I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, February 08, 2021

D&D 5e's strange obsession with rolling dice

Here's one aspect of D&D 5e that I find interesting (and somewhat baffling): the obsession with rolling lots of dice. You can find this all over the game.

Sometimes, it works well. For example, I really like how advantage and disadvantage work the game.

Other times, it is a bit wonky - for example, the savage attacker feat that tells you to roll two dice instead of one (and pick the best) for weapon damage. 

Sometimes, it becomes absurd - such as the Great Weapon Fighting style that allows you to re-roll 1s and 2s, which would indicate that if you carry a longsword, if would be better to pick the dueling style and fight with one hand (average damage 6.5) than take GWF and use two hands (average damage 6.3).

Barbarians get to roll more dice on a crit; half-orcs get an additional die. Halflings re-roll 1s. "Elven Accuracy" let's you re-roll one of two. The lucky feat let's you add an extra d20... which is specially useful if you already have two, add a third and get to choose which one to pick.

Fighters re-roll some missed saving throws. Clerics can "bless" for an extra 1d4 (or give -1d4 to their enemies). Bards can get you "inspiration dice" to roll. Battle-masters get "superiority dice" to spend.

A critical hit does not double or maximize your damage; it allows you to roll more damage dice instead.

You roll damage and HP, as usual, even for monsters. An ogre has 59 (7d10 + 21) HP instead of just 59 HP. 

Then, there is the usual, "roll for surprise, then roll initiative, then roll to attack, then roll damage", where one roll would suffice.

Finally, there is an optional rule in the DMG turning your proficiency bonus into proficiency dice... So you'd basically roll 1d20+1dX+Y for almost every roll.

(There are also a few instances of "roll and ignore the dice" which I find irritating, such as the Rogue's "whenever you make an ability check that lets you add your proficiency bonus, you can treat a d20 roll of 9 or lower as a 10".)

I can only assume this is partly just following tradition and partly intentional ("bounded accuracy", something I should discuss some day...). There must be some kind of research somewhere telling WotC that their customers love to roll lots of dice (and hate numeric bonuses). Or maybe this is blowback from all those +1s and +2s you used to have in 3.5e.

In practice, this doesn't bother me much as a player, but as a GM rolling that many dice it is a hassle - especially when the PCs are fighting multiple monsters with multiple attacks... and disadvantage. That's why I always use fixed dice for monsters. 

I also have a simple "fix" for monsters with disadvantage: just halve the number of attacks or the damage.

The results will sometimes be nearly identical (if a monster needs 11+ to hit, his accuracy will drop from 50% to 25%; some math here), and sometimes a bit different (if the number need is not between 8 and 12, you might prefer other methods), but combat becomes a lot faster.


  1. I don't think all players love rolling lots of dice, but I do think some players really do.

    As a GM, I find 5e's approach useful for penalties (disadvantage or -1d4): players seem less likely to forget picking up an extra die as compared to remembering a -2 modifier, and then it's easier for me to visually verify that they rolled the correct dice.

  2. You're right about that. I both like and dislike all that rolling.

  3. I see where you are coming from with the perspective on all the dice rolling, but I do think overall I like the 'more dice' option over numeric bonuses, because it serves as a visual counter of all the sources of effects. Also, I get the reason for not liking the raised floor or reroll of dice on 1s or 2s, etc. Is there a way to approximate the same effect by just changing the dice composition? For example, Skills roll 1d20+X (where X is proficency + stat). Reliable Talent is roll 1d10 + Y (where Y is X + a specific bonus). Perhaps have this bonus grow slightly over time as well to reflect the growing skill above and beyond even Expertise.

    I guess my reason for liking dice manipulation on the player side is because I can change the probability (and thus the feel of gameplay), without effecting the overall range. That is why with something like proficiency dice, I like that proficient characters rolls 1d20+1dx+stat, and Expert rolls 1d20+X+stat. Even if the two characters have the same stat bonus, the effect of maximising the proficiency bonus changes the probability curve without changing the damage range.

    In a similar fashion, something like Great Weapon Fighting Style or Savage attacker could instead of re-roll give an additional die (or a fixed bonus depending) without rerolls.

    As for managing advantage/disadvantage on he GM side, could you just do +5/-5? On the disadvantage side, the -5 would negate a critical hit, but not sure about how to do a similar thing on the advantage side. Perhaps rolling 10 over the target AC?

    1. +5/-5 works well, but reducing two attacks to a single attack facilitates things even further.
      And halving damage seems less "boring" somehow... I really dislike fights the become a succession of missed hits.

    2. That is also a good point on less damage vs. misses.

      Hmmmm, is there a way to connect the 'save for half' concept of spells to attack scaling? I still like melee fighters getting multi attack to 'probe defenses' more (plus a maneuver system), but perhaps a design system that breaks down to: 'hit/miss' -> hit/half -> multi-attack?

      Perhaps that's really the idea behind weapon size? It doesn't come into play in most parties, but perhaps all giant weapons act such a system. So if you enlarge a fighter, they could have fun with such oversized weapons.

      Of course that just brings up the 'Armour vs. just a Dex save' and all that.

      Perhaps AC is a form of Dex Save and Armour is just a DR system? Save for half + take off X damage? Not saying this is a novel idea, but it is useful.

      And thinking of a Dex + DR system, is there anything that you can think of that would make this not make sense? Fall damage/massive rocks could have a 'Massive Damage' tag that says it bypasses AC.

    3. I like the idea; there is a "glancing blow" house rule giving half damage on an exact hit, for example.

      'Armour vs. just a Dex save' is something I ahve been considering for a while. 13th Age's physical defense/mental defense seems incredibly useful.

      TBH, I don't see a problem with DR at all... except the constant subtraction and "hits that do no damage". Your 5 points of DR can protect you from a massive boulder... but since it causes 5d6 damage (or something), it doesn't really make a difference.

    4. Hits that do no damage is fine by me, really. You just need rules for poisoned blades that if the piercing damage is reduced to 0, the poison effect doesn't trigger.

    5. I don't object to the idea in principle... Just saying that rolling lots of dice for no effect can be frustrating if it happens to often.

    6. I guess I see the poison damage as a second role to see if the damage actually registers.

      Alternatively, make poisons just status conditions, and there are no extra dice.

    7. Further expanding on this, your roll under method discussed in an earlier could work well. Covert armour to be a 'save' for martial attacks (same to a Dex save, perhaps with a slightly different progression. Armour can bolster this save further).

      In this idea, the save bonus raises the floor of the attack roll, so all attacks have to roll under their stat and above the floor. Combining this with same roll being initiative, and you already know which dice to roll before the round starts. There is no 'wasted' dice.

      Features that do re-rolls etc. could be readjusted to be something that gives similar changes to the dice roll.

      If people want to have a way to feel that they become better at doing things, I like the idea of a resource pool that the player can spend to succeed on the roll. It does make it one more resource to spend, but perhaps there is a way to make a single resource pool system that all class features draw from (spells, hit dice, ki, skill manipulation). You can just flavour the success as skills, subtle uses of magic, etc.

      Running out of these points (but still having HP and saves) means that you are just run down from the day, but experience means you still have basic defenses.

      I hope that makes sense.

  4. My two cents : I think most people equate "playing the game" with "roling dice" at least some of the time, and some people equates it almost all of the time. That's why you see so much dice rolling everywhere and so little "no roll needed because you described what you did in a manner that makes it guaranteed" mecanics : it feels like you skip the "gaming" part.

    1. Yeah, it makes sense. Although my favorite style of gaming does include some automatic successes; the game is also finding creative solutions, not only rolling dice.

  5. Mike Mearls, co-creator of 5e, has a few videos where he talks about game feel in games. Players like rolling dice, so 5e has a lot of it. For a DM, not so much, that's why there are average damage rolls for every creature and Mob rules for attacks in the DMG.

    1. That explains the average damage part... I tried doing the same for players, but they didn't particularly like or dislike it, so maybe Mearls is right on this one.

  6. This is one of the reasons I prefer B/X to WotC D&D -- fewer player -facing die rolls. Just tell the DM what you want to do, and if there's a probabilistic component, he'll resolve it and tell you the results. The unified mechanic put everything on the players, but then again, every other rpg went in that direction. WotC D&D owes as much to other games as it does to TSR.

    1. Yeah, B/X is probably my favorite too... hard to beat that game.
      WotC D&D is a whole different beast.