Saturday, November 9, 2019

TMDM, Pt 2: What's Wrong with the d20?

This seems to be the week where everyone is venting their unpopular opinons about D&D, so what better time is there to dive into the heart of my search for a new die mechanic and talk about all that is wrong with the d20 roll?

Enlighten me oh blogger! What is wrong with the d20 roll?

Nothing actually. If it works it works. The d20 roll is tried and true and accepted by millions as the standard for role playing games.

  • You roll 1d20.
  • If it’s not an obvious fail you add a bunch of modifiers.
  • Think about it, add in a bunch of other modifiers.
  • Eventually call it quits with the modification and present a total.
  • If greater than or equal to the number you need to beat you succeed, otherwise you fail.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing could be simpler!

Designing a dice mechanic is a bit like designing a vehicle. It’s hard to screw it up. Four wheels and a platform gets you a go-kart. It will send a kid flying down a hill screaming with joy and/or fear, but it is nothing anyone wants to drive to work in. Making a dice mechanic better is the hard part. Creating something that takes people where they want to go, as quickly and efficiently as possible, but with a ride so comfortable they barely notice they are in a car? That is the challenge at hand! Of course, to face such a challenge we need to take a shrewd look at the d20 roll and see where it could use some improvement.

(Cup holders. It needs more cup holders.)

This is one of the most insidious of problems because once you get over it you stop noticing it. You forget about your own struggles to learn the game and start to wonder why others cannot see something which to you now seems so obvious.

Consider this - in D&D - how good is a 10?

As an ability score it is completely average.
As an ability modifier it is off the charts.
As a difficulty class it is pretty easy.
With ascending armor class it is so-so.
With descending armor class you are standing naked on the battlefield.
With hit points? _Nobody really knows._ In a game like B/X D&D you are a competent fighter. In D&D 5e you are a total push-over.

And now explain all of this to someone who has never played the game. Toss in a bunch of strange looking dice which have no consistent scheme of use as well as a slew of tables to consult while playing and….

Simple right?

A number by itself is meaningless. It needs something to measure and those measurements need to follow a predictable method of incrementation. Is a 2 twice as important as a 1 or is it just a nudge in the right direction? Is a 2 the right direction? Or is this one of those times where it is better to roll low than high? Multiple inconsistent number systems are a serious barrier to entry when it comes to recruiting new players. The fewer a game uses the better.

A perfectly average character with an ability score of 10 and a 1st level +2 proficiency bonus will only succeed at what they are doing 60% of the time. Imagine hiring a plumber who only fixes your busted pipes 60% of the time. Or a dentist who sends you home with a throbbing toothache 40% of the time. Or that guy you hired to mow the lawn finishing about 60% of it before failing somehow.

(I mowed a 1!)

Maybe it happens, but most people when they set about performing a task do not simply pass or fail. They perform at a fairly consistent level of ability. Occasionally, luck will have them doing a bit better or worse but for the most part they do what they can do and hope it fits the bill. Failure happens when the goal they are striving for hangs too far out of reach. At that point they could try harder to make it work but that isn’t what the d20 roll is about, now is it? Actually, can you name a system where a character can simply “try harder” to make it work? Hmmm. A glaring oversight there. Somebody ought to do something about that.

So anyways. What does the d20 roll represent?

We don’t know.

Like the hit point, it is one of those things most people would rather not discuss. Rolling the dice is just something you do in a game. The best guess is that the d20 roll represents random chance and all the unseen influences at work which could sway an outcome one way or another. If true then it has a problem because not everything your characters will do in a game will come with the same amount of random elements.

I have two dwarven characters, Ralph Cabbagehammer and Grudge Orcslayer, who have been arm wrestling each other to test out dice mechanics since the late 1990’s. Don’t tell them, but they both have the equivalent of Strength 14 making them evenly matched in the muscle department. They kind of suspect this to be true, but characters can't see their own stats and so they keep arm wrestling each other.

The thing about arm-wrestling is that unlike normal combat there are few to no random elements involved. How do we test it with a d20 roll? The correct answer is - we don’t - not with arm wrestling. You compare strength scores and whoever has the greater score wins it (yawn). In the case of Ralph vs Grudge every match ends with a tie. They could arm wrestle for hours on end and never get close to slamming a fist to the table. Use the d20 to settle the matter the exact opposite happens. Ties become rare and the outcomes wildly unpredictable.

Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world, but what if our two characters were not so evenly matched? What if Ralph’s strength suddenly dropped to 3 and Grudge’s strength amped up to 18. There should be no contest. Grudge should beat Ralph every time. Yet, according to standard d20 rules, Grudge with his 18 would gain a +4 to his roll while Ralph with his 3 would suffer a -4. Grudge would still win most of the matches but not all of them.

Ralph rolls 16 and Grudge rolls 6? Ralph wins!
Ralph rolls 18 and Grudge rolls 9? Ralph wins!
Ralph rolls 20 and Grudge rolls 11? Ralph wins!

(Probably not how Over The Top was meant to end.)

This is what people mean when they talk about the d20 being swingy. That randomness makes it untrustworthy and hard to plan around. A case could be made that random is random. D&D is a fantasy game. It shouldn’t be realistic. Yes, but RPGs are powered by the imagination and despite its penchant for unicorns and rainbows the imagination did not evolve to keep us amused while waiting in check-out lines. The imagination exists to help keep us alive against all the terrible possibilities of reality. That is its primary concern. That is the reason why so much of entertainment is centered around characters experiencing the absolute worst that could possibly happen.

The imagination is only interested in fantasy insofar as fantasy can challenge us with a more intense reality than everyday reality. A fantastic reality still needs a foundation of real reality to stand on. Without it a game will become plagued by doubt, leaving people thinking, “Yeah, that’s what the rules say, but if it were real that's not how it would play out.” And nothing sucks the interest out of an RPG quite like that.

This is part of being human. Physical actions are rife with importance. If you look at a role playing game with the sound turned off, what do you see? A bunch of people sitting around a table, chatting it up, occasionally scribbling notes on paper, maybe moving some minis. The one notable physical action involved is a roll of the dice.

This could be why diceless role-playing never caught on. On the lower end of the brain stem, rolling the dice is that thing that you do, that material assertion of your mojo into the unfolding story. Yet the d20 roll does not happen at the culmination of an action. It happens at the beginning. You do not roll the dice, look at what it gives you and instantly know how well you did. Instead, the die is rolled and a lot of jibber-jabber follows. You add modifiers to the roll, compare it to another number, modify that number, remember some other modifier which should have been added in but weren’t (can’t we add it in? Pleeeese?). If we ever get to the end of this, the totals are judged and then we figure out what actually happened.

I think this is why people like rolling for damage as much as they do. While it does slow a game down a bit, rolling for damage gives players something physical and immediate to end their action on. It helps bookend the action, giving us two solid points to know where it all begins and ends. Of course, you are not always rolling for damage every time you roll the dice, and there is nothing more disappointing that a terrific hit roll that ends with a roll of 1 on the damage die.

Not to beat a dead horse to bursting, but this could also be the reason why people love the idea of critical rolls happening on a 20 or 1. It pushes all the math aside and as soon as you see one of these numbers turn up the dice tell you that something interesting and unexpected is about to happen. Wouldn’t it be great if all the numbers on the dice worked that way?

This last one is more subjective if not downright superstitious than the rest, yet it is no less daunting a force to consider.

The roll of a single die feels weak.

We have a long history of divining the will of the gods through random things: drawing Tarot cards, reading tea leaves, cutting the head off a chicken and looking at the blood it splatters as it does its final dance (not recommended for RPG’s btw), but presumably no divination technique has been with us longer than the rolling of bones, the casting of lots, the reading of runes. Call it what you want but cleromancy - divination by way of dice - has been with us longer than civilization itself. Some of its superstitions are so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche that we naturally heed them without even realizing that we know them.

Blame it on the cajones, but a perfect roll of the dice is a two die roll. Three dice is acceptable. Four dice is passable. Five or more is just a mess. But a single die roll is unforgivable. Dice need to make a sound when they roll. We need to hear them clatter in our hands before they hit the table. This wakes them up to our presence. We also need to roll our own dice for ourselves. In Original D&D only the DM was supposed to roll the dice. The DM was essentially a game console you fed commands to and it returned the results of. All number juggling was hidden under the hood / behind the screen. This method was quickly dropped and never explained, but I believe it had something to do with people being irked by an inability to roll their dice for themselves. As if we actually have some kind of control over the numbers that turn up.

Maybe we do. Out loud we have to admit that chance is purely random. The dice produce numbers with utter indifference to our needs, just like the random number generation machines that they are.

And yet….

In the quiet of our minds, slithering down around that brain stem we know that there exists a greater truth. The dice are an extension of our bodies. It’s our touch which causes them to roll more often in our favor than not. It is God or the Gods working through us which causes the dice to roll what they roll.

(But he does love to mess with those who do.)

Look at the game of Craps sometime. The amount of superstition which surrounds it is astounding. An RPG is not a game of craps with characters, but it does primarily use dice and dice come with rules of their own which might as well be etched in stone. One of the biggest being that you never roll just one die by itself.

I’m sure I could dig up more, but the point wasn’t to condemn the d20 roll but to figure out what needs fixing. In short…

  • Limit the number of number ranges the game uses, and make sure their patterns do not conflict with each other.
  • Make action resolution better resemble reality, even though we are dealing with fantasy.
  • Turn the die roll into the dramatic end point of an action, or at least do a better job book-ending the action between two related die rolls.
  • Roll more than just one die.

And that is what is coming up next with a look at the Risk Roll. My first attempt at creating something better than the d20, crafted so many years ago.


  1. I'd always understood the d20 roll to be needed when a task isn't a sure thing. The plumber and the mower wouldn't need to roll unless they had to get their respective tasks done super-fast or while being attacked or something.

    1. Yes, but what task is ever a sure thing? I'm not a plumber, but as a home owner I've done a decent amount of plumbing over the years and it is actually a pretty scary business. There is no room for error. Not a single join can be allowed to leak. Sometimes I surprise myself. Other times I have to call a plumber and get hit in the wallet. Hard.

      I think there is a certain element of randomness in all things. The question is how much, and if the d20 does a good enough job bringing the right amount of randomness to the table. As is, the d20 feels like one-size fits all clothing. In theory it works. In practice? It tends to sag in places.

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    3. Also remember that you are a 0 level plumber. A professional plumber will fix the problem, eventually. It might take awhile, it might literally mean crap everywhere and water damage (the normal randomness) but the problem will be fixed and the toilets will work again when the fixes are done.

      If you want to test if the plumber can fix the problem without any damage, or before the big dinner party then you make the roll.

  2. I've been playing around with 4d6 counting 6s as zeroes. This generates a bell curve (not swingy) but in the 0 to 20 range, so that you can theoretically continue to use d20 target numbers. Because you are using multiple dice, you can let dice matches mean something special: an extra flourish on a success, or an extra complication on a failure. And if a task is very hard on a roll-over-target roll, or very easy on a roll-under-ability-score roll, you can roll half as many dice.

    1. That is interesting. The only problem I could see with it is getting players to see a six and think zero. Specially made dice maybe?

    2. Wouldn't it be enough to just say "Roll 4D6-4"? (Or Roll 2D6-2 for the special cases suggested in the original post)?
      If you want to keep 1 as the minimum result, and don't mind the odd 21 you could also say "Roll 4D6-3".

    3. PaMar. That could work but it would be better to come up with a roll that doesn't have us subtracting something every time it is made. Seems like a small detail but the annoyance can add up after a few hundred rolls.

    4. Then yes, you need special dices. Some D6 have a symbol (like a skull or whatever) replacing one of the values - mostly #1 I believe, so these may be enough.


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  4. Here's a couple of random thoughts on the subject:

    1. I give players a resource ("Endurance") they can deplete to reach a difficulty in addition to the d20 ... With that, the roll doesn't make it a win or fail situation, but instead more a situation of "how much will it cost me" with a good dose of "how often can I do this". Works like a charm :)

    2. I think the d20 offers the perfect range, actually. Imagine it to be a bit like the Overton-Window of sorts. A fixed frame that is negotiated along a spectrum of possible results. The negotiation aspect is a very important part of the roll. You'd want good chances when applying the frame. However, it's also just beyond what we can fully grasp (which adds a bit of chaos and uncertainty) without being too overwhelming (like a d100, for example).

    3. I also use the 3d6 instead of d20 for combat in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. There you discard the 1s and roll another die when a 6 comes up (roughly speaking, and depending on skill, you end up with a range of 0-20+). The sum would be your initiative and the "units" (= individual results) you end up with is what you plan for actions with in a combat round (which is very granular and involved, but works very well for what it does).

    4. Totally agree with the oracle comparison and how crucial it is even on an unconscious level. We also subconsciously grasp that while all rolls are random, they are not so under the same rules, which means, even room temperature will have an effect, or the height the die falls or the time it rolls (and where it starts rolling) or on what surface you are rolling ... In short: while no one (?) would argue that a specific technique will have end up with the same result every time, people very much want to create their own circumstances for the rolls that affect their characters. Ideally that would be rolling the dice yourself.

    Thanks for a great read! Looking forward to more of your thoughts on the subject.

    1. No problem! What I love about RPGs is that ultimately we are all trying to create some model of life and come up with a ton of different ways of doing it.

      My version of Endurance is called "Try Hard" (chosen because it sounds a lot like Die Hard :-) and basically you tell the table you are trying hard or harder or your hardest and these gain you a +2/+4/+6 bonus respectively but at the same time drain 1/2/3 points of Power which is essentially willpower but ultimately a resource pool which is used for casting spells and recovering light damage. Still though, I don't know of any brand name RPGs that addresses this part of life. It is a surprising oversight.

      Everything else? Give me time, it's coming....

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