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Using Dice with Role Playing Games

Role Playing Games are often associated with dice.  In fact, many dice enthusiasts got their first taste of love for dice from the polyhedral ones they came across while playing RPGs.  Here is a discussion on the many ways dice can be used in a game.    

Dungeons & Dragons, the first Role Playing Game (RPG), designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, was published in 1974.  In turn, Dungeons & Dragons has its origins in fantasy miniature gaming.  Since Dungeons & Dragons, there have been many hundreds of variations and completely original and different RPGs published and marketed by many games developers all over the world.  The first RPGs where published as glossy hardback books or distributed as xerox photocopied sheets of paper.  The most recent development in the publication of RPGs has been Adobe PDF files describing and illustrating the games, that have allowed small, large, old and new developers to produce and distribute RPGs at a much lower cost.  Computer RPGs have taken much of the market in fantasy gaming but standard RPGs played with dice have remained a niche hobby to this day.

A lot of effort goes into designing an RPG and results and actions in a game are determined by random numbers generated by rolling dice which are in turn based on assigned probabilities.  Most of the popular traditional RPGs are specifically designed to be played with the standard polyhedral dice generally available.


RPG players notate the number, type and results of dice used in a game as a short sequence of alpha-numeric characters.  RPG books and publications will assume and expect that you understand this notation.  See standard dice notation for an explanation.

There are two ways to interpret dice results when throwing a number of dice. For example, a number of d10 dice read as units, tens, hundreds, thousands etc, produce linear results with each possible resulting value having an equal chance of occurring as any other.  A number of dice values added together and totalled produce a bell-shaped probability curve with results in the centre of the range more likely to occur than totals at the extremes.  This is illustrated in the graphs below.

It's often useful in a RPG to produce random numbers in specific ranges depending on the results, options and decisions available at particular key points in a game.  Let's take a look at some of the many ways polyhedral dice can be used to generate results in a specific range by illustrating some examples.

The dice notation is on the left hand side of the equals (=) sign and the range of numbers produced is on the right.

2d6 = 2 - 12
3d4 = 3 - 12
d4 + d10 = 2 - 14
2d4 + 5 = 7 - 13
2d10 - 2 = 0 - 18

You could produce values in other ranges than simply the range of numbers on the die by assigning more than one result on a die various specific values.  For example: A d6 could produce numbers in the range 1 to 3 by reading the numbers rolled as follows:

1 or 2 = 1
3 or 4 = 2
5 or 6 = 3

A d4 could produce either a 1 or 2 by reading the numbers rolled as follows:

1 or 2 = 1
3 or 4 = 2

Players can use different shaped polyhedral dice together in a number of ways. For example: a d10 can be used with a d6 instead of using a d20 by interpreting the two values thrown in the following way.  A 1, 2 or 3, thrown on the d6 means that the value on the d10 is resolved in the range 1 - 10 (The d10 result is taken without modification).   But if the d6 shows a 4, 5 or 6, the number shown on the d10 is resolved in the range 11 - 20 (the d10 result has the total number of its possible results added to itself). In such cases, any-number-faced die can be used as a "resolver".  If you ever find yourself in a RPG game without the required specified dice, you can use the dice you do have to replicate the type of results required.

Here is an another example of using a die in conjunction with another as a "resolver".  The d4 can be used to produce linear numbers in twice the range of that shown on another die.  So, d4 reading 1 or 2 means that whatever the result on the other die is the number taken; but if the d4 shows 3 or 4, add the highest number on the second die to the second die's resulting number.  So if a d8 is used as the second die, a number in the range of 1 to 16 is generated; if a d12 is used, a number in the range 1 to 24 will be generated.

Numbers produced above the previously discussed ranges are possible by changing the interpretation of the "resolver".  For example: a d4 rolled as a 1 means add 0, but a 2 rolled can be interpreted as add the highest number of the second die, 3 can be twice value, and 4 can be thrice value. So, a d4 showing a 4 rolled with a d8 would mean 24 + d8, or 25-32.  In this example these two dice read in this way would produce a number in the range 1 - 32. 

The result of a dice roll could also be read has having an extra decimal place added to it.  For example: 3d10 totalled together with a range of 3 - 30 (the zeros on the dice are read as 10s, so  3, 0, 0 = 23 and 0, 0, 0 = 30) could be read as 30 - 300 with increments of 10.

There are a number of "averaging" dice available, the most common of which is a d6 reading: 2, 3, 3, 4, 4, 5. There is no 1 or 6 and as a result very "average" numbers are produced. This is useful when you need a random result to represent an encounter with an "ordinary" citizen, or to ensure there are no extreme results.  Other polyhedral averaging dice are available that are marked with the same values on more than one face.

You can incorporate allsorts of other unusual dice you may have (death dice, Backgammon doubling cubes, Poker dice, novelty dice, other cubic dice without spots and different polyhedral dice, etc) into an RPG by using your own initiative and imagination allowing more flexibility, or to change the odds and probabilities in the interpretation of game events.  Gary Gygax, one of the original creators of D&D, wrote the following about an unusual die he found with its six faces marked as: Spade, Club, Club, Diamond, Diamond, Heart. 

"If, during an encounter, players meet a character whose reaction is uncertain, the card suit die is rolled in conjunction with 3d6. Black suits mean dislike, with the Spade equalling hate, white red equals like, the Heart being great favour.

The 3d6 give a bell-shaped probability curve of 3-18, with 9-12 being the mean spread. Spade 18 means absolute and unchangeable hate, while Heart 18 indicates the opposite.

Clubs or Diamonds can be altered by discourse, rewards, etc. Thus, Clubs 12 could possibly be altered to Clubs 3 by offer of a tribute or favour, Clubs 3 changed to Diamonds 3 by a gift, etc."

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