The Role of the Dice, a guide to the dice of Dungeons and Dragons

Dice have always been a regular element in the mechanics of traditional board games. But what was revolutionary about Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) was the way that it used a greatly expanded dice set to create a sense of unknown, of randomness, of the unexpected, to act as the hand of fate and the will of the gods. Until the rise of Role Playing Games, (RPGs) it had been the standard 6-sided dice which had been used by conventional board games, such as Monopoly, to move players along a track or by table-top Wargamers re-enactors re-running their famous, historical battles. D&D used an altogether different set of dice to create its magic and mayhem…often literally. 

In such an expansive game as D&D the dice act like the unseen hand of god, fate, destiny, luck… call it what you will… they are used to generate characters and then govern their actions as well as the machinations of the world around them. Everything from landing the killing blow on a rabid, jackal-headed temple minion to scaling the side of the wizard’s tower, from surviving the poison attack of an assassins blade to generating the temperament of the elemental creature that you have just conjured. You need the background skills to know how to undertake various tasks, but the random roll of the dice is often the difference between success and failure.

D&D Dice sets come in 7 distinct types known as D4, D6, D8, D10, D12, D20 and a variation on a D10 which creates a pair of dice generating numbers 1 to 100. This is the terminology we will generally use from now on. A number before the D denotes how many of that dice you should roll.

The Trusty D6

Even if you are not familiar with the weird looking dice used in D&D, more commonly called polyhedral dice as a reflection of their geometric shapes, everyone knows the D6, perhaps the oldest gaming piece in history. In D&D the D6 is probably the first dice that you encounter as it is used to generate a characters core stats. By using 3 D6 dice, you generate a range of numbers between 3 to 18, weighted towards the middle. This makes 10 or 11 the average for each attribute with the extremes being rare exceptions. Monsters and magic might necessitate numbers above and beyond this range but this is considered the norm for player characters.

Percentile Dice - What’s the Chances?

Let’s get the tricky one out of the way next. Well, tricky two. In a standard 7-dice set you will find that you have 2 ten sided dice. One will be numbered as expected, 1-10, the other in multiples of 10 from 10 -100. The later represents the tens, the former the units and so when rolled together generate numbers from 1-100 or percentages. When used this way they are referred to as Percentile Dice (or D%).

These dice are often used to determine the success, or otherwise, of skills, a roll less than your skill level indicating success. Often the greatness of a failed roll will determine just how spectacularly you have failed, a simple step across a pool leaving you face down and bloodied in the stagnant water. They are often used by the DM when consulting various charts, random encounters, improvised treasure lists and other references of their own devising.

D4 - The Pyramid Schemer

Often derided as the dice sets weird little brother on account of the fact that it isn’t easy to roll and is totally illogical to read due to it having no possible upward face, the pyramid shaped D4 is perhaps the least used dice, often only being used to generate the damage of small weapons such as daggers and small rocks.

In a purely outside the game sense, the D4 is also the most infamous as anyone who has stepped on one will testify. Non-gamers love to post memes about stepping on Legos… by the way, they are Lego Bricks, Lego is just the brand name… but the only reason gamers rarely post about the pain generated by stepping on a D4 is because they have been stretchered out of the gaming session, screaming in agony and cursing the names Gygax and Arneson for creating such a lethal game in the first place.

D8, D10, D12 - The Supporting Cast

These three dice are often seen as the supporting cast, the red shirted crew in an episode of Star Trek whose name you never learn or the diner at The Inn of The Prancing Pony whose role is functional but hardly at the heart of the action.

These dice are mainly used for generating weapon damage, able to generate increasingly wide ranges, from a D8 standard issue sword to a D12 double-handed axe and by using modifiers, weighting the average scores higher. A Troll wielding a D12 small tree-trunk is dangerous enough, one wielding such a D12 +4 cudgel means that even a glancing blow is going to ruin your day.

D20 - Where the Action Is

Most of the more interesting things which happen in D&D are generally governed by the D20. It’s the Brad Pitt of the dice set, always in the limelight, always at the heart of the action. It gets to punch the bad guy, deliver the memorable lines and it gets the girl.

The chance of hitting an opponent in combat is governed by the D20. There are often lots of modifiers relating to preparedness, your speed, the weight of the weapon, visibility and all manner of variables, but it is the D20 roll which decides your fate. The same goes for saving throws, the ability to survive a venomous attack, avoid a spell or grab a rocky outcrop rather than tumble off the cliff edge. It is also at the heart of the clerics ability to turn away undead creatures through their sheer piety and blessing of the gods. The D20, is the summer blockbuster of the dice bag.

Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’

But remember that the dice are merely random generators, the unknown element between luck and experience, divine favour and just having one of those days. They can be used for all manner of things beyond that which is found in the rule book, especially for random charts and add on rules of the Dungeon Masters own making. Make the most of the dice, have fun and may you always make you required role. This is the roll that you were born for!

Written by: Dave Franklin