that’s what I get for not doing my research (I started seriously playing with 4e, having only dabbled in 3.5e’s kiddie pool about two years before 4e got announced). I think what I was trying to say was this:

      For player attacks, the player should roll an attack vs. monster defense numbers. For monster attacks, the player rolls a save vs. a target DC for the spell or attack. That way the DM wouldn’t have to make any dice rolls he didn’t want kept secret from the players, at least in combat.

      That’s what I meant by getting it backwards, which I in turn got backwards. I’m getting a bit dizzy now.

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  • January 8, 2013 at 7:36 pm
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    I disagree that 4e made a positive contribution with the static defense. My opinion of that mechanic is largely negative, particularly for D&D.

    One thing to keep in mind with saving throws is that they are not originally conceived of as defenses. They were, literally, the last chance a player had to save his character in their original concept, hence the term. They are what allowed a heroic PC to have a chance of surviving that which should have been unsurvivable. Making it a defense kind of cheapens the original concept.

    I believe there are also good game design reasons to prefer them. If you use an action point system like from 3.5’s Unearthed Arcana and Eberron (or Force points from Star Wars d20), it works more smoothly to have the player expend the point to gain an extra 1d6 to his d20 roll – for attack or defense – rather than add 1d6 to his static defense. The player gets to decide whether or not to use the action point after he sees how well (or poorly) he rolled but before knowing for certain he has succeeded or failed.

    In addition, turning spells into attack rolls brings up the idea of wizards achieving a critical hit with a spell. Frankly, the way D&D developed, wizards don’t need the help. Leave crits to the domain of the martial combatants and you’ll see a better balanced game than if wizards get crits as well.

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