Wednesday 9 January 2019

Game Design #77: The Dice Mechanics Aren't Important

I'm more and more convinced that the dice rolling mechanics are relatively unimportant as to whether a game is good or not.  Whether you use d6 or d10, whether you add or subtract modifiers, whether you use contested rolls or a fixed target number....'s actually not vital to make your game good. There are other (more important) elements to consider.

The mechanics merely need to be simple, consistent, and (if possible) familiar.

I'm not trying to controversial, just trying to be helpful. I think many game designers overly focus on kewl tricksy dice mechanics where their time could be more usefully spent elsewhere. In fact, when making home rules, the dice rolling mechanics are the last things I consider; in quite a few, I've swapped dice types and mechanics after playtesting, usually to "speed things up" when I realise I could do it simpler, with zero end effect on gameplay.

Why Dice Mechanics Aren't Important
Dice mechanics do not define the style of game. They do not help make tactics more historical.  They do not make players play a particular way, or define the meta.  It's the percentages that matter (lethality) and the activation (who goes first); whether you are using a single d20 or buckets of d6, you can get similar end effects. Dice mechanics don't necessarily make players play a particular way.

Move:Shoot Ratios >>> Dice
Changing the ratio of movement distance to shoot distance can change your game vastly. The "normal" wargame has units move 4-6"and shoot 24-36". The ratio of move:shoot is usually 1:4 or so, favouring shooting. This is mostly (I believe) due to tradition and commonsense impacts of a normal 4x6 game table and small amounts of terrain. However, imagine a game where units moved 1" and fired 20"(sounds like a modern naval wargame).  Now imagine a game where units moved 20"and fired 1"(ancient skirmish/melee?).  The two games would play vastly differently.

Modifiers >>> Dice
The modifiers for your dice rolls are more influential than the dice mechanics and dice types used.
Let's say a game has 3+ (67%) to hit enemies. But if they are in -1 if in cover: they are only hit on a 4+ (50%).  But what if we changed the modifier to -3? They are only hit on a '6' (17%) which means that cover is so massively beneficial that I predict units would seldom move.

Table Setup >>> Dice
Even something as simple as table setup - making your game table devoid of cover vs buildings every 4"with no long sight lines will impact your game experience more than whether you are using a d6 or a d8. A game dev who agonises over which dice size to use but does not consider table setup or deployment rules has made poor use of his time. Even victory conditions (increasingly wargames have ways to win without "kill em all" or "scrum in the middle" can have a bigger impact.

Activation/Initiative >>> Dice
Longtime readers would know how much importance I place on activation and initiative; I was hating on IGOUGO long before it was fashionable. Activation determines the "flow" of the game; the "when" of your movement is just as important as the "where." Simply changing from IGOUGO to alternate activation will make vast changes to your gameplay flow, let alone reaction mechanics, action points/pools. I spend a lot of time on these in other game design posts so I will not rehash their importance here, though I recommend #68 and #69 on momentum and breaking up the turn.

It's the final result that matters: Lethality
At the core, it is the end percentage of success created by the die/dice rolled, rather than how you got there. I tend to look at lethality in combination with modifiers. If your percentages are simple it's actually quite easy to predict how your game will "pan out" before you even playtest.

 Now I'm not saying that the topics above are the only ones to consider; nor am saying what dice resolution you use is completely irrelevant. I'm just saying it should be a long way down your list of priorities.  

Best Practice: Lowering the Barrier to EntryBasically, dice mechanics should keep the skill floor low (i.e. the knowledge you need to be able to play) with very little knowledge needed. You should be able to pick up dice and chug them without much thought. Simplicity, consistency, familiarity are all good.

Simple (KISS)
Basically, as this means rolls are uncomplicated as you can get.  After all, dice rolling detracts from the actual "meat" of gameplay - the decision making. Unless you are using a dice pool or some sort of system where you "game" the dice, every minute spent on dice is a minute not spent on decision making or tactics. Computers can do this instantly, under the hood so to speak. But wargamers manually rolling dice take up a lot of game time.  If you are spending more time rolling dice than moving minis, then something has gone awry.

Ideally, I should be able to absent-mindedly chug the dice while thinking about my next move, just noting the results at the end. 

As an example of what not to do: I remember Silent Death had a dice system using d4s, d6s, d8s and d10s (even d12s and d20s). Each weapon had a different rule and even different combinations of dice.  I.e. "for a blaster, roll 2d6 + 1d8 and use the highest two dice for the "to hit"; then use the middle dice for damage." But a phaser might roll 2d10 + a d12, use the lowest two dice "to hit"and the highest two dice for damage.  They were so proud how they managed to combine the "to hit"and "to damage"into a single roll...  ...but didn't notice they'd actually made it more frickin complicated!
This is a classic example of how trying to be overly clever with dice mechanics actually made the game worse.

I've used the example of Bag the Hun (and almost any TFL ruleset) vs say Warmachine. In BtH, the game uses seven completely different mechanics to resolve actions. That's incredibly messy and you need to remember both how (and when) you need to use a particular method. In Warmachine, you pretty much use 2d6 vs a target number in every situation.  Consistency means you only need to learn one set of dice mechanics.

There's a reason games like Bolt Action and Flames of War merely uses a thinly disguised version of WH40K's dice rolling mechanics. Or why 40K hasn't changed much over decades. Familiarity with a system lowers the barrier for entry - a player instantly can grasp the "feel" of the game and there is little new knowledge needed. You don't need to reinvent the wheel, and in most cases it doesn't benefit your players anyway.

 But.... what about Dice Pools and Probability Curves?  : Interesting but Messy
Obviously a single d10 and 2d6 are not the same. Adding dice together (or using buckets of dice) can "smooth" the rolls, making them more predictable.  The buckets of dice method (throwing handfuls of dice with say a 4+ or 5+ as a success) does something similar.  But for a budding game designer, they can be a pain to balance.  A +1 modifier on a single d10 is 10%. On a d6 is is a flat 17%.  But modifiers on 2d6, for example, are not equal depending on your target number. Changing a +1 from a 7+ to an 8+ on 2d6 changes it from 58% to 42%.  A +1 changing 11+ to 12 on a 2d6 is 8% to 3%.
The +1 modifier does not have the same "value."   If this is confusing, then it's a good reason why these methods are not ideal for the amateur game designer.  Whilst I like managed probability, unless you have a compelling reason to use these methods (or love math), they make game balancing/tweaking far more difficult. I do like dice pools (which can add depth to gameplay through resource management aspects) but they do add to the game's complexity/play time and "mental cost."

Anyway, I hope I've shown how agonizing over which dice to use is fairly unimportant in the big scheme of things.  Focus on other stuff - starting with a mission statement/rationale aka success criteria, consider how all the elements (move/shoot, activation/initiative, table setup, deployment, lethality, etc) will combine to make players play the game using tactics you envision.  Ruthlessly keep to your original goals - e.g. if your aim is a fast play game, consider hard before you add ANY complication that does not promote your core philosophy.  Sometimes a cool mechanic is actually not the best for the specific game. This is especially true of dice mechanics.  Think about the big picture, and keep the dice rolling simple, consistent, and "under the hood."


  1. Great post- you break down some key concepts there.

    Thanks for sharing.



  2. One of the best posts about game design that I read ever. Short & sharp!

  3. A nice summation - I've been saying this myself for ages now as well, and not just in wargames, but tabletop RPGs and even some video games that use dice as a mechanic. Using 1d20 or 3d6 or whatever is nearly irrelevant in terms of game balance because you're going to balance the game in accordance to the % probability of success.

    The thing that's of bigger interest, is the over-reliance on dice in general. You may notice all these modifiers to die rolls... you increase the number of dice rolled, or the bonus modifiers and so on, yet what does this do? It reduces the random element from the die roll. Why? Because players don't want randomness, they want chaos. They want something that's unpredictable but follows a consistent, logical pattern to it. Dice are not inherently very good chaos generators, and you'll note that the vast majority of game mechanics involving dice boil down to trying to convert them from random number generators into chaos generators despite that they kind of suck at it.

    More than anything, the entire industry has this bizarre addiction to using dice to solve every problem imaginable, rather than using an appropriate tool for the job. Almost every use of dice in modern games is a bad one. Roll to see how far your units move? That's... wow that's a bad idea. You can't predict how far they'll move? That can render a unit useless. What about rolling for initiative? Erm... the fast character just randomly winds up being slower than the slow character because reasons? Or the RPG insanity of rolling for your attributes, because... somehow that makes the game even possible to balance properly.

    Blind luck for the sake of having blind luck doesn't work, yet that's what we see. Dice are great for certain tasks, like automating small, tiny things that you don't want to bother nitpicking over like wind direction or minor distractions to units/models/characters and so on. Using dice for every single resolution mechanic is something that should only be used if you're so drunk you're wearing your pants on your head. This was a bad idea from the very start of wargaming, and has persisted through to this day without anyone apparently questioning why they've been doing the same dumb mistake for decades on end.

    Tradition is a poor excuse for mediocrity.

    In any case, I'm glad to see that you've recognized some of these issues and are spreading the information about such. Yes, the dice mechanics are nearly irrelevant because you will balance the game to match them regardless of what they are. All they do is produce a % chance of success, and determine the scale of resolution for the math in the game. All those lovely bell curves that so many designers fawn over the beauty and elegance of their dice mechanics for are... honestly missing the point. The bell curve is desired because it's less random. Which tells me that you're using the wrong tool for the job in the first place if you're insistent upon making your random number generator less random. It's akin to watching two people arguing over whether a fork or a pair of chopsticks is better for screwing in a nail, instead of just getting a screwdriver.

    1. I have to ask - why are dice the wrong tool for the job at hand? What chaos-generator would you prefer instead? Cards?

      Furthermore, I have always expected that the reasoning behind "rolling for movement" wasn't so much a case of how fast a person would move, but more of how far they got within the "time-span" of their activation.

      It helps to build tension - and fun - which I think is the main objective of any game.

    2. The main issue is that dice generate a random outcome that has to be interpreted in order for it to become chaotic in any meaningful sense, which kind of defeats the purpose of using dice for that matter - you can still use them! Just don't expect them to be ideal in every situation.

      The interesting bit, is that you already have one of the most effective tools for generating chaos at your fingertips already - the human brain. Your players are more than capable of coming up with bizarre things that you would never think of, and it's more a matter of training the GM to embrace their antics and let them make bad choices. Every time you provide a choice to the player, and simply let them choose, they will wind up with something that both makes logical sense, and couldn't have been predicted in most cases.

      A great example of this is giving a player a set amount of points to distribute among a variety of tasks. You want to climb the cliff, but you want to do so quickly so you have time to rescue the person at the top you came to save, yet you also want to be quiet and to avoid being seen by the guards. The climb itself is only a difficulty of 2 we'll say, but there are 3 things you want to do in addition to that, and you only have 4 points to spend. Which of those do you determine is the least important? You can't have it all, and choosing how you fail and what your priorities are is far more often ideal rather than just letting the dice automate the decision for you.

      Certain things should be rolled for as they simply don't matter that much, or the random element is reasonable to be set by dice and so on, but the majority of things people use dice for, like rolling for initiative, or permanent stats, movement and so on, really don't make any sense and are directly harmful to gameplay. Even when they do make sense, they often lead to unpredictability in things that need to be predictable.

      For example, in the movement idea, if you don't know how far you can move, you can't really plan around it beyond the minimum movement distance possible. Any other plan falls apart if you roll poorly, in which case you may as well only have your minimum movement speed. Having a higher roll to move faster doesn't really do anything because you planned around an assumed lower distance traveled, so already know where you want to be to ensure you'll get to location X in the next turn. Moving farther ahead usually won't help you any at all due to this. The potential for additional movement becomes even less useful when you have to roll for multiple units moving at the same time, such as a full party of players to get into range in a safe formation without the squishy characters outrunning the tanky ones, or a wargame with multiple units at a time in use.

      There are other methods you can use, but seriously, just offering an open-ended, or even a closed choice is one of the easiest and most effective means of generating chaos within a game. Give players enough rope to hang themselves and they'll come up with the most wildly improbably and ridiculous situations which a die roll could never contend with.

      Do note, however, that dice have advantages as well. The tactile feel of rolling them is good. The surge of emotion from a very high or low roll also helps, and to some degree the dice are viewed as a semi-objective arbiter of what happens as they don't care who rolls them. They're just limited to producing a quantitative outcome within a set of parameters that doesn't always make sense, and it's a nuisance trying to force them to generate a chaotic outcome instead of a random one. Using dice and choices, among other tools, work better than just sticking to a single tool for all situations, but if you have to pick one, generally work with presenting players choices over automating things with the dice.

      Aaaand I ran out of space, this'll have to be two replies =P

    3. (Reply part 2 due to character limit; only 4096, odd, usually it's 30,000)

      And in particular, remember that every time you roll the dice, you're removing agency from the players. The dice are determining the outcome once they're invoked, and the player is really only watching at that point. The player may feel like they're in control, but if they ever realize that their roll of the dice is replacing all of their decisions and interaction with the game with an automation that can literally replace them at the table, you will have severe problems.

      You can, of course, combine the two. There's no reason you can't offer an option that includes a die roll, and one which doesn't. That gets really complicated as to what advantages each should have, and is way more than can be crammed into a reply like this, but the simple gist of it is that when you remove agency from a player and introduce an unreliable tool, that tool has to be substantially stronger than it would be otherwise.

      Anyway, using dice all the time kind of defeats the purpose of a tabletop game anyway. One of the strongest benefits is having a human mind which can adapt to situations at the helm, which can deal with the players doing things that weren't anticipated. If you restrict things to the dice, then you're essentially limiting the game's decision processes to those of a video game. A video game knows what to do with a numeric outcome from the dice, and it can do so vastly better than a human player can, but it sucks at handling a player making a "fill in the blank" choice. Use the strength of the medium rather than its weak point. It almost sounds like common sense once you say it out loud.

  4. Of course there's the game maker's big incentive for funky dice mechanics.

    Require custom dice and profit.
    Compare D6 at about 10 pence each (in bulk) to sets of custom d6 for your favourite dark age / dogfight / samurai game at about £1.20 each.

    1. Just to play the devils advocate here; a lot of modern gamers actually prefer such symbol-loaded dice because it enables the games to condense a lot of math/chart look-ups down to a single roll.

  5. I largely agree with this post, but it is important to recognize some mechanics offer fewer possibilities. The biggest example I've seen of this is SoBH where quality is usually 3, 4, or 5. There is the occasional 2 and 6, but they are so incredibly powerful (or impotent) that they are comparatively rare. In spite of all the game's special rules activation and combat are the most decisive capabilities, which are governed by quality, and the majority of units fall into one of three common values.

    Bottom line: the designer chose a dice mechanic that fundamentally limited the variation between units.

    1. My thoughts exactly. Whilst I overall agree with the post, the mechanics used in a set of rules should at least allow for the maximum design space as well.

      As you said, SOBH is a good example of a good mechanic that, in the end, just makes troops into good (3+), average (4+) and poor (5+) with little chrome left to differentiate them further...

      ... unless you apply an ungodly amount of special rules.

  6. Good article, and interesting comments. I've been designing a vehicle race game, and spent ages hungup on finding a good dice mechanic for movement, which is, naturally, the core of a race game. Until i realised that, in this instance anyway, I didn't need one. Instead all vehicles have the same number of actions, and its the choice of actions, and interaction with other vehicles and terrain, that will create the interest and tension in the game. Was a pleasant revelation and lesson for myself, who normally is a dice-mechanic addict.

  7. Great article. Really enjoyed it. And mostly I concur. I think activation schemes are always a big factor for me on whether I like a game or not. One of the other things I look for is how reliant or not the system is on rules-exceptions to differentiate units and create tactics.

  8. One counterexample: In LOTR SBG (the only wargame I'm really all that experienced with) the dice system - opposed dice, better fighter takes ties - heavily influences tactics, in that high-fight armies do much better in spear-wall formation (1 elf vs 1 orc is almost 50:50, but 2 elves with a banner vs 2 orcs and a banner heavily favors elves). This is in tension with the generally-lower model count of high-fight armies. Altogether profound implications for the shape of the game, and not something the rulebook ever explicitly draws attention to.